Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Introducing Harry Belafonte

Harry Belafonte arrives in the RISD Auditorium, January 29, 2013. Photo by John Maeda, via Twitter
I've had an ongoing interest in the power of oratory since I started researching "cultures of hearing" in the 19th century. Anti-slavery activists, temperance reformers, Lyceum lecturers, campaigning politicians, evangelical preachers--19th century urban Americans were not only surrounded by speech but believed in the potential of an utterance to transform one's life. This history really came alive for me last night, when I had the honor to introduce--and hear--singer and activist Harry Belafonte, who was visiting Rhode Island School of Design as part of its 2013 celebration of Martin Luther King's legacy.
Where can I possibly start to introduce you to the exceptional achievements of Harry Belafonte?  
For me, the best way to sum up this work is to think about the voice. The voice, of course, is the key tool of any singer and actor, and Mr. Belafonte's emergence as a star in the 1950s was centered on it--a controlled baritone, textured with a slight rasp, punctuated by sharp articulation, capable of explosive, raw emotion. His voice could work wonders with audiences. Starting out as a jazz crooner, he soon expanded to a broad repertoire of spirituals, calypso, gospel, the blues, and folk; in all, he transformed the melodic simplicity of traditional songs into passionate declarations of a diverse world. In movies, Broadway, and television, too, his voice became a recognizable element of the sonic landscape of America. He was the first African American to have a million-selling record, the African American to win a Tony, the first African American television producer, the first African American man to win an Emmy, the first African American to host "The Tonight Show"--the list of superlatives reflecting his boundary-breaking achievements as a singer and actor goes on and on.  
The idea of the voice, of course, also emphasizes the importance of Mr. Belafonte's social and political activism. More than any other entertainer in the latter half of the twentieth century, Mr. Belafonte has given his voice, enhanced by his celebrity, to the cause of global equity and human rights. It's another version of that Kevin Bacon "six degrees" game; name a social justice movement since the 1950s and you can connect Mr. Belafonte to it.  
He was a confidant of Martin Luther King and strategist for the Civil Rights Movement. He was a cultural advisor to the Peace Corps and liaison between leaders of the Civil Rights Movement and of liberation movements in Africa. He was a public advocate for the American Indian Movement. He established TransAfrica, a group instrumental in shaping the anti-Apartheid divestment movement. He was the founder of USA for Africa and its benefit album We Are the World, which addressed widespread famine in Ethiopia. He was a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, conducting fact-finding in Rwanda just after the 1994 genocide and later working across Africa to promote public education and awareness of HIV and AIDS. He organized Nelson Mandela's triumphant tour of the United States in 1990. More recently, he organized the Gathering for Justice to address the crisis of youth incarceration, and he led the movement against U.S. invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. And I'm only touching the surface, here, of his remarkable record of activism. 
This is not just about Harry Belafonte's voice, though. All voices are central to a functioning democracy. America is a country with a robust history of declarations, public hearings, presidential debates, oral arguments, mainstream voices, minority voices, dissenting voices, free expression. We all want a "chance to speak" and to receive "a fair hearing." It's why Walt Whitman celebrated "America singing" in 1850 and also why some of the most deeply troubling historical moments in U.S. history have involved silencing, from the sedition act of 1798 to the electoral exclusion of women and minorities. In this light, Mr. Belafonte has done something quite extraordinary throughout his career--not only has he raised his voice in song, not only has he given his voice to the cause of social justice, but he has, in doing those things, created new spaces in which those made voiceless can speak themselves and participate anew in public discourse.  
In Protestant Christianity, there is a tradition of being called to service, of hearing a voice that guides one to speak and act in the world, sometimes in ways that are contrary to worldly assumptions about value or success. However you might feel about the religious nature of this phenomenon, its basic idea has also animated democratic activism and change for centuries: voicing, hearing, and action are deeply intertwined. In that spirit, let us listen now, in the hope that we might find the inspiration to speak and act ourselves. Ladies and gentlemen, let us give a warm welcome to Mr. Harry Belafonte.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Audiences: Noisy, Social, Silent, Uptight

“The box-circle.” Sigismund Ivanowski, 1905. “Cabinet of American Curiosities.” Library of Congress.
Yesterday, Andrew Sullivan highlighted a portion of an interview with musicologist Carolyn Abbate, talking about her new book (co-authored with Roger Parker), A History of Opera. Titling the post "Before Opera was Uptight," Sullivan emphasizes Abbate's suggestion that reverent silence at the opera was instituted by composer Richard Wagner in the 1870s, and that such reverence has led young people ever since to eschew opera performance for more social and boisterous forms of popular music performance.

I'm not so sure. The shift from noisy to silent audiences in the late nineteenth century has been articulated before, most notably by Lawrence Levine in Highbrow/Lowbrow and John Kasson in Rudeness and Civility. It also has been criticized before by music historians like William Weber, Ralph P. Locke, and Joseph Horowitz. Based on my own research on nineteenth-century music lovers, I have to say that I agree more with the critique. I don't dispute that there was a change in expectations for the behavior of audiences for public performance between 1850 and 1910, but I worry that accounts of "imposed religiosity" on late nineteenth-century performance tend to unnecessarily homogenize people's historical experiences of music (audiences are either entirely boisterous or entirely reverent), and underplay how very uneven and complex the change was (audiences are portrayed too simply as loose and fun before the 1870s and then stodgy and uptight after).

As I wrote in Listening and Longing: Music Lovers in the Age of Barnum:
...Interpretations of classical reform as a break with more unruly and vibrant forms of audience participation also tend to gloss over the extent to which the reform movement depended on the already-established existence of devoted music listening, something to which the movement added new utopian ideas about the function of music loving in an increasingly anonymous and commercialized society. 
Both Kasson and Levine, for example, have talked about the “silence” that accompanied classical music appreciation, particularly how the imposition of new rules to keep audiences silent during performances were a means to overcome and control, in the words of Kasson, “boisterous informality and conviviality.”  However, the evidence of audience behavior in the diaries of actual listeners indicates that silent listening is not the most accurate way to capture changing practices and aesthetic debates among post-Civil War music audiences. Antebellum music lovers valued silence as much as postbellum audiences; for the former, silence enabled them to fully experience the skills of virtuosos and was a sign of engagement and astonished appreciation. Instead of introducing the novelty of silence to a noisy environment, postbellum reformers changed the meanings and uses of silence according to new beliefs about the definition and function of music. (173)
At any rate, I look forward to reading Abbate and Parker's book and learning more.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Archiving Tweets

Before the World Wide Web, Internet bulletin boards and discussion lists provided me with a new means for doing ethnographic work among fans. Today, online activity is more important than ever for those who study human social life and institutions, and it has fallen to archivists to find ways to usefully record our collective digital traces. As part of that effort, the Library of Congress just published an update about its new archive of tweets, a project that has been underway since 2010. They are currently trying to figure out how to index over 120 billion tweets and provide access to researchers, which, as the report explains, is an enormous and expensive task.

Whenever it works out, I'm most excited about the possibilities of this archive for audience studies. Some still dismiss Twitter as only record of the mundane (something, actually, that could be quite fascinating), but I think one of the most interesting aspects of Twitter culture has been the phenomenon of "live tweeting" various events, from concerts and television shows to elections and storms. As a kind of "event marginalia," such tweets might offer real insight into reception, social discourse, and diverse kinds of audience behavior.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Reading in Public

If you've come across this blog before, you probably know that I enjoy talking about reading as much as--well, reading. That's why I enjoyed this post by Scott Aiken and Robert Talisse, about "Reading Weird Books in Public," over at 3 Quarks Daily. Apparently, people have strong reactions to what others read. Think of it as a kind of social marginalia.

As an academic whose professional life revolves around reading, I bring books everywhere. There is always reading to be done, and, as a parent who must drop-off and pick-up children on a daily basis, I am often waiting, with time to kill. Why not catch up on the latest journal? Take notes on a book for research? Prep for the next class reading? It doesn't really matter whether it's at the mall or gymnastics class or on the soccer field--if there's light, I can read.

Apparently this is not always cool. Usually, I don't ever get more than a second glance, or someone wise-cracking "a little light reading, eh?," when I am spotted outside of the classroom with an academic monograph. Of course, there was that one time when a woman on a plane was curious about my copy of David Mitchell's The Cloud Atlas and asked if I were "studying to be a meteorologist." And I do still get grief from my family about the time I sat amidst roaring fans in the stands at a high school football game, engrossed in Brian Ward's Just My Soul Responding. (In my defense, I had class the next morning).

Inappropriate reading has a long history, reaching at least into the 18th century, including workers sharing pamphlets, housewives engaging in novels instead doing housework, etc. (see I never really thought about the extent to which we still maintain all kinds of prescriptions and rules about what, when, and where to read. It may not be threatening anymore, but it can still provoke.

For more on the contemporary phenomenon of reading in public, be sure to check out:
Underground New York Public Library