Materiality in Jazz and Composition



When I read at noisy coffee shops, I like to listen to music—mostly jazz. The other day, while reading Anne Francis Wysocki’s “Opening New Media to Writing: Openings and Justifications” (the first essay in a collection Wysocki coedited, Writing New Media: Theory and Applications for Expanding the Teaching of Composition), I listened to a bunch of Thelonious Monk albums (through headphones connected to my iPhone). That’s why when, the next day, I cracked the text open to begin drafting a blog discussing the Wysocki piece and noticed for the first time the book’s two epigraphs, the first one (an excerpt from Stephen Dobyns’ poem “Thelonious Monk”) seemed to me freighted with synchronicity.

The kind of jazz I favor (mostly from the 50s and 60s) has a quality that might make an academic critic call it “meta-jazz.” Players of this kind of jazz (artists as superficially disparate as the Modern Jazz Quartet, Charles Mingus, and Monk) employ tropes that run the musical gamut. Familiar jazz, blues, popular music, and art music themes are integrated into new compositions with prominent improvisatory elements. This is not exactly the musical melting pot one might imagine, though. It’s not smooth—that kind of jazz would come years later. The musical elements in the sort of jazz I’m talking about are integrated but still recognizable. Players of “meta-jazz” do not try to smooth over the incongruities in their music. A Modern Jazz Quartet song may switch from being a fugue to being a down-home blues jam in a beat. And some instrumentalists introduce notes to musical modes that traditional (current-traditional?) western musical theory adamantly asserts do not belong. A lot of the charm for me is in the left turns these players take.

Stephen Dobyns likewise likes the left turns—the incongruous congruity of Monk’s playing, if you will (incongruous because his notes don’t play by the rigid rules of Western musical modes but congruous because they establish more flexible rules by virtue of their integrity with the whole). The first two excerpted stanzas of Dobyns’ poem in the epigraph say of Monk, “I was caught by how he took / the musical phrase and seemed to find a new / way out, the next note was never the note / you thought would turn up and yet / seemed correct” (viii). I would assert that one needs to be supremely self aware, and aware of the tradition that one is working in, if one is to ride the knife blade of incongruous congruity that Monk and other modern jazz musicians ride. That is, one needs to be aware, to borrow a term that Wysocki uses to refer to the composition we do in English classes, of the materiality of one’s music—of the social effects its components have had in the past and the social effect the rearrangement and altering of those components will have in the present.

I would argue that the layout design of Kathleen Blake Yancey’s essay “Made Not Only in Words: Composition in a New Key” (a meta-transcript—which is to say not an exact transcript, a transcript that talks back to itself in asides, footnotes, and graphics—of her 2004 Chair’s Address to the Conference on College Composition and Communication) is all about incongruous congruity. It jumps genres and media in the sort of self-aware way (drawing attention to its “materiality” as a text) that Wysocki makes her main criterion for a text to be “new media” (Wysocki 15-16).

Wysocki asserts that a new media text is aware of itself as a text. It is aware of its moves, and of the material motivation of its moves, and it requires that an engaged reader be aware of these things as well. Wysocki proposes materiality as a complex web of temporal reality. She takes issue with previous commentators who, following Marshall McLuhan, have mistaken the part for the whole and declared that “the medium is the message.” Wysocki’s argument is far more nuanced than McLuhan’s: The medium may not be the message, she contends, but it is an important component of the message.

Wysocki feels that McLuhan’s famous, catchy assertion is reductive but not without worth. The medium does play a significant role in the ideological implications of a text’s instantiation, she argues. This Microsoft Word document, for example, requires that I type in straight, uniform lines. Wysocki argues that this communicates and perpetuates an ethos that favors efficiency and linearity (12-13). But the materiality of a text does not stop with its medium. It also includes the socioeconomic factors affecting the text’s composition and distribution, such as the gender, race, class, and sexual orientation of reader and writer (3-4). A text’s medium is not neutral, but neither is its context. Some materiality we cannot see, but we can very much feel. In order to be truly new[1], therefore Wysocki argues that a text must be aware of (and must try to manipulate) all of its ideological baggage. Its grappling with the complex web of materiality must be made visible. These texts must ultimately (either explicitly or implicitly) question what it means to be a text. I find it appropriate that one of the first “pieces” in a text that begins with an essay that redefines “new media” in the aforementioned way is a paean to Thelonious Monk. His radical yet systematic departures from what was considered appropriate in western music called attention to music’s materiality and questioned what it means to be a song.  

[1] “New” like “post-” (its ideological and aesthetic ambiguity notwithstanding) is an adjective that can connote self-awareness.



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