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MUSIC

 

When describing her childhood, Toni Morrison frequently mentions the music that was always playing at home or the fact that her mother sang both jazz and opera. If this is the reason for Morrison's understanding of music, she has also passed it on. One of her sons is a musician and sound engineer. Her many credits include the libretto for Honey and Rue, a song cycle composed with Andre Previn for Kathleen Battle, and the musical New Orleans, concerning the origins of jazz in New Orleans' Storyville. Her most engaging relationship to music, however, may be the way she translates music into the written word.

Morrison uses music as both a structural and a symbolic element in her work. Music often carries information about community knowledge, aesthetics, or perspectives. Toni Morrison often discusses the power of music and the way it functions in culture in discussions of her craft. She sometimes refers to music as an ideal art form. In her "Rootedness: The Ancestor as Foundation," an essay excerpted from an interview with Eleanor Traylor, she details elements of music (black music in particular) which sustain its power. Morrison argues that traditionally, music has been the primary art form of healing for black people. Because of the changing place of black music as a commodity in US American culture, she asserts, music can no longer do this work alone (Evans 340.)

Morrison sees the novel as another form that can mirror what happens with black music and perhaps take that work further. In creating her works, she attends to the participatory nature of music--the way it makes listeners respond through singing or dancing. Morrison aims for her fiction to touch those same nerves, to make readers not only speak back to the text, but also recognize their responses as part of the text (341.)

She continues this line of thinking about music in "Living Memory," an interview with Paul Gilroy. Once again, Morrison mentions the way art, especially music, has been a source of healing and sustenance. She contemplates the 'intricacy' and 'discipline' involved in making the work of music, particularly of improvisational music, seem effortless. Here she also states her aim to mirror in her writing this seamless stitching together of available information that is so often achieved in music. She strives, Morrison says, to parallel the tension between what information is given in the music and what is left up to the imagination that exists in exchanges between composers or performers of music and their audiences (181.)

Much of what Toni Morrison learns from music is incorporated into her fiction, but it also informs her analyses of others' works. In her critical monograph Playing in the Dark, Morrison examines tropes and structural problems regarding black presence in literature by US American white writers. Before beginning this project, however, Morrison attends to the moment of a French writer’s memoir in which the author first recognizes her own madness.

The event takes place in a club, while listening to Louis Armstrong. Overwhelmed by the music--specifically Armstrong's improvisation--the author (Marie Cardinal) describes running into the street, screaming that she is going to die. Morrison argues that moments of self-awareness such as these are often sparked by interactions with black people or black figurations in literature not written by them. She calls attention to the fact that Cardinal's reaction is not simply to Louis Armstrong's black body, but specifically to jazz and its structure. Morrison comes away from the passage with the notion that what she calls the 'cultural associations' of jazz are as meaningful as its 'intellectual foundations'. It may be useful to think of the 'cultural associations' of jazz as the ways in which the jazz operates in culture as a symbol of blackness or of the city, while the 'intellectual foundations' are the structural base and logic of the music.

Symbolic and structural elements of music appear throughout all of Toni Morrison's fiction in one way or another. Music figures most prominently, however, in her three works in which the title refers to the musicality of the work. These works are the novels Jazz and Song of Solomon and "Recitatif," her only short story. In each of these works, the idea of music or a genre of music appears at the outset to offer readers a way in which to approach (their participation in) the text.

"Recitatif" takes its title from a vocal style commonly found in opera. "Recitatif" may be so named in order to foreground the events of the story in the way that a recitatif would in opera. In this story, the reader is privy to four reunions between a black woman and a white woman (Twyla and Roberta, perhaps respectively) who lived together in an orphanage for part of their childhood. Although readers know that one character is white and the other is black, Morrison does not give us physical descriptions or direct references to either character's race. Music appears throughout the story, but each time the music carries more than one cultural association.

As a result, music sets the tone of the context for several exchanges indicates the way in which each character invests in or responds to a raced community. For example, when Twyla and Roberta meet in an upscale grocery store, Twyla repeatedly notes that classical music playing over the loudspeaker as she thinks about the expensive prices of the food or the expensive clothes on Roberta. Twyla is made uncomfortable by the cultural associations of classical music. The music is a symbol upper class culture, and perhaps also whiteness.

Sometimes the music underscores the ambiguous relationships of genres and musicians and their cultural associations. When Roberta tells Twyla that she is to meet with 'Hendrix', Twyla asks, "What's she doing now?" What is the reader to take from Twyla's failure to understand that Roberta’s 'Hendrix' is Jimi Hendrix? Is Twyla referring to Nona Hendryx? If so, what does her lack of knowledge about Jimi Hendrix and Roberta's lack of knowledge about Nona Hendryx say about each musician as a cultural figure? Depending on the time period, each figure could play a different role in the characterization of Twyla and Roberta as black and white figures.

Among the musical styles mentioned in the story, however, ‘recitatif’ seems to carry the most ambiguous cultural associations of all. The vocal style called ‘recitatif’ (or ‘recitative’) is designed for singing the narration of events in an opera and is often precedes an aria. The complexity of the aria presents the opportunity for soloists to demonstrate their expertise, while the recitatif is composed to follow the simple rhythms of natural speech. An aria gives detailed information about a character or the moment, whereas the main purpose of the recitatif is to give the audience the other necessary information in the form of dialogue or narration.

 How is "Recitatif" related to the recitatif? A reader may experience each of the five sections of the story as a ‘recitatif’ from an opera missing its other parts. The dialogue and narration foreground the plot. Readers must imagine the rest.

One may even read the positioning of this story in relation to Toni Morrison's other works. "Recitatif"(1983) appears in print between Tar Baby (1981) and Beloved (1987), the first novel in Morrison's trilogy including Jazz and Paradise. "Recitatif" can be read as one narrative passage foregrounding the story of race in America, preceding the aria, Beloved. However, it may be that after "Recitatif," Morrison mirrored the tension between operatic vocal styles in Beloved with its many narrated chapters followed by detailed, introspective passages from the perspectives of Sethe, Beloved, and Denver. However readers read the ‘recitatif’ of "Recitatif", Morrison makes good use of the cultural associations and intellectual foundations of all of the music in the story.

In Song of Solomon, these elements of music are part of the plot. One of the central threads of the story is a song, the words of which are transformed throughout the novel. While the melody and structure of the song remain the same in different places and time periods, the names of the people mentioned change. The reader learns the way a particular family history and black community memory change over time and region. The song stands, among other translations of oral culture into print, as a representation of the routes through which community knowledge passes.

As Wahneema Lubiano argues, while a particular story is being told in vernacular culture, the ways of distributing information throughout a community are also passed on (95, 96.) In the case of Song of Solomon, the process of passing on these different kinds of knowledge occurs in different forms of oral storytelling. The names of places and characters, for example, carry histories informed by other similar sounding words. Places and people are renamed by a community's insistence on remembering them by events in their lives or their desires. Finally, both children and adults sing songs that preserve community lore.

There is also the aural story that nature tells, especially in Shalimar, where memory is kept in the way characters listen to their terrain. Ryna's sorrow is remembered not only through the song (of Solomon), but also through the sound of the wind whipping through the landscape. Morrison uses music as only part of the soundscape in which a system of remembering one's relationship to the events in one's community is rehearsed. The memories conserved include not only details about a story (i.e.: Solomon left behind his wife and son Jake), but also the feelings of the community in which the story took place.

Part of the value of understanding music as part of a whole host of vernacular elements in this work is that it allows the reader to distinguish which relationships are particular to music. Perhaps the most important distinction is that music allows the song to travel away from the place of its origin and gives the information a greater context. While the patterns for naming and renaming places and people in the text are passed down across time, these aural histories do not tend to travel far past their places of origin. The primary force propelling music from person to person is not the need to pass information or even to judge one's relationship to a place or event. Because music travels casually along lines of those who share an aesthetic, the context for songs extends far beyond the particular places in which other kinds of memory are contained.

Once a song is separated from its original context, the lyrics can change. If the information articulated in the song sometimes points in different directions (Solomon becomes Sugarman, Jake becomes Jay), what remains is the melancholy mood of the song--the blues. The sadness of the singers' "Don't leave me here" resonates throughout the book. This mood, appropriately, propels the plot of Song of Solomon. The sadness of having been left is partially responsible for Macon's miserliness, Ruth's loneliness, Milkman's selfishness, even for Pilate's misunderstood message from the dead.

 One of Morrison's goals for her fiction is to relay the mood of a musical form. She has acknowledged the desire to depict the feelings of 'dislocation' evident in spirituals for the writing of Beloved. In Jazz, she wanted to create a syntax that gives the illusion of jazz improvisation, but also to portray the "reckless, romantic" gestures of the form (Pici 374.)

Each chapter of Jazz can be read as a solo taken by a different instrument. The first sentence of each chapter responds directly to some word, phrase, or idea from the last sentence of the chapter before it as if in response to the last musical phrase of a preceding solo. The distinct syntax and rhythm in the language of each chapter supports this idea. The repetition of phrases creates the effect of a riff. Like a response to the last musical phrase of the preceding solo, the first sentence of each chapter responds directly to some word, phrase, or idea from the last sentence of the chapter before it (390.)

Even the first word of the novel refers to the cultural associations and intellectual foundations of jazz. The word, ‘Sth’, has been read as the sound of sucking teeth, often made in judgment on some person or event in African-American communities. This word has also been read as fanfare--the first sounds a musician (particularly a horn player or percussionist) makes to announce that he or she is to take over the next solo. Whether the reader reads the word as the sounds of people or instruments or simply pronounces the ‘s’, the sound produced may resemble the sound of a cymbal.

Toni Morrison has also incorporated the illusion of one of jazz's most characteristic elements, improvisation. For Morrison, this property of the novel is most evident in the final chapter. One form in which improvisation appears is the narrator's surprise. Morrison notes that improvisation exists because musicians leap without worry that they will be wrong about what notes to play (Waegner 18.) In Jazz, Morrison's narrator begins telling the story without knowing exactly how it will end. It does have expectations, however. The narrator tells the reader that it expects Felice, Joe, and Violet to act together in the same way that Dorcas, Joe, and Violet do. When the story is set up in the same way, however, the song plays differently. Joe, Violet, and Felice "put their lives together" in ways that the speaking voice of the text does not expect.

Music has a stronger presence, structurally and symbolically, in Jazz than in other printed texts by Toni Morrison. It is therefore fitting that the narrator of the book calls attention to the limitations of being an aural text in a printed form. In a direct address to the reader, the narrator of Jazz 'speaks' about the way a book works and a reader reads. In addition to the appreciation this 'character' feels for the reader, it expresses the longing to do what music (or any aural text, any aural being) can do that a book cannot--to say what it has to say out loud.

Mendi Lewis Obadike

Duke University

For further reference:

Evans, Mari, Ed. Black Women Writers 1950-1980: A Critical Evaluation. New York:

Anchor Books, 1984. 

Lubiano, Wahneema. "The Postmodernist Rag: Political Identity and the Vernacular in

Song of Solomon" New Essays on Song of Solomon. Valerie Smith, Ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995. 

Gilroy, Paul. Small Acts: Thoughts on the Politics of Black Cultures. New York:

Serpent's Tail, 1993. 

Pici, Nicholas F. "Trading Meanings: The Breath of Music in Toni Morrison's

Jazz." Connotations 7.3 (1997-98) 372-98. 

Taylor-Guthrie, Danille, Ed. Conversations with Toni Morrison. Jackson: University

Press of Mississippi, 1994. 

Waegner, Cathy C. "From Faulkner to Morrison: 'Jazzing Up' the American Nobel Prize

Heritage" Zeitschrift fur Literaturwissenschaft und Linguistik. Sept. 1997. Online.

(http://www.uni-siegen.de/~fb3amlit/nobelpr.html) 16 Jan. 2001.