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Musical MeaningToward a Critical History$
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Lawrence Kramer

Print publication date: 2001

Print ISBN-13: 9780520228245

Published to California Scholarship Online: May 2012

DOI: 10.1525/california/9780520228245.001.0001

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Coltrane's American Songbook

(p.242) 11 Chiaroscuro
Musical Meaning

Lawrence Kramer

University of California Press

As exemplified by the Africanisms of modernist concert music, music is a venue in which this question has historically been raised with particular urgency. This chapter pursues the question of what “blackness” means as an expressive category, and how it relates to blackness as a racial category. In negotiating the space between these socially or racially marked compositions, a concept that has proven useful in negotiating the similar space between works in different media is drawn on. The musical chiaroscuro is one of the issues raised by John Coltrane's landmark album, which seeks to refashion their music into an American songbook of a different color. With African American culture, the paradigmatic example is perhaps the pattern of call and response, a structuring structure that is at once social, religious, ethical, and aesthetic. Debricolage adapts old materials to new uses for reasons of desire, not of need. Instead of assemblage, its basic principle is disassemblage, and what it disassembles are the norms and forms of a dominant culture. Those who have been historically excluded from the privileges of a dominant culture can redefine their relationship to it through such disassemblage, which transforms the instruments of exclusion into a means of self-definition and self-creation. Similar effect occurs in Coltrane's “Summertime.” Debricolage like Coltrane's can be understood as a reaction to the historical collapse of that faith, which tends to survive, where it does survive, only among the groups least affected by exclusion and rejection.

Keywords:   Summertime, John Coltrane, Chiaroscuro, blackness, African American culture, American Songbook

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