Black Sound and the Archive group expands on the idea of what is an archive

From the Gilmore Music Library at Yale: A photo of Count Basie, Teddy Wilson, Hazel Scott, Duke Ellington, and Mel Powell.
Left to right: Count Basie, Teddy Wilson, Hazel Scott, Duke Ellington, and Mel Powell. (MSS 70, The Mel Powell Papers, Irving S. Gilmore Music Library of Yale University)

Imagine for a moment, what it would be like to not have access to conventional ways of documenting your own life experiences. What if — as a marginalized person — it was illegal for you to learn how to read and write? What if you didn’t have the resources — let alone a kind of infrastructure — to build your own museums or your own libraries?

How, then, do you go about leaving behind a trace of your “hereness,” your value, your contribution to the world? And how do you create a definition of yourself that can stand the test of time?

This is the ethos of the Black Sound and the Archive Working Group and, what Daphne Brooks, professor of African American studies, American studies, Theater Studies, and Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies and one of the group’s organizers, hopes to convey to all of the participants in the initiative as well as guests at the program’s events.

Daphne Brooks
Daphne Brooks (Image credit: Dan Renzetti)

The Black Sound and the Archive Working Group, explains Brooks, is a way of acknowledging African Americans’ culture through sound, which she explains, is itself an archive. “It is the way in which you affirm your subjectivity, your visibility, your audibility, and your entire ontology through a range of practices that articulates what it means to be human,” she adds.

The project came together as a result of Brooks’ “collaboration and collegiality” with Brian Kane, professor in the Department of Music, says Brooks. The two have shared interests in African American sonic cultures and the intellectual life that emerges out of those sonic cultures.

The Black Sound and the Archive Working Group at Yale is a two-year initiative supported by Yale’s 320 York Humanities Grant that studies the history and significance of African American sonic practices in tandem with critical examination of the nature of archives. Now in its second year, the initiative seeks to augment the notion of what constitutes a black sound archive. African-American sonic practices, for example, are not only embedded in historical sound recordings, but in photographs, narratives, performances, and repertoires.

The 320 York Humanities Grants are unique among other funding opportunities on campus, giving recipients the freedom to use the funding for curation, performance, collaborative research, teaching, or lively combinations of these,” says Amy Hungerford, the Bird White Housum Professor of English and dean of the Humanities Division at Yale. “This grant program — and the projects that are its offspring — allows us to realize the full richness of a given field at Yale across the boundaries of discipline, practice, and medium.”

When they were designing the project, Kane and Brooks thought about ways to bring together interdisciplinary communities on campus to think more about the important role that African American sound-making practices in music have played in the broad picture of American culture and “the long storied — but still, in certain quarters of our profession, under theorized — history of the ways in which African Americans used music and sound as a way to document their historical conditions and experiences,” says Brooks.

With this project we are also thinking about the kind of documentation that indexes sound but isn't typically thought of as part of a historical sound archive. Newspaper accounts of concerts, memoirs, sheet music, and music theory books are all part of sonic archives,” says Kane.

Brian Kane
Brian Kane (Image credit: Dan Renzetti)

The participants of the working group are encouraged to work in close collaboration with archival objects and engage with artists whose work has been shaped and inspired by archival material. The working group has held and will hold again this semester workshop sessions that focus on analyzing and exploring a diverse range of archival sonic objects and performance texts. Another goal of the project is to engage practitioners in their aesthetic techniques and repertoires in an attempt to generate new black sound archives for future scholarship.

The group has hosted visits from luminaries in the field of African American music as well as noted scholars on the topic of black sound archives. These have included a seminar with John Davis, a classical pianist and of early black music and archivist and workshops and public conversations with artists such as jazz vocalist Cécile McLorin Salvant, jazz pianist Jason Moran, sound artist Kevin Beasley, and folk-Americana musician Rhiannon Giddens.   

Davis, explains Brooks, is known for performing music from long-forgotten 19th-century musicians like Thomas Wiggins, known as “Blind Tom,” a classically trained pianist who was held captive in slavery and despite that became one of the most storied classical pianists in the Atlantic world. Davis researched Blind Tom’s life, collected rare scores and ephemera, and produced the first commercial recordings of Blind Tom’s compositions. Davis’ talk, says Brooks, “gave us a more palpable sense of what it meant to be held captive as a human being in this country.”

Salvant, who has been hailed by the New York Times as “the greatest jazz vocalist of her generation,” immerses herself in repertoires from the turn of the century, going back to black musical theater and vaudeville repertoires, says Brooks.

A MacArthur genius fellow, Moran is considered to be one of the most innovative and influential jazz pianists of the contemporary era. He lectured on his own kind of documentation, or archive, of the physical spaces — the storied clubs — in which African American musicians performed around the United States. Moran has tried to reproduce those physical spaces using the architecture that reflects the ways in which African American musicians were improvising and negotiating in the spaces in which they performed.

To have these renowned musicians visit the campus and share their own experiences of how archival cultures have informed their aesthetics and vision for their work has been an enriching part of my scholarship at Yale,” says Brooks.

Last spring, in conjunction with the Gilmore Music Library, participants in the working group created their own on-line sound archives (available at blacksound.yale.edu). They also exhibited an array of rare and unusual items found in the library’s collections, such as an arrangement written by pianist and composer Mary Lou Williams, a handwritten fragment of Duke Ellington’s memoir, and several objects (ranging from a walking stick to pajamas) that belonged to J. Rosamond Johnson, the composer of “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” 

A newspaper in the Gilmore Music Library collection.
(Image credit: Dan Renzetti)

For Kane, the most gratifying part of his involvement with the working group has been participating in the vibrant interactions between graduate students from different departments — who don’t often get to intersect at Yale — all thinking critically around a central set of issues. “The discussions have been inspiring,” says Kane, “and I believe that we’re only at the very beginning of seeing projects that will emerge with roots in our conversations—dissertation, articles, exhibitions, and artworks.”

This project has resonated broadly with graduate students, says Brooks, because it allows them to feel like they can “tap into their own creative talents, be bold, and to think about creating their own archives as well.” Also, notes Brooks, “the circle of creativity that runs between the artists, the scholars, and the students is really exquisite and very special.”

The events and research associated with this working group underscore the importance of humanities at Yale, explains Brooks, because “what is so crucial about the humanities is that it is a kind of intellectual series of practices that allow us to always remain close to, interrogate, and affirm the preciousness of our humanity.”

Brooks continues: “It is for that reason that we’re especially grateful for the fact that we have this project to contribute to the vibrant future of the humanities at Yale, and to remind everyone of the lasting contributions of African Americans in encouraging us to think about and to really value, celebrate, but also hold close to us, the meaning of suffering and survival that one can hear through aesthetic practices and through sound in particular.”

This semester, the initiative held the inaugural “Black Sound & the Archive Symposium” Feb. 7-8.

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Media Contact

Bess Connolly: elizabeth.connolly@yale.edu, 203-432-1324