During one of those moments in which awareness and radio music happen to coincide, I was struck by a wave of notes that seemed to have escaped through the elevator doors of some off-course spacecraft. Turns out it was a track off the Chick Corea Elektric Band’s L. Ron Hubbard-inspired concept album ‘To the Stars’. Decidedly better versed in Hubbard as public figure than sci-fi novelist, I was unfamiliar with the eponymous work of fiction on which Corea’s tone poem was based. Still, the effects of this homage to the founder of Scientology’s take on time-dilation remained well after the last strains of’ ‘Johnny’s Landing’ faded back down to earth in a calm lull of DJ talk. Book-on-tape to book-as-tape—the seemingly minute lexical gap proved an expansive chasm. And much like light-speed travel aboard the ‘Hound of Heaven’, spanning this gulf had pronounced consequences.
A few minutes of interpretive jazz-fusion and my perspective on the interplay of literature and music was suddenly rendered barely recognizable. Had my reading to this point been only fragmentary? Could one truly engage with the ‘hypnotic melody’ Captain Jocelyn plays at the New Chicago dive bar without hearing it as realized on To the Stars’ final song, ‘Captain Jocelyn-The Pianist’? What, if anything, did people hear during this scene in the intervening 54 years between the novel’s publication and the companion album’s release? How would L. Ron Hubbard have wanted it to sound?
Some of these questions resurfaced for me while reading a copy of The African American Review that found its way to the Harlem World Magazine offices, in an essay by David Messmer called ‘Trumpets, Horns, and Typewriters: A Call and Response between Ellison and Douglass‘ (partial text). Named for the Invisible Man quote in which the unnamed narrator stops outside of a Harlem record shop—its loudspeakers ‘blaring a languid blues’—and bemoans his inability to include his people into the ‘groove of history’ by adequately expressing their condition, ‘Trumpets, Horns, and Typewriters’ plots a progression from Frederick Douglass to Ralph Ellison through the lens of music.
Drawing primarily from Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave and Invisible Man, Messmer examines how these prominent authors incorporated ‘non-linguistic, aural paradigms’ to foster dialogue between their perceived audiences and the literary traditions which informed their respective approaches. The essay highlights the ‘contrast between writing and sound’ as a crucial challenge in their aim to ‘get them in, all of them’ to quote Ellison’s invisible man—’them’ being those who Douglass and Ellison intend to depict through a medium which implied certain risks of ‘alienating [them] from the community that [they] sought to represent’, according to ‘Trumpets’. While Douglass relied primarily on tone to convey certain lyrical qualities of slave songs in Narrative (‘words which to many would seem unmeaning jargon,‘) Ellison, writing in a post-Edisonian literary environment was able to point his prose through the gramophone’s amplifying horn: ‘Ellison could, with the simple mention of a name (Louis Armstrong), invoke an aural expressivity with which most if not all of his readers would already be familiar.’
Reading ‘‘I Am I Be’’: The Subject of Sonic Afro-modernity”, an essay by Alexander G. Weheliye which focuses more particularly on ‘Ellison’s engagement with sonic technoloqies’ at the new coffee shop off Lenox Avenue, I was reminded of his interview with the Paris Review at the Café de la Mairie in 1954, Paris, France. When asked about how one might approach ‘the universal in the novel’, Ralph Ellison extolled the virtues of folklore, calling Picasso ‘the greatest wrestler with forms and techniques of them all’ for his deftness with ‘the old symbolic forms [which] allow the artist to speak of complex experiences and annihilate time with simple lines and curves.’ Then: ‘It has been said that Escudero could sum up the history and spirit of the Spanish dance with a simple arabesque of his fingers.’ Today a feat comparable to Escudero’s could be replicated with one of the ever-growing number of media-playing devices available. Perhaps under different circumstances the invisible man would identify with video footage of a performance of ‘Black and Blue’ and a young Ellison would build mp3 players instead of radios to ‘connect to communities and discourses beyond immediate physical reach.’ With his views on the narrative potential of symbols to transcend their associated media in mind, I had to wonder if a ‘re-listening’ to some of my favorite novels might not be in order.
By Kyle, Kyle is from Harlem, New York City. He spends his time reading and writing about numerous topics other than himself. He likes to express a keen interest on books and printed matter of all sorts.
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