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Jazz and the Spirit of Textual Identity








Jazz and the Spirit of Textual Identity


English 366: Afro-American Avant-Gardes

Professor Kevin Bell


















©  copyright Laura E. Thompson, 2011


Essay One







The musicians of the Bedouin Hornbook and of Forces in Motion are no ordinary jazz giants. While they play something that may be categorized as “jazz,” the organizing principle of their music is that it is new and innovative, that it expresses something felt deeply within the performer and composer through a novel form or musical language. The ironic struggle within this journey to create new mediums of musical communication is that forms that have not been used before are often not understood by anyone else besides the creator. To clarify, musical languages are built with the same raw material, but it is each composer or player who defines their own vocabulary through sound. So while these musicians draw from tradition as they create their musical voices, their reinvention of what came before is what distinguishes them as individuals and often confuses those who try to listen.

It seems that music should speak for itself, that it should require no explanation or defense in spoken and written language. Languages (including musical ones) are social tools with which it is possible to communicate thoughts among people. But languages stand in for whatever they represent, and in so doing, are not understood immediately through instinct or inherent knowledge, but through a gradual learning process. New musical forms can be learned through patient listening of many works of composers working within them, or, according to the hopes of Graham Lock and Nathaniel Mackey, through a written account of the mental processes involved in the creation of musical forms that break the mold of previous idioms.

If music can be understood on its own terms, then why were these books written? We can only speculate about what exactly motivated Graham Lock to take up the pen and chronicle the experiences and conversations he had while traveling with Anthony Braxton’s band on their tour of England. But I think it is clear what results. By writing Forces in Motion, Graham Lock captures some of the thoughts bouncing around the head of Braxton the artist. Braxton seemed to have a public persona as a kind of pretentious jazz artist, someone who is unique and moving within the culture of jazz but infusing his own version of it with a sort of pretentious sort of intellectualism often associated with avant-garde classical music. But in the book, we come nearer to understanding Braxton not only in the narrow lens through which he is characterized within mainstream media, but as a real man who has real ideas about ways to “restructure” music. Lock begins to uncover some of the major philosophical underpinnings of Braxton’s musical work, but also shows that Braxton thinks about much more than what is typically defined as jazz music. He describes his musical idols, but also goes into deep explanations of other elements of his core beliefs, including astro black mythology.

Within the fictionalized world of the Bedouin Hornbook, Nathaniel Mackey also dramatizes the inner thoughts of a struggling musician who seeks to challenge existing forms. Whereas Graham Lock literally went along for the ride with Braxton’s band to get to know the members as people and musicians, Nathaniel Mackey approaches his story from the inside moving outwards. Since his characters are his own creation, he began with a clear understanding of their place and motives within the bounds of his story. The characters are developed as human beings, but they are also means for him to question and convey a wide gamut of philosophical points regarding music and its place within cultures that seem to define themselves in opposition to each other. Interestingly enough, though he is literally inside the mind of his protagonist (who we only know as “N”), Mackey draws attention to the lack of clarity present in all forms of communication by structuring his novel into a series of letters that form one side of an ongoing correspondence between N and a mysterious character addressed as the Angel of Dust. We are not exactly present with the thoughts of N as Mackey himself might be, but only with his conscious presentation of his ideas with a specific listener in mind. Instead of seeking to smooth over the hurdles of communication, Mackey accentuates them, and in so doing, he makes the point that the ways in which we express ourselves are projections of ideas that exist in the literal world somewhere else.

Language and music are representational, and such, often require a certain degree of translation if they are new to the people with which they are being used to communicate. When they become more familiar, they are more effective means of communication in that they can be understood without any shifts into preexisting forms. They are then understood through their own distinct features, but when communication becomes so seamless and simple, then the gap between what is being communicated and how loses distinction. It is just as present, but camouflaged behind fluent understanding. Then whatever is being communicated becomes further linked to ways in which it is, and the modes of communication begin to give the appearance of absolute truth without any beckoning for questions. In the same vein, music that has been around for a long time is often assumed to be part of a standard cultural repertoire, and is gradually understood through its interplay with traditions. But musical traditions are human conventions, not immutable laws of nature, and shifts in musical paradigms take some time for audiences to respond in a way that is meaningful. In other words, when someone creates a new language, especially a musical one, it takes some time and practice for others to truly understand it on a deep level.

One of the larger issues for the musicians in Forces in Motion and Bedouin Hornbook is the sense of being confined into narrow categories of behavior and of musical forms. Though they view themselves as musicians in the broadest sense, they are labeled as jazz musicians by their critics. True, both groups of musicians from both groups draw heavily from the traditions of jazz, but the very feature that distinguished their music is that it breaks previous conventions. It is inspired by much of what came before, but it is not defined by the work of previous jazz masters. Braxton and the musicians in N’s band are also notable because of their employment of influences ranging from African song, to pan-African ideals of spirituality, and to the musical experiments of contemporary composers whose work is categorized (again, by others) as falling within or perhaps rebelling against the traditions of classical music. For example, in the introduction to Forces in Motion, Lock writes:

Braxton’s refusal to heed boundaries (musical, intellectual, political) has drawn flak from the most diverse quarters: both white racists and black nationalists, for instance, appear to resent his interest in so-called ‘European’ forms and have criticized him for not sticking to ‘jazz’ – an irony which might be farcical had not the common narrowness at its core played a part in prolonging the times of poverty and frustration with which he has had to contend. A second irony is that Braxton’s entire musical philosophy is steeped in an African mystical lineage that reaches back to ancient Egypt and, he maintains, has shaped the very essence of the African-American creative music tradition. The final irony is that those critics who fuss about his supposedly ‘European’ influences have not only misunderstood his work, but also distort the nature of creative music itself in their failure to recognize the ritual and ‘vibrational’ factors, the ‘meta-reality implications’, which derive from the music’s spiritual origins. (Lock 3)


This paragraph reveals the conflicting reactions to the music of Braxton. It clearly draws upon many different musical idioms which came before it, but it cannot be neatly defined as a part of one category to the total exclusion of all others. By viewing his music as a deviant of jazz, or of European traditions, it is deficient. In such light, it does not accomplish what the work of previous great composers did within those forms. Instead, it must be analyzed in its own terms, as rooted in what came before, but with a different imprint.

It is important to listen patiently to music that is experimental or on the avant-garde like Braxton’s before denouncing because of the lasting effect that dismissal can have upon artists. The changes that they make in their art form is necessary to keep the gates of creativity open, even if such bold steps are not immediately welcomed. It usually takes time to understand and assess major developments in music or any other form of expression. Some become part of a new common practice vocabulary, others fade away as passing impulses.

One more notable feature of the passage extracted from Lock’s introduction above is his mention of “meta-reality implications.” This passage, though used as a reference to the aspects of Braxton’s work that come from African ideas, demonstrates a fundamental belief that there is an overlying reality that includes all experiences and perspectives. Such a meta-reality describes the truth that language and music seek to represent, and is unlimited by cultural barriers or differences in viewpoints. This belief that cultures are speaking towards universal ideas in different ways is essential to the values systems of Braxton and the musicians created by Mackey in Bedouin Hornbook.

By working with many different sources, the musicians of Bedouin Hornbook draw attention not only to the variety of elements in their music and in the world, but also to the inverse: the peoples that are usually absent from common conceptions of “whole culture.” Mackey encapsulates the argument for an expanded sense of diversity in terms of sources of influence through the arguments of Heidi/Aunt Nancy:

All I can say,’ she said, ‘is that the culture you’re calling ‘whole’ has yet to assume itself to be so except at the expense of a whole lot of other folks, except by presuming that what they were up to could be ignored at no great loss.’ (Mackey 12)


The music of N’s band adds a kind of conspicuousness to absence; something cannot be missed until it is known to exist. This emphasis on representation of the other is reminiscent of the “non-knowledge” which is present everywhere. She goes on to mention an “exclusionary sense of dichotomy” which captures the sense of cultures competing in hierarchy rather than working together in the sort of over-arching “meta-reality” described by Braxton. 1

Through Bedouin Hornbook and Forces in Motion, Nathaniel Mackey and Graham Lock make gentle but forceful arguments for a deeper examination of music and the process of creation behind it. They advocate the unusual, for musicians who care much more about the integrity of their work than for the reward of a paycheck. When Anthony Braxton and Graham Lock stop at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama so that Braxton can speak to students about his compositional methods and his music, Lock chronicles a particularly notable exchange between Braxton and a student:

‘If you’re so limited by poverty,’ asks someone else, ‘would you consider trying to make a popular record?’

I don’t try to make unpopular records,’ Braxton says. ‘I’m not against people buying my records or me being rich. I’d love to be a billionaire shipping tycoon! But I have to do what I believe in. I would rather like my music and people hate it, than for them to like it and me hate it. (Lock 27)


It is this kind of firm belief that the musical and artistic process of creating new musical works is much more important than its critical and commercial reception is something that roots the music of Braxton and the music that we imagine in Bedouin Hornbook as genuine. It is also a feature that Lock points to as a legacy of African culture.2 But because of their adamant faith to music over money, these musicians often find themselves struggling to survive from day to day, from gig to gig, and often move from continent to continent to try to make a way for themselves.

Both Lock and Mackey believe that there is much knowledge to be imparted from the perspective of musicians out in the world trying to express themselves by creating something new out of the jazz idiom. N’s letters to the Angel of Dust are full of reverence for legendary figures in the world of jazz.3 N (or rather Mackey writing on behalf of N) even explicitly quotes Braxton to give further momentum to his own ideas (Mackey 15). N chronicles his own experience of incongruous emotions:

It’s as if the gap between fact and idea filled the heart to the point of flooding, as though grief were a liningless womb turned inside out. Words don’t go where this sadness welled up from…” (Mackey 15)


This is another way of describing the gap between words and the things they represent. This problem of representation is always present; it is our awareness of this issue that shifts.

Questions of representation always underlie any forms that seek to communicate, whether it be art, music, sign language, spoken languages, writing systems, literature, or any number of other possible artistic or practical means devised. When forms become essential to a culture (like languages) or are understood in great detail, then sometimes the act of representation is obscured. When forms of communication are understood on an intuitive level, a level of critical perspective may be lost, and so the forms of communication that are most closely drawn into the heart of a culture are viewed as the most effective. It is important to realize that the forms of communication that we work with are not the only ones, but are really only a small fraction of the wide gamut of possibilities inherent in human expression. Forms cannot succeed if they are static, and so it is natural and in fact extremely important that each person make their own color palate with which to communicate. Above all else, the musicians of both books, fictional and real, tell the passionate story of a struggle to be creative, and to mold their communicative means to convey whatever it was that they needed to say.



















make way for creative changes in artistic forms, in musical “languages” to use to term of Braxton, and in foreign


gets lost in the shuffle of intuitive sentence structure. Because a form may be unders




















Under such conditions, quick dismissals of their work slaps of a disregard of the ideas of other people who are trying to express their musical ideas in new ways. Even without the hardships that these musicians undergo for their art it would be important to give their works a chance. But the tremendous sacrifice that they put into this work makes their situations all the more poignant. [draw in example from quote about Braxton not purposely writing unpopular music, but prefers to stick to his ideas rather than stray for some popular impulse- when spoke to Guildhall students]










It is interesting to question what exactly are the defining features that cause critics to characterize musicians as working within specific genres. Is it the fundamental structural features of music which define it, like having an improvisational nature or following certain progressions of chords? Or is it the lives of the musicians which play the larger role in shaping the way their music is perceived? Could music genres be separated by something like race rather than sound?


This is the same manner in which classical music became accepted as the true form of musical expression within a western paradigm. when he complicates the matter of communication with his audience. Whereas Lock sought to get as close as possible to the subjects of his book but faced the hurdle of getting to know the subconscious thought processes the ideas of other peopleBut he also creates an obstacle in the communication of his ideas with his audience by structuring his story into a seemingly two-sided exchange of letters that only has one side revealed.

Question: Why did Nathaniel Mackey and Braxton/Lock write their books? What emerges thereafter? [too unspecific] What does their writing say about their fundamental beliefs about music and its inter-relationship with humanity? Is jazz fundamentally different from other musical genres? Do they view their own music (Braxton and the members of N’s band) as jazz? Or does it have roots in the so-called jazz tradition, but they perceive the categorization of their music into the jazz idiom as the work of critics who seek to understand/judge their music in terms of previously existing forms rather than hearing it without a context. If it is critics who push their music into the category of jazz, then is that on the basis of the music itself, the race of the musicians, or some other qualities of the musicians? e.g., improvisational techniques…

-the struggle to understand musical languages that are avant-garde / newly invented

-struggle to fit capture ideas in a musical form

-re-energize western music with values of African, Asian, and Middle Eastern cultures – p.310 braxton – bringing spirituality back into music

Throughout Forces in Motion and the Bedouin Hornbook it becomes clear that Mackey and Lock are writing defenses of the music they care about. Audiences do not need to like this new music, but they do need to give it a chance and listen with an open mind before jumping to criticize it. They also try to get underneath the surface of this unconventional music by bringing readers inside the head of a musician thinker (literally, in the fictive case of Mackey) and closer to the thought process of real musicians in the case of Lock.


1 Braxton’s meta-reality should not be mentioned without reference to the ‘meta-voice’ and ‘meta-word’ that Mackey writes about through the literary voice of N. N believes that there is a strong impulse of “the dislocated African” to search for these meta-tools to understand the world and their identity within it. (Mackey 50-51) Mete-reality exists (according to Braxton) whereas meta-words and meta-voices must be found (in the thought process of N).

2 Lock writes about Braxton’s belief that improvisation is a key feature of African music: a melody of “improvisational flow” that comes from the individual but also fits into a larger group aesthetic. (Lock 309) He then continues to write about Braxton’s belief that Western music has become increasingly dependent on concepts of right and wrong, of proper performance practices, and on intellectual concepts. He writes that music of other places in the world is more intimately linked with the emotional and spiritual side of human experience, and that it is therefore open to greater possibilities in variation and interpretation. (Lock 310)

3 N mentions musicians ranging from John Coltrane (Mackey 13) to Cecil Taylor (20) to Jair Rodrigues (20). It is also notable that he brings up other artistic figures like Picasso (8) and Proust (10).