Saturday, April 9, 2011

Music as a means of Re-Interpretation

Although regarded first and foremost as a highly successful author, Ralph Ellison was also a musical connoisseur and very seriously considered a career as a composer. Commencing music lessons at a young age, Ellison fostered a deep connection with the art “which changed his life” and became highly influential in his writing style and the reading of his novels (Rampersad 55). It was not only the beauty or the carnal pleasure that Ellison received which led to the development of this relationship, but also a belief that music could become an influential political presence and that “mastering classical music would elevate the race (Rampersad 72). As this art form played such a powerful role in the formation of Ellison’s political and social opinions, it of course incorporated itself into many of his literary compositions.

Dominating the stylistic characteristics of Ralph Ellison’s novel, Invisible Man, are references to music, both literally through the insertion of song and more subtly through the description of voices and mannerisms of speakers. What becomes apparent throughout Ellison’s use of this musical language is that he seems to regard music as more powerful and more commanding than simple spoken word. While speakers like one of the white benefactors of the college are still seen as important figures to the narrator, he nevertheless pays no attention to his speech despite his status because it is not moving or flowing but “inarticulate” (Ellison 104). Voices that are heard on campus or on the sidewalks of New York City are usually easily tuned out as mere background noise, but when Ellison shifts his language or his speakers’ language to that of a musical quality the narrator is rendered completely incapable of doing anything but listening to what is said. The most spell-binding encounter of this type is demonstrated in Barbee’s speech to the students and benefactors of the college, a passage which is flooded with so much musical vocabulary that it seems at times that Barbee is not speaking at all but literally singing. The beginning of the speech seems like a very rote account of a story well-known and widely heard but Barbee “talked until a rhythm was established” (102) at which point his story transforms into something almost magical. From this establishment the speech is given a pulse and becomes alive with Barbee’s voice rather than the man himself as he “bugle[s]” the rest of his story and “the spellbound rows [are] caught in the imperious truth of his message” (97).

By making the distinction that spoken word pales in comparison to that which is “sung” Ellison grants a significance to these cantors, making them more powerful and marking them with a mastery of language that those who merely speak don’t seem to possess or understand. Those characters like Barbee become leaders, almost dictators, over the minds of their audience; by intoning his speech rhythm and rhyme he attains the ability to “lead [his] orchestra” (97) and subject them to his every whim, to “play upon the whole audience without the least show of exertion” (95). And just as Ellison’s characters wield this power over one another, so too does the author maintain control over his reader. By marking certain events with music or musical language the author is distinguishing for us what is truly important and manipulating our attention to be focused on these passages.

In this manner, Ellison becomes very Kermodian in his understanding of how our knowledge of language affects the reading of a novel. Kermode cites that “our whole practice of reading is founded on…expectations” (53) so that violation of these expectations becomes inherently attention-grabbing. Due to our “ability to understand a statement before we have heard it all”, interpretation of some details within written language are inevitably lost within our expectations (Kermode 71). I think Ellison would agree with Kermode’s observations about the reader and would find this superficial manner of reading to be a great detriment to the understanding of the message he wished to convey in his literature. It is not only through the use of atypical language and distinction of musical as powerful that helps Ellison to capture our attention, but also the implementation of a very specific method of construction of his most important passages. Ellison himself becomes the conductor of the reader by positioning unexpected patterns at the written page-level which shatter the presumptions that Kermode believes normally guide our reading, forcing us to re-read or re-interpret. The end of Barbee’s speech is drawn out with a change in meter as he is detailing our journey “back to the cold black clay…mother…of us all” (102) and we the reader literally hanging on Ellison’s every word, waiting for the resolution. By adding unusual and very un-speechlike patterns, rhymes, and musicality to his novel Ellison has craftily conditioned the reader to necessitate a re-evaluation that extends outside the confines of Kermode’s details of the typical process of interpretation.

Rampersad, Arnold. Ralph Ellison: A Biography. New York: Vintage Books, 2007.


  1. This was imaginative, and you combined research with an interesting discussion of music, and a good reading of Ellison. So I like it, which I want to say before going into my main comment, which might sound negative, but is intended more as a way of fine-tuning your argument than denying it.

    What is the relationship between prose, poetry, and music? You're setting up a distinction between ordinary speech on the one hand and music on the other. That's not wholly wrong. But it's odd that you don't mention poetry, even though you *do* talk mostly about Barbee (who is more or less explicitly compared to Homer himself) *and* you talk about rhythm (which, more than rhymn, defines most English language poetry.

    It's also worth mentioning that Ellison was crazy about Elliot's poetry; Eliot was deeply influenced by Ezra Pound, who *typically* taught about poetry in musical terms.

    You see what I'm getting at? Your research and reading are both good, and your argument makes a great deal of sense *if* you can bring poetry somehow into the conversation.

  2. I think your approach using music is very interesting and creative. I think it could be a very good topic to dig deeper as it deals with a sense that usually isn't used much in reading. Your supporting quotes and reasons are all very well chosen and it seems you know the direction your are going.

    However, it may just be your outline, but towards the end, I kind of lost focus and didn't really know where where everything was going/how it was all related or summed up. I think your overall idea and concept are very good, with careful planning and execution I think you will have a great final project.