IASPM day 3 – Keynote: Bruce Johnson

Corny image of a 1920s jazz band

Keynote: Bruce Johnson (Macquarie University, Australia): No Cogitation without Representation: gesture and cognition in early jazz.
One of the problems in exploring early popular musics is the dearth of direct documentation of largely unscored musical performances. The earliest documents of jazz for example were refracted through press reviews, low fidelity recordings, staged photographs and silent films, and in its crucial diasporic forms even this evidence was sparse to non-existent. This paper explores ways of engaging with early popular musics through its surviving, and often silent, representations. In doing so it ‘challenges orthodoxies’ about the relationship between musical cognition, its performance representations and its larger cultural contexts. It will review still and cinematic representations of jazz through the 1920s and into the 1930s, with particular attention to the Australian situation, and suggest that performance gesture might well be more of a key to understanding the larger ‘cognitive ecology’ of popular music than the idea of ‘representations’ usually implies. The paper suggests that all those corny 1920s images of jazz bands may be read not as representations of a form of music, but as integrated components of musical cognition, and as such provide a template for the analysis of the performance mannerisms of all popular music.

With apologies to Bruce for missing the start (an incident with a bus driver), I will not try to summarise the paper itself, but from what I could glean from the excellent second half and from the questioning, the abstract summarises his approach effectively. If he publishes this work I’ll update this post with a link to the document.

During the questions, Bruce came up with a wonderful truism that I will share here (paraphrased as accurately as I can remember); “as academics, sometimes we nuance our arguments so finely that we are in danger of not saying anything.” I agree wholeheartedly[1].

[1] Some scholars (Yewont Chekit et al, 1946) have expressed an alternative view. In this context, I use ‘wholeheartedly’ to describe the heart in quasi-metaphorical terms, the extent of its ‘wholeness’ being subject to conjecture depending on one’s own cultural perspective. indeed, even a monocultural interpretation of the extant wholeness can never be fully representative of the collective hermeneutic view expressed by the culture, because the definition of the monoculture itself must always be contextualised historically, geographically and ethnographically. More work is needed in this area.

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