Is Our DNA Our Identity?

Pocahontas, 1992.40

Engraving of Pocahontas (1595-1617).

The question of whether one’s innate identity is determined by DNA has come up recently in the feud between Senator Elizabeth Warren and President Trump about whether or not Warren has Native American ancestry. Trump, as you may know, has mockingly referred to Warren as “Pocahontas.” Warren had her DNA tested and published the results, which show that she had a Native American ancestor between six and ten generations ago.

Does this make Warren an Indian?

Chuck-Hoskin-Jr

According to Chuck Hoskin (above), the Secretary of State of the Cherokee Nation (like other Native tribes, a sovereign nation within U.S. territory), no.

“A DNA test is useless to determine tribal citizenship. Current DNA tests do not even distinguish whether a person’s ancestors were indigenous to North or South America,” Cherokee Nation Secretary of State Chuck Hoskin Jr. said. “Sovereign tribal nations set their own legal requirements for citizenship, and while DNA tests can be used to determine lineage, such as paternity to an individual, it is not evidence for tribal affiliation. Using a DNA test to lay claim to any connection to the Cherokee Nation or any tribal nation, even vaguely, is inappropriate and wrong. It makes a mockery out of DNA tests and its legitimate uses while also dishonoring legitimate tribal governments and their citizens, whose ancestors are well documented and whose heritage is proven. Senator Warren is undermining tribal interests with her continued claims of tribal heritage.”

What does this argument have to do with our understanding of music?

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When Antonín Dvořák came to America in 1892, he did so on the invitation of the wealthy arts patroness Jeannette Thurber (above) — who, by the way, was born not far from here, in Delhi, NY — to lead the new National Conservatory of Music in New York City. It was hoped that he would train American composers to develop a national style of music. Soon after he arrived, Dvořák told the New York Herald in an interview:

In the Negro melodies of America I discover all that is needed for a great and noble school of music. They are pathétic, tender, passionate, melancholy, solemn, religious, bold, merry, gay or what you will. It is music that suits itself to any mood or purpose. There is nothing in the whole range of composition that cannot be supplied with themes from this source. The American musician understands these tunes and they move sentiment in him.

In an unprecedented move, Dvořák welcomed black and female composition students into his classes. Among his students were violinist and composer Will Marion Cook, who had studied with Brahms’s great friend Joseph Joachim in Berlin, and singer and composer Harry T. Burleigh.

“A Negro Sermon,” an art song by Cook.

“Lovely Dark and Lonely One,” an art song by Burleigh.

Harry T. Burleigh’s song “The Young Warrior,” a setting of a poem by James Weldon Johnson, was translated into Italian and sung by the Italian army as they marched into battle During World War I.

Mother, shed no mournful tears,
But gird me on my sword;
And give no utterance to thy fears,
But bless me with thy word.

The lines are drawn! The fight is on!
A cause is to be won!
Mother, look not so white and wan;
Give Godspeed to thy son.

Now let thine eyes my way pursue
Where’er my footsteps fare;
And when they lead beyond thy view,
Send after me a prayer.

But pray not to defend from harm,
Nor danger to dispel;
Pray, rather, that with steadfast arm
I fight the battle well.

Pray, mother of mine, that I always keep
My heart and purpose strong,
My sword unsullied and ready to leap
Unsheathed against the wrong.

While Dvořák’s Symphony no. 9 in in E minor, “From the New World,” was not actually based on spirituals, the famous second movement largo sounded like a spiritual, and later “became” a sort of spiritual in the popular imagination.

Dvořák’s great success in America inspired other composers to take advantage of “Negro melodies.” In the early years of the twentieth century, white American and European composers came out with pieces with such titles as “Negro Folk Symphony” (William Dawson), “Rapsodie nègre” (French composer Francis Poulenc), and “Negro Suite” (Danish composer Thorvald Otterstrom).

The question one might ask about these composers and their work is: were they writing these pieces in a spirit of fellowship? or one of exploitation?

One of the strangest and most egregious examples of a white composer writing in the black style is John Powell’s “Rhapsodie Nègre.”

John Powell was a Virginia-born, Vienna-trained pianist and composer who promoted American folk music. He was also a white supremacist who helped to draft Viriginia’s “Racial Integrity Act,” also known as the “one-drop rule” — which legally classified anyone with any amount of African ancestry as black, and hence subject to Jim Crow.

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As a music historian with a particular interest in these things, it’s hard not to view Senator Warren’s insistence on an Indian identity, based on her DNA test results, as (unintentionally) evocative of the efforts and beliefs of figures like John Powell.

And what about this? In 2013, an Afrofunk band, Shokazoba, was booked to play at the elite Hampshire College in western Massachusetts. The gig was cancelled, however, when it was found out that many of the band members were white.

What is identity? How is it expressed in music? How should it be expressed?

Intersectionality, part I: Julius Eastman

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Julius Eastman rehearsing Peter Maxwell Davies’s Eight Songs for a Mad King.

In the past few years there has been a great deal of interest in the music of composer and performer Julius Eastman (1940-1990). Recent concerts and exhibitions of his work have been held in New York, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles, recordings of his music have been released, and a book of scholarly essays on Eastman, Gay Guerrilla, is currently #32 in classical music biographies on Amazon (you can find a review of the book and of some of these recordings, “Bad Boy from Buffalo,” in your course reading packet).

Julius Eastman grew up in this area, first in Syracuse and later in Ithaca, and studied  piano and composition at the prestigious Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. He was also a profoundly gifted singer, who

by 1970 [became] an underground hero, thanks to his electrifying performance as King George III in Peter Maxwell Davies’s music theater piece Eight Songs for a Mad King. Imposing in his royal brocaded gown and furred cap, he created an astonishing impression of delirium, using his five-octave range to produce a clamor of squawks, cackles, roars, and cries. Eastman toured the piece throughout Europe and was nominated for a Grammy for the recording.

Listen to that performance here:

Eastman was a gay man, and both his blackness and gayness figured large in his music. He gave his compositions titles like Crazy N*gger, N*gger F*ggot, and Evil N*gger. He declared: “What I am trying to achieve is to be what I am to the fullest: Black to the fullest, a musician to the fullest, a homosexual to the fullest.”

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Listen to Evil N*gger, for four pianos, here:

In addition to these identities, it is very possible that Eastman was autistic as well. His mother told an interviewer in 2006 that

Julius was a different kind of baby . . . he didn’t like to be touched. Most babies want to be bounced, but you had to put Julius down. He didn’t want to be held. When he was about two years old, I used to read him stories, and, while standing in his crib, he would repeat the story word for word. So I knew right away there was something special going on.

The precocious word-for-word repetition little Julius exhibited is known as echolalia, and, combined with his sensory defensiveness, he would most likely have gotten an autism diagnosis were he a toddler today.

The cradle for Eastman’s vast and far-reaching creativity was the music department at the State University of New York at Buffalo, legendary for its commitment to emerging and avant-garde music genres. In the 1970s, SUNY-Buffalo nurtured and sponsored the great new-music group the SEM Ensemble, with which Eastman frequently performed.

One performance he gave with SEM of John Cage’s Song Books, a semi-directed group improvisation, enraged the composer, who was in attendance. (For background on John Cage, browse over to this post and this post.) Eastman chose, in his solo, to give a sexually explicit lecture, which he believed was in accord with Cage’s instructions:

In a situation provided with maximum amplification (no feedback), perform a disciplined action, with any interruptions, fulfilling in whole, or in part, an obligation to others.

As Marke B. describes the performance in A Song Books Showdown:

It was clear from his first words that there would be a little juice poured into Cage’s austere, Zen blend of indeterminacy and transcendence-of-self. For some music historians, this was a night that intersectionality and identity politics officially breached the avant-garde: “Eastman’s performance that day may have constituted an intersectional testing of the limits of his membership – or, in American racial parlance, his ‘place’ – in the experimental scene,” writes George E. Lewis, professor of American music at Columbia University . . .

Over the next 14 minutes, Eastman delivered a bizarre lecture that focused on the erotic, but played on and exploded notions about race, colonialism and sexuality. . . . He invited [a] couple onstage with him to strip – the man ended up naked, the woman only partially so due to embarrassment. . . He joked that he chose members of two [different] races because he wanted “to show the best of both worlds.”. . . All the while, his voice growing more theatrical as his fellow ensemble members began singing and playing eery electronics, Eastman was camping things up, to the delight of the audience. He wrapped his leg around his male “specimen” and puckered his mouth with his fingers. “Julius only managed to get the man undressed,” recalled S.E.M. founder and director Petr Kotik, “and being an outspoken homosexual, he was making all sorts of ‘achs!’ and ‘ahs’ as he was pulling his pants down.” A review by Jeff Simons in the Buffalo Evening News said, “By the time Eastman’s little performance was finished, Mr. Charles was completely undressed, and Eastman’s leering, libidinous, lecture-performance had everyone convulsed [in laughter] with the burlesque broadness of his homoerotic satire.”

John Cage, however, was furious, and he asked Eastman to refrain from performing this work in the future.

This raises the questions:

  • Once a work has been composed, to whom does it belong?
  • Does the composer of a piece of music as freely structured as John Cage’s Song Books have the right to dictate the performers’ choices?
  • Was Julius Eastman’s outspoken and outrageous gay aesthetic an affront to the restrained, abstract, zen-influenced aesthetic of John Cage (who was also openly gay)?
  • Does race play a part in these different constructions of gay identity? In other words, was John Cage, as a white gay man, offended by Julius Eastman’s black gayness?

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cage directions

Two pages from Song Books by John Cage.

Because of creative differences and personal difficulties, he later resigned from the faculty of SUNY-Buffalo and moved to New York to work as a freelancer. There, he descended into mental illness, addiction, and homelessness, and he went back to Buffalo, where he died at the age of 49 of heart failure. During his dark last days, he told a fellow composer that

the music he had made reflected an ‘inconsistent period,’ best forgotten, and it nearly was. When Eastman died, only a few recordings of his powerful singing were available, and none of his compositions.

As it turned out, there were Eastman recordings, some stored in university libraries, others hidden away in private collections. . . Thanks in large part to [composer Mary Jane] Leach’s archival work, Eastman is now lionized in the art world and academia as a visionary practitioner of “intersectionality,” a queer black saint like James Baldwin.

Adam Shatz has written further of Eastman:

Those who knew [him] well all speak of this waste of potential, the fact that he succumbed to his demons and drifted away—of his own volition—from what was a very promising career. This is a story of refusal of society’s categories, and there’s something brave and daring about it. But it’s also a story of fragility, deterioration, addiction, and, perhaps, of mental illness. Part of Eastman’s difficulty, to be sure, was that the avant-garde, particularly in classical music, was always defined as always already not-black, as the cultural theorist Fred Moten has argued. But this was not Eastman’s only source of difficulty. . .  to define [oneself], to find [one’s voice], and to move from thought to expression . . . is a struggle for all of us, not just artists. And in this, let us remember that, as Cecil Taylor beautifully put it, people are all, at some level, dark to themselves.

An excerpt of a different section of Song Books, performed by the SEM Ensemble with Julius Eastman: