Digital Humanities and the Ellington Effect

Posted in: digital humanities  collaboration  sound studies  audio 
Crossposted to the Scholars' Lab blog.

I’ve long admired Lisa Rhody’s post on what digital humanists can learn from improv comedy. Besides the excellent message that text conveys on collaboration (always ask how your contribution moves things forward), I always think of that piece as a model for how outside interests can inform the work that we do. For my own part, a lot of how I approach collaboration and digital humanities comes from the world of music. I’ve played in a variety of bands and musical contexts for at least twenty-five years, and my experience as a part of the Charlottesville jazz community especially has long shaped how I work with others. Jazz history is full of lessons for the prospective DHer (or really for any field).1 I’ll focus today on what digital humanists can learn about collaboration and leadership from one the music’s most prominent bandleaders–Duke Ellington.

Ellington’s long career as a director, composer, and arranger for jazz big band is a masterclass in how parts become a whole. Billy Strayhorn described the focus on individuals as integral to Ellington’s compositional approach: “Ellington plays the piano, but his real instrument is his band. Each member of his band is to him a distinctive tone color and set of emotions, which he mixes with others equally distinctive to produce a third thing, which I like to call the ‘Ellington Effect.’”2 The Ellington effect refers to the distinctive musical heights that can be achieved when catering to the unique capabilities of the musicians in the ensemble as individuals. That is to say, the term also refers to the inseparable link between person and performance. Ellington did not compose for musicians in the abstract. He had specific performers in mind from his regular group. He knew their strengths and weaknesses, and he developed music for their particular voices. A good example of this can be heard in “Concerto for Cootie”, a tune that features trumpeter Cootie Williams moving through a variety of different styles, including his characteristic growling plunger mute. I’ve played that piece, and it can’t help but feel like you’re doing an impression of someone else when you perform it.

To abstract the term outwards and draw lessons for DH, we might replace music with any kind of labor. Approaching work with the Ellington effect keeps attention on the specific people in the room. So many problems occur when working in the abstract rather than with the specific collaborators you actually have. We run up against unrealistic expectations for projects that balloon out of control. We exasperate collaborators and ourselves by making plans that can never fully come to fruition. Or our students might be left out in the cold, lost and confused because we don’t keep in mind how their backgrounds, experiences, or training affect their learning. An approach to digital work informed by the Ellington effect keeps expectations aligned with reality by focusing back on the people at play. The following questions might help guide this person-oriented approach to DH in mind:

  • Who is in the room?
  • Who is not?
  • What can they do?
  • What can they not do?
  • What do you expect of them?
  • Do your expectations line up with those realities?
  • How can you reorient your expectations to meet reality?

We can go further though. After all, Ellington’s prowess was not just in getting people successfully through a piece of music. The Ellington effect referred specifically to his ability to direct the unique characteristics of individuals in the creation of art, where the whole exceeds the sum of its parts. This principle thinks about individuation as a superpower. Our teammates, supervisees, our students: these people have limits, but they also have possibilities. Careful work to cultivate their skills as individuals can be a means by which the project, the team, or the classroom grow in ways that exceed our own expectations. Collaboration might become art. Some further questions to dig deeper and aim higher:

  • What are our superpowers?
  • What about this work especially interests each of us?
  • What especially excites us outside of this work? How might that point towards unexpected expertise?
  • What are we capable of that no one else could do?
  • What different group arrangements do we have (pairs, triads), and how would each of those create a different, unique team?
  • What might our team name be?
  • What might our team song be?
  • How might all of this change the work to be done?

Intentional conversations about group and individual identity like these can lead research and teaching in new directions. That quiet student in the room with an outside interest in film might become easier to draw into conversation if you ask them to speak from that perspective when commenting on a text. That collaborator who has past experiences with life coaching will have a totally unique perspective to give on project design.

To my mind, there are obvious intersections between this approach to collaboration and care work. It’s long been a principle of the Scholars’ Lab to put people first over projects. Our student programs aim to teach the whole person. The Ellington effect in this context refers as much to cultivating individual strengths and caring for weaknesses as it does to the need to make considered space for the lives of those persons. To put a finer point on it, I could imagine someone reading this post and thinking, “Ah this isn’t for me. I’m a professional. This feels too personal. I don’t want to bring my own life into my work, let alone the lives of the people I work with.” Fair enough. This approach to collaboration does bring with it challenges. But I will close by noting that the line between the personal and the professional is often an illusion that reinforces systemic inequalities. Not everyone can so easily draw a boundary between the different parts of their lived experiences. The student grappling with food or housing insecurity cannot help but have it affect their work. The staff person on term-limited, contract employment cannot help but feel the weight of that precarious position intersect with their contributions to the team. The grieving coworker might not be able to work as much as normal. In this sense, I see the person-oriented approach embodied by the Ellington effect as a recognition of reality. The lives in the room might be difficult to reckon with but ignoring them will not make things easier. Intentionally engaging your collaborators as individuals can help to address challenges early, before they fester, and give space for everyone to sing.

  1. There are plenty of negative examples too. Probably not a good idea to throw cymbals at your collaborators

  2. This interview can be found online, though the site is a transcription of Nat Shapiro and Nat Hentoff, Hear Me Talkin’ To Ya: The Story of Jazz as Told by the Men Who Made It. Rinehart & Co., 1955.