Vocal Deformance and Performative Speech, or In Different Voices!


**This post was co-authored by Marit J. MacArthur and Lee M. Miller

Like it or not, we are now accustomed to contemporary pop vocalists manipulating their voices using Autotune and other tools or effects for pitch correction.  We may exult in it, and congratulate ourselves on our sophisticated appreciation of the options available to the contemporary vocalist. In another mood, we may scream for low-fi and acoustic music, feel cynical about the possibility that we might ever hear an unmediated voice, live or recorded (if we ever did), and/or laugh off the notion of authenticity in performance entirely. Of course, rather than tricking the audience or trying to sound somehow “better” than they are, many performers manipulate their voices to pose questions about the nature of performance—Reggie Watts and Anna Deavere Smith come readily to mind—and to test essentialist assumptions about and perceptions of voice and sound.

Watts, in an exemplary 2012 TED Talk, plays with the different sorts of authority and affect conveyed by, among other voices: upper-class-British-absurd-explanatory, affectively-meaningful-nonsense-foreign-language, and caz-hip-hop-introducing-a-song-chat. Inhabiting and playing with different voices, he amuses listeners into recognizing how much intonation—the rise and fall of pitch—and other acoustic features affect our perception of a speaker’s voice, and how much we expect people to speak in ways that match our assumptions about their identities.

t-sWe cannot all be so talented at vocal imitation, however. And in sound, voice and performance studies concerned with speech, machine-assisted manipulation of vocal recordings—which we term “vocal deformance”—is much less common than in the creative industries. A playful approach to vocal deformance, as a critical and creative practice, has much to teach us about our perceptions of speech in general, and performative speech in particular. Too often, when we use archival poetry recordings in our teaching, they may reify an idea that students are often loathe to relinquish: a poem is a finished art object, weighted with authorial intention and biographical significance, with one possible interpretation (the instructor’s). When we play a single canonical recording of T.S. Eliot reading The Waste Land in 1946, for instance, his particular intonation, together with assumptions that he was a stuffy, overeducated, repressed snob, can foreclose the possibility of a fresh encounter with the many voices of the poem and a multitude of interpretations.

Using vocal deformance in the classroom and in our own research and scholarship, we can unsettle overdetermined readings of poems, essentialist assumptions about the poets who speak them and questions of poetic authority, and recover the crucial oral components of poetry. Below we offer some examples of vocal deformance of poetry readings, and consider the potential and limits of this technique for teaching and research with recordings of performative speech. As John Hyland wrote in Sounding Out! in 2014, “The act of listening to recorded poetry … poses particular analytic challenges, which become more complex when the politics of identity are brought to bear on … questions of voice and poetry.” Among these challenges are essentialist assumptions, both about identity and recording medium,  which are difficult to avoid when we listen. Hyland concludes that, when we listen to recordings, “the poet’s voice falsely takes on an authoritative ‘aura,’ as Walter Benjamin used that word”; one way to counter to this is to listen to the same poem read by the poet at different points in their career, in different contexts, as Hyland does with three recordings of Amiri Baraka’s “Black Dada Nihilismus.” Another approach is to play with recordings.


"Glitch" by Ray Weitzenberg, Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

“Glitch” by Ray Weitzenberg, Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)


The concept of deformance dates to a 1999 essay by Jerome McGann and Lisa Samuels. They take inspiration from Emily Dickinson, who sometimes liked to read poems backward, for the potential insights of reading against the form, scrambling the original sequence, and so on. According to McGann and Samuels, Dickinson’s

critical model is performative, not intellectual [. . . ]. it is anti-theoretical: not because it is opposed to theory (i.e., speculative thought), but because it places theory in a subordinated relation to practice. Deformative moves reinvestigate the terms … [of] critical commentary [, with] dramatic exposure of subjectivity as a live and highly informative option of interpretive commentary, if not indeed one of its essential features. [our italics]

Too often in the literature class room, the subjectivity of interpretation is something of a problem. While we might initially encourage a somewhat fluffy reader-response discussion of a poem, eventually we might also worry that students are simply wandering too far from it, following their own random associations with a phrase or metaphor, without learning to parse the rich intricacy of the whole poem. One effect of vocal deformance is that it makes space for the playful response, and also keeps bringing students back to the telling phrase, to the words of the poem, imagining what difference it makes if they are said in different ways, trying on different interpretations, as it were.

While vocal deformance can be applied to any performative speech, it particularly lends itself to poetry recordings. Poetry is, of course, an oral form with a fraught relationship between text and performance, and poetry reading styles are often perceived to be highly conventional, so that we feel we are listening to a Poem rather than a particular poem. From a literary and performance studies perspective, what could be more tiredly familiar than a canonical recording of a canonical poem by a canonical poet in a conventional style of poetry reading that deadens the audience to the charms and nuances of that poem? And how can we do something productive and interesting with the (sometimes extremely) idiosyncratic subjectivity of student responses to canonical texts?

As an interpretive practice, vocal deformance opens up new possibilities for testing assumptions about performance, poetic authority and gender, and, potentially, about race, class, education, region, and canonicity. Is The Waste Land (1922) the deadly serious poem that many readers often take it to be, partly because it is presented to them as an immensely influential Modernist monolith? How does T.S. Eliot’s seemingly grim reading of it, and our perception of his style, contribute to such an interpretation of the poem? After all, the working title of the poem was “He Do the Police in Different Voices,” from Charles Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend (1864-65), and it includes many different voices or speakers, from the clairvoyant Madame Sosistris to Tiresias. What better way to defamiliarize and exploit the authority of the poem than to deform Eliot’s authoritative reading voice?

How do we respond to the now-canonical voice of Eliot reading the opening lines of The Waste Land, “April is the cruellest month, breeding / lilacs out of the dead land”?


Okay. Now what if we raise his pitch? Is he suddenly his own great-aunt? What does the same lament mean, spoken by a voice that sounds like an elderly woman?


And if we leave his pitch alone, but speed up his speaking rate, does he suddenly sound like an old-school radio announcer, the poem a deranged weather forecast?


Glitch Decoration GIF Glitch animation made for a glitch sound effect. Based on cc0/pd commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Glitch_video.ogg, Licensed under CC-BY-SA 3.

Glitch Decoration GIF, Licensed under CC-BY-SA 3.

In terms of digital humanities research, a refreshing aspect of vocal deformance is that it avoids some of the easy and misleading reassurances of the empirical move. It’s not that it only clarifies what we thought we were hearing (as visualizing intonation through pitch contours can), but that it encourages multiplicity in listening.

Vocal deformance is essentially a playful strategy for defamiliarization that reminds us, in many ways, of the subjective, creative, even arbitrary nature of interpretation. In this, it has clear affinities with the OULIPO movement (which Dickinson’s practice of reading backwards presages). It may help us imagine, create and respond to alternative sequences and versions of recorded canonical texts—and to any apparently stable, singular performance of a text. The art of the glitch is one deformative practice, with the goal countering screen essentialism, the unreflective assumption that a digital artefact is immutable, stable and coherent. For an example of glitching photographs, see Trevor Owens’s “Glitching Files for Understanding: Avoiding Screen Essentialism in Three Easy Steps,” and Michael Kramer’s blog post about using audio deformance in a digital folk music history seminar at Northwestern University, “Distorting History to Make It More Accurate,” which demonstrates some potential insights gained by glitching newspaper images, photographs and music (Bob Dylan’s “Tangled Up in Blue”).  John Melillo and Johanna Skibsrud’s “Two Sides for Wallace Stevens,” on Harvard’s Woodberry Poetry Room site, also offers a beguiling example of audio deformance.

Most deformative practices work with text and image, however, and the few that manipulate recordings introduce noise, skipped phrases, repetition, etc., usually without changing the acoustic features of the voice. It is well worth applying deformance more often to speech, not only in linguistics and the neurobiology of speech perception, but in humanistic study of performative speech because our perception of speech is nothing if not subjective, not to say mysterious, for two reasons.

First, our expectations of what we will hear influence what we do hear, from simple sounds to complex language comprehension. Often these expectations, which can be visual, auditory, cultural, etc., have been naturalized by the listener over time as unconscious reactions. Though many have anecdotal experience of this phenomenon (see an example about a black student, a white teacher, and a black student-teacher disagreeing on what the student said in a 2012 Sounding Out! piece by Christina Sharpe), it is has been demonstrated in many experiments as well. For instance, our perception of foreign-accented speech changes rapidly as we hear a few sentences and calibrate our internal expectations, as shown by Clarke and Garret’s 2004 study “Rapid Adaptation to Foreign-accented English.” And, according to Richard Warren’s “Perceptural Restoration of Missing Speech Sounds” (1970), “when natural speech is interrupted by noisy gaps like a cough or a slammed door, we unknowingly “fill in” the noise, vividly hearing speech sounds that do not exist acoustically. This phenomenon arises both from linguistic expectations as well as our deep familiarity with basic speech acoustics, as shown in Shahin, Bishop, and Miller’s “Neural mechanisms for illusory filling-in of degraded speech.” Similarly, in an illusion called the McGurk effect—noted by Harry McGurk and John MacDonald in 1976—just seeing a talker’s lip movements changes the perception of speech sounds categorically, say from “buck” to “duck.”

Though much of this reshaping of our acoustic perception happens unconsciously, we can also profoundly alter what we hear through selective attention. Particularly in everyday acoustic environments, we hear speech better when we expect it, and when it matches our specific expectations: from a given location, from a certain talker or type of talker, at a certain pitch, and so on (See “Speech Recognition in Adverse Conditions: A Review” by Mattys, Davis, et al. 2012).  Perceptual filters fundamentally constrain our experience: if we attend to a talker in one ear, we may not even realize when a second talker in the other ear switches from English to German, as Cherry concluded in “Some Experiments on the Recognition of Speech” in 1953.  Social and cultural knowledge also changes what we hear. Listening to someone whom a listener visually perceives as a “non-native speaker” can make speech sound not only more “accented” (see Donald Rubin’s “Nonlanguage Factors Affecting S Judgments of Nonnative English-Speaking Teaching Assistants” from 1992)—what we might call a subjective quality—but, as Molly Babel and Jamie Russell found in 2015’s “Expectations and Speech Intelligibility,” it can also trigger speech processing reactions that make the speech less intelligible to the listener making visual judgments regarding accented speech.

Waveform from a sine wave composition, "Wave Hello to Outsiders." Rendered in Adobe Audition.

Waveform from a sine wave composition, “Wave Hello to Outsiders.” Rendered in Adobe Audition by Matthew Potter. Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

Given what we know about the brain, the fact that expectations affect perception—of recorded voices reading poems, in this case—should not come as a surprise. A growing consensus holds that the brain’s job is not merely to represent the world; rather it strives to predict the world, make inferences about it, and  correct those expectations whenever a mismatch is detected (see Knill and Pouget’s “The Bayesian brain: the role of uncertainty in neural coding and computation” [2004] and Karl Friston’s 2010 “The free-energy principle: a unified brain theory?”) In somewhat familiar environments and situations (pretty much everything after infancy), predictive inference is far more efficient than continually rendering the perceptual world de novo. This means that vocal deformance—particularly when it manipulates a known voice, as with canonical poets, or a familiar way of speaking, as with conventional poetry reading styles—waves a red flag at the brain. Change wakes up the quiescent, habitual brain to something new and potentially informative, because the voice does not fit our expectations for what the person would or should sound like. Listen to Reggie Watts!

This effect can also operate inversely; that is, if we do not expect someone to have a particular voice, we may adjust the stories we tell ourselves about our perceptions, to better match our expectations. In musicology, we might think of Nina Eidsheim’s article on the racialized reception of opera singer Marian Anderson, the first African American to sing at New York’s Metropolitan Opera:

the timbre of her voice has routinely (if often admiringly) been characterized as ‘black,’ … [despite] classical music’s minimal indulgence of individual style … this distinction [has] to be based on an assumption that the black body is intrinsically different from the white body and that even when emitting a timbre recognized as classical, the resonance of a singer’s black body is evident (3, 4).

Certainly, as Jennifer Stoever writes, “listening [is] an interpretive site where racial difference is coded, produced, and policed” (62). The same is true of gender difference and many other identity markers and cultural factors related to authority and authenticity. As Shai Burstyn notes in the article “In Quest of the Period Ear,” about attempts to imagine how contemporary audiences experienced medieval music, “culture plays a highly significant—though not exclusive—role in shaping the cognitive skills of its members” (695).  If it is remarkably difficult to escape our stereotypical expectations and perceptions of what a person’s voice “should” sound like, that is partly because our brain uses such expectations to make predictions about our sonic experience. We cannot overcome our expectations through good will alone, and engaging with these issues in the classroom, which can be challenging, also provides an opportunity to help students think critically about essentialism and voice, for those moments when a student in the back of the room mutters in surprise that Langston Hughes “doesn’t sound black,” or exclaims that Walt Whitman “doesn’t sound gay.” Though it is not designed to assess stereotyping in speech perception, the Harvard implicit bias test is a good way to engage students in questions of cultural bias and perception [also, see “So You Flunked a Racism Test. Now What?”].

Furthermore, our affective responses to acoustic, non-verbal qualities of speech matter tremendously to our interpretation of verbal semantics, of the meaning of the words spoken. According to voice perception research in Foundations of Voice Studies: An Interdisciplinary Approach to Voice Production and Perception by Jody Kreiman and Diana Sidtis, when we listen to speech, “[s]ome authors … have claimed that normal adults usually believe the tone of voice rather than the words…. For example, the contrast in ‘I feel just fine’ spoken in a tense, tentative tone might be politely ignored, while, ‘I’m not angry’ spoken in hot anger would not” (304). The teacher’s boring tone of voice on the Peanuts cartoon makes the point.

In other words, we pick up on the affective meaning of a speaker’s tone of voice, and weigh it against the semantic meaning of the words spoken. While Kreiman and Sidtis argue that tone cannot be reduced to intonation patterns, “the fundamental frequency of the human voice [pitch] … heads the list of important cues for emotional meanings” (311). Pitch manipulation, then, changes the affective meaning of speech. Tone of voice is also influenced by other acoustic features, including speaking rate or tempo, and rhythm. In poetry recordings, the poet’s tone of voice influences the listener’s interpretation of a poem.

Two fundamental intonation patterns are rising or falling pitch. In American English, relatively high or relatively low pitch at the end of an utterance, compared to the beginning and middle, seems to carry distinct meanings, as demonstrated by Janet Pierrehumbert and Julia Hirschberg. They developed the ToBI (Tones and Break Indices) system for marking the prosody or intonation of speech. Rising intonation can make any utterance sound like a question, whether it is one or not. A relatively high pitch at the end of an utterance—called a high boundary tone—can make the speaker sound less confident or assertive, and more open to other’s opinions. Rising intonation implies that more is to come, that the utterance is not conclusive or concluded, that it should be understood in connection to the next utterance, and sometimes, that the speaker seeks the listener’s agreement before proceeding.

Uptalk, notably practiced among Generation Xers and now millennials, sounds conciliatory, agreeable and open, on the one hand, and lacking in confidence and authority, on the other—depending on the listener and the context. Marybeth Seitz-Brown argues that criticizing uptalk “implies that if women just spoke like men, our ideas would be valuable … [and] sexist listeners would magically understand us, and we would be taken seriously. But the problem is not with feminized qualities, of speech or otherwise, the problem is that our culture pathologizes feminine traits as something to be ashamed of or apologize for.”

Conversely, women can be criticized when they sound too much like men; see “Why Do So Many People Hate the Sound of Hillary Clinton’s Voice?” Falling intonation—and ending an utterance on a relatively low pitch, or a low boundary tone, implies conclusion, closure and confidence. The utterance, such intonation implies, finishes the argument (if there is one), does not seek the listener’s agreement or opinion, and suggests that this utterance can be understood on its own, without connection to subsequent utterances. Donald Trump, for example, is fond of falling intonation and low boundary tones (for a parody of masculine confident declarative intonation, have a listen at Troy McClure from The Simpsons.)

Of course, not all women use uptalk, and not all men use falling intonation with low boundary tones. In American culture, for better or worse, low boundary tones do seem to carry a tone of authority. And in poetry reading as well. Eliot’s original, and now canonical, reading of the opening line of The Waste Land, “April is the cruellest month,” uses falling intonation, so that it sounds like a confident assertion, with a low boundary tone on “month.”


Click on the image to enlarge the pitch contour graph showing Eliot’s low boundary tone.


“[B]reeding / lilacs out of the dead land” sounds like a steady, inevitable process, ending on a slightly higher relative pitch, implying that there is more to come, and that the phrase should be understood in connection to the next line, “mixing / Memory and desire, stirring / Dull roots with spring rain.”

What is so compelling and seemingly authoritative about Eliot’s reading style? In some basic sense, the falling intonation of the first phrase does it. Why does it strike many contemporary listeners as pompous? How might we undercut the seeming authority of the Eliotic voice? Make him do uptalk. Here we have simply inverted his intonation.


Click on the image to enlarge the pitch contour graph of Eliot’s voice “flipped.”


Suddenly he sounds doubtful. The opening line becomes a question—“April is the cruellest month[?]”—instead of a confident statement. Suddenly, Eliot himself expresses the skepticism or confusion many an undergraduate has felt—before we encountered this poem, did we not assume that spring, the return of life and fertility, is a cheerful escape from winter? And his deformed recital of “breeding / Lilacs out the dead land” suddenly sounds more like an agonized complaint, expressing the painful, reluctant awakening of desire in one who had found the dull sleep of winter comforting. Inverting the typical poetic authority of falling intonation into uptalk may embolden readers to entertain very different readings of the poem’s opening.

The editors of Poetry Archive had hopes of stimulating listeners of The Waste Land when they made available a 1935 recording of the poem, claiming: “Whilst the sound quality is understandably not so good, the recording is fascinating for Eliot’s faster, more energetic rendition. Listening to this urgent interpretation blows the dust of this iconic poem and helps us encounter it afresh.” However, if the fundamental falling intonation pattern of Eliot’s reading style doesn’t change—and overall, it doesn’t, between the 1935 and 1946 recordings—his voice may remain, for listeners, an aloof poetic authority.

Adrienne Rich reading her poetry

Adrienne Rich reading her poetry

Falling intonation with low boundary tones, then, is a fundental tone of poetic authority. Listen to Adrienne Rich reading from her poem, “What Kind of Times Are These” (1995), which leads the reader to a place “between two stands of trees … near … [where] the persecuted / … disappeared into the shadows.” She insists, “this isn’t a Russian poem, this is not somewhere else but here,” and concludes,  “to have you listen at all it’s necessary / to talk about trees.”


Click here to enlarge the pitch contour graph of Rich’s “original” reading


She sounds like she means it. Rich has to write poems about nature, her tone implies, to wake people up to the political horrors of the American past and present. Poetry as a form, in pastoral guise, allows her to sneak in political content, potentially grabbing the attention of people who might only listen to poetry if they think it is safely, simply about nature. (Click here to hear the entire poem, starting at 4:01.)

When we invert her intonation, turning it into uptalk, she sounds as if she is questioning the wisdom of this approach, and/or chiding her listeners for making her take it. In this case, uptalk exerts a different kind of authority, the challenging question.


Click image to enlarge the pitch contour graph of Rich’s voice “flipped.”


Is it ethical to manipulate the intonation and other vocal qualities on poetry recordings, for the purposes of teaching and research? Obviously it would not be, if we were to present the manipulated recordings as the authentic voice of a poet. And all peoples have the right to protect culturally sensitive recordings, such as sacred songs, music, dances and prayers; see “Native American Intellectual Property Issues.” Otherwise, potential conflicts are similar to those with sampling in the music industry (See Kembrew McLeod and Peter DiCola’s Creative License: The Law and Culture of Digital Sampling [2011]). Vocal deformance, however, can help remind us that no single reading of a poem, by the poet or someone else, is the ultimately authoritative one.

Photograph of Auden speaking at the Boston Sheraton Hotel, with Professor John L. Mahoney sitting on stage, February 23, 1966, Box 60, Folder 9, Francis W. Sweeney, SJ, Humanities Series Director's Records, MS2002-37, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

Photograph of Auden speaking at the Boston Sheraton Hotel, February 23, 1966, Box 60, Folder 9, Francis W. Sweeney, SJ, Humanities Series Director’s Records, MS2002-37, John J. Burns Library, Boston College. Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

In teaching writing, we (the authors) sometimes ask our students to explore alternative methods of presenting the same material. This can be as simple as writing the same sentence, the thesis for instance, in three different ways, or it can involve a different format. Write a poem, record oneself reading it, then try to represent it with a collage of images. Turn a 2,000-word essay into a 250-word presentation with verbal and sonic components. An instructive trick with the opening line of W.H. Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts” (1940): “About suffering they were never wrong, the Old Masters.” They were never wrong, the Old Masters, about suffering. The Old Masters were never wrong about suffering. Each version of the opening creates a subtly different emphasis, on suffering versus the wisdom of the Old Masters.

Too often, we lock ourselves into one approach, and cannot imagine an alternative. Locked into one approach, too often we cannot imagine an alternative. Alternatives we cannot imagine, if we lock into one approach too quickly. Writing three different opening paragraphs to the same essay, or rearranging the lines of the poem, stimulates our imagination and our critical faculties because it dramatizes different possibilities, possibilities that offer a different emphasis. And when we play with the pitch, intonation and speaking rate of a poem, this can change the tone as dramatically, from a challenge to confession, or an assertion into doubt.

In the classroom, poet Harryette Mullen is often popular with students, both for her poems on the page and for her expressive reading style, while students can sometimes resist recordings by Adrienne Rich (saying that she sounds lecture-y) and Louise Glück (saying that she sounds bored by her own poems), even as they are engaged by the poems on the page.

When Mullen reads “Present Tense” (2002)—a beguiling comical poem, loosely about the grammatical present and the speaker’s and the world’s present circumstances —what is it about her contrastive intonation that sounds expressive? She ends her opening phrases, “Now that my ears are connected to a random answer machine” with rising intonation and high boundary tones. This draws the reader on: keep listening, the statement’s not finished.


Click image to enlarge the pitch contour graph of Mullen’s reading


When we flip the intonation pattern, so that each utterance ends on a relatively low pitch, she sounds more conventional, a poetic authority declaring observations, confident and closed off.


Click image to enlarge the pitch contour graph of Mullen’s reading “flipped”


Another tone of poetic authority approaches pure monotony. It was practiced by Alfred Lord Tennyson, Irish modernist poet W.B. Yeats and, perhaps through Yeats’s influence, by American poets such as Yvor Winters. Note how similar they sound here. Winters reads the opening of his poem “The Journey” (1931),  moving into a Yeatsian monotone after the title and location of Snake River Country, “I now remembered slowly how I came[.]”


Click here to enlarge the pitch contour graph of Winters reading “The Journey.”


Here is Yeats reading the opening of “The Lake Isle of Innisfree”: “I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree[.]”


Click image to enlarge the pitch contour graph of Yeats reading “The Isle of Innisfree”


All we have to do to turn Winters into Yeats is raise his pitch a bit:

Click here to enlarge the pitch contour graph of "Winters as Yeats."

Click image to enlarge the pitch contour graph of “Winters as Yeats.”


Monotone performance is—at least acoustically—quite uninformative for the brain. Early parts of the auditory brain rapidly adapt or habituate to a wide array of regularities such as pitch and temporal pattern, and they only signal when the pattern changes, as noted in “Early selective-attention effect on evoked potential reinterpreted” (Näätänen, Gaillard et al., 1978). But expectations can work differently across speech’s descriptive dimensions. When speech is usually vivid, as in a direct quotation (“He said ‘I’m leaving now”), higher-level voice-processing areas in the right temporal lobe actually work harder to process (unexpectedly) monotone quotes, according to Yao, Belin, et al.’s “Brain ‘talks over’ boring quotes: top-down activation of voice-selective areas while listening to monotonous direct speech quotations” (2012). In other words, sameness of pitch often means the brain must work harder to grasp meaning.

Interestingly, David Hadbawnik relates in Sounding Out! his disappointment with the productions of three audio recordings of three poetic specimens from Middle English created with SPARSAR, because “they produced monotone outputs that fail to account for prosody.” Vocal deformance might allow him to try to approximate Middle English prosody with the specimens.

MacArthur has written elsewhere about “poet voice,” which she also calls “monotonous incantation.” But how close are contemporary canonical poets to actual monotone, compared to Tennyson and Yeats? Here is Glück, whose reading style is often mentioned as an example of Poet Voice, reading the third stanza of “The Wild Iris” (1992): “It is terrible to survive / as consciousness / buried in the dark earth”:


Click image to enlarge the pitch contour graph of Glück reading “The Wild Iris.”


Not much manipulation is required to make it purely monotone, which may account for some students saying she sounds bored by her own poems—though they do not say that about Yeats. They say Yeats’s voice makes them feel like they are in church.


Click image to enlarge the pitch contour graph of Glück “flattened.”


Ideally, Glück’s manner of reading her poem should not prevent students from appreciating it. While in other contexts we may defend women’s use of uptalk, it also seems fair to raise the point that academic poetry reading can seem to discourage the expression of affect. (See Donald Hall’s well-known polemic, “The Poetry Reading: Public Performance / Private Art” (1985) and David Groff’s “The Peril of the Poetry Reading: Page Versus Performance” [2005].) Vocal deformance, among other strategies, might help students perceive as much drama in Glück’s poems as they do in Mullen’s—and find as much as poetic authority in both poets’ voices as they do in Yeats’s churchy one. Here, we’ve manipulated Glück’s voice to sound more like Mullen’s style of reading, with a wider pitch range and rising intonation and high boundary tones.


Click image to enlarge the pitch contour graph of Glück reading “expressively.”


If we want to explore alternatives to conventional modes of reading poetry, as many do, directly deforming the acoustic qualities of canonical recordings is an excellent way to defamiliarize performance conventions. Ideally, it can help us listen to alternate versions of the history of poetic performance and to different, unimagined possibilities in the present. Given the extraordinary vitality of spoken word and slam poetry outside the academy, it would be a missed opportunity to suppress varied reading styles in the classroom. At the same time, it would be a great shame to leave behind canonical American poetry when the poets’ reading styles fail to appeal to students.

Finally, if we want to liberate students from the anti-performative tendencies of academic culture, resist essentialist readings of poems according to our assumptions about the identities of the poets who wrote them, and dramatize the idea that there are many ways to read a poem, vocal deformance can help, alongside other strategies. As Yvon Bonenfant wrote in a 2014 Sounding Out! piece, “we are mostly neurotic, or otherwise hung up on, what kinds of sounds we make, where and when.”

Instead, let’s play in different voices.

NOTE: To illustrate vocal deformance, we used Straight, a state-of-the-art open-source voice synthesis program developed by Hideki Kawahara at Wakayama University in Japan, with the Advanced Telecommunications Research Institute and the Auditory Brain Project. We also used Drift, an open-source pitch-tracking tool that uses an algorithm developed by Byung Suk Lee and Dan Ellis, implemented by Robert Ochshorn and Max Hawkins  with support from MacArthur’s ACLS Digital Innovations Fellowship in 2015-16, to visualize intonation with pitch contours.

Marit J. MacArthur is associate professor of English at California State University, Bakersfield, and a research associate in Cinema and Digital Media at the University of California, Davis.

Lee M. Miller is associate professor of Neurobiology, Physiology, & Behavior at the University of California, Davis, and technical director of the Center for Mind and Brain.

Featured Image: Cropped and Enlarged version of Bill Smith’s “Voice Glitch,” Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

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Audio Culture Studies: Scaffolding a Sequence of Assignments–Jentery Sayers

“HOW YOU SOUND??”: The Poet’s Voice, Aura, and the Challenge of Listening to Poetry–John Hyland

Hearing the Tenor of the Vendler/Dove Conversation: Race, Listening, and the “Noise” of Texts–Christina Sharpe

Audiotactility & the Medieval Soundscape of Parchment

series co-editors Dorothy Kim and Christopher Roman

series co-editors Dorothy Kim and Christopher Roman

Each of the essays in our “Medieval Sound” forum focuses on sound as it, according to Steve Goodman’s essay “The Ontology of Vibrational Force,” in The Sound Studies Reader“comes to the rescue of thought rather than the inverse, forcing it to vibrate, loosening up its organized or petrified body (70).  These investigations into medieval sound lend themselves to a variety of presentation methods loosening up the “petrified body” of academic presentation. Each essay challenges concepts of how to hear the Middle Ages and how the sounds of the Middle Ages continue to echo in our own soundscapes.

Read all the previous posts here, and, HEAR YE!, in April 2017, look for a second series on Aural Ecologies of noise! –Guest Editors Dorothy Kim and Christopher Roman

As humans, we engage all of our senses in every undertaking, whether or not we consciously perceive our sensory interactions. For instance, when we consume a gourmet meal, we don’t simply taste the food—we also see it, smell it, and feel it. We might also hear it as it is being prepared and/or consumed, and the meal’s pleasure can be enhanced by conversation. Overall, our experiences are enriched (or worsened) through our multisensory engagement. Similarly, reading involves multimodal feedback. While we might think of it as solely a visual experience, both auditory and tactile interactions occur within the process. As The Handbook of Multisensory Processes (518) tells us, audiotactile (sound+touch) and visuotactile (sight+touch) interactions are of great functional importance as they link remote senses to the body.

Thus, our interactions with everyday objects are multisensory, even if we do not consciously realize that fact. Arguably, although the sense of hearing is the first to develop in the womb, it is often the sense we overlook in solitary pursuits such as reading. Nevertheless, every human action occurs within a soundscape, much like they take place within a landscape. A soundscape is “an environment of sound with emphasis on the way it is perceived and understood by the individual, or by a society. It thus depends on the relationship between the individual and any such environment” (Handbook for Acoustic Ecology, 1978). Like landscapes, soundscapes must be considered in context and in relation to multisensory experience.


Fontaine des Mers, France, Image by Flickr User Daniel Mennerich

In particular, audio-visual interactions have been shown to have an effect on soundscape perception. Soundscape design elements reflect this concern. For example, a plan might include adding fountains, both as a noise control element and as a deliberate introduction of a soothing sonic feature. At the same time, fountains are a managed version of a natural element (water) that incorporate certain visual effects (e.g. reflective space and sparkling sunlight) creating textured and appealing landscapes. How the element is introduced into the environment has an effect on the perception (and appreciation) of the space. Furthermore, the touch of cool, clean water can supplement the overall impression, heightening the soothing effect initiated by the tinkling sound of the moving water. This is an audiotactile experience; that is, sounds connected with the sense of touch, an ecological system that combines the haptic and the aural.

Although the field of audiotactile integration has been somewhat dormant in the biological sciences since Paul von Schiller suggested back in 1932 that sounds, especially patterned noises, could affect tactile perception of roughness, recently some researchers have conducted experiments that test audiotactile qualities of materials. Several have suggested that these results might be synthetic—that is, the impact the sounds have modulate the haptic perception of the material being touched. For the most part, there seems to be connections between the perceptions of the sounds involved in touch and the perceptions of the stiffness of material. However, one study demonstrates that synchronized movements and sounds can affect the perception of the subject’s own skin.  Suffice it to say, then, that sounds and texture and material quality are linked, both physically and perceptively.

Although humans rarely display deliberate awareness of audiotactile interaction, both auditory and haptic stimulation share similar temporal and psychological patterns in human consciousness. This connection would have perhaps been even more true in the Middle Ages than it is now, since the context of parchment and manuscript production and consumption was more immediately personal than paper production and reading is today.

To understand both the historicizing of the senses and the impact of shifting modes of literacy, it is possible to recreate some of the former immediacy of parchment production. During the summer of 2015, I participated in a National Endowments for the Humanities Seminar on Manuscript Materiality. This occasion provided me with the opportunity to make a manuscript page replica, starting from the “ground up” with the creation of parchment. We also studied theory, page layout, and other material circumstances, allowing us to really think about how people—both medieval and modern—engage with manuscripts using their senses. Elsewhere I have discussed the sense of touch. Here, I want to extend that discussion to include the sense of hearing; that is, I will focus on the sounds of parchment-making and parchment-reading, as activated through touching.

Parchment (Latin pergamenum) is the general term used for an animal hide that has been prepared for writing. Vellum (Latin vitulinum) more specifically refers to prepared calfskin. Parchment is made through an extended process of skinning, cleaning (de-fleshing and de-hairing), stretching, and scraping. It is stretched and scraped on special frames with adjustable screw pegs. The parchment maker scrapes the skin to the desired thickness with a curved tool, adjusting the pegs as the skin dries and changes texture. Often the skin is rewetted, scraped, and stretched numerous times in order to achieve the desired thickness. Sometimes a pumice stone finish is used at the end to create a surface porous enough to accept and retain ink. This is a vastly different process than tanning, which involves chemical alteration of the skins.

A close up of the scraping tool crafted by Jesse.

A close up of the scraping tool crafted by Jesse Meyer of Pergamena.

In the seminar, our parchment master was Jesse Meyer of Pergamena.  He provided tools, guidance, and expertise as we participants stumbled through the process. Parchment making is hard, smelly work. My hands ached after only a few go-rounds with the tools, which included a pumice-like concoction of over-baked bread mixed with ground glass, knives that had been reshaped and re-handled, and Jesse’s special skin-refiner tool discussed below. Jesse told us many eye-opening things over the days of parchment making; however, possibly one of the most intriguing was how parchment masters could make a parchment “sing,” and how they, through this sound, knew whether or not the skin had reached its full potential.

So when Jesse demonstrated the various techniques on his sample skin, I listened carefully to the sounds he made by scraping as well as watching what he did with his hands. As he scraped away, the parchment did indeed sing. You can hear it yourself:

Audio Clip of Jesse’s “Parchment Singing”


This aspect of parchment making fascinated me. After our seminar was done, I got back in touch with Jesse to talk further about the sounds of parchment making. He was more than forthcoming about his experiences. When Jesse first read about medieval parchment making, he ran across several mentions of the “ringing” sound that parchment masters produced when shaving their skins. He, like many of us, had never considered that aspect before. So he started paying attention to the different sounds he made as he used various tools on the skins. Right now, he uses a handmade tool that consists of a saw blade shaved to his specificity with a handmade handle on it. Each of us got a chance to hold it and try it on our own skin. It was an unwieldy tool for the uninitiated, and my parchment did not “sing” like Jesse’s did.

Parchment master, Jesse Meyer of Pergamena demonstrating his technique using a tool he created himself, designed after the fashion of medieval instruments.

Parchment master, Jesse Meyer of Pergamena demonstrating his technique using a tool he created himself, designed after the fashion of medieval instruments. Image by author.


Jesse is an expert, but even he says he cannot quite tell the nuances among the different types of skins by sound alone, although he notes that there are similarities among the types. Perhaps that skill could be developed over years of working solely with parchment, as a master in the Middle Ages would have. What Jesse has shared, however, is valuable: thicker skins are not as flexible, but they produce a “better,” that is clearer, sound.

Close up of parchment “dust.”

Close up of parchment “dust.” Image by author.

Thickness of parchment can be due to a number of factors including preparation technique, but also the age and type of animal. Older animals yield thicker skins. Thicker skins are usually smoother and yield a cleaner sound. Of course if the animal has been injured or diseased, the skin may not be smooth. The firmer and tighter a skin is, the denser it is, and the easier it is to shave as well. In fact, Jesse says that denser skins can also make full, warm, “drum-like” sounds. Even more intriguingly, when I asked Jesse if he had ever noticed a difference between the hair side and the flesh side of skins, he said yes: the hair side of parchment sounds better to him because it is cleaner once the hair has been removed. The flesh side often retains fibrous bits even after many scrapings, and produces a more diffuse sound. When this side is scraped, it leaves behind a “fuzzy” residue until it has seen many passes with the scraper.

The relative dryness and “freshness” of the skin can also alter the clarity of the “ringing.” For example, compare the sound from the freshly prepared goatskin last summer to the sound from scraping a drier goatskin in Jesse’s workshop:

Repeat of first audio clip of Jesse’s “parchment singing”

Comparison clip of Jesse making a drier parchment sing

Both of these clips were produced from goatskins, and both were produced by Jesse who also used the same tool on each. While the sound is very similar, and both ring true, the drier skin produces a clearer, purer sound.

Plainly, then, the sounds of parchment making are vital to quality production. Most medieval manuscripts are made of three types of animal skins: sheep, goat, and calf. The prevalence of each animal is geographically dependent (sheepskin is more common in England, calfskin in France, and goatskin in Italy), although of course manuscripts traveled, and wealthy patrons commissioned materials they preferred. (see “DNA May Reveal Origins of Medieval Manuscripts” from Livescience)

Age, breed, size, and animal health can all contribute to the audiotactile qualities of a skin. However, there are some general guidelines. Sheepskins, for instance, are stretchier than goat skins, so their “ringing” can be muffled. Goatskins, which are thinner and stiffer, make a higher pitched “ring.” Calfskins are larger and easier than the others to get clean, and thus often make the cleanest “ring” and can do so more quickly than the others.

The type of skin is not the only factor in play. A rough blade would have produced a rough sound; conversely, an even, sharp blade would have produce the cleanest sound. The tautness of the skin in the frame can also affect pitch and tone, as can its dryness, its fatty content, and the age of the animal. As noted in a recent study, “The density of collagen fibrils in calf and goat parchment, compared with a more open weave and higher fat content in sheep parchment, favors the former two species [for producing the finest parchment]” (15070). Nevertheless, master parchment makers should have been able to manipulate any skin to produce superior results. As long as the corium (the dermis layer of skin containing all the connective tissues, including collagen, elastic fibers, hair follicles, sebaceous glands, blood vessels, and a number of other components) is sufficiently ground down, the parchment produced can be made very fine. And as the corium wears away, the sound of the scraping grows ever cleaner and clearer, just as the feel of the skin grows ever smoother. Overall, the tone gets higher as the skin gets thinner, and as long as the scrape is even, the tone should remain pure.

Here’s a video of Jesse scraping a calfskin. Compare this clear “ringing” to the goatskin scrapings:

Jesse making his blade sing on handmade parchment @pergamenany

A video posted by runninghands (@runninghands) on


That’s all well and good for production of manuscripts, but texts are made for consumption. Earlier, I mentioned my having considered the qualities of hapacity and manuscripts involving Christ’s side wound in another blog post. One of the manuscripts I discussed, London, British Library, MS Egerton 1821, was clearly designed to be touched. This unusual manuscript contains a number of woodcuts that reflect devotion to the wounds of Christ, but, more strikingly, opens with three pages painted black, covered in drops of paint meant to emulate Christ’s flowing blood.


Image of MS Egerton 1821, British Library, London.

After a series of woodcuts, seven more pages appear. These are painted red with darker red paint splatters representing drops of blood. Although these pages do not contain specific images, they are meant to evoke interactive piety. The reader is invited to touch Christ’s wounds while praying or meditating. The worn appearance of Folio 2r demonstrates just how frequently the pages were touched and rubbed.

How did those pages feel to a medieval reader? Did they feel rough or smooth? Did the reader feel a frisson of excitement? Animal skin, such as parchment, carried with it the essence of the life of the animal, thus imbuing the images painted onto it with some semblance of life force, such as suggested by Thomas Aquinas in his Question 8 (Summa Theologica) regarding the potential for divinity placed within material objects. To a certain extent, then, touching an image of Christ was akin to touching a proxy of his body, allowing a powerful and individual haptic experience of faith. But what about the sounds made when these images became the subject of interaction? Was the medieval reader aware of touching the page, touching Christ’s wounds, even more because he or she would hear the interaction?

I took it upon myself to rub the worn folio in Egerton 1821. I did so reverently, if not because I felt a mystical connection to Christ, but because I felt awed at being able to reproduce a medieval experience (albeit 500 years later). There was a distinct sound, which you can hear in this clip:

Clip of the author rubbing the worn folio in Egerton 1821

I was surprised at the resultant sound. The worn part of the page looked soft, and the paint splatters looked cracked. Instead, to my surprise, the worn portions felt rougher than the cracked paint. Like the modern studies demonstrated, my audiotactile perceptions were altered initially by what I saw, but then by what I heard. At first, I touched hesitantly, but when the sounds produced became rhythmic, my hands felt smoother and the noise sounded more even. If I were repeatedly rubbing the same spot, in the same manner, producing the same sounds—much as a medieval reader might have done—the combined sensations would likely have produced a soporific and meditative state. That is, combining touch, particularly of a textured surface, with measured reading might have resulted in the ideal perceptive state for experiencing an immersive religious experience.

If, as numerous studies have demonstrated, vibrotactile stimuli can facilitate hearing, both for those with and without hearing impairments, then the sounds hand and fingers make when exploring a surface must contribute to an individual’s haptic perception and vice versa. How, then, would this connect on the behavioral or emotional level? Researchers have been exploring the reciprocal interactions of the auditory, tactile, and visual (sometimes referred to as cross-modal effects), often concentrating on sensory thresholds, information processing performance, and spatial navigation; however, only recently are studies beginning to investigate the emotional and physical benefits of such exchanges. For instance, one such study suggests auditory-tactile stimulation as a means to increase health and well-being.

Thus, a combination of touch felt by a reader with sound heard by a reader at the same time might influence the reader’s state of mind in a positive way, resulting in a positive effect on the body as well. A desired state can be reached more quickly through an audiotactile combination, resulting in a sensory illusion (perceiving something not physically extant but mentally present)—a powerful manner of evoking emotion. Similarly, the positive physical effects include relaxation, stress relief, and sleep enhancement. Again, this seemingly suggests that multisensory integration, especially the combination of touch and sound, might have produced a mental state in the (medieval) reader that made them particularly receptive to spiritual experience.

"Touch" by Daniel Friedman (CC BY 2.0)

“Touch” by Daniel Friedman (CC BY 2.0)

I would suggest, then, that as medieval scholars, we should examine how audiotactile events are processed during dynamic contact between hands and material. Since different sensory modalities are integrated in the human brain to form our perceptions as a whole, including spatial and temporal relationships, it is important that we consider multisensory interactions that code the location of external events relative to our own bodies. Thus, to think through the process of making, touching, and hearing medieval parchment opens up a lot of possibilities for the study of medieval materiality—indeed for materiality in general as a field. The importance of the whole body sensory experience, including hearing, in reading is something we need to continue to imagine, to reimagine, to recreate, and to explore.

Michelle M. Sauer is a professor at the University of North Dakota in the English Department.  She recently released her latest book, titled Gender in Medieval Culture (Bloomsbury, 2015).

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Malcolm Gladwell’s Bad Aesthetics



Malcolm Gladwell, who recently wrapped the first season of his podcast Revisionist History, has been on a roll lately. Not a particularly endearing one, though. I’ve been trying to locate his nadir, but it’s not easy with so many options to choose from. Is it in the New Yorker, when he condescendingly exclaims “Of course not!” in response to whether Caster Semenya should be allowed to compete in the 800-meter at the Olympics? He follows up with the assertion that no track-and-field fan disagrees with him, as if the complexity of gender identification is somehow best left to a majority appeal. Or is it in Revisionist History’s Episode 9, “Generous Orthodoxy,” when he chides Princeton students protesting the use of Woodrow Wilson’s name around campus? Calling one student “angry”—a loaded word to lob at a black woman—and surmising she would later “regret her choice of words,” Gladwell advises the students to instead threaten to leave the university if their requests aren’t honored. Why? Because otherwise “every crotchety old Princeton alum” wouldn’t believe they actually care about the university.


For those keeping score, that’s Gladwell, who spent an entire other episode of his podcast lamenting that we don’t “capitalize” people’s educational potential well enough, counseling black students to separate themselves from an Ivy League education as a way to make a point about a pro-segregationist president. Gladwell’s seventh episode, “Hallelujah,” where he discusses musical genius, is not obviously about the kind of systemic inequalities he bumbles in the Semenya and Princeton examples. But the conclusions he draws about genius and the anti-pop aesthetic judgments he claims are informed by the same bad gender and race politics that would put a person’s gender identification in other people’s hands and place the burden of sacrifice on the aggrieved in matters of racial injustice.

The episode “Hallelujah” revolves around two songs that Gladwell argues reached their peak of genius years after they were initially recorded: “Deportees Club” (1984) by Elvis Costello and “Hallelujah” (1984) by Leonard Cohen. In each case, Gladwell asserts that the first recordings were flawed but that they attained a certain beauty in later versions that reveals something about how genius works, though each attained that genius status by different routes. While Costello is responsible for the version of “Deportees Club” that Gladwell loves—he re-recorded it as “Deportee” in 1985 (it wouldn’t be released until 1995 on a re-issue of Goodbye, Cruel World)—“Hallelujah” would peak for Gladwell in a series of covers, most famously by Jeff Buckley (1994), performed by artists other than Cohen. Gladwell’s focus on the process by which a song reaches genius status is a riff on David Galenson’s Old Masters and Young Geniuses theory. Here, Costello and the litany of “Hallelujah” coverers display a process of genius called “experimental innovation,” where the first draft is never the final draft, and genius is only unlocked after years of work. I’ll return to Gladwell’s notion of musical beauty and how it relates to his bad politics momentarily, but I first want to unpack the theory of genius that enthralls him in this episode.

mozart-beethovenGalenson’s notion of genius is a binary, where some geniuses (“conceptual innovators”) are very young, decisive artists and others, like the “experimental innovators” responsible for “Deportee” and “Hallelujah,” are endless tinkerers who tend to reach their creative potential later in life. Gladwell uses the same paradigmatic examples that Galenson does to categorize geniuses; conceptual innovators are Pablo Picasso, while experimental innovators are Paul Cézanne. Curiously, Gladwell notes that this theory of genius may be best exemplified in music, but he doesn’t seem aware that music scholars have already laid out this same broad theory of genius with easy comps: Mozart the young genius and Beethoven the old master. Moreover, Gladwell doesn’t seem aware that this is a lousy theory of genius.

I’ve written elsewhere about genius myths, and there’s a rabbit hole of problematic ideas out there about classical music genius that run from benignly self-serving to violently racist. One critique is particularly useful for pushing back against Gladwell, as it highlights the gender and race problems with Gladwell’s approach to genius. Tia DeNora’s Beethoven and the Construction of Genius (1994) is a painstaking deconstruction of Beethoven’s genius. While DeNora’s argument includes a number of moving parts, it can be summarized as a demonstration of the way “genius” isn’t so much innate talent as it is a combination of several social and political ideals intersecting with a person’s talents or insights.

It was the 90s, when postmodernity crested in musicology, and the aim of DeNora’s analysis is quintessentially postmodern: undo the Great White Man myth to make room for other kinds of histories and notions of genius to be accommodated. If we understand Beethoven’s genius to be firmly rooted in a number of social and political attitudes—including the reflexive belief that only a white man could be a genius—that tipped in his favor, then we can understand that history isn’t telling us that only men or only white people can be geniuses; rather, history is showing its biases. This sort of deconstruction doesn’t really move the academic needle now—most college freshmen can articulate the Great White Man critique—largely due to the work of DeNora and other deconstructionists who effectively cleared the space for us to build other kinds of scholarship on top of their work.

"Pop!Tech 2008 - Malcolm Gladwell" by Flickr user Pop!Tech, CC BY 2.0

“Pop!Tech 2008 – Malcolm Gladwell” by Flickr user Pop!Tech, CC BY 2.0

Alas, though, the 90s truly must be all the rage right now, because Gladwell is wading right back into Great White Man territory. To be clear, he isn’t doing it on purpose, for whatever that’s worth. In Episode 9, the one where he counsels the black Princeton students to threaten to leave the school, he performs a whole Great White Man rant to establish his credibility as A Guy Who Gets It. But beyond understanding that there are too many things named after white men, Gladwell doesn’t indicate that he knows what the rub really is, that the name on a building or School is a tiny piece of a much bigger, systemic problem of race and gender. Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, his ideas about musical genius betray his own tendency to set up hierarchies where Great White Men are always on top. So excuse me while I pump some air in my Reeboks, hitch up my Guess jeans, and douse myself in CK1; we have some 90s theory to attend to.

Gladwell doesn’t—and perhaps can’t—articulate what’s genius about the versions of “Deportee” and “Hallelujah” he reveres, and his assessment of the originals is similarly vague. About 1984’s “Deportees Club,” he exclaims, “Oh, god, It’s awful!” For Cohen’s 1984 “Hallelujah,” Gladwell borrows a line from Michael Barthel, who could’ve just as well been describing Gladwell’s podcast: “The entire performance is so hyperserious that it’s almost satire.” [Historiographic aside: Barthel, who is now a researcher for the Pew Research Center, seems to be the under-cited source for the “Hallelujah” history in both Gladwell’s podcast and Alan Light’s book on the song]. Gladwell may suffer a poverty of aesthetic language to describe what is or isn’t good about these songs, but by considering what he does and doesn’t like—what counts as genius or not for him—we can understand where his aesthetic allegiances lie.

Screenshot of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" video on YouTube

Screenshot of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” video on YouTube

Gladwell finds beauty in music whose emotional content is as stripped down as the acoustic guitar textures on the later recordings of “Deportee” and “Hallelujah.” The line he quotes from Barthel misses the point: Barthel likes the satirical nature of the original “Hallelujah” and finds the famous Buckley version—which becomes something of an ürtext for all the covers that came after it—an unfortunate telescoping of emotional range, a “Hallelujah” that only knows lament instead of the many “holy, broken, profane, transcendent” hallelujahs Cohen first explored. But all those hallelujahs, along with the “angry, loud, and upsetting” original “Deportees Club,” don’t seem to suit Gladwell, who prefers versions of the songs where both the emotional and musical content are as straightforward as possible.

Screenshot from Jeff Buckley's video for "Hallelujah"

Screenshot from Jeff Buckley’s video for “Hallelujah”

That Gladwell is drawn to the versions of Buckley’s “Hallelujah” and Costello’s later “Deportee” that feature an acoustic singer-songwriter coffeehouse vibe isn’t a coincidence. The villain in his account of genius is pop. Noting that both songs were initially recorded in 1984, he reminds us that year’s “biggest album” was Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” “pop music glossed to perfection…not a single stray note or emotion on that record.” “Thriller” was the final single from an album two years old, and it peaked at #4 on the Billboard Hot 100, so Gladwell’s definition of “biggest album” is suspect, but he’s looking for “the antithesis of ‘Deportee’ and ‘Hallelujah,’” so I’ll engage on his terms and zero in on his aesthetics by figuring out what he thinks is wrong with pop music like “Thriller.”

Gladwell offers a couple other assessments of pop aesthetics in his description of producers. Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley, who co-produced the Goodbye, Cruel World album “Deporteees Club” appeared on, are the ill-fitting pop perfectionists who try to harness Costello’s sound but only manage to screw it up. Trevor Horn is the guy spending four weeks—“a month,” Gladwell bemoans—shaping a snare sound for Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s “Two Tribes” (1983). Whether it’s Langer and Winstanley, Horn, or Quincy Jones (who Gladwell doesn’t name but who produced “Thriller”), Gladwell has no space for the behind-the-glass work of sound design and sonic processing in his aesthetics of genius. He argues, citing Costello’s own assessment, that glossy pop perfection couldn’t capture the “dark, emotional, bitter songs, gritty and spare,” pouring out of Costello. For Gladwell, pop music production is the villain because it short circuits the true, raw emotion that he finds beautiful.

The problem with Gladwell’s aesthetics is that he’s mistaking his taste for genius, then reverse-manufacturing an explanation of genius that privileges a specifically white masculine mode of expression. “Glossy pop perfection,” in his estimation, covers up something beautiful, obscuring real emotion. But directly sharing one’s emotions—whether musically or politically—is more acceptable for some than for others. We need look no further than Gladwell for proof. If you’re Elvis Costello or Jeff Buckley singing laments? You’re a genius. If you’re a black woman protesting Woodrow Wilson at Princeton? You’re “angry.”

Joe Mabel [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Joe Mabel [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

In fact, the danger of directly expressing oneself underlies a wide array of black aeshetics, from Gates’s Signifying Monkey to Shana Redmond’s analysis of Janelle Monae’s “Cold War.” Redmond cites Darlene Clark Hines’s “Rape and the Inner Lives of Black Women in the Middle West” to highlight Monae’s engagement with “the acts of dissemblance that have long characterized black women’s participation in the public sphere” (398). Hines argues that Black women developed “a cult of secrecy, a culture of dissemblance” to protect themselves in public spaces, “creating the appearance of disclosure…while actually remaining an enigma” (Hines 915). It is Monae’s rupture of pop conventions—she breaks down and cries, dropping her lip synch even as the track plays on—that, on the one hand, creates the space for her to step outside of that culture of dissemblance and, on the other hand, marks the cover those pop conventions provide, the strategic, protective secrecy available under so much glossy pop perfection. In his 2002 “Feenin,’” Alexander Weheliye homes in on glossy pop voice-processing, the vocoders and filters (and, several years after his article, AutoTune) that render the R&B voice machinic, and contends that these processing techniques yield human desire that “can be represented only in the guise of the machinic” (39, emphasis mine). In other words, the gloss isn’t a bad thing. It’s a strategy that plugs technology into humanity in order to project ways of being beyond the white liberal humanist subject. In both Redmond’s and Weheliye’s analyses, the sound of pop, the glossy perfection that Gladwell holds up as the antithesis of genius, is employed by Black musicians to enable emotionality in a world that is otherwise hostile to such expression.

Gladwell’s bad aesthetics, his refusal to recognize beauty in pop music, is also bad politics. By holding up an aesthetic that prizes stripped-down, straightforward emotionality, a form of expression available to some but not others, Gladwell ends up in the same Great White Man genius bind DeNora and others unraveled in the postmodern 90s. So I’ll sum it up with a 90s phrase: genius is always already political. Denora argues—and Gladwell inadvertently demonstrates—that labeling artists as genius relies on politically volatile aesthetic judgments that reinforce existing power hierarchies, in this case along the lines of race and gender. Like his response to Princeton students and his armchair adjudication of Semenya’s gender identity, Gladwell’s theory of musical genius proves to be less a revision of history and more a revival of history’s worst politics.

Featured image: “Malcolm Gladwell” by Flickr user Ed Schipul, CC BY-SA 2.0

Justin D Burton is Assistant Professor of Music at Rider University, and a regular writer at Sounding Out!. His research revolves around critical race and gender theory in hip hop and pop, and his current book project is called Posthuman Pop. He is co-editor with Ali Colleen Neff of the Journal of Popular Music Studies 27:4, “Sounding Global Southernness,” and with Jason Lee Oakes of the Oxford Handbook of Hip Hop Music Studies (2017). You can catch him atjustindburton.com and on Twitter @justindburton. His favorite rapper is Right Said Fred.

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Playing with the Past in the Imagined Middle Ages: Music and Soundscape in Video Game


series co-editors Dorothy Kim and Christopher Roman

Each of the essays in our “Medieval Sound” forum focuses on sound as it, according to Steve Goodman’s essay “The Ontology of Vibrational Force,” in The Sound Studies Reader“comes to the rescue of thought rather than the inverse, forcing it to vibrate, loosening up its organized or petrified body (70).  These investigations into medieval sound lend themselves to a variety of presentation methods loosening up the “petrified body” of academic presentation. Each essay challenges concepts of how to hear the Middle Ages and how the sounds of the Middle Ages continue to echo in our own soundscapes.

Read all the previous posts here, and, HEAR YE!, in April 2017, look for a second series on Aural Ecologies of noise! –Guest Editors Dorothy Kim and Christopher Roman

Freed though they have been from the historiographical pit of the Dark Ages, the Middle Ages inevitably slip ever further into the past. Nonetheless, they have never been easier to visit. We have but to open our computers or turn on our televisions to be transported into the past. As any good Sci-fi show will tell you, we must be careful when we travel into the past; we can change things.

The medium on which I wish to focus – videogame – relies precisely upon on this ability to affect change. It takes aspects of filmic medievalism but must also confront an intrinsic interactivity. This interactive capacity may seem to authenticate further the experience of the past by creating a rich and responsive world but it also frees aspects of narrative agency from the control of game designers, composers, and sound engineers. In this article, I will demonstrate some of the ways in which issues of space/place, identity, orientalism/otherness, and the norms of the medium itself can play out. In recomposing the past – be that with a nod to authenticity, within the realms of historical metafiction, or even the imagined (neo-)medievalism of the fantasy genre – videogames create something that sits between the past and present that nonetheless has a profound effect on the public conception of the medieval soundscape. My focus here is on CD Projekt Red’s high-fantasy game The Witcher III: Wild Hunt, addressing not only the musical score but also wider aspects of soundscape such as vocal accent, foley, and manipulation of the aural field.

Still from The Witcher III: Wild Hunt.

Still from The Witcher III: Wild Hunt.


The genre of fantasy could be described as medievalist in origin and aesthetic, taking clear inspiration from the medieval world and often using it, or a close approximation, as a geographical, historical, and cultural setting. Many of the more fantastical elements of fantasy too are drawn from medieval bestiaries and the genre of the medieval romance. The late Umberto Eco popularised the term neo-medievalism, albeit in a rather pejorative sense and in opposition to ‘responsible philological study’, to describe this interaction between medieval history and the fantastical. Perhaps due to the rather negative associations of neo-medievalism, both terms tend to be used somewhat interchangeably today.

A divide could perhaps be suggested as to whether medieval aspects are presented as unproblematic and nostalgic, or treated in a more critical and distanced manner. For instance, David Marshall defines neo-medievalism as ‘a self-conscious, ahistorical, non-nostalgic imagining or reuse of the historical Middle Ages that selectively appropriates iconic images…to construct a presentist space that disrupts traditional depictions of the medieval.’ In contrast, Kim Selling notes of medievalism that, after the breakdown of modernist historical metanarratives, the pre-modern world of the medieval offers a ‘rich, satisfying, and authentic’ counterpoint to the ‘profound social, spiritual, and political dislocation’ of postmodernism. From this viewpoint, the world of medievalist fantasy offers pure escapism back to a world in which old certainties can be re-asserted; perhaps, as Elkins notes, a reaction against the rationalistic, anti-heroic, materialist, and empiricist bent of modern society.

Regardless of the author’s framing of ‘the medieval’, it offers many narrative advantages. As Kim Selling has noted, in placing an imagined world in a simplified version of the Western European Middle Ages, the fantasy author can make use of narrative shorthands. The world of kings, queens, knights, peasants, dragons, magic, witches, and elves is already known from myth and fairy tale. These aspects require no explanation but rather build upon a tradition of understood western folkloric conventions – conventions that can also imply certain types of social structure.

The Witcher is certainly situated in a simplified medieval Europe (see the similarity between the coasts of Poland and Nilfgaard) and it clearly occupies a world with presentist concerns. More than this, its extreme use of narrative indeterminacy betrays a staunch adherence to postmodern concepts of storytelling and a distinct anti-heroic edge. The player navigates a world of many shades of grey, often choosing the lesser of many evils. They make decisions – which often result in unintended consequences – based on their own morality and desired outcomes. This said, perhaps the question of whether it could be defined as medievalist or neo-medievalist depends on the actions of the player and precisely the kind of narrative they construct.

An early example of unintended consequences and choosing the lesser of many evils

The visual world inhabited by The Witcher certainly relies on appropriating iconic images; the analogue aural world on appropriating iconic sounds, accents, and musical ideas as the player continuously explores regions with distinct identities, social structures, urban/pastoral settings, and religions. The rational, urban, and merchantile world of Oxenfurt (a city famous for its world-class university with a crest clearly based on that of the University of Cambridge and a name that hints at the university town of Oxford’s medieval etymology) and Novigrad are clearly at odds with the rural peasant life of the Velen wastelands or the Celtic imagery of the Skellige isles.


The landscape and soundscape of Oxenfurt

The landscape and soundscape of Novigrad

The landscape and soundscape of Velen (with multiple examples of the ‘combat music’)

The landscape and soundscape of Skellige (with the ‘combat music’ adapted for this area)

Like much medievalist fantasy the tension between rationalism and the fantastical is one of the central elements of dramatic tension. As the great cities of this world grow and the expansionist Nilfgaardian Empire press forward, the pre-modern world of The Witcher shrinks. Allied to the spread of rationalism, we also see the ‘Church of the Eternal Fire’ (an identifiable stand-in for Christianity) seek to eradicate magic, non-human populations, and more identifiably ‘pagan’ religions. The architecture of its buildings invite comparison with European sacred architecture and its witch hunters and inquisitions with particularly regrettable episodes of European history.

The Temple of the Eternal Fire burning people at the stake

Just as the visuals employ iconic imagery to imply certain ideas, the soundscape’s most important function is to provide the aural analogue of this. One aspect is the score. Within this, individual musical stems are layered in response to player actions. As the composer Marcin Przybylowicz noted in a recent interview with the Tech Times ‘[t]he cues (that were interactive) are divided into smaller layers, which come together, in the case of a combat cue, only when we are dealing with a very powerful enemy. If the enemy is small … only the first layer of the piece will play’. These layers are re-orchestrated in each area so as to preserve its aural identity. In a separate interview with IC-Radio.de, Przybylowicz notes:

No Mans (sic.) Land [Velen] is a war ravaged land… It’s also full of slavic references, pagan beliefs etc. …. Then, there’s Novigrad – the biggest city in northern kingdoms. … I decided music in Novigrad should be more civilized – that’s why there are lots of string instruments playing there (dulcimer, bouzouki, guitars, lutes, cimbalom etc.), and overall tone of the music is lighter, [and] reminds [me] a bit music of [the] Renaissance. Finally, [the] Skellige Isles – [a] region with Celtic, Scottish and Norse references, that had to be reflected in music as well. Use of bagpipes, flutes and Scandinavian folk instruments corresponds with that setting. On top of that, I had to think how it would all work together. That’s where our themes come in … We use those themes in every major location …. [and] we reorchestrate them with instruments corresponding to a particular region.

Combat music in Velen and Skellige respectively. Note how both utilise the orchestration of their own respective areas to alter the main theme and how additional layers are added to the music depending on the intensity of the fighting.

In viewing the different medievalisms on offer in this game, a comparison of the three areas mentioned above is instructive. The Skellige isles, an archipelago which looks curiously like Scottish islands, are occupied by inhabitants with Irish accents. As can be heard in the videos above, the clearly Celtic-influenced music of this area supports this association and the relative lack of diegetic music in this area, combined with natural sounds (the sea, wind, storms) combine to give a sense that the music is a part of the geography. Celtic folk music as a shorthand for the Middle Ages is nothing new. Simon Nugent has noted the tendency of many historically-situated films to draw on Celtic influence. His work has shown that the creation of ‘Celtic’ folk has little to do with a discrete geographical area or with historical accuracy but rather is a modern marketing creation that plays on associations with nature and an escape from modernity. This is precisely the case in The Witcher where, rather than utilising a real historical Celtic medieval repertory, it instead draws on aural cues from the popular medievalism of the filmic soundscape tradition, filtered through the need for an indeterminate score. This ‘packaging’ brings with it associations of an ‘authentic’ Celtic folk tradition as a remnant of the ‘true folk tradition’ that once existed for everyday people elsewhere.

We can perhaps see a link to the works of fantasy writers such as Gael Baudino and Patricia Kennealy-Morrison who turn to pagan Celtic sources as an alternative to what they perceive as the medieval Christian degradation of women, as Jane Tolmey has noted. This association between pagan prehistory, matriarchy, and freedom for women seems a common theme in the popular conception of the past, echoed by theorists such as Albert Classen. The fact that Skellige evokes a recognisably ‘Celtic’ soundscape (relying heavily on the Polish Folk band Percival who collaborated on both new works and who took several from a previous album which were then adapted for indeterminate playback) therefore comes with many associations, drawn almost entirely from the filmic soundscape tradition. This is a pre-modern, pagan land; a land with an authentic peasant class: roughhewn but honest. This Celtic imagery and soundscape also offers a counterpoint to the sexual politics of other areas. Women can more easily participate in areas which might otherwise be seen as male-dominated: depending on the actions of the player, a woman may rule Skellige. A matriarchal class of priestesses govern the region’s predominant religion in stark contrast to the male Priests in other areas. The soundscape here is therefore absolutely crucial to the identity of this area. In creating a Celtic sonic identity – equal part music and accent – the game designers have created a rich culture that need only be hinted at to be understood.

By contrast, the urban world of Novigrad and Oxenfurt is far less folk-influenced. Unlike the other areas of the game, it does not draw so heavily on either the pre-existent or newly composed music of Percival, make such explicit use of folk instrumentation, and seems far more closely related to a Renaissance dance music tradition. The urban/pastrol divide is enhanced by the sounds of a busy city compared to the sounds of nature and the frequent cries of the townsfolk give a sense of bustling urban life (this time with accents from the North of England – compare HBO’s Game of Thrones).

Compared to the wind instruments and female vocals of Skellige, percussion and plucked/struck strings predominate. There is indeed more of a Renaissance feel in an area already touched by modernity. Most notably, there is more diegetic music in these two cities. We frequently see and hear small Renaissance dance bands, using period instruments, entertaining crowds (watch from around 3:45 of the above video of Novigrad for an example; note how diegetic music slowly enters the soundtrack as they are approached). Perhaps the most significant diegetic moment, however, is the song by the Trobaritz Priscilla.  The audio and visuals are surprisingly well matched, and the tuning of the lute adds emphasis to the fact of live performance. As a video cut-scene, this is one of few moments in the game where the player has no ability to affect their environs and must simply watch and listen.

Priscilla’s song

Far more so than in other areas, the music in Novigrad and Oxenfurt is for and by people. This is in marked contrast to the soundscapes found on Skellige and in Velen where the music is almost purely non-diegetic. In contrast to the pre-Christian matriarchal associations of the priestesses of Skellige is the aural handling of the Temple of the Eternal Fire in Novigrad and its male priests. As Adam Whittaker has recently identified, there is a clear link between musicological discourse on purely vocal performance in Christian sacred space in Early Music, and its representation on screen. Male a capella voices, and a ‘chanting’ vocal style (again hinting at plainchant, rather than using pre-existent chant music), are often used to denote the aural identity of a church. Precisely this kind of vocal delivery is added to the soundtrack as the player moves closer to the Temple of the Eternal Fire, explicitly linking this Christian association with the aural presence of the Temple. The contrast with the female-dominated vocals elsewhere enhances the distinction and re-enforces the links between the ostensibly pre-Christian worlds of Skellige and Velen and the Christian associations made in Novigrad.

Approaching the Temple of the Eternal Fire

The music of the Velen wasteland and the neighbouring White Orchard, like Skellige, is more folk influenced, yet clearly distinct. Gone are the Celtic folk influences; instead, this area fuses a cinematic pastoral idyll (again laden with nature sounds and with a peasantry speaking with West Country accents – compare the idyllic ‘Shire’ in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings) with a dark and sinister undertone which draws on the ‘otherness’ of many non-western and folk instruments, particularly the kemenche, electric cello, hurdy gurdy, bowed gusli, gheychak, and the bowed yaylı – the vast majority of which only enter the soundscape in this area. The use of the medieval as a source of dangerous and primitive ‘otherness’ is common at the moment (evidinced, for instance, by the many recent descriptions in the West of the so-called Islamic State as ‘medieval’) and draws on modernist thought which characterized the middle ages as a period of dark and dangerous alterity between the glories of antiquity and the Renaissance.

That the soundscape of The Witcher draws on competing categorisations of the medieval as ‘dangerous’ and ‘pastoral’ says much about the mutability of medievalisms. Musically, this ‘otherness’ can be expressed as a kind of orientalism, both exotic and dangerous, and the microtonal inflections and use of glissandi here give a sinister undertone to what is otherwise a quintessentially pastoral film score. This area has one of the most memorable parts of the entire soundtrack ‘Ladies of the Wood’, underscoring a genuinely horrific narrative and visuals (some of the consequences of which are shown in the first video of this post with a lengthier section of the music given below). The exotic instrumentation combined with the driving repetition, at odds with an audio usually so responsive to the player’s actions, makes the experience unsettling and claustrophobic.

Ladies of the Wood

Taken together, these very distinctive sound worlds serve to demonstrate some of the many medieval soundscapes which permeate our collective consciousness. In utilising iconic aural cues, composers and sound designers in a neo-medievalist tradition can conjure up particular cultural and social structures with ease, taking many of the shorthands which have emerged from the TV and film traditions in recent years. The indeterminacy inherent to videogame, and the common response of using audio stems, means that the soundscape moves far beyond what is possible in TV and film. However, it also makes problematic the concept of using real, historically-informed music from the period being invoked which would not be able to respond to the interactivity of the world. In The Witcher, the decisions we make effect the world around us, including its soundscape. The effect is crucial both to helping to conjure the world of The Witcher and to helping us feel immersed in it – perhaps paradoxically this may make the soundworld invoked seem more authentic even if it simultaneously reduces the possibility of using ‘authentic’ historical repertoire.

Featured image by Carlos Santos @YouTube CC BY.

James Cook is a University Teacher in Music at the University of Sheffield. His work focuses on the musical period that falls neatly between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. In particular, the ways that musical cultures in this period interact and how expatriate groups (merchants, clergy, and nobility) imported and used music. Some of his work (like this essay) concerns the representation of early music on stage and screen, be that the use of ‘real’ early music in multimedia productions, the imaginative re-scoring of historical dramas, or even the popular medievalism of the fantasy genre.

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