“Playing the Medieval Lyric”: Remixing, Sampling and Remediating “Head Like a Hole” and “Call Me Maybe”
Each of the essays in this month’s “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.
The posts in this series begins an ongoing conversation about medieval sound in Sounding Out!. Our opening gambit in April 2016, “Multimodality and Lyric Sound,” reframes how we consider the lyric from England to Spain, from the twelfth through the sixteenth centuries, pushing ideas of openness, flexibility, and productive creativity. We will post several follow-ups throughout the rest of 2016 focusing on “Remediating Medieval Sound.” And, HEAR YE!, in April 2017, look for a second series on Aural Ecologies of noise! –Guest Editors Dorothy Kim and Christopher Roman
In 2013, a user named pomDeter posted a sound file on the social news and entertainment site Reddit that went viral in the form of YouTube videos, Facebook posts, and tweets: a mashup remediation of Nine Inch Nails’s “Head Like a Hole” with Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe.” Reactions ranged from outrage on the part of Nine Inch Nails’s drummer to declarations that it is a work of “genius” by the Los Angeles Times.
To understand the significance of this surprising piece of pop culture, we should recall that the iconic industrial rock anthem with sadomasochistic overtones “Head Like a Hole” is a track from NIN’s debut Pretty Hate Machine (1989), while “Call Me Maybe”–the title track to Jepsen’s eponymous first album—is a anthem about the exhilaration of a crush. Simply put, these two musical universes are not usually mentioned in the same breath, much less remixed into the same track. The result? “Call Me a Hole.”
The commentary about this musical clash of cultures has been vigorous and multi-sided. Listeners have unabashedly loved it, absolutely hated it, been very disturbed that they loved it, and been deeply distressed by what they see as the diluting of pure rock rage.
“Call Me a Hole” is a good example of both the theoretical underpinnings and the experimental possibilities of the issues at stake in my discussion of the medieval lyric. My post not only allows you to play the remix, but also to visualize the remixed song and read the second-by-second stream of commentary from a wide range of listeners. In this way, this remediated, multimodal, multimedia moment perfectly encapsulates the possibilities of experimentation, the participatory culture of multimodal productions, and the simultaneous discomfort and seduction these experimental remixings may engender. The commentary on Soundcloud is a perfect record of all these things: this cultural production is “awesome, creepy, bittersweet, disturbing, strange, brilliant, genius.”
“Playing the Medieval English Lyric” briefly examines the emergence of the lyric form in 13th-century miscellanies—an emergence that, in many ways, mirrors the development of mashups like “Call Me a Hole.” This work dovetails with larger critical issues apparent in deeply examining the material culture of miscellanies—medieval anthologies—how they were made, their quire formations, their marginalia, their scribes, their audiences. But I juxtapose this investigation with the insights of more recent theoretical ideas about multimodality, remediation, and mashup. Both recent digital rhetoric and medieval rhetorical theory can help us think through the place of music in the emergence of new literary genres and contextualize the creation of new technologies of sound.
The mashup as a new musical genre especially dependent on the affordances of a digital platform transforms the place of the audience from mere “consumer” to “producer,” according to Ragnhild Brøvig-Hanssen’s entry “Justin Bieber Featuring Slipknot: Consumption as Mode of Production,” in The Oxford Handbook of Music and Virtuality (268). Mashups also switch the relation of the producers/composers of music into the role of consumers/listeners. Brøvig-Hanssen goes on to argue that “it is often [mashup’s] experiential doubling of the music as simultaneously congruent (sonically, it sounds like a band performing together) and incongruent (it periodically subverts socially constructed conceptions of identities) that produces the richness in meaning and paradoxical effects of successful mashups (270).
These incongruent, yet congruent juxtapositions that produce rich meaning also form the pattern I see in the emergence of medieval English lyric. In essence, I hope to show how a discussion about digital mashups in today’s musical ecosystem can help us reframe the emergence of the medieval lyric in 13th-century medieval Britain. How do different media platforms—manuscript and digital—spur on certain parallel forms of sonic media play and creativity?
In particular, I am interested in how the sampling, mixing, and palimpsestic juxtaposition of mixed-language manuscripts (usually including Latin, Anglo-Norman French, and Middle English) have created a space for new linguistic and sonic remixes and new genres to play and form. In this article, I reconsider the (really) “old” media of the manuscript page as a recording and playing interface existing at a particularly dynamic juncture when new experimental forms abound for the emergence, revision, and recombination of literary oeuvres, genres, and technologies of sound.
Multilingualism and the Medieval English Lyric Scene
Just as a screen shot of the “Call Me a Hole” website would preserve in static form such external references as links to articles discussing the mashup (and would allow future readers to add new information), I similarly argue that a medieval manuscript page has creative, annotated possibilities that stop it from being a fixed, “literate” page. Readers throughout the centuries may add marginal notes, make annotations, cross out sections, or add new sections. More visually-oriented readers may include marginal drawings, even going so far as to animate narratives by drawing a series of connected images or to add interactive features like flaps, or rotae. If the manuscript page in question includes lyrics, notes, or both, it may have served as the inspiration for a wide variety of dramatic or musical performances, whether public or private. Finally, the physical book itself may have been broken apart, recombined with other books, or reused as endpapers for other books. In this way, I advocate for an understanding of the manuscript medium as a dynamic media zone like the digital screen. The manuscript page is thus, a mise-en-système: a dynamic reading/recording interface.
Much of the vernacular English literary production in the 13th and into the first half of the 14th century is preserved in multilingual manuscripts. I think Tim Machan said it best at 2008’s Multilingualism in the Middle Ages conference, particularly in situating Middle English in England, when he talks about “the ordinariness of multilingualism” and how much it is “the background noise” in the Middle Ages in Britain. The thirteenth-century multilingual matrix included verbal and written forms of the following languages: Old English, Middle English, Latin, Greek, Anglo-Norman French, Continental French, Irish, Welsh, Cornish, Hebrew, Flemish, and Arabic. If multilingualism is the background noise, then it’s a background concert in which all those linguistic sounds perform simultaneously. The medieval manuscript’s ocularcentrism has given readers visual cues, but the cues ask us to remix, reinterpret, and reinvent the materials. They do not ask us to just see these signs—whether music, art, text—as separate, hermetically sealed universes working as solo acts.
Intersecting this active ferment was the creative flux and reinvention of English musical notation and distinctly regional styles. These forces, I believe, helped create an experimental dynamism that may explain what the manuscript record reveals about the emergence of the Middle English lyric. The notation of Western music as we now understand it, which would begin to emerge in the 9th century, focused heavily on religious music, on chant. And Latin chant can be syllabically texted to any music. Likewise, Anglo-Norman French poetry focused on a form using syllable counts—octasyllabic couplets. This poetic form also was easily translated into Western musical notation. What, however, do you do with English poetry that is alliterative or uses another kind of stressed poetic meter? These problems are, in fact, probably why it took some time for Middle English to produce lyrics that were texted to music.
Another reason for this phenomenon lies with the state of musical notation itself. In the entry on “musical notation” in the New Grove Dictionary of Music (http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/public/book/omo_gmo), an entire history of the creation of musical notation in the Middle Ages—and specifically its experimental and regional varieties—are mapped out. In addition, Carl Parrish’s classic text, The Notation of Medieval Music, a standard in all musical paleography classes, shows the minute shifts in the construction of medieval music from century to century and from region to region. And finally, the development of the stave line as “new technology” would spur further writing of music “without additional aural support.” What these histories of medieval musical notation have in common is their emphasis on the constantly shifting paradigms that this new technology of writing to record sound showed across different regions and different centuries.
From the second quarter of the 13th century to the mid-14th century, a number of multilingual miscellanies have survived, preserving an astonishing breadth of poetic work in Latin, Middle English, and Anglo-Norman French. These books circulated in relation to each other and in conversation with each other and were collected and compiled in miscellanies. There are a fair number of multilingual miscellanies that contain a range of lyrical poetry in Middle English and Anglo-Norman French. My list here is not exhaustive, but I would like to point to a few (pulled from Laing and Deeming’s work) that we will discuss: Oxford, Jesus College MS 29; Oxford, Bodleian library MS Digby 86; London, British Library MS Arundel 248; London, British Library MS Egerton 613; London, British Library MS Egerton 2253; London, British Library MS Harley 978; Kent, Maidstone Museum A. 13; Cambridge, St. John’s College MS E.8; London, British Library MS Royal 12 E.i; Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Rawlinson G18.
With the exception of the criticism of Harley 978, the manuscript containing the famous “summer canon,” which only contains one piece of Middle English poetry, the scholarly discussion of the miscellanies’ lyrics rarely touches on music (with the notable exception of Helen Deeming’s assiduous work). This critical silence is particularly disconcerting because several of these manuscripts either have notes or signs of music in them, or their lyrical texts have music attached to them in other manuscripts. What I would like to propose, then, is a narrow sampling that will give us a wider picture of what the lyrical record may reveal.
Poetic and Musical Samplings of the Lyric Page
The manuscript layouts of a sample of these medieval multilingual musical miscellanies reveal how musical notes and letters were, at times, considered in the same category. The mise-en-système of these manuscripts also reveal the fluidity, creativity, and cues for audience/listener/reader’s (including the scribal compiler) ability to mashup the multilingual musical matrix. In the manuscript Arundel 248, music is attached to the lyrics, but it is laid out in quite an unusual way. Arundel 248 contains mostly Latin religious texts, including several tracts on sin. However, near the end, there are several lyrical texts that also appear in Digby 86; Jesus 29; and Rawlinson G. 18. On f. 154r, the entire page has Latin, Anglo-Norman, and English verse texted to music. What is interesting about this page, especially in comparison to other musical pages in the MS and the standard layout of thirteenth-century English music, is the folio’s mise-en-page. The scribe has literally laid out a series of lines (particularly in the top half) that then places English poetry, Anglo-Norman French poetry, and Latin poetry with English musical notation. The lack of specific stave lines (though they appear in other parts of this manuscript and at the bottom of this folio) means that the technology of this particular form of sound recording has allowed all these different things—English musical notes, English vernacular notation, Latin notation, and Anglo-Norman vernacular notation—equal space and play. They all have been squeezed onto these black ruled lines (at the top). The mise-en-page, then, allows linguistic differences to be on par with differences in sonic styles. What this manuscript ultimately creates is a miscellany of sound.
The page’s layout cues a sonic palimpsest—or, in contemporary terms, a sonic mash-up—and suggests potentially simultaneous performance. In fact, this vocal performance becomes even more complex in the next slide, f. 154v, because the texted English lyric is a polyphonic piece that also, in many of its manuscripts, has Latin lyrics. This is “Jesu Cristes Milde Moder,” (DIMEV 2831 http://www.dimev.net/record.php?recID=2831) which comes with English lyrics and texted music. It appears to be a version of “Stabat Iuxta Christi Crucem,” though the standard version with music appears in St. John’s College, MS E.8 with the standard English lyrics underneath the melody (DIMEV 5030 http://www.dimev.net/record.php?recID=5030 ). The latter English lyric connected to “Stabat Iuxta” is “Stand wel moder” and there are several versions of the lyric without music—Digby 86, Harley 2253, Royal 8 F.ii, Trinity College, MS Dublin 301. Another manuscript, Royal MS 12 E.i, contains the same music for “Stand wel moder.” Deeming has noted that the lyrics of this version, “Jesu Cristes Milde Moder” correspond closely to “Stabat Iuxta” and could be sung with the standard melody (as seen in Royal 8 F.ii) as a contrafactum. However, you can do a mashup of “Jesu Cristes Milde Moder” and its accompanying music juxtaposed with the text and music of “Stabat Iuxta Christi Crucem.” As an experiment, I had Camerata, the early Music Group at Vassar College, record this piece, “Jesu Cristes Milde Moder” from Arundel 248 with the musical version of “Stabat Iuxta” from St. John’s College MS E.8 (Found in Deeming’s Songs in British Sources (196, 201, 210-211). Other than direction on how to pronounce Middle English (as well as the accompanying contemporary editions of each lyric), I left the performance details to the group themselves to figure out. This is what they recorded – this is the medieval mashup.
The performance shows the creative possibilities of the page, and how music is a very distinct kind of sound player. What song—and particularly multi-part song—has done, is to generate sonic harmony out of linguistic babel. There is a pattern of circulation that intertwines music (both monophony and polyphony) with multilingual lyrics, and this manuscript especially demonstrates those sonic possibilities. These pages demonstrate a diverse soundscape that records and imagines an interesting multimedia and multilingual voice at play. In essence, Arundel 248 displays the different possibilities a reader could have in switching between or layering different modes of sound.
Featured image “staff” by Arko Sen @Flickr CC BY-NC-ND
Dorothy Kim is an Assistant Professor of English at Vassar College. She is a medievalist, digital humanist, and feminist. She has been a Fulbright Fellow, a Ford Foundation Fellow, a Frankel Fellow at the University of Michigan. She has been awarded grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada, and the Mellon Foundation. She is a Korean American who grew up in Los Angeles in and around Koreatown.
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The Blue Notes of Sampling–Primus Luta
Remixing Girl Talk: The Poetics and Aesthetics of Mashups–Aram Sinnreich
A Tribe Called Red Remixes Sonic Stereotypes–Christina Giacona
Welcome back to “The Wobble Continuum,” a three part series here on Sounding Out!. When we last left you, Mike D’Errico had brought us to the intersection of patriarchal cultural norms, music production practices and aesthetics, and the Military Entertainment Complex. His particular focus was on the sounds and practices of brostep (be sure to check out D’Errico’s SO! Comment Klatsch from last week on gendered sounds, too), and some of those sounds leak through to today’s post from Christina Giacona. Giacona turns her ear to the group A Tribe Called Red in order to hear how they reappropriate and redress the sounds of colonization and racism.
As the series’ title suggests, her essay entails another journey to the low end, where things will once again get wobbly.
Guest Editor Justin D. Burton
Since first contact, Native Americans have consistently needed to combat the European stereotypes that portray them as inferior and uncivilized. Barraged with echoes of the same handful of Native tropes since Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Shows, contemporary American society often treats the stereotypical Native American princess, chief, and savage as historical truths, represented recently in Johnny Depp’s portrayal of Tonto in The Lone Ranger. But it is not just the visual image of the Native American that has been stereotyped, so has their sonic sensibility. As documented in the film Reel Injun, Native languages and musics have consistently been “faked” by Hollywood with tricks like backwards English, pig-Latin, and Westernized imaginings of a ubiquitous Native music based on a pan-Indian society that never actually existed. Hollywood often uses Native American music to show a “primitive” society where music’s sole function is to prepare for war. However, the “Indian” drumbeat that accents the first beat of a group of four cannot be found in any traditional Native American or Aboriginal music.
While Native American-directed motion pictures such as Smoke Signals, Powwow Highway, and Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner finally gave agency to Natives in film, it was the all-Native DJ collective A Tribe Called Red’s self-released album and popularization of the Electric Powwow that directly challenges the perception of Native American music in modern society. In this post, I analyze the sonic composition of ATCR’s song “Braves,” exploring how A Tribe Called Red challenges North American stereotypes of Native Americans through the cultural re-appropriation of racist sounds.
After World War I, intertribal powwow gatherings served as a place to celebrate newfound unity among Native Nations returning home from the war. By the 1950s intertribal powwows had spread throughout North America. With the continued strength and importance of the powwow in contemporary Native society, urban Natives in locations like New York City and Ottawa, Canada, have begun to search for ways to create the same sense of unity in urban venues. In 2008, DJs NDN and Bear Witness formed the DJ collective “A Tribe Called Red” and began curating performances in Ottawa the second Saturday of every month called the Electric Powwow: a “wild party” focused on showcasing native talent and aboriginal culture. ATCR’s website describe the music as “ the soundtrack to the contemporary evolution of the powwow.“ Bear elaborates in an interview with NOW magazine, “[the Electric Powwow] was also about creating a space for our community within the club environment.” Hip-hop DJ and turntable champ DJ Shub was invited to join the group in 2010, and the trio spent the next two years evolving the sound of the Electric Powwow into a mash-up of powwow and First Nations music with contemporary club sounds including hip-hop, dubstep, and dance hall.
Much like Fela Kuti’s popularization of Afrobeat in the 1970s, made up of a combination of traditional Nigerian Yoruba polyrhythms with a blend of Western jazz and funk, and Reggaeton’s fusion of Caribbean rhythms with the aesthetics of American hip-hop in the 1990s, the Electric Powwow merges a historically traditional and non-syncretic music with popular and cosmopolitan music in a way that both honors cultural heritage and makes it relevant to a new generation. As NDN points out on Noisey, even their name follows this trend, simultaneously referencing the introduction of Nations at powwows and famous Afrocentric hip-hop group A Tribe Called Quest. The Electric Powwow events are not just about the creation of a new genre of music, but they also serve as a site for ATCR to speak publicly about aboriginal issues and represent themselves as a contemporary face for the urban Native youth renaissance. ATCR’s music videos and live-show projections extensively sample racist imagery from movies and cartoons including old westerns, Back to the Future III, Bugs Bunny, and Disney’s Peter Pan. As a result of their audio-visual activism, the group has become the unofficial soundtrack for the Idle No More movement, which is attempting to reassert Indigenous sovereignty rights and previously signed treaties in Canada.
By taking both visual and sonic symbols that depict racist stereotypes out of their cultural contexts, ATCR draws attention to both the specific racism of each individual image and the ubiquity of racist stereotypes. In their track “Braves,” A Tribe Called Red takes on the U.S. baseball team the Atlanta Braves by remixing the baseball organization’s Tomahawk Chop anthem, itself adopted from Florida State University.
ATCR’s version transforms the innocuous-sounding chant by showcasing its core as a Hollywood-esque stereotype of Native American song. By re-contextualizing the anthem, “Braves” prompts listeners to reinterpret this facet of American sports culture as a racist pageantry of “savage violence.”
The association of the “war chant,” the motion of the Tomahawk Chop, and the fact that these actions call for one team to attack all make it clear that American sports culture appropriates Native Culture as an example of “savagery” and “uncivilized” behavior. The Tomahawk Chop also forgoes the use of a language-based text entirely and instead chooses to use vocables that cannot be attributed to any particular Native nation, ceremony, or meaning. Like Hollywood’s use of backwards English and the war drumbeat to represent “Indians,” the Tomahawk Chop bears no resemblance to any real Native Nation’s music, acting as yet another imagined primitive stereotype that marginalizes actual Native American music.
On A Tribe Called Red’s SoundCloud page, “Braves”’s description reads, “We wanted to make a song for all the racist and culturally inappropriate sports teams that are still used today!” The group accomplishes this by creating dissonance between contemporary electronic drumbeats and the “traditional” paramilitary marching band arrangement of the “Tomahawk Chop.” “Braves” utilizes a standard dubstep song structure in 4/4 at 140 beats per minute that includes an intro, two main sections that include melodic materials, a breakdown/buildup section, a vocal “drop” which announces and is followed by the climax of the piece, and an outro that brings the track to a close. However, “Braves” does differ from other dubstep songs in the marked separation and interaction between the Tomahawk Chop samples performed by voices and marching band and the composed elements of the song performed as the Wub—a deep, wobbly synthesized sound—and accompanied by a HiHat cymbal pecking away at syncopated rhythms. Even though all the melodic content of “Braves” is based on variations of the Tomahawk Chop melody, ATCR never fully integrates actual samples of the Tomahawk Chop into the composition. The marching band and chant samples are treated as an unwanted and unexpected visitor to a party; they seem important at the entrance, but they are given an increasingly diminished role until they finally exit with a whimper.
Written as a protest against racist sports organizations to help convince them to stop using characterized ceremonies and mascots, “Braves” contains that struggle within the composition itself: dubstep, sounded as the Wub and HiHat, eventually renders the Tomahawk Chop sonically impotent. The “Tribe” drop, when ATCR marks the song by saying “tribe,” acts as the turning point in “Braves.” After this point the Wub and HiHat consistently overwhelm the sampled material. In a standard dubstep song, the tribe drop would be followed by the climax: the strongest, most complex musical section of the piece. However, the Tomahawk Chop sample that follows this drop is immediately swallowed up by a low-pass filter that rubs out the tune, starting with the highest pitched sounds, over the course of sixteen measures, heightening the lower end of the sonic spectrum. Only then does the true climax occur. The Wub and HiHat appear here for the first time without the sample band or vocalizations. After the “Tribe” drop, the samples of the Tomahawk Chop are either dominated by the Wub or swallowed up by low-pass filters and fades.
In this way, “Braves” acts as a three-minute sonic story of reappropriation. The marching band arrangement and vocables represent the common stereotypes of Native American music perpetuated by Western Culture. The Wub and HiHat act as disapproving commentary on these stereotypes. “Tribe,” the only word used in the entire song, not only sounds ATCR as a group, but also marks the point in the song when ATCR begins to create their own image of Native music while simultaneously disempowering the strength of the marching band.
Just like the rebel American marching band’s reappropriation of the song Yankee Doodle in the Revolutionary War, A Tribe Called Red employs irony: in order to get the song the audience has to understand the racism, and while that sort of understanding seems to represent a steep learning curve for a culture so saturated in racist stereotypes, it is also exactly the sort of understanding a multicultural nation needs in order to thrive. Like Afrobeat, Reggaeton, and the more recent alternative hip-hop group Das Racist, ATCR is an underground voice within American popular culture that speaks with reverence for its own traditions while challenging the popular perception of race relations and breaking new ground in contemporary art. “Braves” proves that the reappropriation of sonic space is a powerful tool in the fight for cultural agency.
Featured image: “ATCR 4” by Flickr user MadameChoCho, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Christina Giacona is the Director of the Los Angeles New Music Ensemble and Instructor of Music at the University of Oklahoma. Dedicated to performing and researching the music of her generation, Christina teaches courses in Native American, World, and Popular Music. Since founding the Los Angeles New Music Ensemble in 2007, Christina has commissioned and premiered over twenty new works for the ensemble; run an international composers competition, recorded three albums, and collaborated with DJs, MCs, animators, choreographers, projectionists, and film producers.
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“Remixing Girl Talk: The Poetics and Aesthetics of Mashups”-Aram Sinnreich
Editor’s Note: Sound Studies is often accused of being a presentist enterprise, too fascinated with digital technologies and altogether too wed to the history of sound recording. Sounding Out!‘s last forum of 2013, “Sound in the Nineteenth Century,” addresses this critique by showcasing the cutting edge work of three scholars whose diverse, interdisciplinary research is located soundly in the era just before the advent of sound recording: Mary Caton Lingold (Duke), Caitlin Marshall (Berkeley), and Daniel Cavicchi (Rhode Island School of Design). In examining nineteenth century America’s musical practices, listening habits, and auditory desires through SO!‘s digital platform, Lingold, Marshall, and Cavicchi perform the rare task of showcasing how history’s sonics had a striking resonance long past their contemporary vibrations while performing the power of the digital medium as a tool through which to, as Early Modern scholar Bruce R. Smith dubs it, “unair” past auditory phenomena –all the while sharing unique methodologies that neither rely on recording nor bemoan their lack. Last week, the series began with Mary Caton Lingold‘s exploration of the materialities of Solomon Northup’s fiddling as self-represented in 12 Years a Slave. This week, Caitlin Marshall treats us to a fascinating new take on Harriet Beecher Stowe’s listening practice and dubious rhetorical remixing of black sonic resistance with white conceptions of revolutionary independence. —Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman, Editor-in-Chief
Harriet Beecher Stowe: novelist, anti-slavery agitator, antebellum DJ? In 1852, Stowe penned one of the most famous works of fiction in American history: Uncle Tom’s Cabin. A sentimental work, the novel dramatized the lives of fictional slaves searching for freedom. Eager to achieve a national hearing of her anti-slavery agenda, Stowe’s novel required a voice that could “speak” in morally efficacious tones against slavery. To stage this voice, one that hinged on a sonic appeal to inter-racial sympathy, Stowe sampled and mixed two powerfully persuasive, if diametrically opposed, cultures of speaking and listening in the United States.
The first of these cultures revolved around revolutionary American understandings of political rhetoric. According to Jay Fliegelman, this tradition of republican oratory drew upon 18th century philosophical principles to recast Declaring Independence as a speech act. In his Declaration, Jefferson announced the ‘self-evidence’ of an American people by performing a nationally specific common sense in two important ways. First, he displayed a breed of American moral feeling in direct contrast to that of the colonial British; second, he did so through an oratorical style that inaugurated a common, American modality for articulating and hearing truth. The felt and sounded show of a common ‘self’ evidenced Americans’ natural rights to independence, and installed a markedly white revolutionary acoustics of freedom.
Stowe’s second sample was a misappropriation of a new mode of hearing in the 1845 Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave. As Sounding Out! Editor in Chief Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman has argued in “The Word and the Sound: Listening to the Sonic Colour-line in Frederick Douglass’s 1845 Narrative,” Douglass’s narrative was a direct attempt to bend and subvert what she terms “the sonic colour-line” (21). An acoustic schema that racialized sound and recruited the ear in black subjection, the sonic color line was epitomized by the republican oratorical tradition wherein meaning was linked to white articulation, and meaninglessness to black utterance, heard simply as ‘noise.’
Contrastingly, the reformed sonic model presented in the Narrative sought to position black sound as a site of meaning and resistance, and challenged Northern readers to question and remap both their hearing of such sounds and their ethical relationship to black meaning. Jonathan Cruz, in Culture on the Margins, terms this new mode of hearing “ethnosympathy” and defines it as an “interpretive ethos of pathos” (3). Importantly, Stoever-Ackerman highlights that Douglass did not seek to cast black sound as “a sentimental appeal to truth,” but “rather [as] a challenge to dominant notions of truth produced and disseminated through the ear” (31). Stowe however, did not hear Douglass’s message so subtlety, and like many Abolitionists, was quick to commandeer black sound for a white social justice platform wherein it served as the innately moral (and romantically racialized) sound of sentimental suffering. Thus, it was this mishearing of the strains of black resistance that Stowe remixed with the white tones of revolutionary independence to spin a brand new soundtrack for the antebellum era. I term this soundtrack the acoustics of passing.
A vocal melodrama (a literal speech act) in black and white, the acoustics of passing was an amalgamated grid of sonic intelligibility invested in the political power of voice that encapsulated the seemingly antithetical (to white America) tones of republican virtue and black experience, and was deployed by Stowe to narrate the fantastical passage of African Americans from bondage to freedom. Composed first through Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and propagated later in her paternalistic relationships with black female artists, Stowe’s acoustics was ostensibly a powerful tool in the fight against slavery, but was ultimately used by the author to recapitulate her whitewashed vision of America.
Stowe’s acoustics appear in Uncle Tom’s Cabin in novel’s first passing scene: George Harris’s Spanish masquerade. Stowe frames this scene prominently with the fugitive slave advertisement that George’s master, Mr. Harris, has posted. Many scholars have pointed to the way in which the visual organizes the practice of passing, but it is important to note that in this scene, the oral/aural is equally emphasized as key to a passing performance; Mr. Harris, for one, notes in his advertisement that George’s keen eloquence and literacy are the fugitive’s distinguishing features. Moreover, the advertisement seems to warn, in combination with George’s European complexion, he is rendered seemingly indistinguishable from a white man. Mr. Harris expects George to attempt such a passing ruse, and therefore clearly identifies the marks that will testify to George’s slave status. George
is deeply scarred on his back and shoulders; has been branded in his right hand with the letter H (95).
Contrary to Mr. Harris’ predictions, however, George enters the roadhouse disguised as a Spanish gentleman. To pull off this guise George darkens his skin and hair. In the essay, “Spanish Masquerade and the Drama of Racial Identity in Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” Julia Stern argues that George’s third term identity, “nonblack, nonwhite,” is radical because it upsets the logic of the antebellum racial dichotomy. However, we should note that this dark masquerade allows Stowe to symbolically align George, a mixed race man, with both his black and white parentage. In darkening his skin George pays tribute to his slave mother, while by adopting a well-known Anglican slaveholding surname, Henry Butler, George references his absentee father. Thus, the Spanish disguise is Stowe’s reminder that George is passing for who he claims to be.
Yet before George can break from the tavern on his way towards Canada, he must reveal himself to his former employer, Mr. Wilson, who, George believes, has recognized him. In the long speech that follows, George must convince Mr. Wilson to discard a juridical sense of right in favor of an ethical one. Carefully arranged through Stowe’s acoustics of passing, George’s oratory presents equal parts white republican sentiment and black pathos, sentimentally persuading Wilson (and a listening America) of the moral justice in permitting him to pass to freedom.
Well aware that her readers at home would have been reciting the text of Uncle Tom’s Cabin aloud, Stowe is careful score George’s speech for both sonic whiteness and blackness–leaving intertextual clues that act like dynamic musical notation to indicate how George’s performance should sound. To begin, Stowe spells out her source material for George’s speech by directly citing Jefferson’s “Declaration” in a footnote to George’s opening salvo. Stowe wants readers to hear George’s speech as the realization of the American Republican promise. Americans, Stowe argues, are in a state no better than the British of the 1770’s: like the tyrannical father/monarch King George, Americans are “deaf to the voice of justice & of consanguinity.” A lengthy address, George’s monologue is an account of the domestic crimes of slavery, and, like the Declaration, is a complaint of personal injury at the hands of a nation that has been as negligent in looking after its blood kin as has George Harris’s father. Concluding with the passionate exclamation, “I’ll fight for my liberty to the last breath I breathe! You say your fathers did it; if it was right for them, it is right for me!” (102), George’s Declaration claims the rhetorical, and therefore natural, rights that are his white, paternal inheritance.
The sonic difference in George’s speech however, is the pathos of it, the “tears, and flashing eyes, and despairing gesture,” here meant to index the orator’s audible black suffering. Though setup as racially inscrutable in this scene, Stowe takes great pains to ‘out’ George’s hidden blackness. Not only does Stowe symbolically darken George to cite his mother’s race, but she draws attention to the black body through repeated citation of his scars. This figuration of speaking wounds was prevalent in the popular imagination of Stowe’s day, and represented the white fantasy that black speech was the ‘playback’ of slave experience as recorded in the grooves of the traumatized and marked black body. Frederick Douglass, for example, recounts in My Bondage and My Freedom that he was first introduced as a speaker to the Abolitionist lecture circuit as a “graduate from the peculiar institution…with my diploma written on my back!” (359).
Miraculously, at the climax of George’s sonically mixed oration, Mr. Wilson is overcome with a revised sense of justice, one consonant with George’s bid for freedom. In this overdetermined acoustic schema, Stowe aligns progressive white ethos and republican sentiment with the distinct sounds of black pathos, and positions any mode of hearing contrary to this inter-racial sonic sympathy as un-Christian, un-patriotic, and detrimental to the future of the Union.
Yet Stowe’s acoustics of passing is decidedly supremacist. To begin, George’s mixed sound is haunted by the specter of forced conception and familial alienation ubiquitous to slavery. Additionally, while Stowe deploys the acoustics of passing towards an anti-slavery platform, her sonic schema ultimately preserves the social and political function of whiteness. Thus, while George’s sonic blackness is essential for playing out the moral justice of Stowe’s cause, it is this same audible blackness that permits Stowe to ultimately write the political problem of inter-racial integration off to Liberia with the entire Harris family.
Herein is the problem of Stowe’s acoustics: its sonic inter-racial sympathy at once promised speakers of color the agency of a sounded path to freedom (that which George performs and narrates) while ultimately deploying white practices of containment. And Stowe indeed dramaturged the lives of several mixed race artists through these acoustics, most notably the Dramatic Reader, Mary Elizabeth Webb and the concert vocalist Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield.
As I continue to investigate the careers of women of color like Greenfield and Webb, I think about how Stowe’s acoustics could have empowered and constrained their bids for resistance, rights and recognition.
Featured Image: “Representative Americans” Image of Harriet Beecher Stowe surrounded by characters from Uncle Tom’s Cabin, 1893, Remixed by Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman
Caitlin Marshall is a PhD Candidate in Performance Studies at UC Berkeley. A vocalist herself, Caitlin applies her practice-based knowledge of voice towards the study of what it meant to ‘sound American’ during the nation’s first independent century. Focusing on ‘Othered’ American vernaculars at the intersections of race, disability, gender, and ethnicity, her dissertation, ‘Power in the Tongue’: Crippled Speech & Vocal Culture in Antebellum America, takes seriously the metaphor of voice in American democracy, and works at the confluence of Performance, Sound, and Disability Studies to mobilize speech impairment as a broad material and theoretical category for investigating how American citizenship was established as an exclusionary vocal limit in the antebellum era.
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If you missed our #WOTW75 event, we will be re-broadcasting many of the key segments in the coming week. So, for a special Halloween treat, tune in to Sounding Out!‘s custom remix of Orson Welles’ The War of the Worlds. Here, Binghamton University professor, Monteith McCollum dazzles with a podcast that updates the original into an eerie piece of sound art. Join Monteith as he and his Performative Processes class explore techniques of audio production nicked from the era of live radio theater. These analog techniques have been weaved into a remix of War of the Worlds guaranteed to send chills up your spine. So set the lights low, lock your door, and prepare for a podcast you won’t soon forget.
Monteith McCollum is an independent filmmaker, musician and educator who has taught at various schools in Chicago, Illinois and upstate New York such as Columbia College, Broome Community College and Ithaca College. He has been a visiting artist at colleges including Boston Museum School, Art Institute of Chicago and University of Iowa. You can learn more about his work at monteithmcollum.com.
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