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Troubling Silence: Sonic and Affective Dispossessions of the African Slave Trade

The United States has a slavery problem. Just last week, President Trump name-checked the political right’s current favorite past-president Andrew Jackson, suggesting that as a “swashbuckler,” Jackson would have prevented the Civil War…unlike Lincoln. Buried in Trump’s admiration for Jackson’s supposed intellect and political prowess, is the very real belief that the Southern slaveholding class, including Jackson who owned 150 slaves at the time of his death, would have maintained sovereignty and continued to make their wealth from the institution. Trump’s vile public utterance, which is misguided for many reasons, including the detail that Jackson died in 1845 and, in fact, could not have expressed his disapproval of the conflict as Trump recalled, is par for the course in this recent period wherein inane white supremacist rhetoric is normalized as acceptable in American public discourse.

Normalization of white supremacist rhetoric via American news media

Often, I am reminded of a shocking moment that I witnessed from the field in Bahia, Brazil, back in 2007. As I watched the only American-based news channel available to me in my rental apartment, former-Fox News host Bill O’Reilly began explaining to Senator John McCain that supporters of so-called illegal immigrants were intent on dismantling “the white male, Christian power structure” of the United States.

In the ensuing years, similar expressions of racial anxiety have led to acts of domestic terrorism as well as increased deportations and the surveillance and harassment of Black and Latino communities, reinforcing the stakes of my research. What is the place of African-descended peoples in a nation full of such political hostility? With the racial rhetoric at base level and the fear-mongering at a peak, what do we make of the persistent contemporary contention that America needs to be made great again, effectively, though somewhat covertly, wishing for a return to an era in the purported idyllic American past wherein the racial order depended on and thrived off of literal and figurative forms of Black death? How do we trouble the intentional silence about our actual history and thwart foolish advancements toward replicating the great American past?’

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My book Afro-Atlantic Flight: Speculative Returns and the Black Fantastic (Duke UP, 2017) begins answering these questions. In Afro-Atlantic Flight, I trace the ways that post-civil rights Black American artists, intellectuals, and travelers envision literal and figurative flight back to Africa as a means by which to heal the dispossession caused by the slave trade and the ensuing forms of oppression and societal alienation that have continued in the aftermath.

Through ethnographic, historical, literary, and filmic analyses, I show how a range of cultural producers engage with speculative thought about slavery, the spiritual realm, and Africa, thereby structuring the imaginary that propels future return journeys. I go on to examine Black Americans’ cultural heritage tourism in and migration to Ghana, Bahia, Brazil, and various sites of slavery in the U.S. South to interrogate the ways that a cadre of actors produces “Africa” and refigures master narratives. What I found in my research is that while these material flights do not always satisfy Black Americans’ individualistic desires for homecoming and liberation, there is a corrective: the revolutionary possibilities inherent in psychic speculative returns open up the egalitarian opportunity for the development of a new and contemporary Pan-Africanist stance that works to more effectively address the contemporary resonances of slavery that exist across the Afro-Atlantic.

As I conducted research, I was interested in how narratives about slavery and Africa are crafted as well as how they travel in literature, film, and the cultural roots tourism industry. To be sure, I did not conceive of this project as a sound studies inquiry, but throughout my more than eight years of active research, I was struck often by the sonic and the affective as I examined states of dispossession. For example, if I close my eyes and still myself, I can hear that which emanated from the Black expatriate in Bahia, Brazil, who I asked to reflect on freedom – he began his answer with a solemn, gospel music-inflected improvisation of the word/concept.

I remember the crashing of waves at various points along the Atlantic Ocean; often, I stood somberly and marveled at its power and the seeming fury that reverberates, particularly along and across sites of the transatlantic slavetrade. The ways in which the articulation of narrative scripts at remnants of slavery vary – how tour guides’ oral pacing, tenors, and selected content differ according to the racial composition of the visiting groups struck me as intentional and profitable, though not necessarily contrived. And various interviewees and writers recalled and created, respectively, ghostly felt and heard encounters with their long-dead enslaved ancestors; I remain moved by their welcoming posture to exploring this sensory haunting.

European slave traders forced tens of thousands of African people onto slave ships through the “Door of No Return” at  Elmina Castle, Ghana; many died here before making the “middle passage.”  Built by the Portuguese in 1482, Elmina Castle was the center of the Dutch Slave Trade through 1814  (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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The excerpt that follows is drawn from the fourth chapter of Afro-Atlantic Flight, “Crafting Symbolic Africas in a Geography of Silence: Return Travels to and the Renarrativization of the U.S. South.” In Chapter 4, I sought to listen to and think through the function of silence in master accounts and the subversive sounds of speculative counter-narratives about slavery in the U.S. South.


In the late 1990s, I took an evening walking tour called “The Ghosts of Charleston,” a guided encounter with the supernatural in Charleston, South Carolina. As we strolled around the city’s downtown area and through winding cobblestoned streets, admiring the horse-drawn carriages and rainbow-colored buildings, we paused often at cemeteries, centuries-old homes, hotels, a former jail, and markets to witness the locations of the occult. Our guide opined that a range of elements whereby widespread death occurred—hurricanes, floods, fires, and the Civil War—had rendered the city ripe for paranormal activity. The dead, he intimated, have unfinished business. What struck me about the tour and the numerous visits that I had made to plantations throughout the Lowcountry throughout my childhood in South Carolina during school field trips and family excursions, as well as a researcher in more recent years, is that other than in passing references, Charleston’s history as a major slave port is glossed over in the larger tourism industry to promote representations of the imagined antebellum South of the Lost Cause. In downtown Charleston, a former slave market sits quietly near a more recently constructed block called the Market, which is surrounded by expensive hotels, eateries, and boutiques that serve as background for a sort of souvenir bazaar at which Gullah women and their children weave and sell seagrass baskets crafted using what are believed to be West African techniques passed down from their ancestors [For more on these historical claims, see Gerald L. Davis’s “Afro-American Coil Basketry in Charleston County, South Carolina” in American Folklife.  Also of interest here is Patricia Jones Jackson’s When Roots Die: Endangered Traditions on the Sea Islands].  The silence about slavery betrays the trauma, dispossession, and death suffered to build and sustain the wealth that, if one looks at and listens critically (even to the silence), hovers over the area, mocking the evidence of the great injury that was the transatlantic slave trade.

Charleston 1837 Bed and Breakfast, Image by Flickr User Anthony (CC BY-SA 2.0)

“The Ghosts of Charleston” tour guide’s lone story that described the spirit of a slave was about a boy named George, a decidedly gentle spirit who is said to pester guests impishly at the 1837 Bed and Breakfast. George drowned in 1843 after he jumped into the harbor in pursuit of a ship that was transporting his parents to a Virginia plantation. Today, George taunts hotel patrons by shaking the bed in one room and by turning the lights on and off repeatedly in another. He is sometimes seen playing in the building or swaying in a rocking chair. George’s nuisance, the story goes, is remedied easily when one cracks a whip to frighten him. To relegate Charleston’s cruel history of slavery to the margins of the historical master narrative by repeating stories about slaves that make light of the institution while reinforcing its horrors—ships utilized to separate parent from child, the horrific struggle that ensued as the child fought drowning, and the whip’s lash—rewounds. Most disquieting is that 1837’s guests are encouraged to participate in the past, wherein it becomes a diversion to threaten the spirit of a slave with force, reenacting the role of the master. The lore identifies a playful ghost rather than a sad spirit who is frightened, crying, screaming, gurgling as he writhed in the ocean, or gasping for air. Why is it that the unsilenced ghostly specters of slaves in these Lowcountry master narratives are not enraged and vengeful?

In the post‒civil rights moment, Black Americans are not only returning to the South to live permanently in a reverse migration that has befuddled onlookers, but Black American cultural producers are also working against the region’s geography of silence to illustrate how the ideologies that undergirded past social configurations in the South redound in the present, moving toward a broad Black fantastic frame. Through analyses of these points of return and revision, this chapter contends that Black Americans embrace speculative thought to recast cultural production about the South; challenge what is commemorated as significant in historical preservation; and create alternative “African” worlds in the purview of the racism and the often spurious narratives of progress that reign in the South, particularly at sites of slavery. Such fantastic reimaginings contest and thereby perform a democratization of contemporary master narratives and, for some, attend to the desires of those who are determined to realize Black social life in the American South despite its sordid histories.

Troubling the Silence in Southern Master Narratives

Growing up in Midway with the coloreds, I spent the night at Molly Montague’s house in the bed with five niggers—spent the night with them. In the same bed, eat from the same table, drink from the same thing, play with them every day. I mean, they were family. I mean, as far as I was concerned. They loved you.

Winston Silver’s curious memory of a colorblind childhood in North Carolina in the pre‒civil rights era reflects a disturbing disconnect that his cousin, the film critic and novice documentarian Godfrey Cheshire, explores in the film Moving Midway.

The film was conceived initially to chronicle the relocation of the home at Midway Plantation to a quieter tract of land away from the urban sprawl in Raleigh, North Carolina. Yet as Cheshire scoured historical records and interviewed members of his mother’s family, he found that most narratives about slavery at Midway went unspoken, though it once was a thriving tobacco plantation. During his search, Cheshire discovered that there existed a branch of Black people on his family tree who might be able to assist him in developing a more complete narrative about his familial history. The film, then, traces two interrelated stories. The first is a catalog of a white Southern family’s desire to preserve its plantation home, the “grand old lady” and “sacred center of the family” that sat on property that was settled by their ancestors in 1739. The second story is that of Cheshire’s chance encounter with Robert Hinton, a Black American history professor whose grandfather was owned by Cheshire’s great-great-grandfather. Hinton’s inclusion in the film acts to challenge the myths of purity that the majority of Cheshire’s maternal family members had embraced about their ancestral past.

Midway plantation house, post move, image by Flickr user Preservation North Carolina (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Perhaps the most compelling thread examined centers on Cheshire’s family’s holding steadfastly to memories that were imparted to them by their ancestor Mary Hilliard Hinton (Aunt Mimi), who was fascinated with the idea of pastoral pasts and constructing genealogical maps that connected the Hinton family to the British aristocracy, despite her certain knowledge that various indiscretions by the Hinton slaveholders had resulted in mixed-race Black American kin. What Cheshire reluctantly finds and attempts to rectify is how he is implicated in what he sets out to explore—the lengths to which crafters of genteel, idealistic Southern myths often go to extricate slavery, violence, and racism from how the past is articulated. While the slave plantation serves as a place for wistful Americans to recall the zenith of white superiority, these vestiges of slavery also haunt the region and negate narratives of progress. Black Americans have begun visiting plantation sites and often become vocal about how the lives of their ancestors are erased from the tourism scripts. The moments of rupture in Moving Midway are indicative of what happens when the Black and white branches of a Southern family attempt to come to terms with their ties to blue-blooded ancestors, whose wealth was accumulated through their continued participation in the violence and inhumanity that marked slavery.

Still from Moving Midway trailer, Robert Hinton talks with Godfrey Cheshire

Robert Hinton appears throughout the film as a historical expert and also as someone who Cheshire initially and naively believes holds an emotional stake in ensuring that the land upon which Midway sits and the home itself are preserved positively in the collective memory. Hinton tours the plantation site in search of evidence of slavery and his long-dead ancestors, seeking out slave quarters and grave sites and showing very little interest in Cheshire’s family’s romantic stories about Southern gentility. Early in the film, Hinton is asked to attend a Civil War reenactment with Cheshire and Cheshire’s mother, Elizabeth. This moment highlights the rifts that would arise later between Hinton and Cheshire, who had become friendly during the making of the film. At the reenactment, Elizabeth attempts to convince Hinton that the Civil War was about states’ rights unlike what the (liberal) media and historians suggest about slavery’s significance to the conflict. When Cheshire questions Hinton about his response to the reenactment, a tense moment occurs between him and Cheshire, whose film narration theretofore had been somewhat progressive in its historical analyses of race and slavery in the South:

Hinton: It looked like it was fun for the people involved, but it—it represents to me a misremembering of the war of Southern history and why all this stuff happened. I think the absence of Black people at a thing like this encourages people to think that the Civil War was not about slavery.

Cheshire: Right. But also, there was the argument that was of states’ rights. That that was—wasn’t that the argument? But I mean, don’t look at me like that. That was the argument that was put forward, right?

Hinton: I just think the whole argument about states’ rights is an avoidance, and if slavery had not been an issue, the issue of states’ rights would have never come up. My attitude about this is that I’m perfectly happy to have [the Civil War reenactors] keep fighting the war as long as they keep losing it.

[Both men laugh.]

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“Crafting Symbolic Africas in a Geography of Silence: Return Travels to and the Renarrativization of the U.S. South,” in Afro-Atlantic Flight, Michelle D. Commander, excerpted from pages 173-220. Copyright, 2017, Duke University Press. All rights reserved. Republished by permission of the copyright holder. http://www.dukeupress.edu

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Featured Image: The author  listening to the Atlantic from the Cape Coast Slavecastle in Ghana, courtesy of the author

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Michelle D. Commander is a native of the midlands of South Carolina. She is an associate professor of English and Africana Studies at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. In 2010, Commander received her Ph.D. in American Studies and Ethnicity from the University of Southern California. She spent the 2012-2013 school year in Accra, Ghana, as a Fulbright Lecturer/Researcher, where she taught at the University of Ghana-Legon. Commander’s research has been supported by numerous organizations including the Ford Foundation, the Fulbright Foundation, and the Irvine Foundation. She is currently working on three projects: a book manuscript on the function of speculative ideologies and science in contemporary African American cultural production; a book-length project on the production of Black counter-narratives of the U.S. South; and a creative nonfiction volume on African American mobility. She has also begun engaging in essay writing for public audiences, which has been cathartic. You can find her essays at The Guardian and The Los Angeles Review of Books.

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Sounding Visibility in Anglo-Latin Prose

series co-editors Dorothy Kim and Christopher Roman

series co-editors Dorothy Kim and Christopher Roman

Here is a distilled introduction to the latest installment of Medieval Sound, Aural Ecology, by series co-editors Dorothy Kim and Christopher Roman.  To read their previous introduction, click here.  To read the first run of the series in 2016, click here. To read the full introduction to “Aural Ecology” and to read last week’s post by Thomas Blake, click here.

Aural Ecology

What is considered music, noise, or harmony is historically and culturally contingent.  [. . .] The essays in “Aural Ecologies” address the issue of unharmonious sounds, sounds that often mark dissonant critical identities—related to race, religion, material—that reverberate across different soundscapes/landscapes. In this way, this group of essays begins to open up the stakes of Medieval Sound in relation to what contemporary sound studies has begun to address in relation to cultural studies, architectural and environmental soundscapes, and the marking of race through the vibrations of the body.  —Dorothy Kim and Christopher Roman


While the raucous rancor of last year’s Super Tuesday was dominating network news and social networks—which, sadly, seems so long ago now—a quieter news story emerged from the tranquil fields of Lincolnshire: an Anglo-Saxon island has been discovered.  Its artifacts are some of the most remarkable to have been found in recent decades; among these finds are writing utensils, game pieces, butchered animal bones, and other indicators of a sustained trading community.

The Guardian reported that surveys and software enabled the archaeologists to model the island in its contemporary landscape and seascape, revealing that it had once rested “between a basin and a ditch.”

This placement, the lead archaeologist continued, suggests that the site  “was a focal point in the Lincolnshire area, connected to the outside world through water courses.” So if these reimagined waterways can show us how people saw the site, can they tell us how people heard it, as well?

I think so, especially because of the recent work on ancient acoustics in early churches. In February, The Atlantic published an article on the recent scholarly collaboration among an art historian-archaeologist, a music producer-engineer, and the founder of the USC Immersive Audio Laboratory (yes, it’s a real thing). This super-interdisciplinary team was able to “map the acoustic fingerprint of several [Byzantine] churches,” which were shown to have been deliberately “designed to shift a person’s sensory experience.” Now, the USC member explains, they can record a chant, “process it … and all of the sudden we have performances happening in medieval structures.” They can actually rebuild the sounds of our ancient past. [By the way, Allison Meier of hyperallergic reported on this story as well; her article provides links to the Escape Velocity podcast on Acoustic Museums, which is well worth a listen].

Interior of Lincoln Cathedral, Image by Flickr User Gary Ullah, (CC BY 2.0)

Interior of Lincoln Cathedral, Image by Flickr User Gary Ullah, (CC BY 2.0)

If they can recreate the lost sounds of ancient structures, and archaeologists can recreate early medieval topographies, then it stands to reason that the recreation of past landscapes, and even seascapes, might not be far behind.

But was sound different across the cooler, wetter climate of the early Middle Ages? Were the hearers’ auditory contexts drastically different in a pre-modern world? To what effect?

To me, what’s tantalizing about the Lincolnshire island is that it was on the border of the early medieval fenland—an area described by the 8th-century monk Felix as dense and undulating, “now consisting of marshes, now of bogs, sometimes of black waters overhung by fog, sometimes studded with wooded islands and traversed by the windings of tortuous streams” (Ch XXIV, trans Colgrave p 87). In such an aqueous environment, sound would have travelled well, staying close to the cool, dense air hovering over the waters.

Dark skies over fenlands, near Spilsby, Lincolnshire. Taken by Lutmans on Flickr

Dark skies over fenlands, near Spilsby, Lincolnshire. Taken by Lutmans on Flickr, (CC BY 2.0).

In his prose hagiography, the Life of St Guthlac, Felix enshrines certain sounds in the wetland ecology of Guthlac’s surroundings. He does so most explicitly at the landing-place, where visitors must “sound a signal” to alert the hermit that they’ve arrived. But what was this signal, and why would Felix bother to emphasize such a mundane practice of alerting your host when you’ve arrived?

In monastic communities bells were used to sound the Daily Office to calling each member together in prayer. As moderns, we should remember that these bells—frequent, sonic interventions of everyday life—were rung on the shore, or in a church, or on monastic grounds rather than from the larger towers of later belfries (an exception to this is the early Irish Round Tower). These small hand-held bells “of hammered sheets or cast metal” which “would presumably have clanged or tinkled, rather than tolled sonorously across a distance” (Resounding Community, 103).

Bell-shrine; bronze and silver parcel-gilt; made for the bell of St Conall Cael;

Bell-shrine; bronze and silver parcel-gilt; made for the bell of St Conall Cael.

Bells were spiritual and supernatural; they could cleanse or curse, and were kept by clerics and lay people alike. They were sometimes sworn on, as if they were relics. Sometimes, they were made into relics.  For more about early Irish bell traditions, click here and or/ here.

In Northwest Europe in the Early Middle Ages, Christopher Loveluck describes David Hinton’s work on a seventh-century smith found buried alone, “next to the marshland and waterways to the sea, with his tools, a bell, a fine seax and a silk-wrapped amulet” and therefore “emblematic of the transition from such ‘outsider’ itinerant artisan/merchants to the vibrant artisan and trading communities of the emporia ports.” Still, the“[p]erception of threat from itinerant ‘outsiders’ is emphasized in the late seventh-century Anglo-Saxon law code of Wihtred, by the obligation on non-local travellers and foreigners to announce themselves with bells or horns, prior to leaving principal roads or trackways to approach settlements.”

england-map

For seventh-and eighth century people, then, bells sounded time, community, and stillness as well as place, strangeness, and travel. In either instance, the aural intrusion always betokened a human presence. And of course, these were some of the only sounds that weren’t naturally occurring; this might have been as close as they got to manmade sound pollution.

For Guthlac, sound was especially important because he could not see far from his earthen hermitage. Not having any need for a bell to sound the Daily Office, he nevertheless depended on some kind of signal for approaching visitors.

In one episode, distraught parents bring their once-possessed, now very ill son to Crowland in the hope that he might be cured. This is quite different from an earlier visitation from Wilfrid and Æthelbald, whom Guthlac knew personally, and with whom he might have traded correspondence. To me, this is the real test of Guthlac’s grace: will he help the neediest? The stranger? The tired, desperate parents? Does the bell, or whatever the signal is, proclaim their sameness or difference?

We can sense the tension in the passage, during their sounding of the signal and speaking to Guthlac:

Then when the sun rose in its splendour, they approached the landing place of this said island, and having struck the signal they begged for a talk with the great man. But he, as was his custom, burning with the flame of most excellent charity, presented himself before them…[and after hearing their story] immediately seized the hand of the tormented boy and led him into his oratory, and there prayed on bended knees, fasting continually for three days…(XLI, Colgrave 131).

The parents had expected to wait; they expected to plead on their son’s behalf. They expected a struggle to be heard. But—and I do think that’s a rather crucial autem in the Latin—Guthlac is eager to listen; the sound on the shore was enough.

What’s more, his cure is a series of utterances. He prays (aloud) for three days straight, without pausing to eat. And after ritually rinsing and breathing the “breath of healing” on the boy, the child, “like one who is brought into port out of the billows and the boiling waves, heaved some deep sighs from the depth of his bosom and realized that he had been restored to health”(XLI, Colgrave 131).

Image from National Museum of Ireland

Image from National Museum of Ireland

I’m a mom to an asthmatic toddler, so I find myself quite moved by this scene. I can imagine ringing the bell—the thing I might have heard in church, or had in my home; the signal by which monks were called to prayer and children inside for curfew—to make a sound for myself. I can imagine traveling with my husband to a strange place far from home, not knowing what would happen. I can imagine using something everyday for something extraordinary, and having the sound of my arrival echo with anticipation. If I were this mother, I would hear it bounce off the marshes and off the low-lying islands. The dawn would be warming the air above us, amplifying our sound. And I would be standing there, with my child wrapped in my arms, hoping to see someone emerge from a barrow; a man of God whose isolation and entrenchment was supposed to be part of his holiness.

The sound travels outwards to the hermitage and back with the hermit—the echo of her hope, meeting them at the shore. This is a soundscape and a landscape in which time seems still on the shore, but sped through in the oratory. Felix joins both sites, and both temporalities, with the simile of the boy as one rescued from shipwreck catching his breath as he washes ashore. The image recalls the sound of their arrival, and that first bell still seems to ring through this narrative of hope against all odds.

Wouldn’t it be great to hear that again?

Featured Image: Guthlac sailing to Crowland with Tatwin. © British Library, Harley Roll, Y 6, roundel 4, from Medieval Histories.com

Rebecca Shores is a Ph.D. candidate in English Literature at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her Dissertation is entitled “Bringing Saints to the Sea: Ships in Old English and Anglo-Latin Hagiography.”

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(Dis)orienting the Bell: Aural Assault from A Game of Thrones to Richard Coer de Lyon

series co-editors Dorothy Kim and Christopher Roman

series co-editors Dorothy Kim and Christopher Roman

Hear YE! Below is the introduction to the latest installment of Medieval Sound, Aural Ecology, by series co-editors Dorothy Kim and Christopher Roman.  To read their previous introduction, click here.  To read the first run of the series in 2016, click here.

Aural Ecology

What is considered music, noise, or harmony is historically and culturally contingent. For example, some medieval musical theory, or musica speculative, such as Jan Herlinger’s “Music Theory of the Fourteenth and Early Fifteenth Centuries” in Music as Concept and Practice in the Late Middle Agesdefined music as “contemplation that serves the moral edification of the mind” (293). Influenced by the work of Boethius’s De Musica, music is not just everyday music but “connotes harmony conceived broadly enough to encompass the relationships obtaining in the human body and psyche and governing the motions of planets” (293).  This kind of ecological harmony is explored in the work of Boethius, especially in his discussion of abstract qualities in the prelude to the De Musica, The Book of Arithmetic (as translated by Calvin Martin Bower)  “Indeed these things themselves are incorporeal in nature and thrive by reason of their immutable substance, but they suffer radical change through participation in the corporeal, and through contact with variable things they change in veritable consistency” (24).  For Boethius these “essences” are concordant with mathematical properties expressed in music. Thus, music was both speculative and moral, and these intertwining purposes derived from music’s phenomenological pleasures derived in the environment, “for nothing is more consistent with human nature than to be soothed by sweet modes and disturbed by their opposites” (Bower 32).

Boethius also comments on the psychological effects experienced in hearing music as they “affect and remold the mind into their own character” (Bower 34). Boethius gives examples of how certain groups of peoples, such as the Thracians or Lacedaemonians, delight in different kinds of music that harmonizes with their natures. For Boethius, music is transcendent in that it exists as a kind of eternal sound, but also an immanent sound, in that it appeals to various peoples depending on their nature and environment. Boethius’ speculations lead him to think about harmony and sound as available to reason and sensory perception. Thus the notion of harmony itself is “the faculty of considering the difference between high and low sounds using the reason and senses. For the senses and reasons are considered instruments of this faculty of harmony” (Bower 295).   Harmony (and disharmony in the form of noise) became a marker of the aural ecology for an individual or group.

The essays in “Aural Ecologies” also address the issue of unharmonious sounds, sounds that often mark dissonant critical identities—related to race, religion, material—that reverberate across different soundscapes/landscapes. In this way, this group of essays begins to open up the stakes of Medieval Sound in relation to what contemporary sound studies has begun to address in relation to cultural studies, architectural and environmental soundscapes, and the marking of race through the vibrations of the body.  —Dorothy Kim and Christopher Roman


In the neo-medieval A Game of Thrones (2011), the medieval Saracen-inspired and violent Dothraki utilize bells as a symbol of victories in battle. Each time a leader or khal defeats a foe, he incorporates the bells from his foe’s shorn black braid into his own braid. Khal Drogo, khal of the most powerful khalasar in Essos, sports an uncut braid sensuously described by George R. R. Martin as “black as midnight . . . hung with tiny bells that rang softly as he moved. It swung well past his belt, below even his buttocks” (37).

Dothraki bells serve both a hypermasculine and deterritorializing function: esteem and prowess for Eastern men comes from the symbolic castration of their enemies and the eradication of civilizations. For the Dothraki, sexualized and territorial conquest is centralized around amplitude of noise made by an aggregate of bells adorning a phallic braid. Drogo is frightening because of his noise: he wears “[b]ells so his enemies w[ill] hear him coming and grow weak with fear” (802). In the pilot episode of Season 1 of HBO’s Game of Thrones, writers David Benioff and D. B. Weiss and director Tim Van Patten emphasized the contrast in noise between the copper-skinned Dothraki and the white Valyrians of the Free Cities:

East disrupts West in this scene through a racialized auditory disruption of white silence.

The association of the Middle East with noise pervades Western culture. One need only recall juxtapositions of quietly carefully groomed news anchors in sterile American news sets conversing with correspondents struggling to be heard in earsplitting raucous streets embroiled in Middle Eastern crises in countries like Iraq and Syria.  See Aron Brown of CNN announcing the U.S. War on Iraq in 2003, for example:

However, this association of the Arab world with noise is not a new one. In medieval literature, noise played a crucial role in distinguishing Saracen East from Christian West. Bells and particularly the cacophonous noise they cumulatively make came to be associated with a violent imagining of the East in literature of the medieval period. The late medieval crusading romance Richard Coer de Lyon, centered on the exploits of the twelfth-century crusading king, Richard the Lionheart, situates the pealing bell as its central object. [Note: Richard Coer de Lyon is cited by line number. All quotations come from the widely-used complete modern version, Richard Löwenherz, ed. Karl Brunner, Wiener Beiträge zur Englischen Philologie (Vienna and Leipzig, 1913)].

As in Dothraki warrior culture in A Game of Thrones, bells gain symbolic power in the romance through replication and accumulation. Richard Coer de Lyon features pealing bells in two crucial episodes concerned with the East and a maternal rather than phallic male body: 1) the exorcism of Richard’s demonic Eastern mother at Mass with a sacring bell (l.221-34); and 2) the appearance of Saladin’s demonic mare arrayed in clamorous bells attached to her crupper at the climactic battle of Acre (l.5532-49, 5753-8). Drawing on both medieval treatises on the function of bells and Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s theory of the refrain, I argue that the bell—initially a symbol of Christian order, the West, and patriarchy—becomes a disorienting aural force associated with chaos, the East, and maternity.

Early on in the romance, the king’s men try the piety of Richard’s mother, Cassodorien of Antioch, a bewitching foreigner whose only apparent fault is that she cannot remain in church to hear Mass, by physically restraining her during a service. To the shock of the English parishioners, at the ringing of the sacring bell, Cassodorien breaks free of her male captors, seizes two of her children, and flies through the church roof never to be seen again:

And whene þe belle began to ryng,

And when the bell began to ring,

The preest scholde make þe sakeryng,

And the priest was about to do the sacring,

Out off þe kyrke sche wolde away…

Out of the church she tried to go away…

Out of the rofe she gan her dyght,

Out of the roof she began to make her way/transform,

Openly before all theyr syght…

Openly before all of their sight

— Richard Coer de Lyon, 221-5.

At this striking moment of contact between queen and masculine material object, the bell is forever altered, (re)oriented on a trajectory that transmogrifies it from a symbol of priestly power to a chaotic symbol of maternity and the East.

Sacring Bells in Aberdeen, Scotland. Image by Flickr User rethought (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Sacring Bells in Aberdeen, Scotland. Image by Flickr User rethought (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Medieval thinkers conceptualized the church bell as an agent for revealing both foreign and demonic threats from within the community.  In The Rationale Divinorum Officiarum of William Durand of Mende thirteenth-century French liturgical writer and bishop, William Durand,xplains the significance of the pealing of bells– “when the bell rings . . . the people are unified with the unity of faith and charity” (51) –but also expounds on this exorcising function of the church bell:

[T]he bells are rung in processions so that the demons who fear them will flee . . .  They are so fearful when they hear the trumpets of the Church militant, that is the bells, that they are like some tyrant who is fearful when he hears in his own country the trumpets of some powerful king who is his enemy (51).

Durand conflates the demonic with the East, both qualities embodied by Cassodorien who hails from Antioch (near the border of Syria and Turkey). He also imbues the bell with an emasculating quality; it renders even a tyrant fearful. The measured sounding of the church bells forms a tonal refrain, an aural sequence to familiarize Christian space.

The purpose of the aural refrain, for Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, is to deterritorialize and then reterritorialize unfamiliar space. In A Thousand Plateaus, they explain the refrain/‘ritournelle’ as a threefold place of disorientation, the familiar, and escape:

They are three aspects of a single thing, the Refrain (ritournelle)…. Sometimes chaos is an immense black hole in which one endeavors to fix a fragile point as a center. Sometimes one organizes around that point a calm and stable “pace” (rather than a form): the black hole has become a home. Sometimes one grafts onto that pace a breakaway from the black hole (312).

The bell was arguably the most important and pervasive aural symbol in medieval Europe, one whose refrain regularly demarcated Christian spaces in times of chaos. Sound theorist R. Murray Schafer has called the medieval church bell “the most salient sound signal in the Christian community” in The Tuning of the World (53), and a unifying force “acoustically demarking the civilization of the parish from the wilderness beyond its earshot” (55).  Yet, as the bell multiplies through contact with Cassodorien and Richard wanders into the wilderness or black hole of the East, its sound is layered and its signification coopted by the East and transformed into a disorienting force that decenters Saladin’s enemies.

Richard battles Saladin, Luttrell Psalter, BL42130, 4v

Richard battles Saladin, Luttrell Psalter, BL42130, 4v

The bell resurfaces once more as Richard prepares for his epic battle against Saladin at the gates of Babylon. In this climactic battle with a second pairing of mother and son, reimagined in the form of a demonic belled “mere” and her “colt” summoned by Saladin’s necromancer, bells occupy a central place of prominence on the mare’s accoutrements. In 1192, Saladin reportedly sent two new horses to Richard after his horse was slain in battle (For an overview of this event, see page 73 of Sir Steven Runciman’s A History of the Crusades, Vol.3: The Kingdom of Acre and the Later Crusades).  The mare, as one of only two mothers in the romance, uses the same aural symbol to assault the English Christians that they had used to exorcise Cassodorien. As Saladin’s mare proudly strides onto the battlefield, the poet emphasizes the deterritorializing effect of her cacophonous bells:

þerffore, as þe book vs telles,

Therefore, as the book tells,

Hys crouper heeng al ful off belles,

The mare’s crupper hung all full of bells;

And hys peytrel, and his arsoun.

From the armor, too, and the saddlebow,

þree myle men my3ten here þe soun.

For three miles men could hear the sound.

Þe mere gan ny3e, here belles to ryng,

His mare began to neigh, her bells she rang

Ffor gret pryde, wiþouten lesyng.

With great pride, it is no lie.

–Richard Coer de Lyon, 5753-8.

Fascinatingly, Brunner again diverges in this passage from Caius 175, and changes “þe mere” to “his mere,” further stripping the demonic mare of her agency.

Whereas the church bell is a singular symbol of order, symmetrical and “acoustically demarking” space with its meted refrain, the bells of the mare are multiple, discordant, chaotic, and cacophonous, designed to disorient rather than to unify (see Schafer 55). The medieval illuminator of the Luttrell Psalter (c.1325-1335) similarly emphasizes the clamorous quality of the belled mare, and distinguishes Saladin’s mount from Richard’s by the vast array of bells attached to its crupper and the noise these bells suggest.

The noise, suggested in the Luttrell Psalter by the movement and detail given to the crupper bells, can be heard on a smaller scale in the following video clip of a horse merely walking noisily with a smaller bell-laden crupper:

One can easily infer the discordant sound a running mare might make with a crupper “hung all full of bells.” The poet suggests that the noise encompassed an aural disturbance of three-miles and disrupted the Christian crusaders. The bells also serve an insidious maternal purpose: they serve as a trap to lure her colt to abandon Richard and “knele adoun, and souke hys dame” (kneel down and suck his dame)(Richard Coer de Lyon, 5547).   In A Thousand Plateaus, Deleuze and Guattari suggest the layering of sounds, particularly maternal sounds, can disrupt and deterritorialize space. In their discussion of the reterritorializing effects of layered song, Deleuze and Guattari provide the strikingly maternal example of Debussy’s Sirens, which, they posit, integrates voice with orchestra to make the voices of child and woman inextricable from “the sea and the water molecule” (340). In much the same way in Richard Coer de Lyon, the mare’s imbrication of voice over bells seeks to make the dichotomies of the romance—mother and son, east and west, chaos and order, demonic and angelic—implode as the demarcated boundaries between them are dissolved in her cacophonous demonic lullaby.

Daenerys, Created in ArtRage Studio by Flickr User Happy Snapper 80 (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Daenerys, Created in ArtRage Studio by Flickr User Happy Snapper 80 (CC BY-NC 2.0)

While A Game of Thrones and its HBO counterpart pick up on the resonances of medieval noise to differentiate between East and West, noise is gendered differently. In RCL the threat signaled by the sound of bells is that Richard will be emasculated by his inability to cut ties with the specter of his mother’s influence and disambiguate himself from the Eastern Saracens she represents. However, in Martin’s series, the Dothraki bells, like much of Dothraki culture, exist only to be subsumed under Daenerys’ imperial ambitions for an Iron Throne the Dothraki neither care about nor want. Daenerys’ bell, affixed to her hair after the death of Drogo and the dissolution of his khalasar, becomes a symbol of cultural and racial appropriation Martin stages under the guise of (white) feminism. That is, the issues noise signals have changed from the challenge of excising Christian West from Islamic East (a fear literalized in Richard’s cannibalistic consumption of Saracen flesh) to cultural appropriation (the devouring of Dothraki culture for the benefit of white colonialism).

Featured Image: Proceso Khal Drogo by Flickr User Orgita Sucubita, (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Thomas Blake is Assistant Professor of English at Austin College.

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Listening to the City of Light: An interview with Sound Recordist Des Coulam

How should we take account of, question, describe what happens every day and recurs every day: the banal, the quotidian, the obvious, the common, the ordinary, the infra-ordinaire, the background noise, the habitual?

I’m meeting with the British sound recordist Des Coulam at the brasserie La Coupole on the Boulevard de Montparnasse in Paris. “Just imagine…this place opened in 1927. If you installed a microphone in the middle of this room in 1927 and if it was still there today, how many interesting things could you have recorded in this place? It just begs belief, doesn’t it? François Mitterrand, Picasso, Ford Maddox Ford, Beauvoir, Man Ray, they were all here. They all echo in these walls.”

la-coupole

Early photo of La Coupole, date unknown

The sound inside La Coupole by Des Coulam

Des Coulam has been capturing the urban soundscape of Paris for almost ten years. Paris is a city full of mirrors, replicating itself through various mediums. A great archive of the city and its streets, boulevards, arcades and cafés has been written, painted, filmed and photographed throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. However, its aural history is less documented.

“All the archival sounds you find of Paris are adjunct to pictures, so you’ve got television pictures, you’ve got film, you’ve got very few actual recordings of Paris, and I wanted to capture the contemporary soundscape of the city and archive it for future generations to explore, study and enjoy,” explains Coulam. “It’s only on the last few seconds on our historical clock that we’ve been able to capture and archive sounds, so most of our sonic heritage is passed by completely unrecorded. We can get an idea of what nineteenth, eighteenth, and seventeenth century sounds were like from literature and from art in some cases. But the fact is we can’t actually listen to them. All the sounds we hear came from somebody’s imagination.”

Des Coulam, Image courtesy of interviewee.

Des Coulam, Image courtesy of interviewee.

Coulam’s methodical approach and commitment to the task of recording the sounds of Paris, almost on a daily basis, is helping to create the first comprehensive sound archive of the city. These sounds constitute the Paris Soundscapes Collection and are being archived in the British Library of London.

“Memorable recordings are not limited by your equipment, only by your imagination”

Porte 6, Saint Surplice

Porte 6, Saint Surplice, Courtesy of Interviewer

“And people forget that,” laments Coulam. “I mean, listening is an art and it’s an art that must be learned. You have to practice, practice, practice to listen. But once you master the art it opens up an all-new world. Because for me, if you give sounds the opportunity to breathe and to speak, they all have a story to tell. We walk along the street and hear a sound and you think: what is that? And you can create a story the sound is telling you. You might hear one of these big Parisian doors bang. What’s behind that door? How many interesting people have walked through that door? And you start to see or experience the place differently.”

Sounds inside l’Eglise Saint-Gervais-Saint-Protais (w/creaking wooden door) by Des Coulam

Des Coulam is of the opinion that the ability to tune into sounds with an inquisitive and imaginative mind can provide better recordings than the most expensive equipment.  It’s a skill that he has been developing for over 50 years. “I can tell you the exact day. It was the 25th of December, 1958 when I woke up on Christmas morning and found a tape recorder. And if you had asked me to write a list of 100 things I wanted for Christmas, the tape recorder would not have featured in it. But there it was and I fell in love with it instantly and stayed in love with it ever since. It turned something on in my head that stayed with me all my life. I was 10 years old and now I’m almost 70 years old…I don’t know what I would do without it. I would probably just curl up and die or something…Because now it consumes all of my life. I work seven days a week, but it never feels like work. It’s just fun.”

An aural flâneur in a changing city

13

Image from Louis Huart, Physiologie du flâneur (1841)

“Some of my best recordings have come serendipitously when they are not planned.” Most of the time Coulam doesn’t adhere to a strict pathway through the streets of Paris. He follows the background city sounds as someone who follows a river stream. He describes himself as an aural flâneur. The term flâneur (stroller, idler, walker) dates back to the 16th century and was made popular by Walter Benjamin in his 1935 essay “Paris, Capital of the Nineteenth Century” in The Arcades Project. “I’m doing exactly what the 19th century flâneurs did. Observing, that’s all I do. But I observe through sound rather than visually,” says Coulam. “The one thing the flâneur had was time. They had the time to stroll around the streets and observe the everyday life. But in my case I observe listening.” According to Aimée Boutin, the author of City of Noise: Sound and Nineteenth-Century Paris, it is in the writings of Balzac, Louis Huart and Victor Fournel that the flâneur emerges as an attentive listener, an eavesdropper and collector of stories who views the city as a musical score and as a cacophonous/harmonious concert.

19th century  images of the flâneur predominately evoke a white male figure of means and privilege who observes and listens to the city from a position of detachment towards the crowd. He is invested in his own anonymity and imagines himself cultivating a sense of neutrality and “objectivity.” Coulam’s active listening practices depart from this perspective by challenging his perspectives and owning the subjectivity of the recording and archiving process. “The way you hear sound changes depending on the circumstances and also the way you interpret sound is different. You and I could walk down the same street and hear it differently. I can walk down the same street twice and hear it differently. There are lots of sounds that I will hear and there are lots of sounds that I won’t hear.” In a recent blog entry Coulam writes that while being “aware that sounds don’t exist in a vacuum, I am always thinking about the social, cultural and historical context of the sounds I find and that has taught me how to explore and appreciate the rich history, complexity and diversity that is Paris.”

Besides his own recordings of the Parisian soundscapes, Coulam has been adding new aural narratives of the city in the series “Paris – A Personal View” inviting guests who live in Paris to visit a place in the city that has a special meaning for them. In this series, Coulam often features the city of the contemporary flâneuse, a radically different form of flâneurie through the steps of the walking woman. In the audio bellow, Monique Wells, an expert on African Diaspora in Paris and  founder of the non-profit association Les Amis de Beauford Delaney, explores her favorite place in the city – the Jardin du Luxembourg.

Des Coulam and Dr. Monique Wells, image courtesy of interviewee

Des Coulam and Dr. Monique Wells, image courtesy of interviewee

Monique Wells, Jardin du Luxembourg, “Paris – A Personal View” Series by Des Coulam

This is a particular time to be listening to the city as a new plan to expand the metropolis of Paris is on its way. “Paris is on the cusp of a huge change. If we look at the history of Paris, it is a history of circles. So you get start with the Romans who invaded and camped out on the Île de la Cité. What did they do? They built a wall around it. And over the years as Paris expanded more walls have been built around the city until today. Now, you’ve got this wall of traffic – the périphérique – and everything within that is Paris and everything without is the suburbs. Nicolas Sarkozy decided, when he was president, that he was going to demolish this invisible wall between Paris and the suburbs. So he gave birth to the Greater Paris Project which is now going ahead. So over the next 10, 20 or 30 years the visual landscape of the city will change and also its sound landscape. And this is a perfect time to capture that change. I won’t live long enough to see it all but I’m already seeing some of it. And what you have right now is that some sounds of Paris are actually disappearing, some are about to disappear, some have stayed remarkably the same and new sounds have appeared.”

Sounds around the Pont National (near Boulevard Périphérique) by Des Coulam

Pont National by Des Coulam

Pont National by Des Coulam

The Vanishing Sounds of Paris

The changes in the visual landscape of Paris and the modernization of its infrastructures will cause a significant change in its soundscape. For instance, Coulam dedicates a lot of his time to recording the changes of the subterranean and aerial soundscape of the Parisian metro lines. “The sounds of the Metro are changing dramatically. If you imagine the sounds of the Paris Metro, you immediately get this picture of the sort of 1950s black and white film, you can hear the sounds of the train rattling over the lines. It’s gone, it’s all completely gone. The last of those trains disappeared in 2012. And I knew this was happening so I recorded a lot of metro line 5 where the old trains were. So I’ve got a stack of recordings of those because nobody else was doing it.”

Sounds of Line 5 at Quai de la Rapée by Des Coulam

“That lovely rattle, these clanking rattling sounds. Just what you imagine it to be!” The old trains on line 5 are now being replaced by modern models with a quieter sound. Also, the trams that covered the city in the 1930s were later substituted by motorized buses. “There are no trams in the center of the city but you’ve got them on the periphery now. There are 8 tram lines. On a lot of the routes they actually go through lot of pains to reduce the amount of noise the tram makes by putting grass down between the tram lines to absorb the sound.  So that’s a completely different soundscape than you would have had in this case in the 1930s.”

Tram by Des Coulam

Tram by Des Coulam

Inside a tram on Line T2 from the station Henri Farman to Porte de Versailles by Des Coulam

Coulam has been recording the sounds of the Gare du Nord, one of the six main railway stations in Paris, that is going through some transformations right now. A sign outside the station in the construction zone promises “a brighter and more practically designed hall for enlightened travelling”. The distinctive soundscape of the Gare will certainly change. A new type of pavement is enough to alter the echoing sounds made by footsteps and rolling suitcases.

Inside the Gare du Nord; October 2016

“But on a more human level,” says Coulam, “the street criers, the vagabond man, the knife grinders, people like that who used to come around shouting in the street are completing gone. The only thing you find now are the market traders in the market stores, but you don’t find any of these tradesmen in the streets of Paris.”

Gare du Nord by Des Coulam

Gare du Nord by Des Coulam

 “An attempt to exhaust a place in Paris” in sound

“The only time you really notice the urban soundscape is when isn’t there,” remarks Coulam. On the day we meet, Montparnasse is eerily quiet. There is little traffic and only a few pedestrians are strolling along the Boulevard. “The soundscape you hear is not the normal Montparnasse because this is August and everybody is away on holiday, so you are immediately struck by the relative quiet around here.” It might be difficult to find places of quiet in a city like Paris during the other eleven months of the year.

But even the noise, the chatter and the rumble are important parts of the urban soundscape. “The biggest challenge I face recording the soundscape of Paris is the sound of traffic, and I long ago decided that you couldn’t ignore it. And in a sense, why should you? Because it’s an integral part of the soundscape, so to ignore it is a sort of cheating, really. So, I decided to embrace it and I started to deliberately record traffic and it was absolutely fascinating!”

Place Saint Surplice

Place Saint Sulpice, courtesy of Wikicommons

The author and filmmaker George Perec once sat down for three days in Saint-Sulpice Square to write down all the non-events around him. “What happens, when nothing happens other than the weather, people, cars, and clouds?” asked Perec. In the same vein, Coulam continues recording the sounds that constitute the backdrop to everyday life and through attentive listening, he weaves the sound tapestry of the city of Paris.  “You sit on a Parisian green bench in a busy narrow pavé street and just let the street walk past you. You will hear fabulous sounds.”

“An attempt to exhaust a place in Paris” in sound (Café de la Mairie, Place Saint-Sulpice) by Des Coulam

Pont National from the Pont de Tolbiac, Des Coulam

Pont National from the Pont de Tolbiac by Des Coulam

You can hear Des Coulam’s collection of Parisian soundscapes at Soundlandscape or follow him on twitter.

Featured Image: Line 5 at Quai de la Rapacca, Image by Des Coulam

Carlo Patrão is a Portuguese radio artist and producer of the show Zepelim. His radio work began as a member of the Portuguese freeform station Radio Universidade de Coimbra (RUC). In his pieces, he aims to explore the diverse possibilities of radiophonic space through the medium of sound collage. He has participated in projects like Basic.fm, Radio Boredcast, and his work has been featured in several international sound festivals and has also been commissioned by Radio Arts (UK). He is currently working on a radio show for the Portuguese national public radio station RTP. In addition to his work in radio, he has a master’s in clinical psychology

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