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Audiotactility & the Medieval Soundscape of Parchment

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series co-editors Dorothy Kim and Christopher Roman

series co-editors Dorothy Kim and Christopher Roman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A close up of the scraping tool crafted by Jesse.

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

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

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

Audio Clip of Jesse’s “Parchment Singing”

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

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

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

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

Close up of parchment “dust.”

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

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

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

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

Comparison clip of Jesse making a drier parchment sing

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

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

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

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

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

Jesse making his blade sing on handmade parchment @pergamenany

A video posted by runninghands (@runninghands) on

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

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Image of MS Egerton 1821, British Library, London.

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

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

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

Clip of the author rubbing the worn folio in Egerton 1821

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

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

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

"Touch" by Daniel Friedman (CC BY 2.0)

“Touch” by Daniel Friedman (CC BY 2.0)

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

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

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Live Through This: Sonic Affect, Queerness, and the Trembling Body

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Sound and Affect

Marginalized bodies produce marginalized sounds to communicate things that escape language. The queer body is the site of sounds that engage pleasure, repression, rage, isolation, always somehow outside of dominant language. Sound Studies tells us that we should trust our ears as much as our eyes, justifying our trust in sound, and of the resonating body. Affect Theory goes further, saying that all senses play into a body that processes input through levels of response, experience, and anticipation. Affect is the vibrational space that is both bodily memory and anticipation. So where do sound and affect meet in queer bodies? How do marginalized peoples use sound and the body to express liberation, objectification, joy, and struggle?

Our writers in Sound and Affect tackle these questions across a spectrum of the marginalized experience.  Next week, Kemi Adeyemi, sloooooooows thingggggggggs doooooooooownnnnn so that we can hear the capitalist connections between the work expected of black bodies and the struggle for escape from this reality through the sonic affects, temporal shifts, and corporeal elsewhere of purple drank. Then, Maria Chaves explores the connection between voice, listening, and queer Chicana community formation: through space, across time, and with laughter. The series finishes with Justyna Stasiowska bringing the noise in a discussion of the trans body and the performance work of Tara Transitory.  Today, I open  by offering the concept of the tremble, a sonic form of affect that is necessarily queer in its affective reach.  Live through this. Get life from this. —Guest Editor Airek Beauchamp

I first became interested in the intersections of sound studies and affect theory when, in graduate school, I began to research alternative rhetorics of the AIDS Crisis. ACT UP!, the noisiest and most politically effective of the AIDS advocacy groups from 1987 through 1995, posited noise as presence and silence as loss throughout their campaigns. ACT UP! was notorious for their actions in which they invaded public spaces, from the FDA to the White House and used militaristic chants to create a disruptive cacophony that ran counter to the official silence of government policy. The organization harnessed noise as powerful weapon to shake the status quo.

The ACT UP! equation led me to a critique of AIDS-era politics in which sound and affect became the predominant modes of inquiry, allowing me to investigate how the situated body and the senses experience and invoke rhetorics of marginialization. This maneuver proved to be intellectually difficult, particularly because my post-structuralist training stubbornly insisted on a discursively constructed universe in which only language constructed reality. Instead, what sound and affective rhetoric allow for is exactly that which is beyond the text, that which communicates without strictly-defined language. Theorizing the AIDS crisis as a social event might be necessary in terms of understanding how our culture processes or catalogues such an event, but as I engaged with its archive, I felt bereft when facing the limits of such an approach. It offered nothing to soothe the pain or express the terror of those whose bodies disintegrated in the cruel grasp of the disease.

Rather than relying on abstracted theory to force the affect of the plague into a logical form, I needed something like Antonin Artaud’s work on the plague to explore the cultural but embodied affect of the disease. When Artaud was invited to speak about his essay “The Theater and the Plague” at the Sorbonne, he decided to actually incorporate his ideas about ‘liquefying boundaries” into his speech. Artaud began with a standard oratory but slowly devolved into a theatrical performance of the plague, eventually ending in shrieks of physical pain. By the end of his speech, the only people left in the lecture hall were a minor contingent of his close friends, including Anais Nin, who recounted the tale (Eshleman, 12). Artaud’s shrieks and howls engaged the whole body in the process of making sound, while also erasing semantic and syntactical codes.  Here is a video compilation of Artaud performances, to provide the smallest hint of his vocal performances:

To continue my research, I realized, I needed to understand bodies as instruments for processing, producing, and receiving sonic stimuli, while, at the same time, rethink how feeling, quite literally, moves bodies. Artaud led me to connect the sound and affect of AIDS in the 1980s through the unspeakable and the pre-semantic language of the body, deeply embedding these sound/feelings in a network of past experience, present and anticipatory states of being. His work gave me a different way to theorize, to grasp, to listen, to scream—to tremble and tremble in return.

I continued to connect the sinews between sound and affect in my February 2013 post for Sounding Out!, “Queer Timbres, Queered Elegy: Diamanda Galás’s The Plague Mass and the First Wave of the AIDS Crisis.” Through Galás’s visceral interactions with the unendurable pain embedded in history, I keenly felt the presence of the material body so lacking from post-structuralist critique of lived experience, alongside an urgent sense of agency. Galás’s performances made fascinating use of the “tactile effect of layered sound that is felt with the skin, in the bones, as well as with the ears, communicating a palpable experience that lies beyond the barely-nuanced music it is seductively easy to grow accustomed to.” The experience of listening to Galás helps us to realize that the body is a series of machines of input and output—processor and producer—systems that often forego semantic language and instead listen and speak in tremblings.

In what follows, I flesh out the notion of sonic tremblings: how it links what we call sound studies and affect studies, of course, but more importantly, how it speaks past the post-structuralist insistence on a world confined to text, and how we might build upon this notion in future theory and research. Our bodies’ materiality, a site of constant unfolding, engages with the world via a series of shimmers and impulses—such as the synesthetic vibration I am calling sonic tremblings—rather than with concrete events or objects in and of themselves. These tremblings, always intersectional, encompass past lived experiences, social and cultural constructions that restrict interpretation, and interpretations falling outside social or cultural codes. I understand the trembling body as both processor and producer of sound, a connection of trembling nodes eschewing the patriarchal structures of language.  And, though I write through and about the particular tremblings of my own white, queer, cis male body, that experience is by no means universal or at the center of my theorizations. Instead, I hope that the way I experience and understand sound studies and affect theory will open up new ways of hearing the world, especially for people whose experiences are not mine and who can add depth, nuance, and texture to the conversation. It is in fact through their variety and unique resonances that tremblings speak simultaneously to and against the limitations placed on queer bodies.

My articulation of affect with sound studies is necessarily queer, as it rejects binaries and speaks without definitive vocabulary, syntax, or grammar. Marta Figlerowicz, in “Affect Theory Dossier: An Introduction,” offers a good primer on the widely divergent ways in which scholars use the idea of affect. In Figlerowitz’s explanation, affect is always a self in motion, be it “the self running ahead of itself,” “the self catching up with itself,” “the self as self-discursive and always constantly mutating and adapting to ambient stimuli,” and/or “celebrations of Proustian moments when the self and the sensory world, or the conscious and the unconscious self, or the self and another person, fall in step with each other… to make a sliver of experience more vivid and more richly patterned than willful analysis could ever have” (4). In all of these cases, the body’s perception and the discourse of the self remain in motion, trembling with identifications that are at best fleeting, though richly communicative and expressive. Sound, as an always-present stimulus, works affectively in such a form of communication.

Image by Flickr User Graham Campbell,

Image by Flickr User Graham Campbell, “Goosebumps”

Queer bodies are inherently intertwined in theorizing sound and affect. The actual concept of affect itself is queer, implicating the unknowable, but concretely felt phenomena of the body. But rather than forming a linear narrative, affect is produced, and received, in a web of physical and neural processes that rejects the linear concept of time and instead are never static but self-referential and constantly evolving in response to our environment. To navigate this space I adopt the term “affective field,” used by Marie Thompson and Ian Biddle in their introductory essay to Sound, Music, Affect. An affective field describes a textural field of play between stimulus, meaning, and response; it relies on reproduction and broadcast, a field of listening/emitting/processing machines all working in a sort of continuous flow, always already present. The affective field model encourages the removal of emphasis on subject/object but instead focuses on interfacial relationships as a point of contact. Eradicating =the subject/object dualism is vital to exchange, as Yvon Bonenfant says in “Queer Listening to Queer Vocal Timbres“: “We cannot exchange with an object, only other subjects” (76).

Image From Flickr User Alvaro Sasaki, From Brasília Queer Fest!, 31 March 2013

Image From Flickr User Alvaro Sasaki, From Brasília Queer Fest!, 31 March 2013

Finding a theory that worked with the body and with subject/subject communication allowed me to make more sense of the ways in which ACT UP! used noise and silence as a way to build community, and allowed me to dig deeper into the idea of queer communication. The silent scream of the slogan Silence = Death succinctly articulated ACT UP!’s most definitive tactic: manipulation of the affective field. Their chants initially filled the streets, of New York, but by 1990 their actions had united them with Europe, creating world-wide noise in protest of the now-global epidemic, creating a distinct disjuncture to the silent death falling over gay communities. Noise offered the queer community both a form of protest and community, becoming an affective mechanism of agency. ACT UP!’s use of noise not only speaks to the dire need of queer bodies to exercise agency and demonstrate social worth, but it also helps break down the essential binary between encoded language and un-encoded sound. Rather than syntactical sound, noise communicates in trembles, resonating in both the psyche and in the actual body. Noise worked to unify disparate parts of identity–and disparate identities–a coalescing rather than normalizing process, a trembling vital to queer identity.

However, while ACT UP! worked to create noise—and to develop community through the trembling of their rage—they also communicated affectively with silence. Staging their now infamous die-ins, ACT UP! manipulated the affective field through the deafening buzz that accompanies silence, a somber quiet that refused to go ignored. These actions were not done to—but instead with—people, a disruption of the subject/object, or perhaps the subject/abject. But, it is the unexpected noise of the die-ins that I find most interesting. Not just the ambient noise of occupying bodies in space—people moving, coughing, breathing—but the loud silence created by the protest itself: a hushed roar that trembles through the room, the microphones, and the bodies of the listeners, a disruptive noise crafted from intentional silence. This silence itself resonates in the body, enabling them to erupt in tremblings of loss, of mourning, and of rage, the painfully loud silence of marginalized bodies at war with an epidemic about which no one in power seemed to care.

ACT-UP’s die-ins reclaimed agency within silence’s palpable materiality, using its noise to disrupt the affective field and reclaim space within it. Using the material body as both receptor and transmitter of the affective field, their noise created tremblings and spoke in associations both somatic and psychic. In the case of the die-ins, the silence mediated the noise of the voices of the dead, all talking at once through the trembling bodies of the living.

Adapting silence and the noise it brings, one of ACT UP!’s historical legacies, offers contemporary listeners agency over our marginalized bodies.   We must make some noise, and then “listen out” for particular affects of noise and silence in turn, as Bonenfant suggests, seeking the tremblings that touch our skins and resonate in our brains, bone, and flesh. The affective field permeates queer communication and offers to the marginalized an opportunity, through sound, to make noise, establish self, and establish communities.

At once subversive and coalescent, noise resists the codification of what our culture might traditionally consider to be “music” or other codified sounds, making it a necessarily affective communication. The discordant, unruly strains of Throbbing Gristle’s “Discipline,” for example, jarred, shaken, and trembled me into a powerful feeling of community amid dissonance and difference, of community through difference at key moments in my life.

At other moments, the shriek, fuzz, and wail of riot grrrrl punk act Bikini Kill, in particular, Kathleen Hanna’s growl in “Suck My Left One,” has awakened in me a strain of tremblings that move freely associative in their rage against the marginalization of women and the ways in which socially constructed gender roles also marginalize and demonize queer folks. While post-structuralism maintains that the self is necessarily disunified and can only be defined by its difference to others, I have to disagree. While academic methodologies make it difficult to form an argument based on my lived experience, when I feel the tremblings connecting me to Genesis Breyer P-Orridge or Kathleen Hanna and to their audiences, I am hard pressed to feel them as anything but real.

In fact, it might just be in endurance that I can best articulate tremblings as a sonic, somatic, affective phenomenon. Born of present stimuli, always connected to past experiences and anticipatory of the future, tremblings are unruly, unable to be pinpointed. They do not just express the order or pleasure that we find in traditional music, though they can encompass this as well. Instead, tremblings are communicative, they move through the I, the subject, while unifying other subjects through their rich and unnamable identifications. It speaks simultaneously to and against the limitations placed on queer bodies, expressing joy, pain, pleasure.

Featured Image: Genesis P-Orridge by Flicker User Jessica Chappell

Airek Beauchamp is a Visiting Assistant Professor at Arkansas State University and a Ph.D. candidate at SUNY Binghamton, where he specializes in Writing Studies. Airek is currently working on his dissertation, which details ways that universities can offer social and academic writing support to graduate students to better help them professionalize in their fields. His other areas of research include queer theory, affect theory, and trauma in the LGBTQ community.


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One Nation Under a Groove?: Music, Sonic Borders, and the Politics of Vibration“–Marcus Boon

The Eldritch Voice: H. P. Lovecraft’s Weird Phonography

global-mosaic-of-pluto-in-true-color
Weird Tales CoverWelcome to the last installment of Sonic Shadows, Sounding Out!’s limited series pursuing the question of what it means to have a voice. In the most recent post, Dominic Pettman encountered several traumatized birds who acoustically and uncannily mirror the human, a feedback loop that composes what he called “the creaturely voice.” This week, James Steintrager investigates the strange meaning of a “metallic” voice in the stories of H.P. Lovecraft, showing how early sound recording technology exposed an alien potential lingering within the human voice. This alien voice – between human and machine – was fodder for  techniques of defamiliarizing the world of the reader.
 
I’ll leave James to tell us more. Thanks for reading!

— Guest Editor Julie Beth Napolin

A decade after finding itself downsized to a dwarf planet, Pluto has managed to spark wonder in the summer of 2015 as pictures of its remarkable surface features and those of its moon are delivered to us by NASA’s New Horizons space probe. As scientists begin to tentatively name these features, they have drawn from speculative fiction for what they see on the moon Charon, giving craters names including Spock, Sulu, Uhuru, and—mixing franchises—Skywalker . From Doctor Who there will be a Tardis Chasma and a Gallifrey Macula. Pluto’s features stretch back a bit further, where there will also be a Cthulhu Regio, named after the unspeakable interstellar monster-cum-god invented by H. P. Lovecraft.

We can imagine that Lovecraft would have been thrilled, since back when Pluto was first discovered in early 1930 and was the evocative edge of the solar system, he had turned the planet into the putative home of secretive alien visitors to Earth in his short story “The Whisperer in Darkness.” First published in the pulp magazine Weird Tales in 1931, “The Whisperer in Darkness” features various media of communication—telegraphs, telephones, photographs, and newspapers—as well as the possibilities of their manipulation and misconstruing. The phonograph, however, plays the starring role in this tale about gathering and interpreting the eerie and otherworldly—the eldritch, in a word—signs of possible alien presence in backwoods Vermont.

In the story, Akeley, a farmer with a degree of erudition and curiosity, captures something strange on a record. This something, when played back by the protagonist Wilmarth, a folklorist at Lovecraft’s fictional Miskatonic University, goes like this:

Iä! Shub-Niggurath! The Black Goat of the Woods with a Thousand Young! (219)

The sinister resonance of a racial epithet in what appears to be a foreign or truly alien tongue notwithstanding, this story features none of the more obvious and problematic invocations of race and ethnicity—the primitive rituals in the swamps of Louisiana of “The Call of Cthulhu” or the anti-Catholic immigrant panic of “The Horror at Red Hook”—for which Lovecraft has achieved a degree of infamy. Moreover, the understandable concern with Lovecraft’s social Darwinism and bad biology in some ways tends to miss how for the author—and for us as well—power and otherness are bound up with technology.

weirdtalesThe transcription of these exclamations, recorded on a “blasphemous waxen cylinder,” is prefaced with an emphatic remark about their sonic character: “A BUZZING IMITATION OF HUMAN SPEECH” (219-220). The captured voice is further described as an “accursed buzzing which had no likeness to humanity despite the human words which it uttered in good English grammar and a scholarly accent” (218). It is glossed yet again as a “fiendish buzzing… like the drone of some loathsome, gigantic insect ponderously shaped into the articulate speech of an alien species” (220). If such a creature tried to utter our tongue and to do so in our manner—both of which would be alien to it—surely we might expect an indication of the difference in vocal apparatuses: a revelatory buzzing. Lovecraft’s story figures this “eldritch sound” as it is transduced through the corporeal: as the timbral indication of something off when the human voice is embodied in a fundamentally different sort of being. It is the sound that happens when a fungoid creature from Yuggoth—the supposedly native term for Pluto—speaks our tongue with its insectile mouthparts.

Yet, reading historically, we might understand this transduction as the sound of technical mediation itself: the brazen buzz of phonography, overlaying and, in a sense, inhabiting the human voice.

For listeners to early phonographic recordings, metallic sounds—inevitable given the materials used for styluses, tone arms, diaphragms, amplifying horns—were simply part of the experience. Far from capturing “the unimaginable real” or registering “acoustic events as such,” as media theorist Friedrich Kittler once put the case about Edison’s invention, which debuted in 1877, phonography was not only technically incapable of recording anything like an ambient soundscape but also drew attention to the very noise of itself (23).

For the first several decades of the medium’s existence, patent registers and admen’s pitches show that clean capture and reproduction were elusive rather than given. An account in the Literary Digest Advertiser of Valdemar Poulsen’s Telegraphone, explains the problem:

telegraphoneThe talking-machine records sound by the action of a steel point upon some yielding substance like wax, and reproduces it by practically reversing the operation. The making of the record itself is accompanied by a necessary but disagreeably mechanical noise—that dominating drone—that ‘b-r-r-r-r’ that is never in the human voice, and always in its mechanical imitations. One hears metallic sounds from a brazen throat—uncanny and inhuman. The brittle cylinder drops on the floor, breaks—and the neighbors rejoice!

The Telegraphone, which recorded sounds “upon imperishable steel through the intangible but potent force of electromagnetism” such that no “foreign or mechanical noise is heard or is possible,” of course promised to make the neighbors happy not by breaking the cylinder but rather by taking the inhuman ‘b-r-r-r-r’ out of the phonographically reproduced voice. Nonetheless, etching sound on steel, the Telegraphone was still a metal machine and unlikely to overcome the buzz entirely.

In his account of “weird stories” and why the genre suited him best, Lovecraft explained that one of his “strongest and most persistent wishes” was “to achieve, momentarily, the illusion of some strange suspension or violation of the galling limitations of time, space, and natural law which forever imprison us and frustrate our curiosity about the infinite cosmic spaces beyond the radius of our sight and analysis.” In “The Whisperer in Darkness,” Lovecraft put to work a technology that was rapidly becoming commonplace to introduce a buzz into the fabric of the everyday. This is the eldritch effect of Lovecraft’s evocation of phonography. While we might wonder whether a photograph has been tampered with, who really sent a telegram, or with whom we are actually speaking over a telephone line—all examples from Lovecraft’s tale—the central, repeated conundrums for the scholar Wilmarth remain not only whose voice is captured on the recorded cylinder but also why it sounds that way.

auxetophoneThe phonograph transforms the human voice, engineers a cosmic transduction, suggesting that within our quotidian reality something strange might lurk. This juxtaposition and interplay of the increasingly ordinary and the eldritch is also glimpsed in an account of Charles Parson’s invention the Auxetophone, which used a column of pressurized air rather than the usual metallic diaphragm. Here is an account of the voice of the Auxetophone from the “Matters Musical” column of The Bystander Magazine from 1905: “Long ago reconciled to the weird workings of the phonograph, we had come to regard as inevitable the metallic nature of its inhuman voice.” The new invention might well upset our listening habits, for Mr. Parson’s invention “bids fair to modify, if not entirely to remove,” the phonograph’s “somewhat unpleasant timbre.”

What the phonograph does as a medium is to make weird. And what making weird means is that instead of merely reproducing the human voice—let alone rendering acoustic events as such—it transforms the latter into its own: an uncanny approximation, which fails to simulate perfectly with regard to timbre in particular. Phonography reveals that the materials of reproduction are not vocal chords, breath, labial and dental friction—not flesh and spirit, but vibrating metal.

Although we can only speculate in this regard, I would suggest that “The Whisperer in Darkness” was weirder for readers for whom phonographs still spoke with metallic timbre. The rasping whisper of the needle on cylinder created what the Russian Formalist Viktor Shklovsky was formulating at almost exactly the same time as the function of the literary tout court: defamiliarization or, better, estrangement. Nonetheless, leading the reader to infer an alien presence behind this voice was equally necessary for the effect. After all, if we are to take the Auxetophone as our example—an apparatus announced in 1905, a quarter of a decade before Lovecraft composed his tale, and that joined a marketplace burgeoning with metallic-voice reducing cabinets, styluses, dampers, and other devices—phonographic listeners had long since become habituated to the inhumanity of the medium. That inhumanity had to be recalled and reactivated in the context of Lovecraft’s story.

dictaphoneTo understand fully the nature of this reactivation, moreover, we need to know precisely what Lovecraft’s evocative phonograph was. When Akeley takes his phonograph into the woods, he adds that he brought “a dictaphone attachment and a wax blank” (209). Further, to play back the recording, Wilmarth must borrow the “commercial machine” from the college administration (217). The device most consistent with Lovecraft’s descriptions and terms is not a record player, as we might imagine, but Columbia Gramophone Company’s Dictaphone. By the time of the story’s setting, Edison Phonograph’s had long since switched to more durable celluloid cylinders (Blue Amberol Records; 1912-1929) in an effort to stave off competition from flat records. Only Dictaphones, aimed at businessmen rather than leisure listeners, still used wax cylinders, since recordings could be scraped off and the cylinder reused. The vinyl Dictabelt, which eventually replaced them, would not arrive until 1947.

Meanwhile, precisely when the events depicted in “The Whisperer in Darkness” are supposed to have taken place, phonography was experiencing a revolutionary transformation: electronic sound technologies developed by radio engineers were hybridizing the acoustic machines, and electro-acoustic phonographs were in fact becoming less metallic in tone. Yet circa 1930, as the buzz slipped toward silence, phonography was still the best means of figuring the sonic uncanny valley. It was a sort of return of the technologically repressed: a reminder of the original eeriness of sound reproduction—recalled from childhood or perhaps parental folklore—at the very moment that new technologies promised to hide such inhumanity from sensory perception. Crucially, in Lovecraft’s tale, estrangement is not merely a literary effect. Rather, the eldritch is what happens when the printed word at a given moment of technological history calls up and calls upon other media of communication, phonography not the least.

I have remarked the apparent absence of race as a concern in “The Whisperer in Darkness,” but something along the lines of class is subtly but insistently at work in the tale. The academic Wilmarth and his erudite interlocutor Akeley are set in contrast with the benighted, uncomprehending agrarians of rural Vermont. Both men also display a horrified fascination with the alien technology that will allow human brains to be fitted into hearing, seeing, and speaking machines for transportation to Yuggoth. These machines are compared to phonographs: cylinders for storing brains much like those for storing the human voice. In this regard, the fungoid creatures resemble not so much bourgeois users or consumers of technology as scientists and engineers. Moreover, they do so just as a discourse of technocracy—rule by a technologically savvy elite—was being articulated in the United States. Here we might see the discovery of Pluto as a pretext for exploring anxieties closer to home: how new technologies were redistributing power, how their improvement—the fading of the telltale buzz—was making it more difficult to determine where humanity stopped and technology began, and whether acquiescence in this changes was laudable or resistance feasible. As usual with Lovecraft, these topics are handled with disconcerting ambivalence.

James A. Steintrager is a professor of English, Comparative Literature, and European Languages and Studies at the University of California, Irvine. He writes on a variety of topics, including libertinism, world cinema, and auditory cultures. His translation of and introduction to Michel Chion’s Sound: An Acoulogical Treatise will be published by Duke University Press in fall of 2015.

Featured image: Taken from “Global Mosaic of Pluto in True Color” in NASA’s New Horizons Image Gallery, public domain. All other images courtesy of the author.

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Future Memory: Womb Sound As Shared Experience Crossing Time and Space

Odette cry

This Month will feature a two-part post by SO! regular writer Maile Colbert.  Look for Part Two on Monday, January 19th.

I was a child obsessed with time travel. Beyond favorites such as A Wrinkle in Time and Time Bandits, I perpetually daydreamed of the ability to pause, reverse, and fast-forward my life. I had a book on the “olden days” and it amazed me that my great-grandparents, whom I had the fortune to know, had lived them. I wanted to fast forward and see myself their current age, telling stories to the next generations of a good life lived. I used to entertain the thought that if I let my breath go and let myself sink to the bottom of a body of water, I could pause time, or at least slow it down, as the sound of the fluid world around me seemed to suggest. Whenever my family moved, I made a time capsule, and I always scanned the ocean for long lost bottled messages. These were the beginnings of my future in time-based media–both image and sound–my love for found footage, and my recent research and writing on sound back in time.

Now as a new mother, I am beginning to think about the future in a way I hadn’t before. I see my mother in my daughter, and I see her mother, and my partner’s mother. I recognize my grandfather’s eyebrow when furrowed, and her grandfather’s nose. My mouth when smiling, my partner’s mouth when in concentration.

And our ears. . .our very sensitive hearing, almost like a punch line. Our daughter is truly the daughter of sound artists. In this first post of a two part series on humans’ earliest interactions with sound, I document our work sounding and listening together, which began in a future-oriented past I am still learning about.

Womb

There was a study in which doctors gave babies only a day old pacifiers connected to tape recorders. Depending on the pattern of the new babies suck, the tape recorder would either switch on the sound of the mother’s voice, or a stranger’s.

“Within 10 to 20 minutes, the babies learned to adjust their sucking rate on the pacifier to turn on their own mother’s voice,” says the study’s coauthor William Fifer, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons. “This not only points out a newborn’s innate love for his mother’s voice but also a baby’s unique ability to learn quickly.”

What Babies Learn in the Womb,” 2014, Lara Flynn Maccarthy, Parenting

My daughter Odette knew my voice the moment she was born. In a strange, bright, cold new world, it seemed one constant she could rely upon. When she was first placed upon my chest, I started to sing to her, and she was calming, staring at me, as much as her newborn eyes would let her, with an expression of surprised recognition, as this familiar voice sang a familiar song, one I sang her often in the womb.  One I knew by heart because my mother would sing it to me when I was a child.

 

Are you going to Scarborough Fair

Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme

Remember me to the one who lives there

She once was a true love of mine. . .

The mother’s voice comes to the fetus not solely as ambient sound through the abdomen, as other external sounds and voices would, but also through the vocal cords’ internal vibration. There is a direct connection, a shared space. As early as the seventh month, a fetal heartbeat will slow and calm to the sound of the mother’s voice, and research has shown newborns even prefer a similar version of their mother’s voice to what they heard in the womb, muffled and low. When Odette suffered colic in her early months, one sure way to help comfort her was to sing to her while she was on my chest. Aside from the close contact of skin, the familiar smell, the warmth, it could be that hearing my voice also through the chest mimicked the womb filter.

In the tape recorder study, researchers also noted that newborns would suck more intensely to recordings of people speaking in the language of their mothers, most likely picking up on the melody and rhythm. We are beginning to understand that learning starts in the womb.

Fetal Soap Addiction

Carmen Bank found her 1985 pregnancy rather boring. So, to pass the time, she started doing something she would never have dreamed of: watching a soap opera.

Unexpectedly, she found herself hooked. And so she spent almost every morning in front of her television set, ready for the familiar theme of “Ryan’s Hope.” After Melissa was born that October, Bank bought a videocassette recorder so she could tape the show when she was too busy to watch.

Bank isn’t sure when she discovered the behavior, but, shortly after Melissa was born, Bank realized that the baby seemed to recognize the “Ryan’s Hope” theme and would stop fussing when the program began.

“She’d just sit there and watch the whole introduction and then she would start imitating what they do on the show,” Bank said. “This has been going on forever.”

-The Very Young and Restless, Do Soaps Hook the Unborn? June 28, 1988, Allan Parachini, The New York Times

 

My third trimester was a rough one.   I was a walking swimming pool of about forty pounds of baby and amniotic fluid. My pelvis had gone completely out of line, making even that pregnancy waddle slow and difficult. Needless to say, I was less and less mobile. I was lucky that much of my remaining work was writing and studio based, but often found myself having to take mental breaks as well. My body/mind chemistry was working overtime. Something that happens with pregnancy when preparing mentally for your new, shared life is to think a lot about your own childhood. I was lucky to have a happy one, and so strong nostalgic feelings and memories would come up, particularly around the television show Dr. Who.  I used to spend a happy hour with my father once a week watching reruns from the 70’s in the 80’s.

Dr. Who returned to broadcast in the 2000s, in a few new successful regenerations.  The new iteration uses a lot of the classic themes, characters, and even remixes and re-masters the the original opening score written by Ron Grainer and realized by the great Delia Derbyshire for the BBC Radiophonic Workshop in 1963; the Dr. Who theme was one of the very first signature electronic music tunes, and performed well before commercial synthesizers were even available. Derbyshire used musique concrete techniques, cutting each note individually on analogue tape, speeding up and slowing down to create the notes from recordings of a single plucked string, white noise, and the simple harmonic waveforms of test-tone oscillators. (Grainer was famous for asking after hearing Derbyshire’s magic, “Did I write that?”. Derbyshire replied “Most of it.” The BBC, who kept members of the Radiophonic Workshop anonymous, prevented Grainer from giving Derbyshire a co-composer credit and a share of the royalties.)

It is a really, really catchy tune:

While Odette was in the womb, I watched all of those decades addictively, one after another. When I came across the soap opera study after she was born, I decided my obsessive Who-watching had set up a perfect laboratory to try it out myself. We started in 1963 and moved through time with the Doctor. Odette looked up in surprise and her brow furrowed in concentration. She looked around slowly at first, then faster and faster. She smiled; she cooed; she laughed. She started to flap her arms.

.

When I finally turned it off, she stopped everything and looked concerned. I turned it on again and we danced together in clear recognition of this already-shared future past sonic moment, one I had with my father and now with her. Now I understood that as I consumed Dr. Who, Odette was not only hearing, she was learning, and beginning the act of listening.

Sounds have a surprising impact upon the fetal heart rate: a five second stimulus can cause changes in heart rate and movement which last up to an hour. Some musical sounds can cause changes in metabolism. “Brahm’s Lullaby,” for example, played six times a day for five minutes in a premature baby nursery produced faster weight gain than voice sounds played on the same schedule (Chapman, 1975)

-The Fetal Sense, A Classical View, David B. Chamberlain, Birth Psychology

Wombscapes 

Odette’s very first movements, her first “quickening”, was in response to David Bowie’s “Starman”.  This was around 16 weeks, often the time for first movements in the fetus, and interestingly also the time when the hearing has developed.  The fetus floats in a rich and complex soundscape; it is anything but quiet. The womb filter…amniotic fluid, embryonic membranes, uterus, the maternal abdomen-low frequencies, and blood in veins whooshing, then Mother’s voice and body noises such as hiccups and the gurgles of digestion and of course, the heartbeat. The Mother’s heartbeat can be as loud as a vacuum cleaner and ultra sounds as loud as a subway car arriving in a train station.We can try to mimic the womb-scape, imagining sounds being filtered through the body. We can use a hydrophone–a pressure microphone designed to be sensitive to soundwaves through fluid matter–on the abdomen to get an idea and sample for our womb-scape.

Perhaps it would sound something like this…

…reactive listening begins eight weeks before the ear is structurally complete at about 24 weeks. These findings indicate the complexity of hearing, lending support to the idea that receptive hearing begins with the skin and skeletal framework, skin being a multireceptor organ integrating input from vibrations, thermo receptors, and pain receptors. This primal listening system is then amplified with vestibular and cochlear information as it becomes available. With responsive listening proven at 16 weeks, hearing is clearly a major information channel operating for about 24 weeks before birth.

-The Fetal Sense, A classical view

Sound artist and Acoustic Ecologist Andrea Williams has been recently working on a composition for Bellybuds, for her yet born nephew. Bellybuds are “a specialized speaker system that gently adheres to your belly & safely plays memory-shaping sound directly to the womb.”  Much of her work is composed with space in mind, using room sounds in a live performance situation. Williams told me it was interesting thinking about the womb as a new “venue,” with her little developing nephew as her audience. “What is he hearing?”  she asked,  “will he recognize me right away upon meeting him for the first time if he only hears the sound of my voice through the Bellybuds while he is a fetus?” I love the idea that she could send a “hello” from one place to her nephew in the womb in another.

The more we understand and realize about fetal hearing and processing sound, the more we understand how fetuses can detect subtle changes and process complex information. Memory starts to form around 30 weeks, and it’s possible early sound interventions at this time could help babies with detected abnormal development. Speaking and singing to the unborn fetus, allowing them to experience different soundscapes while still in the womb, helps shape their brains. This is probably why the urge to do so is there.

. . .Odette’s first dance. Odette’s first songs. . . transcending time and space.

dedicated to Odette Helen, and to the family, daughter, and memory of Steven Miller

Featured Image: Odette’s Birth Cry, photo credit Rui Costa

The album Future Memory, for Odette will be released in 2015 through Wild Silence.  A dedication album to a newborn daughter…a mix of her parents’ recorded and shared sounds, memories, hopes, and dreams towards a future with her. Sounds of her womb-scape, birth, and first year…music in collaboration with friends and family across oceans and land…an album of lullabies for Odette.

Maile Colbert is a multi-media artist with a concentration on sound and video who relocated from Los Angeles, US to Lisbon, Portugal. She is a regular writer for Sounding Out!

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On Sound and Pleasure: Meditations on the Human Voice– Yvon Bonenfant

This Is Your Body on the Velvet Underground– Jacob Smith

Sound Designing Motherhood: Irene Lusztig & Maile Colbert Open The Motherhood Archives– Maile Colbert

 

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