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Gender and the First Sound Films in 1930s Bombay

 

co-edited by Praseeda Gopinath and Monika Mehta

Our listening practices are discursively constructed. In the sonic landscape of India, in particular, the way in which we listen and what we hear is often normative, produced within hegemonic discourses of gender, class, caste, region, and sexuality. . . This forum, Gendered Soundscapes of India, offers snapshots of sound at sites of trans/national production, marketing, filmic and musical texts. Complementing these posts, the accompanying photographs offer glimpses of gendered community formation, homosociality, the pervasiveness of sound technology in India, and the discordant stratified soundscapes of the city. This series opens up for us the question of other contexts in India where sound, gender, and technology might intersect, but more broadly, it demands that we consider how sound exists differently in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, and Afghanistan. How might we imagine a sonic framework and South Asia from these locations? —Guest Editors Praseeda Gopinath and Monika Mehta

For the full introduction to the forum, click here.

To read all of the posts in the forum, click here.

The coming of sound in Bombay cinema in the 1930s dovetailed with discussions concerning men and women’s roles in modern Indian society and filmmakers’ efforts to establish the cinema as a respectable medium that was integral to Indian nationalist aspirations. With sound now essential to a film’s diegesis, film producers adjusted narrative strategies and how they aurally and visually presented a character as male or female, such as through voice, language/accent, and music. Christine Ehrick reminds us, gender is “represented, contested, and reinforced through the aural.” What did the addition of sound to cinema mean for presenting fe/male bodies and voices on screen? Scholars such as Laura Mulvey have famously demonstrated how film visual editing can lead to women’s objectification in cinema. The sounds and narrative of Dokhtar-e Lor “The Lor Girl” (1933)—the first Persian-language sound film—extend Mulvey’s argument by letting us hear the early sound film’s role in gendering bodies within the wider socio-political context of colonial modernity, as well as the impact the film would have on later Indian and Iranian cinematic conventions.

Golnar and Jafar discuss love in The Lor Girl (1933), Screen capture by author

Although usually featured in histories of Iranian cinema, The Lor Girl was made in Bombay in collaboration between Iranian scholar and expatriate, Abdolhossein Sepanta, and Ardeshir Irani, film producer and owner of the Imperial Film Company. Irani, who is known as the father of the first Indian talkie and Urdu-language film Alam Ara, was also a prominent member of the Bombay Parsis. Irani sought to establish his Imperial Film Company as a global film center and produced a number of the first talkie films in several other languages in India. Sepanta and Irani decided to collaborate on a Persian-language film for Parsi audiences in Bombay and for distribution in Iran. India was already establishing itself as a major global film power while Iran had not yet invested in the technology necessary to make a sound film.

The film’s first scene opens with a close up shot of Golnar’s gyrating hips and the sounds of a reed flute, oud, tabla, and male singing voices. The camera zooms out, and we see that Golnar is shaking a tambourine and performing for an audience of mostly male patrons in the café. The audience members – as indicated by their clothing – include local men of Lor and Arab backgrounds, which remind us of the café’s location near Iran’s border with modern day Iraq.. The men, as well as an ensemble of male musicians, sit in large circle around Golnar. As Golnar dances and the ensemble plays, we hear the audience clapping and yelling “very good, very good!” in encouragement. Through their jeers and taunts, the film sonically casts the men in the audience as vulgar, and its visual construction of Arabs dovetail with Orientalist aesthetics that Rosie Thomas argues were found in contemporaneous Hollywood, European, and Bombay cinemas. The sonic characteristics of these men that we hear throughout the film also reinforce the one-dimensional Orientalist, racist visual codes; the Arab sheikh’s high-pitched, cackling voice sounds simultaneously evil and weak, while the bandits’ voices cast them as brutish and uneducated.

Golnar negotiates with Qoli Khan, in The Lor Girl (1933), Screen capture by author

When the song ends, Golnar skips around the circle holding out a basket to collect tips from the audience members who oblige her to flirt with them before they hand her money. After a short private conversation between Ramazan and the Arab sheikh in which both men cackle over the sheikh’s plan to visit Golnar in her room at night, the next scene shows another dancing sequence similar to the first – although this time Golnar dances for a smaller group of men in Ramazan’s lair. In both dance scenes, the sonic landscape is simultaneously seductive and threatening, elements reinforced by Golnar’s vulnerable yet enticing positioning and the audience’s leering, eager stares and shouts. The film casts men as voyeuristic listeners and consumers of sound, and through Golnar’s dancing – a role considered and reinforced by the film as disreputable – sound produces Golnar as object for the male listeners’ pleasure. While other contemporaneous Bombay films featured more spectacular song and dance sequences, Hamid Naficy notes that this scene in The Lor Girl still hints at the cabaret and café sequences which later emerged in Indian and Iranian commercial cinemas. This, is turn, demonstrates how cinematic codes – informed by discourses on gender and nation – move and are shared transnationally through co-production and exchange.

Now that cinema included both sound and images, filmmakers drew on elements of music, dancing, and other aspects of existing local performance traditions, such as Parsi theater. Representations of gender in Parsi theater were characterized by flexibility; Kathryn Hansen notes that due to concerns about female actors performing for male audiences and in public in general, female characters were often played by men. The acceptance of cross-dressing – not only in terms of body, but also voice – allowed for fluidity in terms of how femininity and masculinity were visually and aurally represented. Yet sound cinema did not allow the same flexibility in terms of gender performance due to aesthetic concerns, as well as sound cinema’s intersection with national and modernist discourses. While women’s voices on radio and records became increasingly commonplace and accepted in Bombay in the 1930s, the audiovisual experience that the sound film provided presented a challenge. Cinema was still not widely regarded as a “respectable” medium, and many of Indian cinema’s early actresses came from what were considered questionable backgrounds.

The trajectory of Golnar and Jafar’s characters encapsulates this tension between gender identities and modernity. Jafar wears a military uniform and mustache associated with the “pre-modern” Qajars. Throughout most of the film while in Iran, Golnar wears long braids and a long dress, clothing that indicates that Golnar hails from the “chaotic” Lorestan province, and that mark her as traditional and backwards in the context of colonial modernity.

Jafar and Golnar in The Lor Girl (1933), Screen capture by author

Although Jafar rescues Golnar initially, the film ultimately casts Golnar as more capable of outsmarting the bandits. Golnar saves Jafar from the bandits several times throughout the film, moments that cast her as strong and brave similar to the virangana (warrior woman) trope that was widely circulated and popular in early 20th century Indian popular culture which Rosie Thomas notes in Bombay Before Bollywood “implied gender ambivalence and multiple modes of femininity” (111).

Golnar’s high-pitched voice and regional Kermani accent associate her with the countryside – especially in contrast to Jafar’s sophisticated, cultured Persian. But her voice’s firm and confident presence resonates across the soundtrack. In the scenes in which she searches for and saves Jafar, she calls his name repeatedly, sonic moments that emphasize her role as Jafar’s rescuer. To negotiate with and escape from the bandits in other scenes, Golnar uses what seems to be her familiarity with the bandit and countryside way of life, as well as her voice; she bravely yells at the bandits and Ramazan’s henchmen while in captivity. At one point, pretending to seem frightened and intimidated by her captors through fake tears and whimpers, Golnar manages to use bandit’s whip against him and steal his horse. Golnar escapes captivity another time when she uses her brazen and coy voice and speaking style to trick Qoli Khan into letting her leave the cave to supposedly find and help capture Jafar.

Yet Golnar and Jafar experience significant transformations by the end of the film and upon their arrival in Bombay. Happy piano music plays on the soundtrack as the film shows us buildings and monuments of modern Bombay. Afterwards, intertitles inform us of the spectacular changes that have taken place in Iran while Jafar and Golnar have been in Bombay now that a new shah has come to power. In the next scene, we are in the couple’s grand living room of their house in Bombay; a servant cleans their grand staircase while we hear and see Golnar at the piano. Jafar enters the room and notes how well she has learned to play. While initially positioned similar to the virangana, Golnar now wears a European-style dress and short haircut. In Bombay Cinema: an Archive of the City, Ranjani Mazumdar discusses how in emerging Indian nationalism, “Victorian ideology entered into a comfortable alliance with Indian myths to reinvent the “virtues” and “purity” of the Indian woman,” casting her as associated with the bourgeois domestic space of the home, and interested in European-associated pursuits such as the piano (82).

Jafar and Golnar arrive in Bombay, in The Lor Girl (1933), Screen capture by author

Meanwhile, Jafar, who appeared inept at his role as soldier and potentially effeminate, now is clean-shaven and wearing a Pahlavi hat and suit. Golnar’s near silence in this scene and attentive listening contrasts dramatically with the presence of her voice in the previous scenes when she argued and negotiated with the bandits, sang solos, confidently flirted with Jafar and talked with him about the differences between notions of love in the modern city and the countryside. Now, nearly silent in terms of her voice, but providing musical accompaniment to Jafar’s nationalistic song through the piano, Golnar demonstrates the more limited essentialized femininity of the new, modern, middle-class woman, and one characterized by its association with culture. Later, reading the newspaper together, Jafar suggests that they return to Iran now that it has become modern like Bombay. Golnar quietly listens to Jafar, and assents with his desire to return.

Jafar and Golnar read the newspaper in The Lor Girl (1933), Screen capture by author

The Lor Girl’s importance in Iranian cinema histories – and its near absence historiography of cinema in India – is reflective of how national cinema frameworks limit how we understand the early sounds of Iranian and Indian cinemas. The film was produced at a time when national cinema was not yet articulated with a specific language and when transnational elements played a key role in film production. In addition to its role in sonically gendering bodies, The Lor Girl demonstrates the sound film’s role in participating in the association of language and nation.

Featured Image: The Lor Girl (1933) Film Poster

Claire Cooley is a PhD student in the Department of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. Her research interests center on overlapping Middle East and South Asia film histories. Claire’s dissertation project traces connections between Egyptian, Iranian, and Indian cinemas with a focus on the 1930s-1960s, and uses sound as a framework to capture the dynamics of cinematic circulations across this contiguous region. In 2010, she received her BA from Tufts University, and from 2010-2013 she lived in Cairo, Egypt where she pursued a project translating, mapping, and blogging about graffiti during the 2011 Egyptian Revolution. Claire also teaches Persian and Arabic.

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SO! Amplifies: The Women in L.A. Punk Archive

Image of Alice Bag used with her permission (thank you!)

Image of Alice Bag used with her permission (thank you!)

For full intro and part one of the series click here. For part two, click here.

Our Punk Sound series implicitly argues that sound studies methodologies are better suited to understanding how punk works sonically than existing journalistic and academic conversations about musical genre, chord progressions, and/or genealogies of bands.  Alexandra Vasquez’s sound-oriented work on Cuban music, for example, in Listening in Detail (2014) opens up necessary conversations about the “flashes, moments, sounds” in music that bear its meanings and its colonial, raced, classed, and gendered histories in material ways people can hear and feel.  While retaining the specificity of Vasquez’s argument and the specific sonic archive bringing it forth, we too insist on “an ethical and intellectual obligation to the question: what do the musicians sound like” (12) and  how do folks identifying with and through these musical sounds hear them?

In this series, we invite you to amplify varied historicized “details” of punk sound–its chunk-chunk-chunk skapunk riffs, screams, growls, group chants, driving rhythms, honking saxophones–hearing/feeling/touching these sounds in richly varied locations, times, places, and perspectives: as a pulsing bead of condensation dripping down the wall of The Smell in Downtown LA (#savethesmell), a drummer making her own time on tour, a drunk sitting too near the amp at a backyard party, a queer teenager in their bedroom being yelled at to “turn it down” and “act like a lady[or a man]”. . .and on and on.  Today’s entry is done in conjunction with our SO! Amplifies series. . .a highly-curated, rolling mini-post series by which we editors hip you to cultural makers and organizations doing work we really really dig. Today we round out our series on punk by diving into Alice Bag’s archive of interviews with women in the L.A. punk scene.

SOUND!

NO, SOUND!

–Aaron SO! (Sounding Out!) + Jenny SO! (Sounding Out!)

soampAlice Bag’s Women in L.A. Punk Archives is a treasure trove of interviews that she has conducted with women in the L.A. punk scene. Today we share with you some of the most insightful and exciting gems we curated from her amazing archive. We encourage you to hear punk in a new way, and to explore her archive for yourself.

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Joanna Spock Dean of Backstage Pass

[Excerpt from an interview on March, 2006]

Alice Bag: What was/is your contribution to the punk community?

Joanna Spock Dean: I was the ONLY bass player in Backstage Pass (since we had more rotating members than any other band!), and one of the singer/songwriters. I always felt that Backstage Pass was one of the first bands to come out of the Punk Scene (which we loved, of course), and move into the poppier “New Wave” scene, and others were able to do the same thing. We also were unapologetic groupies, and I think the fact that that was a big part of us, and that we were proud of it, added to the band.

AB: Do you have any funny or interesting stories to share?

Joanna Spock Dean: I [do] remember one.  We were in San Francisco @ The Mabuhay, maybe opening for Devo, so it was a 2 night thing.  The first night, I remember walking into the bathroom, and finding some girl harassing Genny and Marina, and I told her to leave them alone.  (I was always the ‘leader’ in that way.)  The second night, the same girl comes up to the stage, and starts screaming and throwing popcorn at me as we’re onstage – hey, she probably just thought it was a ‘punk’ thing to do. Well, I exploded.  I threw off my bass, jumped off the stage and started pummeling her – I heard that Rod came flying over the top of his drum kit to pull me off.  I do remember that as I’m swinging away, she’s yelling “I changed my mind, I changed my mind, I love your band, I love your band!”

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Penelope Houston of The Avengers

[Excerpt from an interview on June 2007]

AB:What was/is your contribution to the punk community?

Penelope Houston: As singer/lyricist of the Avengers in the late 70’s and now again leading the band to play all over the world.

PH: What was the role of women in the early punk scene?

Penelope Houston: It seems like there was more freedom and fewer rules in 1977-79, before hardcore took over the mantle of punk. The early scene embraced all comers, be they female, gay, non-white or even older. There was no dress code. Women were pioneers along with everyone else involved. I noticed no separation. I knew women who were musicians, bookers, managers, photographers, visual artists, film makers, journalists, label owners… etc.

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Heather Valiant Ferguson, scenemaker, style breaker and hairdresser

[Excerpt from an interview on November 2009]

AB:What was/is your contribution to the punk community?

Heather Valiant Ferguson: My name is Heather Ferguson. I now go by the first name Valiant. I became a hairdresser at age 18 and went to San Francisco to work for Vidal Sassoon. I did a lot of free hair for a lot of fellow punks, including The Avengers, The Cramps, The Ramones, Belinda C., The Dils, etc.

AB: Which artist, band concert and/or show had the most impact on your life?

Heather Valiant Ferguson: I lived in Pacific Heights on Broadway and Laguna. It was around 1974-75. The punk rock scene was making its way over the waves from Britain through Sassoon’s. At the very place in time that punk rock came streaming into consciousness, I was hanging around with some very dark and edgy people like myself. We used to go to a place in North Beach and I would smoke Black Sobranie cigarettes in a short black cigarette holder. I wore black clothing and Hats with veils. I was dating a musician lead singer named Bobby Death. He kept crooning on about this band from New York called ‘THE RAMONES’. One night he got tickets to their SF debut at a place called the Savoy Tivoli. Well, he disappeared somewhere, but I didn’t care…..WOW, who were these brilliant moptops?? Beat on the brat, with a baseball bat, Oh yeah, yeah, oohh oohhh. I was in my version of Nirvana. I felt something growing inside me and it wasn’t a baby. It was life alright, but they just knocked me out. Bobby appeared near the end to tell me that he had invited them over to my apartment for champagne and coke……WOW again. We stayed up all night long telling each other all our stories. That was too kewl for words. So that show was me plugging into me, plugging into the whole synchronistic punk scene. I moved to Hollywood a year later to work at Sassoon’s there.

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Connie Clarksville, a Blackette with Black Randy & The Metro Squad

[Excerpt from an interview on January 2008]

AB: What was/is your contribution to the punk community?

Connie Clarksville: When I moved to Hollywood from Orange County in 1972, I moved into the Canterbury Apartments. Back then it was full of drag queens and pimps and gays. I was a Bowie fan and liked the array of different people. After (the era of) Glitter, Rodney Bingenheimer’s (English Disco), The Real Don Steele Show, The Rainbow, disco and hanging out on Sunset, I went to a show at Larchmont Hall one Saturday afternoon. There was a show at the Whiskey where I met Bruce (Moreland) who would become Bruce Barf (of the Weirdos) later. He told me how this guy named Brendan Mullen was wanting to open a place where we could hang out and bands would play in the basement of the Pussycat Theatre on Hollywood Blvd. He took me over to this mess of a basement where I met Brendan. I loved his accent and had a crush on him rite away. He said he’s naming this mess “the Masque.” I loved the idea and wanted to do something to help so I hauled trash out of the basement. There was a small, cut-out room in the middle, so when bands started playing and people started showing up, I decided to ask Brendan if I could sell sodas. He said, “sure, Clarksville.” Nobody had ever called me that before, so I got used to the name. Brendan was really the only person who called me that.

Soon after, I met this girl named Sheila (Edwards) and we needed a place to stay. I was going to beauty school and had a little money and with her half (of the rent), I suggested the Canterbury. It was close to school and the Masque. Soon after, many bands moved in: The Bags, Nicky Beat from the Weirdos, The Germs, Geza X lived across the hall… so, so many to list.

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Debbie Dub, scenemaker, producer, management and booking

[Excerpt from an interview on July 2011]

AB: What was/is your contribution to the punk community?

Debbie Dub: In the early days, I think just being part of the scene was a huge contribution. There weren’t very many of us, and we were just making it up as we went along – which means I helped create it! Producing the first Negative Trend single is one of my lasting contributions. The record is famous now but we couldn’t give them away at the time.

AB: Are there any punk women from the early scene that you feel have not been adequately recognized?

Debbie Dub: All of them. I don’t think you can underestimate the impact that women had on the scene.  We were equals in standing but also in numbers. When you think about it, for a phenomenon filled with such over the top aggressive music and attitude, it’s amazing how many women played vital roles in shaping the scene.  I don’t think there had ever been anything like it before in terms of women’s participation.

Read More in the Women in L.A. Punk Archives

All text and images reproduced with the permission of Alice Bag.  The featured image is of the Bags Live at the Mabuhay Gardens, January 1978.

Alice Bag is a punk rock singer, musician, author, educator and feminist archivist. Alice was lead singer and co-founder of The Bags, one of the first wave of punk bands to form in the mid-1970’s in Los Angeles, CA.

Her first book, Violence Girl, East LA Rage to Hollywood Stage is the story of her upbringing in East LA, her eventual migration to Hollywood and the euphoria and aftermath of the first punk wave. Violence Girl reveals how domestic abuse fueled her desire for female empowerment and sheds a new perspective on the origin of hardcore, a style most often associated with white suburban males.

An outspoken activist, feminist and a self-proclaimed troublemaker, Alice has remained active in music since the late 1970’s and published her second book, Pipe Bomb for the Soul in 2015. The ongoing influence of Alice’s style can be seen in the traveling Smithsonian exhibition, American Sabor. She has been profiled by PBS, AARP and has been an invited speaker at colleges including Stanford, Wellesley and USC. Her memoir, Violence Girl, is now required reading in gender and musicology courses throughout the country.

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Audiotactility & the Medieval Soundscape of Parchment

series co-editors Dorothy Kim and Christopher Roman

series co-editors Dorothy Kim and Christopher Roman

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

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

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

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

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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 post shared 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.

drips

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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From “listening” to “filling in”: where “La Soeur Écoute” Teaches Us to Listen

DH Listening

Editor’s Note: Welcome to the second installment in the “DH and Listening” blog series for World Listening Month, our annual forum that prompts readers to reflect on what it means to listen. This year’s forum considers the role of “listening” in the digital humanities (DH, for short). We at Sounding Out! are stoked to hear about (and listen to) all the new projects out there that archive sound, but we wonder whether the digital humanities engage enough with the the notion of listening. After all, what’s a sound without someone to listen to it?

Next week Fabiola Hanna will be reflecting upon what DH means when it talks about participatory practices. Jacqueline Wernimont from the Vibrant Lives team shared with us last week about the ethics of listening to 20th century sterilization victims’ records. Today, Emmanuelle Sonntag introduces us to a figure from a long time ago, “la soeur écoute,” a nun whose was responsible for sitting in and listening when another nun had a visitor. As she reflects on this nun’s job, she senses her notion of listening (especially in the context of the digital) change.

Sit down, fade into the background, and listen closely. Mother Superior will want all the details.–Liana Silva, Managing Editor

Who is she?

At the beginning of my doctoral research on listening, while I looked in French dictionaries for the word “écoute” I came upon, almost systematically, the expression “soeur écoute.” For example, this dictionary says “soeur écoute” is a nun who, in a monastery, accompanies in the parlor room another nun who gets visited.

This is how I met this cloistered nun called “la soeur écoute” (literally, “the sister listening”, or “sister listen”, if a literal translation has any sense here). The term is “vieilli” (outdated), as written in the dictionaries, but strangely, they insist on mentioning her again and again, even in 2016 editions. She is a listener, just as you would say, “I’m a librarian”. However I prefer to say “she is listener”, without the “a”, even if it is not proper English. In French, elle est écoute, and believe me, this resonates amazingly. To me, the “soeur écoute” is a fascinating woman because her activity has ceased to exist in monasteries, allowing me to imagine her experience, behavior, life and occupation as a cloistered nun.

Here she is at work. A visitor is knocking on the monastery’s door  — can you hear it? The “soeur écoute” welcomes the visitor and leads him/her through the place until they reach the parlor. The room is divided in two spaces by a metal or wooden grille, the sacred one and the secular one. The “soeur écoute” has the visitor sitting in front of the grille, on the secular side of the room. On the other side, the nun who is being visited is already sitting, waiting for the “soeur écoute” to pull aside the curtain that hides the grille. The “soeur écoute” then sits next to the visited nun, slightly in the background. During the conversation, she neither speaks nor moves nor takes any notes. She just listens. When the session is finished, she closes the curtain and leads the visitor to the exit. Later, she promptly reports what she heard to the mother abbess.

The word “écoute” has three moments in its evolution over time (of course with some overlapping). In order: someone, somewhere, something. “Someone” refers to the 12th century (“écoute,” as a person, is attested in France at the beginning of this century), and “somewhere” to the 15th (meaning the place from where you listen). Then, listening considered as “something” (the “thing” you must have to be able to hear attentively) goes back the 19th. In our common comprehension of what listening is, we are now entirely in the “something” part, with no overlapping at all. For my research, the minute I started to look at my “object” as a “person,” my thinking shifted. The “soeur écoute” rung a bell: we are in the “something” timeframe of the notion of listening, and this could blind us in our comprehension of what listening in 2016 really is.

Listening Behind Bars

Firstly, the “soeur écoute” is also called, in some sources, “auscultatrice.” For example, I found a mention (with a missing “t”) of such nuns in a primary source of 1705 concerning the Ursulines de la Congrégration de Paris. The document tells neither how the “auscultatrice” should behave, nor the technical rules to apply, such as the distance between the grille and the visited nun, or the distance between the “auscultatrice” and the visited nun. But it does indicate how the visited nun should behave with her. In the section called “De la manière dont les Religieuses se doivent comporter au Parloir” (How nuns must behave in the parlor), we read:

Règlemens des religieuses Ursulines, 1705, p. 95.

“They will be humble and reserved in their behavior. They will avoid inappropriate gestures, as well as the distraction of sight, bursts of laughing, speaking loudly or impetuously, although they always are expected to speak in an intelligible way, so that the auscultatrice can hear them” (my translation).

The term “auscultatrice” is reminiscent of the very roots of the word “écoute,” the Latin auscultare, a combination of “(…)auris, a word that gives the first part of the verb auscultare,” and “a tension, an intention and an attention, which the second part of the term marks’, as the French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy explains.

In the case of the Ursulines, it is a paradox, as the word “écoute” had been used since the 12th century, and the expression “soeur écoute” commonly used since the end of the Middle Ages. I suspect a marketing reason here: “auscultatrice” sounds much more strict and in-depth than “soeur écoute,” providing the idea of a pure and original listening, if not conservative.

Second, the “soeur écoute” is part-time. A primary source dating of 1628, in a 1876 book, mentions 25 nuns interviewed about their occupations inside the Sainte-Praxède monastery. Seven among them claim to be or to have been “auscultatrice” (p. 52–54, 193, 198, 212, 234). All of them double it up with another job, such as nurse or organist. Some of them also claim being “auscultatrice de la porte” (auscultatrice of the door) or “auscultatrice du parloir” (auscultatrice in the parlor). The grille, the door and her body (when she strides along the monastery), are her work instruments, her listening prostheses.

Third, the “soeur écoute” appears to have amazing skills. In the Dictionnaire françois, by Pierre Richelet (1680), she is called “tierce”, meaning she is the third element in the triangle of the setting in the parlor, hence, a mediation :

Dictionnaire françois, 1680, p. 448

Also, the plural “ÉCOUTES“ (written in capital, as to demonstrate a precedence on the singular form) : “this word is used to designate people placed to listen and to discover what is happening” (my translation).

Dictionnaire françois, 1680, p. 265

She indeed has an ability to discover what is happening, by watching, observing, monitoring, keeping an eye, but also by aggregating the data she is collecting.

The parlor in motion

As I was writing a few pages devoted to the “soeur écoute” for my dissertation, I stumbled upon an oral history documentary,funded by the Illinois Humanities Council, called Chosen (Custody of the Eyes). As Abbie Reese describes on her website, it is “a collaborative documentary film  — a portrait made with and about a young woman transitioning into a cloistered religious community that follows an ancient rule.” Reese explains:

The severity of their lives is striking. During the four visits permitted each year, the nuns and their loved ones are separated by a metal grille and are not supposed to reach through the bars to touch one another.

Today, this order, as others, uses “extern sisters” to provide the link with the outside world.

Intrigued by this grille, reminiscence of the “soeur écoute,” I watched the 8-minute demo and was stricken by two moments. The first one, at 2:20, shows Abbie Reese in the parlor, with a computer, in front of the metal grille. Behind it, one of the cloistered nuns reaches the computer through the bars in order to plug in a cable. At 07:55, this time from the point of view of the Poor Clare nuns, we see the parlor with the grille covered by a green curtain. A nun walks in, pulls aside the curtain. Then, at 08:02, from the secular side again, a nun closes the curtain while saying : “you can turn it off!”.

What did we just witness? A cloistered contemplative nun reached through a metal grille to transfer some video files into a computer. It is here, around this gesture, that I see digital humanities coming into the picture along with listening. Of course I’m not building a case on the cable itself, or on the video files. It is the gesture more than anything else that draws my attention: the exact moment where the nun reaches the computer through the bars.

A surveilled sequence of events

As it comes from the outside world, by definition a visit to the monastery disturbs the extremely scheduled sequence of events and rules giving rythm to the monastery’s life. From this point of view, the “soeur écoute” is the only one, in the enclosure of the monastery, in power of keeping watch (“épier”) on what is around her. In All Ears: The Aesthetics of Espionage (English edition to be released in December 2016), Peter Szendy evokes the “écoute” (as a person) as the one whose job is to practice an auditive surveillance (“celui ou celle qui pratique la surveillance auditive”). Yet here, with this listening nun, we are reaching a listening that is much more than aural.

What does she do as a job? Surveillance? Espionage?  I would rather say that her listening is a lookout (“affût”), a sentinel (“sentinelle”) as well as a watch (“guet”) — I have to say here the English language lacks in qualifying precisely those notions. In this regard, Kate Lacey’s explorations around “listening in”, “listening out” and “mediated listening” is, to my understanding, an indication of the difficulty to define “the act of listening.” However, there is another aspect in which the “soeur écoute” appears as unbeatable : her ability to report. I suppose the relevance of the report depended on the visitor, so the nun had to decide whether or not to report to the abbess.

In French, there is a word to designate those who report: “rapporteur/rapporteuse.” When I was a kid, in a French school somewhere in France, being a “rapporteuse” was an insult. As I’m writing this, I suddenly remember the litany that was sung through the school’s playground against the poor one who was accused (I use the feminine here in order to relate with the nun, but it could be a boy of course). It was always “delivered” with the same few music notes and tone, by three, four, five kids, arm in arm, sweeping the playground with this human singing barrier of accusation:

Elle est une rapporteuse ♪ ♫ ♬ Elle est une rapporteuse ♪ ♫ ♬ Elle est une rapporteuse ♪ ♫ ♬ — (She is a tattletale ♪ ♫ ♬ She is a tattletale ♪ ♫ ♬ She is a tattletale ♪ ♫ ♬)

All this to say that the “soeur écoute” reminds us that listening is linked to the act of reporting. In Listen: A History of Our Ears, Peter Szendy underlines listening as being not at all benevolent, the kindly meaning being a very late one in the long evolution of the notion. Quite the contrary, argues the French philosopher and musicologist, listening holds a great amount of perversity. When observing the “soeur écoute”, this is what we see: a woman whose listening is not kind.

She is a tattletale ♪ ♫ ♬ She is a tattletale ♪ ♫ ♬ She is a tattletale ♪ ♫ ♬

Reaching through the bars of the grille

Let us revisit the video at 02:20: observing, again and again, the gesture of the nun with the camera cable. Her body and the grille. Her face and attitude. What she says. How she tries to plug the cable. Her hands and arms. Her fingers. Her way to deal with the grille. The nun is in movement between (and with) those technological objects, digitally ensuring the mediation between both worlds. In Listen, Szendy argues (in an ironic passage of the book, hence difficult to quote) that listening is “a matter of touching.” He stands up for “listening with our fingertips” (in the French edition, slightly different: “l’écoute au bout des doigts”). While doing so, Szendy plays wonderfully with the word “digital.” In French it has two meanings : “digital” refers to the fingers, but also to the digital, like the one of the digital technologies (although more often translated as “numérique”). The “digital” intervention of “sister listener” then takes a new dimension, between fingers and technology.

She is a tattletale ♪ ♫ ♬ She is a tattletale ♪ ♫ ♬ She is a tattletale ♪ ♫ ♬

In All Ears, Szendy highlights listening as a kind of intelligence activity, “activité de renseignement” in French. Yet, “renseignement” also means filling in a metadata, or, if you prefer, a field that describes a digital object. Like the nun trying to plug in the cable. The “soeur écoute” then appears as a figure of a “filling in” processes and practices : while listening, she also informs, and in-forms.

The grille and the grid

I just read the fascinating story around a visit in a cloistered monastery close to my home in Montréal. Again a grille. Again a green curtain. This time though, the nuns reach easily through the bars, shaking hands. Nuns have the internet. They know how to catch the rumor of the world, if they wish to.

My partner told me recently: “it seems you are building a case on someone whose job does not exist anymore to reflect on something very contemporary, the digital.” Yes, it is exactly that. This is what is so liberating with the “soeur écoute.” And no, it is not exactly that, my dear: I’m not sure she does not exist anymore. What if a little bit of a “soeur écoute” would be in all of us? In other other words, what if the way she listens would inform how we listen today, making the connection between listening as person (the “someone”), listening as place (the “somewhere”), and listening as object (the “something”)?

I see the “soeur écoute” as a reading grid, or framework, which forces to rethink listening and its role. Reaching through the bars, she helps expand the study of listening beyond its sonorous contours. She encourages to consider listening in order to include the non-sonorous aspects of “keeping watch” and “sentineling”. Going from one world to another, from one side to another, pulling aside curtains, she urges us, “researchers of listening”, being “tierce” and part-time in our methods and attitudes. Even if it has to go such as far as considering listening as a counterpoint to sound. After all this, maybe, starting to auscultate the relationship between listening and digital humanities.

I have to go. I have put Listening under custody. I have a cable to plug, and a report to write.

I am a tattletale ♪ ♫ ♬ I am a tattletale ♪ ♫ ♬ I am a tattletale ♪ ♫ ♬

Featured image: FreeImages.com/Michael P***

Emmanuelle Sonntag defines herself as a “knowledge organizer.” She offers consultancy services in communication, education, curriculum design, information management and knowledge mobilization while pursuing her PhD in Sociology on… Listening at Université du Québec à Montréal. She tweets on listening, sounds, stories and other noises @lvrdg.

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