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Black Excellence on the Airwaves: Nora Holt and the American Negro Artist Program

Co-authored by Chelsea Daniel and Samantha Ege

Nora Holt (c.1885 – 1974) was a leading voice in Black America’s classical music scene. Her activities as a composer, performer, critic, commentator, and more shaped the Harlem Renaissance and its Chicago counterpart. As the fervor of the Black Renaissance progressed into the Civil Rights era, the energy that drove Black women’s activism sought greater outlets, one of which was the male-dominated world of radio. In radio, Holt continued her mission to broadcast Black excellence and there, her voice found greater power. 

Photograph of Nora Holt by Carl Van Vechten. Retrieved from the Library of Congress website.

As two classical pianists of African descent, we—Chelsea M. Daniel and Samantha Ege—were accustomed to Black women’s voices (as embodied in their compositions, performances, and criticism) being minimized, or muted all together in the Western art music narrative. Hearing Holt for the first time was powerful. 

Chelsea never knew that someone who looked like her existed in classical music, especially someone who had as great of an impact as Holt. Starting her piano studies at five, Chelsea was consistently the only Black female pianist in both her high school and college programs and she felt very isolated. It was nearly impossible for her to find any representation of Black female pianists and she was only encouraged to play a “standard” repertoire, which is dominated by white male composers. In her sophomore year of college, Chelsea took a music history course that taught her about diverse musicians who were omitted from her textbook. This discovery and a meaningful partnership with friends who shared similar experiences to her prompted the beginnings of numerous projects dedicated to showcasing music by diverse musicians, one being her junior degree recital where she programmed Sonata in E minor by the groundbreaking African-American composer Florence Price (1887 – 1953). With few performances of the piece existing online, Chelsea found Samantha’s recording and decided to reach out asking for guidance with the music. 

Samantha’s journey had been very similar to Chelsea’s, from looking to see some part of herself reflected in her studies to actively seeking a classical music history that celebrated the truth of its diversity. These similarities are what led them to Price, and eventually to this collaboration. At the time Chelsea reached out, Samantha was developing her research on Price’s network and its impact during the Chicago Black Renaissance. As Samantha began to piece Holt’s influence together, she couldn’t help but lament the radio silence around her life and legacy in the mainstream musical consciousness. The following tweet from the Red Bull Music Academy certainly rang true. Or so she thought.

Chelsea came across Holt’s literal voice during her internship at WQXR-Radio, to which Samantha’s reaction was: “Oh. My. God.” Chelsea had been trying to track down locations in New York where Price’s friend and collaborator composer-pianist Margaret Bonds (1913 – 1972) had performed. She was shocked to find a live recording of the artist on the American Negro Artist Program, something that does not even exist on YouTube. For us to hear Bonds on the piano and Holt’s actual voice, with the crisp mid-Atlantic elocution of a bygone era but a message of Black excellence for the ages, was to feel inspired, renewed, significant, and empowered (much like Holt’s listeners during her time). 

***

Born Lena Douglas in Kansas City to a minister father and musically-inclined mother, Holt’s music education began with playing organ in the church. Her musical pursuits aligned with the Talented Tenth thinking that W.E.B. Du Bois promoted around the turn of the century; it was believed that the highly educated top ten percent of the African-American population would uplift the race and that the study of classical music would provide a tool for mobility. However, Holt also lived beyond the limits of early twentieth-century respectability. As a young adult, she challenged the archetype of the modern day Black woman. By the time she had graduated from Kansas’s Western University, a prestigious HBCU, she had been married three times while still managing to graduate at the top of her class. 

In 1917, she married her fourth husband, George Holt, who was a rich hotel owner thirty years her senior. She changed her name to Nora Holt. Prior to meeting her husband, she moved to Chicago and earned her living as a cabaret performer while also actively performing, composing, and promoting classical music. In 1918, Holt became the first person African-American person in the United States to attain a Master of Music degree, which she earned at the Chicago Musical College. For her thesis composition, she presented an orchestral piece called Rhapsody on Negro Themes. The rhapsody was one of over 200 compositions that Holt wrote. Unfortunately, many of them were lost and have yet to be recovered. Holt had kept her manuscripts in storage during her time away in Europe, but returned to find that all had been stolen. The only surviving works were those that had appeared in her publication, Music and Poetry: the art song “The Sandman” and Negro Dance (1921) for solo piano.

Negro Dance with Samantha Ege, piano

Holt’s advocacy for Black artistic excellence became even more far-reaching with her work as a music critic for the Chicago Defender and the New York Amsterdam News. She reviewed all of the concerts with African-American performers and composers that she could find and made history as one of the first women to write for a major newspaper as the Chicago Defender’s first ever music critic. 

Holt moved into radio during the 1940s. Her American Negro Artist Program on WNYC began in 1945 and spanned almost a decade. It was upon this platform that she used her voice to further amplify the work of Black classical practitioners.

Chelsea M. Daniel, Butler School of Music, University of Texas at Austin. Image courtesy of the authors.

Chelsea found that the NYPR Archive Collections had published Holt’s 1953 American Negro Artist Program. This half an hour segment aired on February 12 at 5pm and was part of WNYC’s 14th annual American Music Festival. Though the scope of the festival was far broader, Holt’s program specifically highlighted the classical artistry of African-descended practitioners. February 12 fell in the middle of Negro History Week–the forerunner of today’s Black History Month–which New York Governor Thomas E. Dewey had proclaimed from February 8 to 15 (a span selected by the Week’s founder, Dr. Carter G. Woodson, in the 1920s to encompass the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass).  With this program, Holt led her listeners through the multifarious layers of Black diasporic representation.

Samantha Ege, Preston Bradley Hall, Chicago Cultural Center. Images courtesy of the authors.

February 12 was also the commencement date of the festival, which was first announced in early February, in 1940. WNYC planned to broadcast an all-American series of concerts (forty in total) that would begin on February 12 and end on February 22, as marked by the dates of Abraham Lincoln’s and George Washington’s birthdays, respectively. Morris. S. Novik, WNYC director, told the New York Times (February 3, 1940) that the purpose of the festival was two-fold. He elaborated:

One purpose is to build the municipal radio station into an even greater force in the cultural life of the community, and the second is to promote the cause of good American music. American broadcasters have done a splendid job in developing appreciation of classical music. Radio must do still another important job by focusing attention on American music, and by demonstrating that Americans have written good–even great music.

The American Music Festival was the first of its kind to promote music that encompassed the nation’s musical past and present on such a scale, and with such stylistic variety. According to Novik, no other radio station had attempted to broadcast such a wide cross-section of American music with the same grand vision that he had. The New York Times reported on just how extensive this cross-section was (February 12, 1940):

 The concerts will cover nearly all types of American composition. Simple ballads which the pioneer sang as he plodded his way Westward will be included, along with the professional orchestral works of today. Spirituals and blues, indigenous to American soil, will vie with compositions that incorporate the latest innovations. All types of compositions: mountain songs, barber-shop ballads, vaudeville melodies, marches and the more serious forms of composition which make up the musical life of America will be represented. The festival offers an affirmative answer to the question, “Do we have American music?”

Holt’s program not only evidenced a resounding “yes,” it presented a pan-diasporic purview that affirmed the socio-sonic pluralities of Black artistry. Samantha uses the term “socio-sonic pluralities” to ground the musical developments of Black cultural creators in their environment and to recognize how various social conditions can shape artistic expression. She identifies this as a central component in Holt’s 1953 American Negro Artist Program, particularly as the program went beyond the United States to embrace the Americas. With composers whose backgrounds encompassed Canada (R. Nathaniel Dett) and St. Kitts (Edward Margetson) and musical influences that merged different diasporic folk traditions with Romantic, neo-classicist, modernist, and Black Renaissance aesthetics, the American Negro Artist Program celebrated the interconnected, yet also distinct audiovisual histories of the African diaspora.

Program:

 

“The Breadth of a Rose”

William Grant Still, composer

Viola John, contralto and Margaret Bonds, piano

 

“I want Jesus to Walk With Me”

Negro Spiritual arranged by Edward Boatner

Viola John, contralto and Margaret Bonds, piano

 

“His Song” and “Juba Dance” from In the Bottoms

  1. Nathaniel Dett, composer

Una Hadley, piano

 

“One” and “Genius Child,” based on poems by Langston Hughes

Edward Lee Tyler, composer

Edward Lee Tyler, bass-baritone and Norma Holmes, piano

 

“First Movement” from Fantasy on Caribbean Rhythms

Edward Margetson, composer

The American String Quartet: David Johnson, 1st violin; Frank Sanford, 2nd violin; Felix Baer, viola; and Marion Combo, cello

 

“By the Sea”

Julia Perry, composer

Adele Addison, soprano and Margaret Bonds, piano

 

“The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” based on a poem by Langston Hughes

Margaret Bonds, composer

Adele Addison, soprano and Margaret Bonds, piano

On a scholarly level, Holt’s American Negro Artist Program adds another dimension to the way Samantha interprets the socio-sonic pluralities of Black artistry in the post-war era. Accessing Holt’s voice in the context of radio reifies connections between growing technologies and Black classical propagation at this time. In the absence of Holt’s full composition catalogue, hearing Holt amplify the work of her esteemed peers gives an enhanced perspective on her musical developments—from composer to curator, off the score and onto the airwaves.

On a personal level, however, it is upsetting to not have learned about Holt sooner and, as Chelsea elaborates, to not have a face like Holt’s to look up to during the loneliest moments of our education. Holt’s work validates Chelsea’s own pursuits, particularly in radio. Holt successfully created her own space in classical music, and did so unapologetically. She provided opportunities for Black musicians to be at the forefront and challenged a system that was not built for first-person Black narratives. And so, we take a leaf from her book, recognizing that the (re)sounding of her story is also the celebration of our own.

Listen to Holt and the American Negro Artist Program here.

Featured image:”Music stand (1)” by Flickr user Rachel Johnson, CC-BY-ND 2.0

Chelsea M. Daniel is a senior at the University of Texas, Austin, pursuing her Bachelor’s in Piano Performance. She is devoted to showcasing the stories and music of marginalized people and musicians. Daniel is the co-founder of the award-winning Exposure TV, which was created to highlight composers and musicians from underrepresented backgrounds. Daniel came across the American Negro Artist Program during her internship at WQXR-FM.

Samantha Ege is a scholar, pianist and educator. Her PhD (University of York) centres on the African-American composer Florence Price. Ege’s upcoming article on Price, Holt and the Chicago Black Renaissance women is called “Composing a Symphonist: Florence Price and the Hand of Black Women’s Fellowship” and appears in Volume 24 of Women and Music: A Journal of Gender and Culture. As a concert pianist and recording artist, Ege continues to amplify Black women composers in her repertoire.

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My Music and My Message is Powerful: It Shouldn’t Be Florence Price or “Nothing”-Samantha Ege

Spaces of Sounds: The Peoples of the African Diaspora and Protest in the United States–Vanessa Valdes

Deejaying her Listening: Learning through Life Stories of Human Rights Violations– Emmanuelle Sonntag and Bronwen Low

My Music and My Message is Powerful: It Shouldn’t be Florence Price or “Nothing”

Flashback to the second day of the recent Gender Diversity in Music Making Conference in Melbourne, Australia (6-8 July 2018). In a few hours, I will perform the first movement of the Sonata in E minor for piano by Florence Price (1887–1953). In the lead-up, I wonder whether Price’s music has ever been performed in Australia before, and feel honored to bring her voice to new audiences. I am immersed in the loop of my pre-performance mantra:

My music and message is powerful, my music and message is powerful.

Repeating this phrase helps me to center my purpose on amplifying the voice of a practitioner who, despite being the first African-American woman composer to achieve national and international success, faced discrimination throughout her life, and even posthumously in the recognition of her legacy.

In Price’s time, there were those in positions of privilege and power who listened to her music and gave her a platform. One such instance was Frederick Stock of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and his 1933 premier of her Symphony in E minor. But there were times when her musical scores were met with silence. For example, when she wrote to Serge Koussevitzky of the Boston Symphony Orchestra requesting that he hear her music, the letter remained unanswered. There was a notable intermittency in how Price was heard, which continues today. It seems most natural for mainstream platforms to amplify her voice in months dedicated to women and Black history; any other time of the year appears to require more justification. And so, as I am repeating this mantra—my music and message is powerful—I am attempting to de-centre my anxieties, and center my service to amplifying Price’s voice through an assured performance.

I applied to the conference a few months ago. I was keen to bring my research to new audiences. Upon seeing that the conference was in Australia, I knew this would be a fantastic opportunity to gain transnational insight into the ongoing work around representation and inclusion in music. Fast-forward to July: here I am, in Australia for the first time. The venue is unfamiliar and I have not met anyone here before this visit. However, this is what I do know: I have fifteen minutes for my performance; hence, I have only prepared the first movement of the sonata. Looking in the program, I noticed there will be a paper taking place at the same time as my performance, given by an academic who identified himself in his printed abstract as “a white, old, straight man with power and privilege.”

The title of his paper? “I Have Nothing to Say.” While gender diversity was the overarching theme of the conference, the goal towards inclusion negated the fact that not all platforms are created equal. The speaker’s proposed topic advertised the ease with which the dominant voice may access a space for its mere presence, regardless of what will be said. Conference logistics then set this voice and its contribution against the radically diverse sounds of our time slot.  In addition to my lecture and performance, there are several other events taking place simultaneously. The subjects include: mentoring women composers, creative realizations of parenthood in composition, gender balance in Australian jazz, interpretative approaches to the music of Kaija Saariaho, music as a vehicle for navigating the challenges around non-binary and transgender identity, and a cis-gendered white man’s exploration of ceding power and listening.

I remember a casual conversation the night before in which the joke arose of the speaker being “the token white man.” Of course it was a joke; the very notion is absolutely ridiculous. I remember reflecting on tokenization earlier that day and tweeting to that effect:

I knew the joke was light-hearted, but there is nothing light-hearted about being a token, nothing light-hearted about knowing your excellence, yet wondering if it will even factor into the decisions around your involvement. Anyway, I did not want to prioritize thoughts about the token white man over my purpose at the conference because that would take up time, space and energy, and in my pre-performance rituals, that time, space and energy belongs exclusively to the women that I seek to honour.

When it is time to perform, I bow, then sit, then sink into the first sound, which is this rich e minor chord that engages almost all of my fingers. I relish the rich tones in the grandeur of the introduction. But as the first theme comes in, conjuring up the soundworld of plantation songs, I calm the mood down to ensure that the lyricism of the top melody really sings.

My music and message is powerful.

The performance is followed by a presentation where I talk more about the sonata, who Price was, and what she achieved. I make sure to highlight her Arkansan roots and her Chicago successes, particularly around the Symphony in E minor. I speak about the influence of the spirituals within the classical frameworks of her compositions. I also speak about the privilege and the incredibly moving significance of being able to present and perform her music for an audience, largely of African descent, at the Chicago Symphony Center.

I play excerpts from the rest of the sonata off my recent album Four Women on Spotify and struggle to find the best time to pause the track because there is so much that I want the audience to hear: from the development of spiritual themes in the second movement, to the virtuosic whirlwind that is the final movement.

A dynamic discussion ensues, weaving in the narratives of Nina Simone, African-American folk tradition and my passion for this repertoire. I elaborate upon the ways in which exploring classical music by women has been an empowering personal journey. I articulate how the perception of men achieving “firsts” renders them gods while women achieving “firsts” are miracles that were never supposed to happen, that may never happen again. I express my role as a musicologist-pianist as demonstrating a long and rich history of women music-makers and, therefore, evidencing precedents—her-stories—for the creative contributions of women now. My time comes to an end and I am left feeling proud to have represented Price’s music and legacy here, today.

After my performance, I tweeted the following thought-through (but clearly not proof-read) thread expressing my disappointment:

 

My goal with this post was to juxtapose this paper with Price’s music and career, spotlighting the implications of uneven power and access therein.

 

 

Wrapped up in my post was the criticism of the fact that, being a university professor, the speaker of “I Have Nothing to Say,” has access to this kind of platform year-round, while marginalised voices only get amplified in the specific and limited spaces that society has carved out for them.

My critique is not about the individual, but about the systemic and institutionalized undermining of underrepresented voices, even at a conference designed to amplify them. The fact that such a work was placed on such a program evidences the extent to which we are so conditioned to ensuring the most powerful and privileged voice speaks in every single space, even when they acknowledge they have nothing to say.

Since posting that evening to both Twitter and Facebook, I have received a backlash on the latter, one that is, at present, unaffiliated with the organisers of the event. It has, however, attempted to derail the conversation. Apparently I was only upset because my program faced competition from other papers. Maybe I should have looked into the scheduling to make different arrangements. Or I should have found out what the speaker’s talk was about because there is a chance that I would have enjoyed it. Repeatedly, the onus was placed on me to reach out to the “token white man” and better understand his position. I also learned something new: passing judgement on a presentation because of its title is no better than passing judgement on a composer because of their gender. However, I was under the impression that the paper title was a choice and that Price’s identity as a black woman was not.

Anyway, I did not judge by the title. I judged by the abstract:

When one of the organisers of this conference suggested in a Facebook exchange on someone else’s post that I should submit an abstract for a paper, I was surprised. And a little frightened. What could I possibly contribute to such an event? I am the problem. I am a white, old, straight man with power and privilege. Surely my voice could only be heard by others as a violence in this context. Surely, my job is to get out of the way, to shut up, to not be heard. Surely, the only thing I could ethically and honourably bring to this is my listening. But then I felt that this is what needs to be said. I am and old straight white man who says that the job of people like me is to actively get out of the way, actively cede power and authority, actively be told, actively shut the fuck up. So I decided to use the occasion to practice a way of speaking that does those things, gets out of the way, cedes power and authority, gets told, shuts the fuck up. To practice speaking which listens. A listening-speaking. So that’s what I am trying to do in this paper. To enact a listening-speaking that gets out of the way, cedes power and authority, gets told, shuts the fuck up.

The speaker’s participation was invited and his proposal both encouraged and evidently accepted by the organizers. The abstract presents a sense of knowing better. “Surely my voice could only be heard by others as a violence in this context.” Yes. “Surely, my job is to get out of the way, to shut up, to not be heard.” Yes. “Surely, the only thing I could ethically and honourably bring to this is my listening.” Yes! “But…”

Ultimately, what needed to be said, actually needed to be done. The enacting of a listening-listening with neither platform nor audience would have been a powerful statement, quietly powerful, but powerful nonetheless. To reiterate, not all platforms are made equal—could I, realistically, have told him to shut the fuck up? How would that have sounded? How would I have sounded?

The derailing responses I have received pointedly ignore how the very presence of this paper disrupted the multiple and intersectional conversations happening in that moment. It distracted from the rarity of these subjects and their platform, and quite materially, culled an audience who could and should have been doing the very listening the abstract advertises. Scheduling this paper restored the speaker’s position to the center, and re-centered his power and authority to speak about everything and “nothing.” His privilege remained intact. In the midst of the most diverse and pertinent themes was the voice that has, both historically and to this day, spoken over the top of so many others.

“Trocadero Piano Player” by Flickr User Pierre Metivier (CC BY-NC 2.0) 

I chose not to reach out directly to the institution nor its organisers because of the emotional labor this would entail. To put the issue forward in a quiet behind-the-scenes way that is sensitive to those who created the issue, is to chip away at my voice and its power. On the otherhand, to project the issue with a loud “shut the fuck up” is to perform a type of power and privilege on a platform that I do not have.  I enact a public conversation here via Sounding Out! so that this experience may inform wider work towards diversity and representation. I enact this conversation in order to progress definitions of inclusion to a point where the choice to engage the dominant voice factors in a listening-listening as an exceedingly valuable contribution to the narratives offered by lesser heard voices.

I have since received a written acknowledgement from the organizers of this problematic programming, with a formal apology for the impact. But I must bring to light the important action of two allies, in particular, who recognised the emotional work required of me to bring this forward institutionally. They offered to continue the conversation on my behalf. We talked about the way in which the ensuing discussion must center listening. We shared that the process towards inclusivity may result in mistakes being made along the way. We discussed that while compassion and sensitivity can be important parts of the dialogue, I cannot afford to extend that compassion and sensitivity without becoming emotionally drained. And so, they wrote to the institution with the message of actively learning and making efforts towards change. I am so grateful for that allyship because while I knew that my voice would be heard, I could not guarantee how it would be heard. After all, if there is one take away to be had from this experience, it is that regardless of intention—and regardless of occasion—the dominant voice is very much conditioned to speak up, and speak over. And the dominant ear cannot help but listen.

So, how do I move forward?

My music and my message is powerful.

Featured Image: Courtesy of Author

Samantha Ege is a British musicologist, pianist and teacher based in Singapore. She is a Ph.D. candidate in Music at the University of York, UK. Her research focuses on the aesthetics of Florence Price. As a pianist, her focus on women composers has led to performances in Singapore (supported by the British High Commission and International Women’s Day), and lecture-recitals at the University of York, the Chicago Symphony Center and the Women Composers Festival of Hartford, USA. Her album Four Women: Music for Solo Piano by Price, Kaprálová, Bilsland & Bonds reflects her journey into a rich and unrepresented repertoire.

She would like to thank Deborah Torres Patel for the gift of this mantra.

REWIND! . . .If you liked this post, you may also dig:

Spaces of Sounds: The Peoples of the African Diaspora and Protest in the United States–Vanessa Valdes

becoming a sound artist: analytic and creative perspectives–Rajna Swaminathan

Sounding Out Tarima Temporalities: Decolonial Feminista Dance Disruption–Iris C. Viveros Avendaño 

Gendered Soundscapes of India, an Introduction –Praseeda Gopinath and Monika Mehta

On Whiteness and Sound Studies–Gustavus Stadler

 

 

 

Beyond the Grave: The “Dies Irae” in Video Game Music

For those familiar with modern media, there are a number of short musical phrases that immediately trigger a particular emotional response. Think, for example, of the two-note theme that denotes the shark in Jaws, and see if you become just a little more tense or nervous. So too with the stabbing shriek of the violins from Psycho, or even the whirling four-note theme from The Twilight Zone. In each of these cases, the musical theme is short, memorable, and unalterably linked to one specific feeling: fear.

The first few notes of the “Dies Irae” chant, perhaps as recognizable as any of the other themes I mentioned already, are often used to provoke that same emotion.

Often, but not always. The “Dies Irae” has been associated with death since its creation in the thirteenth century, due to its use in the Requiem Mass for the dead until the Second Vatican Council (1962–65). Its text describes the Last Judgment, when all humanity will be sent to heaven or hell. But from the Renaissance to today, the “Dies Irae” has also come to symbolize everything from the medieval church and Catholic ritual to the sinister, superstitious, or supernatural, even violence and battle—and any combination of the above.

Because of its unique history not only within its original liturgical context but also within later musical genres, this chant has become largely divorced from its original purposes, at least in modern popular imagination. Instead, it now holds a multiplicity of meanings; composers manipulate these meanings by utilizing this chant in a new setting, and thus in turn continue to reinforce those meanings within modern media. Since its use within the Mass, concert music, and films has already been well documented, this blog post explores its presence in an as yet unexamined medium: video games.

By Willem Vrelant (Flemish, died 1481, active 1454 – 1481) 1481 – illuminator (Flemish) Details of artist on Google Art Project [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Chant—monophonic music of the Western Christian tradition—is the largest surviving body of music from the medieval period. Although chant was not written down until the ninth century, it has been continuously sung for over two thousand years. Before the Reformation, chant permeated the musical landscape of Western Europe. But as John Haines points out, chant’s meanings changed in the sixteenth century; to Protestants, chant was a sign of superstitious, even sinister, ritual, whereas to Catholics it was a flawed but holy tradition (112). Chant became ever more confined to the Catholic liturgy; although composers continued to use chant in new compositions, by the late nineteenth century the only chant guaranteed to be recognized by a secular audience was the “Dies Irae.”

Beginning in the late eighteenth century, the text was set in Requiems for the secular stage by composers such as Mozart, Verdi, and Britten. But due to both its evocative text and its memorable melody (often just the first sixteen, eight, or even four notes), the “Dies Irae” chant soon was incorporated into secular instrumental works, where it signified the past, the supernatural, the oppressive, the demonic, and death. No work is more responsible for this than Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, where the chant symbolizes the composer’s own death and the depravity of the demons and witches who dance at his funeral.

The history of this chant, together with its use in film, has been explored by scholars such as Linda Schubert and John Haines. Because the “Dies Irae” was already a well-known symbol of the aforementioned characteristics, and because early silent film musicians borrowed musical ideas from previously composed works, the chant segued quickly into early film, where its symbolic possibilities were reinforced. Thus, even in newly composed soundtracks, composers utilized this chant as an aural shortcut to a host of emotional and psychological reactions, especially (as James Deaville and others discuss) within horror films. It appears in scenes depicting inner anguish, fear, the occult, evil, and imminent death in films from It’s a Wonderful Life, The Seventh Seal, and The Shining to Disney’s The Lion King and Star Wars, in musicals like Sweeney Todd, and in literary works such as Gaston Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera, but it also symbolizes power and even heroism, such as in this Nike shoe commercial.

The “Dies Irae” appears analogously in video game soundtracks, where it communicates the same symbolic meanings that it does in film scores and concert music. Its recognizability also lends itself to parody, as it did in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Yet, unlike in film music, the evolution of its use in game music speaks also to the evolution of game music technology.

In the earlier years of video games, technology could not create continuous soundtracks. The first such was in Space Invaders (1978), although it consisted only of four descending notes looped indefinitely. Additionally, while voice synthesis was used in game soundtracks as early as 1982, reproduction of musical voices was limited even into the 1990s. William Gibbons describes how early systems had a limited number of channels (40); as a result, Baroque-style counterpoint worked well texturally, and reproducing music from earlier composers such as Bach was not only permissible by copyright but also demonstrated the capabilities of their systems (201–204). As such, earlier games were less interested in a monophonic chant, although several (such as Fatal Fury) did use Mozart’s setting of the “Dies Irae.”

The “Dies Irae” chant is first used in game music in the late 1980s and early 1990s, by which point most systems had five or more channels, allowing for improved timbres and sound synthesis. The opening theme song to F-19 Stealth Fighter (1988–92, DOS/PC/Amiga/Atari) subtly references the first phrase of the chant. Composer Ken Lagace sets the first eight pitches evenly in the lower voice before moving them to a higher, rhythmicized register. The chant is accompanied by a consistent percussive element and several higher, chordal voices, which splinter off into fast arpeggios before restating the opening. There is as yet no action, nor is the plot either spiritual or supernatural, so the chant here actually works in a somewhat anomalous way. It heightens the player’s tension through its aural connotations of fear and death, thus setting the stage for the battles still to come in the game itself.

Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis (1992, PC) is another early instance of the “Dies Irae,” which appears at the end, when Indiana and his companion Sophia confront the malevolent Doctor. The chant again increases tension but also indicates the presence of evil. Musically, the first two phrases of the chant appear in long, low tones, accompanied by several high, sustained, dissonant pitches. New voices enter, reminiscent of the opening phrase, before the chant returns in full in all registers. The system’s capability for thicker textures allowed the composers to stack the monophonic “Dies Irae” against itself, further emphasizing the threat of imminent danger in this final encounter.

The last of the early case studies is Zombies Ate My Neighbors (1993, SNES/Genesis). These systems featured multiple channels capable of emulating a variety of acoustical settings. The game is a parody of 1950s horror films; the protagonists race through standard horror settings such as malls and castles to rescue their neighbors from demonic babies, vampires, zombies, and other stock creatures. The soundtrack also mimics the musical tropes in such films: chant itself, especially the “Dies Irae,” but also timbres such as tremolo, stingers, extreme ranges, and dissonance. The track “Curse of the Tongue,” which plays upon encountering the final boss, Dr. Tongue’s Giant Head, emulates a Gothic pipe organ. The low organ drone sustains underneath the first sixteen notes of the chant, which sound in a shrieking, vibrato-heavy register. The voices then move in parallel fifths as in medieval polyphony. The “Dies Irae” here brings to mind an entire film genre while also overtly characterizing the final battle against the otherworldly, sinister, evil Head. In this case, the chant works literally to signify the current battle and threat of death, but also parodically to indicate the absurdity of the situation.

The development of video game audio technology allowed first for voice emulation, then voice reproduction. Vocal samples were used as early as the 1980s, but were often confined to theme songs. Yet even after voices were reproduced within soundtracks, it is the “Dies Irae” melody alone that is most frequently sampled, strikingly paralleling its earlier use in film and concert music. When the “Dies Irae” text is used, it is set to newly composed music or borrowed from the Mozart or Verdi Requiems. Moreover, as in earlier media, all that is needed as an aural mnemonic is the first phrase, even just the first four notes, of the chant melody.

For example, two games released for PC in 1999—Heroes of Might & Magic III and Gabriel Knight 3: Blood of the Sacred, Blood of the Damned—both use just the first portion of the “Dies Irae.” In “Burying the Manuscript” from Gabriel Knight, pizzicato violins first allude to the first four or five notes of the chant (1:25); the full first phrase is then presented in parallel motion in the brass. The remainder of this theme alludes to the first few notes, making the “Dies Irae” a constant presence here and underscoring the secrecy, even the occult nature, of the manuscript in this scene.

Heroes III uses even less melodic material. In the Necropolis, composer Paul Romero uses the first four notes of the “Dies Irae” to underpin the entire theme. The bass plays the first four notes in a low register before seguing into newly composed material, but the contour of that phrase returns throughout the theme. The full chant phrases do not appear until the very end. The chant hints constantly at the overwhelming metaphor of death in this area, as well as to the presence of supernatural creatures such as vampires, zombies, and wraiths.

Unusual for many reasons, then, is the last case study: the game Dante’s Inferno (2010, PS3/Xbox360). It is the sole example here to use voices, but the text appears to be newly composed. As John Haines noted, the presence of Latin or pseudo-Latin is in and of itself a trope of the diabolical or demonic, which adds further nuance to this scene (129). The familiar melody is presented by a choir of mixed voices, accompanied by a roar of low brass, ambient noise, and a descant voice singing on open vowels, all signifiers of horror or the medieval. Moreover, the “Dies Irae” is not reserved for a final battle, as in previous examples, nor does it characterize supernatural creatures. Rather, it is the first theme heard in the game, reinforcing not only the medieval setting and the constant presence of death but also the ultimate trajectory of Dante, and the gamer, into Hell.

While the “Dies Irae” has been well studied as an aural signifier within film and concert music, its use in video games has, before now, been largely ignored. As in earlier musical genres, this chant brings to games a host of culturally accepted, musically mediated meanings that allow composers to immediately flesh out a character or scene. In so doing, game composers acknowledge that sound is not just sound, but rather it is (to borrow a phrase from Elizabeth Randell Upton) “a complex interaction of experiences and expectations on the part of the audience.” These experiences are continuously shaped by new compositions, scores, and soundtracks, which in turn continuously shape the audience’s expectations for future works.

As such, game soundtracks, along with other kinds of media, continue to transform the “Dies Irae” out of its original context and into an ever-growing set of pop culture symbols. The chant now signifies everything from the medieval to the present day, from judgment, battle, and death to demons, witches, and the occult. Within games in particular, though, it acts as a “memento mori,” a reminder of the mortality that game characters, and thus game players, seek to avoid through play. As such, it may instill fear in a player, but also suspicion, alertness, tension, even excitement, spurring the player to react in whichever manner suits the individual game.

The iconic status of the opening phrases of the “Dies Irae” chant marks it as a particularly useful polyvalent symbol for composers. Yet the utilization of this well-known trope is not without its problems. As I discuss in a forthcoming article, this chant, and indeed all plainchant, originates in a particular sacred, liturgical tradition. When a chant such as “Dies Irae” is used as a signifier of a general sense of spirituality, or of the medieval, or even of horror, then by default those characteristics are reified, if subtly, as Christian. Moreover, linking a chant such as the “Dies Irae” to the supernatural or the occult serves to perpetuate early modern stereotypes of Catholicism as nothing more than superstitious magic; see, for example, the purported origins of the phrase “hocus pocus.” Such anachronistic uses further obfuscate chant’s continuous role within Catholic (and other) liturgy; it is both a historic and a very modern practice.

Given that the “Dies Irae” is certainly not the only musical means to the aforementioned symbolic ends, perhaps these concerns are not pressing. Still, as Anita Sarkeesian points out, we can enjoy modern media while simultaneously critiquing facets that are problematic. There is no clear-cut way, at this point, to overturn hundreds of years of accumulated symbolic meaning for a musical icon such as the “Dies Irae,” but it behooves us as participants in auditory culture to become better aware of the multiple, and occasionally challenging, meanings within what we hear.

[Other games that also use the “Dies Irae” chant include Gauntlet Legends (1999, N64/PS/Dreamcast), Final Fantasy IX (2000, PS), EverQuest II (2004, MMORPG), Heroes of Might and Magic V (2006, PC), Sam & Max: Season 2 (2007–8, Wii/PC/PS3/Xbox 360), Ace Combat: Assault Horizon (2011, PS3/Xbox 360), and Diablo 3 (2012–4, PC/PS3/Xbox/PS4). My thanks go to VGMdb and Overclocked Remix for bringing several of these games to my attention, and to Ryan Thompson and Dana Plank for comments.]

Featured Image: A mashup of the first lines of the Dies Irae and the Zombies Ate My Neighbors title screen. Remixed for purposes of critique.

Dr. Karen Cook specializes in medieval and Renaissance music theory, history, and performance. She is currently working on a monograph on the development of rhythmic notation in the fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries. She also maintains active research interests in popular and contemporary music, especially with regard to music and identity in television, film, and video games. She frequently links her areas of specialization together through a focus on medievalism, writ broadly, in contemporary culture. As such, some of her recent and forthcoming publications include articles on fourteenth-century theoretical treatises, biographies of lesser-known late medieval theorists, and the use of plainchant in video games, a book chapter on medievalist music in Harry Potter video games, and a forthcoming co-authored Oxford Bibliography on medievalism and music.

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Beyond the Grandiose and the Seductive: Marie Thompson on Noise

Dr. Marie Thompson is currently a Lecturer at the Lincoln School of Film and Media, University of Lincoln. Her new book Beyond Unwanted Sound: Noise, Affect and Aesthetic Moralism has just been published by Bloomsbury. We’ve been following each other on Twitter for a while(@DrMarieThompson and @AbstractTruth)  and I have become very interested in her ideas on noise. I’m David Menestres, double bassist, writer, radio host, and leader of the Polyorchard ensemble (“a vital and wonderfully vexing force of the area’s sonic fringes”) currently living in the Piedmont region of North Carolina.

Cover of “Beyond Unwanted Sound Noise, Affect and Aesthetic Moralism,” By Dr. Marie Thompson

In her new book, Dr. Thompson covers a wide variety of ideas from Spinoza to Michel Serres’s cybernetic theory, acoustic ecology and the politics of silence to the transgressiveness of noise music, and many other concepts to show how we are affected by noise. Thompson is also the co-editor of Sound, Music, Affect: Theorizing Sonic Experience (Bloomsbury, 2013). Here is a conversation we had over email in February 2017 about Beyond Unwanted Sound.

David Menestres (DM): Why now? Why did you feel compelled to write this book? What do you hope this book will accomplish?

Marie Thompson (MT): I think my ‘academic’ interest in noise began as an undergraduate music student – I was interested in thinking ‘beyond’ distinctions of avant-gardism and popular culture and noise, as something that traverses such separations became an evermore appealing concept. So I’ve been circling some of these ideas for quite a while.

I felt compelled to write the book partly due to what I perceived as a gap between some of my ‘everyday’ experiences of noise and how noise was represented in discourse – particularly noise’s representation as an essentially negative phenomenon; or as a shocking, sublime, radical, overwhelming, transgressive force. Noise seems to be one of those topics that makes ordinarily quite progressive thinkers revert to quite uncritical and reactionary tropes – there’s something about it that ‘touches a nerve’. Consequently, much of the discourse around noise is underlined by an often-unacknowledged conservatism. I’ve always found the grandiose rhetoric of noise comparatively quite seductive but at the same time, more often than not, noise is quotidian and banal rather than overwhelming or sublime (which isn’t to say it can’t also be those things). Likewise, I felt like this grandiose rhetoric resulted in an amplification of certain sonic arts practices, while silencing others. I guess I was compelled by a desire to expand the (material and discursive) universe of noise while also trying to maintain some consistency in definition.

Quite simply, I hope the book will contribute something helpful to the recent discussions around noise in media theory, acoustic ecology and music.

DM: What is the difference between a subjective-oriented definition of noise vs. an object-oriented definition and how do both lead to the ethico-affective approach that you champion in the book

MT: When I refer to subject- and object-oriented definitions I’m referring, quite simply, to noise being defined either in relation to the ear of the beholder, or in relation to the sound-itself. [MT also defines her “ethico-affective approach” as a perspective that “recognises the entanglement of the ethical and the affective: affective relations are also ethical relations.” –ed.]

What I think is useful about a subject-oriented definition is that it remains open to what noise might be, what form it might take – it might be your neighbour hoovering, it might be a fellow travelers mobile phone, or it might be a buzzing wasp. However, subject-oriented definitions of noise are typically wedded to liberal notions of subjectivity and the politics that carries. Noise becomes an issue of personal taste – one person’s music is another’s noise etc. Subject-oriented definitions also struggle to account for noise that isn’t ‘unwanted’, ‘bad’, ‘negative’, and so on; and for noise that might not be perceptible, or noticeable.

Noise as Negative. Sound Cancelling

Object-oriented definitions which treat noise as a type of sound are helpful insofar as there is a consistency of definition and it does not assume noise to be a solely negative phenomenon; however, to my mind, they risk losing sight of context: a particular sound is noise irrespective of how it is heard, what it does.

The ethico-affective approach I develop can be understood to maintain aspects of both these definitional approaches. It maintains the separation created by an object-oriented definition of noise between noise and negativity, so that noise’s ‘unwantedness’ becomes secondary and contingent. It also maintains the contextual focus of a subject-oriented definition, so that noise is not tethered to particular types of sound or sound sources.

DM: I’ve been very interested in the idea of noise as a weapon: the use of sound cannons to silence and sicken protestors, the use of the “Mosquito” device (which produces high frequency pitches thought to be audible only to teenagers in order to keep them from loitering), or the use of classical music to annoy young people.

You talk in one section about the noise of neighbors and the “policed silence of the suburbs.” I am also interested in the use of noise as protest. At the Women’s March in Raleigh on January 21, there were so many fascinating sounds: the sounds of thousands of voices bouncing off tall buildings, drummers, people leading chants with the crowd shouting back, the singing of classic protest songs (“A Change is Gonna Come,” “This Land Is Your Land,” etc.).

What do you think the role of noise will be in our current political climate? I can definitely see noise being used as a weapon by both sides: the government trying to use it as a weapon against the people and the people using noise to amplify their voice against the government. But there is a stark difference between these two sides: the use of sound weapons is clearly for their intended negative affect on people (both the physical effects of sound weapons and the psychological effects of the endless noise that comes from Trump’s press conferences and general bullshit), but I see the protestors intending to use sound in a positive way, to amplify their message, to make sure those in charge hear their voices, to ensure the message arrives intact.

MT: As a concept, noise seems evocative of much about our current political climate: be it the ‘noise’ of ‘fake news’, and ‘alternative facts’ (how does one determine ‘signal’ from ‘noise’, and who gets to determine that distinction); be it the ‘white noise’ of the Trump campaign administration (I recently saw a performance lecture with Barby Asante which effectively performed the ‘tuning out’ the noise of recently-bolstered white supremacy); or be it the collective noise of protest against the brutality of borders, white supremacy and police-state violence.

That noise can be both a force of domination and resistance is revealing of its ambiguity more generally – what I refer to as the ‘both-and’ of noise. Of course, that is not to conflate these uses of sonic force. One of the ways in which I’ve thought about this ethico-political difference in sonic forces is through the Spinozist distinction of power-over/power-to.  The ethico-political entangles ethical questions (good-bad) with political questions (power over/power to).

So, when sound is weaponized to exert authority, to bring people into line, by diminishing their capacity to act and do, then this can be thought of as an exertion of power-over. Likewise, when sound becomes a means of collective resistance, or of connectivity (I’m thinking partly here of various ‘noise-protests’ at prisons and detentions centres, where sound is used to traverse walls and borders) then it might be understood as an expression of ‘power-to’ – a (collectivized) body’s capacity to act, to be, to do.

DM: You talk in the book of the “conservative politics of silence.” How does this conservativism affect both how people perceive sound and how we relate to it? Is there something at the other end of the scale, a “liberal politics of silence” so to speak?

MT: To my mind, the conservative politics of silence informs a number of assumptions that are frequently made about what are ‘good’ and ‘bad’ sonic environments; it relates to a preference for the simple over the complex, sameness over difference, past over present, predictability over unpredictability, the ‘synthetic’ over the ‘natural’ (whatever that might mean) and, ultimately, quietude over noise. This ideological framework underlines much ‘common sense’ about auditory experience, however it frequently remains unacknowledged.

We might consider a liberal politics in opposition to this conservative politics of silence, which recognises responses to sonic environments as ‘personal’ and therefore refuses overarching moral judgements about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ sound. However, I’m also wary of endorsing a politics that treats the individual, autonomous subject as the primary site of the political. Indeed, the conservative politics of silence that we see in the work of figures such as R. Murray Schafer is often indebted to a liberalism that prioritises control and the freedoms and rights of the individual – I’m thinking here of Schafer’s complaint that you can rid your private property of a physical intruder but not an aural one: “A property-owner is permitted by law to restrict entry to his private garden or bedroom. What rights does he have against a sonic intruder?” (1993, 214)

DM: One of the sections I particularly liked was the “What does noise do?” section where you delved into information theory through the work of Claude Shannon to show how noise was an essential part of a communications system, how noise can be a necessary, amplifying presence, needed to successfully transmit a message (voice over phone lines, data packets over the internet, etc.), how noise can enrich a system. I found myself thinking about this section a lot, often in relation to R. Murray Schaffer’s Platonic ideal state of silence. (“a Platonic, transcendent realm of a pure and ideal sonority, which paradoxically exists as undisturbed and eternal silence”).

Cosmic Radiation from the Big Bang- Sound Makes Up Our Universe

I was also thinking about Cosmic Microwave Background radiation, the residual signature of the Big Bang, the background noise that carried all the information that formed our universe. It seems like noise is an intrinsic part of our world, both human made and naturally occurring, and fighting against it seems like such a waste of energy.

MT: It strikes me that when Schafer and other acoustic ecologists talk about fighting noise, they’re fighting a symptom rather than a cause. In these discourses, there is much talk of noise and environmental destruction but very little on how these processes relate to capitalism and settler-colonialism. In that regard, while I don’t think fighting against noise in absolute terms is futile, I do maintain that there are still fights to be had against high levels of noise. While I am critical of liberal notions of privacy and control and the ‘right’ to silence, I do also recognise that noise can feel oppressive in some contexts. That said, more often than not high levels of noise is a symptom of bigger social and political problems – for example, of poor quality housing, and a lack of economic choice over where one lives.

Noise Pollution, Sociological Restrictions, Sound Intrusion. From the Hindustan Times

DM: One of the themes explore in the book is the idea of the parasite, based on the work of Michel Serres. How does the parasite relate to your idea of noise?

MT: I take from Serres’ figure of the parasite the idea of noise as a relational, transformative and ambiguous in its necessity. In Serres’ reading, the parasite changes things, for better or for worse. Either way, the parasite does something, it adds something to the mix. In other words, it is affective. And yet, there is no ‘mix’ without it. Parasitic noise is the ‘excluded middle’ that must be included: it is the necessary ‘third term’, which pertains to the necessity of the material medium/milieu. From this perspective, there is no original state of calm, which is then broken by noise. If there is mediation there is noise, if there is the relation there is the parasite.

DM: Could you talk some about “the poetics of transgression” as you call it? How does this “transgression” relate to your ethico-affective approach?

MT: The poetics of transgression refers to the centrality of ‘line-crossing’ narratives in accounts of noise’s use in the sonic arts and art more generally. It’s predicated on what Henry Cowell calls the ‘time-honoured axiom’ that noise and music are opposites. Bringing noise into music, or music into noise relies on the crossing of boundaries, of material and discursive borders. This ‘line-crossing’ is often accompanied by a rhetoric of extremity and radicalism, shock and awe.

While different notions of transgression have certainly been influential for various noise music practitioners, I seek to decentre it as a way rather than the way of understanding noise’s use as an artistic resource. I argue that the dominance of the poetics of transgression has risked reducing noise music to its most ‘extreme’ manifestations. In light of the ethico-affective approach to noise that I develop throughout the book, which understands noise as a transformative force and necessary component of mediation, I suggest that noise music can be understood as an act of exposure, which, rather than bringing noise into music (or vice versa) exposes, extends and foregrounds the noise that is within the techno-musical system so as to generate new sonic sensations. With this approach, I hope to make more space for noise music practices that do not fit comfortably with the poetics of transgression and its aesthetics and rhetoric of extremity.

Featured Image: Noise Music 

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