When the narrator of the Old English poem Exodus declares “Gehyre se ðe wille” (Let him hear who will), what sounds is he asking us to attend to? [Note: Text from Peter Lucas’s edition, 7b. All translations are author’s own.] This post argues that the Old English noun cirm (noise, shout, outcry) challenges our conceptualization of noise. In the Anglo-Saxon corpus, cirm most often refers to the indistinguishable, non-linguistic hum of a crowd, rather than the meaningful utterance of an individual. This accords with the popular view of noise in sound studies: whether medieval or modern, noise (as opposed to meaningful sound) is associated with alterity, disruption, and violence.
However, and strikingly, in the Old English Exodus, words for noise describe not only the terrible sounds of the drowning Egyptians as the roaring waters of the Red Sea rush over them, but also the survival of the Israelites. I argue that this cirm is a mark of the Israelites’ triumphal assertion of their continued presence and plenitude, a celebration of the fact that they can still be a multitude despite captivity. That cirm may not sit easily within our definition of noise should provoke not a redefinition of cirm’s joyful use, but a reconceptualization of Anglo-Saxon noise.
What is Noise?
“Noise” has a range of meanings, but most often implies “unwanted sound” as R. Murray Schafer argues in The Soundscape (73). Following the work of Jacques Attali and Jeffrey J. Cohen, noise has been associated with alterity, difference, and monstrosity. Noise, as opposed to sound, may be non-linguistic or disordered: nonsense, babble, the roar of a jet engine. According to David Novak’s contribution to Keywords in Sound, noise is not present in nature, but is created by modern technology (129). In the modern world, noise is often considered negative: cities have rules about noise pollution, apartment buildings set quiet hours, and airplane passengers don noise-cancelling headphones. In the pre-industrial age, noise was not exempt from criticism, though the word could also be applied to more pleasant sounds, like birdsong.
In the European Middle Ages, Valerie J, Allen argues in “Broken Air,” noise was often figured as violent, transgressing boundaries, inappropriately closing the distance between sound producer and sound receiver (310 and 317-318). According to Macrobius, it was not silence that was the opposite of sound, but noise (311). Grammar, which was “devoted to the pursuance of ratio through sound,” was ethical; noise was therefore considered “a kind of audible violence; corruption [wa]s something one can hear” (305). But some medieval noises were more ambiguous: the Old English word dream (joy, joyful sound) could also be applied to the terrible sounds of Hell or the terror of Judgment Day, as in Kazutomo Karasawa’s analysis in “OE dream for Horrible Noise in the Vercelli Homilies.” Likewise, “clamor,” which originated as a (mostly) negative noise, became an important legal instrument, as discussed by Richard Barton in “Making a Clamor to the Lord: Noise, Justice and Power in Eleventh- and Twelfth-Century France.” But in general, we tend to assume medieval noise is negative, or marks its producer as other.
Noises in Exodus
The Old English Exodus, found in the c. 1000 manuscript known as Bodleian MS Junius 11, is a notoriously difficult and complex poetic adaptation of the Old Testament Exodus 12-14. The author and date of composition are unknown, though it is often considered quite early, perhaps as early as the eighth century as Paul Remley and Lucas argue. Few institutions were rich enough to own a complete Bible. The author of Exodus may have had access to a written Latin version of Exodus, or may have been exposed to the text via the liturgy, especially the liturgy of the Easter Vigil.
Exodus delights in sensory details, but until recently, I had always thought of Exodus as primarily visual – the gleaming of war-gear, the glittering of Egyptian spoils washed up on the shore, tents and a pillar of cloud to protect the Israelites from the desert sun, and a pillar of fire to guide them. But the poet is also attentive to the larger sensory world, including the world of sound and noise. Those who accept the poet’s opening challenge to his audience (“Gehyre se ðe wille!” [Let him hear who will!]) will recognize that the poem is in fact filled with sounds – the battle trumpets that provide order and structure to the movements of the army, the rushing and later silencing of waters, the terrible evening songs of wolves eager for battle, the awful rasping of the blade Abraham draws to sacrifice Isaac in the poem’s digression on the patriarchs, the triumphant songs produced by Israelite men and women in praise of God after the Egyptians are defeated. In what follows, I focus on the multiple deployments of a single word for noise (cirm), applied to both Israelites and Egyptians, asking what this word can reveal about Anglo-Saxon conceptions of noise.
It has often been remarked that the poet resists easy distinctions between Israelites and Egyptians, applying similar vocabulary to both, and this is certainly illustrated by the poet’s sonic play. In a climactic scene near the end of the poem, the drowning of the Egyptians in the Red Sea is accompanied by horrible noises:
Storm up gewat
heah to heofonum, herewopa mæst;
laðe cyrmdon (lyft up geswearc)
fægum stæfnum. Flod blod gewod:
randbyrig wæron rofene, rodor swipode
meredeaða mæst. Modige swulton,
cyningas on corðre. Cyrm swiðrode
wæges æt ende; wigbord scinon.
[A storm went up high to the heavens, the greatest of cries of the army; the hostile ones cried out with doomed voices (the air grew dark above). Blood pervaded the water: ramparts were broken, the greatest of sea-deaths lashed the sky. The brave ones died, kings in a troop. The noise fell silent at the end of the water; battle-boards shone. (460b-467; emphasis added)]
Cirm occurs twice in this passage, first as a verb (cyrmdon) and then as a noun (cyrm). The manuscript reading in 466b is cyre (choice). Lucas emends to cyrm because cyre is not a poetic word, and I would argue that the echo with the Israelites’ cyrm (107) must be deliberate. Even if we accept MS cyre, the passage still includes the verb cyrmdon (462a), and other sonic vocabulary (herewopa, “army’s cries” , and fægnum stefnum, “doomed voices” ). The noun occurs roughly 60 times in the corpus; the verb 17 times (DOE).
In the Old English corpus, cirm is often negative, applied to the tortures of hell or the terror of Judgment Day, and indicates a particularly loud sound (DOE, Lucas). According to the DOE, the noun means “shout, cry, shriek” or “noise of non-human origin, clamour.” The Egyptian cirm is obviously threatening, the meaningless cries of men who, like a raging storm, lash out in terror as the waters close over their heads. Even the visual horror of blood mingling with water maintains sonic affiliations: this line is a rare example of internal rhyme in Old English poetry (flod blod gewod). The end of the Egyptian threat is marked by the silencing of their voices and cirm, metaphorically a silencing of the army’s advance against the Israelites.
Given the negative associations with noise in both medieval and modern sound theory, that the Egyptian defeat is accompanied by their terrible cirm may not seem particularly surprising. Strikingly, this is not the only such noise in the poem. Near the beginning of the poem, the Israelites celebrate their initial escape from Egypt by producing not just any noise, but cirm. On the third day, after the pillar of cloud has appeared, the Israelites awaken with trumpets, and seeing the pillar,
Folc wæs on salum,
hlud herges cyrm.
[The people were joyful, loud was the noise of the army. (106b-107a; emphasis added)]
If cirm is threatening, loud noise, associated with difference and violence, why would the Israelites produce it? I would like to suggest that cirm suggests not merely loud noise, but crowd noise. The Israelites’ cirm is not an assertion of difference, or the meaningless babble of a drowning, almost non-human army, but an assertion of triumphant plenitude. Their joyful cirm is a fulfillment of God’s covenant with Abraham, which the poet will remind us of later in the poem (435-442). Just as God promised Abraham innumerable offspring, his support of the Israelites in their exodus signals that they will continue to be a multitude (as they certainly are in this battle, in which they have 600,000 fighting men (224-233).
In fact, the Israelites’ triumphant crowd noise is echoed at the end of the poem as well. After the defeat of the Egyptians, who make terrible cirm as they perish in the Red Sea (460b-467), the Israelites issue more celebratory sound, this time transformed from crowd noise to harmonious music:
Æfter þam wordum – werod wæs on salum –
sungon sigebyman (segnas stodon),
[After these words – the troop was joyful – victorious trumpets sang a beautiful sound (battle-standards stood). (565-67a; emphasis added)]
The Israelites’ cirm (107), which they produced while on salum (joyful), is balanced and echoed by the celebratory sounds of the end of the poem, also produced by a people who are on salum (565). Whatever threat the Israelites’ assertion of plenitude and cirm may have made possible is mitigated by replacing that cirm (noise) with a beautiful sound (fægerne sweg), a harmonious, if also loud and multiple, expression.
According to Attali, music can be used to produce order, but “noise is violence: it disturbs. To make noise is to interrupt a transmission, to disconnect, to kill. It is a simulacrum of murder” (26). In this sense, the Israelites’ crowd noise in the desert is violent – it threatens the order of the Egyptians, or the hierarchy the Egyptians have sought to impose on the Israelites in their captivity. But because this story ends in the triumph of the Israelites, told from the point of view of their Christian descendants, it celebrates this assertion of communal power and communal violence without fully othering them. The true violence is inflicted on the Egyptians by God in the Red Sea, allowing the Israelites to reassert their normativity, their cohesion, their power, and their non-otherness. While the drowning Egyptians produce cirm, it is silenced because the cirm of the Israelites has conquered them. Noise, or at least cirm, is therefore not merely negative or disruptive; it is a powerful claim to be blessed by God, an assertion of belonging rather than a boundary crossing.
Featured Image:Detail of a miniature of the plague of hail (Exodus 9:22-25), Add MS 15277, f. 7r
Jordan Zweck is an assistant professor in the Department of English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She specializes in early medieval vernacular literature and culture, especially Old English, and is interested in documentary culture, media studies, and sound studies. She is currently completing a book on Anglo-Saxon epistolarity and early English media, examining the representation of letters in vernacular texts such as letters from heaven, hagiography, and poetry. She is also working on a second book on sound, noise, and silence in Anglo-Saxon England, a portion of which is forthcoming in Exemplaria. Zweck is a recipient of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Center for the Humanities’ First Book Award, has held a resident fellowship at the Institute for Research in the Humanities at UW-Madison, and has won several teaching awards.
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Mouthing the Passion: Richard Rolle’s Soundscapes–Christopher Roman
Where do we begin?
On Tuesday January 13th, 2015, my first-year students and I gathered for the second meeting of our seminar, “Soundscapes: Artistic, Social, and Biological Approaches to Acoustic Environments.” We were just a few steps away from the iconic Duke chapel, almost in its shadow.
The chapel is an example of a revivalist architectural style known as “Collegiate Gothic.” Its steps were constructed with soft stone, intended to wear down quickly and provide an accelerated impression of age and prestige. The chapel’s cruciform blueprint is an unambiguous symbol of its Methodist Christian roots, as is the university’s motto: “eruditio et religio” (“erudition and religion”). In true Gothic revivalist style, the phrase is a Latin translation of a line from an 18th-century, English-language Methodist hymn titled “Sanctified Knowledge.”
On Tuesday, January 13th—the second day of my Soundscapes seminar—Duke’s Office of Communications announced that the Islamic call to prayer, the adhan, would sound from a bell tower of its iconic chapel in Durham, North Carolina. According to a press release, Duke’s chapel administrators and Muslim Students Association felt the three-minute long, “moderately amplified” recitation “represents a larger commitment to religious pluralism” on campus and that the sound of the adhan “connects the university to national trends in religious accommodation.”
The story was picked up by WRAL, the television news outlet based in nearby Raleigh. The web-based stories included a photo of the student slated to be the muezzin, the person appointed to recite the call to prayer. In the photo, the student was shown rehearsing from the bell tower. I read the announcement just before walking to class and thought the event would be a historic opportunity for my students and I to make field recordings of their university soundscape.
Where do we begin?
The adhan was scheduled to take place on the afternoon of Friday, January 16th. On Wednesday, January 7th—a week before the announcement of the adhan at Duke—twelve people were murdered during an attack on the Paris offices of the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo. Ostensibly, the murders were committed on behalf of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula as a retaliation for the newspaper’s cartoon depiction of the prophet Mohammed.
Where do we begin?
Islamic theology posits that the adhan is not music. It is recited, not sung. Likewise, the text of the Qu’ran is not poetry. These sacred texts are certainly musical and poetic, but they are neither music nor poetry. These theoretical distinctions have complex and profound implications: more than soundscapes or sound art or acoustemology, the Islamic premise underlying recitations of the adhan and Qu’ran provoked my students to reconsider entire constellations of historical, cultural, linguistic, political, and—indeed—spiritual phenomena.
My students and I conducted a survey in which they asked classmates to identify a recording of the adhan. Only 2 out of 48 students recognized it as a recitation of the Islamic call to prayer; most guessed it was “Arab” or “Middle Eastern” music, but it seemed universally familiar as a “soundtrack” for a film sequence. One student who had lived in Morocco recognized the adhan immediately; another recognized it as the sound of his Lebanese grandmother’s alarm clock, automated to remind her to pray. We became acquainted with Cairo in One Breath, a documentary film project about post-revolutionary Egypt’s 2010 Adhan Unification Project, an effort to “replace individual muezzins with a single voice, broadcast to Cairo’s [thousands of] mosques from a radio station.”
We also became familiar with the mythology of the first muezzin: Bilal, who was born in Mecca to Abyssinian slaves—in other words, a black man who was freed from slavery.
Where do we begin?
On Wednesday January 14th, the Reverend Franklin Graham posted a reaction to Duke’s announcement on his Facebook account. Franklin is the son of evangelical Baptist preacher Billy Graham, close friend and advisor to American presidents from Dwight D. Eisenhower to George W. Bush and known as “America’s pastor.” Franklin Graham is a resident of High Point, North Carolina (an hour’s drive from Duke) whose salary from tax-exempt, non-profit religious organizations is reported to be $880,000 per year.
Graham’s post “went viral,” and his threat of financial sanctions—aimed squarely at donors and alumni—seemed to land on its mark. Within hours, Duke’s proposed adhan recitation became the subject of a flood of media coverage, and the university received “credible threats” of violence; public relations and financial concerns were quickly compounded by “safety concerns.” My students and I—whose safety was being threatened—wondered whether the phrase “safety concerns” was a euphemism for terrorism, or vice versa.
On Thursday January 15, the university’s administration announced that they were canceling the planned recitation from the chapel bell tower. Instead, the adhan would be recited just outside the chapel, at the top of the steps leading to the chapel’s front doors. Franklin Graham celebrated the decision—again, on Facebook.
Later in the day, Richard Hays, the dean of the Duke Divinity School, released a letter outlining his objections to the proposed recitation. Hays’ letter revealed a somewhat obscure but significant division between the Divinity School and the chapel administration, each of which see themselves—in their own ways—as custodians of Duke’s Christian image. For the Divinity School administration, the chapel is a symbol of the university’s Christian identity. For the chapel administration, its Christian heritage is an aspect of a fundamentally pluralistic identity.
It is worth pausing here to emphasize that the controversy—now national in scope—was provoked by the mere prospect of sound. More specifically, a sound amplified at “moderate volume.”
By this point, the student muezzin and his family requested that his photo and name be removed; like the university, the young man and his family expressed “safety concerns.” Duke removed his image and name from the official online version of the announcement immediately. WRAL, the Raleigh television station, have still not removed the student’s image or name from their website.
Where do we begin?
On the morning of Friday, January 16th?
The adhan was scheduled to take place at 1PM. At 12:30, I met two of my students—Tanner Waters and Jee Yoon—near the chapel. A large crowd was already gathering. Tanner, Jee, and I equipped ourselves with identical digital audio recorders so we could make a trio of stereo recordings, each from a distinct position; later, we would synchronize the recordings, mixing them in different ways to experiment with sonic “versions” of the event.
A half-dozen news vans were parked around the circular driveway leading to the chapel, their satellite antennas projecting into the clear blue sky. This was news. The news’ cameras were arranged on tripods in a straight line at the rear of the crowd; university security were maintaining a perimeter around the chapel that kept broadcast media at a distance. As I approached with my headphones on and my audio recorder in my hand, a chapel staff member asked mildly, “Excuse me, sir. Are you with the media?” I smiled and shook my head. No.
A small PA sat at the top of the steps. Very small. There were no cables attached to it, and a small radio antenna extended from the top. It took me a few minutes to realize that this was the amplification, the moderate “loudspeaker” for the adhan. It took me another moment to realize the student muezzin would not appear: instead, he would transmit his recitation remotely. I was told later that he was just behind the closed doors of the chapel. Like so many recitations of the adhan, the transmission, amplification, and conceptual layers of it seemed uncannily like a sound art installation.
We all faced the loudspeaker, waiting for sounds to happen. The crowd went from murmurs to whispers, then silent. After a few seconds, the voices of members of the Muslim Students Association began to broadcast from the loudspeaker.
A young man’s voice introduced the adhan—a brief, prosaic context for what we would hear. Then a woman’s voice (also young) offered a literal English translation of the the adhan’s Arabic text. She spoke plainly, without the melodic contours of a recitation.
Now, before sharing recording of the Duke student muezzin’s recitation, I offer a bit of context—not an explanation or translation, but a comparative musical example. First, let’s listen to an iconic recitation style—albeit with a bit of YouTube-style hyperbole—recorded in Medina, Saudi Arabia. This recitation lasts four minutes—a fairly typical length of time for a complete recitation.
Now, let’s listen to the entire recitation of the adhan at the Duke chapel.
The prevailing quality of the Duke recitation is extraordinarily subdued. It is a vocal expression of the “moderate” sound and Muslim identity at the center of the controversy. At one minute and thirty seconds, it is less than half as long as most recitations.
Where do we begin?
Perhaps we might analyze this adhan as a peculiar instance of acousmatic sound: the student muezzin, like Pythagoras or the Wizard of Oz behind a curtain, was separated or dissociated from a discernible source by a curious bit of technology. When I asked Omid Safi, the director of Duke’s Islamic Studies Center, about this aspect of the story—the unseen and moderate voice of the student—he responded that for Muslims at Duke, the entire episode was about “safety and inclusion.”
Safi is a Duke alum. He studied there as undergraduate, co-founding the Muslim Students Association as a freshman, and went on to earn his Masters and PhD degrees at Duke. Since returning as director of the Islamic Studies Center two and a half years ago, he has been vocal and visible in the mass media. Safi himself has been labeled a “radical Muslim professor” by white conservatives and subjected to online “takedown articles,” particularly surrounding this event. Safi told me,
Part of the reason why … there was amplification but no person in sight [was] that people were scared. And it sounds hysterical … In retrospect, knowing what took place in Chapel Hill a few weeks later, [it was] not so unreasonable.
On Tuesday February 10, 2015, three Muslim college students—Deah Barakat, Yusor Abu-Salha, and Razan Abu-Salah—were murdered in their Chapel Hill home, just a twenty-minute drive from Duke. Less than a year earlier, Yusor Abu-Salha had been interviewed by her third-grade teacher for the StoryCorps oral history project.
At horrifying moments like these, I think to myself, “This is why people pray.”
I was deeply ambivalent about discussing the murders with my students. After speaking to a handful of students individually and discreetly, I found most of them were completely unaware of the murders. I wondered—mostly silently, to myself—what impact the news might have on them, then decided to share the story obliquely: I discussed StoryCorps (“listening is an act of love”) in class, an important resource for those of us interested in oral history and I concluded by mentioning the recording of Yusor Abu-Salha. I never asked if they listened to Yusor’s voice, and I cannot know how they might have been affected. I simply did not know what to ask, nor what to say.
Less than one year later, in September, I surveyed my next cohort of incoming freshman. Less than half of them knew anything about the adhan controversy. Among the few who had heard something about it, the event had already acquired dubious mythological qualities: in one account, Muslim students were forced to move their call to prayer from the chapel tower to the nearby Sara Duke Gardens.
Analyses of the event varied considerably. In an op-ed for Duke’s student newspaper titled “Deconstructing the National Fear of Duke’s Adhan,” freshman Eidan Jacob—an Israeli Jew—offered a brilliant context and synthesis, expressing “surprise and disappointment” that the adhan was “so poorly received.” He observed that in his hometown of Haifa, “recitations of the adhan are simply part of the soundscape.”
A broad cultural and political context reveals that xenophobia and—more specifically—Islamophobia, remain cultural common sense in the post-9/11 United States. Both supporters and opponents of the adhan at Duke were disappointed by the controversy, and I do not discern a tidy moral to the story.
The sounds and discourse of the adhan at Duke suggest a narrative preoccupied with “decibels and debate,” but the subtle dynamics and textures of thoughtful, moderate conversation suggest an audible alternative to the loudness and noise of mass media discourse. The diverse qualities of the voices in this story—musical and otherwise—are more than poetic metaphors: the “voices of moderates” and “moderate-sounding voices” deserve close attention; regardless of the causes or motives underlying their subdued tones, their very quietness demands nuanced, high-fidelity listening. The literal and metaphorical amplification of voices might be a distraction from more important matters of range and intimacy.
Where do we begin?
In May 2015, the Duke chapel was closed for restoration. It is scheduled to reopen in May 2016.
Plans for a weekly adhan recitation elsewhere on the Duke campus are under consideration.
Featured Image by Elysia Su, The Duke Chronicle
David Font-Navarrete is an artist, musician, and ethnomusicologist. He is currently a Lecturing Fellow at Duke University’s Thompson Writing Program.
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