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Sonic Salvation: A Story of How Listening Can Change Over A Lifetime

By the age of six, I could circumscribe my world in song. I was not particularly precocious — my world was just small. Ultimately, it would be fractured by its own rebellious genesis.

Two genres of folk music marked out the poles of my preciously tiny planet. Heaven’s jubilee rang in one ear: a cappella gospel, sturdily founded upon the biblical injunction to make melody in the heart. In the other ear, however, was the music of the devil himself: alcohol-drenched, two-stepping, hell-raising honky-tonk, enticing one to sin not just in the heart, but with the entire body. Together, they formed an eternally reciprocal refrain: Saturday night sin prompted Sunday morning renewal. There was little room for anything else, particularly dissent.

Sunday morning resounded with four-part harmony based on a shape-note system of musical notation, widely referred to as Sacred Harp. We sang again at our Sunday evening and mid-week services. Throughout the year, we also hosted regional “singings,” bringing together folks from other congregations, swelling our own sound by double. It was an easy form of music to learn by design, with its origins in early 19th-century America. Its strongest base was in the American South, and I inherited at least two generations’ worth of experience. It set the tone for my interactions with the world for the first three decades of my life.

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Taken at the Sacred Harp Museum by Flickr user Lance McCord, CC BY 2.0

Musicologists have documented and analyzed Sacred Harp thoroughly, with Alan Lomax having had a particular fascination for it. He considered it as not only an extension of four-square Anglo forms but also as the crossroads where the Reformation met the Democratic Experiment. In Lomax’s view—expressed in a 1982 interview at the Sacred Harp Convention at Holly Spring, Georgia—European migration to colonize America broke the established authority of the church, leaving every person to forge a singular relationship with God. This supposition harmonizes perfectly with the views of the congregational church I attended. We had no hierarchy, no choir, no piano. Every man, woman, and child added their voice, as best they knew how, to raise an egalitarian song of praise. Songs such as “This World is Not My Home,” “The Glory Land Way,” and “Blessed Assurance” exemplify the form: simple rhyme schemes; closely-yoked shifts in harmony and rhythm; and southern gospel’s initial shunning of poly-rhythms or syncopation.

For me, Sacred Harp music created an immersive and experiential soundscape; emotionally and spiritually motivating, it was the sound of temporal and eternal life.  Like our singing style, our church service presented a model for our lives outside the sanctuary. “Trust and Obey” was a frequently sung hymn—and it summed up our approach to life in all matters. Obedience was expected, deviation discouraged.

Worlds away from my sheltered existence, leaders of the Civil Rights Movement embraced a cappella singing as a powerful means to encourage, motivate, and activate. In the 2009 documentary Soundtrack for a Revolution, U.S. Representative and civil rights icon John Lewis said, “It was the music that created a sense of solidarity.” His a cappella community was connected to the church and the streets, challenging the status quo, and seeking greater brotherhood. Mine was by the book, increasingly authoritarian, very narrow in scope and population.

Sacred Harp Singing, Bloomington, Indiana, Image by Flickr User Jennifer Jamison (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

To us, the New Testament authorized one and only one instrument for offering songs to God: the unaccompanied human voice. The root of this belief was a concise motto coined in the early 1800s by Alexander Campbell, a leader in the Second Great Awakening: “Where the Scriptures speak, we speak; where the Scriptures are silent, we are silent.” Applying this principle, then, the apostle Paul, in his epistles to the Ephesians and the Colossians, encouraged Christians to sing. But nowhere did he or another New Testament writer suggest using an instrument. This silence equals prohibition. It sets its own reality, ignoring abundant biblical evidence to the contrary: the Old Testament presents many examples of instruments used in worship, as does the New Testament’s Book of Revelations.

Our a cappella song service was, therefore, more than a sound—it was a belief system, a worldview in which other sounds or ideas were alien. We applied Campbell’s principle across-the-board, backing ourselves into corners: slaves were to obey their masters; wives were to submit to their husbands; children were to be fully subject to their parents. Questioning authority, let alone defying it, was strongly condemned by Paul in his letter to Christians in Rome: “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation.”

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“The One and Only Lefty Frizzell” by Flickr user Thomas Hawk, CC BY-NC 2.0

Alternately, classic honky-tonk’s twangy resistance seemed to defy the innovations and complexity of modern life. As I was growing up, the sinful songs of Ray Price, Lefty Frizzell, Webb Pierce, and George Jones flowed like wine from my family’s record collection and radio settings. Songs of murder, drunkenness, alienation, revenge, adultery, and the workingman’s blues are staples of the honky-tonk catalog. Its celebrated ethic of “three chords and the truth” favored a rural do-it-yourself ethic. My church’s music was both challenged and validated by this unlikely and unruly roommate; honky-tonk was a matched bookend for Sacred Harp.

For in the background of many of those honky-tonk sounds, whether they were about larceny, war, or revenge on the boss, I heard the same harmony that filled my church. In the 1950s or so, southern gospel groups such as the Jordanaires, Blackwood Brothers, and the Statler Brothers, began backing country music artists including Johnny Cash, George Jones, Tammy Wynette, and Gary Stewart. Their sonic presence lent an almost holy sanction to the commission of sin, as if Jesus and Satan met after-hours to share a drink and balance the books.

This sonic emulsification of sin and salvation formed my youthful identity and bracketed a very small existence. My world consisted of very gendered personal struggles: man vs. temptation; man vs. alcohol; man vs. boss; woman vs. womanizer. The solution provided for these struggles was always the same: the efficacious grace of God. All failings and victories were personal, not structural or systemic. The fight against personal sin was the only fight.

Southern gospel music and honky-tonk have enjoyed an institutional relationship since the founding of the Grand Ole Opry in 1920s, sanctioning the blending of reprobation and redemption. Though initially politically ambivalent, the Opry listed towards social conservatism during the 1960s—Johnny Cash’s nascent social awareness notwithstanding. In 1970, however, the Opry and the industry it represented found itself an unlikely accessory to Richard Nixon’s “southern strategy.” He declared October 1970 to be Country Music Month, and a few years later blessed the Grand Ole Opry with its first presidential visit.

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Screen capture from Billboard’s “Roy Acuff Teaches President Nixon the Yo-Yo at the Grand Ole Opry” (1974)

Politically conservative messages had entered country airwaves during the late 1960s, epitomized, if not pioneered, by Bakersfield stalwart Merle Haggard. His “Okie From Muskogee” ridiculed hippies, dope smokers, draft dodgers, long-hairs, flag burners, and college activists, all within a 3-minute single format. Though ostensibly written as a joke, it struck a chord among conservative, Christian, country music fans. Sensing a market, Haggard followed up with the flag-waving “Fightin’ Side of Me,” wherein he further shames pacifists.

These songs contained the truth as I believed it in grammar school: protestors, adulterers, and dope smokers were all in defiance of God. Haggard’s refrain in “Fightin’ Side”—“if you don’t love it, leave it”—made sense to me, and was safely non-challenging. Conveniently, the religious body of which I was a member had, a generation prior to me, actively opposed pacifism.

A world composed only of personal demons, however, leaves little room for social issues. Being so long accustomed to seeing the sin in man left me unable to recognize the sin in the system. Sam Cooke’s great risk in recording “A Change is Gonna Come,” for example, was lost on me, even though we both shared a battle between religious and secular personas.

I never heard his call to address greater systemic problems such as racism, audibly or socially. Even as I entered my 20s, my white patriarchal religious sonic defense system kept the freedom struggles of people of color at bay. Even if dissenting sounds managed to sneak through–Marvin Gaye’s struggles in “Inner City Blues” for example—I quickly dismissed them as exaggeration or the natural outcome of personal sin. I could not process a sound which conflicted with my God-given world view.  I saw only men and women avoiding their duty and surrendering to temptation.

My mother frequently said that the lives portrayed in honky-tonk songs were not her life. But in another sense, those desperate lives, and the more hopeful ones portrayed in gospel music, were our lives collectively. We were part of a greater social identity: Southern, white, Fundamentalist, change-averse, full of latent conflicts. Those sounds, rich with heritage and lived-in context, formed us. In other words, our vernacular limited our hearing. Our world was formed within a fixed sonic boundary, and we ignored, resisted and sometimes even combatted discordant sounds.

Within this soundscape, I had never heard of any march from Selma to Montgomery, not from church, family, the radio, or, sadly, even school. The larger movement of which it was a part—perhaps the biggest social movement of the 20th century—was inaudible and therefore irrelevant to me. When I did begin to hear of protests against white racial violence, I could only condemn anyone who defied authority. I did not know what to say about authority which abused the people. Raised to function in a law-and-order world, I could only repeat the Apostle Paul’s instruction that we all must obey authority or incur the wrath of God.

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“Selma Protesters Met By Police: 1965” by Flickr user Washington Area Spark, CC BY-NC 2.0

But thankfully, sound travels in subversive ways, such as through the transmitters of listener-supported community radio.

I found Dallas’ KNON completely by chance. Commuting to work through the city’s legendary rush hour, I’d get fidgety. While searching the dial, I heard a familiar song in an unfamiliar arrangement. I don’t recall the song now, but do remember its force: a honky-tonk classic played through a stack of Marshall amps, turned up to the proverbial ’11.’ Perhaps it was Leon Payne’s Lost Highway as rendered by Jason and the Scorchers—anarchistic, upending, challenging, it still carried enough familiarity to keep me listening. I stayed tuned in for the next song, then another. When the DJ, Nancy “Shaggy” Moore, signed off her show, I gave a listen to the next show—at least until they said something a bit too dissonant.

But the next day, I tuned in to Shaggy again. And I listened a bit longer when the next show came on. And even longer the day after that. Dallas at that time was wracked by racial strife, some of it focused on the politicized deaths of two police officers, one white and one black, in separate incidents. I had tuned out the duplicity, but KNON gave me reason to reconsider. City council member Diane Ragsdale, an African-American woman representing one of the city’s most trod-upon districts, refused to let the issue go. KNON provided the venue for her to express her outrage unmitigated, and to explain the inconsistencies in a way that an entitled white male suburbanite, such as I, could understand.

Tim Rice suggests that we are not free agents in the creation of our identities—but given the right stimuli, we will resist, to the point of rebellion, the personhood prepared for us.  The latent heretical ethics of Sacred Harp and Honky-tonk finally responded to the sonic stimuli flowing through the breach, triggering an insatiable devil’s advocacy: “Prove yourself to me,” I said to everything I had once believed, religious faith included. St. John wrote in his First Epistle: “Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God.” This was to be the last biblical directive I would follow.

My radical shift in musical listening also greatly impacted my political, and cultural beliefs and listening practices, something which continued throughout my life. For example, I ended my professional career as well, having understood the devastating effects that high tech industries have on the environment and workforce. I traded a six-figure salary for minimum wage in foodservice. Not once have I looked back.

“Kitchen Music” by Flickr User David Blaine (CC BY 2.0)

Kitchen work comes with immersive sound: machines hum and sometimes roar; the radio blasts through the static; humans must shout to be heard. Working throughout the western US, in a variety of independent restaurants, I learned to understand and speak Spanish. I participated in defying a language ban placed on my colleagues by an overbearing owner: I noted that she forbade speaking in Spanish, but not singing in Spanish. So sing we did, about needing a potato peeler, taking out the trash, and what we were going to do over the weekend.

As I worked my way up the ranks and crossed the country from California to Manhattan, I listened to the stories told me by immigrants from Mexico, Guatemala, Dominica, Morocco, South Africa. They shared their music with me, via radio, iPod, cassette, or any object we could plug into an overcooked boom box. Every song and conversation has pulled me into greater participation in their lives and the systemic issues faced by most of the world around me.

Dismantling one’s identity, regardless of how deliberately it is done, happens amidst lots of noise: illusions shatter, idols crash to the ground, walls tumble into rubble. Dissent comes in myriad expressions, and for me, it has come via my own three-chords-and-the-truth and through a multimedia socially-progressive dining event which I call Peace Meal Supper Club. Its very raison d’etre is to illuminate dissonance on issues such as the right to sanctuary, our diminishing seed supply, the plight of the rural poor, and other devastating threads of intersectionality. Music is a critical component of each event, as Otis Taylor, Lila Downs, and Caetano Veloso share playlist space with Manecas Costa and Majida El Roumi Baradhy. Old favorites like “Sixteen Tons” get their say, as well—for behind that song’s well-earned swagger is a system of devastating intersectional oppression that demands our action.

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Featured Image: Image of a Stained Glass Crosley Cathedral, Image by Tubular Bob

Kevin Archer is a multi-media artist who left corporate security for a DIY life as a farmer, activist, educator, and chef. He’s planted gardens coast-to-coast, and washed his own sauté pans from Denver to Mendocino, Santa Fe to NYC, and random locations in between. Kevin’s current project is Peace Meal Supper Club, a series of immersive dining events which explore ecojustice, human rights, the capitalistic conquest of the seed and soil, and the power of progressive movements. He has written for Civil Eats, No Depression, Secular Web, and the Museum of Animals & Society. He has spoken on the intersection of food and social issues at numerous conferences within the Eastern US.

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The Listening Body in Death – Denise Gill

A Tradition of Free and Odious Utterance: Free Speech & Sacred Noise in Steve Waters’s Temple

**This post is co-authored by Gabriel Solomon Mindel and Alexander J. Ullman

On February 2, 2017, thousands of protesters took to the University of California Berkeley’s Sproul Plaza to protest and ultimately shut down a planned talk by the right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos. Captured in real time, its dark and blurry image projected to screens across the world, this gathering dumped fuel on a fire that had been burning slowly for many years. Conservative and predominantly “white-male” resentment against the mainstreaming of “politically correct” speech had become the basis for an inchoate community via the internet and was now emerging as a socially acceptable sentiment in the era of Trump. For those protesting at Berkeley, the silencing of Yiannopoulos was not intended simply to condemn the content of his speech, but to intervene preemptively in the culture-wide “fascist creep” disguising itself as humour and taboo breaking. It called into question the actual meaning of both speech and freedom in a place that had become synonymous with the struggle for both.

Viewed by some as a riot, the militant protest tactics evoked scorn, distress, and confusion from a wide spectrum of respondents. Conservative audiences were horrified by the self-evident violence of the Left, even while enjoying a laugh with Milo at the various fails of “SJW’s” and “snowflakes”. Meanwhile Liberals couldn’t seem to fathom the expressions of anger and nihilism evinced by the black-clad mass celebrating in front of the shattered windows of the Martin Luther King Jr. Student Union, who set a fire at the very steps upon which the Free Speech Movement of 1964 had been birthed. The cancellation of Yiannopoulos’s talk has since set off a chain of rhetorical and physical confrontations resulting in the cancellation of Conservative speeches on campus and multiple “free speech” rallies which have devolved into street battles between a motley cohort of alt-right groups and various counter-protesters surrounding a park that was also named after MLK.

Sproul Plaza Protests, UC Berkeley, September 24, 2017, Image by Pax Ahimsa Gethen, (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Coincident with the events that same spring, Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre staged Temple by British playwright Steve Waters, a revisiting of 2011’s Occupy London protests whose encampments surrounded the area of St. Paul’s Cathedral. First performed in London in 2015, the play speculates that the swirling circumstances of the ten-day period leading up to the dean’s resignation (including the cathedral’s closing on October 21; the Canon Chancellor’s abrupt resignation on the morning of October 28; and the reopening of the cathedral later that day, effectively evicting the protesters) had something to do with the church’s own struggle to reconcile its responsibility to serve both God and his people in the face of ethical contradictions.

Seeing Temple on Aurora Street, barely two weeks and two blocks from the “Patriot’s Day” melee on April 15, provoked us to consider what resonances seemed to be emerging between places and times evoked in the play and humming in the streets. Thinking comparatively between Berkeley in 2017 and Temple yields historical and political synchronicities, between protest movements and the institutions which arbitrate public space and public speech. Temple offers a critique of how the discourse of “free speech” is naturalized, even weaponized, by historical actors; yet it also imagines speech as sonic form never separate from its ethical content. The play exposes how “free speech” often serves as an empty signifier mobilized for political purposes, how it always risks being separated from its material and ethical consequences. Against this, the play pits the noise of protest as a powerful riposte to these abstractions.

“Preaching at. St. Paul’s Church”–Folkmoot

Temple’s story centers around the personal conflict of the Dean, who vacillates between support for the protests surrounding the church and for the city eager to evict them, dramatizing how London’s Occupy movement, displaced from its original encampment outside the London Stock Exchange, took refuge in the courtyards surrounding St. Paul’s Cathedral, replacing one symbolic institution of power with another. As the Dean reminds us, this debating throng gathered on the church’s doorstep is an echo of the folkmoot at St. Paul’s Cross from nearly 800 years before: “In the Reformation era firebrands would preach against usury, against merchants in the very presence of the Mayor…doubtless a riotous affair…” Thus Temple situates Occupy as not an impediment to the functioning of the Church, but a revival of “a tradition of free, even odious utterance… of untrammelled public speech” (41-42).

Despite this sympathetic gesture, the Dean struggles against the unremitting noise of the current protestors outside his window. He frequently sits on the window ledge, holding his head as he peers out toward the loud chanting in what otherwise would be moments of silence: “This drumming, the music, the occasional shout…every night this fitful rhythm of noise, shouts, cries” (34). The polyphonic mass is yet another ethically demanding voice fighting for the dean’s attention. So too the other church leaders, the city lawyer arguing for the camp’s eviction, and the Canon Chancellor’s resort to Twitter where the realm of appearances seems to dictate political decisions because “like the whispering gallery …everything we do is broadcast …amplified …reverberating around the world” (42). Should the dean re-open the church and have the protest camp removed? Should he resign? What would Jesus do?

Still from Aurora Theater’s production of Temple, Berkeley, CA, Image courtesy of authors

This interior struggle is formalized in the clash between the sound of protesters and the ritualized sounds of the church. The play compresses the drama of a three hour period into an hour and a half, and every quarter hour the bells at St. Paul’s ring, marking the ritualized time structure of the church and its domination over the city’s soundscape. R. Murray Schafer points out in The Soundscape that “time is always running out in the Christian system,” (i.e. its inevitable destiny in the apocalypse) “and the clock bell punctuates this fact” (56). The bells mark time, but they also mark power, for they are the “Sacred Noise” that Schafer claims societies “deliberately invoked as a break from the tedium of tranquility” – the silent world of the profane (51). The Church’s ability to determine time and disturb the peace is the (sound)mark of its power, yet the sound of the London protest encampment frequently disrupts its claim to sovereignty. The sonic agon of the play allegorized the one in the street: as Occupy’s cacophony challenged St. Paul’s exclusive right to make noise without censure, so too can the free speech protests be heard as a kind of sonic riposte to the institutionalized soundscape of the university, a sparse scholarly murmur punctuated by the bells of Berkeley’s Sather Tower.

Sonic ritual and sacred noise bookend Temple: the sound of a church choir opening it and the bells in closing. However, the play’s critique of such ritual occurs through constant sonic disruption and the unremitting attack on silence in the final stage direction (“the noise builds”). Therefore, as the Dean’s decision to reopen the cathedral suggests that the church’s rituals have won out, Temple insinuates that Occupy’s struggle was as much about the power to disrupt the peace with speech as it was to preserve its camp. This disruptive quality of ‘noise’ in the play calls attention to protest’s spatial  capacities: the ability for sounding to extend beyond the limits of the body, to challenge the very architectures of power. We never see the protesters in the play, yet their acousmatic noise is manifest as if a distinct body were sharing space within the rectory. . Yet what are the limits of this ghostly aurality? Does the noise of the crowd simply become metaphor? We might ask the same thing of the protests at Berkeley, their proximity to the halls of power – university buildings, city hall, police stations – not compensating for their simultaneous containment in public space and exclusion from power’s internal deliberation. How does this risk metaphorizing the very material presence of these protests, the people who were using their actions and bodies to protest against the right’s usurpation of the term “free speech”?

Image of Dean Knowles courtesy of authors

The contest between the pew and the street in Temple exposed how the term “free speech” is metaphorically mobilized for political and ethical convenience. In a way, Temple is a critique of the Dean Graeme Knowles’s actual homily given on October 28th, 2011, just before the church reopened and just after the diegetic time of the play closes. In this homily, Knowles appropriates the language of testimony while at the same time appealing to a more abstract notion of “free speech”:

We are called out to be witnesses, to speak out, to testify…like Simon and Jude, many of us will be anonymous, but like them, our voices need to be heard. Because of their testimony, we are here today. Without their voice, the good news of the gospel would not have reached us.

While the church’s reopening (and the concomitant removal of Occupy) may actually appear like a restriction on free speech, the dean reassures congregants that the church is itself a testament to it. “World leaders have spoken under this throne,” he says, at once emphasizing the church’s personal importance to Christians who feel silenced by the church’s closing and the political importance of an otherwise “neutral” institution.

St. Paul’s Cathedral, London, England, Image courtesy of authors

Waters’s play attempts to resolve the church/streets binary by filling hollow calls to testimony with multiple voices across a political spectrum, offering a polyvocality that helps to unpack this contradiction of the church standing up for free speech while simultaneously denying it. Through the clash of sounds and the characters voices, Temple exposes how Knowles’s homily is actually covering up a historical contradiction between numerous relations: between various iterations of what “free speech” means; between who controls the soundscape; between various iterations of free speech movements throughout history.  It is here that the link to what is happening in Berkeley in 2017 is most poignant, in the resonance between the church’s past and its conflicted present on the one hand, and the dissonance between the historic memory of the UC Berkeley-based Free Speech Movement (FSM) of the fall of 1964 and how the “New Free Speech Movement” of the “alt-right” has effortlessly yet inaccurately usurped its language and moral ground.

If the Church and the University are spaces of exception, institutions that are both public and private, their responsibility to democratized speech is premised on ethical and legal principles that are not the same as the constitution-bound worlds around them. It is this being of the world and not that incites the agonism around who can speak and what they can say: according to Jesus in John 15:19 “… because you do not belong to the world…therefore the world hates you.”

The Free Speech Movement of 1964 advocated for the ability to offer persuasive speech with social consequences–rather than mere talk–carried forth by an uneasy alliance of liberal and conservative students brought together by the simultaneity of the Civil Rights Movement and Republican Party election campaigns. Campus administrators and the economic and political elite of the day claimed that students were being persuaded to perform illegal activities off campus, while it was the FSM leadership’s assertion that civil disobedience and direct action of the type being developed in civil rights and labor struggles was in fact defensible “free expression.” 50 years ago tactics such as sit-ins, occupations, blocking an arrest, and transforming a police car into a stage were seen by moderate and conservative commentators as coercive and violent forms of rebellion, but for activists they paled in comparison to the everyday racist violence affecting Black people in America, the imperial violence of the Vietnam War, or the total annihilation promised by a potential nuclear war. Similarly today, Antifa accept pre-emptive and coercive violence as necessitated by the potential violence summoned by the “alt-right,” whether in the form of lone individuals inspired by their white supremacist ideology or the spectre of a large scale fascist transformation of American society.

Though protest songs provided the background music to the FSM of the 60’s, the current debate and protests over “free speech” call attention to another constitutive relationship between sound and protest, between noise and power. Behind the liberal plea to “lower the voices” and heighten the reason in political discourse is a reminder that sound has an ability to interact with consciousness in non-rational, even hypnotic ways. We see a kind of hypnosis in the very language of “free speech” today, a term invoked by the alt-right and the university to protect certain political agendas similar to the way that the term “objectivity” was deployed mid-century. Stanley Fish made a similar argument in the 1990’s amidst that moment’s culture wars, arguing that because all speech is socially constructed and ideologically asserted “there’s no such thing as Free Speech.”

Free speech, for Fish, only exists as an ideal construct outside of history in which voices are pure “noise,” separated from consequences and assertions. But his notion of “noise” and “free speech” again are too metaphorical, separated from the uneven histories of protected speech and the materiality of noisy protests. As Jonathan Sterne writes, out of the perceived noise and meaninglessness of protests there emerge rhythms and grooves that can be heard farther than they can be seen, that invite participation and resistance. In the context of Temple and the UC Berkeley protests, the “noise” created within and against the term “free speech” should not simply be dialed down or declared a realm of meaningless utterance, but unpacked as an important opening in to how power is both employed and resisted by institutions like the university and the church.

Berkeley Free Speech Protests of 1964, Image courtesy of author

The Chancellors of UC Berkeley have never been averse to using violence to correct and regulate speech on its campuses, whether it be Chancellor Strong’s eviction of the FSM’s occupation of Sproul Hall in 1964, or the brutalization of student protesters by campus police under the watchful eye of Chancellor Birgeneau in 2009. The Dean of St. Paul’s agony could give us insight into what went into Chancellor Christ’s ambivalent public letter that assures us that “free speech” and “safety” will come at a cost. In ‘64 the discourse of “free speech” became a platform for political dialogue and social transformation, not for usurping the language of testimony and personal experience while abstracting real societal power. What the “alt-right” frames as a common struggle for a moral and legal principle only disguises the balances of power that determine who can speak without the consequence of violence: white people or people of color; governments or protestors; bankers or the poor.

“Free Speech” is the domain of a particular sacred noise, one that has the power to disrupt what Martin Luther King Jr. himself described as the “appalling silence and indifference of good people who sit around saying ‘wait on time’.” In this recently discovered speech, given in London just after he spoke at St. Paul’s in December 1964, MLK goes on to say that “human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability,” retroactively giving moral weight to Mario Savio’s demand that “you’ve got to put your bodies […] upon the wheels.” We can see this spirit of rebellion in the counter-rhythms of London’s anti-austerity occupations, rising up to meet the bells of St. Paul’s, and as well in the “rough music” of outraged students rising up to meet the Sather Tower Carillon as it insistently keeps time.

Featured Image: Still from video of Berkeley Protests, February 2017

Gabriel Salomon Mindel is an interdisciplinary artist and scholar whose research considers ways that people produce and struggle for space using sound to extend beyond the limits of their bodies, particularly in formal and informal modes of protest. He received an MFA in Visual Arts from Simon Fraser University where his work focused on the production of visual artworks from time-based phenomena such as sound composition, dance, social practices and protest. He has also spent nearly two decades exhibiting artwork, performing improvised music and composing for dance and film. Images, writings and recordings can be found at https://diademdiscos.com/gms/.

Alexander J. Ullman is a PhD student at UC Berkeley’s Department of English where he researches Nineteenth, Twentieth, and Twenty-first Century Literatures. 

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St Erkenwald: The Spectacle of Noise

series co-editors Dorothy Kim and Christopher Roman

series co-editors Dorothy Kim and Christopher Roman

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

Aural Ecology

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


We don’t always listen to medieval poetry in the same way that we listen to contemporary verse, despite its many sonic features. This article addresses the central role of sound in a Middle English alliterative poem, St Erkenwald, which recounts a meruayle (158) that takes place in St Paul’s cathedral. Through listening to the aural texture of the poem, to the voices in the text listeners/ readers can interact with events as they unfurl.

Indeed John Scattergood has been argued that this work is a “conversation poem, a poem of transformations” (181), wherein things, legends are re-invented. Its central concerns are with the nature of salvation and history, how the past confronts the present and is obscured through the mists of time, with lay folk requiring the mediation of the clergy in order to comprehend its significance. The pagan judge’s discourse can be seen as representing living history, revealing what artifacts, writing, documents cannot. The poem’s highlighting of the limitations of memory, written records and commemoration, creates an enigma as P. Vance Smith phrases it, with the dead body left to recount its own place in the scheme of events (59-60, 74). It is through dialogue and sound, the poem’s sonorous fabric that the events are finally resolved, and their potential meaning extracted.

St Erkenwald opens with an account of the physical, historical and religious setting of the tale, which evolves into a description of the re-building of the cathedral. The mery (39) stone masons, whilst engaged in their work, uncover a splendid tomb, lavishly decorated. The description of the digging and carving of stone conveys jarring, bustling activity. News of the tomb with its indecipherable text spreads rapidly (58-62).

Voice File: lines 58-100

Click here to view transcript of Lines 58-100

Etching of Old St. Paul's Cathedral, London, from Francis Bond's Early Christian Architecture, 1913.

Etching of Old St. Paul’s Cathedral, London, from Francis Bond’s Early Christian Architecture, 1913.

Apart from the explicit references to noise, the verbs are evocative of clamour and urgency. Far from proceeding calmly and in an orderly fashion to the tomb, the people highid, boghit, lepen and ronnen. A powerful sense of speed and movement is evoked, heightened by the numbers of people involved. Something extremely unusual has happened and everyone desires to see it. The event develops into a spectacle of noise, a lively social occasion, as layers of details and elements are accumulated.

Noise does not signify in itself, it has meaning only in relation to other modes of signification. Michelle R. Warren, in her analysis of “The Noise of Roland”, argues that from the “combined perspectives of acoustics, information theory, and philology” it is possible to view noise and signals or messages as interdependent and that what distinguishes something as meaningful, a signal or message, or disruptive, is “intent” (283). This is particularly evident in literature, which can be viewed as the “noise of culture,” a disturbance in the dissemination of information and thus literary texts can be viewed as “various forms of mixed signals” (304). Sound, like time and space helps to delineate boundaries between the self and other and in order for identity to be established the noisy other must be silenced.

However, there is no hint of violence, unease or alterity in all of this haste in the cathedral to see the wonder with which the pilgrims have been presented. The opening of the tomb is carefully and courteously organized by the mayor and the sacristan and skillfully enacted by the workmen. The body unearthed is as fresh as he is “sounde sodanly were slippid opon slepe”(92). There is a child-like innocence, an enthusiasm for the marvelous, the new. Even the mayor, civic and religious leaders are anxious to investigate the find. Each person questions what lies before him and endeavours to make sense of it.

To this end, they search for records and memories of this seemingly important individual (96-100). The discussion works from the materiality of the body outwards in an attempt to unravel the underlying meaning. This referral to documentation to find a rationale for what is happening proves ineffectual. The questioning of texts and modes of recording draws in the receivers of St. Erkenwald, who possess a similar level of knowledge of the events, witnessing them unfurl, just as the folk in the poem, uniting both the internal and external audiences.

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Erkenwald teaching monks in a historiated initial from the Chertsey Breviary (c.1300)

News reaches Bishop Erkenwald of these happenings whilst he is visiting an abbey in Essex, and losing no time, he buskyd þiderwarde bytyme (112). Erkenwald spends the night reciting his canonical hours, beseeching God’s help to solve the mystery in order to confirm the people’s faith. His prayers prefigure the closure of the poem, functioning as an expression of desire, which through supplication is fulfilled leading to celebration as his wish and the wishes of the people are fulfilled in that the mystery of the body and divine workings are revealed.

Once he assumes control of proceedings all clamour and commotion cease, at his behest (131-2).

Voice File 2 lines 131-145

Click here to read a transcript of likes 131-145

The exquisite notes of the choir are an instance of that important element of medieval cultures, music, with every aspect of medieval life and experience and embodiment being musically significant. Lords gather, not rush to herken (134) the beautiful, intricate singing. After this carefully designed performance of sound in honour of God, the bishop processes to the tomb location. We learn of all the great, good and ordinary souls who follow the bishop as the area is unlocked with a great bundle of keys. The keys probably jangle in the echoing confines of the cloister, a naturalistic detail that draws the listener/ reader into the scene. Having negotiated the cloister the focus then narrows to a moving conversation between the bishop and the corpse. All is silence now (218-20).

Voice File 3 lines 193-220

Click here to read a transcript of lines 193-220

The crowd is as large as before, with a crush forming behind the bishop as he passes through it, yet it is becalmed through sheer amazement. The contrast between the calmness and silence of the crowd now and its previous frenetic noisy activity is quite arresting. Boisterous garrulous behavior evident amongst those attending religious worship is widely attested and, as Diana Wood notes, the church court records contain references to louts disrupting worship and bear testament to widespread chattering with warnings issued upon occasion (207).

University of Leicester Special Collections. The Shrine of Saint Erkenwald, which was in the shape of a pyramid, with an offering-table before it, and was adorned with gold, silver and precious stones. From SCT 00908, William Dugdale, The History of St. Pauls Cathedral in London : From its Foundation Untill these Times …, (London, 1818)

University of Leicester Special Collections. The Shrine of Saint Erkenwald, which was in the shape of a pyramid, with an offering-table before it, and was adorned with gold, silver and precious stones. From SCT 00908, William Dugdale, The History of St. Pauls Cathedral in London : From its Foundation Untill these Times …, (London, 1818)

The dean recounts to Erkenwald all their attempts to unearth the identity of the body (159-62). Erkenwald responds by counselling the need to draw inspiration from God and to trust in their faith and to emphasize that only with divine aid can miracles be comprehended. Thereafter follows a dialogue between the bishop and the body in which we learn of the circumstances of the latter’s life and death. We are presented with performance history, the dead speaking to the living, to us, rather than information having to be gleaned from dusty monuments, texts and documents. These living words reveal God’s plan and their underlying significances are mediated by Erkenwald for the deceased judge and spectators. The poem in turn translates these events for later readers/listeners. The focus remains firmly fixed on the bishop and the corpse, with the crowd quietly observing and listening, in the same manner as those who hear/read the text.

Indeed, throughout this section the references to noise are limited to verbs and phrases which suggest sorrow. The corpse hummyd (281) and gefe a gronyng (283). One can almost hear the silence as Erkenwald pauses and looks at the tomb with flowing tears. As he warpyd the words of baptism wete (321) drips from his eyes and trillyd adoun (322). A drop falls on the judge’s face, facilitating his having a vision of paradise. His sadde soun (324) sounds out in that place for the last time for a final time as he describes what he sees and “wyt this cessyd his sowne, sayd he no more” (341). The judge is miraculously received into heaven and his body instantaneously decomposes, in the midst of great tranquility.

The climax of the poem is a crescendo of sound, as the crowd rejoices at the happy fate of the judge, but it is a happiness inevitably tinged with sadness in the face of death (350-2).

Voice File 4 lines 309-352

Click here to read a transcript of lines 309-352

A sermon at Paul's Cross (from the Society of Antiquaries of London)

A sermon at Paul’s Cross
(from the Society of Antiquaries of London)

All are involved in the procession with bells ringing out throughout the town. The bells call not only the folk of Erkenwald’s London to participate in this joyful spectacle; they invite later audiences to join the celebration. Thus childlike innocence and enthusiasm combined with the direction of the church in tangible situations are deemed beneficial. This is paralleled in the positivity of silence and the three correct usages of human speech as explicated in a fifteenth-century sermon by an Oxford student monk on the gospel reading for the third Sunday in Lent, Luke II:14-28. An individual, especially a cleric, must be silent and meditate before he can graciously address the Lord. Quiet study is necessary prior to exhorting people to leave their sinful ways, with the final purpose of rightful speech being confession, which should only be exercised after the silent acquiring of wisdom (41-51).

The poem’s narrative voice adds that physicality is merely vainglorious, and what is fundamental is the soul’s achieving of bliss through the expression of love for Our Lord who makes this feasible. Such explicit comments are comparatively rare in St. Erkenwald with the role of the church and lay folk, and their obligations performed, expressed, rather than stated. The poem provides a model of the religious culture of a cathedral with the roles of clergy and laity carefully delineated. Through a spectacle of sound, ordered and disordered, of human and divine orchestration, pastoral care and guidance is enacted for the audience in and of the poem.

Featured Image: Image from the Crusader Bible, Morgan Library M.638, fol. 3r.

Bonnie Millar, Ph.D., Researcher at the University of Nottingham holds degrees from Trinity College Dublin, and the University of Nottingham. She has authored a critical study of the Siege of Jerusalem, and also publishes regularly on alliterative poetry, medieval romances, gender theory and myths. Publications include a paper entitled “Hero or Jester: Gawain in Middle English Romances and Ballads” in Le Personnage de Gauvain dans la literature européenne du Moyen Âge ed. Marie-Françoise Alamichel, a chapter on “Key Critics, Concepts & Topics” in the Continuum Handbook of Medieval British Literature, “A Measure of Courtliness: Sir Gawain and the Carl of Carlisle” in Cultures Courtoises en Mouvement: Proceedings of the Thirteenth Congress of the International Society of Courtly Literature and contributions to the Facts on File Companion to Pre-1600 British Poetry. Current projects include a full length study of the figure of Gawain entitled Gawain: From Hero to Anti-Hero in late Middle English and Early Modern Romances and Ballads.

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Black Mourning, Black Movement(s): Savion Glover’s Dance for Amiri Baraka

I don’t worry about the look of it so much. Choreography comes later, when I’m putting together a piece. I’m into the sound; for me, when I’m hittin’, layin’ it down, it’s all about the sound. –Savion Glover, My Life in Tap

It has been a little over a year since Amiri Baraka passed, and still I hear the echoes of his presence. I am especially attentive to the ways his work has been carried on by those involved in recent black uprisings in Ferguson, New York City, and Baltimore. Powerful political poetics that have emerged from these events include work by Danez Smith, Claudia Rankine and the many contributors to blackpoetsspeakouttumblr.com.

And yet, part of what I’ve witnessed in the streets, actual physical spaces of public protest against police violence and systemic racial oppression, is an example of what Thomas DeFrantz has termed “corporeal orature,” or the ability of bodies to resonate throughout public space and shift political discourse. In these moments, the body talk of protesters is not simply the sound of clattering feet through city streets, but a commitment to the ways in which physical gestures can speak truth to power. I am especially interested in connecting Baraka’s legacy to the larger conversation about the aural kinesthetic that Imani Kai Johnson has proposed, and in teasing out the various dimensions and potentials embedded in that category.

Image from Ferguson Protests, 2014

Dance at Ferguson Protests, 2014, Image by Shawn Semmler

For me, Savion Glover exemplified the lingering sound of Baraka’s spirit in his tap dance at his memorial service. Whenever I listen to the recording—which still brings tears to my eyes—I am reminded of the abundant sense of joy, sadness, and love that characterized Baraka’s service. Listening to Glover’s dance is an aural kinesthetic experience, like watching a comet pass across the night’s sky. I am reminded, too, of the way I clamored to record that moment, to keep a piece of the poet alive on my iPhone even after his public passing. And indeed, that performative sound of feet tapping, that measured excess of the body produced through movement, has kept Baraka alive for me; like his groundbreaking work, it is powerfully resistant to the proper rubrics of any one discipline except, perhaps for the study of sound itself.

So, this post then, is about tap dance and its ability to sound out Baraka’s name and life. But in a larger context, the intricate vibrations of Glover’s performance facilitate a deeper understanding of the relationship between sound and mourning, and a kind of mourning that is particularly African American, that is to say, American. It is a mourning that exists beyond the word, written text, or image and a sound practice that enables the bereaved to make a joyful noise and a mournful one at the very same time. So I ask, how do you write a eulogy with the body? How do you perform an embodied love? What does Black love and a reverence for Black life sound like? Sometimes, the answer is tap.

Audio Clip of Savion Glover’s Dance at Amiri Baraka’s Funeral, 18 Jan 2014

The dance explodes on stage like a burst of light. It begins with something approximating a drum roll – and then hard slow taps, hammering away like someone at a typewriter, I imagine, or a train gaining steam.

It is coming.

Slow, insistent and strong, with a little riff now and then, a little picking up of speed here and there. It is coming on louder now, that explosive thing, the tension you are noticing. He is doing the thing. And then there is that skillful, smooth, strong tap. Glover is at work, y’all.

Savion Glover at Work, Image by Flickr Users Raquel and Soren

Savion Glover at Work, Image by Flickr Users Raquel and Soren

As a tribute to Baraka, Glover’s dance bears numerous stylistic implications. Among them, I understand the rhythm of Glover’s tap as the rhythm of writing, an aesthetic that complicates the way his dance can be understood as a manifestation of the black vernacular. Sketching out the early connections between her son’s artistry and the percussive taps of the keyboard, Yvette Glover says. “‘I was working for a judge, as an assistant, when I was pregnant with Savion…And when I would type, and the carriage would automatically return, he’d walk, he’d follow it, in my stomach. You could see him move” (39). He does it still. In the audio clip, Glover’s footwork evokes the dexterity of Baraka’s language, all the while telling a story of its own.

Savion Glover's Shoes

Savion Glover’s Shoes, Sadler’s Wells, 2007, Image by Tristram Kenton

But what about the intensity of the dance, its crescendo toward the end of the service, a flurry of percussive steps beside Baraka’s coffin? Baraka himself reminds us this particular musicality is so necessary here. In his discussion of “Afro-Christian Music and Religion” in Blues People, Baraka notes that in Black diasporic religious services, “the spirit will not descend without a song” (41). Glover’s dance takes place at a moment in the service when emotion exceeds the power of language, but not sound. He uses his body as an instrument of sound in its fullest sense. His performance is a choreography of embodied sound: full-on and at-once body poetry, mourning and tribute.

Elucidating the use of his body as an instrument of sound, Glover declares:

It’s like my feet are the drums and my shoes are the sticks[…]My left heel is stronger, for some reason, than my right; it’s my bass drum. My right heel is like   the floor tom-tom. I can get a snare out of my right toe, a whip sound, not putting it down on the floor hard, but kind of whipping the floor with it. It get the sounds of a top tom-tom from the balls of my feet. The hi-hat is a sneaky one. I do it with a slight toe lift, either foot, so like a drummer, I can slip it in there anytime. And if I want cymbals, crash crash, that’s landing flat, both feet, full strength on the floor, full weight on both feet. That’s the cymbals. So I’ve got a whole drum set down there (19).

Combining his body’s drumbeat with the tic of Baraka’s keystrokes, Glover embeds the pattern of Baraka’s life in this tap dance, communicating it with the kind of deep and reverential love you are taught to have for your elders when you are young, appropriate and deep.

amiribarakafuneral2But as powerful as his body-poetry is, Glover’s silences are also key. In those inaudible spaces, Glover spreads out his arms, offering up the dance in a gesture of expansive love; the immensity of the silent gestures mirroring the immensity of Baraka’s life. He holds it out as a gift towards the audience, bows his head, too.

In moments of sound and silence, the audience calls out to Glover the way they would a preacher. At these moments, the dance becomes a call and response akin to the way Baraka’s life’s work was a call and response. A call to respond. A call to take what was given to you and make it mean. Listeners to the dance are called up out of themselves. We are changed by the dance and by the listening.

Tap tap tap.

Glover’s performance shows us how his specific blend of African and European dance traditions exists in a spiritual and artistic dimension. There is a religious explanation for this, too. In African DanceKariamu Welsh-Asante explains the function of the African funeral dance in definite terms:

All African dances can be used for transcendence and transformational purposes.   Transcendence is the term usually associated with possession and trance. Dance is the conduit for transcendent activities. Dance enables an initiate or practitioner to progress or travel through several altered states, thereby achieving communication with an ancestor to deity and receiving valuable information that he/she can relate back to the community. Repetition is key to this process as it guides the initiates, or dancers, through the process of the ceremony. The more a movement is repeated, the greater the level of intensity and the closer a dancer gets to the designated deity or ancestor. Transformation means to change from one state, or phase, to another (16).

Glover certainly brought us close to Baraka. And yet, I would go a step further to suggest that this is, above all, blues dance. As such, it reveals continuing relevance of social dance and movement to Baraka’s political legacy. Baraka and Glover work directs us towards the propulsive nature of black social/percussive dance forms. These sonic gestures clarify the ways black life matters, impacts the public sphere and policy. The politicized nature of Black Arts Movement performances and the performative elements of contemporary Black protest are still linked through sound. Politicized Black aesthetics continue to offer us multiple opportunities to witness the convergence of sound and movement. Ras Baraka, affirms this in his own eulogy for his father:

Have you seen black fire it burns deep it never goes out you can try and extinguish it but it never goes out it never goes out it never goes out only up or out as in broad as in multiply as in blues black base of the fire dancing flickering at times but never all the way gone dancing flickering at times but never all the way gone…

The power of the dance, of the Black Movement to move is still with us.

Protestors dance to a community band, Baltimore, MD, 28 April 2015, Photo by Adrees Latif/Reuters

Protestors dance to a community band, Baltimore, MD, 28 April 2015, Photo by Adrees Latif/Reuters

Featured Image, Screen Capture of Savion Glover dancing by JS

Kristin Moriah is the editor of Black Writers and the Left (Cambridge Scholars Press, 2013) and the co-editor of Adrienne Rich: Teaching at CUNY, 1968-1974 (Lost & Found: The CUNY Poetics Document Initiative, 2014). Her critical work can be found in Callaloo, Theater Journal, TDR  and Understanding Blackness Through Performance (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013). Moriah is completing a dissertation on African American literature and performance in transnational contexts at the CUNY Graduate Center. Her research has been funded through grants from the Social Science and Humanities Council of Canada, the Freie Universität Berlin and the Graduate Center’s Advanced Research Collaborative. She is a 2014-15 @IRADAC_GC Archival Dissertation Fellow and spring 2015 Scholar-in-Residence at the NYPL Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Sometimes she tweets via @moriahgirl.

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