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.
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
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.
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
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
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).
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
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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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.
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.
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.
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.
But 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 Dance, Kariamu 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.
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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