Each of the essays in this month’s “Medieval Sound” forum focuses on sound as it, according to Steve Goodman’s essay “The Ontology of Vibrational Force,” in The Sound Studies Reader, “comes to the rescue of thought rather than the inverse, forcing it to vibrate, loosening up its organized or petrified body (70). These investigations into medieval sound lend themselves to a variety of presentation methods loosening up the “petrified body” of academic presentation. Each essay challenges concepts of how to hear the Middle Ages and how the sounds of the Middle Ages continue to echo in our own soundscapes.
The posts in this series begins an ongoing conversation about medieval sound in Sounding Out!. Our opening gambit in April 2016, “Multimodality and Lyric Sound,” reframes how we consider the lyric from England to Spain, from the twelfth through the sixteenth centuries, pushing ideas of openness, flexibility, and productive creativity. We will post several follow-ups throughout the rest of 2016 focusing on “Remediating Medieval Sound.” And, HEAR YE!, in April 2017, look for a second series on Aural Ecologies of noise! –Guest Editors Dorothy Kim and Christopher Roman
A soundscape is an aural-based landscape, an auditory environment that surrounds a listener and constructs space. In 2009 the composer, John Luther Adams, created a music installation in Alaska that experiments with the boundaries of soundscape. Utilizing geological, meteorological, and magnetic data, Adams tuned and transformed the sounds of the landscape into electronic sound.
In his “Forward” to John Luther Adams’s composer journals compiled as The Place Where You Go to Listen, New Yorker music critic, Alex Ross comments that Adams’s work with composing with the atmospheric, geological, and ecological sounds of Alaska reveals a forbiddingly complex creation that contains a probably irresolvable philosophical contradiction. On the one hand, it lacks a will of its own; it is at the mercy of its data streams, the humors of the earth. On the other hand, it is a deeply personal work, whose material reflects Adams’s long-standing preoccupation with multiple systems of tuning, his fascination with slow-motion formal-processes, his love of foggy masses of sound in which many events unfold at independent tempos (x).
Thinking with Adam’s project and considering how sound surrounds us and can be tuned and transformed, as well as brought to the forefront of our sense perception, I turn to the medieval hermit, Richard Rolle, and his work with canor in his lyrics. In what follows, I consider the enmeshed ecology divine lyrics may invoke, and how the body—as an instrument—may experiment with, mimic, and contemplate divine sounds.
In Rolle’s work, the experience of song, or canor, is one of the highest mystical gifts. As with John Luther Adams, sound unfolds in ways both translatable and ineffable. Canor creates a kind of being, one that creates place and, then, surpasses it. As he writes in the Incendium Amoris at the moment of his receiving the gifts of God:
I heard, above my head it seemed, the joyful ring of psalmody, or perhaps I should say, the singing […] I became aware of a symphony of song, and in myself I sense a corresponding harmony at one wholly delectable and heavenly (93).
In this initial receipt of canor, Rolle is made aware of aural space and the way that it is mimicked in his own biology. The space of the sacred church is transformed into an eternal space that resonates harmonically with God. In this, his first mystical experience, the musical song he hears above him transforms him internally: “my thinking turned into melodious song and my meditations became a poem, and my very prayers and psalms took up the same sound” (93). This transformation erases the boundaries between hearing external song and the translation of the internal song, and tunes Rolle into the ecology of sound, as Adams phrases it in The Place Where You Go to Listen, a “totality of the sound, the larger wholeness of the music” (1). Rolle’s body becomes a musical instrument beyond its initial sound capabilities and it resonates with the chapel space itself to become a larger harmonious work. Harmony in the form of these mystically experienced, enmeshed vibrations suggests both a local and cosmic allusion to complex systems of divine transcendence and immanence.
By invoking the sounds of the Passion, conflating time and sound, and experimenting with the mouth of the lyricist to perform divine sounds, Rolle attempts to capture the panoply of emotion, action, and object surrounding his mystical experience and devotion by singing it. Invoking a queer temporality, Rolle weaves past and present, sound and sight, Jesus and singer, into an immersive, divine soundscape. The song reveals that there is no outside in the connection between the body as instrument and the God-sound.
The making of the divine into song for Rolle is a praxis, an active way to reconsider the relationship between God and man beyond visualization. Rolle’s use of the lyric is an ecological thought, what Tomothy Morton dubs a “reading practice” in The Ecological Thought that
makes you aware of the shape and size of the space around you (some forms, such as yodeling, do this deliberately). The poem organizes space […]. We will soon be accustomed to wondering what any text says about the environment even if no animals or trees or mountains appear in it (11).
In contemplating a lasting Love in , Rolle considers the gap between love and life, or, more specifically a love that is a lasting life and a love that quickly fades. This becoming-love must be separated out from other kinds of love that separate the singer from the community. Can love manifest itself in sound? Rolle exemplifies love’s abundance in the fire that “sloken may na thing” in “A Song of the Love of Jesus” (6). Love is represented as an excessive fire, one that nothing can put out and, therefore, everything is subsumed in it.
But it is the sound of fire that Rolle connects with Love’s embrace. Rolle suggests an ecological moment, not in an apocalyptic way, but as a fire that creeps into all crevices. Nothing can “sloken” it—the sibilance of the consonant blend ‘sl’ gestures toward crepitation. It is the sound of fire touching the object as it prepares to consume—to take it into itself—as well as reveal Love’s movement in space. Rolle considers that love is created through the sound of fire (which, in his other works is an emotion he struggles with and not a visual fire).
In the lyric “Song of Love-longing to Jesus,” Rolle addresses the relationship between love and Jesus but rather than meditate on the nature of that love, as in the previous lyric, Rolle meditates on the event that causes that love: the Crucifixion. The lyric is bookended by violent acts. At the beginning, Rolle asks Christ to “take my heart intil þy hand, sett me in stabylte” (4) and “thyrl my sawule with þi spere, þat mykel luf in men has wroght” (6). In both these cases Christ’s hand and spear enter into Rolle in order to affect change. In the first line, it is to settle his heart—a theme that Rolle repeats in many of his writings. The stability of the heart allows it to open so that Christ can take up residence and, in that “indwelling,” the soul and Christ become one.
In the second piercing, the spear pierces the soul and Rolle seems to be implying that this piercing has already been done; the second piercing itself is the action that has opened the human to love. As Jesus was pierced by the lance of the Roman soldier, the soul is pierced by Jesus and in that act, love is made or “wroght.” In the second piercing, the ‘thyrl” becomes an important word because of its relationship between sonic resonance and mouth articulation. The spear pierces the soul and Rolle plays with the mouthing of the word as a kind of reverse piercing. The interdental fricative configuration of the voiced “th” in the word “thyrl” made by scraping the tongue between the teeth to form the word is like the removal of the spear from the wound itself. The lips make a wound shape and the tonguing of wounds reveals the intimacy inimical to the movement of the mouth, to sound out this pain and curl the lips to connect the lyricist with Christ.
The latter event of the poem is the scene of the Crucifixion itself. As Jesus has first pierced Rolle and in that event awoken or caused Love, we can imagine the spear as a brief linking object, something that erases the boundaries between Christ and Rolle. However, the middle third of the poem relates how Rolle lives a life of longing—and the love of Jesus will resolve this longing: “I sytt and syng of lufe-langyng, þat in my hert is bred” (29). The song is a result of the piercing; it is as if the removal of the spear has opened up a new song: that of love-longing. Rolle is lamenting the loss of the spear. The love-longing song, then, fills the hole left by the spear.
The lyric further explores the soundscape of the Crucifixion. The meditation on the Crucifixion begins with Christ bursting forth. If the first image of the lyric is of Rolle being pierced inwardly, Christ ends the poem with a flowing out: “His bak was in betyng, and spylt hys blessed blode; þe thorn corond þe kyng, þat nailed was on þe rode” (35-36). Notice the repetition of “b” and the “th” consonant blend. The “b”’s recreate the lashes, the “th”’s repeat the piercings (the crown, the hands, the legs). The Passion is captured in two lines of sounds, but Rolle underscores the piercing of Christ as a way to show his overabundance—the flowing out of Christ in the lyric is another way to remove the boundary between singer and Christ—Christ also becomes the song as He is bound with the flowing rhyming words: fode/stode/blode/rode mimic the promise of the Passion.
Let us look closely at this stanza’s rhyme. The first and third, fode and blode, refer to the Eucharist and wine. It is out of the second and forth words: stode and rode from which we get that Eucharistic event. Jesus is beaten and Crucified; the Eucharistic feast of body and blood (or “aungel fode”) are a reminder of that event. In other words, Rolle has contained the temporal connection between Eucharist and Crucifixion in four rhyming words and the lyric becomes a witness to the sound of this event.
Rolle’s experiments with the mouthing of sound and the queer temporality of sound in his lyrics reveal Rolle’s attempt to capture canor textually. To sing God is an attempt at harmony with the divine.
Featured image from a mural in the Dominican friars’ chapel in the Angelicum, Rome. Photo by Lawrence OP @Flickr CC BY-NC-SA.
Christopher Roman is Associate Professor of English at Kent State University His first book Domestic Mysticism in Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe deals with the creation of queer families within mystical theology. His forthcoming book Queering Richard Rolle deals with the intersection of queer theory and theology in the work of the hermit, Richard Rolle. His research also deal with quantum theory and Bede, ecocritical theory, and medieval soundscapes. He has published on medieval anchorites, ethics in Games of Thrones, and death and the animal in the works of Geoffrey Chaucer.
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Introduction: Medieval Sound–Dorothy Kim and Christopher Roman
I am not usually one to listen and tell, but this time I feel the need to publicly confess, Katy Perry-style. A few weeks ago, I heard a symphony orchestra. And I liked it. I might even go so far as to say it fairly delighted me. What warmth and depth of sound! What a potent tension between distinguishable instruments and commonly held notes! And oh, the violas! My pleasure in this experience, however, has thrust me in ethical, epistemological, and ontological crisis mode, leaving me to wonder: Who am I? and What on earth has happened to me?
If anyone had told me even six months ago that I would be making this declaration, they would have received a fairly withering sardonic look. Classical music has never been my thing—by politics, class, birth, or taste (of course, if you ask Pierre Bourdieu, taste is hopelessly bound up in the first three, anyway, whether we acknowledge it or not). My working class roots have eschewed Capital-C “Classical” music listening as far back as I can trace: most immediately, “classical” to my father means one of his musical holy trinity: the Beatles, the Stones, or Hendrix. Next to the electrically-charged and vocally-driven musical traditions that raised me, classical has always seemed sonically uninteresting and unavailable, even as rebellion against Woodstock (unless of course it was the synth patch work of Wendy Carlos that was switching me on to Bach).
However, it wasn’t solely that classical music didn’t speak to me—it was also a matter of what it said when it did. I have encountered some version of classical in so many forbidden, intimidating, and privileged spaces that it often seemed as if the music itself drew borders around me, its booming kettle drums warning me to “keep out” while its mincing violins suggested I had better put on a uniform and grab the hors d’oeuvres tray should I decide to stay. From the report on Haydn I was assigned for 7th grade Music Appreciation to the metronymical Beethoven ticking off my many minimum wage hours at the mall—the lilting soundtrack to the security footage my boss collected every night from the cameras not-so-subtly trained on me—my encounters with classical have almost always been connected with the imposition of power. More recently, I found myself waiting for a bus in downtown L.A. around 2 a.m., where I was pummeled with high-volume classical music blasting from the doorways of high-end condos, echoing down the unusually empty streets. Apparently, building managers feel amplified classical deters homeless people from seeking shelter there, without annoying their well-heeled residents. According to the San Diego Union Tribune, “The music that seems to do the best job of driving people away. . . is baroque”. . .the music characteristic of Bach and my old friend Haydn. I wonder if my 7th grade teacher knows this.
Given experiences like these, I have been unable to simply ignore classical music throughout my life, but I have officially considered myself “a hater.” I have been that punk rocker hooting and hollering for their cello-playing friend in the pin-dropping silences between movements, wishing that everyone would turn around and glare. I have actually called up my local NPR-classical combo station during pledge drives and told them I will increase my donation if and only if they banish the bassoons and switch to a full-time news format. Like all that classical vinyl clogging up the dollar bins at record shows, public classical programming is an ideological holdover from the turn-of-the-last-century, when classical was aligned with white middle class respectability. The streets of my neighborhood in Binghamton, for example—chock full of aging Victorians that were once a sign of industrial prosperity—are named after Schubert, Mozart, and Beethoven, which the local residents of these now crumbling buildings, since chopped up into rooming houses, defiantly call “Beeeeeth-oven.” In the early twentieth century, labels like Victor pumped out classical discs to convince Americans of the “respectability” of the gramophone—that the new machine wouldn’t be used solely to spread Tin Pan Alley, or worse yet, jazz—while offering a lower-cost alternative to expensive opera houses for poorer folks. Distilling orchestra onto portable 12-inch discs has the veneer of democratization and agency, sure—shouldn’t everyone have access to the listening habits of the rich and powerful in their very own homes?—but the practice enforced and upheld the 19th century split between so-called high and low cultures that we still wrestle with today.
Lawrence Levine described this as the division between “highbrow” and “lowbrow” culture. It deemed non-white and/or working class cultural production—categorized as “pop,” “folk,” and/or “vernacular” musics—as the gauche and corrosive soundtrack of lesser minds, while constructing the Eurocentric symphonic hall and the opera house as sacred cultural sites (long with museums and libraries—see Aaron Trammell’s recent post). Elite white gatekeepers in the 19th centuries drew both sonic and discursive borders between “high” and “low” culture, deliberately excluding African American artists, for example, from music’s elite spaces by using language to redact “Othered” sounds from the category of “music” itself. In the white press reception of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, for example—a touring group who combined black musical tradition with European concert performance styles in the 1870s, the first to do so on American stages—recurrent descriptors such as “weird” and “rude,” show white critics attempting to interpellate a new cultural force into their pre-existing musical value systems—marked of course, as “universal”—in ways that would neither threaten nor reveal the white cultural supremacy that undergirded them. The best efforts of the Jubilee Singers were repeatedly presented by white reviewers as uncultivated, emotional, ephemeral, racialized sound that, while
mesmerizing, was not to be categorized as “music”—universal, eternal, artistic—alongside the German composers in vogue at the time. Levine argues that these elites constructed the physical and discursive sites of music as demanding a certain type of discipline, purpose and “most important of all—a feeling of reverence” (146). The term “classical” is part and parcel of this reverence, appearing in the early 19th century, and, according to Alex Ross—the classical music critic for The New Yorker who for the record hates the term—“mirrored the rise of the commercial middle class, which employed Beethoven as an escalator to social heights.”
From my first record purchase—The Go-Go’s Beauty and the Beat (1980)—to my latest, Cee Lo’s The Ladykiller (2010)—I have been on a search for reverence elsewhere, most often smashed up against a sweaty crowd of people, feeling the waves of the giant speaker stack reverberating through my body, shouting along until my vocal chords were completely raw. Jimi Hendrix called this form of reverence “the electric church” in 1969, and Paul Gilroy does a beautiful homage to its power in “Some Soundscapes of the Black Atlantic” describing Hendrix’s vision of music as an inclusive ritual event whose high volumes not only deliver a proper wake-up-call to those who need it, but “promote a direct encounter with the souls of the people involved” (383). Unlike the concert hall’s rarefied air, the sonic cervices of the “electric church” seemed to welcome all comers. Sadly, since moving to Binghamton—a smallish town in upstate New York—my tithes to the electric church have dwindled; against my will, I have become one of those Christmas and Easter types. I hadn’t realized my extreme musical privilege growing up in Los Angeles’ shadow until I found myself in the outer limits of America’s musical infrastructure. However, as my recent symphony encounter has proved, being locked out of the “electric church” has made me more open to the power of musical sound wherever I find it. Not to mention that, in my anxious mental deconstruction of my new appreciation of the orchestra’s roar, I couldn’t help but think that it was because—barring the Dolby soundsystem at the local movie theater—the symphony was easily the loudest thing I have experienced in almost a year.
And maybe that’s it. I have a new loud. Between moving to Binghamton and edging deeper into my 30s, my seemingly immovable aural palate has experienced a major tectonic shift. When I recently discussed my odd ecstatic experience over dinner with visiting sound artist and Binaural Fellow Maile Colbert, she suggested that age may have a lot to do with it. Colbert posited that we don’t fully understand the physical inscription of sound on the body, especially the connection between pleasure and the ways in which sound waves strike our bodies beyond the ear. So, shifting tastes in music may not just be a
factor of nostalgia or just plain becoming uncool, as marketers would have us believe, but rather a visceral reaction to the new ways in which sound resonates with our thinning skin, hollowing bones, slackening muscles, and disintegrating organs. After turning 30, I found, inexplicably, that I suddenly liked black licorice, so maybe an affinity for the symphony is similarly inevitable. I almost surrendered to this promising explanation, as it meant liking the symphony was part of a natural process that was out of my control, but unfortunately I have read enough Judith Butler—and 19th century music writing—to know that my experience of the “natural” processes of my body are always affected by cultural narratives. Much of what we currently consider to be “old people’s music” was once thought to corrupt and inflame the passions of youth a century ago. So, if I could not safely blame my sudden symphonic pleasures on age, then what?
Before you offer up that perhaps I just heard the “right” performance, the Guinness experience of sound after a lifetime of the aural equivalent of Coors Light, I need to make a second confession. The symphony performance I heard was not the New York Philharmonic doing Mahler’s 6th Symphony, or even the Binghamton Phil’s recent performance of Enigma Variations. Actually, I took my almost-two-year-old to hear the Binghamton University Symphony Orchestra’s 2010 Children’s Concert All Creatures, featuring “Peter and the Wolf” and other pieces of music designed to evoke animals via sound. So the concert was perhaps not your typical orchestra experience, unless it has become common practice to let you touch a spitting cockroach from Madagascar on your way to your seven-dollar seat. I brought my little guy to All Creatures not out of a desire to impose “good music” on him, but because he loves sounds of all kinds and a.m. concerts are few and far between. Older folks like me were visibly in the minority at All Creatures, and the air was hardly rarified; not only was it the most diverse orchestra crowd I have seen to date, but you could wriggle in your seat and clap all you wanted. To the orchestra’s credit, they played as passionately for a sea of six-year-olds as I am sure they would for state dignitaries, and it was fairly stunning to watch young musicians so obviously still falling in love with their instruments.
I’d like to be able to conclude by telling you that I heard the orchestra anew through my son’s still-forming, wide-open ears—an experience I have imagined in an earlier blog—but I have to make one last confession: he was asleep within two minutes of the orchestra tuning up, a chip off the old block. His impromptu snooze left me alone to wrestle with my old nemeses Beeeth-oven and Haydn, as well as the questions rooting the blossoms of my newfound guilty pleasure. Given who I am and where I have come from, was it transgressive to be sitting in the third row of a symphony hall, letting the sound touch me? Or, perhaps, this listening experience was more about where I am now than where I started from. No longer waiting in the wings or cleaning the bathrooms, I am a university faculty member with a front row seat. Was I unconsciously giving in to the powerful (and Eurocentric) aural propaganda of the orchestra, with its visible hierarchies and overwhelming harmonic quest for everything in its “proper” place—precisely the privileged perspective that I daily attempt to dismantle? Or, more than likely, the suddenness of my errant desire simply allowed me to hear new traces of an old refrain: where listening is concerned, resistance and subjection can never be easily separated, let alone painlessly resolved.