Tag Archive | Noise

Beyond the Grandiose and the Seductive: Marie Thompson on Noise

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Noise as Negative. Sound Cancelling

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Featured Image: Noise Music 

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(Dis)orienting the Bell: Aural Assault from A Game of Thrones to Richard Coer de Lyon

series co-editors Dorothy Kim and Christopher Roman

series co-editors Dorothy Kim and Christopher Roman

Hear YE! Below is the 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.

Aural Ecology

What is considered music, noise, or harmony is historically and culturally contingent. For example, some medieval musical theory, or musica speculative, such as Jan Herlinger’s “Music Theory of the Fourteenth and Early Fifteenth Centuries” in Music as Concept and Practice in the Late Middle Agesdefined music as “contemplation that serves the moral edification of the mind” (293). Influenced by the work of Boethius’s De Musica, music is not just everyday music but “connotes harmony conceived broadly enough to encompass the relationships obtaining in the human body and psyche and governing the motions of planets” (293).  This kind of ecological harmony is explored in the work of Boethius, especially in his discussion of abstract qualities in the prelude to the De Musica, The Book of Arithmetic (as translated by Calvin Martin Bower)  “Indeed these things themselves are incorporeal in nature and thrive by reason of their immutable substance, but they suffer radical change through participation in the corporeal, and through contact with variable things they change in veritable consistency” (24).  For Boethius these “essences” are concordant with mathematical properties expressed in music. Thus, music was both speculative and moral, and these intertwining purposes derived from music’s phenomenological pleasures derived in the environment, “for nothing is more consistent with human nature than to be soothed by sweet modes and disturbed by their opposites” (Bower 32).

Boethius also comments on the psychological effects experienced in hearing music as they “affect and remold the mind into their own character” (Bower 34). Boethius gives examples of how certain groups of peoples, such as the Thracians or Lacedaemonians, delight in different kinds of music that harmonizes with their natures. For Boethius, music is transcendent in that it exists as a kind of eternal sound, but also an immanent sound, in that it appeals to various peoples depending on their nature and environment. Boethius’ speculations lead him to think about harmony and sound as available to reason and sensory perception. Thus the notion of harmony itself is “the faculty of considering the difference between high and low sounds using the reason and senses. For the senses and reasons are considered instruments of this faculty of harmony” (Bower 295).   Harmony (and disharmony in the form of noise) became a marker of the aural ecology for an individual or group.

The essays in “Aural Ecologies” also 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


In the neo-medieval A Game of Thrones (2011), the medieval Saracen-inspired and violent Dothraki utilize bells as a symbol of victories in battle. Each time a leader or khal defeats a foe, he incorporates the bells from his foe’s shorn black braid into his own braid. Khal Drogo, khal of the most powerful khalasar in Essos, sports an uncut braid sensuously described by George R. R. Martin as “black as midnight . . . hung with tiny bells that rang softly as he moved. It swung well past his belt, below even his buttocks” (37).

Dothraki bells serve both a hypermasculine and deterritorializing function: esteem and prowess for Eastern men comes from the symbolic castration of their enemies and the eradication of civilizations. For the Dothraki, sexualized and territorial conquest is centralized around amplitude of noise made by an aggregate of bells adorning a phallic braid. Drogo is frightening because of his noise: he wears “[b]ells so his enemies w[ill] hear him coming and grow weak with fear” (802). In the pilot episode of Season 1 of HBO’s Game of Thrones, writers David Benioff and D. B. Weiss and director Tim Van Patten emphasized the contrast in noise between the copper-skinned Dothraki and the white Valyrians of the Free Cities:

East disrupts West in this scene through a racialized auditory disruption of white silence.

The association of the Middle East with noise pervades Western culture. One need only recall juxtapositions of quietly carefully groomed news anchors in sterile American news sets conversing with correspondents struggling to be heard in earsplitting raucous streets embroiled in Middle Eastern crises in countries like Iraq and Syria.  See Aron Brown of CNN announcing the U.S. War on Iraq in 2003, for example:

However, this association of the Arab world with noise is not a new one. In medieval literature, noise played a crucial role in distinguishing Saracen East from Christian West. Bells and particularly the cacophonous noise they cumulatively make came to be associated with a violent imagining of the East in literature of the medieval period. The late medieval crusading romance Richard Coer de Lyon, centered on the exploits of the twelfth-century crusading king, Richard the Lionheart, situates the pealing bell as its central object. [Note: Richard Coer de Lyon is cited by line number. All quotations come from the widely-used complete modern version, Richard Löwenherz, ed. Karl Brunner, Wiener Beiträge zur Englischen Philologie (Vienna and Leipzig, 1913)].

As in Dothraki warrior culture in A Game of Thrones, bells gain symbolic power in the romance through replication and accumulation. Richard Coer de Lyon features pealing bells in two crucial episodes concerned with the East and a maternal rather than phallic male body: 1) the exorcism of Richard’s demonic Eastern mother at Mass with a sacring bell (l.221-34); and 2) the appearance of Saladin’s demonic mare arrayed in clamorous bells attached to her crupper at the climactic battle of Acre (l.5532-49, 5753-8). Drawing on both medieval treatises on the function of bells and Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s theory of the refrain, I argue that the bell—initially a symbol of Christian order, the West, and patriarchy—becomes a disorienting aural force associated with chaos, the East, and maternity.

Early on in the romance, the king’s men try the piety of Richard’s mother, Cassodorien of Antioch, a bewitching foreigner whose only apparent fault is that she cannot remain in church to hear Mass, by physically restraining her during a service. To the shock of the English parishioners, at the ringing of the sacring bell, Cassodorien breaks free of her male captors, seizes two of her children, and flies through the church roof never to be seen again:

And whene þe belle began to ryng,

And when the bell began to ring,

The preest scholde make þe sakeryng,

And the priest was about to do the sacring,

Out off þe kyrke sche wolde away…

Out of the church she tried to go away…

Out of the rofe she gan her dyght,

Out of the roof she began to make her way/transform,

Openly before all theyr syght…

Openly before all of their sight

— Richard Coer de Lyon, 221-5.

At this striking moment of contact between queen and masculine material object, the bell is forever altered, (re)oriented on a trajectory that transmogrifies it from a symbol of priestly power to a chaotic symbol of maternity and the East.

Sacring Bells in Aberdeen, Scotland. Image by Flickr User rethought (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Sacring Bells in Aberdeen, Scotland. Image by Flickr User rethought (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Medieval thinkers conceptualized the church bell as an agent for revealing both foreign and demonic threats from within the community.  In The Rationale Divinorum Officiarum of William Durand of Mende thirteenth-century French liturgical writer and bishop, William Durand,xplains the significance of the pealing of bells– “when the bell rings . . . the people are unified with the unity of faith and charity” (51) –but also expounds on this exorcising function of the church bell:

[T]he bells are rung in processions so that the demons who fear them will flee . . .  They are so fearful when they hear the trumpets of the Church militant, that is the bells, that they are like some tyrant who is fearful when he hears in his own country the trumpets of some powerful king who is his enemy (51).

Durand conflates the demonic with the East, both qualities embodied by Cassodorien who hails from Antioch (near the border of Syria and Turkey). He also imbues the bell with an emasculating quality; it renders even a tyrant fearful. The measured sounding of the church bells forms a tonal refrain, an aural sequence to familiarize Christian space.

The purpose of the aural refrain, for Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, is to deterritorialize and then reterritorialize unfamiliar space. In A Thousand Plateaus, they explain the refrain/‘ritournelle’ as a threefold place of disorientation, the familiar, and escape:

They are three aspects of a single thing, the Refrain (ritournelle)…. Sometimes chaos is an immense black hole in which one endeavors to fix a fragile point as a center. Sometimes one organizes around that point a calm and stable “pace” (rather than a form): the black hole has become a home. Sometimes one grafts onto that pace a breakaway from the black hole (312).

The bell was arguably the most important and pervasive aural symbol in medieval Europe, one whose refrain regularly demarcated Christian spaces in times of chaos. Sound theorist R. Murray Schafer has called the medieval church bell “the most salient sound signal in the Christian community” in The Tuning of the World (53), and a unifying force “acoustically demarking the civilization of the parish from the wilderness beyond its earshot” (55).  Yet, as the bell multiplies through contact with Cassodorien and Richard wanders into the wilderness or black hole of the East, its sound is layered and its signification coopted by the East and transformed into a disorienting force that decenters Saladin’s enemies.

Richard battles Saladin, Luttrell Psalter, BL42130, 4v

Richard battles Saladin, Luttrell Psalter, BL42130, 4v

The bell resurfaces once more as Richard prepares for his epic battle against Saladin at the gates of Babylon. In this climactic battle with a second pairing of mother and son, reimagined in the form of a demonic belled “mere” and her “colt” summoned by Saladin’s necromancer, bells occupy a central place of prominence on the mare’s accoutrements. In 1192, Saladin reportedly sent two new horses to Richard after his horse was slain in battle (For an overview of this event, see page 73 of Sir Steven Runciman’s A History of the Crusades, Vol.3: The Kingdom of Acre and the Later Crusades).  The mare, as one of only two mothers in the romance, uses the same aural symbol to assault the English Christians that they had used to exorcise Cassodorien. As Saladin’s mare proudly strides onto the battlefield, the poet emphasizes the deterritorializing effect of her cacophonous bells:

þerffore, as þe book vs telles,

Therefore, as the book tells,

Hys crouper heeng al ful off belles,

The mare’s crupper hung all full of bells;

And hys peytrel, and his arsoun.

From the armor, too, and the saddlebow,

þree myle men my3ten here þe soun.

For three miles men could hear the sound.

Þe mere gan ny3e, here belles to ryng,

His mare began to neigh, her bells she rang

Ffor gret pryde, wiþouten lesyng.

With great pride, it is no lie.

–Richard Coer de Lyon, 5753-8.

Fascinatingly, Brunner again diverges in this passage from Caius 175, and changes “þe mere” to “his mere,” further stripping the demonic mare of her agency.

Whereas the church bell is a singular symbol of order, symmetrical and “acoustically demarking” space with its meted refrain, the bells of the mare are multiple, discordant, chaotic, and cacophonous, designed to disorient rather than to unify (see Schafer 55). The medieval illuminator of the Luttrell Psalter (c.1325-1335) similarly emphasizes the clamorous quality of the belled mare, and distinguishes Saladin’s mount from Richard’s by the vast array of bells attached to its crupper and the noise these bells suggest.

The noise, suggested in the Luttrell Psalter by the movement and detail given to the crupper bells, can be heard on a smaller scale in the following video clip of a horse merely walking noisily with a smaller bell-laden crupper:

One can easily infer the discordant sound a running mare might make with a crupper “hung all full of bells.” The poet suggests that the noise encompassed an aural disturbance of three-miles and disrupted the Christian crusaders. The bells also serve an insidious maternal purpose: they serve as a trap to lure her colt to abandon Richard and “knele adoun, and souke hys dame” (kneel down and suck his dame)(Richard Coer de Lyon, 5547).   In A Thousand Plateaus, Deleuze and Guattari suggest the layering of sounds, particularly maternal sounds, can disrupt and deterritorialize space. In their discussion of the reterritorializing effects of layered song, Deleuze and Guattari provide the strikingly maternal example of Debussy’s Sirens, which, they posit, integrates voice with orchestra to make the voices of child and woman inextricable from “the sea and the water molecule” (340). In much the same way in Richard Coer de Lyon, the mare’s imbrication of voice over bells seeks to make the dichotomies of the romance—mother and son, east and west, chaos and order, demonic and angelic—implode as the demarcated boundaries between them are dissolved in her cacophonous demonic lullaby.

Daenerys, Created in ArtRage Studio by Flickr User Happy Snapper 80 (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Daenerys, Created in ArtRage Studio by Flickr User Happy Snapper 80 (CC BY-NC 2.0)

While A Game of Thrones and its HBO counterpart pick up on the resonances of medieval noise to differentiate between East and West, noise is gendered differently. In RCL the threat signaled by the sound of bells is that Richard will be emasculated by his inability to cut ties with the specter of his mother’s influence and disambiguate himself from the Eastern Saracens she represents. However, in Martin’s series, the Dothraki bells, like much of Dothraki culture, exist only to be subsumed under Daenerys’ imperial ambitions for an Iron Throne the Dothraki neither care about nor want. Daenerys’ bell, affixed to her hair after the death of Drogo and the dissolution of his khalasar, becomes a symbol of cultural and racial appropriation Martin stages under the guise of (white) feminism. That is, the issues noise signals have changed from the challenge of excising Christian West from Islamic East (a fear literalized in Richard’s cannibalistic consumption of Saracen flesh) to cultural appropriation (the devouring of Dothraki culture for the benefit of white colonialism).

Featured Image: Proceso Khal Drogo by Flickr User Orgita Sucubita, (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Thomas Blake is Assistant Professor of English at Austin College.

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Make a Noise Joyful: Cirm in the Old English Exodus

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Medieval Sound

Series co-editors Dorothy Kim and Christopher Roman

When the narrator of the Old English poem Exodus declares “Gehyre se ðe wille” (Let him hear who will), what sounds is he asking us to attend to? [Note: Text from Peter Lucas’s edition, 7b.  All translations are author’s own.] This post argues that the Old English noun cirm (noise, shout, outcry) challenges our conceptualization of noise. In the Anglo-Saxon corpus, cirm most often refers to the indistinguishable, non-linguistic hum of a crowd, rather than the meaningful utterance of an individual. This accords with the popular view of noise in sound studies: whether medieval or modern, noise (as opposed to meaningful sound) is associated with alterity, disruption, and violence.

However, and strikingly, in the Old English Exodus, words for noise describe not only the terrible sounds of the drowning Egyptians as the roaring waters of the Red Sea rush over them, but also the survival of the Israelites. I argue that this cirm is a mark of the Israelites’ triumphal assertion of their continued presence and plenitude, a celebration of the fact that they can still be a multitude despite captivity. That cirm may not sit easily within our definition of noise should provoke not a redefinition of cirm’s joyful use, but a reconceptualization of Anglo-Saxon noise.

'Amalek Attacks Israel and Is Defeated', in the Old English Hexateuch, British Library, MS Cotton Claudius B IV

‘Amalek Attacks Israel and Is Defeated’, in the Old English Hexateuch, British Library, MS Cotton Claudius B IV

What is Noise?

“Noise” has a range of meanings, but most often implies “unwanted sound” as R. Murray Schafer argues in The Soundscape (73).  Following the work of Jacques Attali and Jeffrey J. Cohen, noise has been associated with alterity, difference, and monstrosity. Noise, as opposed to sound, may be non-linguistic or disordered: nonsense, babble, the roar of a jet engine. According to David Novak’s contribution to Keywords in Sound, noise is not present in nature, but is created by modern technology (129). In the modern world, noise is often considered negative: cities have rules about noise pollution, apartment buildings set quiet hours, and airplane passengers don noise-cancelling headphones. In the pre-industrial age, noise was not exempt from criticism, though the word could also be applied to more pleasant sounds, like birdsong.

In the European Middle Ages, Valerie J, Allen argues in “Broken Air,” noise was often figured as violent, transgressing boundaries, inappropriately closing the distance between sound producer and sound receiver (310 and 317-318). According to Macrobius, it was not silence that was the opposite of sound, but noise (311). Grammar, which was “devoted to the pursuance of ratio through sound,” was ethical; noise was therefore considered “a kind of audible violence; corruption [wa]s something one can hear” (305). But some medieval noises were more ambiguous: the Old English word dream (joy, joyful sound) could also be applied to the terrible sounds of Hell or the terror of Judgment Day, as in Kazutomo Karasawa’s analysis in “OE dream for Horrible Noise in the Vercelli Homilies.”  Likewise, “clamor,” which originated as a (mostly) negative noise, became an important legal instrument, as discussed by Richard Barton in “Making a Clamor to the Lord: Noise, Justice and Power in Eleventh- and Twelfth-Century France.”  But in general, we tend to assume medieval noise is negative, or marks its producer as other.

Noises in Exodus

The Old English Exodus, found in the c. 1000 manuscript known as Bodleian MS Junius 11, is a notoriously difficult and complex poetic adaptation of the Old Testament Exodus 12-14. The author and date of composition are unknown, though it is often considered quite early, perhaps as early as the eighth century as Paul Remley and Lucas argue. Few institutions were rich enough to own a complete Bible. The author of Exodus may have had access to a written Latin version of Exodus, or may have been exposed to the text via the liturgy, especially the liturgy of the Easter Vigil.

ELS2006.3.41

The Junius Manuscript, Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS. Junius 11, pp. 84-5

Exodus delights in sensory details, but until recently, I had always thought of Exodus as primarily visual – the gleaming of war-gear, the glittering of Egyptian spoils washed up on the shore, tents and a pillar of cloud to protect the Israelites from the desert sun, and a pillar of fire to guide them. But the poet is also attentive to the larger sensory world, including the world of sound and noise.  Those who accept the poet’s opening challenge to his audience (“Gehyre se ðe wille!” [Let him hear who will!]) will recognize that the poem is in fact filled with sounds – the battle trumpets that provide order and structure to the movements of the army, the rushing and later silencing of waters, the terrible evening songs of wolves eager for battle, the awful rasping of the blade Abraham draws to sacrifice Isaac in the poem’s digression on the patriarchs, the triumphant songs produced by Israelite men and women in praise of God after the Egyptians are defeated. In what follows, I focus on the multiple deployments of a single word for noise (cirm), applied to both Israelites and Egyptians, asking what this word can reveal about Anglo-Saxon conceptions of noise.

It has often been remarked that the poet resists easy distinctions between Israelites and Egyptians, applying similar vocabulary to both, and this is certainly illustrated by the poet’s sonic play. In a climactic scene near the end of the poem, the drowning of the Egyptians in the Red Sea is accompanied by horrible noises:

Storm up gewat

heah to heofonum,     herewopa mæst;

laðe cyrmdon     (lyft up geswearc)

fægum stæfnum.     Flod blod gewod:

randbyrig wæron rofene,     rodor swipode

meredeaða mæst.     Modige swulton,

cyningas on corðre.     Cyrm swiðrode

wæges æt ende;     wigbord scinon.

[A storm went up high to the heavens, the greatest of cries of the army; the hostile ones cried out with doomed voices (the air grew dark above). Blood pervaded the water: ramparts were broken, the greatest of sea-deaths lashed the sky. The brave ones died, kings in a troop. The noise fell silent at the end of the water; battle-boards shone. (460b-467; emphasis added)]

ms_junius_11_p66

The Junius Manuscript, Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS. Junius 11, p. 66.

Cirm occurs twice in this passage, first as a verb (cyrmdon) and then as a noun (cyrm). The manuscript reading in 466b is cyre (choice). Lucas emends to cyrm because cyre is not a poetic word, and I would argue that the echo with the Israelites’ cyrm (107) must be deliberate. Even if we accept MS cyre, the passage still includes the verb cyrmdon (462a), and other sonic vocabulary (herewopa, “army’s cries” [461], and fægnum stefnum, “doomed voices” [463]). The noun occurs roughly 60 times in the corpus; the verb 17 times (DOE).

In the Old English corpus, cirm is often negative, applied to the tortures of hell or the terror of Judgment Day, and indicates a particularly loud sound (DOE, Lucas). According to the DOE, the noun means “shout, cry, shriek” or “noise of non-human origin, clamour.” The Egyptian cirm is obviously threatening, the meaningless cries of men who, like a raging storm, lash out in terror as the waters close over their heads. Even the visual horror of blood mingling with water maintains sonic affiliations: this line is a rare example of internal rhyme in Old English poetry (flod blod gewod). The end of the Egyptian threat is marked by the silencing of their voices and cirm, metaphorically a silencing of the army’s advance against the Israelites.

Given the negative associations with noise in both medieval and modern sound theory, that the Egyptian defeat is accompanied by their terrible cirm may not seem particularly surprising. Strikingly, this is not the only such noise in the poem. Near the beginning of the poem, the Israelites celebrate their initial escape from Egypt by producing not just any noise, but cirm. On the third day, after the pillar of cloud has appeared, the Israelites awaken with trumpets, and seeing the pillar,

Folc wæs on salum,

hlud herges cyrm.

[The people were joyful, loud was the noise of the army. (106b-107a; emphasis added)]

If cirm is threatening, loud noise, associated with difference and violence, why would the Israelites produce it?  I would like to suggest that cirm suggests not merely loud noise, but crowd noise. The Israelites’ cirm is not an assertion of difference, or the meaningless babble of a drowning, almost non-human army, but an assertion of triumphant plenitude. Their joyful cirm is a fulfillment of God’s covenant with Abraham, which the poet will remind us of later in the poem (435-442). Just as God promised Abraham innumerable offspring, his support of the Israelites in their exodus signals that they will continue to be a multitude (as they certainly are in this battle, in which they have 600,000 fighting men (224-233).

Caedmon-p81

The Junius Manuscript, Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS. Junius 11, p. 81.

In fact, the Israelites’ triumphant crowd noise is echoed at the end of the poem as well.  After the defeat of the Egyptians, who make terrible cirm as they perish in the Red Sea (460b-467), the Israelites issue more celebratory sound, this time transformed from crowd noise to harmonious music:

Æfter þam wordum –    werod wæs on salum

sungon sigebyman     (segnas stodon),

fægerne sweg

[After these words – the troop was joyful – victorious trumpets sang a beautiful sound (battle-standards stood). (565-67a; emphasis added)]

The Israelites’ cirm (107), which they produced while on salum (joyful), is balanced and echoed by the celebratory sounds of the end of the poem, also produced by a people who are on salum (565). Whatever threat the Israelites’ assertion of plenitude and cirm may have made possible is mitigated by replacing that cirm (noise) with a beautiful sound (fægerne sweg), a harmonious, if also loud and multiple, expression.

According to Attali, music can be used to produce order, but “noise is violence: it disturbs. To make noise is to interrupt a transmission, to disconnect, to kill. It is a simulacrum of murder” (26). In this sense, the Israelites’ crowd noise in the desert is violent – it threatens the order of the Egyptians, or the hierarchy the Egyptians have sought to impose on the Israelites in their captivity. But because this story ends in the triumph of the Israelites, told from the point of view of their Christian descendants, it celebrates this assertion of communal power and communal violence without fully othering them. The true violence is inflicted on the Egyptians by God in the Red Sea, allowing the Israelites to reassert their normativity, their cohesion, their power, and their non-otherness. While the drowning Egyptians produce cirm, it is silenced because the cirm of the Israelites has conquered them. Noise, or at least cirm, is therefore not merely negative or disruptive; it is a powerful claim to be blessed by God, an assertion of belonging rather than a boundary crossing.

Featured Image:Detail of a miniature of the plague of hail (Exodus 9:22-25), Add MS 15277, f. 7r 

Jordan Zweck is an assistant professor in the Department of English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She specializes in early medieval vernacular literature and culture, especially Old English, and is interested in documentary culture, media studies, and sound studies. She is currently completing a book on Anglo-Saxon epistolarity and early English media, examining the representation of letters in vernacular texts such as letters from heaven, hagiography, and poetry. She is also working on a second book on sound, noise, and silence in Anglo-Saxon England, a portion of which is forthcoming in Exemplaria. Zweck is a recipient of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Center for the Humanities’ First Book Award, has held a resident fellowship at the Institute for Research in the Humanities at UW-Madison, and has won several teaching awards.

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A Medieval Music Box: the Cantigas de Santa María as Sound Technology in the Age of Alfonso X

Medieval SoundEach 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

At a first glance, one might think the sounds of the Middles Ages unrecoverable from the fragmented yet abundant ruins of the past. The voices, noises, melodies seem lost to the present, casting the efforts to reconstruct matters of medieval sound as speculation. However, medieval peoples actually preserved copious traces of their efforts to produce the thing closest to contemporary sound recordings: comments, writings, treatises, music notation, verbal descriptions, music instruments and even architectural design in the name of sound. Testaments of such efforts– forgotten amplifiers resisting time’s erasure–appear in the form of one of the greatest and revolutionary accomplishments of the ten centuries comprising the Middle Ages: the development of the codex. Coupled with the meticulous treatment of writing, the codex ushered in a number of innovations slowly introduced in matters of script, binding, development of materials, the re-thinking of the function and design of the library, and others. During this expansive time, the topic of memory was linked to writing and its repositories as supportive instruments in an active way (Carruthers). Key to our discussion here, these developments greatly assisted melody, rhythm, the production of music in general, particularly through the slow creation of the written devices and symbols that eventually turned into music notation.

Alfonso X, King of Castile in the 13th century, set to participate in the stream of cultural reflections and productions about music and sound in the Middle Ages. One of his main works, the Cantigas de Santa María (sourced from here and here), is an awe-inspiring cultural monument, not only for its representation of monarchical values in Castile, but because it provides evidence of all of the efforts toward the careful attention to writing and music, and their links to matters of religious devotion. Among the topics carefully interwoven in the visual, written and musical registers of the Cantigas is a depiction of the culture of the kingdom of Castile and the Iberian Peninsula in the 13th century. Alfonso’s representations of Christians, Jews and Moors as part of the population affected by the presence and constant intervention of the Virgin sets his codices apart as unique examples of what some critics have proposed to see as the world of convivencia, a form of social organization in which collaboration and tolerance between peoples belonging to different cultural frames took place (Américo Castro).

A depiction of Alfonso's scriptorium.

A depiction of Alfonso’s scriptorium.

The Cantigas de Santa María is better defined as the cluster of four extant manuscripts, written in Galician-Portuguese, that display similar functions, design, topics, and organization (Fernández). As a whole, the Cantigas is the concerted effort to produce a body of materials for devotion to the Virgin Mary on behalf of King Alfonso, a multimedia, multidimensional, and a discursively multivalent groups of codices or manuscripts each organized in what John E. Keller calls the threefold method: lyrics/poetry, miniatures, and music notation. Of the extant codices, the Codex that is best known for being the most finished—as well as for the richness of the work of miniatures—is the Codex Rico, the basic codex from which I use examples in this article.

While there are plenty of critical comments and approaches to the Cantigas in terms of its poetic composition and content, as well as its miniatures or illustrations, the most puzzling element of its study remains its “sound.” There have been several efforts to analyze the music notation and tradition in the Cantigas from different viewpoints. Julián Ribera and Higinio Anglés, for example, attempted to produce a transcription of its music notation. Others, such as Hendrik van der Werf, made great efforts to analyze the particularities of the music notation and the interpretation of rhythm. However, musicologists maintain that we still need better working tools to interpret the music with full consideration of the information in the codices, as well as the points of contact and variations of music and lyrics from one of the codices to the other (Ferreira). As we work toward coordinating such a project, we still have several elements to work with to hear and interpret sound in the Cantigas.

To listen to the Cantigas, the reader/spectator/listener can begin by addressing the codices’ composition and construction. The texts not only offer a vast repertory of songs with music notation, but they also make use of miniatures to comment on the topics of sound and music. The codices are self-reflexive, which means that they make constant reference to their own construction and production. In this way, the texts challenge the reader/spectator/listener to consider the multiple layers of construction and meaning. For example, consider the definitions and views of sound and music exposed by the Cantigas. Here, the word “cantiga” is usually understood as either a song or short poem set to music, mostly about love, following the vocabulary of medieval courtly tradition (Parkinson). By the 12th century, the kingdoms to the north of the Iberian Peninsula had developed a lyrical form associated with courtly tradition known as the Cantigas d’amigo, written in Galician Portuguese, and linked to the troubadour tradition. The Cantigas appear to follow this tradition directly, suggesting the title references the form as well as the content of its lyrics. Therefore, the title Cantigas refers to the poetical conventions structuring the expression of devotion to a lady—most of the poems follow a particular structure of stanzas followed by a refrain—and it also signals the sound of such devotion.

A codex. Image borrowed from e-codices @Flickr CC BY-NC.

A codex. Image borrowed from e-codices @Flickr CC BY-NC.

So how to describe the sound of the cantigas? What would the medieval reader/spectator of the codex understand just by looking at the music notation, poetic structures, illustrations and miracles about the role of sound, music, and voice as well?

For one thing, the miracles, miniatures or illustrations—as well as the music notation from one cantiga to the other—supply an excess of information. The codices present Jewish characters, heavy hints of the influence of Hispanic-Arabic poetic and music traditions (such as “rhythmic patterns from the muwashshah,” according to Manuel Pedro Ferreira, miracles from the Provençal tradition, Galician-Portuguese poetic structures and music, troubadour topics, the identification of melodies from secular traditions, profane music, and religious motifs. All of these together suggest that the reader/spectator/listener of the cantigas would have been expected to know at least a little of each of these elements.

The contemporary identification of these layers of information has led Cantigas scholars to hypothesize on the possible performance of its music. Research shows agreement on the folowing: the expression of clear melodic lines; the use of mensural notation (the system for European vocal polyphonic music used from the later part of the 13th century until about 1600); the interpretation of rhythm depending on the poetic structure and melodies of each poem; the use of melismas—runs of notes made from one syllable—and their function in performance; and the impossibility of interpreting the use of pitch. This last feature renders any attempt to reconstruct and perform the full range of the codices’ music virtually impossible. Any contemporary performance works as an exercise of imagination, an active effort to fill in the blanks of what may be described as an ambitious and extensive archive of and about music in the Iberian Peninsula of the 13th century.

Cantiga 8.

Cantiga 8.

In the meantime, prospective listeners of the Cantigas’ music may still reflect on how it comments and represents the function of music and sound: from love and religious devotion, to entertainment, spiritual transformation. Its authors represent music as both skill and gift. Furthermore, as the following brief and striking examples show, many other sounds are encoded in the texts: voices, screams, streams, demands, prayer and cries. Cantiga 8 is about a Minstrel from Rocamadour who dedicates his songs to a statue of the Virgin Mary (fols. 15r-15v). He prays to her that she may give him a candle from the church. The Virgin is so pleased with his dedication that she makes a candle to rest on his “viola” (fiddle). A monk, unbelieving of the miracle, takes the candle away and accuses the minstrel of using magic. The miracle takes place for a second time, causing the monk to repent and join the minstrel and others in devotion. This may seem like a simple story of the values of faith communities, however the Cantigas underscores the role sound plays in devotion, through the minstrel’s voice and performance with his music instrument:

“que mui ben cantar sabía / e mui mellor vïolar ( fol. 15r, line 10).

(“…as he knew how to sing very well / and to fiddle even better”)

Moreover, the disbelieving monk is described as having understood his error as “aqueste miragre viu” (by “seeing” this miracle) and “entendeu que muit errara,” which may be translated as “understanding that he was in error.” However, in Portuguese, the verb “entender” (to understand) is also associated with the notion of understanding through auditory perception.

Cantiga 89.

Cantiga 89.

Another example of the role of sound in Alfonso’s project is found in Cantiga 89 (fols. 130r-131r). This cantiga is about a Jewish woman who experiences a difficult childbirth. In the middle of the delivery of her baby, she hears a voice asking her to pray to the Virgin. As she moans and cries, she finds the strength to pray aloud to request the Virgin’s help. The poem stresses the quality of the sound of the laboring woman in the description of her suffering:

“Ela assi jazendo / que era mais morta ca viva / braadand’e gemendo/ echamando / sse mui cativa, / con tan gran door esquiva” (fol. 130v, lines 20-25).

(As she lay in this condition/ for she was more dead than alive / screaming and moaning / calling herself unfortunate / with great pain).

The Virgin helps the Jewish woman, who decides to convert to Christianity at the end of the cantiga. The text underscores the role of voice in both the spiritual intervention of the Virgin, but also in the human experience of pain and prayer.

Lastly, Cantiga 103, is about a monk who listened to a bird’s song for three hundred years (fols. 147v-148v). The monk asks the Virgin to let him glimpse paradise before dying. After hearing his prayer, however, the Virgin grants him not a view of paradise, but the sensation of its sounds:

“Tan toste que acababa ouv’o o mong’ a oraçon, / oyu ha passarinna cantar log’ en tan bon son, / que sse escaeceu seendo e catando sempr/ alá” ( fol. 148r, lines 23-25).

(“As soon as he finished his prayer / he heard a small bird sing with such a nice song / that he forgot about everything else remaining in the place forever”)

Three hundred years pass, and suddenly the monk remembers to return to his monastery. He finds everything there transformed. After telling his story, everyone shares the wonder of the miracle praising the Virgin. This text suggests a different appreciation of “paradise” not through the notion of “vision” but through aurality, the description of the spiritual well being as a sonic experience.

Cantiga 103.

Cantiga 103.

This small sampling from cantigas underscores the value of voice, noise, and music as part of human experience, as central in the experience of religious devotion, and as transformative for the communities represented in the codices. King Alfonso strove to create a library containing all the knowledge available to his world. Additionally, he strove to participate actively in—and innovate—contemporary forms of knowledge production. In many ways, the Cantigas, function as a music box, its folios documenting multiple forms of sonic information, making available the experiences, values, soundscapes, and medieval ways of hearing/listening, or the aurality of the Middle Ages.

Featured image “girl laugh #10” by danor sutrazman @Flickr CC BY.

Marla Pagán-Mattos earned her doctorate in Comparative Literature and Literary Theory at the University of Pennsylvania. Her research interests include medieval literature, Iberian medieval history and literature, literary theory, and sound culture. She has taught at the University of Pennsylvania, Haverford College, and is currently teaching in the Department of Comparative Literature at the University of Puerto Rico.

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