The family in A Quiet Place (2018) lives a life marked by incessant trauma. Invisible to the hunters who are far more powerful than they are, the family remains safe from direct assault as long as they remain unheard by the hunters, who can’t see them. But that same invisibility means the everyday mundanities of life become a constant struggle marked by the terror of the horrific death that will claim them should they make an errant sound. A trip to the pharmacy could prove fatal; a hungry child could summon the hunters and put in danger the entire family. When sketched out in these broad strokes, A Quiet Place, as Kathryn Adams Burton pointed out to me when we left the theater, summons terror from its viewers by depicting the kind of institutional surveillance and violence that endanger Black lives in the US, without one person of color in the entire movie. Thinking with Simone Browne’s Dark Matters (2015), Jennifer Stoever’s The Sonic Color Line (2016), and Jared Sexton’s Amalgamation Schemes (2008), I argue here that A Quiet Place places white characters in a non-white relationship with surveillance, which they overcome in a way that projects white ingenuity and strength and reinforces the centuries-old notion that those who live under the eye and ear of hyper-surveillance tactics do so because they deserve to and because they are not exceptional enough to evade those tactics.
The Quiet family’s invisibility is literal: the creatures who hunt them have no sense equivalent to human vision and instead track their prey using hyper-developed listening abilities. They remain vigilant for the audible traces of their victims; sound is the thing that can put the family in trouble. Simone Browne highlights in Dark Matters the significance of visibility and invisibility in the history of antiblack surveillance in the US. Lantern laws in 18th century New York City stipulated that enslaved black and indigenous people must carry a lit lantern if they were in the streets after dark, a regulation that Browne understands as an act of “racializing surveillance,” a “form of knowledge production about the black, indigenous, and mixed-race subject” (79). Specifically, the knowledge created through the lantern laws marked bodies of color as “un-visible,” in need of illumination in order to be properly seen. And here “seen” slips into a couple of different meanings, encompassing not only the ocular but also the notion of “seeing” that connotes understanding and discernment.
The early technology of lantern surveillance, as well as the boundaries delineated by sundown towns, marked black, indigenous, and mixed-race bodies as untrustworthy, scheming, and therefore in need of ongoing surveillance that would make these bodies visible to the eye. At the heart of Dark Matters is Browne’s contention that the history and techniques of surveillance cannot be understood separate from their racializing work: “surveillance…is the fact of antiblackness” (10). So while the Quiet family is white, their relationship to the powerful beings that hunt them–an existence unseeable and unknowable apart from heightened measures of surveillance–appropriates signifiers of racialized surveillance in order to heighten the stakes of the movie’s characters.
While Browne focuses primarily on acts of looking as mechanisms for violently enforcing the color line in Dark Matters, Jennifer Stoever traces the history of that same color line through listening practices. Stoever isn’t explicitly engaging surveillance studies the way Browne is, but her theorization of the “listening ear”–the social and political norms that shape how we hear race–includes surveillance acts that, like lantern laws, mark voices perceived to be non-white as always already ready to be monitored, bounded, and eliminated should they exceed their boundaries (13). For both Browne and Stoever, the act of surveilling uncovers a racializing sleight of hand: non-Whiteness is held up as that which stands out, though this racialization is proven backwards if we look and listen a bit closer. US looking and listening norms condition people to organize blackness and brownness and noise as aberrations against natural, invisible, inaudible whiteness, but it takes a good deal of white supremacist work to create this illusion (by “white supremacy,” I mean the social and political practices and institutions that reify and reward whiteness). Looking through brighter lights and sharper camera lenses at non-White subjects and listening through amplification devices and ubiquitous bugs to non-White subjects are both ways of drawing attention away from whiteness–the racialized construct that fuels US social, legal, and political praxis–and toward non-whiteness.
Stoever opens The Sonic Color Line by considering the violence visited upon Jordan Davis, Sandra Bland, and a Spring Valley High School student when each was considered too loud and unruly by white listening ears trained to surveil blackness. The Quiet family is listened to in the same way Davis, Bland, and the Spring Valley student were, in the same way non-whiteness has been surveilled in the US: with dire consequences for being too loud. But, by erasing black and brown bodies and histories from the screen, A Quiet Place divorces these surveillance tactics from their real-world context, where they work as tools of white supremacist systems to “fix and frame blackness as an object of surveillance” (Browne 7). Part of the fantasy of A Quiet Place involves “fixing and framing” whiteness as the objects of sonic surveillance practices that have historically worked to preserve and reward whiteness, not target it.
While the Quiet family is subjected to antiblack surveillance techniques, they are otherwise marked as white–and not just based on what their skin color looks like. Farmers in a rural, hilly region of Upstate New York, the Quiet family navigates the apocalypse with a libertarian aplomb. They’re stocked and loaded when the government fails to protect its citizens, and they’re also aware of but not in collaboration with other survivors in the surrounding area. Operating outside the bustle of urban noise, which Stoever notes is marked as non-White by the listening ear, the Quiet family likely boasts generations of working class whites who benefited from the kind of social safety nets built by the New Deal, only to mistake the wealth those social programs built to be fully the fruits of their own hard work.
The independence and autonomy that the Quiet family demonstrates is not on its own a marker of whiteness, but the kind of wealth accumulation that makes non-collaborative survival possible is the kind that’s historically been more readily available to white folks in the US. It’s a history that is flattened, as is the history of the surveillance that shapes their lives. Their wealth simply exists, and viewers aren’t meant to wonder where it came from or at whose expense. Likewise, viewers learn very little about what the hunters are, where they came from, and why they’re here. The hunters just appear, terrifying sonic surveillers who carry signifiers of antiblack listening practices but who remain detached from the antiblack history of surveillance.
The racialized terror at the heart of A Quiet Place grows from the fear of being denied one’s whiteness, being subjected to the same controlling surveillance measures that have helped maintain the color line for centuries in the US. It’s a standard white sci-fi nightmare scenario where technologies spin out of control and subjugate all of humanity, white people included. It’s also a white exceptionalist fantasy, where whiteness–not just white people but the wealth and freedom created for white people by white supremacist systems–conquers the unconquerable. Jared Sexton’s Amalgamation Schemes can prove helpful here, as he outlines the way racial ideology has shifted in recent decades to permit multiculturalism so long as it preserves whiteness. While systems like slavery and segregation were buttressed by explicit white supremacy, where whiteness = good and non-whiteness = bad, contemporary racial hierarchies are maintained by conceding that multiculturalism = virtuous and race-based solidarity = problematic. Here, white supremacy cloaks itself in diversity, hybridity, mixedness and points to any group that coheres around racial identity as regressive.
Flattening history is crucial to that ideological shift. In order to maintain a racial hierarchy that tips in favor of whiteness, past violence and kleptocratic seizures of money, resources, and lives must be removed from the equation so that the kind of multiculturalism that Sexton critiques can proceed as if all who participate do so on a level playing field. Whiteness becomes “something equivalent to the…ethnicities and cultures of nonwhite immigrants and American Indians” (Sexton 66). The field, of course, isn’t level when white supremacy has funneled centuries of ill-gotten gains to whiteness, so this kind of multiculturalism is a way of gaming the system, mixing up racial signifiers so that white folks can take on just enough racial signifiers to blend into a racially diverse society without giving up the power and privilege that continues to give them a leg up.
A Quiet Place follows a calculus similar to the multiculturalism Sexton describes. First, the movie extracts emotional responses of terror and dread through a mixture of racial signifiers, subjecting white characters to forms of surveillance rooted in antiblackness. With no historical context to explain the forms of surveillance the hunters use or the characters’ previous relationships to surveillance, the Quiet family’s whiteness becomes just another ethnicity, a flattened way of being in the world divorced from the white supremacist context that funnels resources their way. Their privilege and power become as invisible to viewers as they are to the hunters. By masking that privilege, A Quiet Place clears space for a fantasy world where the white heroes have survived by virtue of being simply more clever, more resourceful, more brave, more everything than all the black and brown people who have, by implication of their absence from the film, been killed off by the hunters.
A Quiet Place, then, takes a family of multiculturally white characters and positions them in roles white characters have become accustomed to occupying: that of world saviors–some of them even martyrs. Here, hyper-surveillance is simply a fact of life, and those who are able to live life free of the dire consequences of that hyper-surveillance are able to do so because they are exceptional. By this logic, what protects you from the police is either your innocence or your guile, not your whiteness. What guarantees your safety when you publicly challenge government policies is the righteousness of your cause, not your whiteness. What allows you to move in the dark without a lantern or to listen to your music loudly in public spaces without being shot or to cross borders without fear is your inherent virtue, not your whiteness. And when surveillance is positioned as a fact of life, and when those who avoid the crushing consequences of surveillance are understood to do so because they are virtuously exceptional, then those who are targeted, hunted, and killed using hyper-surveillance tactics are understood to be deserving of their fate because they are not virtuous or exceptional enough to avoid it. This is the logic that frames slavery as a choice, that cages children at the border, that influences and fixes elections across the globe but takes umbrage when subjected to the same tactics.
One terrible irony of a movie like A Quiet Place is that its flattened hyper-surveillance context makes it incapable of seeing and hearing the deep and rich history of black and brown evasion of hyper-surveillance. There’s an ingenuity coursing through activities of evading surveillance–“looking back,” marronage, and fugitivity chronicled by writers including Sylvia Wynter, Franz Fanon, Katherine McKittrick, and Simone Browne, among others–an ingenuity that evades hyper-surveillance and simultaneously exposes hyper-surveillance as antiblack while arguing against the notion that it is simply a fact of life and signalling avenues to freedom. Instead of those stories, though, the white Quiet family whispers to us a familiarly unsettling refrain: the white Quiet family, alone, can eradicate these terrors. The white Quiet family, alone, can fix this. The white Quiet family, alone, are exceptional.
Featured image, and all images in this post are screenshots from “A Quiet Place ALL TRAILERS – Emily Blunt & John Krasinski 2018 Horror Movie” by Youtube user Flicks And The City Clips.
Justin Adams Burton is Assistant Professor of Music at Rider University. His research revolves around critical race and gender theory in hip hop and pop, and his book, Posthuman Rap, is available now. He is also co-editing the forthcoming (2018) Oxford Handbook of Hip Hop Music Studies. You can catch him at justindburton.com and on Twitter @j_adams_burton. His favorite rapper is one or two of the Fat Boys.
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Recently, in a Harvard graduate seminar with visiting composer-scholar George Lewis, the eminent professor asked me pointedly if I considered myself a “sound artist.” Finding myself put on the spot in a room mostly populated with white male colleagues who were New Music composers, I paused and wondered whether I had the right to identify that way. Despite having exploded many conventions through my precarious membership in New York’s improvised/creative music scene, and through my shift from identifying as a “mrudangam artist” to calling myself an “improviser,” and even, begrudgingly, a “composer” — somehow “sound artist” seemed a bit far-fetched. As I sat in the seminar, buckling under the pressure of how my colleagues probably defined sound art, Prof. Lewis gently urged me to ask: How would it change things if I did call myself a sound artist? Rather than imposing the limitations of sound art as a genre, he was inviting me to reframe my existing aesthetic intentions, assumptions, and practices by focusing on sound.
Sound art and its offshoots have their own unspoken codes and politics of membership, which is partly what Prof. Lewis was trying to expose in that teaching moment. However, for now I’ll leave aside these pragmatic obstacles — while remaining keenly aware that the question of who gets to be a sound artist is not too distant from the question of who gets to be an artist, and what counts as art. For my own analytic and creative curiosity, I would like to strip sound art down to its fundamentals: an offering of resonance or vibration, in the context of a community that might find something familiar, of aesthetic value, or socially cohesive, in the gestures and sonorities presented.
I have spent most of my musical life wondering how the sounds I produce intersect with specific vectors of social belonging. The sounds emanating from my primary instrument — the mrudangam, a South Indian drum — are situated within a complex lattice of social difference, resonating within and across communities as disparate as the predominantly privileged-caste audiences of Chennai’s elite Karnatik sabha-s and the cosmopolitan connoisseurs who show up to find a home in New York City’s myriad intercultural and experimental music spaces. The sounds I produce are also inflected by the multivalent referentiality of my own socially situated body — as a queer, privileged-caste, Indian-American woman — simultaneously slicing through and answering to sonic environments organized around particular notions of rigor, virtuosity, and beauty.
For me, what began as a creative path rooted in the mimesis of an artistic lineage eventually settled in a versatile expressive voice, shaped by a decade of aesthetic (and ethical) nomadism. From my vantage point as a female percussionist in the South Asian diaspora, I have always been aware of the cracks in the veneer of tradition and other normative structures, and perhaps this fueled my musical vagrancy. Over time, my sound has accumulated the resonances of Karnatik music, ‘jazz’ drumming, bharatanatyam footwork, and Afro-Cuban rhythms, among others.
Certainly, this convergence of sonic layers is mediated by the rich specificity of interpersonal relationships and positionalities within larger networks. Power and positionality mediate the shape, audibility, and versatility of sounds as they become coupled with the implied (or actual) encounter of socially situated bodies. Yet, sounds somehow continue to exist in excess of the mechanisms and bodies that attempt to explain, produce, and contain them: idiom, tradition, space, culture, nation, race, gender, and sexuality. Therein lies their potency and mystery, and I intend to briefly explore the sensation of sonic excess in the hopes of honing a more sensitive analytic and creative perspective.
I am yet to become comfortable thinking in terms of sound, due to the longtime privileging of structure and technique in my musical upbringing. However, this is beginning to unravel as I am forced to deal with sound, particularly the sound of what Patrice Pavis and Jason Stanyek have called the “intercorporeal” aspect of intercultural performance. The predominantly improvised sounds that resonate through my mrudangam often emerge on the edge of my dynamic embodied consciousness, arranging themselves chaotically in real-time, interacting with others’ emergent soundings and sensory yearnings. Some of it may be mediated by parallel perceptual and idiomatic forms, but achieving a core interactive flow involves a fundamental immersion in sound.
Mat Maneri, feat. Rajna and Anjna Swaminathan
Tongues Series, curated by Amirtha Kidambi
ISSUE Project Room — June 18, 2016
For instance, take this impromptu piece presented by violist Mat Maneri, violinist Anjna Swaminathan (my sister), and me in 2016. It took place in the wonderfully resonant vaulted space of ISSUE Project Room, in front of an unsuspecting audience that had convened to hear the back-to-back juxtaposition of two improvisational “tongues” — a set of Maneri’s rich microtonal experiments, followed by a Karnatik concert of voice, violin, and mrudangam. However, this impromptu ludic exchange of sonic offerings — particularly Maneri’s incredible, chameleon-like ability to confound the sounds of Karnatik ornamentations with his own microtonal reflections — guided attention away from comparison and toward the sounds as they bounced eerily around the resonant architecture. Faced with the technically daunting Karnatik repertoire that Anjna and I were to play subsequently with vocalist Ashvin Bhogendra, the echoes of our interstitial collaboration allowed us to reorient ourselves and breathe a little easier.
From an analytic perspective, it is irresponsible to distill these sounds, to capture and conceptualize them as distinct from the bodies, histories, and discourses that participate in their co-creation and interpretation. Yet, riddled as they are with generations of power asymmetries and complex emotions, it is clear that these resonances have a secret life of their own. As musicians, we are not often given the opportunity to explore these clandestine, almost Baudelairean, correspondences, except perhaps when we discover them by accident. For instance, sonic ambiguities like those spun during the trio encounter play on sonic excess to spur new ways of listening and relating, with a direct ethical impact on the ensuing music.
John Blacking’s definition of all music as “humanly organized sound” is perhaps an early articulation of this idea, although the word ‘organized’ contains a bias toward formal structure and stability. To be sure, organizing principles always exist at the local level of socially situated perception and expression, which Nina Sun Eidsheim calls the ‘figure of sound.’ However, the kind of sound art I’m proposing revels in excess, or as Eidsheim puts it — “not only aurality, but also tactile, spatial, physical, material, and vibrational sensations [that] are at the core of all music” (5). We can even turn to how Jacques Attali poetically describes composition — as “a labor on sounds, without a grammar, without a directing thought, a pretext for festival, in search of thoughts,” a practice wherein “rhythms and sounds are the supreme mode of relation between bodies once the screens of the symbolic, usage and exchange are shattered,” one that neither marks nor produces the body, but allows for “taking pleasure in it” (143). By focusing on the multi-sensory, pleasurable valences of sound, and on the ways in which sonic excess allows for new patterns of coexistence, we can outline a ‘sound art’ practice and analytic that aren’t circumscribed by Western institutional definitions and technological/perceptual biases.
Thinking in this way about sound and vibration helps to eradicate the mind-body problem that continues to plague certain areas of music studies and music making. Sound forms an elusive common denominator that doesn’t rely heavily on colonial taxonomies of form or hierarchical theories of art. It even accounts for the subversive or incommensurable resonances that tend to emerge at the unstable threshold between so-called ‘producers’ and ‘receivers’ of music. After all, sound is in the ear of the beholder, and social asymmetries are embedded in the way we hear and listen. Through the notion of vibration, we are further attuned to the visceral space in which it reverberates, and the ways in which its echoes live on in the bodies of those who experience it.
Finally, there is the other definition of sound in English, which indicates a level of trust and holism. Taking this path to becoming ‘sound artist’ focuses attention on the artist. I don’t intend to focus on the ‘chops’ conventional to a field of aesthetic practice. Rather, I am interested in the more obscure meaning: a ‘sound artist’ as one that ethically occupies space as an artist.
How might this emerging sound art, as analytic and creative practice, work to interrogate the very ethics and politics of art, while succumbing to the contingency and volatile excess of sound? I don’t claim to hold the answers, but if we are in any way sounding out against the grain of dominant modalities, then at some level we must attend seriously to sound: in its excess, as it overwhelms bodies and spaces, and as it stretches the realm of the known.
Featured Image: “The great Rajna Swaminathan,” from Teju Cole tweet, 5 October 2013.
Rajna Swaminathan is an accomplished mrudangam (South Indian percussion) artist, a protégé of mrudangam legend Umayalpuram K. Sivaraman. She has performed with several renowned Indian classical musicians, most notably mentor and vocalist T.M. Krishna. Since 2011, she has been studying and collaborating with eminent musicians in New York’s jazz and creative music scene, including Vijay Iyer, Steve Coleman, Miles Okazaki, and Amir ElSaffar. Since 2013, Swaminathan has led the ensemble RAJAS, which explores new textural and improvisational horizons at the nexus of multiple musical perspectives. Swaminathan is active as a composer-performer for dance and theatre works, most notably touring with the acclaimed company Ragamala Dance and collaborating with playwright/actress Anu Yadav. Swaminathan holds degrees in anthropology and French from the University of Maryland, College Park, and is currently pursuing a PhD in cross-disciplinary music studies at Harvard University.
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On March 10th 2017, The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and Indigenous grassroots leaders called upon allies across the United States and around the world to peacefully March on Washington DC. The March on Washington was to exist, resist, and rise in solidarity with the Indigenous peoples of the world whose rights protect mother earth for the future generations of all. The March on Washington was a reaction to the United States government’s unwillingness to be accountable for the construction recent Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) on the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s land. This and other subsequent events such as the election of a new administration, increasing threats to native land, and violence of the police have galvanized indigenous communities in the last four months. Thousands have taken to the streets and to rural sites of political occupation.
Join Marcella Ernest as she discusses the sounds of these protests with Nancy Mithlo. They discuss the noises made by the minds, bodies, and songs of those who have taken to public spaces to confront and object to the current political moment. Understanding the sonic elements of protest helps us to better understand how protest is heard and felt.
Marcella Ernest is a Native American (Ojibwe) interdisciplinary video artist and scholar. Her work combines electronic media with sound design with film and photography in a variety of formats; using multi-media installations incorporating large-scale projections and experimental film aesthetics. Currently living in California, Marcella is completing an interdisciplinary Ph.D. in American Studies at the University of New Mexico. Drawing upon a Critical Indigenous Studies framework to explore how “Indianness” and Indigenity are represented in studies of American and Indigenous visual and popular culture, her primary research is an engagement with contemporary Native art to understand how members of colonized groups use a re-mix of experimental video and sound design as a means for cultural and political expressions of resistance.
Nancy Mithlo teaches in the Art History and Visual Arts department at Occidental as an Associate Professor while also working at the Autry in program development, exhibition planning and community outreach. She comes to Occidental from the University of Wisconsin at Madison, where she was an Associate Professor of Art History and American Indian studies. Prior to joining the Wisconsin faculty in 2001, Mithlo taught at Smith College, Santa Fe Community College, the University of New Mexico and the Institute of American Arts.
Featured image “Hey Wells Fargo – No DAPL! Rally” by Joe Piette @Flickr CC BY-NC.
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Sounding Out! Podcast #47: Finding the Lost Sounds of Kaibah — Marcella Ernest
Sounding Out! Podcast #51: Creating New Worlds From Old Sounds – Marcella Ernest
Sounding Out! Podcast #58: The Meaning of Silence – Marcella Ernest
Each of the essays in our “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.
Read all the previous posts here, and, HEAR YE!, in April 2017, look for a second series on Aural Ecologies of noise! –Guest Editors Dorothy Kim and Christopher Roman
Freed though they have been from the historiographical pit of the Dark Ages, the Middle Ages inevitably slip ever further into the past. Nonetheless, they have never been easier to visit. We have but to open our computers or turn on our televisions to be transported into the past. As any good Sci-fi show will tell you, we must be careful when we travel into the past; we can change things.
The medium on which I wish to focus – videogame – relies precisely upon on this ability to affect change. It takes aspects of filmic medievalism but must also confront an intrinsic interactivity. This interactive capacity may seem to authenticate further the experience of the past by creating a rich and responsive world but it also frees aspects of narrative agency from the control of game designers, composers, and sound engineers. In this article, I will demonstrate some of the ways in which issues of space/place, identity, orientalism/otherness, and the norms of the medium itself can play out. In recomposing the past – be that with a nod to authenticity, within the realms of historical metafiction, or even the imagined (neo-)medievalism of the fantasy genre – videogames create something that sits between the past and present that nonetheless has a profound effect on the public conception of the medieval soundscape. My focus here is on CD Projekt Red’s high-fantasy game The Witcher III: Wild Hunt, addressing not only the musical score but also wider aspects of soundscape such as vocal accent, foley, and manipulation of the aural field.
The genre of fantasy could be described as medievalist in origin and aesthetic, taking clear inspiration from the medieval world and often using it, or a close approximation, as a geographical, historical, and cultural setting. Many of the more fantastical elements of fantasy too are drawn from medieval bestiaries and the genre of the medieval romance. The late Umberto Eco popularised the term neo-medievalism, albeit in a rather pejorative sense and in opposition to ‘responsible philological study’, to describe this interaction between medieval history and the fantastical. Perhaps due to the rather negative associations of neo-medievalism, both terms tend to be used somewhat interchangeably today.
A divide could perhaps be suggested as to whether medieval aspects are presented as unproblematic and nostalgic, or treated in a more critical and distanced manner. For instance, David Marshall defines neo-medievalism as ‘a self-conscious, ahistorical, non-nostalgic imagining or reuse of the historical Middle Ages that selectively appropriates iconic images…to construct a presentist space that disrupts traditional depictions of the medieval.’ In contrast, Kim Selling notes of medievalism that, after the breakdown of modernist historical metanarratives, the pre-modern world of the medieval offers a ‘rich, satisfying, and authentic’ counterpoint to the ‘profound social, spiritual, and political dislocation’ of postmodernism. From this viewpoint, the world of medievalist fantasy offers pure escapism back to a world in which old certainties can be re-asserted; perhaps, as Elkins notes, a reaction against the rationalistic, anti-heroic, materialist, and empiricist bent of modern society.
Regardless of the author’s framing of ‘the medieval’, it offers many narrative advantages. As Kim Selling has noted, in placing an imagined world in a simplified version of the Western European Middle Ages, the fantasy author can make use of narrative shorthands. The world of kings, queens, knights, peasants, dragons, magic, witches, and elves is already known from myth and fairy tale. These aspects require no explanation but rather build upon a tradition of understood western folkloric conventions – conventions that can also imply certain types of social structure.
The Witcher is certainly situated in a simplified medieval Europe (see the similarity between the coasts of Poland and Nilfgaard) and it clearly occupies a world with presentist concerns. More than this, its extreme use of narrative indeterminacy betrays a staunch adherence to postmodern concepts of storytelling and a distinct anti-heroic edge. The player navigates a world of many shades of grey, often choosing the lesser of many evils. They make decisions – which often result in unintended consequences – based on their own morality and desired outcomes. This said, perhaps the question of whether it could be defined as medievalist or neo-medievalist depends on the actions of the player and precisely the kind of narrative they construct.
An early example of unintended consequences and choosing the lesser of many evils
The visual world inhabited by The Witcher certainly relies on appropriating iconic images; the analogue aural world on appropriating iconic sounds, accents, and musical ideas as the player continuously explores regions with distinct identities, social structures, urban/pastoral settings, and religions. The rational, urban, and merchantile world of Oxenfurt (a city famous for its world-class university with a crest clearly based on that of the University of Cambridge and a name that hints at the university town of Oxford’s medieval etymology) and Novigrad are clearly at odds with the rural peasant life of the Velen wastelands or the Celtic imagery of the Skellige isles.
The landscape and soundscape of Oxenfurt
The landscape and soundscape of Novigrad
The landscape and soundscape of Velen (with multiple examples of the ‘combat music’)
The landscape and soundscape of Skellige (with the ‘combat music’ adapted for this area)
Like much medievalist fantasy the tension between rationalism and the fantastical is one of the central elements of dramatic tension. As the great cities of this world grow and the expansionist Nilfgaardian Empire press forward, the pre-modern world of The Witcher shrinks. Allied to the spread of rationalism, we also see the ‘Church of the Eternal Fire’ (an identifiable stand-in for Christianity) seek to eradicate magic, non-human populations, and more identifiably ‘pagan’ religions. The architecture of its buildings invite comparison with European sacred architecture and its witch hunters and inquisitions with particularly regrettable episodes of European history.
The Temple of the Eternal Fire burning people at the stake
Just as the visuals employ iconic imagery to imply certain ideas, the soundscape’s most important function is to provide the aural analogue of this. One aspect is the score. Within this, individual musical stems are layered in response to player actions. As the composer Marcin Przybylowicz noted in a recent interview with the Tech Times ‘[t]he cues (that were interactive) are divided into smaller layers, which come together, in the case of a combat cue, only when we are dealing with a very powerful enemy. If the enemy is small … only the first layer of the piece will play’. These layers are re-orchestrated in each area so as to preserve its aural identity. In a separate interview with IC-Radio.de, Przybylowicz notes:
No Mans (sic.) Land [Velen] is a war ravaged land… It’s also full of slavic references, pagan beliefs etc. …. Then, there’s Novigrad – the biggest city in northern kingdoms. … I decided music in Novigrad should be more civilized – that’s why there are lots of string instruments playing there (dulcimer, bouzouki, guitars, lutes, cimbalom etc.), and overall tone of the music is lighter, [and] reminds [me] a bit music of [the] Renaissance. Finally, [the] Skellige Isles – [a] region with Celtic, Scottish and Norse references, that had to be reflected in music as well. Use of bagpipes, flutes and Scandinavian folk instruments corresponds with that setting. On top of that, I had to think how it would all work together. That’s where our themes come in … We use those themes in every major location …. [and] we reorchestrate them with instruments corresponding to a particular region.
Combat music in Velen and Skellige respectively. Note how both utilise the orchestration of their own respective areas to alter the main theme and how additional layers are added to the music depending on the intensity of the fighting.
In viewing the different medievalisms on offer in this game, a comparison of the three areas mentioned above is instructive. The Skellige isles, an archipelago which looks curiously like Scottish islands, are occupied by inhabitants with Irish accents. As can be heard in the videos above, the clearly Celtic-influenced music of this area supports this association and the relative lack of diegetic music in this area, combined with natural sounds (the sea, wind, storms) combine to give a sense that the music is a part of the geography. Celtic folk music as a shorthand for the Middle Ages is nothing new. Simon Nugent has noted the tendency of many historically-situated films to draw on Celtic influence. His work has shown that the creation of ‘Celtic’ folk has little to do with a discrete geographical area or with historical accuracy but rather is a modern marketing creation that plays on associations with nature and an escape from modernity. This is precisely the case in The Witcher where, rather than utilising a real historical Celtic medieval repertory, it instead draws on aural cues from the popular medievalism of the filmic soundscape tradition, filtered through the need for an indeterminate score. This ‘packaging’ brings with it associations of an ‘authentic’ Celtic folk tradition as a remnant of the ‘true folk tradition’ that once existed for everyday people elsewhere.
We can perhaps see a link to the works of fantasy writers such as Gael Baudino and Patricia Kennealy-Morrison who turn to pagan Celtic sources as an alternative to what they perceive as the medieval Christian degradation of women, as Jane Tolmey has noted. This association between pagan prehistory, matriarchy, and freedom for women seems a common theme in the popular conception of the past, echoed by theorists such as Albert Classen. The fact that Skellige evokes a recognisably ‘Celtic’ soundscape (relying heavily on the Polish Folk band Percival who collaborated on both new works and who took several from a previous album which were then adapted for indeterminate playback) therefore comes with many associations, drawn almost entirely from the filmic soundscape tradition. This is a pre-modern, pagan land; a land with an authentic peasant class: roughhewn but honest. This Celtic imagery and soundscape also offers a counterpoint to the sexual politics of other areas. Women can more easily participate in areas which might otherwise be seen as male-dominated: depending on the actions of the player, a woman may rule Skellige. A matriarchal class of priestesses govern the region’s predominant religion in stark contrast to the male Priests in other areas. The soundscape here is therefore absolutely crucial to the identity of this area. In creating a Celtic sonic identity – equal part music and accent – the game designers have created a rich culture that need only be hinted at to be understood.
By contrast, the urban world of Novigrad and Oxenfurt is far less folk-influenced. Unlike the other areas of the game, it does not draw so heavily on either the pre-existent or newly composed music of Percival, make such explicit use of folk instrumentation, and seems far more closely related to a Renaissance dance music tradition. The urban/pastrol divide is enhanced by the sounds of a busy city compared to the sounds of nature and the frequent cries of the townsfolk give a sense of bustling urban life (this time with accents from the North of England – compare HBO’s Game of Thrones).
Compared to the wind instruments and female vocals of Skellige, percussion and plucked/struck strings predominate. There is indeed more of a Renaissance feel in an area already touched by modernity. Most notably, there is more diegetic music in these two cities. We frequently see and hear small Renaissance dance bands, using period instruments, entertaining crowds (watch from around 3:45 of the above video of Novigrad for an example; note how diegetic music slowly enters the soundtrack as they are approached). Perhaps the most significant diegetic moment, however, is the song by the Trobaritz Priscilla. The audio and visuals are surprisingly well matched, and the tuning of the lute adds emphasis to the fact of live performance. As a video cut-scene, this is one of few moments in the game where the player has no ability to affect their environs and must simply watch and listen.
Far more so than in other areas, the music in Novigrad and Oxenfurt is for and by people. This is in marked contrast to the soundscapes found on Skellige and in Velen where the music is almost purely non-diegetic. In contrast to the pre-Christian matriarchal associations of the priestesses of Skellige is the aural handling of the Temple of the Eternal Fire in Novigrad and its male priests. As Adam Whittaker has recently identified, there is a clear link between musicological discourse on purely vocal performance in Christian sacred space in Early Music, and its representation on screen. Male a capella voices, and a ‘chanting’ vocal style (again hinting at plainchant, rather than using pre-existent chant music), are often used to denote the aural identity of a church. Precisely this kind of vocal delivery is added to the soundtrack as the player moves closer to the Temple of the Eternal Fire, explicitly linking this Christian association with the aural presence of the Temple. The contrast with the female-dominated vocals elsewhere enhances the distinction and re-enforces the links between the ostensibly pre-Christian worlds of Skellige and Velen and the Christian associations made in Novigrad.
Approaching the Temple of the Eternal Fire
The music of the Velen wasteland and the neighbouring White Orchard, like Skellige, is more folk influenced, yet clearly distinct. Gone are the Celtic folk influences; instead, this area fuses a cinematic pastoral idyll (again laden with nature sounds and with a peasantry speaking with West Country accents – compare the idyllic ‘Shire’ in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings) with a dark and sinister undertone which draws on the ‘otherness’ of many non-western and folk instruments, particularly the kemenche, electric cello, hurdy gurdy, bowed gusli, gheychak, and the bowed yaylı – the vast majority of which only enter the soundscape in this area. The use of the medieval as a source of dangerous and primitive ‘otherness’ is common at the moment (evidinced, for instance, by the many recent descriptions in the West of the so-called Islamic State as ‘medieval’) and draws on modernist thought which characterized the middle ages as a period of dark and dangerous alterity between the glories of antiquity and the Renaissance.
That the soundscape of The Witcher draws on competing categorisations of the medieval as ‘dangerous’ and ‘pastoral’ says much about the mutability of medievalisms. Musically, this ‘otherness’ can be expressed as a kind of orientalism, both exotic and dangerous, and the microtonal inflections and use of glissandi here give a sinister undertone to what is otherwise a quintessentially pastoral film score. This area has one of the most memorable parts of the entire soundtrack ‘Ladies of the Wood’, underscoring a genuinely horrific narrative and visuals (some of the consequences of which are shown in the first video of this post with a lengthier section of the music given below). The exotic instrumentation combined with the driving repetition, at odds with an audio usually so responsive to the player’s actions, makes the experience unsettling and claustrophobic.
Ladies of the Wood
Taken together, these very distinctive sound worlds serve to demonstrate some of the many medieval soundscapes which permeate our collective consciousness. In utilising iconic aural cues, composers and sound designers in a neo-medievalist tradition can conjure up particular cultural and social structures with ease, taking many of the shorthands which have emerged from the TV and film traditions in recent years. The indeterminacy inherent to videogame, and the common response of using audio stems, means that the soundscape moves far beyond what is possible in TV and film. However, it also makes problematic the concept of using real, historically-informed music from the period being invoked which would not be able to respond to the interactivity of the world. In The Witcher, the decisions we make effect the world around us, including its soundscape. The effect is crucial both to helping to conjure the world of The Witcher and to helping us feel immersed in it – perhaps paradoxically this may make the soundworld invoked seem more authentic even if it simultaneously reduces the possibility of using ‘authentic’ historical repertoire.
Featured image by Carlos Santos @YouTube CC BY.
James Cook is a University Teacher in Music at the University of Sheffield. His work focuses on the musical period that falls neatly between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. In particular, the ways that musical cultures in this period interact and how expatriate groups (merchants, clergy, and nobility) imported and used music. Some of his work (like this essay) concerns the representation of early music on stage and screen, be that the use of ‘real’ early music in multimedia productions, the imaginative re-scoring of historical dramas, or even the popular medievalism of the fantasy genre.
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