Cleaning up

Sarah Werner has posted the text of her paper at the recent ‘Geographies of Desire’ conference at the University of Maryland: where material book culture meets digital humanities » Wynken de Worde. It’s a really useful overview of and reflection on the utility of digitized versions of early books and digital aids for studying books. Apparently it is possible to measure dirt on manuscripts:


One recent paper about the use of densitometers to study levels of dirt on the pages of medieval manuscripts suggests that we can learn about book usage through analyzing how and where dirt is distributed across a book. It might seem obvious that pages that are used more often will be dirtier, and that is in part what the author found, but the use of the densitometer revealed that it’s more complicated than we can always assess with the naked eye. The paper’s author, Kathryn Rudy, points out, for example, that she had assumed that two different patterns of dirt on an opening came from two different users, but the densitometer’s analysis suggested that the patterns were similar enough that they were likely to have been made by the same person—perhaps they held the book in different ways suitable for different prayers. The analysis also pointed out that even books that retain visible marks might have been cleaned by modern owners to such a degree that the dirt is no longer viable as an analytical tool, something that might help us think about the changes books undergo during modern ownership.

That reminded me of the controversy over Thomas Jefferson’s little-used sheet music at the Soundscapes of Early America conference at the University of Virginia that I mentioned in my previous blog post. I wonder if densitometers might be useful there, too? Although to be honest I think there’s so much at stake in that debate that any kind of analysis is going to be controversial.

Reflections after Soundscapes of Jefferson’s America

Morris Dancing in Charlottesville, VA.

Morris Dancing in Charlottesville, VA, April 3, 2012. Snapped with terrible camera on my phone.


I spent the last few days of March and the first few days of April in Charlottesville, Virginia, attending a two-day conference at the University of Virginia on the Soundscapes of Jefferson’s America, organised by the ever energetic Prof. Bonnie Gordon and her stimulating and equally energetic grad students (high energy must be a UVa recruitment requirement). While I was there, I guest taught a grad class for Bonnie (I think I probably learned more from the marvelous discussion than anyone else did), sat in on one of her undergrad classes (a lively and enjoyable conference debriefing), and met up with a UCC graduate Sarah O’Halloran who is now a UVa Jefferson Fellow working on her doctorate in composition. I would like to thank UVa Department of Music, particularly Bonnie Gordon and Prof. Richard Will, for giving me such a warm welcome and generously including me in the conference hospitality. I learned such a lot from the people I met, and I hope we can stay in touch. I really enjoyed my brief time in such a vibrant environment. I also thank Bonnie’s family for putting up with me for almost a week.

It was a particularly interesting time to be talking about the use of sound to create racialised experiences because the complex history of slavery and racism that I heard about that weekend, and interpretations of the US Constitution, lies behind so many then-current news stories—the lynching of Trayvon Martin for walking while black, for example, and the murders by police of Dane Scott Jr., and Kenneth Chamberlain, an elderly veteran who was shot and killed in his own home. I’d suggest there may also be racist and sexist thinking behind the attempts to limit women’s access to contraception and abortion: rich women may be able to buy their way around those limits (paying the full price for contraception, and traveling for abortion services if necessary [that is what happens in Ireland]), but poor women (of all ethnicities and races) are hit with a double whammy. And that touches not only every heterosexual woman who is sexually active before menopause, but also any woman who takes contraception for other reasons, as Sandra Fluke reminded the House Democratic Steering & Policy Committee back in February. What these forms of discrimination have in common, it seems to me, is a return to a narrow definition of ‘men’: men as Thomas Jefferson at the time of the Declaration of Independence seem to have understood it: wealthy, land-owning, adult, white males, rather than men in the expanded notion that means US people of all ethnicities and races and sexes and abilities. That is, an individual killing a young black man for being suspicious, the state’s initial failure to charge and prosecute that murder; a state’s murder of black men even outside of the ‘due process’ of trial, verdict and death penalty (moreover, as many death penalty abolitionists point out, black men make up disproportionate numbers of those in prison and on death row); and a state’s requirement for unnecessary penetration of a woman’s vagina removes each woman’s right to determine what happens to her body (since she is not even asked to consent, she no longer has full rights over her body: the state is claiming rights over her body—and slave owners like Thomas Jefferson claimed rights over their slaves’ bodies, male and female: how much choice did Sally Hemings really have when it came to bearing TJ’s children?)…. All these actions suggest that, to certain conservatives, only elite, white men like Mitt Romney, and Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich and other male former GOP candidates for nomination, are entitled to bodily integrity, autonomy, subjectivity, personhood, and constitutional rights. In effect, there is an attempt to scale back the advancements that recognize all US citizens and residents as ‘men created equal’ with ‘certain unalienable rights’ including ‘Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness’.

So, what follows is a brief ‘review’ of some of the papers from the first day that really stuck in my mind. It’s by no means comprehensive and I haven’t tried to summarise every single paper. I intend to write a future post taking in the concerts, and the second day of the conference, but that’s going to take me a little longer still. (Although I’ll try not to do that at such great length.)

The conference has an associated exhibition, Sound in Early America, curated by Bonnie Gordon, Amy Coddington, Stephanie Doktor, Emily Gale, Courtney Kleftis and Gretchen Michelson. It is on display in UVa’s Small Special Collections Library until 20 August 2012. Their close examination of Thomas Jefferson’s music library invited conclusions that have caused controversy in some circles. While TJ’s daughters’ music was used heavily, the violin music does not look like it has ever been played and that casts doubt on TJ’s reputation as a violinist.

Bonnie Gordon’s introduction set the tone of the conference: this was to be no Thomas Jefferson love-in, but rather a critical evaluation. Gordon’s paper was so rich I can’t do it justice here, but three points Gordon made about soundscapes at TJ’s home, at UVa and in present-day Charlottesville particularly stuck in my mind. Thomas Jefferson lived in a large house on a hill, Monticello, carefully oriented so that he and his family were not disturbed by the existence of their plantation slaves; Bonnie memorably argued that the careful design and the plate glass windows were equivalent to noise-canceling headphones. The architecture and landscaping was soundscaping that blocked out the sounds of his slaves housed out of sight at the bottom of the hill. And as Bonnie notes, the University of Virginia and Charlottesville more generally are not exempt from a racially charged sonic history. As Gordon noted, the bell that called privileged young white men to their higher education also sounded to exclude slaves and former slaves. Henry Martin, who rang this bell on the hour, every hour, from 4am until 10pm, was himself a freed man.(1) In effect, Martin was a tool of the institution and spent his life re-sounding his exclusion, except for one day after the Civil War when students silenced the bell by cracking it. Finally, Bonnie noted that this history of segregated sound worlds persists into present-day Charlottesville. Inadequate public transport links, among other structural inequalities, make it hard for those living in predominately African American neighbourhoods to get to the main music institutions. And live performances of hip hop are just not heard in Charlottesville.

A couple of days after the conference, I was walking through Charlottesville and came across the morris dancers pictured above, their bells claiming a sonic presence in the town that it seems is not available to other groups. And the historical significance of tying bells on bodies varies by community: for these men, perhaps it is a way of sounding their connection to a long-standing European folk tradition. But bells on bodies could mean something entirely different: slaves were sometimes braced or welded in to ‘ponderous’  with bells so they could be heard if they tried to escape.(2)

That detail came from a book co-authored by the second conference speaker, Prof. Shane White. White spoke about the kinds of noises that Jefferson excluded from his house: the sounds of slavery (the title of his book, in fact). These ranged from plantation bells, the crying of people whose family were sold away, the sound of vicious beatings, baying dogs, as well as sounds that slaves made for themselves to commemorate the dead, to celebrate, to entertain. (Themselves and their owners: Sally Hemings’ sons played dance music for TJ’s daughters.) Slave masters had varying responses to the music produced by African American slaves and in African American churches: some were intrigued, others dismissed it as noise. And there’s plenty of evidence that the white perception of African American music as noise persists into the present. Jazz may have become America’s classical music, through a process Jeff Farley examines in a freely-available paper, ‘Jazz as a Black American Art Form: Definitions of the Jazz Preservation Act’(3), and President William Jefferson Clinton could play jazz saxophone at one of his inauguration balls, but that wasn’t always the case, and some outgrowths of jazz (and I know I’m stepping into a contentious area here) are rejected as too noisy by the jazz mainstream and too ‘jazzy’ by the mainstream (if that’s the right word) of experimental music. I’m thinking here of free jazz/free improvisation/creative music in particular, but Farley suggests various fusions of jazz with pop/rock also upset the Jazz Police (the latter not Farley’s phrase). This is just one example: as George Lewis asserts, ‘virtually every extant form of black music has been characterized as “noise”.'(4)

Prof. Mary Hunter (Bowdoin) gave a brilliant paper on the work of Thomas Jefferson’s daughters. Hunter pointed out that there are real problems with simplistic notions of amateurism and professionalism, and music was women’s work even though they were not paid for it. TJ’s daughters, and no doubt many women like them, practiced daily and felt guilty if they didn’t do their work. The music written for them gave them an opportunity to show the fruits of their labour (‘It’s no accident that I play this passage correctly three times in a row; it’s the result of diligent work.’), and to display their bodies. And in this regard, it turns out women rubbed almond paste into their arms. Apparently almond paste is advocated by some today as a skin whitener. If that is what it was for back then, I would guess that accentuating pale skin would further highlight the ‘refinement’ of being able to spend most of one’s time indoors and out of sunlight.

Richard Will, with the aid of some students, gave a lively lecture-recital arguing on Scottish song as America’s national song. The thing that really interested me about this, as a Scot, is that I didn’t know any of the songs (maybe one; I don’t now remember) that were the best known songs in Virginia and America at that time, even though several Americans in the conference audience knew the songs. I’m not sure whether that was because I’m not a huge folky, or whether that’s the difference geography makes. Anyway, I was really taken with Ellen Randolph Coolidge’s description of encountering ‘a sweet Doric’ in her visit to Scotland. I know the Doric as the dialect spoken in the area I grew up in—I used to have a few words of it myself. Yet Coolidge seemed to be using it to describe the probably quite well-to-do accents of those she met in Edinburgh. This seems to a different usage from that current in Scotland at the time, when the Doric was a term used to describe the dialect spoken by low-status country dwellers.

Prof. Sophia Rosenfeld (Virginia) gave an excellent talk on ‘Atlantic Revolutions and the Right to be Heard’. This was about the relationship to the French Revolution and who gets to talk in parliament/national assemblies. Again, this has contemporary significance, since the ability to speak and to be heard is something that people have been thinking about quite carefully in the Occupy movement.

In many ways, the conference, even though it was ostensibly about the past, really connected to current political events as well as to current scholarly debates. And that is one of the things that made it such a successful and exciting event.



(1) On Henry Martin, see this fascinating roundtable discussion from UVa earlier this year. It’s well worth the hour. The final three panelists share important critical insights into the stories told by and about Martin, the politics around his life and his commemoration by UVa.

(2) Shane White and Graham White, The Sounds of Slavery (Boston, MA: Beacon Press 2005), 6.

(3) Jeff Farley, ‘Jazz as a Black American Art Form: Definitions of the Jazz Preservation Act,’ Journal of American Studies 45 (2011): 113-129.

(4) George E. Lewis, ‘Too Many Notes: Computers, Complexity and Culture in “Voyager”,’ Leonardo Music Journal, Vol. 10 (2000), 33-39: 34.

Music, Art and Death

Beethoven's Death Mask by ed_and_don on Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Beethoven's Death Mask by ed_and_don (CC BY-SA 2.0)

I was unable to attend the Plainsong and Medieval Music Society’s recent conference on ‘Music and death before 1650‘, so I was delighted to see Elizabeth Eva Leach’s partial conference review. (Thanks!) Turns out the PMMS is now on Twitter as well as Facebook. So, no excuse for not following the society very closely!

Death is the topic of another conference this year. The Art of Death and Dying will be held at the University of Houston, October 25-27, 2012. It’s an interdisciplinary event. In the call for papers, the organizers

welcome scholars in all disciplines to submit paper proposals on literary, visual, and performing arts topics related to death and dying. Topics of the symposium include, but are not limited to:

  • Depictions or interpretations of death and dying in:
    • the performing and visual arts
    • literature
    • film, radio, and television
    • artifacts as represented in archival or museum collections
    • architecture (e.g. memorial or cemetery design)
  • Commemoration of the dead in art, architecture and performance
  • Artistic depictions of the after life
  • Cultural death rituals
  • Cultural expressions of mourning
  • Death and dying in Latin American arts and culture

Proposals related to death in Latin American arts and visual culture are encouraged.  The organizers will accept presentations in both Spanish and English. . . . Presenters will be afforded the opportunity for their symposium paper/presentation to be published in the Texas Digital Library.

I like the digital library touch and will bear that in mind next time I’m organizing a conference. If you’re thinking of submitting, make sure to read the call in full on the conference website first, and follow the submission guidelines closely. The deadline is May 1, 2012.

I’m curious why death seems to be a hot topic just now. Maybe it always was, and I just hadn’t noticed before. I was wondering whether it is something to do with the US and UK’s recent wars? Or does this topic often come up around the turn of a century? (We’re still not that far in to the 21st century, after all.) Is there something else I’ve missed?

Tracing Music Patronage and Commissioning by Women in Early Modern Rome


This year is the centenary of Japan's gift of cherry trees to Washington. Photo credit: 44a.CherryBlossoms.TidalBasin.SW.WDC.23March2012 by Elvert Barnes.

I spent Saturday in Washington, DC catching up with fellow scholars attending the Renaissance Society of America annual meeting (I wasn’t presenting). I received some really useful input for my fellowship project and for smaller writing projects. I was able to have a lengthy conversation with one senior colleague, who encouraged me to look at art collecting and literature too, in case there are shared erotic resonances between different art forms associated with particular people. It is clear, too, that the avvisi di Roma (news and gossip about the papal court and Roman families) will probably be an important source of information. The nearest collection is in the Vatican Microfilm Library housed at St. Louis, Missouri, so I am planning a trip there in the coming months.

Unfortunately I wasn’t able to talk much with Christine Jeanneret (University of Geneva), which is unfortunate because her current project on Marenzio’s madrigal dedications to women relates in some ways to my fellowship research. Her paper surveyed Marenzio’s dedications to Lucrezia d’Este, Bianca Cappello, and Margarita Gonzaga d’Este (all associated with Ferrara), and the Roman noble women Clelia or Cleria Cesarini and Vittoria Accoramboni (second wife of Paolo Giordano Orsini, both mentioned in my post on UCLA’s Orsini archives ). Jeanneret suggested that there is little evidence of women’s patronage because women had restricted access to the public sphere, and therefore women drew upon a male network to do things like  commission compositions. One piece of evidence Jeanneret cited was a letter from Cardinal Luigi d’Este to Luca Marenzio, enclosing a poem and revealing that a group of women known to Marenzio but not identified in the letter would like him to set it. These women were most likely the Ferrarese concerto delle donne (women’s ensemble) who sang in the exclusive, invitation-only concerts held most evenings at the Ferrarese ducal court from the 1560s. Jeanneret correctly concluded that women did have musical expertise, and were able to exercise their judgement in selecting poetry and commissioning settings.

I’ve been interested that most dedications to women appear to be to married women, presumably for reasons of decorum, and perhaps also because at this stage some women may have access to their own resources to be able to give reciprocal gifts. There appear to be more dedications to women in the latter half of the sixteenth century than in the first half. I wonder, too, to what extent there are particular patterns in Ferrara and Rome: Isabella d’Este, a famous daughter of Ferrara who married into the Gonzaga family and lived in Mantua, is well-known as a music patron. In Ferrara, successive duchesses—Lucrezia Borgia, Renée de France, and Margarita Gonzaga—were music patrons (Renée de France also had at least one music book dedicated to her), as were Lucrezia’s daughters. I don’t know offhand whether there are the same patterns in other Italian courts. In comparison, if memory serves, Rome didn’t really see a significant number of music print dedications to women until the 1570s. It is possible that the social mores were different, and I suspect status and rank will be significant. Certainly, I think social standing is an important consideration when it comes to the ways different women operated in the public sphere. Some elite women may have had to rely upon male go-betweens to conduct certain transactions, but many poorer women worked outside the home and had considerable autonomy (even transacting their own marriages). So, it’s important not to generalize from the situation of a small group of women and presume their circumstances applied across the board.


It’s been very busy in Planet Melanie Marshall these last few weeks. In addition to various papers I’ve been working on, I recently received reader reports back on two essay collections I’m co-editing, and I’m delighted to say the commissioning editors for both books want to move to the next stage. The collection that arose from my conference on Sexualities, Textualities, Art and Music in Early Modern Italy is going through another editorial pass just now. Not every speaker was able to participate in the essay collection—many had promised their papers elsewhere—so myself, Linda Carroll and Katherine McIver had the enormous pleasure of finding additional contributors. (The other collection, critical essays on a popular music topic, is at a much earlier stage.)

With thanks to my former boss and his wife, Robert and Sally Sawyer, I did make time to catch an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Renaissance Portrait from Donatello to Bellini, which was a fantastic accompaniment to a book I’ve been reading, William Caferro’s Contesting the Renaissance (2011).



In a nutshell, Burckhardt floated the idea that the Renaissance saw the rise of the idea of the individual; people began to consider themselves as individuals independent from their status, rank, occupation, and so on. (That really is an oversimplification, but you can read an early English translation of Burckhardt to fill in the details.) More specifically, Burckhardt considered men to have understood themselves as individuals, which is reflected in Caferro’s chapters ‘Individualism: Who Was the Renaissance Man?’ and ‘Gender: Who Was the Renaissance Woman?’. Men have gender too, of course (although Caferro rarely mentions that, as you might guess from the chapter titles), but Burckhardt did away with having to think too much about men as men and women as women by blithely (and erroneously) declaring that Renaissance Italy had been a time of equality between the sexes. He could just consider people to be people and it was just coincidence that most of his examples were male. In the years since Burckhardt, scholars have revised their ideas of the Renaissance considerably, and although there’s still a tendency to forget that men are gendered too (and particularly to forget that privileged men’s experiences were not universal), people now tend to agree that men still saw themselves as members of a group. This was really borne out by the exhibition; in some cases, it seemed as if the paintings had been selected and hung to draw attention to group identity. My memory may be playing tricks on me, but I’m fairly sure the wall of one room had a row of portraits of young men, all facing the same direction, all wearing red. (No, they were not cardinals.) I think they may have all been Florentine men. Anyway, this similarity in clothing (sometimes regulated) highlighted group identity over individuality.

One of the things that is occupying me just now is the very idea of Renaissance. If women didn’t have a Renaissance—in fact, if more than 50% of the population didn’t have a Renaissance in the Renaissance, given that so many features of the Renaissance apparently require literacy—then can the concept, even broadly understood, be said to be the main characteristic of a c200-year period?

This week sees the Renaissance Society of America annual conference, meeting this year in Washington, DC. Unfortunately, it clashes almost exactly with the IASPM/EMP Pop Conference here in New York. I’ll be doing a little of both and will endeavour to report back next week.

Thoughts on the Oldenburg ‘Selfhood’ Conference

The Stormtrooper is making a portrait or is it a self portrait?

Prof. Dr. Dagmar Freist’s stimulating three-day conference on self-fashioning/self-cultivation, Praktiken der Selbst-Bildung im Spannungsfeld von ständischer Ordnung und gesellschaftlicher Dynamik, brought together researchers at different stages of their careers from all over the world and working in and across many disciplines. It was very exciting to be exposed to diverse ways of working, new theories of artifacts, material culture, and new research questions. Although there were diverse takes on subjectivity, Bourdieu and Foucault came up a lot. Some people drew freely from both; others stuck principally to one or the other. I think I am right in saying the Foucauldians tended to find Bourdieu’s notion of habitus and the way society functions to be rather too prescriptive. I have read and enjoyed both Bourdieu and Foucault; this may suggest that I am an unprincipled opportunist. In any case, it is clear I need to think more about points of agreement, disagreement, and any potential for reconciliation.

I am not going to attempt to summarise the German papers, since my German is not as good as I would like (although it’s certainly better than it was 3 days ago!), and I wouldn’t be able to do them justice. So, here are my brief summaries from memory of a few of the papers given in English.

Mikael Alm (Uppsala) is looking at a corpus of papers written in the 1770s in response to an essay competition for a new national dress for Sweden. They show fascinating divisions of society—some into four estates (noble, clergy, burgers, peasants), others into a combination of classes and estates. One essay was more-or-less entirely concerned with political class, basically dividing people into the rulers and the ruled. For me, what was interesting is where women would fit in to the proposed social orders. The clergy presumably excluded women at that time, and it made me wonder about the other groups—especially since one of the classes were government bureaucrats (again, a group traditionally excluding women). Apparently women were a problem for these ways of thinking. Did they have the same status as their husbands? Their fathers? Or did they stand outside the social order altogether?

The final day, Saturday, was the day set aside for studies of arts and materiality. The keynote address (Prof. Dr. Hans Peter Hahn) was on the function of things in society, I think principally informed by anthropology.

Dr. Ulinke Rublack (Cambridge) gave an excellent paper on an early modern rival to Imelda Marcos: ‘Leather as Matter of Distinction in Hans Fugger’s Material World’. She suggested an alternative title could be ‘How the Oxford Shoe Got Its Holes’. The Fugger family may be familiar to early music lovers as the sometime patrons/clients of Orlandus Lassus, Andrea Gabrieli, Philippe de Monte and others. I had thought they were a banking family, but apparently they were traders. Hans was not the head of the family, or of the family business, and his role in the business has been overlooked historically. It seems his main function was to build and maintain an extensive network. He had well over 200 regular correspondents with whom he exchanged gifts. He needed to look the part, which meant he had to keep his footwear in good condition. It needed to be fashionable and durable yet comfortable—familiar challenges to many of us today. Each pair of shoes was made to order, and sometimes when they arrived they didn’t fit and had to be adjusted–the leather stretched more, perhaps, or a few careful slashes added. But the point is that Hans Fugger attended to every detail of his appearance.

Prof. Beverly Lemire (Alberta) is engaged in fascinating research on the global trade in printed cotton and the response (I’m tempted to say ‘typically insular response’) to the arrival in Britain of these beautiful fabrics. In ‘Fashioning Early Modern Socieies: Indian Cottons, Material Politics and Consumer Innovation in Tokugawa Japan and Early Modern England’ Lemire described how English fabric-related guilds (woollen guilds, weavers) tried competing with the new cotton fabrics but printing on wool is not a successful endeavour so their final response was to lobby for a ban from British shores, and to oppose it in the most violent way imaginable. Women wearing this cotton in public could literally have the cotton ripped from them, and the women were often beaten; some protestors threw sulphuric acid at women wearing printed cotton; and there is one tragic account of a women wearing printed cotton being set on fire while walking across a square; she burned to death. It seems incredible now, but actually women’s bodies are still sites of political argument and control—sometimes related to clothing, as in the ‘keep your face uncovered/ban the burqa’ arguments which restrict every woman’s right to wear what she wants, as in the cover-your-hair/wear-a-burqa-or-you-don’t-leave-the-house policies of conservative Islamist governments (under the Taliban, women in Afghanistan were beaten if they didn’t wear a burqa, and even beaten for pursuing an education), and sometimes related to women’s right-to-choose, as in the new law coming into force in Virginia this week which will force all women wanting to have an abortion to have a transvaginal ultrasound; they are not asked to consent to this procedure. (In a transvaginal ultrasound, the doctor or ultrasound technician inserts a thick-ish probe into the woman’s vagina and moves it around to get a picture of the uterus, fallopian tubes and ovaries. It’s an uncomfortable experience even when consent is given and the procedure is medically-necessary. Since Virginia’s law will apply even if the woman does not want an ultrasound, it is effectively state-sanctioned rape of women. The party sponsoring these medically-unnecessary laws claims to be in favour of small governments that stay out of people’s way. In reality, they are getting in to women’s bodies.)

The thing that really struck me about Rublack and Lemire’s papers is just how far material goods traveled and how international trade was. People may conveniently forget about, say, the Atlantic slave trade (European-made goods to Africa, slaves from Africa to the Americas, sugar, chocolate, cotton and other luxuries from the Americas to Europe), or colonialism, and instead think of the international trade in consumer goods (by which I mean sugar, chocolate etc—not enslaved people) as a recent thing, but it’s not at all.

A second point I’ve been pondering (and I asked about a few times!) is the sound of clothing and shoes. We can often guess the gender of a person from the sound of their walk because of the gendered shoe and clothing practices of our times. Women are more likely to wear heels than men, and women are more likely to wear jangly jewelry than men. (In my teenage years when I had a few prized ‘Goth’ clothes, one of my favourite items was a skirt with bells on. And now, one of my suit jackets has beaded cuffs that make a clicky noise when I rest my forearms on a desk. Noisiness was something I hadn’t considered when I bought the jacket.) So, did the sound of clothing and footwear differ according to gender or perhaps status? Dr Rublack had come across a letter or note in which servants were required to wear soft-soled shoes indoors because they were not to be heard as they went about their work. And one conference delegate mentioned to me that a clergyman had complained of the noise of wooden shoes (worn by lower-classes) on the cobbles outside the chapel. That would be an interesting topic to look at in the future, perhaps. Maybe I should put some thought into the soundscape of certain streets in early modern Rome.

Image credit: Photo titled ‘The Stormtrooper is Making a Portrait, Or Is It a Self-Portrait’ by Kristina Alexanderson (kalexanderson) on Flickr.

Update: Virginia’s Governor did not make it compulsory to have a TV ultrasound before abortion.

Practices of Self-Fashioning

I am attending a really stimulating conference at the Carl von Ossietzky Universität, Oldenburg (Konferenzen und Workshops). It’s a tough schedule (PDF), and I’m really jet lagged, but the discussions are lively nonetheless. (I really wish my German was, well, existent.) When I’m less exhausted I’ll post more, but for now the paper that sticks in my mind (possibly because it was the only one I feel I properly understood because it was in English) is Dr Babette Hellemans’. Dr Hellemans, a professor at Groningen, presented an outline of a research project in development, one that looks at education in the 12th-century, just before the rise of universities particularly in relation to the (bio)diversity of knowledge—what were all the ways people could know things back then? Were there more ways-to-know than there were after institutionalisation in universities? Who had access to knowledge and how? Those kinds of questions. Fascinating work.

Is there an opposite of music, an opposite to musicality?

Recently, I mentioned that I’d been trying to study music, musicality by looking at its opposite. I mentioned, too, that this was not a simple thing, since there isn’t really an opposite to music or musicality. One might think of silence, but that is an important part of music. I ended up going down the music-as-discipline/music-as-social-etiquette route and reached noise. Of course, not only can music be noisy but noise can be music and it has a history, as my colleague Paul Hegarty has demonstrated, and thus what is noisy or unmusical in that way changes according to time or place. Furthermore, Michael Chion has questioned the utility of the concept of noise—well, bruit—altogether.*

Quite by coincidence, on Jan. 28, I came across a talk by Henkjan Honing, the University of Amsterdam’s Professor of Music Cognition, at TEDx Amsterdam on listening to music.** Honing argues that “we all share a predisposition for the perception and appreciation of music.” Certain elements of musicality (absolute pitch and a sense of rhythm) are common to various species—birds as well as mammals—while there appear to be two elements that are fundamental to human musicality: relative pitch and beat induction. Unlike birds, humans can recognize a melody played started at two different pitches as the same tune. Put another way, humans can analyze the intervals between notes separately from the absolute pitch at which they first hear the melody. Birds hear those as different tunes. Beat induction is to do with the ability to pick up a regular pulse from music, to synchronize with an established pulse, and it may not be unique to humans. Very few people lack these skills; one research team has found a person who cannot consciously recognize a pulse although his brain does, while, as Honing mentions in his talk, some 4% of humans have amusia (that is, do not recognize relative pitch).

So, it appears that today our society does recognize an opposite to musicality, and moreover we are using the current dominant knowledge tool (that is, science) to explore this phenomenon. Each way of knowing defines musicality in ways that are intelligible to that method, so the dimensions of unmusicality/musicality that music cognition experts study (such as perception of pitch and rhythm) are those that they can measure in particular ways. Geneticists might build on this work, but they would look in different places for different markers. It is also significant that Honing is attempting to define some of these elements as pre-cultural and thus show where humans and animals differ—to show the boundaries of the human and demonstrate that humans are unique. Whether newborn babies’ beat induction really is pre-cultural seems to me to be debatable since, as Honing says, they start to hear three months before birth. Is it possible that, while recognition of tonality (and presumably of alternate systems of organizing pitch) comes later, rhythmic enculturation starts before birth? If researchers had played the babies rhythmic patterns from a radically different culture to which they had not yet been exposed, would they have obtained the same results?

So, I now find myself once again wondering if sixteenth-century Italians recognized unmusicality and where would I look to find it? As far as I know, music teachers’ notes on their students have not survived. I’m scanning contemporaneous music theory treatises too. But the most respected knowledge domain at the time was religion and that was also used to show where the boundaries of the human lie, to argue that humans differ from animals in particular ways. Will there be anything about unmusicality in sixteenth-century Italian religious texts, I wonder? It’s definitely past due time to take Andrew Dell’Antonio‘s tweeted advice and look at writings by Catholic Reformists.


* Michael Chion, “Pour en finir avec la notion du bruit,” Analyse musicale (2007), translated by James A. Steintrager as “Let’s Have Done with the Notion of Noise,” differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies, Vol. 22, Nos. 2-3 (2010), 240-248.

** The talk is also posted at Creative Flux and on Honing’s own blog, Music Matters, the latter with some useful references.

Licking, Race and Gender

whipped 11.1.09 [305]

Yesterday I had the pleasure of hearing George Lewis (Columbia University) speak at the NYU Department of Music. George is the author of an an award-winning book on the AACM and an inspiring composer and creative musician, and I always find myself thinking differently about things after hearing him. His presentation was titled “I’m Glad You Asked That Question”: In Search of Benjamin Patterson. He did find Benjamin Patterson, and on the way Lewis told stories about the way we tell stories—not just about who is in and who is out, but the different ways people are included in histories. Patterson, he said, is mentioned in many stories told by Fluxus artists but the official histories rarely address his work in a substantive manner…. He is hiding in plain sight. I’m afraid I instantly knew what he meant because at the start of the talk I thought I didn’t know anything by Ben Patterson, until Lewis mentioned his inclusion in the recent MoMA exhibition. In fact, I’d seen quite a few pictures, like these of the Variations for Double Bass (1964).

One of the pieces Lewis mentioned was ‘Licking Piece’, also from 1964. The instructions read, in part:

cover shapely female with whipped cream


Have a think about what you might expect to see given those instructions, and then have a look at this photo documentation and full instructions. Think before you peek.

Done that?

A number of thoughts spring to my mind, to do with gender, race, and interpreting scores. The instructions do not say that the ‘shapely female’ (what species?!) needs to be naked, but the woman in the documented performance is (or appears to be). Admittedly, the idea of licking cream off someone’s clothes is somehow yuckier than the sensual experience of licking cream off skin. Nor do the instructions say anything about who should be doing the licking. The picture appears to show men doing the cream spraying; presumably they did the licking too. For that matter, the instructions do not specifically say to lick the cream off the woman: it just says ‘lick’. Perhaps one could just lick one’s lips or have an ice-cream at that point. So, there’s a whole bunch of questions about how that score could be interpreted.

To be honest, my first reaction to the picture was to groan inwardly. What is so new about the objectification of a woman’s body? I mean, this is a bunch of men covering a naked woman with white goo: just the usual gendered power dynamic. Like Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece (1964), it prompts thought about power relationships between the performers involved, between audience and performers (at least it does for me). Does it make a difference that Ono gave the first performance of Cut Piece sitting still while audience members took turns cutting pieces of cloth from of her clothes with scissors, whereas Patterson is not the one being creamed and licked? Is that a significant issue? While Ono did suggest that Cut Piece could be performed by a man interacting with the audience, Patterson doesn’t appear to have specified that possible variation which could alter the power dynamics. It would make for an interesting thought experiment though. In any case, this piece doesn’t seem as challenging a commentary on women’s bodies as, say, Shigeko Kubota’s Vagina Painting (1965).

Where this performance of ‘Licking Piece’ was socially radical was in its racial diversity, in the intersection of race and gender politics. The performance surely challenged racial mores, given that many states still had anti-miscegenation laws in place in 1964. New York, where the performance took place, seems never to have had anti-miscegenation laws, but that doesn’t mean that intimate interracial interactions were unremarkable (even in 2008, only 3.9% of all marriages in the US involved partners considered different races), and performers and audiences would hardly have been ignorant of the racial politics in the country as a whole.

Anti-miscegenation laws protected the idea of whiteness. Most states focused on marriage to those classified as white and didn’t proscribe marriage between people from the various groups classified as not-white. That the concern was with whiteness is also evident from considering the history of rape and lynching: the race of the alleged perpetrator and alleged victim mattered (and still does). Many black women slaves, like Harriet Jacobs, were raped by their white owners, with few, if any, repercussions for the white rapist, whereas long after slavery ended African American men were violently murdered, lynched, for alleged wrongs to white women. The tragic case of Emmett Till, a fourteen year old boy from Chicago who was brutally murdered for offending a white woman shop proprietor in Mississippi, came to national attention in 1955, nine years before this performance. Even when the Civil Rights Act passed in 1957 there were still state laws governing interracial relationships. The 1963 March on Washington included a black father holding a banner for the Interracial Marriage Club of Washington, photographed with his two daughters (institutional access to the Black Studies Center ProQuest archive may be required to view), and stories on challenges to anti-miscegenation laws appeared regularly in newspapers. On Dec. 9, 1964, the Daily Defender ran an article describing miscegenation laws as ‘the touchiest issue in all the legal literature of civil rights.’ Florida’s law against interracial cohabitation had recently been struck down following the prosecution of a Honduran man and a white woman for ‘habitually . . . (occupying) in the nighttime the same room’; the finding ruled that their ‘Constitutional guarantee of equal protection under the law had been abridged’. The same article mentions the case of Mildred Loving, a woman with African and Native American ancestors, and her white husband, Richard Perry Loving, who had begun their challenge to Virginia’s anti-miscegenation laws in 1963. It wasn’t until 1967 that the Supreme Court’s Loving v. Virginia decision overturned the last of the US’s anti-miscegenation laws. So, it doesn’t seem to adequate to consider only the gender politics of this piece. A naked white woman consenting to be covered in whipped cream and licked by a racially-diverse group of men and that being able to happen without prosecution or backlash was certainly radical, and perhaps more radical in that particular combination of people than with reversed genders.

If performed today, I think ‘Licking Piece’ could still raise all sorts of questions about boundaries (personal and social/cultural), about the transformation of all the performers and their reflection on the decisions they make during the performance, and about power dynamics between performers and between performers and audience. Given that the first performance happened when the fight for equality for interracial couples was in the news, perhaps it’s time to reimagine this piece now that the fight for equality for same-sex couples is in the news. In 40 years perhaps someone will look at a picture of three men covering a naked man with cream and preparing to lick it off, and groan inwardly about the oh-so-boring politics of that image.

Update: For a fascinating analysis of a more recent gendered & raced interaction that points out that the ‘Little Helpless White Lady’ and ‘Big Ole Scary Black Man’ scripts are still with us, see Honorée Fanonne Jeffers’ discussion (also posted on 27 Jan) of Governor Jan Brewer pointing her finger in the face of President Barack Obama: ‘A Teachable Racial Moment: On Fingers Pointed in Black Faces’.

Photo credit: whipped 11.1.09 [305] by timlewisnm, on Flickr.

Music and Care of the Self

Old Bailey

I’m working on a paper for a conference next month on subjectivation, subjectification—how one becomes a subject. I was struck by Foucault’s passing remark in ‘The Subject and Power’ that to look at an idea, one can start by looking at its opposite—to look at sanity, one might study madness, and so on. (This is exactly what Foucault did.) I began to wonder about looking at unmusicality. What would that entail? Perhaps looking at records of music students, instrumental or vocal pupils, who are apparently unteachable (of which I am yet to find any evidence—it seems only good reports have survived), or perhaps examining other kinds of unmusical sounds. So, I began with trying to find instances of noise making. Following Jacques Attali and Peter Bailey, I’m treating noise as a broad category—that is, not defining it solely as white noise, background noise, or as culturally unintelligible sounds, but also as ‘music-out-of-place’ (Bailey’s phrase), music that is happening in the wrong place at the wrong time, and sounds that are out of place. Legal records seemed like a good place to start, since that’s where one might expect to find not only complaints about sound-out-of-place (breach of the peace and that kind of thing) but also because in court defendants are often required to give an account of themselves, and the court judges the truth of that account. If defendants won’t account for their behavior, or if the court thinks the explanation is faulty, then the court gives an account which is considered to be the truth. (Obviously there’s much more going on, but this is just a blog post!) I came across some interesting incidents in the Old Bailey Online, including some which I think illustrate that the understanding of some kind of relationship between music or noise and ideas of selfhood.

Certain types of music-making are recounted by witnesses or descriptions as preludes to a crime. In one case, music covered the noise of another crime: William Linch, an Irishman, and three friends took turns at singing ballads loudly at the street door so that the noise would cover the sound of the others picking the lock of a trunk. But more significant, I think, is the mention of bawdy song and musicke houses as a first step toward a life of crime, or as an incriminating detail about someone’s behavior.

Mary Raby, alias Rogers, alias Jackson, alias Brown appears in numerous criminal records in the late 1690s, sometimes described as a common strumpet, or a lewd woman, but most often her name is connected with theft (grand larceny). Mary was executed, on 3rd November, 1703, for a robbery that she claimed she did not commit. At the gallows, condemned prisoners were given a final opportunity to confess their sins, to speak the truth about themselves to God before the watching public. Mary was given several opportunities to speak since the Newgate Ordinary was concerned that she hadn’t yet owned up to her part in the robbery, and eventually she gave a relatively full account of her self in relation to other sins. Mary “owned that she had been a very great Sinner indeed, One that was guilty of Sabbath-breaking, Swearing, Drinking, Lewdness, Buying, Receiving, and Disposing of Stoln Goods, Harbouring of ill People.” When pressed further to confess to the robbery for which she would hang, Mary said, “often she had been abused, by being accus’d, and thought guilty of Facts which she had not done, because she had the Name (and that not undeservedly) of being an Ill-liver.” Mary even ventured to explain how she started down this path: on her own admission, “her frequenting Musick-houses, and such like Places, was the beginning of her ruin”. Mary offers this detail as an explanation of how she fell into criminal behavior; its function in this narrative is to tell a truth about her self.

Something similar can be seen in the account of a murder trial of January 1681. A gentleman called John Swift went to supper with Charles Jones and another gentleman in the Savoy, London. Swift and Jones quarreled over Jones’ “Singing a Baudy Song under a Ladies Window, which [he] did aggravate with many base words”. Evidently they got into some kind of fight, and Jones was restrained by another, unnamed gentleman. Swift, “desiring to avoid farther mischif” left for home, but Jones got away from the man holding him and followed Swift. The latter, “standing upon his defence had the ill hap to wound him under the right Pap [breast], of which wound in a short time he dyed.” The jury “found that what was done, was for self Preservation, and thereupon returned [a verdict of] Se Defendendo”, self defence. It seems to me that Swift began to defend himself long before he drew his sword. In fact, he began to defend himself when he walked away from the bawdy singing. The act of singing under a lady’s window is dishonorable for many reasons: it insults the lady—the term indicates a woman of good character and perhaps some social standing—and, if there was one, the man of the house. Swift did not want to implicate himself in this act and walked away, thus defending himself from accusations of impropriety or of insulting someone’s honor. Music-out-of-place serves to illustrate truth about selfhood: the man who did the singing is clearly antisocial and insulting, and thus it is more believable that he should initiate a physical attack on his departing friend. Swift, in walking away, showed himself to be made of more honorable stuff. By not participating in music-out-of-place, Swift reveals truths about himself: good judgement, and self-control. Not only is this evidence of his good character and lack of ill-will, but it also suggests there is little need for the court to discipline him, since the narrative shows he has the ability to discipline himself.

In late seventeenth-century English courts, bawdy singing reveals an individual’s lack of self-control, lack of self-discipline, and, if not criminal behavior in itself, does suggest a propensity to criminality. It’s a kind of gateway to moral decay. Of course, these are the values set out by courts prosecuting crimes that are much more serious than making music in the wrong time and place; it is quite possible that there was a right time and place for bawdy song (as there seems to have been in sixteenth-century Italy, but that’s material for a future post). The one thing these accounts share is that in each case music has not been used to care for the self, to improve the self and strengthen virtue, but rather to corrupt the self.


Photo of the Old Bailey by Joe Dunckley on Flickr.