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.

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.

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.