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13.01.04, Dillon, The Sense of Sound

13.01.04, Dillon, The Sense of Sound

The urban landscape of France at the turn of fourteenth century vibrated--just as it does today--with sound. This medieval soundscape is the subject of Emma Dillon's new book, which invites the reader on a whistle-stop tour of the variety of contexts and activities in which sound assumed a central role. What is left to us today of this world is exclusively visual: we may still gaze on the art and architecture of that time--but we must recreate and reimagine its sound world from the scant evidence that is preserved in visual media. We "hear" their poets by reading words transcribed on manuscript pages, and we "hear" their music through our recreation of their music notation systems, which necessarily involves interpretation even with respect to the most fundamental elements as pitch and rhythm. Other details of how their music sounded and resounded (timbres, dynamics, vocal and instrumental forces employed, and so on) are even more difficult to ascertain. But Dillon goes beyond summoning music manuscripts in her examination of sound and meaning in medieval life, tapping into a rich variety of source materials that includes literary accounts, manuscript illuminations, and prayer books.

Her book falls into two parts: Chapters 2 through 4 explore the sound world of the city; Chapters 5 to 8 the internal sound of medieval prayer. The book's title purports to cover the period from 1260 to 1330, which it does in terms of the broader array of sources examined, but in terms of music sources, the focus is almost exclusively on the thirteenth-century ars antiqua. Leaving aside for the moment the theoretical underpinnings of Dillon's study that occupy the Prologue and Chapter 1, we begin in Paris, and with the exploration of the city's sound in Chapter 2 ("Sound and the City") as encountered in the manuscript illuminations in Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, f. fr. 2090-2092, which accompany the vita of the city's first bishop, St. Denis. (Unfortunately the book's photographic reproductions of this manuscript are too small to view the details Dillon describes. I would invite the reader to view the gorgeous color photographs of this manuscript in Gallica at Some other images from Dillon's book are available in color on the companion website.) The sound of the city (its singers, street criers, laborers and traders) is amplified through Dillon's readings of three further literary sources: the walkabout taken by a certain Guillot de Paris (recorded in his Dit des rues de Paris), the account of Jean de Jandun's Tractatus de laudibus Parisius of 1323, and John of Garland's Latin Dictionarius. She concludes with a brief mention of the city hubbub evoked "supermusically" (a term I will return to presently) in a trouvère chanson, and in two motets from the Montpellier manuscript (Montpellier, Bibliothèque interuniversitaire, Section Médicine, H 196). As I read this chapter I wished for a map (or several) to account for the geography of this sound and perhaps a timetable of when these sounds occurred within a day in order to begin to account for sounds as they existed within both space and time. Chapter 3 ("Charivari") lets us delay in Paris a little longer, as Dillon focuses here on the civic disturbances of the cacophonic charivari, and on the most famous musical description of their activity in the Roman de Fauvel (Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, f. fr. 146). Chapter 4 ("Madness and the Eloquence of Nonsense") transports us 130 miles north to Arras, and to the works of Adam de la Halle. Dillon explores the depiction of madness through sound in Adam's Jeu de la feuillée from 1276. From the babbling of Adam's madman in the Jeu, she makes a tortured leap to the rhyme schemes in two of Adam's motets in order to illustrate her claim that the motet's meaning is verbal dissonance itself. She states that the motet "making like rhymes sound together, it could dispense with the semantic context altogether" (170) (the "non"-sense of sound, I suppose).

The second half of the book is framed as an exploration of the theme of prayer, and how prayer's sounds infiltrated polyphonic compositions. Chapter 5 ("Sound in Prayer") serves as a short introduction to themes to be explored in what Dillon terms the "tritypch" of Chapters 6 through 8. Chapter 6 ("Sound in Prayer Books") examines how sound intrudes on and interrupts prayer via the prayer book's marginalia. Chapter 7 ("Praying with Sound") focuses on two case studies: the first study is on the Hours of Jeanne d'Evreux (New York, Metropolitan Museum, Cloisters Ms 54.1.2). Here is Dillon's description of Jean Pucelle's marginal illustrations: "the eye tunes into a medley of sounds as noisy as they are tiny: from the familiar sights of orthodox curly scrolls, to shouting, trumpeting, and gnashing line-endings; to figures screaming inside capitals; to music-obsessed monsters" (248). Dillon convincingly argues that these musical images were intended to provoke curiositas in their fourteen-year-old reader, a curiositas Jeanne needed to subdue and overcome if she was to succeed in her prayerful exercise. The second prayer book examined by Dillon is a Books of Hours of the Passion (Baltimore, Walters Art Museum Gallery W 102) with its marginal illustrations of Renart the Fox's funeral procession, consisting of instrument-wielding animals. Chapter 8 ("Devotional Listening and the Montpellier Codex") returns us to polyphony but in the context of the "possibility of a reciprocity between prayerful experience and musical experience" (286). Dillon contends that the visual schemes and organization of devotional books shaped the design and arrangement of polyphonic manuscripts, and provides readings of a selection of compositions from the Montpellier manuscript to support this contention. Her reading of a devotional ductus through the first fascicle of Montpellier is compelling, and in particular the link she draws between the chant setting that closes the fascicle ("Abject. My face is wet from copious tears...") and the In seculum settings (Items 2 and 3) whose courtly protagonist sings "en plors tous jours pour vous sui" ("I am always crying on account of you").

This last example is typical of the sort of reading Dillon gives. While she often examines the texts quite closely, usually in terms of their sound (rhymes, assonance, and so on), and sometimes their intertextuality, she appears to have made a purposeful decision to forgo any analysis of the music used to set these texts (or the "music itself" if I dare to use such a phrase). She offers her book as "an alternative to analysis-led approaches" (327). In fact, although seventeen music examples are included, in the text of the entire book, Dillon refers to pitch names on just two pages (120, 160). Although she often invokes sonorities, these sonorities do not seem to involve pitches. She describes her approach as examination of the "supermusical;" a term she coins early on (7) and uses frequently throughout the book. As best as I understand it, Dillon uses this term to to evoke a sonic quality that is musical but is above and beyond actual music (for example, street cries, prayer, animal sounds, or even thoughts about music). Her book is "an experiment in listening" (15) to "a kind of music in which sound asserts itself though [sic] and beyond words" (327).

In this examination of the supermusical, and her rejection of an "analytical" approach, Dillon's primary authority is Christopher Page's Discarding Images: Reflections on Music and Culture in Medieval France (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993), which she describes as having offered a "useful corrective...[to approaches] based on non-sounding meaning" (33). She says: "Page's aim to throw into question the intellectual, elitist context of the motet was part of a larger project, a reaction to what he felt to be overly analytically [sic], and essentially unmusical, approach to the form" (32, emphasis mine). Dillon in essence agrees with Page that this music (ars antiqua motets) privileges verbal sound over verbal sense, and should be appreciated aesthetically rather than intellectually. She illustrates this argument with her first music example in Chapter 1 ("Listening to the Past, Listening in the Past"). With a clever conceit intended to trick the reader, one by one she introduces the text and music of what appear to be three separate monophonic songs, and describes how they each individually make "sense." She then informs us that these three texts were intended to sound simultaneously as they are the three upper voices of a thirteenth-century motet (Le premier jor/Par un matin/Je ne puis plus/Iustus) and when combined polyphonically, they stop making sense. With this move, she introduces "the issue of audibility and comprehension of the texts in motets of this kind has preoccupied audiences almost from the genre's inception" (30).

The problem with all of this is that Dillon, despite very good recent scholarship to the contrary, accepts prima facie the argument that polytextual motets make no sense. But absent a more comprehensive examination of the thirteenth-century repertory (for although Dillon states that the motet is the focus of her book--her "primary witness and touchstone in this book to the changing nature of musical sound is the polytextual motet" (6)--she references only eleven motets in total), I am unwilling to accept her "non-sense" premise for two reasons. First, although Dillon acknowledges the work of other scholars, such as Sylvia Huot and Suzannah Clark, on thirteenth-century motets (33), she does not engage critically with their work. In particular, Clark has shown clearly in the case of one thirteenth-century motet, the music enhances comprehension of the meaning and that "the music serves as an ingenious means of signaling what there is to be listened for." [1] Second, as Anna Zayaruznaya has recently argued, we simply do not know enough about performance practice and medieval modes of listening to assume that because we cannot understand the medieval motet texts in modern performances then medieval listeners had the same problem. We most often listen to motets on recordings that flatten the auditory scene to two channels, that remove any visual cues from the perfomers, and which are often performed by groups whose singers have very similar vocal timbres. [2] This is not to say that Dillon's readings are of no value, but it is just that in the process of allowing this new sonic evidence to speak to us, and allowing us to hear its sounds, she also gags (or ignores) some of the clearest evidence we have, that is, the particular combinations of pitches that the composers chose. At the outset, Dillon states her "wish to resist the route of decipherment and resolution" (35). And in this, to some extent, she succeeds.

Nonetheless, there is much to interest both musicologists and medievalists in this book with the wide array of primary source materials studied and Dillon's engagement with modern theoretical approaches (such as sound studies). The production quality is quite good, although as I noted, some of black and white image reproductions were too small to view in any detail. There were a number of typos including: "identity" for "identify" (10); "analytically" for "analytical" (32); "Lisa Coulton" for "Lisa Colton" (33); "syllabum" for "syllabarum" (169); "though" for "through" (327); and the very confusing use of "Liège" as a standalone surname for the author of the Speculum musicae, which resulted in phrases like "Liège's society" when Dillon actually means Paris (33). (Incidentally, these references to "Jacques de Liège" at pages 31-32 are missing from the index, as is any entry for Grocheio, although he is mentioned several times in the book.) There were soundscapes that I wished Dillon had opted to study, for example, how did the court "sound," or the cathedrals on high feast days, and what types of evidence could we marshal to answer these questions, but one writer can only cover so much in the course of one monograph. There is certainly scope for many interesting studies on the geography of medieval sound, and on its liveness and mediation, not only via traditional monographs, but I could envision all sorts of exciting multimedia approaches to this topic. Dillon's thought-provoking study has now opened this field for discussion, and for that she is to be applauded.



1. Suzannah Clark, "'S'en Dirai Chançonete': Hearing Text and Music in a Medieval Motet," Journal of Plainsong and Medieval Music 16 (2007): 31-59, esp. 35.

2. Anna Zayaruznaya, "Motets and the Modern Medieval Sound: Ars nova Intelligibility Redux" (paper presented at After the End of Music History: An International Conference in Honor of Richard Taruskin, Princeton University, February 2012) and forthcoming as an article. Zayaruznaya presented some of this argument in Chapter 2 (''Hearing Voices'') of her dissertation, "Form and Idea in the Ars Nova Motet," Ph.D. diss., Harvard University, 2010, pp. 73-105.