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22.11.05 Bude, Sonic Bodies

22.11.05 Bude, Sonic Bodies

My reading of Bude’s work cannot be detached from my own background as a researcher, and it will certainly guide the next few paragraphs of my writing. Within the field of medieval studies, a lot of my work focuses on medieval soundscapes and acoustics, both in terms of how we study those intangible experiences, what they tell us about the medieval past, and how we can make explorations of said experiences available to non-specialist audiences. My work is interdisciplinary, combining expertise in arts and humanities, with work on sound design and audio engineering.

Bude’s work is also interdisciplinary and its novel way of approaching ideas surrounding “music” and “the body” has opened up new avenues of thinking for my own research; I am confident others will find it to be as enlightening as I have. I am also confident that what readers will draw from this illuminating volume will very much depend on their own background.

Bude’s Sonic Bodies focuses on musicality and sonority beyond music and onto textual domains. Throughout the book we are guided towards an expansion of the understanding of music and the body, by focusing on medieval texts that are not typically considered to be musical. With this aim, Bude explores a variety of texts, from speculative music treatises to works of poetry, and analyses them through a variety of lenses, including Pierre Schaeffer’s work on musique concrète, sound-objects, and acousmatic listening; as well as feminist and disability studies, to name a few.

Bude defines “sonic body” as a body “that has access to forms of subjectivity, power, ways of being, and linguistic meaning that do not accrue to the visible or visio-tactile body. Matter might be at the heart of this body, but so too might immateriality.” (5)

Chapter 1 focuses on Jacobus’s fourteenth-century Speculum musicae, in which he expands Boethius’s categories of music from musica instrumentalis, musica humana, and musica mundana, to include musica celestis, that is, angelic song. Angelic song is proposed to be able to exist without matter: angels sing without needing material bodies. Bude argues that Jacobus’s work explores the types of bodies that can be musical, and includes immaterial bodies, expanding, as a result, notions on the body and on musicality.

In this chapter Bude also examines the work from the fourteenth-century mystic Richard Rolle, in particular in relation to the concept of canor, a heavenly melody that reaches the ears and soothes the physical body, opening it up to divine experience. It is the study of canor that opens up Chapter 2, as Bude explores responses to Rolle’s influential work through the analysis of Walter Hilton’s Of Angels’ Song. Hilton’s work, Bude explains, seeks to detract from Rolle’s practice, which threatened orthodoxy by encouraging private spiritual practice, and which by the late fourteenth and early fifteenth century had gained popularity. The aim of Hilton’s epistle, argues Bude, was not to define angelic singing, but instead, through the inability to define it, to put into question private sensory experiences and therefore delegitimise individual spiritual practice.

The reflexion on noise and silence in The Boke of Margery Kempe in Chapter 3 presents, to me, one of the most fascinating and powerful arguments in Bude’s volume. Bude argues that Margery Kempe’s power does not rest in noise making, which she cannot control, but in her tactical silences. Bude refers to the relationship and rhythm between noise and silence as “murmuring silence” (72) and considers it as a type of music. Bude argues that through her silence, Margery forces those in power towards attentive listening, using for her own benefit the association between silence and authority, vs. noise making and powerlessness. This chapter includes some of Bude’s most moving arguments, by drawing connections to current socio-political contexts as well as drawing from the stories of female martyrs.

Chapter 4 focuses on the writing of Richard Methley and John Norton, two Carthusians based at Mount Grace Priory in North Yorkshire. Bude focuses on two manuscripts: Methley, Trinity MS O.2.56; and Norton, Lincoln Cathedral MS 57. Bude reflects on how the full meaning of Methley’s and Norton’s work only becomes graspable when considering their works as entangled. Because of the importance of solitary work and silence for Carthusian monks, devotional importance was given to reading, copying, and writing manuscripts. Mystical song, Bude argues, is at the centre of the manuscripts, which borrow the concept of canor from Rolle and adapt it to the Carthusian lifestyle. The sonic bodies evidenced in Methley and Norton’s work are textual and interconnected; whereas Rolle’s canor produces sound in the ears, Methley and Norton’s canor, Bude tells us, is of a textual nature.

I was fascinated by Chapter 5’s analysis of sonority in William Langland’s Piers Plowman. Bude explores this sonority by referring to the allegories, the narrative itself, the personifications and the formal properties of the piece. Bude applies Pierre Schaeffer’s work on acousmatic sound, that is, sound whose source remains invisible, to Piers Plowman, arguing, among other things, that allegory is a type of acoustic veil. Moreover, Bude explains that the personifications in Piers Plowman are made of speeches and are rarely characterised in visual terms. Personifications are made of sounds and Will’s journey is one of listening.

Of particular interest to the concept of acousmatic sound and listening is Bude’s analysis of Passus 18, when Will’s dream includes a performance of Palm Sunday liturgy. Bude reflects on how Langland invokes the specificity of this celebration during which, in Western Europe, the laity was able to sing antiphonally with the clergy, and which could include a street procession. Palm Sunday street processions were ones in which the sounds of celebrations resounding through the streets were combined with notions of an imagined historical Jerusalem, which was being re-enacted

In addition to this, Bude reflects on B.18.8 in which Langland is seen to refer to the practice of “angel choirs” at the end of Palm Sunday processions. “Angel choirs,” explains Bude, were small interior balconies present in some cathedrals, from which choirs could sing the Gloria, laus, hidden from the view of liturgy participants. Sound and source were separated, resulting in an acousmatic experience. Having been part of a series of acoustic measurements in York Minster (UK) led by Dr Lidia Álvarez Morales back in 2019, I was intrigued by reading of the existence of these balconies in York Minster, and keen to test what the acoustic simulations might tell us about those sonic experiences.

Chapter 6 focuses on notions of disability in relation to music in Chaucer’s work, particularly in relation to the Franklin’s Tale. Bude starts by reflecting on the medieval differentiation between musicus and cantor, with the former being a true musician, and the latter someone unable to comprehend the philosophical notions behind the music they sing. Both the mind and the body of the cantor were considered as disabled, and at the service of the musicus. Bude then takes the reader back to the myth of Echo and Narcissus, and its connection to the Franklin’s Tale, including insightful reflections on disability and gender.

In Sonic Bodies, Tekla Bude presents an incredibly interesting analysis of the definitions of music and the body, by going beyond those texts that are traditionally considered to be musical, and redefining notions of sonority and the body in the process. Moreover, Bude demonstrates a command of several different subdisciplines within the arts and humanities, and I found it illuminating to read how sound, gender, and disability studies were applied to the field of medieval literature and music. I would recommend the volume to anyone and everyone looking to rethink what we consider as musical texts and finding new ways into the topic.