Dillon, Emma, The Sense of Sound: Musical Meaning in France 1260-1330.
Making sense of sound is a complex process entailing far more than just decoding auditory experience. Memory, visual stimuli, physical movement, and language can all play a role in conditioning the listener's response just as music's expressive power can register without our having to experience the physical sensation of sound: silent music, music recalled, read, or imagined, can move us almost as powerfully as sounding music. The Sense of Sound is a clever and apt title for a highly original, persuasively argued book. Emma Dillon's monograph explores with verve how within certain milieux in late medieval France the sensory and sensual, ambient and random, sensible and nonsensical may have been factored into the experience of music. Revealed is 'a world captured in words, images, and music, in which sounds of all kinds shaped human experience, and which also shaped musical listening' (p. 8).
Taking cognisance of this world opens a vista on to the 'supermusical', a term and concept Dillon frequently uses but the precise meaning of which by its nature remains somewhat elusive. It signifies a realm of sound, real and implied, that is extraneous to (the piece of) music, in the sense of being above and beyond it, and yet integral to it also, in its potential to reveal the gamut of music's possible meanings. What does not come into the embrace of the 'supermusical' is information derived from a consideration of the music as transmitted in notation. Possible musical meanings revealed and alluded to in Dillon's book, for all their subtlety and provocative insight, sit outside, that is, are tacitly divorced from a consideration of their potential interplay with musical structure, form, pitch, and rhythm. Her methodology 'position[s] sound, listening, and creative community at the center of the picture normally driven by analytic, textual, and philological imperatives' (p. 332).
How this approach works in practice is the stuff of Chapter 1 in which a range of text-critical approaches is brought to bear on a genre of prime interest to Dillon, and an aspect of it that has long puzzled musicologists, namely: In what sense do polytextual motets make sense? To press the case for verbal sound in this genre taking precedence over verbal sense, Dillon explicates in turn each voice of Le premier jor/ Par un matin/ Je ne puis plus/ Iustus demonstrating their intelligibility as independent monophonic songs before revealing that, in fact, they constitute a single composition: three French-texted parts sounding simultaneously over a Latin-texted tenor.
Chapters 2 to 4 deal with external sound worlds. Adducing evidence from sources such as the manuscript illuminations of the Vita of St Denis, and literary works by Guillot de Paris, Jean de Jandun, and John of Garland, Dillon proceeds to a close reading of a trouvere chanson de recontre and two motets from the Montpellier Codex H.196. In Chapter 3, the focus is on the rambunctious carry-on of charivari as evidenced in Paris, BnF. fr. 146, the illuminated reworking of the Roman de Fauvel by Chaillou de Pesstain that is suffused with over 169 musical interpolations. Readers familiar with Dillon's first monograph, Medieval Music-Making and the 'Roman de Fauvel' (Cambridge University Press, 2002), will recall the imaginative flair and analytical insight she brought to this much-studied manuscript showing how music can be expressive in ways that are unperformable apart from visual representation. In The Sense of Sound, Dillon turns to the sotes chancons, specifically, the subgenre offratras. Its playful use of nonsense lyrics and sparseness of musical notation she sees as the very embodiment of charivari. She deftly traces the complex web of interconnections that link the refrain of the fratras, An Diex, with one of the most complex pieces in the Roman de Fauvel, the polytextual motet Quasi non ministerium/ Trahunt in precipicia/ Ve qui gregi/ Displicebat ei. The interpretative ramifications are dizzying; Dillon's command of this material is little short of virtuosic.
By the end of Chapter 3 Dillon's contention regarding the polytextual motet has been well established, namely, that by virtue of its texture and its multiple texts it has the potential to explore facets of linguistic sound that poetry alone could not (p. 161). Chapter 4 adds two more case studies, motets by Adam de la Halle. While the connection she posits between the depiction of madness in the composer's literary work, Jeu de la feuillee and the play of rhymes in two of his motets might seem a bit strained, Dillon's analyses of the musical works in this case do marry, and effectively so, textual with musico-analytical insights.
The second half of The Sense of Sound, Chapters 5-8, explores the internal sound world of prayer through an examination of iconography in Books of Hours and, by extrapolation, plausible connections in terms of like manner of presentation and decoration with a group of motets in the Montpellier Codex. The integral connection in religious communities between singing and praying, between the sound world of opus Dei and books of hours for personal devotion, is aptly expressed: 'Praying with sound was infused with a kind of musicality, was itself a kind of music-making' (p. 242).
The 'triptych' of Chapters 6-8 examines the significance of marginalia and framing decoration in a number of prayer books. Drawing on a wide selection of secondary literature, the work of Roger Wieck and Michael Camille in particular, Dillon convincingly highlights the 'innately musical' aspects of the presentational mise-en-page of these books. Although the bulk of her attention is devoted to the Hours of Jeanne d'Evreux (New York, Cloister 54.1.2) and Book of Hours of the Passion (Baltimore, Walters W102) there are throughout gems of observations about numerous other manuscripts. For example, her keen observations on another Walters manuscript (W88) sheds light on the sequence, Que est ista que ascendet transiens deserta, by the early thirteen-century poet and major figure in the history of medieval music, Philip the Chancellor. In the final chapter, Dillon returns to the polytextual motet applying to a number of pieces in the first fascicle of the Montpellier Codex insights derived from the study of devotional books.
Dillon's is a major contribution to a rich field of study. It deserves a wide readership.
Medieval and Early Modern Centre
The University of Sydney
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jul 1, 2013|
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