I’ve been sitting in on a graduate class my advisor’s been teaching this semester (for three reasons:  he’s a fabulous teacher, the subject matter overlaps with much of my dissertation, and just to be back in the classroom with my fellow grad students, most of whom now look at me like I used to look at those ghostly dissertation-writing grad students who’d appear once in awhile on campus, looking pale and lost and completely lonely).  Last night we discussed The Tempest, the last play Shakespeare wrote solely on his own (he collaborated on several plays throughout and at the end of his career).  Specifically, we focused on music and sound in the play, which takes place on an island and which opens with a storm at sea, complete with thunder and lightning (which would’ve been created using various stage conventions, including explosives).  The leader of this class discussion was a fellow graduate student who studies music and sound in early modern literature.  Shakespeare’s a perfect site of inquiry, because most of his plays feature music, all feature sound and rhythm, and so many of them have had second or third lives as operas, symphonies, and ballets.  The Tempest’s Prospero, in particular, is a sorcerer who uses music, like he uses the weather, to control people’s emotions and even their actions.

In our discussion of the play, we talked about the sorts of music that would have been known to Englishmen and women in the 16th and 17th centuries—ballads and drinking songs, sacred music used in church, and not much more.  We compared this to the kinds of music early modern explorers encountered in the New World or in Africa and Asia, music that would have seemed—literally—foreign and bizarre, if not completely disorienting.  For example, imagine if you were used to this:


And then heard this:


Or this, which was music composed—using natural, conventional instruments such as lutes and woodwinds—for use by the witches in Macbeth and, like a soundtrack on a horror movie today, must’ve really freaked people out with how unnatural it sounded:



It’s easy to forget, in a multicultural, global society complete with iPods and YouTube, that someone living in Europe in the 17th century would have absolutely no idea that there were other types of music out there.  I remember feeling exhausted and discombobulated at the end of the Brazilian film, Orfeu Negro (Black Orpheus) because in the film, which takes place in Rio de Janeiro during Carnival, there is a nonstop background soundtrack of rapid percussion, to the point where you feel swept up and away, almost unable to concentrate or relax.  (I recommend the film; you can get it on Netflix. It was made in 1959, won an Oscar; it’s a retelling of the myth of Orpheus, that famously enchanting musician from Greek mythology.)

When we got on the subject of music vs. noise, our discussion leader introduced us to the work of Michel de Certeau, who was fascinated with the aspects of everyday life that we come to ignore.  Particularly, de Certeau calls attention to noise:  everything that is in the background day in and day out, the ways we tune it out and only notice it when it’s gone:  “We are immersed in sound just as we are immersed in air and light, we are caught up willy-nilly in its hurly-burly.  We breathe background noise, … .  Background noise is the ground of our perception, absolutely uninterrupted, it is our perennial sustenance, the element of the software of all our logic.”  Because we take for granted the soundtrack of our daily lives, traveling somewhere new, with its attendant, differing sounds, can be completely disorienting.  My advisor shared his experience of travelling to India for the first time and feeling overwhelmed by how noisy it was, even compared to, say, New York City or London, but also how eventually he became accustomed to the noise and ceased noticing it altogether.  (Or like Vinnie in My Cousin Vinny, who can’t sleep at night in the country because it’s too damn quiet.) It’s really fascinating to stop and notice all the sounds around you, but also to notice how secondary hearing is in Western culture, how sight is the privileged sense, how even when we hear something new or strange we immediately want to see what’s making the noise, to locate its origin and identify it visually.  But it’s also worth considering the way that music and sound (like scents)  can affect or excite bodily responses much more easily and palpably, viscerally, than, say, a sight or a touch. 

What is music, then,  and what is noise?  The first European explorers to Brazil classified the music made by the natives as “noise” rather than “music”—noise being natural, tribal, and music being cultivated and refined; reminds me of the parent, whose child is listening to heavy metal, crying out,“That’s not music, that’s just noise!”

To end, here’s the noisy song I’ve been listening to a lot lately; it may not be the music of the spheres, but it makes me pretty happy:


** All music provided by my friend Jennifer, musician and literary critic extraordinaire, and leader of last night’s discussion.