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The Sense of Sound: Musical Meaning in France 1260-1330 by Emma Dillon (review)

From: Parergon
Volume 30, Number 2, 2013
pp. 181-183 | 10.1353/pgn.2013.0129

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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 trouvère 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 chançons, specifically, the sub-genre of fratras. 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...

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