Monthly Archives: May 2013

The miracle is not that we are here, it is that we are here together.
That the seasons turn about us, and we watch it all.
That the moon waxes and wanes but love endures,
That life springs eternal, when death is but a breath away.

I come to you with unseeing eyes, broken bones, wounds of pride.
I come to you with hope and dread, fear and pain, guilt and prayer.
You come to me with commanding presence, broken shackles, assured faith:
Lay your hands on me, remove my bonds, let me be free.

They are the wanderers, the lost, the forgetful,
They need your power, your storm-fraught words, your lust for grace
Your certainty sweeps me in its wake. We must not fail them.
They believe so hard, their blindness leaves no room for doubt.

Written in response to Tope Folarin’s short story ‘Miracle’, nominated for the Caine Prize and available for download here.

This post is part of the Caine prize carnival, organised by Aaron Bady at the New Inquiry. It’s not Machaut, it’s not medieval, it’s only vaguely multimodal (so far), so why am I writing about it?

St Francis

St Francis receiving the stemmata. Found through a creative commons search (Wikimedia commons).

One of my goals this summer is to develop my creative side. Back in my undergraduate days I specialised in composition and dreamed of having my work performed at the Proms (who says I don’t still? Doesn’t everyone?). I’ve had the occasional piece published or professionally performed, but most are sitting in a rather battered file by my desk, trying their best to keep out of the way of small, clumsy feet. I have always enjoyed creative writing and have great plans which may or may not ever be realised. So far, so banal.

If you’re still reading, then you can be let into a realisation that I am still coming to terms with. I intend to write a monograph. An academic one about my research, aye, but not an inaccessible one. (Impenetrability is not my style.) It has a plan, it has support from my institution, and senior colleagues are all encouragement. All it requires is for me to sit down and do the dirty. And that is daunting. Very daunting. This summer, then, is my preparation time. The more I write, the more I will be able to write. The more confident I feel in my output, the better the product will be. The more at home I am with my creative leanings, the more multimodal my finished book. The more peaceful my soul.

One of the biggest things my journey into multimodality so far has taught me is the limits of my knowledge. I might be pretty hot on Machaut and medieval stuff, but multimodality spans such a broad range of topics that I am in awe of my colleagues who are able to meaningfully link them together. And so I am Branching Out. For the next few weeks, as part of the Caine prize carnival for which I have volunteered myself, I am going to let the stories take me on a journey to – broadly speaking – Africa. A continent I have never visited. Every week until July I will read a short-listed story, and blog my response. (For a list of the co-participants, see below.)

The first story in fact takes Nigeria to the United States. Already I can hear resonances in my readings. I am lucky enough to be working with the editors of a collected edition of essays on exile literature (Axel Englund and Anders Olsson), and thus have recently been on two journeys from Algeria to France (through the contribution by Gabriela Seccardini), as well as one from the New World ‘back’ to the Old, via north Africa (that of William Bamberger). There are, of course, more contributions which deal with exile writers (or those writing about exiles) in the United States. (I think I will have to devote a blog post to this entire fascinating volume in due course.) At the recent Multimodal Research Seminar in Lesbos (which I blogged about here) Tormod W. Anundsen gave a presentation on his work with expatriot musicians (the group ‘Afrisa’) from the Côte d’Ivoire presenting ‘Africa’ to schoolchildren in Norway. Interestingly, Anundsen questioned whether postcolonialism is a wholly useful way of thinking when professionals choose to exploit their ‘otherness’, whether for educational, profitable, or other purposes.

And so postcolonialism raises its head. I might as well deal with it now, lay my cards on the table, and admit that one of the reasons why I have never studied non-European literature at a professional level is because I have no inclination to delve any deeper into postcolonialism than I need to. Perhaps, when faced with this huge mound of critical thought, I feel the fear of the unknown, the other – yes, I am well aware of the paradox, thank you. But, for me, what my feelings boil down to is this: people are people, whoever they are, whenever they are, wherever they are. They are capable of supreme wit, of bringing great joy and sadness, of moving me to tears through their works, their images, their stories, their arts. People are also capable of unspeakable cruelty to their fellows and to the world around them, and the world is just as capable of inducing suffering on its occupants. ‘Twas ever thus, as a delve into history (or, for that matter, the Bible) confirms.

Let me put that another way: the fact that the Caine prize is for African literature, and is immersed in and surrounded by the politics of that fascinating and vast space, is not what I will focus on in my contribution to the carnival. Others, vastly more knowledgeable and capable than me, are already doing that. What I hope to offer is a series of personal responses, as a human being, a reader, a writer. If I hadn’t already been enriched by the first offering I wouldn’t be writing this; it is my hope that I may pass on some of that richness in my turn. That is all.

List of other participants in the Caine prize carnival, with links to their responses:

The midnight sun is here, summer has arrived. For this year’s summer project I have decided to add more ‘creative stuff’ to my blog. This may take the form of music, poetry, prose, photography, or a mixture of modes. Indeed, as well as working on the creative impulse, I will also look into the process from the other side: to reflect on what it is to create, and upon the creation. This is something I touched upon in the post ‘Cycles and Circles’ which I published here in April, but I would like to take it forward a step or two.

Thus I also intend – wary of the slope to Hades – to read all of the stories shortlsted for this year’s Caine prize. (For more info see the inspiring article in The New Inquiry here.) Thoughts on Tope Folarin’s ‘Miracle’ to be delivered soon.

To start us off, some poetic thoughts which I will leave uncommentated (for now at least).

Arctic summer

Naked on the beach
Flesh in the light
Sun turns in circles
Orange glow at midnight
Sky in the water
Blue on the sea
Snow on the mountains
White peaks protruding promise
Leaves on the trees
Green lush springing anew
Flowers turning their heads
Yellow on the slopes
Stones harbour their memories
Grey on the bay
Blood flowing from wounds
Red stains on the shore.


The entrance to our retreat

The entrance to our retreat

I am writing this on the island of Lesbos, from a monastery owned by the Greek Orthodox Church. It is where my research team from the University of Agder are currently engaged in a ‘research seminar’ at the university’s Methóchi Study Centre. To me, it is more like a research retreat.

View of the sleeping quarters

View of the sleeping quarters

The work/relaxation space outside the bedrooms.

The work/relaxation space outside the bedrooms.

The building’s history dates back to the 14th century. New this year: outdoor showers. The seminar room has a chapel off it, with the expected icons and gild. There is a more ornate chapel as part of the structure proper. There is an emphasis on simplicity – rooms are shared and sparsely furnished, swifts are nesting just above the doors, escape is only by rickety bicycle on the dirt roads, the local farmer’s donkey keeps us entertained with his commentary on the work being presented – and on fellowship – meals are eaten together outdoors at one long wooden table, prepared from local organic ingredients by a cook whose recipes are remembered fondly in the university staffroom, the evenings are spent in song.

The veranda to the seminar room, which doubles as a performance space in the eveings

The veranda to the seminar room, which doubles as a performance space in the evenings

As a medievalist, I find a connection with the past that I didn’t expect. As a researcher from outside Norway, I find an awe that we are all here, and at the university’s expense (yes, even those who are in the research group but not at my institution have their costs covered). Here I have found a deep respect not only for my colleagues – that much I had hoped for and expected – but also for my institution. For the University of Agder runs this place, and a sister centre a kilometre or so away, which is apparently even more basic and secluded. In other words, the University of Agder has invested in a research environment in inspirational surroundings where its scholars can come to work collectively, or to which its scholars can literally retreat to work individually. (One of our number is on a two-week retreat to finish writing up his PhD.) As one who was nurtured in the British academic system, such an investment in quality research time was hitherto unimaginable.

At work in the seminar room.

At work in the seminar room.

It is not my intention here to write a ‘review’ of the papers and the discussions. All of them are works in progress, and each has at least one tweet from me with the hashtag #MMfsem . All participants circulated a research paper to the team a few weeks ago; each paper was assigned two opponents. The format therefore runs as such: brief presentation from author(s) – 1st opponent’s comments – 2nd opponent’s comments – author response and discussion. This means that I have had to read some 25 research papers on everything from hip hop to nursing techniques to climbing manuals to engineers’ writing skills. Guillaume de Machaut has found himself in eclectic company. Yet it is also living, breathing evidence of the breadth and vitality of multimodal studies – not just at my institution, but among those working under the broad umbrella of ‘multimodality and cultural change’ (or Multikul).

One of the views from the monastery.

One of the views from the monastery.

As pale Nordic skins get gradually more tanned over the week, so too do we feel more of a bond between ourselves as people, and – of course – between our work. Already for me, plans have been made for a joint research article and (eek) perhaps even for a monograph. The support from senior colleagues has been overwhelming – not just for my work, but for that of the other early career researchers here. The so-called ‘Jantelov’ has been rightly criticised, but its plus points include equality and respect for all. With participants ranging from a Master’s student to an Emeritus professor, we are a mixed bunch, but it does not show.

Perhaps most of all, though, I have been able to experience the value of a ‘retreat’: a chance to refresh the mind and the soul in simple surroundings and fellowship.

One of the locals takes a snooze.

One of the locals takes a snooze.

This review is also posted on the Medieval Song Network site here.

Review of the conference ‘Guillaume de Machaut: Music, Image, Text in the Middle Ages’, University of Exeter, UK, 29-30 April 2013

From the Exeter project site:

From the Exeter project site:

This conference took place to mark the approach of the end of the Leverhulme-funded phase of the Machaut edition project, which will for the first time provide a comprehensive edition of Machaut’s complete works and music (see A full list of papers can be seen here, and the conference was live-tweeted by Elizabeth Eva Leach (@eeleach), with Kate Maxwell (@skatemaxwell) taking over when necessary. These tweets can be found with the hashtag #Machex13.

All domains from Machaut studies were represented, with a fair number of papers crossing interdisciplinary boundaries. In addition, a concert by Le Basile provided a rare and much-appreciated opportunity to hear Machaut’s works performed live. On the historical side of things, project co-leader Yolanda Plumley together with Uri Smilansky revealed more details about the colourful courtier whose arms adorn BnF fr. 22545-6 (ms F-G). Perhaps more importantly, their paper revealed his extensive travels and associations with other manuscripts, thereby helping to expand the picture of manuscript patronage and exchange at the time. In a similar vein, Anna Alberni offered an insight into the role of some isolated works by Machaut in Biblioteca de Catalunya 7-8 (the chansonnier Vega-Aguiló) and the presence of Machaut’s works in Aragon more generally (a paper which chimes in well with that given by Lawrence Earp at the ‘Machaut in the Book’ symposium in Virginia, reviewed here). Machaut’s presence – bodily or otherwise – in Saint-Quentin in Picardy was the focus of David Fiala’s paper, which also shed some light on another clerkly musician at the Luxemburg court. Another paper which examined both musical and religious issues was that by Thomas Neal, who argued that the triplum and motetus voices of Motet 21 can be read as tropes, since they draw so heavily on the vocabulary and structure of office hymns. Emphasising art-historical issues, Julia Drobinsky’s analysis of the placement of miniatures in BnF fr. 22545-6 revealed that the artist of this manuscript – or the person issuing artistic instructions – paid close attention to the placement of the miniatures which emphasise the steps of a story more closely than any of the other illuminated Machaut manuscripts.

Of course, Machaut’s literary output also came under scrutiny, and in the first session of the first day, project co-leader R. Barton Palmer and Helen Swift both examined authorship and identity in Machaut’s works. While Swift argued for a mutable ‘je’ in relation to the Jugement dou roi de Behaigne and its accompanying images, Palmer included the two jugement poems, the Lai de plour ‘Qui bien aimme’, and the Voir dit in his paper where he traced the idea of authenticity both from the ‘inside’ – within the works – and the ‘outside’ – in the eyes (or ears) of the readers. Tamsyn Rose-Steel’s analysis of word repetition – particularly that of the ‘sans penser’ motif – in the lyrics now commonly known as the Louange des dames traced this single motif through the entire collection, from the very first line of the first poem, thus illustrating its importance.

On the second day, there were a number of papers which were intensely musicological in nature. The first of these was by Jared Hartt, who proposed a rethinking of the accepted notion of the workings of harmonies in Machaut’s mass so that, in line with research into his other works, the roles of the tenor and contratenor are not as clear-cut as has been previously thought. Following him, Anne Stone gave a paper in which she undertook a rhythmic analysis of two ballades which focused on the order of rhythms at the breve level. Her results showed the importance of the rhetorical technique of orditorio even at this micro level. David Maw’s paper argued that Machaut’s music displays ‘a pure intransitive subjectivity’, which he illustrated though Rondeau 5. The other session which was musicological in nature offered more in the way of text-music relations. Virginia Newes’s paper on the monophonic virelais in BnF fr. 1586 (ms C) asked important questions regarding line lengths and scribal awareness of rhyme issues, and Warwick Edwards’s work on accent structures and their complicated relation to musical phrasing played its part in revealing the shift from an oral to written culture – from song to book – which was well underway by the fourteenth century.

Turning now to those papers which were more overtly interdisciplinary in nature, the jugement poems once again came into focus in Emma Cayley’s paper, which dwelt on the possible causes of damage – deliberate or not – to the miniatures in BnF fr. 1584 (ms A), relating them to the verb ‘effacier’ which appears in the Jugement dou roi de Navarre when the judge is asked to overturn the outcome of Behaigne. Another paper which combined textual and visual analysis was that of Emma Dillon, whose exploration of the circularity and function of the rondelet in the Remede de Fortune linked both to the miniature in BnF fr. 1586 (ms C) and to the layout of the page as a whole. Taking interdisciplinarity and layout issues one step further, Kate Maxwell presented some of the ‘modes’ at play on a single manuscript folio, arguing that the framework of ‘multimodality’ can be a rewarding method of manuscript analysis. Two papers combined musical and textual issues: Dmitris Kountouras’s analysis of the complainte in the Remede de Fortune – ‘Machaut’s only lament’ – offered new insights into this long and musically repetitive piece; and Jacques Boogaart’s interpretation of Motet 7 brought both David’s lament for Absalom and the story of the orgueilleuse alongside a musical analysis which suggested a ‘tantalising feeling of unobtainable perfection’.

Such a phrase is perhaps also applicable to the edition project itself, which was the subject of a round table given by members of the project team. With so much on offer – searchable online texts, recordings, and a new edition of the music, to name but a few of the delights displayed – the appetite of delegates was certainly whet for the eagerly anticipated release of the first portions later this year. Perfection is, indeed, difficult to obtain, and with audience queries focusing on compatibility and longevity of the online sections of the project, only time will tell whether all these expectations can be met. Nevertheless, as reading Machaut only reminds us, we should banish Desire and put our trust in Hope (admittedly assisted in her duties here by the skills of the project team). What is certain is that, with two major projects flowering this year and bearing fruit in the near future, Machaut studies will never be the same again.