Tag Archives: Multimodality

Zora Neale Hurston

Zora Neale Hurston

This is not about sympathy. It is not about sob stories. Like my last post on disability (inspired by Dorothy Kim writing for ITM), it is about counting. It is about raising awareness. To use the terminology of multimodality, it is about acknowledging the cultural practices of our times – and changing them. It is about discourse, for the current prevalent societal discourse – the sugar-coated poison which infuses popular culture with impossible ideals – does not recognise that here, now, everywhere, human beings are being abused. We probably always have been, but that doesn’t make it acceptable, anywhen.

One day I hope we will see a society where there is no such thing as ‘coming out’. A society where everyone, regardless of their position on the various spectra of gender, sexuality, disability, colour, class, can just be. And will be respected and loved for who they are. Idealist? Guilty. Inherent believer in the ultimate goodness of humanity? Ditto – despite the evidence, despite past experiences. (Could I say that even if someone had hurt my child? I would like to think that, eventually, I could. I pray I will never have to find out. And if it were your child, and you couldn’t, then I would not judge you. I would support you, give you all the time you needed, but I would not seek revenge on your behalf.)

One form of ‘coming out’ which is growing in importance is the coming out as a survivor of abuse. Putting that another way: all sorts of people in different walks of life are pointing out just how many abusers there are in the world. This, in turn, is making us count. As a woman with a happy home in one of the safest countries in the world I gaze in horror at the tales I know, the tales I have heard. Nowhere is safe. At this time of year people, particularly young people in education, are at the beginning of new journeys, new challenges. Are there predators circling, waiting to pounce on these vulnerable potential victims? Of course there are, but they are in the minority. Probably the most numerous potential abusers are themselves victims. Maybe they are also on a new journey. Many surely don’t realise how much they have to learn. It takes a brave and wise heart indeed to be able to recognise that one’s own bad experiences can generate more of the same. When your own personal boundaries have themselves been breached, how hard it may be to see that acquiescence out of fear is not the same as consent – particularly in the bold ignorance of youth. The victim of bullying is expected to resist becoming a bully when things don’t turn out like the books with happy endings promised. The child of an over-strict parent is expected to know that that is no way to treat romantic partners when they don’t submit as they do in cheesy films. The victim of assault is expected to not turn violent when they (rightly or wrongly) believe themselves threatened again. The survivor of depression and self-harm is expected to not be jealous of those who struggle to comprehend what they cannot understand.

Many years ago, a young man I used to know who had been a victim of all of the above went from friend to lover to prolonged systematic abuser of someone who had only ever wanted to help him. There, I said it. Looking back, it didn’t take my heart long to forgive him, once I had escaped to a better place. It has taken a long time for my soul to heal enough to be able to come out and be counted.

The heroes, you see, are those who break the mould. Those who channel their negative experiences into a force for change. It won’t happen the next day. It may not happen for years. But those who can suffer harm without doing harm, those who can love freely without wanting more, those who can live through incomprehensible sadness yet maintain an openness for the beauty of life; they are the survivors we should admire while we mourn, love, and respect those who, for whatever reason, could not complete the journey.

Anyone following #mybodymyhome (website here) will know that one of the world’s most talented writers, Shailja Patel (website here), has come out as having been recently sexually assaulted just days after her return to Kenya, and that campaigners all over the world have come together to support her. Anyone with a social media account, let alone half an eye on current affairs, will know that a young man miles away on the same continent is awaiting sentencing for killing someone he says he loved. One of these tales is in the full media glare. The other may not be in the spotlight, but its diffuse and disturbing light can be glimpsed virtually everywhere.

Oscar Pistorius is portrayed by said media as a villain and a victim, as a rags-to-riches playboy and a vulnerable traumatised soul, as a heroic world-class athlete and a bad liar out to save what he can of his skin. The same outlets can portray him as different versions of these extremes from one day to the next – indeed, in the same day. Due to his celebrated and celebrity status, suddenly Web 2.0 knows better than the judge what she should decide. While a detailed multimodal analysis of the media portrayals of the trial would be fascinating (anyone looking for a PhD topic in multimodalality / African studies / disability studies – if you’ve already got a supervisor in mind you can thank me in your acknowledgments), what I am focusing on here are the cultural practices involved. South Africa as a nation has been the focus of external media gaze for longer than I have been alive. First, those of us on the outside boycotted its produce. Then we watched as Mandela walked to freedom. We sang along with Jim Kerr and Simple Minds. We cheered the rise of the ANC, the elections, the presidencies, the mixed sports teams. The fractured society and rampant gun culture which simmer underneath do not fit into this fairytale. Nor does the fact that it might be OK to shoot someone if they are an intruder – because everyone knows that intruders are not human beings, are not innocent until proven guilty; more to the point, because everyone knows that any intruder is likely to be armed and will shoot to kill if not shot first.

In the same way, everybody knows that women’s bodies are public property. They sell cars and motorbikes. Open a certain UK newspaper apparently like any other and you will see full-frontal top-half female nudity (which, naturally, you won’t find on facebook, even with a baby’s head covering more than any clothing could). You won’t find women’s football reported in that newspaper, of course, or indeed in many others (Norwegian newspapers, I salute you). Women’s words are spun around their clothing and hairstyle, around someone else’s opinion of their looks. Threats can be made with impunity. Microagressions, everyday sexism, mansplaining, the works. Women are, after all, bodies with holes in. And human beings notice bodies. We are programmed to. I’m no biologist but I wouldn’t be surprised if we evolved to assess faces and bodies as part of the subconscious evolutionary drive which powers all species, not just ours. But what sets homo sapiens apart from the rest of the animal kingdom is that very ‘sapiens’ – the conscious thought. The ability to override our instincts, and to train others (and other species) to do so. We can train a dog, a horse, mebbie not a cat I grant you, but seals, bears, ferrets, ourselves. A leopard can change his shorts – if he wants to. It is a much harder task to change a society’s cultural practices.

Yet it can happen. It has to. Psychologists, sociologists, historians, and anyone who has read any Orwell knows that what stands between research and government policy to drive change is the people, the sheep. The masses are made up of individuals. Indeed, because of this linking position, there is great power in the hands of those seeking change. Campaigning works. (Eventually.) You see, cultural practices are not, thank all you consider holy, set in stone. Every single one of us can be a hero and change things for the better, whatever our status, background, or culture. Every victim you believe. Every judgment you don’t make. Every gentle gesture. Every time you double-check ‘is this OK for you?’. Every time you ask a child’s permission for a hug. Every time you use your own hurt to help someone else.

This post is dedicated to the heroes. You know who you are.

I have had quite a few people ask me recently for key texts to get them started on multimodality, so I decided that it’s high time to share a few favourites. This list is neither exhaustive nor comprehensive – and please use the comments to post works I’ve missed out. I have taken two big eliminating decisions with the list: to only list books (though there are plenty of edited volumes here), and only those works in English. (Perhaps another day I’ll add a top ten of journal articles, but most of my favourite shorter pieces are chapters in the edited collections mentioned here. In the meantime, check through the contents pages of the journal Visual Communication, since that often contains articles on multimodality). It is also centred on Kress, Van Leeuwen and those working in their wake because that’s the path I took into multimodality – but there are other thinkers out there as well.



First though: if you read nothing else on the topic, then read these three. It was very hard picking just three, believe me.

1. Jewitt, Carey, ed. 2009 The Routledge Handbook of Multimodal Analysis. London: Routledge.

Why? It’s a go-to guide for a selection of articles on multimodality in a variety of disciplines. If you’re not sure whether multimodality will work for you, start your process of discovery here to see how broad the spectrum can be. I will never forget the article on gay dating sites, or on facebook. The introduction is also my absolute go-to for an overview of the topic.

2. Kress, Gunther, and Van Leeuven, Theo, 2006 (2nd ed.). Reading Images: The Grammar of Visual Design. New York: Routledge.

Why? Well, the 1996 first edition was the one that really started the whole thing off in the mainstream – academic and (to some extent) non-academic. It’s clearly written, it has examples from a wide range of images (a broad term which encompasses all visual ‘texts’), and it has easy-to-follow and easy-to-remember techniques which really do work for the majority of images. The particular genius of this book – and of multimodality in general – lies in identifying trends that hold true across times and cultures (and in specifying where and why they don’t, e.g. in cultures that write/read right to left).

3. Kress, Gunther and Van Leeuwen, Theo, 2001. Multimodal Discourse: The Modes and Media of Contemporary Communication. London: Arnold.

Why? I like the way this book divides the process of a multimodal analysis into discourse, design, production, and distribution. Of course that is not the only way, and there is more to think about than those four things, but it is an excellent starting point. Yes, that is still the way I do my analyses – or at least how I begin them.


The not-quite-top three

4. Kress, Gunther, 2010. Multimodality: A Social Semiotic Approach to Communication. London: Routledge Falmer.

Why? A narrow miss of the top three, this one. It contains the best definition of ‘mode’ that I’ve seen (spoiler alert – it’s hard to define). More importantly, it unlocked for me the ‘secrets’ of social semiotics, a concept of which, until reading this, I harboured an inexplicable fear.

5. Norris, Sigrid, ed., 2012. Multimodality in Practice: Investigating Theory-in-practice-through-methodology. (New York: Routledge)

Why? This was one of the first texts I read on multimodality, and I was hooked. What could an exploding billboard possibly have in common with my work on medieval manuscripts? (Paul White’s contribution is on the billboard; I found striking resonances to my own work.) Carey Jewitt’s introductory chapter is another of her clear, helpful outlines of the topic. My only quibble with this volume in the title – surely they could have thought of something easier to remember (and to capitalise correctly!).

6. O’Hallaran, Kay L. and Smith, Bradley A., eds, 2011. Multimodal Studies: Exploring Issues and Domains. New York: Routledge.

Why? This is another broad-ranging collection of essays. More than that, reading them created echoes in my mind. Watch this space for a blog post on manuscript marginalia based on Van Leeuwen’s assessment of patterns in this volume. Lim, Nekmat, and Nahar offer a striking take on multimodality and media literacy. And there are other, equally exciting chapters here, including theoretical.


And finally: four specialist works

7. Jewitt, Carey, and Kress, Gunther, 2003. Multimodal Literacy. New York: Peter Lang.

Why? Education, teaching, and learning is one of the major players in multimodality. This book is an excellent introduction to the topic. If I have a criticism of it, that would be its focus on children. Of course much is also applicable to adult learners. There is a further reading list on multimodal literacy to be found at the project website here.

8. Page, Ruth, ed., 2010. New Perspectives on Narrative and Multimodality. Routledge: New York.

Why? Two main reasons. First, the mode of ‘written language’ is too easily dismissed (and I myself am guilty of doing so). Of course, ‘written language’ is a mode made up of many other modes, and this book gets into some of these. Second, there are contributions which cover opera, Safran Foer, metaphor, gesture, and more. I love a wide-ranging yet coherent and inspiring collection (as this list shows).

9. Van Leeuwen, Theo, 2008. Discourse and Practice: New Tools for Critical Discourse Analysis. New York: Oxford University Press.

Why? I know this list is a little Van Leeuwen heavy, but he deserves it. Like the Page volume, this one is helpful for getting into the nitty gritty of the multimodality of written language. However, it does so from a very different viewpoint – that of linguistics. I have always been scared of linguistics, yet I understood and even enjoyed this book. So I can’t help but recommend it.

10. Van Leeuwen, Theo, 1999. Speech, Music, Sound. Basingstoke: Macmillan.

Why? This is to music what Reading Images is to visual studies. In general, music is still somewhat under-represented in multimodal studies (though things are improving there, and not just because of me, obviously). Read this and be inspired.


But don’t forget…

There are works which didn’t make this list for not being strictly on ‘multimodality’, yet which deserve a mention at least. Barthes, oh Barthes, the first French philosopher I ever made sense of. Barthes speaks volumes of use to multimodalists (even when they disagree). Derrida (yes, I know, just go out and read the whole lot, eh?) has a lot to say about writing. Deleuze and Guattari’s Mille Plateux (OK, the translation, but only because my library doesn’t have the French) is permanently on my desk and travels with me just about everywhere – I can dip in and out and always find something inspiring. Remediation (Bolter & Grusin) and Moving Media Studies: Remediation Revisited (eds Philipsen and Qvortrup work as a good pair. We also mustn’t forget the grandfathers McLuhan and Halliday. And if you can read any of the Scandinavian languages, then there is a wealth of scholarship, particularly from Denmark and Norway, a tradition of which I’m now proud to be a (minor) part.

Right, reader, what have I missed that just has to be included here?

I remember my heart sinking when I first discovered the Tag Journal site (here) and read the following words:

‘We don’t accept submissions. The game is tag. You should hide and we’ll seek you out.’

Tag Journal is of the same ilk as Punctum Books, Object Lessons and Babel Working Group. It is part of a movement which is taking root in scholarship – or so I think, anyway – which challenges scholars to be innovative, to make their work accessible, to explore different dissemination channels.

But no volunteers, Tag? What chance did I stand? I gawped a bit longer, then shut the browser with a sigh. That was… ooh, about August I think.

In November an invitation came. I was more excited about being ‘sought out’ by Tag than by anyone else. Really. (Yes, I’m that easy to please.) I had despaired that Babel was too far to travel to; now I at last had a chance to join the movement. I didn’t so much jump as leap.

And that, my friends, is where my banner piece has found a home. And I can’t think of a better home for it. Have fun with Tag, and I look forward to being involved more in the future.

Multimodality and Medieval Music (Tag Journal, December 2013)

Multimodality and Medieval Music (Tag Journal, December 2013)

I created this when I first started to work on multimodality. It seems crazy that a field explicitly devoted to analysing how different modes work together should be so dependent on a single mode for its dissemination. Add music – medieval music, at that – into the picture, and, well, I drew this to stop my brain boiling, and to try and visually articulate – if not answer – some of the questions which haunt the field.

You can get to a link to a zoomable image by clicking here.

Yes, it’s full of resonances. Have fun finding them – my little holiday teaser.

Caine Prize

The day has arrived. The five shortlistees are attending the award dinner in Oxford as I write this. The winner will be announced in a couple of hours.

Aside from wishing them all the very best – tonight and in the future – I also want to thank them. Thank them for five superb stories, for making me laugh and cry, and for making me write.

They carry a burden now, each of them. The renown that being on the shortlist has brought is a vote of confidence which they must live up to. I have no doubt that they will. Whether they like it or not they are now figureheads of African literature, its future lies in part on their shoulders. They have been wined and dined; their words have been listened to by those in power and those like me, at home on the sofa. They speak for more than just themselves.

From where I sit – the sofa, as I said, beneath a rainbow right now, in an Arctic landscape about as far removed as it is possible to be from Nigeria or Sierra Leone – it looks as if the nomination is at least as important as the prize. But what do I know? Yes, the prize will be an accolade. But personally, I would divide the money between them, even if the title can only go to one. Then again, I am a dreamer.


Before we find out the winner, I wanted to say a little about the poems I wrote in response to the stories. When I joined the blog carnival I didn’t intend to respond through poetry, but it seemed the only way I could do justice to the first story I read (Tope Folarin’s ‘Miracle’). Multimodal justice, perhaps, but still justice. And of course, the other stories were equally inspiring.

My responses, my poetic explorations, began with the unrhymed blank verse of my poem ‘Miracle’. The analyst in me wants to suggest that this reflects in proseful poetry the poetic prose of the text. With my response to Pede Hollist’s ‘Foreign Aid’, a story with a distinct rhythm and a protagonist who reminded me of a wannabe gangster, the poem took a definite rhythmic turn. It drives forward at first, halts with ‘But wait’, before concluding with a direct address to the protagonist, his tail between his legs.

‘Whispering Trees’ the poem also plays with rhythm, this time adding a refrain. In this story by Abubakar Adam Ibrahim I was struck by the three-fold rhythm of the action, which is why there are three stanzas and three refrains in the poem. While the poetic ‘I’ speaks to the protagonist in the stanzas, the refrain is a multitude of voices, tempting him away from his life, from his fate. These voices are inaudible to the poetic ‘I’, but in the story are almost deafening for the protagonist. Here, the reader hears both sides.

My untitled graphic poem in response to Elnathan John’s ‘Bayan Layi’ is another multimodal step. The image of the ‘good Muslim’, so prominent in the story, is overshadowed by the bloodied scythe, another of the story’s powerful symbols. It is also the symbol of death. The short lines rhyme, and while they all keep a steady rhythm, the number of syllables is important: three for the scythe; two for the lower part of the body, paralleled with the three for the part of the mat under the lower body; four for the upper part of the body (I admit it: should be ‘Then just don’t mix’ – will re-do one day) and for that end of the prayer mat. As the number of syllables increases, so too does the import of the words.

The final poem, ‘Mother and Daughter’, takes one of the central relationships in Chinelo Okparanta’s story ‘America’ and works it into a dual-voiced sonnet. The trickiest of all to write, the long lines (six feet) aim to be graceful, part of the ballet between the two speakers set out on the page. My aim was that the poem could be read as two separate poems (one per speaker), or as one poem (in sonnet form), and still make sense. Quite a challenge! The ultimate goal was to trace the complex mother-daughter relationship (entanglement?), and the difficulty of breaking free from it, all of which I found compelling in the story.


So there we are. I had great fun with these, with reading the rest of the responses in the carnival, and most of all with the stories. I raise a glass to you all, no matter who will win tonight.

My your stars shine bright and your words ring true.


KMH logo 2011


Musikforskning idag 2013, Kungliga Musikhögskolan, Stockholm, 12-14 June

It is four years now since I first attended the annual conference of the Swedish Musicological Society, ‘Musikforskning idag’. (Four years is not long compared to the track records of some of the delegates, I must add, but then, I only arrived in Sweden in 2008, leaving for Norway in 2012.) Nevertheless, this is the first time I have decided to write a review of the conference.*

The conference is a relatively close-knit affair, with most of the delegates already known to each other. It has two keynote speakers, usually one from abroad (nevertheless with some connection to Sweden) and one from ‘home’. It does not particularly aim to attract international delegates (though they are of course welcome); rather it is a chance for Swedish-speaking musicologists to gather together to discuss their year’s work, to share ideas, and, importantly for some, to be able to present and talk about their research in their mother tongue. For while there are isolated papers in English, which is the conference’s second language, the principal language of the conference is of course Swedish.

So much for the background; what about Musikforskning idag 2013? Well, for a start it was the smallest of these conferences which I have attended, despite being held in the capital. Nevertheless, the conference was still large enough to require parallel sessions, so of course I was not able to attend every paper. This, then, is a personal overview of the sessions I attended, with the papers which stood out as being particularly inspiring.

It was a delight that the first paper I heard in full was actually about multimodality. Annika Falthin’s ‘Musikens mening i ständig förändring’ succeeded in being itself a multimodal presentation, with thoughtful and affective use of sound and image within her twenty-minute slot. She discussed the musical meaning in a performance by a group of high-school students. Highlights for me included the idea of youtube as a meaning-maker in itself, the idea of a ‘pojk’ (young male) community on display, that their choice of music might actually have been irritating for the audience, and the social semiotic meaning of body language, song, and music in school.

The session in which I took part was the characteristic mish-mash of ‘old stuff’ in a conference with lots of – to be similarly generalising – ‘new stuff’. Mattias Lundberg was inspiring as ever, with an intelligent and sensitive analysis of recurring melodies in Swedish church music from printed books over three centuries (‘Accentus-sången i den svenska högmässan under 300 år: två av de mest frekvent melodierna i Sverige någonsin’). Johanna Ethernersson Pontara spoke in the same session about the ‘Neobarack i Lars Johan Werles tidliga operor’, in an interesting paper which the discussion showed I was not alone in thinking would benefit from some acknowledgement of the multimodality of opera.

There were two medieval papers in the session. Karin Stronnholm Lagergren introduced us to the manuscript which is the object of her research at KU Leuven: the Torstunamissalet (‘Missalet från Torstuna: En fransk medeltids.handskrifts väg till och användning i en uppländsk sockenkyrka’). She brought to life the use of this medium-sized missal with music, which contains some 150 songs in the Dominican tradition. The other medieval paper was my own, which predictably focused on the multimodality of the manuscripts of Guillaume de Machaut, and I was thankful for the interest shown in the discussion afterwards. It is always a challenge to present the medieval period to those immersed in music of other times, and I was sorry that the lack of internet access meant that I was unable to actually play any music. (Serves me right for relying on youtube, I admit.)

The ‘efter-lunsj koma’, as session chair Karin Eriksson so aptly described it, was saved by Toivo Burlin’s paper ‘Tukkipoika: Some Comments on Recordings of North Swedish Folk Music’. In it, he played us a magical array of recordings, and opened up a world previously unknown to me, but one which I would now like to explore further. Some session-hopping took place for me in the last session of the day, since I was keen to hear Mårten Nerhfors again, and he didn’t disappoint. His paper ‘Shaping the Community Through Song – Idealogy in the Song Collections of Johann Friedrich Reichardt’ was a fascinating overview of Reichardt’s aims with his compositions aimed at breastfeeding mothers, their babies, and at children. Coupled with the ideals of the Enlightenment – Reichardt was a fervent supporter of the French Revolution – the re-reading of his works in the light of his ideology was fascinating indeed. The day ended with Erik Wallrup’s sage discussion on ‘Lyssningsakten i stämdhetens historia’, a philosophical paper which combined Heidegger, Stimmung, mood, and Wallrup’s own term ‘attunement’.

The final day opened with a paper from Lars Berglund which offered an overview of ‘Musikvetenskap och cultural history’. In it, he combined the Anglophone, Francophone and Germanic approaches to ‘cultural history’, and applied them to musicology, particularly as it is practised in Sweden. Following him was Christina Tobeck, whose paper traced the lives and work of two female Swedish pioneers in music and in medicine: Helena Munktell and Karolina Widerström. The final keynote by Cecilia K. Hultberg was symptomatic of one of the strengths in Swedish music research, that of music pedagogy. In her presentation ‘Musikalisk kunskapsbildning ur ett övergripande kulturpsykologiskt perspektiv’ she combined pedagogical, psychological and cultural theories to analyse specific cases of musical learning.

This has been a necessarily brief and personal overview of a conference rich in ideas and fellowship, where works-in-progress stood alongside work of international quality. As one who has not ‘grown up’ in the Swedish system, I am always entranced at how the so-called ‘Jantelov’ works in society, here to good effect. Even more so than in other conferences, there is a strong emphasis on open discussion, with strict timekeeping in order to respect the sanctity of the discussion period. It is a small community in which scholars of all levels are equally welcome, and which seeks to advance knowledge and encourage scholarship at all career stages. I’m looking forward to next year already.

* I would have also live tweeted the conference, were it not for the fact that the internet access for delegates at the venue just did not work. Such is (smartphone-less) life.

Created in response to Elnathan John's 'Bayan Layi'

Created in response to Elnathan John’s ‘Bayan Layi’

I think I’ll let the graphic speak for itself. But of course, please do read the story here.

Other responses from the carnival:

Kola Tubosun:

Veronica Nkwocha:

Beverley Nambozo:

C.E. Hastings:

Jeffrey Zuckerman:

Chika Oduah:

Aishwarya Subramanian:

Ben Laden:

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 blog post has been a long time coming as I had to write a paper for a super-exciting conference at the University of Virginia which I will be attending next week. (For details see here.) As part of this paper I revisit the familiar medieval figure of Fortune, particularly her wheel.

BnF fr. 9221 (E), fol. 206v

BnF fr. 9221 (E), fol. 206v

Throughout Machaut’s seminal Voir dit Fortune’s wheel turns, first raising then lowering the lovers’ fates. (This is argued by Jacqueline Cerquiglini-Toulet in her book Guillaume de Machaut et l’écriture au XIVe siècle (Paris: Champion, 1985), if anyone wishes to pursue it further.)

In my paper next week I will argue that the placing of the final group of Machaut items in the Pennsylvania Chansonnier (UPenn 902, viewable here) in fact reverses this wheel by re-using images from the Voir dit and representing them in the new format, often using different lyric items, and in reverse order, thus returning the lovers to their state of anticipation at the start of the tale. This whole thought process, then, is the background to this short reflection on circles and cycles.

N21 coverFor now, however, a step back (or ahead, since we are briefly leaving the Middle Ages). In 2009, the remarkable anthology Notations 21 was published by Mark Batty publishers. It is a collection of graphic scores in honour of the legendary John Cage, specifically marking the 40th anniversary of his own collection entitled ‘Notations’. (The project is ongoing: see for more details.) It is, in some ways, a chansonnier, since it contains musical compositions (and additionally works of art inspired by the music), however, all of the works are presented with their creator’s name attached. Interestingly, though, the cover does clearly state ‘By Theresa Sauer’, clearly giving her authority over the collection. Naturally, she is listed as ‘author’ in many of the catalogues in which this book appears. Yet, although being the driving force behind the collection, she is but one of many creative artists whose work it portrays. In scholarly terms, she is closer to an editor, or to a director, than to a book’s ‘author’ in the traditional sense. Yet her name, placed as the highest textual item on the cover, is a striking witness to her involvement in the collection, and not at all unlike the rubric which we saw in the last blog post here invoking Machaut’s authority over one of the manuscripts transmitting his works.

Nevertheless, in this book there is one work in particular which draws its inspiration from the form of the circle, or, perhaps more accurately, the cycle. It is entitled ‘Performing Notation, Notation Performing’, and is found on p. 147.Maxwell Performing Notation, Notation Performing 1b
Many medievalists will recognise the similarities between the visual presentation of this piece and one of those by Baude Cordier in the celebrated Chantilly codex (Musée Condé ms 564).

Both have the structure of one large circle surrounded by four smaller ones. In the Notations 21 piece the principal circle is broken, rolling off into the difference. Cordier’s work is well behaved, enclosed within its page. Both works feature music in the central circle and text in the outer circles, though the piece in Notations 21 has a lengthy prose text within its principal circle. Of the outer circles, those in the Notations 21 piece offer quotations on music – including one from John Cage himself – whereas the small circles in the Cordier piece provide instructions for performance and additional verses. Both pieces make use of a limited colour palette, and present the composer’s name: Cordier’s at the head of the piece, that of ‘Performing Notation, Notation Performing’ somewhat more modestly, yet nevertheless unashamedly, across the bottom of the page.

Both works are entirely hand drawn, one on parchment, the other on paper. Now, both are only available to view via the transcoded means of the computer screen or the book page: Notations 21 contains a high-quality reproduction, the Chantilly codex is kept under strict lock and key but is available in facsimile. Indeed, while the ‘original’ codex is indeed still in existence for the Chantilly codex, the French postal system saw to it that Notations 21 is, in fact, the ‘original’ for ‘Performing Notation, Notation Performing’, since the precious piece of paper itself never made it home.

Unlike many of the items in Notations 21, ‘Performing Notation, Notation Performing’ contains no explanation, no instructions. This was a deliberate decision, since I preferred to leave any interpretation to performers/readers. What I have said so far in this post is merely what someone with some knowledge of medieval music would be able to infer without too much forethought, and I do not wish to speak as the work’s composer. What follows, then, is written not from the point of view or the composer, but as an interpreter, looking at the work in the light of my current multimodal project. Imagine, then, if you will, a line across the page: any composer’s insider knowledge that may have been present stops here.

In the seminal Reading Images: The Grammar of Visual Design by Gunther Kress and Theo van Leeuwen (Abingdon: Routledge, 1996, 2nd ed. 2006), they offer the following analysis of the forms of the circle:

‘Circles and curved forms generally are the elements we associate with an organic and natural order, with the world of organic nature – and such mystical meanings as may be associated with them derive from this. Angularity we associate with the inorganic, crystalline world, or with the world of technology, which is a world we have made ourselves, and therefore a world we can, at least in principle, understand fully and rationally. The world of organic nature is not of our making, and will always retain an element of mystery. Curved forms are therefore the dominant choice of people who think in terms of organic growth rather than mechanical construction, in terms of what is natural rather than in terms of what is artificial.’ (p. 55)

It is not a great leap of deduction, then, to posit that the use of circles here to present visual music is a nod to music’s natural qualities, that is to say that music is a function of humankind that is not of our making and not entirely of our knowing. Both pieces bend the staves into a circular shape, thus transmorphing that which seeks to contain music to let it speak a new shape, a natural shape. In ‘Performing Notation, Notation Performing’ the broken circle can be seen both as a distortion and an escape: the music escapes from the staves and, indeed, from the page. The notation starts which neumes and moves chronologically through various versions until it can no longer be contained on paper: in the eleven centuries following the invention of musical notation in the West only a minority of music has ever been written down, and collections such as Notations 21 only go to show that the boundaries of the stave are as fragile now as they ever were.

Additionally, both pieces make extended use of the areas of ‘centre’ and ‘margin’ on the page, and Kress and van Leeuwen can help us with that, too:

‘[I]f a visual composition makes significant use of the Centre, placing one element in the middle and the other elements around it, we will refer to the central element and Centre and to the elements around it as Margins. For something to be presented as Centre means that it is presented as the nucleus of the information to which all the other elements are in some sense subservient. The Margins are these ancillary, dependent elements. In many cases the Margins are identical or at least very similar to each other, so that there is no sense of a division between Given and New and/or Ideal and Real elements among them. In other cases … Centre and Margin combine with Given and New and/or Ideal and Real.’ (p. 197. Explanations of the horizontal ‘given’ and ‘new’ and vertical ‘ideal’ and ‘real’ can be found on pp. 181 and p. 186 respectively.)

But what of the reading path of such images? ‘Performing Notation, Notation Performing’ invites a reading path whereby the more accessible text, that is the text in the margins, is read first, since this does not require turning an unwieldy book or screen (particularly a screen which ‘helpfully’ keeps images the ‘right’ way up when turned). Thus the marginal texts enter the reader’s mind first, and it is having read them – and probably the composer’s name – that the reader will turn to the words which are at the centre of both the page and importance. Finally, the reader may begin to decipher the notation, and decide whether and how the elements of the page should be rendered together, and what to do about the palindromic title.

Cordier’s ‘Tout par compas’, on the other hand, invites a reading which begins with the words under the musical notation, and then, for this reader at least, a preliminary look at the notation itself. Before proceeding too far with this challenging task (and it is challenging, even more so today than for those who grown up seeped its conventions), however, I look to the marginal texts for instructions, for clues. Once these have been assimilated, my attention returns to the musical notation. There are enough ‘clues’ provided that a coherent performance can be obtained from the manuscript; indeed, here is one now, courtesy of youtube and, more specifically, Ensemble Organum (it’s high time we heard some more music on this blog):

Tout par compas

This brief survey of two works has indeed been brief. It has not attempted a detailed analysis of either, merely drawn some links between them and offered some thoughts on circles and cycles. But one of the most intriguing things to have emerged from it, for me, is the link between both the graphic compositions and Fortune’s wheel. Look again at the miniature from BnF fr. 9221 (Machaut manuscript E) up at the top of the page. See those four circles within the wheel? Yeah, so do I. It seems that Katelijne Schiltz has had something to say about ‘Tout par compas’ and Fortune’s wheel, though I have not yet been able to consult a copy of her article ‘Visual Pictorialism in Renaissance Musical Riddles.’ in Journal of the Alamire Foundation 4:2 (2012), pp. 204–21. I very much doubt that she considers Notations 21 or, indeed, multimodality in the article, however. Nevertheless, if I can undraw that line I put in earlier and speak for a moment as the composer – I did not think of Fortune’s wheel. That is not to say that we can’t see it in there, of course. For that is one of the great delights of multimodal thinking: the onus is put on the reader to re-create the text. In other words, if you want to read ‘Performing Notation, Notation Performing’ as an allegory of Fortune, then that’s fine by me. Or, in a more scholarly working, the background of the reader of any textual being will impose itself on that reader’s re-interpretation of the text, and this does not invalidate that reading. A multimodal reading is not about uncovering hidden (or unhidden) codes sent from creator to receiver; rather, it is about the reader creating the text anew. Like the music escaping from the page in ‘Performing Notation, Notation Performing’, a multimodal interpretation is free from the constraints of author intention or, indeed, faithfulness to authority. In the context of Machaut studies especially, that is a breath of fresh air. L’auteur est mort; vive le lecteur.

It’s nice to be back in medieval studies. I had a few years off with babies, and they are lovely, but upon my return I’m quickly finding one of my old bugbears raising its head and annoying me again: making things up and then deciding they’re true.

Now, in theory at least, I’ve nothing against making things up, particularly in medieval studies. After all, with so little information available to us, we have to be creative quite frequently. If we weren’t, we’d never get anywhere. The trouble comes when we hypothesise and do not make it clear that we are doing so. When that happens, ‘fiction’ very quickly becomes ‘fact’. I had thought – hoped – that this tendency was dying out as the various calls for it to be regonised (my own contribution can be found in the first chapter of my PhD) were heard and acknowledged. Perhaps I’ve just been hanging out with too many like-minded people, because this week I read a piece from 2011 which had me, quite literally, shouting ‘what?’ at my otherwise innocent computer screen. I will return to the item which so offended me towards the end.

First, though, a little of the history of this, and how it relates to Machaut studies. Guillaume de Machaut is an enticing figure for today’s readers and scholars, because his manuscript legacy, rare for the medieval period, invites us to conceive of an author, a ‘poète’. It is, in all probability, an image he cultivated, though the actual degree to which he did so is not known for certain. Six manuscripts survive which appear to contain Machaut’s ‘complete works’, and their contents are surprisingly – though far from entirely – heterogeneous. Although there is a large number of manuscripts which contain a lesser number of works by Machaut, often presented anonymously and/or intermingled with works by others, the six ‘core manuscripts’ (as they are known) provide an immensely useful base on which to build our appreciation of the fourteenth century’s greatest poet-composer. Wait a minute – how do we know he was the ‘greatest’? Well, we don’t. There could have been others whose works have not survived. Philippe de Vitry, for example, is a figure named in contemporary works but whose surviving output is relatively small, though much lauded. There is no accounting for documents lost through the ravages of time, or indeed never produced. But the presence of the core Machaut manuscripts leads us to think that he must have been ‘great’ – otherwise why would they even exist? It is not an unreasonable assumption. But let’s make one thing clear: it is an assumption.

One of the core manuscripts is particularly enticing, and it can be viewed online here. (We met one of its pictures in the post on authority.) Known by the siglum A, its full title is Paris, BnF fr 1584. When I’m feeling cynical, I call it ‘the carrot’. The principal source of the enticement can be found, on folio Av, at the opening to the manuscript’s index:


See it? It’s in red, at the top of the left-hand column, just to the right of the big initial ‘L’ for the first item. ‘Vesci lordenance que G. de Machau wet quil ai en son livre premiers’; ‘Here is the order that G. de Machau wants his first book to have’. It is interesting that the ‘first’ is almost never mentioned in discussion of this item; the notion of  there being more than one ‘book’ – when the manuscript is in fact only one volume – is evidently uncomfortable and best ignored. Nowhere in the carefully rubricated index is ‘second’ mentioned; the ‘premiers’ is thus puzzling. (Some of the other core manuscripts are – or have been – in two volumes, and it could be that at the time of writing this rubric the compiler of the index anticipated a second volume, but he does not mention it again, nor does he correct its mention here.)

This rubric appears to claim that the index reflects Machaut’s wishes. It is hard to imagine what else it might mean. But how do we know it is telling the truth? Well, frankly, we don’t. On the other hand, we do not have particular reason to doubt it, other than general, and easily misdirected, cynicism. But what we can say, I think with as great a degree of certainty as is possible for this period, is that whoever wrote the rubric wanted his readers to think that his index reflects Machaut’s wishes. This, in itself, implies that Machaut’s wishes were important enough to merit reflection – or at least the semblance thereof. (For, as has been noted by Lawrence Earp, the actual order of the manuscript is not quite that given in the index, and in his dissertation ‘Scribal Practice, Manuscript Production and the Transmission of Music in Late-Medieval France’ (Princeton University, 1983) he spends considerable time detailing the deviations and the possible reasons for them.)

François Avril, to whom Machaut studies owes such a great debt, dated this manuscript to within the poet-compoer’s lifetime. He also identified the artist of the great frontispieces (again, we saw one of them on the post on authority) as being active in Paris. The artist for the rest of the miniatures remains unidentified, and Avril suggested that he was provincial, perhaps based in Reims where Machaut lived, since such a scenario would allow for Machaut’s supervision of the codex to have been possible. This hypothesis is by no means impossible – indeed, it is quite likely. But it is a hypothesis.

BnF fr. 1584 (Machaut A), fol. 319r

BnF fr. 1584 (Machaut A), fol. 319r

Domenic Leo has taken it further in his dissertation ‘Authorial Presence in the Illuminated Machaut Manuscripts’ (New York University, 2005). His arguments and detailed analyses are convincing, enough that there really is very little room for doubt that Machaut played a significant role in the artistic programmes accompanying his works in some of the manuscripts which have come down to us today. Do we, then, need to use verbs such as ‘seem’, adjectives such as ‘probable’, adverbial phrases which highlight our ultimate uncertainty about Machaut’s role in manuscript production? Surely, this is cumbersome and unnecessary: we don’t know for certain, we can’t know for certain, we know that we don’t know, so let’s stop peppering our prose with these unwieldy caveats.

Well, this is the crux of the matter at stake. We need those unwieldy caveats to draw the line between established fact and likely hypothesis. As more and more writings become more and more accessible to a broader public, the importance of these caveats in scholarly discussions increases. We cannot assume that readers of open-access, online texts know this background. (They may know it far better than I do, they may be at the start of a journey into the Middle Ages, or at any point on that journey.) If we are not clear about where the line is drawn between fact and hypothesis, then before we know it, hypothesis is considered fact.

The majority of scholars are aware of this. Leo certainly is in his dissertation. The most recent book-length overview of Machaut and his works, Guillaume de Machaut: Secretary, Poet, Musician by Elizabeth Eva Leach (Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 2011), is extremely clear about what we do and don’t know, and Leach is crystal clear about where her own assumptions come into play. Readers may or may not agree with such assumptions, but the clear drawing of the line between the (pitifully few) facts surrounding the medieval period and the conjecture which colours the picture gives scholarly works credence.

The work which brought out the valkyrie screech from me, however, draws no such line. As a freely available, online edition of one of Machaut’s most neglected works, its audience appeal is wide, and its responsibility to its readers is great. Sophie Hardy’s doctoral ‘Edition critique de la Prise d’Alexandrie de Guillaume de Machaut’ (Université d’Orléans, 2011), available here thus fails its readers in this sense.

The repercussions of this oversight – or decision, if it was conscious – is that it is hard to take the edition seriously. Hardy does not justify why she feels the previous, and recent, edition of the Prise (by R. Barton Palmer, soon to be reissued as part of the edition of Machaut’s complete works later this year) is inadequate. She also makes no mention of the new edition underway. This makes one wonder what the usefulness of her text will be, as it is so soon to be superseded. It doesn’t help that she departs from one of the core manuscript sigla, and not acknowledging that it already in fact has an entirely new siglum (thus n. 5 on an unnumbered page, presumably xi since it falls between x and xii, shows her to be several years behind the history of one of the core manuscripts containing the work she is editing). She ‘reminds’ us that one of Machaut’s ‘obsessions’ was the conservation of his works in manuscript form. She then quotes Elizabeth Keitel who in fact acknowledges that this is but a hypothesis; Hardy, however, ignores the hypothetical nature of Keitel’s observations and treats them as fact (p. xii).


It is not my intention to discredit Hardy’s careful work. She is but a recent example of a trend which, before my break from medieval studies, I had thought was in decline. This trend can be traced from the rediscovery of Machaut’s works – along with many other medieval works – in the nineteenth century. Early printed editions often mutilated the manuscript’s contents – Paulin Paris’s edition of the Voir Dit is the frequently cited example for Machaut – in their quest for the untainted original. Sometimes this quest was coloured with nationalistic sentiments, as Andrew Taylor has argued for the (inappropriately named?) Chanson de Roland and ‘Sumer is icumen in’ (Textual Situations: Three Medieval Manuscripts and their Readers (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania University Press, 2002)). In any case, such quests for the original have seemed futile since the work of Derrida in the 1960s, Zumthor in the 1970s, B. Cerquiglini and Barthes in the 1980s, Nichols and co. in the 1990s, and countless examples in print and online from the twenty-first century. I thought we had moved on.

Let’s hope we have moved on, and that I can get off my high horse once and for all. It’s drafty up here.

Paris, BnF fr. 1584 (Machaut A), fol. 178v