31 December 2008

Seeing medieval music

A light-ish post after all of that stuff about disabled history, folks.

As most readers of this blog know, I have cochlear implants. Thanks to an auditory cable, I can plug my implants directly into gadgets such as laptops and iPods to listen to music and other auditory inputs directly without having to deal with background noise such as a noisy room.

I pretty much love my iPod. Now only if I could get the music from WALL*E downloaded on to it eventually, I'd be a happy camper. (Note to self: remember to do that in May before Kalamazoo.)

People often ask me what music sounds like to me. That's not really the right word to describe how I experience music. Yes, I do hear it thanks to some pretty damn good technology in my cochlear implant, but more than hearing music, I see it.

The idea of seeing music intrigues me because of the prevalence of stained glass windows in medieval churches and cathedrals. What would it have been like, as a hearing person or a deaf one or a blind one, to see and/or hear music in the medieval period? What would the effect of hearing a Te Deum being chanted or sung have been in the medieval period? Would it have been something spectacular, something with which the laity could more easily communicate with than the rote Latin of the Mass?[1]

The visual impact of churches and cathedrals is well-known: the aural impact of these places would have encouraged churchgoers to feel as if they were in a liminal Jerusalem: very nearly there, but not just yet. Would the sight of carved faces, angels, and demons, along with the stained glass resident in the windows, have acted as a visual accompaniment for the music, or would it have been the other way around? Would churchgoers have 'watched' the music race across the windows, straight as the coloured beams of light that fell upon the nave and columns, lighting up the church and bringing life, however fleetingly, to the carved and painted figures upon the columns, capitals, and walls?

Stained glass and figures within churches are often referred to as the poor man's Bible; why can't music have been the same, albeit in a more tangible sense? One can easily look upon or feel the carvings and monuments in a church. Such a process is by nature ephemeral: memento mori. Music in and of itself is certainly ephemeral as well - perhaps even more so, but music is something that can easily speak to everyone, regardless of whether or not they understand the coding implicit within images and monuments within a church.[2] Even though a Latin chant still wouldn't be understandable for the laity linguistically speaking, the experience of hearing the music would still be quite understandable.

Would it have been the same way for those who were hard of hearing or deaf? Would they have looked at the walls and carvings and windows and traced the stories along them, from beginning to end, and perhaps back again? Would they have watched the sun play through the windows, or imagined them awash with light if the sky was overcast or if it was night? For that matter, would they have perceived candles as their form of music: watching the candles slowly being lit on All Hallows Eve or at Easter? Watched them slowly melt at the wick, or watched the 'procession' of flames move up and down the nave or ambulatory?

I'd like to think that if I had lived in the medieval period, I'd have seen candles as my form of music: candles would be something that I could see and watch moving. I could watch them 'start' when they were lighted, 'play' notes as they waxed and waned and flickered and changed colour and gradually melted the beeswax, and 'flourished' when they guttered out or were blown out. Watching them play 'in concert' across the altar or as they were carried or otherwise moved up and down the nave and ambulatory would have been something: watching this or that candle angrily sputter its 'notes' in protest as someone walked by or moved it this way or that, or watching the clergy move in tune with the steadily burning flames as they went through the motions of the Mass. Watching the thinly tapered candles race down the wick as the stout, thick candles lazily meandered down the wick, slowly giving the candles an ephemeral nimbus before descending further to seemingly light the candles from within, seeing a solitary candle left burning upon the altar after Mass.

Fiat lux. Memento mori.[3]

1 "Rote" in the sense that one would have been used to the Latin employed in the rites associated with the Mass after a period of time. Also, the laity would largely have been 'deaf' in that they would have been unable to comprehend the Latin of the Mass. For a similar thought, we turn to Cicero, who noted: "Our countrymen as a rule do not know Greek nor the Greeks Latin; therefore we in their tongue and they in ours are deaf, and all of us are assuredly deaf in those languages, countless in number, which we do not understand." Tusculan Disputations, trans. J. E. King (London: William Heinemann, 1927), 541.

2 For more information on how to 'read' a church, see Richard Taylor, How to Read a Church: A Guide to Symbols and Images in Churches and Cathedrals (London: Rider and Co., 2003) and Margaret Visser, The Geometry of Love: Space, Time, Mystery, and Meaning in an Ordinary Church (Toronto: HarperFlamingo, 2000).

3 Let there be light. Remember that you are mortal.