All That is Solid Melts into Sound

As we move from the Monumental to the Aural strand of the ‘Post-War’ Series, we enter exciting new territory. We don’t have an academic musician on the research team, though we have varying degrees of amateur expertise (Catherine does choral singing, for instance)—and, of course, this term is not just about music but about every kind of sound and its absence. In our brainstorming session, we tried to think of as many commemorative sounds as we could. Our idiosyncratic list was as follows:

trumpets/bugles, the Last Post, hymns, drums, bagpipes, gun salutes, silence, reading out names, testimonials, prayers and rituals, poems read aloud, bells, musical compositions, requiems, pop concerts, running water/the sea, people crying, military bands

You can see how our minds were working. We then began to think about the questions and issues surrounding aural commemoration. Here are our first ideas:

  • music has a unique impact on our senses;
  • the audience plays a big role;
  • music needs human beings to listen to it;
  • it also needs performers;
  • sound might be able to commemorate in a more embodied way than texts and monuments;
  • it also might be able to commemorate in a more communal way;
  • sound is ephemeral (unless recorded) and so thinking about the aural sheds different light on longevity of commemoration;
  • sounds, and music more specifically, can be related to a place (e.g. by a fountain, a river), so we might ask if commemorative sound is translatable from that place;
  • sound can give more peace than texts and monuments;
  • the aural can be monumental;
  • in what sense are sounds patriotic?;
  • what is the role of euphoria / intoxication?;
  • sound/music produces an immediate emotional response;
  • sound/music is ineffable;
  • music can be politically manipulated;
  • what is the effect of rhythm, melody, harmony and musical structure on the experience of commemoration? 

We honed these down to some more specific questions which we will feed in to our discussions over the term:

  • what is the relationship between a sound and the place where it is heard/played?  Is commemorative sound translatable to other contexts?
  • is there a risk that commemorative musical works can lead us to forget precise circumstances?
  • what are the limitations of access to commemorative sounds (eg not knowing languages; not having perfect pitch)?
  • how do music and text work together?
  • can we understand sound, or is our response in another mode?

To end on a personal note: I was lucky enough to be invited to the service in Westminster Abbey commemorating the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War on 4 August 2014. The violinist Jennifer Pike played Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending, composed in 1914. As the high notes of the violin floated upwards into the roof of the Abbey, I felt a sadness that I’ve rarely experienced when reading First World War poetry. If I tried to tell you what the sounds encapsulated, I wouldn’t be able to find the words. Come along and hear the piece for yourselves, performed by the New Zealand violinist Annabel Drummond in Remembrance, the free concert in Oxford’s Sheldonian Theatre that concludes our Series on 2 June 2018.

Kate McLoughlin

Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford

All that is solid melts into sound