BMCR 2016.12.32

Dissonance: Auditory Aesthetics in Ancient Greece. Idiom: inventing writing theory

, Dissonance: Auditory Aesthetics in Ancient Greece. Idiom: inventing writing theory. New York: Fordham University Press, 2016. vii, 239. ISBN 9780823269655. $55.00.


“It is only silent at night. The rising sun sets the air popping and sizzling, and other voices rise in chorus with the ambient hum. Goats and sheep bleat, cows raise a clamor, bulls bellow… Cicadas sing, as do birds… The earth is split by thunder. Where there is sound, there is danger, disruption, agony, or worse.” This is the world one enters in the first few sentences of Sean Gurd’s Dissonance: Auditory Aesthetics in Ancient Greece, a loud world alive with sounds that well up and “resonate in every corner of Greek culture, coloring narrative and structuring enunciation, blooming within stories and songs” (4).

The book is an invitation to listen and illustrates a form of sensuous scholarship, “not a history of concepts or ideas but … a history of sensations produced and explored in technical media” (11). The capo that opens the volume presents the methodological stakes of the project. A first challenge resides in conceptualizing listening (at the interface between sensual perception and cognition); a second, in historicizing the senses (and their relationship to consciousness); a third, in contextualizing perception (within the body and within culture). Gurd states his middle course position clearly: “I think sound happens when the material order percolates through the sociocultural order and, vice versa, when the sociocultural opens itself to disruption by the material” (9).

It is on this background that the notion of song is adduced, a uniquely productive concept that captures the realm of auditory phenomena in Ancient Greece: “songs played the role of lab reports or dispatches from liminal regions where sense was actively explored and created. A song was a claim: ‘I heard (it) this way’” (11). For Gurd, songs confuse the apparently simple picture that an analysis of the database of sounds of the archaic and classical period builds: by associating sound with the disruption of order, songs complicate the opposition between the controlled sounds of peace, culture and society (“cooked” sounds in Lévi-Strauss terms) and the “raw” sound of war, monsters, and the wild. Though eminently social products, songs revel in representing untamed noise.

To conceptualize the work song performs, Gurd relies on the concept of dissonance: “Notes in a dissonant relationship produce a combined wave with sensible variations in amplitude: neither their fundamentals nor their partials coincide, and the result is extra audible information in the form of “beats” or “roughness,” a richer, grainier, less-polished sound. Supervenient on conflict, dissonance could be called an enhancement of the audible: it is a perception whose subject is sense itself. Similarly, Greek auditory art consistently performed the self-contradictory gesture of equating itself with social order and resonating with the sounds of social disorder” (11).

In three chapters organized around the key notions of “Figures,” “Affect,” and “Music,” Gurd investigates this notion of dissonance. The book explores the Greek world of sounds, poised between disorderly chaos and work of art. In focusing on how songs aimed “to produce the semblance of sound within technically mediated material” (24), it strives to recover the modernity, even the avant-garde nature, of the way auditory art was executed and conceived in Ancient Greece.

The title of the first chapter “Figures” is a reference to what Donna Haraway describes as “material-semiotic nodes or knots in which diverse bodies and meanings cohabit one another” (13). Sappho’s hymn to Aphrodite (fr. 2 LP) is an emblematic figure for the chapter: in staging the sound of water within the context of Aphrodite’s grove, the song makes acoustic awareness surface. It illustrates the typical tension between associations of sound with the potential for disorder (like the untamable water running through the grove) and the channeling of sound (through meter, rhythm, and sound patterns in the poem). The force of Aphrodite, her ability to loosen us and call us to a world of sensations while giving form to the experience is representative of the processes examined in “Figures”.

The chapter opens on a sonogram of the noisy books of the Iliad (4, 18 and 21): the auditory events of the narrative are read as actualizations of the disruptive world of the similes (full of unsettling elemental sounds). Further illustrations of the acoustic self-consciousness of songs follow: Gurd revisits the Theogony and its clash of monsters, the Hymn to Apollo and its mimetic maidens, and passages staging nightingales, from the Works and Days to tragedy. All these singing creatures at the border of the human reveal the self-reflexive process by which Greek auditory art thinks about listening and its own perception in song. The chapter ends with the rowdy worlds of comedy and the symposium. Meticulous attention to the sounds of the songs and the auditory universe they describe (full of quips, sneers, babble, hiccups, and other acoustic disturbances) underlines the dissonance thus created—a dissonance that allows us to heighten the volume of the songs and the way we listen to them.

Chapter 2 “Affect” reflects on the notion of presence : the presence of the reader, bodily attending to the text with eyes, lips, tongue, vocal tract and ear, and the presence of the sonorous material of the text, manifesting itself as affect. In introducing the chapter in the capo, Gurd asks: “how do I listen? With my tongue” (17). This is programmatic for the chapter, which examines the multiple and often synaesthetic modalities in which sound gets accessible to perception. Again, Sappho (fr. 31 LP) provides an exemplary starting point: in describing the phenomenology of desire, the speaker “becomes a passionate vibration. This is an affective process, closely linked to sonic and auditory flows and impacts” (19). Even more tellingly, Sappho is “configuring erotic agony as a cataclysmic resonance circuit” (20). The result of this bodily transformation is the poem itself, which echoes in its sounds the vibrations it describes. But this self-consciousness is different from the self-reflexivity examined in the previous chapter: while “Figures” reflects on the condition of possibility for listening to sound (through song), “Affect” concentrates on sound’s realization (through bodies, in space) and its representation of affect.

Texts examined in chapter 2 include famous vocal passages from the Odyssey (Helen’s mimicry of female voices as she taunts the soldiers inside the Trojan horse; Odysseus’ muffling of Euryclea as she is about to scream her recognition), and the many non-verbal vocalizations of tragedy. Emphasis on expressive noises is the particular marker of Aeschylus’ poetics and Gurd takes readers through the acoustic layers of the Persians’ auditory landscape, from the report of the ear-splitting battle of Salamis to actualized sounds on stage: through sound, tragedy turns the agony of a subjective interior into a social exterior. The chapter ends with a turn to materialist theories that provide the ancient basis for the notion of affect, including the contribution of atomist theory to explain the phenomenon of translatability between senses, particularly important to account for the multisensory experience of drama.

Chapter 3 is concerned with melody and analyzes the musical element of language. Once again, Sappho provides the starting point: this time, Gurd discusses the tension between the variety of melodies (which follow the pitch accents of the language), different in each stanza, and the stable frame of the meter, which repeats itself through different stanzas: a song is “a nested series of stabilized durations, with each duration made from the minimally repetitive composition of its constituent elements: a motif is made from pitches; a phrase, from motifs; a melody, from phrases; a piece from melodies. In these necessarily nonrepeating combinations of finite sets of elements lies the figure of the open-ended series of pressure waves that we call the material of sound” (24). While “Affect” focused on sound in space and its movement from inside to outside, the melodies of “Music” are auditory figures of time, ever renewing within a repeatable framework.

The chapter examines what has come to be known as the New Music, but traces innovative trends back to the sixth century BCE (the aulos revolution of Sacadas; the lyre novelties of Lysander of Sicyon; the asigmatic experiments of Lasus of Hermione; the programmatic declarations of Pratinas, and the musical innovations of Pindar). In all these experiments, melodic complexity is celebrated. Fine-grained readings of the discourse on innovation in Pherecrates’ Cheiron, Timotheus’ Persians and Euripides’ Medea follow. The guiding concept of dissonance reappears explicitly in the discussion of the nightingale song in Sophocles’ Tereus : “this process of transmutation [of chaotic horror and grief into musical composition] is never complete[;] … in the nightingale’s voice there is always something off-key, and … this dissonance is fundamental to the bird’s music and the human song it symbolizes” (126).

The coda concludes with the evocative image of Dionysus as figure for sound in auditory art. The Roarer, both insider and outsider to Greek culture, simultaneously threat and facilitator, stands for the god of auditory affect (135), the god of an art able to suggest visions by the power of its sounds.

Dissonance is a thrilling read and a reminder of “what our ears are for” (134). I finished the book ears buzzing: superb readings bringing sound to the surface of consciousness alternate with memorable phrases and new readings of famous passages. Witness for example the interpretation of the topography of Tartarus in the Theogony, which “seems to trace out the form of singer’s throat: the Titans are placed beyond the yawning mouth of Chaos and encircled by night, which is described as a neck” (35). Or Hermes’ “punk phase” in the Homeric Hymn to Hermes (103), or the parallel between two blondes, Harmonia and the nightingale (128). Not only will I never read Sappho 31 the same way—I am now attuned to the notion of “resonance circuit” established in her, and other, lyrics.

But as the author reminds us in chapter 2, affect can be refused: like the old men in the Agamemnon (82), some readers might remain unmoved by sound—simply refusing the invitation to listen. Positivist sticklers could object, for example, that Gurd listens with non-native ears, which might not be historically informed: what do we know about the sounds of vowels or diphthongs, in different dialects, or the uniformity of pitch accent for instance? Perhaps more importantly, it might be difficult, if one does not read the book cover to cover, to perceive the difference between the kinds of “close listening” that Gurd performs and those of other astute listeners, like W. B. Stanford or C. Segal. The book is economical, and the tradeoff for elegance is that readers need to keep in mind the theory-rich capo to find direction in each reading and the leading thread (dissonance) that undergirds each chapter.

Yet, by not belaboring the dissonance point within each reading, Gurd precisely makes the promise of sensuous scholarship come true: letting go of theory (and politics for that matter) within the readings gets the reader closer to the auditory world of archaic and classical Greece. It also opens new venues for sound studies, a young field still looking for vocabulary, tools, methods and questions ranging across academic disciplines—a field even uncertain about the status of its own object. Recent books appropriating sonic thought have suggested tools supposed to address the question of the object and nature of sound studies: A. M. Ochia Gautier relies on “aurality” to emphasize the “refunctionalization of the ear” in reading Colombian oral record, while J. Mowitt attempts to provide an acoustic analogy to the Lacanian gaze with the concept of “audit.”1 Might “dissonance” and the appeal to affect and the senses provide new tools for other disciplines interested in auditory art? It is certainly a book that all sound scholars (and needless to say, Classicists) will need to reckon with, not simply for the key theoretical construct at its heart, but for the listening technique illustrated throughout, which can extend in sympathy to other literary corpuses, like vibrations.


1. A. M. Ochia Gautier, Aurality: Listening and Knowledge in Nineteenth-Century Colombia (Durham, 2014); J. Mowitt, Sounds: the Ambient Humanities (Oakland, 2015).