“Tick, tock, taack, bredelinbrededack”: A Gigantic Introduction to Musicology and Landscape

Dr Jonathan Hicks, Lord Crewe Junior Research Fellow in Music at Lincoln College, Oxford (and our own former RMA Student Representative, 2009-11) is a member of the Leverhulme-funded “Hearing Landscape Critically” research network. The first event of this ambitious inter-continental series was held in Oxford last year, and was generously supported by the RMA. The next meeting will take place at Stellenbosch University, South Africa, 9-11 September, with a further event in Harvard scheduled for January 2015. For details, see the links at the bottom of this blogpost. 

Here Jonathan shares with us a little about what’s so exciting about this emerging interdisciplinary area of musicological study.


“The skipper made answer: Be not afraid, my lord; we are on the confines of the Frozen Sea, on which, about the beginning of last winter, happened a great and bloody fight between the Arimaspians and the Nephelibates. Then the words and cries of men and women, the hacking, slashing, and hewing of battle-axes, the shocking, knocking, and jolting of armours and harnesses, the neighing of horses, and all other martial din and noise, froze in the air; and now, the rigour of the winter being over, by the succeeding serenity and warmth of the weather they melt and are heard.” (François Rabelais, Gargantua and Pantagruel, trans. Peter Motteux, Book 4, Chapter 56)

This famous passage from Rabelais’s sixteenth-century giant story goes on to recount “how among the frozen words Pantagruel found some odd ones.” We are told that “one of them gave a sound much like that of chestnuts when they are thrown into the fire without being first cut.” We also hear of “some terrible words, and some others not very pleasant to the eye.” As Rabelais warms to his ingenious theme, the unfrozen words become yet more remarkable: “When they had been all melted together, we heard a strange noise, hin, hin, hin, hin, his, tick, tock, taack, bredelinbrededack, frr, frr, frr, bou, bou, bou, bou, bou, bou, bou, bou, track, track, trr, trr, trr, trrr, trrrrrr, on, on, on, on, on, on, ououououon, gog, magog, and I do not know what other barbarous words.” Finally, after recalling “some large ones go off like drums and fifes, and others like clarions and trumpets” the skipper rounds off the story, adding: “Believe me, we had very good sport with them.”

Strange as it might seem, an early-modern fantasy journey makes for a useful introduction to some of the current trends in the study of music and landscape. For one thing, the antiquity of Rabelais’s text reminds us that landscapes, throughout the centuries, have rarely been imagined as static or silent. Far from a novel exception, the frozen sea described above is utterly typical of landscapes in general (as well as “seascapes” or “icescapes” in particular) because it is both subject to continual change and the site of ongoing activity. In this instance, we not only see how the sea reveals the audible traces of past skirmishes, but we also learn that it is re-shaped, through exploration and inhabitation, by the various actors who take part in the narrative. Even if we accept that Pantagruel the giant makes more impact on a landscape than most, his noisy “footprints” are only one set among many in a line stretching back to the Arimaspians and the Nephelibates, and forward to the readers of this blog, who have had to navigate their way – literally and digitally – to the end of this very paragraph.

Acknowledging the presence of a readership raises a second reason for introducing the study of music and landscape via a fictional text, since the history of attending to landscape has been conditioned, to a large extent, by textual, visual, and audible representations. Of course, these representations have not always been advertised as “fictional,” but the point still stands that the depiction or performance of landscape cannot help but affect people’s memories, perceptions, and potential experiences. This is why it is so important for musicology to make a contribution to the well-established field of landscape studies, lest we be left with the distorted impression that people only learn to apprehend the world via literature and pictures. On the contrary, sound and music play a vital role not only in orienting the movements of our daily lives, but also in shaping our expectations about what the world is like and how it is likely to change.

Without wishing to isolate or essentialise the nature of sonic experience, one of the great advantages of thinking of landscape aurally – as well as textually and visually – is that it encourages us to consider the immersive and reflexive nature of people’s interactions with their surroundings, both “natural” and built. Whereas it is customary to “take” a picture or “frame” a location, it is a specialist occupation to capture the acoustic dimensions of landscape in recordings or to transcribe something similar in musical composition. It seems that, when hearing landscape, it is not always easy to separate the observing subject from the surveyed object. Much more common is the sensation of feeling “swept up” by the roar of the sea or “enveloped” by a morning chorus, whether that chorus includes birds or cars or both. Unsurprisingly, a number of performers and composers have responded to these sensations and all the symbolic weight they carry with them. It is therefore not enough for musicology to simply identify “postcards in sound” because landscape – as an imaginative, material, and historical category – provides a means of engaging much more important questions about what it means to be overwhelmed, subsumed, shut out, or suddenly rendered silent.

If all of this sounds a little open-ended, then so much the better. Just like Rabelais’s Garagantuan tale of voyage and discovery, the study of music and landscape is not easily mapped, and nor should it be. This growing field of research may not be populated by foul-mouthed giants and warring tribes (not all the time at any rate), but it is littered with discourse, including “some terrible words, and some others not very pleasant to the eye.” At the same time, the apparent immediacy of the audible landscape is such that it threatens (or promises) to exceed and undo the words that are written on its surfaces. Believe me, we can have some very good sport with these topics. Follow the links to find out more . . .


Hearing Landscape Critically conference

RMA-supported “Musical Geographies” workshop

AMS Ecomusicology Study Group

Oxford Brookes Sonic Arts Research Unit

World Forum for Acoustic Ecology


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