Workshop 'Sound Matters'

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The Digital Humanities are going from strength to strength at the moment, transforming the landscapes of our disciplines. Classics is no exception here, and in fact has traditionally been at the forefront of Digital Humanities. However, what is true of the Digital Humanities in the Classics is true of the Digital Humanities more broadly: they are still largely focussed on textual and visual objects. These are objects of sight, but a significant portion of human life is experienced through sound – in our day to day communication, in the music that we listen to, in the soundscapes of urban and rural life – and this has been the case for the entirety of humanity’s existence.

In antiquity, sound was an essential part of the content. To give an example: in Plautus’ tragicomedy Amphitruo, the god Mercurius appears to be the double of the slave Sosia. Both feature the same attitude and look. The characters on stage can’t see a difference. To the audience, however, the difference between the two is indicated by the sound of words: While Mercury employs metrical patterns known from tragedy, Sosia, the comic slave, speaks in specifically comic metres. Moreover, Sosia provides us with a good example of how content can be translated into sound: When explaining that “eight strong men” will “hit” him “just like an anvil”, Sosia performs this line in a trochaic octonar, a combination of eight “metrical feet”, whose sound imitates the strong beats of a person. In Plautus’ comedies, nearly 60% of the text was sung. The metrical forms which are employed, however, are often highly complex, and there is still a lot of scholarly work to do in order to analyse the metrical patterns behind either the passages which have been sung or those where it has been somewhat veiled that there is a clear metrical pattern behind it.

Recent approaches to sound analysis, such as the development of automated scansion tools, have made a start with analysing metrical patterns. In the long run, these approaches will help us to improve our understanding not only of metrical patterns (which may be unknown or rather complex), but also of rhythms of prose, where authors, such as Cicero and Sallustius, try to employ sound and rhythm affect their audience while at the same time avoiding forms that are too transparent to the audience and would allow the audience to realise that their emotional response was being manipulated by rhythms, since the relation between well-known metrical patterns and their emotional impact and associations was often discussed. Sound, here, is extremely important, but the desire to veil the techniques which are responsible for its effects (ars est celare artem), turns the analysis of prose rhythm into a challenge which requires approaches which will combine the strengths of Classical Philology and Digital Humanities.

While sound is becoming more and more an object of study in its own right in the Digital Humanities, the fact that the objects of our study are fundamentally multimedia, with the phonic often one of those vital media, should make it a priority for us to explore how to bring sound as an important dimension into the study of textual and other kinds of objects. Moreover, how can sound be envisioned to interact with other dimensions, without framing these interactions within the visual bias - how can better appreciation of the phonic combine with and enhance recent interest in the kinesthetic, for instance?

We envision this workshop as a venue to explore new approaches and methods for opening the dimension of sound up for study through the Digital Humanities. When we read poetry, for instance, as human researchers find it easy to incorporate phonic properties such as rhythm and metre. But in the digital age, without new techniques and methods within our research we risk either losing these dimensions entirely or ignoring the ways text and sound are entangled. However, Classical Philology and Digital Humanities can greatly profit from each other.

Particular questions we are hoping to explore are:

  • How can Digital Humanities help us to reconstruct phonic properties?

  • How can the inclusion and embedding of phonic properties be properly represented for textual, visual and other kinds of content in our digital working methods and in our outputs?

  • How can the Digital Humanities lead to new ways of incorporating phonic data in our research?

  • How can the multimedia aspect of human experience, e.g. the combination of visual, auditory, and cognitively embodied experience, be properly understood and studied within the Digital Humanities?

Clement, T. E. (2015). When texts of study are audio files: Digital tools for sound studies in digital humanities. A New Companion to Digital Humanities, 348-357.

Ceraso, S. (2018). Sound Practices for Digital Humanities. Digital Sound Studies, 250-266.

Barber, John F. (2016). Sound and Digital Humanities: Reflecting on a DHSI Course. Digital Humanities Quarterly 10.1.