Academic journal article Women & Music

The Touch of the Violin, the Coldness of the Bell: Synaesthesia, Mimesis, and the Unlocking of Traumatic Memory in Bunita Marcus's "The Rugmaker" and Andra McCartney's "Learning to Walk"

Academic journal article Women & Music

The Touch of the Violin, the Coldness of the Bell: Synaesthesia, Mimesis, and the Unlocking of Traumatic Memory in Bunita Marcus's "The Rugmaker" and Andra McCartney's "Learning to Walk"

Article excerpt

When I started this piece, I didn't remember. I had post-traumatic stress disorder. I thought I was writing a piece about making rugs. (1)

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I always had a fascination with bell sounds, and it was only after I had amassed quite a large collection that I began to think about why. (2)

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I was thinking about rugs, something me and Morty [Feldman] always shared. But when I started composing, I started thinking about my father, who loved the violin, and was always singing. And how the sound of the viola is like my father's voice.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

There's a feeliness to these sounds, like touch. A loving quality. A little girl singing a love song to her daddy. And I started to have memories. (3)

I realized that I never had curtains or drapes in my house. That sound of curtains being scraped on a metal rod has always bothered me.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

When I began writing my piece and listening to bell sounds, I found myself remembering being in hospital as a child and hearing the sound of hospital curtains. (4)

Five years after I wrote the piece, I started to have memories of my father coming into my bedroom at night and having sex with me as a child. (5)

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Suddenly I'm back there in that bed.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

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I also have a suspicion that I was sexually abused in hospital and that this is bound up with the sound of those hospital curtains closing. To me, that's the creepiest sound in the piece. (6)

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THIS ESSAY BEGINS WITH THE FRAGMENTARY voices and evocative sounds of two contemporary composers who were both sexually abused as children. As we can easily observe, their traumatic childhood memories--so distant and elusive and yet so sensationally raw--emerge primarily through the languages of sounds: sinuous, shimmering string sonorities; rich, echoic timbres of bells and distant voices; and thick, reverberant juxtapositions of acousmatic noise. If we listen carefully, we will also realize that it was the sounds themselves-these strings and bells and metallic scrapes--that triggered these survivors' memories in the first place, that resurrected from the depths of their psyches shocking, devastating sense-memories of violation that seem to have otherwise been cognitively inaccessible, locked away, repressed, dissociated, or forgotten.

We can also observe that these composers' sound-triggered recollections present as primarily somatic: their descriptions of the sounds as "cold," "feely, like touch," "white," and "full of pain" suggest that their long-buried memories of trauma are somehow more embodied than cognitively remembered, stored more in the blood and tissue of torso and limb or the deep, elderly smell-regions of the cerebellum than in the swifter, more evolved, and efficiently streamlined neural pathways of the cortex. Their descriptions also suggest that all these sense-memories are deeply intertwined with sound to an almost synaesthetic degree: violins become touch, bells become cold, metallic scrapes become white and painful, memory becomes sensation. (7) In the words of the second composer, "It is like the memories are buried deep inside those muscles, held there in tension ... and now released." (8)

How literally can we interpret these sonicsomatic sensations as long-buried, recently recovered memories, as bodily traces of injurious pasts? Can we regard them as actual, physical reenactments of past traumas, as trustworthily engraved on the body as if they had been recorded on tape or camera? Or should we abide a more metaphoric understanding of these testimonies as descriptions of what trauma feels like rather than what it literally is? These two achingly personal stories of abuse and violation illustrate a problem that trauma scholars have been debating for decades, namely, the question of whether it is physiologically possible to involuntarily forget a traumatic experience for years, only to regain memories of the event through accidental or therapeutic exposure to relevant stimuli: smells, songs, touches, colors, sounds. …

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