On Harmony and Self-Ownership in Stoever’s The Sonic Color Line

I’m teaching Jennifer Stoever’s chapter on Jenny Lind and Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield next week, and I have a few thoughts:

Analyzing the American reception of 19th century opera singers Jenny Lind and Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield, Jennifer Stover hones in on a common interpretive trope or lense applied to both singers: audiences and critics expect the sounds they hear coming out of a body to “match” that body’s visible social identities. The reviews frame that matching as a matter of harmony–that is, of consonance and dissonance. On the one hand, “The Water-Cure Journal, for example…reported that American listeners coudl expect [white] Lind’s voice to ‘harmoniz[e] so well with her appearance,’ which, ironically, it never describes. The perceived ethereality of her bodily transcendence performs the aspirational femininity of ‘true womanhood’” (SCL 89). Lind’s white, literally European (she’s Swedish) body “harmonizes” with the sounds of the European art music she sings. Stoever further describes this relationship as “aligning Lind’s voice with her body” (89), suggesting the alignment of consonant, in-phase sound waves. Greenfield, on the other hand, was black, so when she sang European art music, there was a “perceived dissonance between Greenfield’s voice and body” (88).

This interpretive framework, which understands relationship between a body’s outward visual appearance or structure and the sounds that come out of it as a matter of harmony (consonance/dissonance), goes all the way back to the ancient Greeks. Historicizing this interpretive framework can, I think, reveal what’s distinctive about its deployment in the antebellum context Stoever unearths it from.

Ostensibly a dialogue about love, eros, Plato’s Symposium defines what philosophy, the love of wisdom, is and how it should best be practiced. The text rehearses a series of increasingly refined high/low distinctions: divine from common (180c-182b, 208d-212a), “wisdom” and “ignorance” (202a-203e) “passion” from “the love of wisdom” (184d), philosophy from sophistry (215b-222c). Philosophy is the moderate, temperate pursuit of wisdom. Loving wisdom means attuning your body to The Good so that when you vibrate your body to make it speak, the sounds, words, and ideas that come out of it are themselves properly tuned. To be “attuned” to The Good means reflecting the proportionality or harmony among its various parts (e.g., between “divine” and “common”). Sophistry, on the other hand, is an immoderate love, a knowing that is disproportionate and literally ir-ratio-nal. What comes out of the mouth of sophists may sound identical to what comes out of the mouth of philosophers–the difference is in the relationship between the body/soul of the speaker and the sounds that come out of his mouth. A sophist is immoderate because the “wisdom” of his words does not correspond to a proportionately ordered body–he can produce words that sound wise, but only through immoderate bodily practices (i.e., bodily practices that don’t reflect the proportions expressed in The Good as represented on the divided line). A philosopher is moderate because the “wisdom” of his words directly corresponds to the “wise ordering” of his body–they are both, in other words, “moderate.” Anyone without a visibly tuned body must not be practicing philosophy correctly, if at all. (I think you can guess the implications if this last claim.) Let me explain how I got this reading of Plato.

In Plato, “moderation” or sophrosyne is closely tied to the idea of harmony. So, to begin, you need to know something about ancient Greek music theory. In ancient Greek music theory, sonic harmony was a function of mathematical proportion. Consonant harmonies were the most mathematically proportionate ones; dissonant harmonies were less mathematically proportionate. Sonic harmony was not a measure of the relationships among sound frequencies (as we think of it today), but the effect of the mathematical relationships among the parts of the instrument that produced the sounds in question. For example, the octave and (what we now call major) fifth were thought to be the most consonant intervals because these were the intervals produced when you divided a string in the most visually, mathematically proportionate intervals–½ and ⅔ (aka the golden mean), respectively. “Proportionality” was a geometric measurement of the instrument, not an acoustic measurement of sounds. Sounds were “harmonious” because they were the products of harmonious, proportionate instruments.

This way of thinking works just fine for instruments whose pitch is a function of their physical measurements and dimensions like strings and and multi-piped instruments such as pan pipes and pipe organs. For example, on a pipe organ, the acoustic relationship between pitches C4 and C5 directly corresponds to the geometric relationship between the pipes that produce these pitches (pitchC4:pitchC5::pipeC4:pipeC5). This analogy between acoustic and geometric proportion doesn’t work for flutes and double-reeded instruments. Think of a modern oboe; this latter is the closest modern Western equivalent to the aulos (αυλους), which is the instrument in question in the Symposium (see 215b, 212c, 176e). With an oboe, there is a direct correlation between the material structure and pitch, but it does not follow a consistent mathematical system; when an oboe is sonically “in tune,” the parts of its physical structure are mathematically disproportionate. Oboe keys are neither evenly spaced nor does their spacing follow systematic mathematical ratios (like the 12:9:8:6 ones Pythagorean harmony uses). Similarly, to get each note perfectly in tune often requires minute physical adjustments (of embouchure, of fingering, etc.) idiosyncratic to each pitch (for example, C6 is generally very sharp, so oboeists have to use alternate fingerings to compensate for its sharpness). This is what Plato is referring to when he says, for example: “in the case of flute-playing, the harmonies are found not by measurement but by the hit and miss of training, and quite generally music tries to find the measure by observing vibrating strings. So there is a lot of imprecision mixed up in it and very little reliability” (Philebus 56a). For Plato, auloi are paradigmatically immoderate because bringing one sonically in tune means de-tuning its physical order or visible bodily structure. Immoderation is the mismatch between the sonic and the visible order.

Plato frequently equates listening to the flute and drunkenness–they are both cases of bodies thrown out of whack. For example, Republic VIII characterizes an immoderate person as one who “yield[s] day by day to the desire at hand…he drinks heavily while listening to the flute” (561c). Similarly, the issue of drunkenness and flute-playing brackets the “philosophical” conversation in the Symposium: “It’s settled, then,” said Eryximachus. “We are resolved to force no one to drink more than he wants. I would like now to make a further motion: let us dispense with the flute-girl who just made her entrance; let her play for herself or, if she prefers, for the women in the house. Let us instead spend our evening in conversation.” (176e) Having first decided to be moderate, to not drink to excess, the guests at Agathon’s banquet then decide that philosophical conversation is the preferred means of achieving this bodily moderation. But to avoid excess and to facilitate philosophical conversation, they have to kick out the flute girls because flutes and girls exhibit an unphilosophical, disproportionate relationship between visible embodiment and sonic output. The disproportionality of the flute is the opposite of the proportionality of philosophical practice. Women and other non-philosophers, like flutes, have a disproportionate relationship between their speech and their visible bodily structure. Philosophers, on the other hand, have a proportionate relationship between their speech and their visible bodily structure.

The relationship between speech and visible bodily structure brings us to the issue of Socrates. As Alcibiades says at the end of the Symposium, Socrates seems like a flautist–more specifically, he looks like a statue of Silenus holding an aulos (215b). Like an aulos, whose body doesn’t rationally correspond to the sounds that come out of it, the ugliness of Socrates’ visible outward appearance seems to be out of tune with the wisdom of his speech. How can a body that ugly make sounds so beautiful/good/wise? How can a body that disproportionate make sounds otherwise so consonant, so beautiful?

But Socrates’ words aren’t overtly, directly beautiful and wise. As Alcibiades says, even his ideas and arguments are just like those hollow statues of Silenus. If you were

to listen to his arguments, at first they’d strike you as totally ridiculous; they’re clothed in words as coarse as the hides worn by the most vulgar satyrs. He’s always going on about pack asses, or blacksmiths, or cobblers, or tanners; he’s always making the same tired old points in the same tired old words. If you are foolish, or simply unfamiliar with him, you’d find it impossible not to laugh at his arguments. But if you see them when they open up like the statues, if you go behind their surface, you’ll realize that no other arguments make any sense. They’re truly worthy of a god, bursting with figures of virtue inside. They’re of great—no, of the greatest—importance for anyone who wants to become a truly good man. (221d-222a).

Socrates seems like an aulos only to the untrained, unphilosophical ear, like the ear of a lovesick drunk such as Alcibiades. Socrates’ words exhibit the same proportionality between visible and intelligible as his body does. His speech is in tune with his body–visible:intelligible::visible:intelligible. In each case, the outer is diminished in quality as compared to the inner; in this way, they each reflect the proper proportional relationship between the visible and intelligible. If Socrates is Plato’s exemplar of philosophical practice, then such practice consists in maintaining the proper proportion between one’s words and one’s body, making sure they are each in tune, both in themselves and with one another.

So, in Plato, sounds were “harmonious” when they directly, without any extra physical manipulation, exhibited the properly ordered series of geometric ratios that also governed their physical structure. Harmoniously ordered bodies ought to be allowed to speak, because they produced harmoniously ordered speech; disharmoniously ordered bodies (like women’s) ought to be kept quiet, because they were incapable of producing harmoniously ordered sounds (see Ann Carson’s “The Gender of Sound” for more on this point).

So, when American audiences compared the rationality of the sounds coming out of Lind’s and Greenfield’s mouths with the perceived (ir)rationality of their bodies, they’re updating an interpretive habit that predates the origin of opera by at least a millennium. According to this logic, Lind’s performances are “harmonious” because she has a properly, rationally-ordered, i.e., white body, and it produces properly, rationally-ordered, i.e., European sounds (opera arias). Greenfield’s performances are “dissonant” in the same way Plato’s aulos is dissonant–an irrationally ordered body requires physical rather than rational/logical mastery to produce otherwise “rationally” ordered sounds.

Stoever emphasizes the different ways white audiences discuss the labor and preparation each singer put into her performance. As she explains,

One of the most prevalent terms elite white listeners used to describe Jenny Lind’s voice, ‘control’ described not so much a specific sound of the sonic color line but the way it worked to transform timbre’s potential passions into a performance of authority, perfection, and emotional self-discipline. New York audiences racialized Lind’s restraint–her mastery of the physical and musical boundaries she pushed but did not cross–as well as her perceived discipline over her body and emotions (97).

Self-discipline, restraint…this sounds a lot like good ol’ Platonic sophrosyne: moderation means that reason not the body rules. And in some ways it is that; but it’s also more than that. “Lind’s voice [w]as a standard-bearer for…bodily discipline” (78) because it supposedly exhibited evidence of “cultivation.” “Already a narrow and racialized term specifically referencing European concert training, ‘cultivation,’” as Stoever explains, “operated as an aural racial shorthand that identified sonic traces of Greenfield’s ‘blackness’ and labeled them as natural, uncontrolled/uncontrollable, and inarticulate…white reviewers’ almost obsessive focus on Greenfield’s lack of cultivation–in both her life and voice” (116). Cultivation means mixing one’s labor with ‘natural’ skill or talent to produce musical voice as one’s private property, and the singer as owner of that private property. As a racial technology, we should hear “cultivation” as speaking to the legal concept of “terra nullius”–the idea that land unimproved by individual labor was not private property, and thus could be claimed by anyone as his private property through cultivation/mixing one’s labor with the land. Private property relations are racialized and gendered (see Pateman and Mills, Cheryl Harris, and Hortense Spillers on this)–just as blackness is stereotypically “uncultivated,” it is also a political category used to describe the abselce and impossibility of self-ownership. Thus, “descriptions of Greenfield in the same outlets vaunting Lind’s ability to control her singing deny Greenfield access to her forms of self-possession and bodily discipline, emphasizing the effortlessness of Greenfield’s singing” (118; emphasis mine).
So, in the antebellum context of Lind and Greenfield’s careers, “harmonious” body-sound combinations weren’t just judgments of sophrosyne or self-mastery, but also of personhood-as-property. The “dissonance” critics experienced in the supposed mismatch between her cultivated-sounding voice and her uncultivated-looking body refers to the critics’ inability to parse black femme bodies as capable of self-ownership (which is the basis for political and moral personhood from the Enlightenment forward).