Sublime Noise: Musical Culture and the Modernist Writer (Johns Hopkins University Press; Fall 2014)

Recently reviewed in James Joyce QuarterlyConfigurations, Review of English StudiesTimes Literary Supplement, Journal of Modern LiteratureModernist CulturesAmerican Literary Scholarship

This book argues that modernist writers and composers engage with noise as a register of the cultural effects and public circulation of their art forms. By making use of industrial noises, urban noises, the noises of warfare, and the new possibilities of sound media, modernist composers give the lie to the idea that music is  divorced from questions of history, politics, ideology; in turn, as writers co-opt the formal and aesthetic doctrines of music, particularly the radical modernist experiments with rhythm and dissonance, they also grapple with the material conditions of modernity QR code for Sublime Noisethat make art possible and desirable. Drawing on literary cultural studies and critical theory, as well as the so-called “new musicology,” Sublime Noise questions the often formalistic tenor taken by literary critics who try their hand at musical analysis, studying music’s gestures toward what Adorno called the “social situation of music”:  the inassimilable shocks of dissonance; the disciplining or liberating effects of rhythm on the body; the listening habits promoted by new media; and the various noises repressed in the process of consolidating “High Culture.”

Ezra Pound and George Antheil
Ezra Pound and George Antheil

Taking its title from the set-piece from E.M. Forster’s Howards End, describing Beethoven’s Fifth as a “sublime noise…broadcast over a field of battle,” Sublime Noise engages with a wide range of modern music, literature, and Frankfurt Schoolish critical theory. As Edith Sitwell engages with the politics and the aesthetics of the Ballets Russes; as T.S. Eliot engages with the problems of performance setting and embodiment attendant to Wagnerian opera; as Britten and Forster set Billy Budd for the 1951 National Festival of Britain; and as Joyce and Pound engage with the noisy experiments of composers like Erik Satie and George Antheil, they grapple not just with the aesthetic “condition of music” (as Walter Pater put it), but with music’s cultural effects.

Second Project:

Guinness Festival Clock, Guinness Storehouse, Dublin

I have begun work on a second project as well, provisionally entitled Nuclear Family Portrait: Humphrey Jennings and the Structure of Reading in Post-War Britain. This project examines the Mass-Observationist and documentary filmmaker Humphrey Jennings–in particular, the films Listen to Britain (a Blitz-era sound-film) and Family Portrait (a rendering of the 1951 Festival of Britain), and the literary-critical anthology Pandaemonium–as precursors to contemporary debates over “surface reading” and “symptomatic reading.” (To lay my cards on the table, I am on Team Symptom.) I hope to contend that figures such as Jennings make the relationship between formal surface textures and social/psychological symptoms into the very subject matter of their art, and that rather than seeing symptoms as “repressed” or “hidden” objects of suspicion, Jennings sees them as productive, generative fields of meaning (something like what Raymond Williams called structures of feeling). One can look, for example, to the Festival of Britain’s Pattern Group, the textures of which Family Portrait resembles. Jennings’s work, filmic and otherwise, reflect a tangle of political and psychological anxieties about post-war Britain, and about the cultural practices of reading itself.

There’s other stuff; I’m also working on articles related to the BBC Third Programme (Dylan Thomas and Samuel Beckett, in particular), and teaching more new classes than you can shake a stick at.


The Antheil Era: Pound, Noise, and Musical Sensation.” Textual Practice 28.6.

Joyce’s Phoneygraphs: Music, Mediation, and Noise Unleashed.” James Joyce Quarterly 48.2.

“‘Neutral Physiognomy’: The Unreadable Faces of Middlemarch.” Victorian Literature and Culture 38.1.


Blog on Daniel Cavicchi’s Listening and Longing: Music Lovers in the Age of Barnum, for Modernism/Modernity‘s “Re/discoveries”


“Cruel Modernisms.” Seminar led at the Modernist Studies Association (Pasadena, CA), November 2016.

“Listening Out to Britain: Civic Soundscape in Humphrey Jennings.” Invited Talk for the University of Oxford Research Colloquia, May 2016.

Samuel Beckett Summer School, Trinity College (Dublin), August 2015.

“Lend Me Your Ears: Civic Soundscape in Humphrey Jennings’s Listen to Britain.” Modernist Studies Association (Pittsburgh, PA), November 2014.

“New Adornos.” Seminar led at the Modernist Studies Association (Pittsburgh, PA), November 2014.

“‘We are a musical nation’: Under Milk Wood and the BBC Third Programme.” Invited talk for the Department of English at the University of Nevada – Reno.

“‘He-haw-haw-haw-haw’: Music and the ‘Cat-calls’ of the Human in Olive Moore’s Spleen.” Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture Since 1900, February 2014.

Presenter and Panel Organizer: “Bearing Earwitness: Modernism and Sonic Spectacle,” with Scott Klein and Julia Obert, chaired by Michael Moses. Paper title: “Over the Rainbow Bridge: The Phantasmagoric Wizard of Oz.”

“The Public Façade: Sitwell, Cocteau, and the Musical Life.” New Directions in the Humanities Conference, Granada, Spain, 2011.

Chamber Music Matters: Joyce, Noise, and Siegfried’s Clanging Anvils.” Paper for the Southern California Irish Studies Colloquium, 2011.

“Consonance Kills: ‘Spellbinding Forms’ and the ‘Sublime Noise’ in Britten’s and Forster’s Billy Budd.” The Space Between Society (Notre Dame University), 2009.

The Wizard of Oz (L) and Das Rheingold (R)

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