Casas, Maria
University of London

Maria Casas
20 Kemerton Rd.
London, SE5 9AP

Strand: semiosis in language and other modalities

Title: Lillian Allen's "Revolutionary Tea Party" and the Semiotics of Speech, Music, and Other Sounds

This paper presents a grammar of sound; that is, a system for the analysis of speech, music, and other sounds as a single semiotic modality. It draws on categories from Van Leeuwen's Autumn 1996 London Institute lectures, "Speech, Music, Sound", which see aural signs as transparent signifiers. The meaning of pitch in melodies and other sounds, for example, depends on the physical, bodily effort required to tense one's vocal cords and thus raise or lower vocal pitch: very generally, a high pitch means tension (excitement or distress). As another example, duets and other conventionalised patterns of melodic and harmonic interaction in music are mediated through the producer's/hearer's sense of the patterns of turn-taking, overlap, and interruption in conversation. The presentation explores how we mean in sound by creating a confrontation between the written and audio-taped versions of the "same" texts by dub poet Lillian Allen. Aurally, Allen uses background melodies, polyrhythms, and an appeal to stylised but "natural" sounds such as screams of protest and panting during labour, as well as electronic effects such as echoes, fade-aways, and other recording dynamics. Visually, Allen's orientation is to techniques such as spacing, layout, and repetition to recreate sound effects (such as rhythm) subvocally in the reader's head. A comparison of segments of Allen's work in writing and audio tapes illustrates the differences, and the tension, between the two modalities. A self-consciously social semiotic approach is taken to these protest songs by a Jamaican-Canadian woman of African descent living in the metropolis. In that context, attention is given to systemic-functional metafunctions such as the interpersonal (relations of power between the interactive participants, and between the represented participants) and the ideational (the body as ground of semiosis). Thus, the analytical categories and their deployment incorporate the political and social context of these songs.