There Are No Oral Media?: Multisensory Perceptions of South Slavic Epic Poetry

Oral poetry sounds. In other words, it is also aural poetry. This claim serves as the foundation of this essay, and while it may not seem particularly revolutionary, such a notion has considerable potential not only to bring studies of oral poetry into fruitful dialogue with other emerging fields of academic inquiry—for example, sound studies, media studies, and the anthropology of the senses—but also to offer some meaningful reflection, in this age of digitization and hypermedia, on what we actually mean by “oral poetry.” Stated succinctly, we cannot understand orality without consideration of sound. In particular, the histories of sound and listening at stake here are closely connected to recording technologies that simultaneously respond to but also shape our sensory experiences of oral poetry. Furthermore, those histories of mediated sound likewise point to a multisensory realm that extends far beyond the oral and aural. These claims emerge from that most canonical of corpora, South Slavic epic song, one of the most important sources for generating our current notions of “oral poetry.” Somewhat paradoxically, listening carefully to this tradition and its sonic qualities makes clear that oral poetry is less exclusively oral than its name indicates, begging the question: how oral is oral poetry?
To set the stage for this sensory exploration of oral poetry, I turn to Miloš Velimirović, Albert Lord’s assistant during his 1950 and 1951 fieldwork in the former Yugoslavia. As an aspiring musicologist and Byzantinist without particularly good standing with the government at the time, Velimirović did not consider himself a natural candidate to act as Lord’s assistant. But the linguistic problems of describing oral poetry led to just such an outcome, which he described in an interview shortly before his death:

[After Albert Lord] completed his dissertation [1] … he got an interesting idea, which was apparently never before tested or explored: namely, to try to find the very same singers from whom they recorded texts, whether in dictation or on the recording machine, and record them again and see whether these texts remained the same in length, and whether there was any change, as well. So in early 1950, I gather Albert wrote a letter to the Yugoslav government, asking that he be assigned an assistant because Parry and Lord did have an assistant in 1934-35 by the name of Nikola Vujnović. And apparently it was not possible to establish contact with Vujnović at that point, so Albert asked the government to assign somebody.
Now here comes an interesting story. The letter was received in the Committee for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries … and they said, ‘Well, let’s not send again one of our men with him again. The man wants to record songs.’ See, the term pesma means song, but it can also be used for epic poetry. And they understood that Albert was interested in music.… They just founded a musicological institute in 1948. So the letter came to the Serbian Academy of Sciences, in Belgrade, and they looked at the letter, read that Albert was interested in pesma, songs, so they said, ‘Well, we’ve got the Musicological Institute.’ They sent the letter to the Musicological Institute, which came into the hands of Petar Konjević, the composer and director of the Institute, [who] was to make a recommendation for somebody to the Committee for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries to be [an] assistant to Albert. And Albert said that he had brought with him a wire recorder, and that he also brought two—I don’t know how many voltage batteries—six- or twelve-volt batteries that had to be charged every night in some garage. They were actually car batteries. So he needed somebody who was going to help both carry this stuff and operate the recording machine, the wire recorder. [2]

Velimirović seems baffled that he as a musicologist was brought along rather than, say, a folklorist, philologist or anthropologist. Certainly the Academy of Sciences, which had itself collected such “songs” in the past, should have understood what was being requested. And yet somehow the uncertain valence of pesma (or pjesma) as “song” but also “poem”—and etymologically, an abstract noun, “that which is sung”—was sufficient in 1950 to lead Lord to Velimirović. [3]

In addition to this ontological ambiguity (what is a pesma?), which I will return to shortly, Velimirović’s comments suggest a number of other avenues of interest for the question of oral poetry. For example, he highlights three institutions that mediate this encounter: the Committee for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries, the Academy of Sciences, and the Musicological Institute. But this isolated example suggests that these institutions were not simply forwarding along mail to one another; rather they were (at least implicitly, if not consciously) engaging in a conversation about the definitions, significance and aesthetics of poetry. The politics of collecting and fieldwork often fades into the background, overshadowed by heroicizing accounts in which the collector is an unrestricted agent, able to impose his or her will around the globe in the name of science and knowledge. But certainly a newly-formed “second Yugoslavia,” standing on a major fault line of the Cold War, had reason to be wary of any kind of agent, literary or otherwise, roaming through the countryside with recording equipment. Indeed, one of the great counterfactual tales of Parry’s work was his failed attempt to go to Soviet Central Asia because of the politics of the early 1930s (Mitchell and Nagy 2000:ix), following in the footsteps of the 19th-century Turkologist Vasiliy (Wilhelm) Radloff (1885). As several scholars have pointed out since, Radloff had already explored their practices of orality (or “art of improvisation”) and also made explicit comparison between Kyrgyz epic singers and ancient Greek aoidoi (Schoeler 2006:87-88, also A. Parry 1971:xxx, Lord 1948:36, Reichl 2000:12-13). [4]

But more significantly, given Parry’s fascination with bilingual singers like Salih Ugljanin and singers with knowledge of particularly long songs, one can only imagine his astonishment had he encountered the trilingual bards of Khorasan or performers of the massive Manas epic, which in its longest iterations dwarfs the Homeric epic. [5]

While Parry’s eventual choice of Yugoslavia obviously proved tremendously fruitful, it should be remembered that such choices are always brokered through relationships of politics and power, whether through formal institutions (as with Lord) or not.

In this essay, I explore the slippery ontology of oral poetry as suggested by these examples and by Lord’s exchange with the Yugoslavian authorities. As my title suggests, I will argue that there is, in effect, no such thing as oral poetry. Or put less polemically, I suggest that orality is a multisensory phenomenon, whether as sung poetry, as poetry heard in live performance, or as poetry encountered archivally through writing, audio recording, video or other media. My thoughts here, originally delivered (fittingly) in an oral form in 2010, resonate strongly with the ethnographic history Haun Saussy has laid out in his 2016 book, The Ethnography of Rhythm: Orality and Its Technologies. Saussy’s formulations of the “human gramophone” and oral tradition as “a particular kind of writing, an inscription on other human minds” (156) might be seen as a kind of inversion of my arguments here: he focuses on transmission and the tradition, and I am especially interested in what the tradition leaves behind and even excises from itself.
Put crudely, Saussy re-imagines orality as a kind of technological process without the technologies. For my part, I will be especially interested in how orality is in fact co-constructed with material recording technologies. There is no singular sensory experience of orality; but to the degree “orality” as such exists, I would argue that it is bound up with the documentary machinery that allowed it to be inscribed in places besides “other human minds.” In what follows, I first explore briefly the question: what kind of medium or art form is oral poetry? To answer that, I turn to the longstanding debate in art history about medium specificity. I then look to specific examples from the Milman Parry Collection of Oral Literature to capture some of the ontological slipperiness of orality in the context of the South Slavic traditions Milman Parry and Albert Lord documented and analyzed: pictures that sound, voices that map space, and videos that reveal the inescapable contingency of performance.

On Pesma; or, The Multisensory Poetics of Poetics

To return to the word pesma, Velimirović’s comments underscore not only the word’s political and linguistic ambiguities but also its multiple sensory meanings: in other words, what kind of art-form was Lord in fact seeking? Certainly Lord was under no illusions about the complexity of his request or its nominalism, as exemplified by his vacillation between titles around that time: his collaborative book with Béla Bartók was titled Serbo-Croatian Folk Songs (1951), featuring mostly “women’s” (i.e., lyric) songs; the series of epic texts published from 1953 onward, Serbo-Croatian Heroic Songs; and his dissertation (1949) and the resultant book (1960), both called The Singer of Tales. Folk songs, heroic songs, sung tales: Lord seems quite cognizant of the challenge of naming this sonic art. That Velimirović, who would go on to become an eminent scholar of Byzantine chant—another genre of verbal practice that poses many similar questions of musical definitions—would draw such amusement from this anecdote suggests that the confusion here did not originate in Lord’s misuse of the term in his letter (presumably written in Serbian, using the word “pesma”). Rather, the humor stems from the misunderstanding (or perhaps lack of awareness) on the part of government officials with regard to such a tradition. Yet their bafflement and Lord’s continual tweaking of terminology in his titles highlights a critical sonic reality of this repertoire: not just its definition as a practice of sung poetry or verbal arts, but its ontology more broadly.
In recent decades, art historians have taken up similar challenges with regards to visual arts. One influential line of thinking there has been that of “medium specificity”: what makes painting, or sculpture, or film unique relative to each other? And by extension, how does an artist fulfill the aesthetic possibilities of a given medium? Perhaps the most famous advocate of this notion was Clement Greenberg (and to a lesser degree Michael Fried), who used it to elaborate a powerful argument privileging painting as the purest of visual mediums and therefore the natural bedrock for the discipline of art history (Greenberg 1940). Sculpture and architecture raise too many ontological/sensory problems to fulfill that task. Outside the visual arts, poetry—which has never proved easily reducible to music or to literature—created even more problems for this idea, some of which I will discuss below. Yet for many, “medium specificity” remained a compelling explanation for the visual power of painting and a plausible yardstick for aesthetic judgments (however circular): a given art form (e.g., painting) was successful to the degree it fulfilled but also confined itself to the possibilities of its particular medium. More recently, however, the emergence of a broader discipline of visual studies has necessitated a rethinking of medium specificity that offers insight into the question of oral poetry too. In his rebuttal of scholars like Greenberg, W.J.T. Mitchell argues that all art forms are multimedia and therefore must lack medium specificity. He opens his provocatively titled essay, “There Are No Visual Media,” as follows:

“Visual media” is a colloquial expression used to designate things such as television, film, photography and painting, etc. But it is highly inexact and misleading. On closer inspection, all the so-called visual media turn out to involve the other senses (especially touch and hearing). All media are, from the standpoint of sensory modality, “mixed media.” (2005:257)

Mitchell goes on to suggest that even seeing itself has a complicated relationship to the visual, with numerous ways in which the two terms are not concomitant, whether because of physiological processes or disabilities. [6]

Furthermore, he places poetry at the opposite end of the medium specific spectrum, drawing on the centuries-old practice of ekphrastic poetry, in which an object (his example is Achilles’ shield in the Iliad) is described as a palpable, visible thing—“a kind of action-at-distance between two rigorously separated sensory and semiotic tracks, one which requires completion in the mind of the reader. This is why poetry remains the most subtle, agile master-medium of the sensus communis, no matter how many spectacular multimedia inventions are devised to assault our collective sensibilities” (Mitchell 2005:263).

Strikingly, however, Mitchell’s understanding of sensory mingling in poetry apparently presumes a fixed, written form of poetry—even when speaking of Homeric ekphrasis. Friedrich Kittler, on the other hand, sees that interchange between the sonic and the written and the incommensurability of those two “sensory and semiotic tracks” (to use Mitchell’s description again) as the fundamental starting point of German, if not all European, poetry. His reading of Goethe’s Faust as a struggle to capture the sighs and non-inscribable utterances of the world into codified, solidified writing sets the table for his theory of Aufschreibesysteme (1985) literally “writing-down systems” or more commonly in English, “discourse networks” (1990). Kittler highlights the profound transformations of meaning that come through speech, writing, the writing of speech, and the speaking of writing. The entire possibility of enunciation at this juncture (c. 1800) relies on a back-and-forth between writing and speaking as a core practice in poetry, such that “the magic power of signs [are able] to liberate sensual and intoxicating powers in the reader once the signs have disappeared into the fluid medium of their signified—the voice” (Kittler 1990:7). In other words, the voice becomes the point of media transfer in the Romantic Era, whether reading words and thus (at least implicitly, though literally for Faust) sounding by means of the voice, or uttering/singing/speaking as a precondition for inscription.
It seems fitting, then, that the introduction of South Slavic poetry to Germany and Western European elites in general came around the same moment as Kittler is describing, with Goethe, the Grimms, and other figures championing the poetry—once it was made available in written form by South Slavic collectors (i.e., inscribers-of-poetry) like Vuk Karadžić. This media malleability of poetry highlights what must have been immediately obvious to all 19th century readers: that such poetry, oral-turned-written (but still entailing voice, if Kittler is correct) as it was, destabilized the emergent categories of literature that Goethe and others were simultaneously producing. In other words, since the first attempts to make oral poetry legible in a graphocentric culture, such poetry has always vacillated richly (or awkwardly, for those who would muscle it into the debates of medium specificity) between music and literature, sound and text. The confusion of the Yugoslav government only confirms what a threat verbal arts posed to any universalizing notion of “medium specificity” that might try to subsume them. Furthermore, to echo the arguments of several of the authors in this volume, oral poetry often blurs these distinctions of medium even more stubbornly than its written counterpart: it has a strongly visual component, and I will show here other sensory modes that are implicated as well.
To move from “medium specificity” to the specificities of oral poetry requires a few observations. First, as alluded to above, oral poetry is much more than a singular medium and defies much of the discourse surrounding “medium specificity.”
Second, if an art form cannot be reduced to a single, specific medium, and the medium and the message are intimately connected, or at least (and less clichéd) this multiplicity of media has some impact on the singularity of that “message,” we can expect the meaning of oral poetry to call for (if not outright demand) a multisensory mode of perception. The multisensory qualities of oral poetry include the poetics of audition—of being a capable audience member not only in terms of physical ability (i.e., being able to hear) but far more importantly in terms of knowing the tradition and its aesthetic criteria (at least in passing), allowing audiences to recognize, respond to, and reward singers in different ways (Lord 2000:14-17).
Third, the history of oral poetry is inextricably linked with the history of its recording—its integration into “writing-down systems”—such that the poetry shaped the kinds of technologies used for recording, and in turn, these recording apparatuses have long (if not always) impacted the way such poetry is performed. These technologies of inscription might encompass large-scale institutions and technologies like the vocalic alphabet (Powell 1996) but come into clearer focus with recording technologies like the phonograph (first used to record a nursery rhyme and quickly taken up in the service of the anthropology of sound/music) or even more specifically, the sound-recording apparatus that Milman Parry commissioned from Lincoln Thompson to circumvent the limits of commercial phonographs, gramophones, parlographs, etc (Mitchell and Nagy 2000:x-xi).
And finally, as a result of what I call the synaesthetics of recording, these recordings, by their nature, document certain aspects of the total sensory experience of these performances while reducing or totally eliding others. Sound within a certain proximity of a microphone is preserved, while other so-called ambient sounds are lost, along with most visual, olfactory and spatial information. Perhaps some photos are taken, thus fixing some other set of sensory data while also necessary eliding so much else. (It bears mention that Parry and Lord both used photography and, to a very limited degree with Parry, film, in important ways in their research.) But recording is not just a reductive fixing; it simultaneously produces new sensory possibilities. Once fixed as recorded objects, these discs or photographs in turn engender new synaesthestic, multisensory experiences: listening in an archive that smells of its paper-based transcriptions; looking at photographs of musical performance or, even more significantly, performances for documentation through particular sound technologies; or pressing play on an old (but not too old) tape recorder to find that the last tape to be recorded was still there, with no metadata to be had to indicate names and dates but instead with the tactile resistance of heavy, slightly sticky buttons and the minor heft of a micro-apparatus. [7]

These broad points about oral poetry and its mediality can perhaps better be understood with three concrete examples from the Milman Parry Collection, which will make up the remainder of this essay. The first is a set of photographs that explore senses of sound; the second a sound recording that explores senses of place; and the third, a video recording that suggests how sound, sight, and place give rise to sensory-mediated forms of knowledge and meaning, a multisensory version of what Steven Feld calls “acoustemology” (1996, 2015). All these media, taken together, exemplify the kinds of multisensory perception I have described above, as well as the intertwined histories of oral poetry and recording itself. At the same time, they also exemplify the sensory reduction I mentioned—they bear obvious traces of sensory data they have failed to preserve. Yet as I hinted above, this sensory reduction is part of a larger synaesthetics of recording that allows some of these media objects—after having been concretized, materialized, aufgeschrieben in writing-down systems—to lead very fruitful lives since their initial recording, exemplifying the kind of sensory pluripotentiality of recordings when played back.

Media as Synaesthetic Reduction

I. Images of Sound

Photography is a multisensory activity, as Roland Barthes reminds us: “For me, the Photographer’s organ is not his eye (which terrifies me) but his finger: what is linked to the trigger of the lens, to the metallic shifting of the plates (when the camera still has such things)” (1981:15). He then shifts from the haptic to the sonic as a key marker of photographic time rooted in the camera apparatus itself:

I love these mechanical sounds in an almost voluptuous way, as if, in the Photograph, they were the very thing—and the only thing—to which my desire clings, their abrupt click breaking through the mortiferous layer of the Pose. For me the noise of Time is not sad: I love bells, clocks, watches—and I recall that at first photographic implements were related to techniques of cabinetmaking and the machinery of precision: cameras, in short, were clocks for seeing, and perhaps in me someone very old still hears in the photographic mechanism the living sound of the wood. (ibid.)

In photography, Barthes hears time passing—an emergent archive rooted not only in vision but also in sound, touch, and decay. Following in the footsteps of Matthias Murko, whom he met while completing his doctoral studies at the Sorbonne, Milman Parry actively photographed the singers he recorded and the cities and landscapes which surrounded them. Unlike Murko (1951), however, Parry—or perhaps in some instances Albert Lord or one of his assistants—was also able to photograph a number of performances, in addition to the portrait photographs of singers that mark both Parry’s and Murko’s collections. That collection of photographs exhibits the passage of time through sound quite literally.

Figure 1. Jusuf Smajić recording for Milman Parry, September 1934 (MPC 0054). All photographs from the Milman Parry Collection of Oral Literature, Harvard University.
Nicola Scaldaferri and Zymer Neziri’s chapter in this volume considers the kinds of bodily technics employed by Albanian epic singers for mnemonics and performance. (These examples of contemporary Albanian poetry offer a compelling corroboration of Haun Saussy’s arguments.) Milman Parry’s photograph of singer Jusuf Smajić from September 27, 1934, illustrates similar bodily technics (Fig. 1). [8]

For all the innovations of Parry’s commissioned audio apparatus, considering the audio recording being made here in isolation risks obscuring what I consider a very important, if silent, aspect of the epic being performed here: the cane as gusle. This photo in fact is part of a larger sequence, but it also serves as an iconic reminder of the many things that recordings do not capture within the context of a performance. The audio recording alone sounds like a performer sitting in front of a microphone—presumably with empty hands. The image, however, resonates with observations made by the late author and cultural critic, Ismet Rebronja (whose grandfather, incidentally, sang for and was recorded by Albert Lord in 1950). In conversations I had with him, he mentioned repeatedly what a physical process epic performance was, and that it was not uncommon for singers who did not have gusle at hand to find some other objects (rubbing sticks together, for example), to generate the kinds of kinetic rhythms that self-accompaniment provides. [9]

Milman Parry’s photographic efforts have received little attention, yet they offer significant insight both into the performance tradition and into Parry’s research methodologies. Two general observations about the photographs have relevance for my discussion here: first, many of them occur in series, creating a kind of proto-cinematic sense of temporal visuality; and second, a significant number depict not only the singers (an obvious choice) but also the recording technologies used, ranging from the common and (relatively) rudimentary (pen and notebook) to the idiosyncratic and complex (the famed two-turntable apparatus Parry commissioned from Lincoln Thompson). For my present purposes, I am especially interested in the intersection of these two groupings of photos: sequential images of the recording devices taken, which function as a meta-documentary medium consisting of moving pictures about recording.
One of the features of the photos Parry took—and perhaps a more general phenomenon in taking photos—is that photos often come in series. This sequential aspect of photography is built into the medium, with the constraint of only being able to take a single picture at once. It also emerges from the flow of activities: I pull out my camera and take a photograph right now in this room, then in the hallway with a colleague, then outside, and so on. The logical sequencing of action is mundane—we hardly think about it, and all the less when we are taking photographs with a digital camera that barely limits the quantity of pictures we take. And yet, such series clarify much of what is happening temporally and spatially beyond the frame of a single image, bridging the space between the photograph and moving pictures. Parry’s documentation of the recording apparatuses he used—and the implications of sound, and the reproduction of sound embedded visually in them—is of particular interest to me as evidence of recording devices whose whereabouts are no longer known. Yet in several cases, he created not just a single image of recording but a brief sequence—a burst of images that animate the act of recording, highlighting the kinds of sonic temporalities inherent in photography, especially photography of sound, and the temporalities of recording more generally.
For example, a whole series of near-identical photographs were taken of Parry’s assistant, Nikola Vujnovi, recording in front of a parlograph at the Pansion Viktorija in Dubrovnik, essentially variations of this photograph (Fig. 2), all depicting Vujnović sitting with slight movements of his head and body.
Figure 2. Nikola Vujnovic recording at Parry’s parlograph (MPC 0345).
Before Parry commissioned his famous two-turntables-and-a-microphone from Lincoln Thompson, he used a parlograph as seen here with Vujnović. The photograph not only offers a compelling visual portrait of one of the most important figures in the entire project, it also makes clear how unwieldy such a device would have been for singers like Smajić, who appears behind a much smaller microphone while sitting outdoors.
In addition to the photograph looking straight on at Smajić, another cinematic series (Figs. 3-6) photographed at that recording session gives a sense of one possible configuration for recording, especially outdoors. While the order of these images depicting Smajić is difficult to ascertain, several significant points arise. First, Milman Parry’s car can be seen, a critical vehicle (literally) for traveling and for powering the recording device. The microphone is set up at considerable remove from the actual recording equipment, allowing for a quieter recording (and also giving some indication of what kinds of distances were possible and perhaps necessary for recording). Second, several people gather around for the performance, but for the most part they seem to be seated at some remove from Smajić, presumably to minimize other sounds in the recording. (The question of audience interactivity or lack thereof in Parry’s work remains unclear, but there are clear traces throughout the archive that it was not unheard of to have various kinds of audiences at a recording session.) Third, Vujnović can be seen lying on the ground next to Smajić, suggesting that his role was not always one of immediate engagement with the singer—these could be lengthy songs and presumably recording created additional technical and logistical delays—though he is the only one who remains at Smajić’s side throughout.
  Figures 3-6. Jusuf Smajić recording in a field near Glamoč, Bosnia (MPC 0035, 0036, 0037, 0038).
Another such series from the village of Kijevo pod Dinarom features the guslar/singer Ante Cicvarić. This sequence of images (Figs. 7-11) shows a similar set of circumstances and photography: outdoor recording; villagers (and probably family members) gathered around (though this time women are present in sizable numbers); a portrait of the singer; and an image of the act of recording itself, though this time the singer is nestled away in a stone hut, perhaps an attempt to mitigate wind noise. (The caption to image MPC 0499 states, “In the picture, the apparatus with which we worked is seen. At right, the singer is inside the hut and the microphone is in front of the door. The hut is a storehouse for hay, and the singer, Ante Cicvarić, is seen with the gusle.”) Five distinct boxes can be seen as part of the recording apparatus, apart from the microphone—the clearest image of the apparatus. The caption from photograph MPC 0042 states that “the apparatus is ready for work,” and Vujnovi can be seen at the edge of the frame adjusting the microphone on its stand.
The order of the photographs is not necessarily apparent from their captioning alone (and the numbering system given to them is a relatively recent development). But the cinematic logic of these images gives a strong indication of their likely ordering: the photographer, probably Milman Parry, stands back and photographs the entire scene (MPC 0041), including a young boy who has pulled his jacket over his head; the next photograph (MPC 0042) comes closer, focusing on the women to the far left and the recording apparatus, just as Vujnović is adjusting the microphone—a reminder of his integral role intellectually and technically; the scene shifts back toward the performer, Cicvarić, who has now picked up his gusle from the ground while the camera rotates its orientation (MPC 0043); the photographic zoom then continues, settling on Cicvarić’s face, with a furrowed brow, thick moustache, and salt-and-pepper beard (MPC 0044). The sequence comes to a close after a demonstrable break, as Cicvarić moves into the hut, the microphone is set up there, and the crowd repositions itself near the hut, presumably to listen during the performance.
Strikingly, these two sequences of images were taken within a week of each other: Cicvarić on September 22, 1934, Smajić on September 27, 1934. Another iconic photograph of the apparatus at Kulen Vakuf (MPC 0714) was taken in the intervening days. Such a clustering of meta-documentary seems to be intentional—a sudden upsurge in interest or ability to document process. Whatever the reasons, these photographs show the complex intersection between material technology, the aural and visual realms, the emplacement of recording, and the cinema of “still” photography. The apparatus becomes a social mediator too, bringing together women and children, as well as men, albeit with a tentative gender separation.
Figures 7-11. Recording at Kijevo with Ante Cicvarić (MPC 0041, 0042, 0043, 0044, 0499).

II. Sounds of place

Just as the visual encodes sound, so too can sound encode other senses. The best known case of this phenomenon are the poetic texts themselves, in which sound conveys all kinds of imagery, smells, and even self-reflexive, poetic descriptions of the poetry’s own sonic workings. For example, Murat Kurtagić’s invocations to his own gusle (cf. Čolaković 2004) might be fruitfully understood as an extension of the kinds of engravings on some gusle themselves, with scenes of battles and so forth. But even the interviews Parry and Vujnović conducted with nearly every singer transmit an abundance of sensory information, as well. Returning to Ugljanin and Vujnović’s conversations, the sixth conversation/interview (pričanje, PN 659) they recorded has a number of interesting features that situate sound as a feature of place. First, it starts with a lengthy digression about a certain manuscript (presumably of written poetry) that Parry had apparently been trying to obtain through Ugljanin—a manuscript (rukopis) also described as a ćitab or jazija (cf. Arabic/Turkish kitāb/kitap, Turkish yazı). The exchange maps out a variety of spaces: first, the space of the room in which they are speaking, as Parry occasionally interjects, at an audible remove from the microphone, during the conversation that is otherwise taking place between Ugljanin and Vujnović; second, the neighborhood, which Ugljanin verbally maps (with some reluctance), explaining a route to the shop of the woman who has this text; and finally, a larger cultural map, as they discuss the language of the text—whether it is in Bosnian, Turkish, or Arabic, all of which Vujnović claims to know, jokingly comparing himself to the Bosnian hero Halil Hrnjica, whose brother Mujo was also a major hero: “Mujo’s brother Halil knew 24 languages. I know 25!” (PN 659, disc 1043).
Once they have resolved the location of the manuscript, they then begin the interview proper, as it were, with Vujnović immediately asking Ugljanin what the experience of war is like. Ugljanin’s response verbally recreates the space and sounds of the battlefield, setting the stage for him to then recite a short epic song, “Velagić Selim i Nukić [or more commonly, Đulić] Bajraktar.” Much of this macabre conversation focuses on Ugljanin’s supposedly having cut off someone’s head during war:

NV: Salja, tell me, was it during the war, that you cut someone’s head off?
SU: Yes, it was during the war.
NV: Where did that happen?
SU: It was in Montenegro.
NV: In what place?
SU: Over near Andrijevica.
NV: Tell me what that was like, tell me everything, in case I ever go to war, so I know what war is like [kako ratovati, literally “how to do battle”] how to take off someone’s head.
SU: What war is like? The army goes this way, that way, and then this army of ours goes that way, and then all at once they light up, ka ka ka ka ka, guns are shooting. Then ha! On our feet to get our knives. And you rush and get settled, and then strike, and whichever has the better knife, klap klap klap klap ….
(PN 659, disc 1043) [10]

Ugljanin’s use of oral sound effects is striking, interjected spontaneously, suggesting the verbal repertoire available to a seasoned raconteur like him, despite a line of questioning from Vujnović that likely has no clear connection to poetry (and is ethically questionable, though the martial experience of singers themselves is an important theme for Parry). Vujnović presses on for several minutes in a similar manner, with prying questions about this act of violence that seem to have no connection to songs (what did the body do afterward?, did you pray to God and repent?). Ugljanin responds with further verbal sound effects, such as the body’s response (“the back springs and lurches back, ruub,” disc 1043) and the sound of blood (“like whiskey pouring out, brrrrrr,” disc 1044). [11]

These sound effects also suggest a physical, bodily language to enhance the accounts. Of course, one can only speculate, but from my conversations with guslars and other storytellers in more recent years, I suspect each of these sounds may well have been accompanied by physical gestures, suggesting a strong gestural dimension to these ostensibly verbal performances.
Other sonic aspects beyond the text of the interview itself emerge as well: again, Parry interjects occasionally from some physical distance, occasionally feeding questions to Vujnović or asking Ugljanin directly, and during this particular story of the beheading (just before Vujnović asks if he prayed to God for forgiveness), asking Ugljanin to speak up: “Louder, I can’t hear well.” Vujnović repeats similar encouragements just before Ugljanin begins reciting the story of Velagić Selim in an odd exchange between the two:

SU: I can’t [sing it] until I rest, my God, it’s long….Let me stand up and take a break.
NV: Fine, fine, if you’re tired, take a break.
SU: And should I keep count as well?
NV: Yes, yes, every syllable [slovo], if you don’t tell it exactly—I know the whole thing.
SU: Yes, alright.
NV: If you don’t tell it exactly, we won’t pay you anything.
SU: Oh, I don’t know how others sing it, but the way I sing it, I won’t leave anything out.
NV: Good! Now let’s go, bismillah!
SU: Bismillah [laughing] and may God help!
NV: But sing it cleanly, clearly, and loudly!
SU: Alright. “In olden times and seasons / One morning had just dawned…”
(PN 659, disc 1044)

The exchange shows a certain intimacy, as Vujnović (a Christian) seems to be joking with his Islamic invocation of Allah (bismillah), which elicits a brief laugh from Ugljanin (a Muslim). At the same time, the economic threats over performance suggest a power dynamic underlying the exchange. All of this is further complicated by the physicality of recording, which would necessitate that both interlocutors sit closely to the microphone—a physical intimacy demanded technologically (Fig. 12). In other words, the recording has organized the spatialization of bodies and bodily sound in this session, not unlike what we see with Smajić and Vujnović sitting in the field above or Cicvarić near the hut. The “apparatus” of these recordings thus expands beyond just the technical devices to include the space beyond them, the economic exchange involved, and the (largely unprecedented) social dynamics that inevitably would have emerged while Parry recorded in small villages around the Yugoslav countryside. Slavica Ranković has highlighted the complex, multi-party performativity that marks these interviews (2012), and while I am less inclined to characterize them as full-fledged acts of “epistemic violence” as she does, these interactions certainly warrant further study as performances in their own right with their own sensory priorities.

Figure 12. Salih Ugljanin and Nikola Vujnović share the microphone during a recording (MPC 0525)

III. Acoustemology and Obrov

Having viewed sound by way of apparatus photography and then heard space by way of sound effects, off-microphone interjections, and larger linguistic, religious, and cultural references, I turn now to a third and final medium/case study: video, especially as it relates to memory as well as performance context more generally. In June 2004, I had the tremendous opportunity of spending time conversing with and recording Zaim Međedović, the son of Avdo Međedović, a bard from Bijelo Polje, Montenegro, who became the central figure in Parry’s and Lord’s research because of his abilities to perform extraordinarily lengthy tales. Zaim offered to perform an epic song for me, but with a set of conditions: first, that I arrange for gusle for him to play, since he no longer owned one; second, that we record the performance, preferably with video (which I was unprepared to do, but ultimately managed, thanks to the help of a relative, the late Tule Međedović, who lent me his camera); and third, that the performance take place on Obrov, a hillside opposite the town of Bijelo Polje, in front of the house where his father had lived when Albert Lord visited him again in the 1950s.
Video camera in hand, I joined Zaim and traveled around a massive hillside to Obrov with a couple other family members and friends. The warm June morning was alive with the hum of cicadas and other bugs, while a slight wind gave the whole hillside a sense of inhaling and exhaling. Zaim insisted on beginning his performance with a speech addressed to me and, by extension, to previous generations of researchers: [12]

First let’s talk, and then [I’ll sing] the song. Dear Peter, esteemed gospodin [gentleman] Peter, student from the American university, you have set out and come to Yugoslavia in Montenegro to visit the home of the singer, the great singer Avdo Međedović, as well as his remaining family members. As the last remaining son in the family of the singer Avdo Međedović, I have the duty to thank you for having come from America, from where your professors Milman and Albert Lord [came and] recorded in 1935. And after that, in 1950, your professor Albert Lord returned …

At this point, a neighbor walked up—the current owner of the house, as I understood it—and interrupted Zaim. The two then briefly argued about what we were doing. As the years pass since I made that recording, this interruption seems increasingly central to the entire performance, though at the time I found it immensely frustrating (Fig. 13). (I distinctly remember thinking in the moment: He just ruined my video! Now I see this interaction as precisely the kinds of ethnographic reality that Parry and Lord are pushing against yet inadvertently documenting in the Smajić and Cicvarić performances.)

Figure 13. Zaim Međedović at former family home on Obrov, with (interrupting) neighbor in background (video still, June 2004)
After placating the neighbor, Zaim continued with his speech, recounting Albert Lord’s return to Bijelo Polje in 1950:

Your professor Albert Lord, who came in 1952, that is 1950 to the home of my aging father, at which I was present when I was twenty years old, and he asked my father again, he called him poočime [adopted father] and asked him to sing the same song from 1935, when he had sung for him in the hotel in Bijelo Polje. My father had become extremely weak with illness, but his memory soared to great heights, so he took it [the gusle] and he sang him a song, which he had sung for him in 1935. Albert recorded it again, his verses, which his professor Parry had recorded before him. He hugged him and kissed the singer Međedović and said, “O dear friend, in 18 years you have neither left out a single word nor added one. Such is your genius! [Takav si um.]” He cried, hugged him, all of this in the hotel in Bijelo Polje. Three days he sang for him again in 1950 in such old age, and his son Zaim Međedović listened as his father sang live for professor Albert Lord. And he stayed here in the hotel. The professor left for America, while my father died half a year later. His son, Zaim Međedović, remained, and now along with gospodin Peter who came to my home to visit the son of singer Avdo Međedović. I’m thankful that gospodin Peter wanted to record the son of singer Avdo Međedović, who followed and listened to his father in person. I most graciously thank you for your coming.
And now, I’ll sing a short passage of one song, which my dear father, may he rest in peace, Avdo Međedović sang. Now I’ll begin the song. This is just the prologue to thank gospodin Peter and Albert Lord and his family, if there are any of them still alive.

I had not expected any such speech, let alone one that entangled me in the legacy of Milman Parry and Albert Lord: generations of the Međedović family, on the one hand, bound up with generations of American (and many other) scholars, on the other. The comments were gratifying but also foreshadowed a kind of mediated responsibility that I would only discover months later. For the time being, Zaim launched into the epic song, “The Wedding of Alija Bojičić”:

Riječ prva: “Bože nam pomozi.” Let the first word be: “O God, help us!”
Evo druga: “Hoće ako bogda.” And the second: “It shall be if God wills.”
Samo da ga često pominjemo, So long as we call on him often
da se Bogu krivo ne kunemo. and do not swear falsely before him
Pa će nama Allah pomagati, Then Allah will help us,
od svake muke zaklanjati, shelter us from every torment,
svake muke i kaurske ruke, from every torment and the hand of the Christian,
sačuvat nas hala i belaja, preserve us from misery and misfortune
a i bijede gore od belaja. and from poverty worse than misfortune.
A sad stari gosti i uvaženi, And now old and esteemed guests,
da vi jednu pesmu zapevamo. may we sing a song for you.
Od kako je Bosna postanula From the time when Bosnia was formed
nije bolji cvijet procvateo … no better flower bloomed.

The song’s opening (“Let the first word be …”) is based on the opening Zaim’s father, Avdo, so often sung, a kind of expansion of the sentiments of the brief bismillah invocation made by Salih Ugljanin. Due to the physical exertion of singing, Zaim Međedović was only able to sing for about 10 minutes—a far cry from the hours-long performances his father recorded for Milman Parry. So we continued the following day at the home of a relative, as I continued to film. The video camera, able to capture sound and image (with a reasonable degree of verisimilitude), had served to catalyze a certain type of performance and a whole network of activities of memory. But even video is only able to collect an exteriority of those memories: an index through speech, as when Zaim recounts his experience; or a facade, literally and figuratively, of the house on that hillside and its rich family history; or even simply a framed viewing, whereby Zaim is visible but friends and relatives gathered (as well as myself, as camera operator) are not. Memory is sheared, even as it is preserved.

Media as Synaesthetic Catalyst

If these media inherently pare down the sensory experiences they document—reducing a rich world of sound, sight, and likely smell and taste—they paradoxically also catalyze new sensory experiences as they are played back in the present. Or in other words, while recording violently severs much of our sensory world in the name of documentation, it prompts, or gives back a whole new set of possible sensory and social possibilities. These media almost literally have a life of their own.
For example, one of the most interesting aspects of my work with Zaim Međedović was my first return to Bijelo Polje in December 2004, a few months after first meeting him. For me, it afforded an opportunity to follow up on a number of issues relating to his performance; but for him, the central priority was clear—he wanted to get a copy of the video recording I had made. This exchange opened up a whole new set of conversations, explicitly about his perceptions of the ethics of the numerous “collectors” and other researchers who had visited his father and him over the years. In particular, he expressed disappointment about the failure of any of those scholars, but especially Albert Lord, to bring back a recording. Furthermore, this failure was not just an oversight, in his opinion, but a lack of scholarly integrity. While it would be all but impossible to verify such a claim—and my next example suggests that Lord actively did return copies of media, even to much less central figures in the collection—I found the exchange academically interesting, and if I may be permitted a personal note, frankly touching as he thanked me profusely for bringing him these copies. In our conversations, he kept fixating on the trake (recorded “tracks”) I had left him, and to a lesser degree on the recordings of his father included with the copy of the Singer of Tales I brought. I thus return to my earlier comment: recorded media can and do mediate relationships between people, not just between an object and its mechanical reproduction. [13]

Indeed, in this case, media not only mediated, but caused our relationship to flourish, contrary to a certain notion within anthropology and ethnomusicology that imagines media as primarily disrupting otherwise “natural” interactions.

A strangely similar experience—but with very different implications for the material legacy of Parry and Lord—took place in 2009 while I was doing research in Macedonia. Impressed by my exchanges with Zaim, I thought I would try to track down other singers who had recorded for Lord in the 1950s. As Miloš Velimirović had recalled, much of Lord’s focus by 1950 was on Macedonia, and I hoped I might find more people like Zaim who were still alive and remembered his visits. After failure in a couple villages, I made one last attempt, traveling to Pletvar, near the city of Prilep, where Lord had recorded several members of the same family in both years, and was pleased to find Rampo Šijakoski alive and in good physical health.
After some conversation, Šijakoski retrieved the following photo of him, his brother, and his father, all of whom recorded for Albert Lord. The photograph was signed on the back: “Greetings from Professor Albert Lord, Harvard University.” [14]

Of course, people keep all sorts of photos. But returning back to Zaim’s comments, the fact that Lord had apparently distributed photos to singers he worked with even only briefly suggests that he shared what he gathered with the singers he met. The Šijakoskis only recorded a few songs for Lord (LN 141-145b, 182-185); presumably Lord would have been even more likely to bring/send back duplicate recordings with to other singers with whom he worked more extensively, like Avdo Međedović. (Perhaps Zaim never received such media remittances because Lord’s attentions were focused on Avdo, the main singer of the family, rather than his son Zaim). In any case, I was struck to hear Zaim criticize me during a visit in May 2012 for not bringing back copies of the media I had made. I reminded him that I had already done so and offered to make another copy if needed, but he assured me it would not be necessary. The entire exchange offered a sobering reminder that the writing-down systems of media can both prompt memory and also displace it, much as Plato’s King Thamos argues in the Phaedrus (cf. also Derrida 1981). [15]

As if an emblem of the whole tradition, Zaim was fighting against (literal) oblivion, or zaborav, a longstanding component of Bosnian oral poetry (cf. Kunić 2012).

As my 2009 conversation with Rampo Šijakoski progressed, he eventually offered to sing a number of short songs. I had simply (and inaccurately) presumed he would want to sing. Only much later in our conversation did he bring out more photos, this time of his son, who had passed away over a decade earlier, and whose death had affected him such that he stopped singing songs until that visit and reminiscence of past singing. Of course, I had little to do with this complex performance, apart from showing up—like many writing in this volume, I was simply reaping the fruits of seeds planted by previous generations of scholars, particularly Albert Lord. And again, the immediate catalyst for this exchange was a piece of media that somehow indexed a sensory moment of the past, reduced to a 3” x 3” black-and-white photographic image, but that nevertheless led to a very rich, and very different sensory moment years later.
My final example, or set of examples, is a number of music compositions inspired by the materials of the Parry Collection, dating back to Bela Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra, and the second movement’s “Game of pairs,” which some musicologists have attributed to his hearing Dalmatian vocal music (Suchoff 1995, 2004). More recently, a number of composers have set texts from the Parry Collection to music, or simply created new compositions with loose musical connections. Composer Ketty Nez wrote an entire cycle of pieces based on these materials, Postcards from the 1930’s (premiered 2008; released in 2010), as well as a “folk opera” with similar inspirations, The Fiddler and the Old Woman of Rumelia (2009). The interest of Bartók, Aida Vidan (2003), and Ketty Nez (among others) in songs sung by women highlights, quite explicitly, the way that recordings—and their afterlives—can also actively include and exclude certain voices.
Let me conclude by returning to McLuhan’s formulation of media and message (1964), which I alluded to earlier in passing, by way of Mladen Dolar. In his book, A Voice, and Nothing More, Dolar writes: “‘The medium is the message’—this notorious slogan should perhaps be twisted in such a way that the message of the medium pertains to its voice” (2006:191). I would like to twist this idea still once more: whatever messages a voice-as-medium may have conveyed are reduced and then expanded again through the process of recording. The medium indeed pertains to the voice in this case—it is, after all, oral poetry—but through the transformations of recording, we are left with a totally different sensory experience, an aural poetry—as in a poetry of the ear, not the voice. And then again, much more than the ear, or aurality, is engaged. Photographs become sonic, sound recording becomes spatial and geographic, video becomes memory and oblivion. The oral—the voice—remains, but only as a single component in a much larger assemblage of body parts, media, and human entanglements.


MPC Milman Parry Collection, for photographs taken by/for Parry 1933-1935.
PN Parry Number, for objects recorded/collected by Milman Parry 1933-1935.
LN Lord Number, for objects recorded/collected by Albert Lord 1950-51.

Works cited

Barthes, Roland. 1981. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. Trans. Richard Howard. New York.
Bartók, Béla, and Albert Lord. 1951. Serbo-Croatian Heroic Songs. New York.
Derrida, Jacques. 1981. Dissemination. Trans. Barbara Johnson. Chicago.
Dolar, Mladen. 2006. A Voice and Nothing More. Cambridge, MA.
Farge, Arlette. 1989. Le Goût de’l archive. Paris.
———. 2013. The Allure of the Archives. New Haven.
Feld, Steven. 1996. “Waterfalls of Song: An Acoustemology of Place Resounding in Bosavi, Papua New Guinea.” In Senses of Place, eds. Steven Feld and Keith H. Basso, 91–135. Santa Fe.
———. 2015. “Acoustemology.” In Keywords in Sound. Eds. David Novak and Matt Sakakeeny. Durham.
Gitelman, Lisa. 2006. Always Already New: Media, History, and the Data of Culture. Cambridge, MA.
Greenberg, Clement. 1940. “Towards a Newer Laocoon.” Partisan Review 7:296–310.
Jones, Caroline. 2006. Eyesight Alone: Clement Greenberg’s Modernism and the Bureaucratization of the Senses. Chicago.
Kittler, Friedrich. 1985. Aufschreibesysteme 1800/1900. Munich.
———. 1990. Discourse Networks 1800/1900. Trans. Michael Metteer, with Chris Cullens. Stanford.
Köçümkulkïzï, Elmira. 2005. “The Kyrgyz Epic Manas.” Accessed January 1, 2018.
Kunić, Mirsad. 2012. Usmeno pamćenje i zaborav: krajiška epika i njeni junaci. Tešanj.
Lord, Albert. 1948. “Homer, Parry, and Huso.” American Journal of Archaeology 52:34–44.
———. 1949. The Singer of Tales: A Study in the Processes of Composition of Yugoslav, Greek, and Germanic Oral Narrative Poetry. PhD diss., Harvard University.
———. 1953. Serbocroatian Heroic Songs I. Cambridge, MA.
———. 1960. The Singer of Tales. Cambridge, MA.
———. 2000. The Singer of Tales. 2nd ed. Eds. Stephen Mitchell and Gregory Nagy. Cambridge, MA.
McLuhan, Marshall. 1964. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York.
McMurray, Peter. 2012. “Fathers and Sons; or, Recalling the Sound of Time.” Donum natalicium digitaliter confectum Gregorio Nagy septuagenario a discipulis collegis familiaribus oblatum. Eds. Victor Bers, et al. Accessed January 1, 2018.
———. 2015. “Archival Excess: Sensational Histories beyond the Audiovisual.” Fontes Artis Musicae 62:262–275.
———. 2019. “After the Archive: An Archaeology of Bosnian Voices.” In The Oxford Handbook of Musical Repatriation, eds. Frank Gunderson, et al., 607–626. New York.
Mitchell, Stephen, and Gregory Nagy. 2000. “Introduction to the Second Edition.” In Lord 2000.
Mitchell, W. J. T. 2005. “There Are No Visual Media.” Journal of Visual Culture 4:257–266.
Murko, Matija [Matthias]. 1951. Tragom srpsko-hrvatske narodne epike: putovanja u godinama 1930-1932. Zagreb.
Nez, Ketty. 2008. Postcards from the 1930’s. Chamber music composition.
———. 2009. The Fiddler and the Old Woman of Rumelia. Folk opera.
———. 2009. Listen to a Wonder Never Heard Before! Albany Records, TROY1169.
Parry, Adam. 1971. “Introduction.” In M. Parry 1971.
Parry, Milman. 1971. The Making of Homeric Verse: The Collected Papers of Milman Parry. Ed. Adam Parry. Oxford.
Powell, Barry. 1996. Homer and the Origin of the Greek Alphabet. Cambridge.
Radloff, Vasiliy. 1885. Proben der Volksliteratur der nördlichen türkischen Stämme V: Der Dialekt der Kara-Kirgisen. St. Petersburg.
Ranković, Slavica. 2012. “Managing the ‘Boss’: Epistemic Violence, Resistance, and Negotiations in Milman Parry’s and Nikola Vujnović’s Pričanja with Salih Ugljanin.” Oral Tradition 27.1:5–66.
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———. 2004. Béla Bartók: A Celebration. Lanham, MD.
van der Heide, Nienke. 2008. Spirited Performance: The Manas Epic and Society in Kyrgyzstan. Amsterdam.
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[ back ] 1. Lord, Albert. 1949. “The Singer of Tales: A Study in the Processes of Composition of Yugoslav, Greek, and Germanic Oral Narrative Poetry.” In the same interview, Velimirović highlights some of the delays Lord faced in sifting through the massive archive left to him after Parry’s passing, including his service in the Navy. This period of Lord’s life and work from 1935 to 1949, including also his collecting work in Albania, his processing of Parry’s archive, and his work with various collaborators (Parry’s assistant Nikola Vujnović; ethnomusicologist George Herzog; and composer/ethnomusicologist Béla Bartók, to name a few) to begin transcribing the archive’s contents all warrant further examination. In many ways, this period would set the scope and trajectory for much of Lord’s work over the half-century to follow, as well as having a marked influence on the directions his many students would then pursue.

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2. Miloš Velimirović, interview with author, July 16, 2007. Video of this interview segment can be seen here:

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3. Peter Skok writes the following in his 1971 (Croato-Serbian) etymological dictionary: “Old derivatives [izvedenice] from the base [osnova] pê- are numerous: with the suffix –sn for an abstract noun (compare basna, v.) pjêsan, genitive –sni … From there also Vuk’s pjesnarica. In this form the assimilation p – n > p – m appears … pjesma = (in ikavijan dialect) pisma (Kačić), the appearance common in written language.” (1971:672). Just as interesting as the formal linguistic trajectory here are the examples Skok gives: Vuk Karadžić and Andrija Kačić-Miošić, both of whom play important roles in the cultural space between orality and writing. Indeed, Parry’s and Lord’s efforts are often (always?) responding to Karadžić, while the writings of authors like Kačić-Miošić leave traces of a rich oral culture that hint at the fluid movements between these two (too rigid) categories.

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4. In his own writings, Milman Parry highlights three scholars whose writings on epic he deemed reliable, while also hinting at the political pragmatics of his choice: “I found myself in the position of speaking about the nature of oral style almost purely on the basis of a logical reasoning from the characteristics of Homeric style, whereas what information I had about oral style as it could be seen in actual practice was due to what I had been able to gather here and there from the remarks of different authors who, save in a few cases—that of Murko and Gesemann for the Southslavic poetries, and of Radloff for the Kirgiz-Tartar poetry—were apt to be haphazard and fragmentary—and I could well fear, misleading. Of the various oral poetries for which I could obtain enough information the Southslavic seemed to be the most suitable for a study which I had in mind, to give that knowledge of a still living oral poetry which I saw to be needed if I were to go on with any sureness in my study of Homer” (1971:440).

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5. On bards of (Iranian) Khorasan, cf. Youssefzadeh 2002. On Manas cf. Reichl 2000, Köçümkulkïzï 2005, van der Heide 2008.

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6. Caroline Jones (2006) also explores Greenberg’s ideas of “opticality” and “eyesight alone,” situating the formation of these ideas in a process she terms “the bureaucratization of the senses.” Whether disciplined (Mitchell) or bureaucratized (Jones), the assumption of clear-cut distinctions between the senses that prevailed through much of 20th-century art history proves poorly suited to deal with the multisensory complexities of oral poetry. There is a certain irony in these theories that proved so adept at explaining some of the most avant-garde modern art of the century, yet failed to adequately explain genres like oral poetry that have been the subject of such discussions for millennia, dating back at least to Aristotle’s Poetics.

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7. Arlette Farge (2013) and Carolyn Steedman (2001) address some of these sensory configurations of the archive itself, including smell and taste (Farge’s book, The Allure of the Archives, is originally titled in French, Le Goût de l’archive, the taste of the archive, 1989). I thank Wolfgang Ernst for his relentless curiosity during a recent visit to the Milman Parry Collection in which he asked repeatedly to try each of the dozen or so wire and tape recorders lying (mostly) buried in the archive. He finally found a playable piece of media on the very last—a tape recording that sounds like Bulgarian poetry, but again with no metadata to tell a more complete story. I discuss this interaction, as well as related cases, in McMurray 2015.

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8. In addition to the archival afterlife of the Smajić images I discuss here, these photographs have also led to an important expansion of the archive through conversations and correspondence with descendants and relatives of Smajić who have been able to share more about his musical skills and verbal artistry. (He was also renowned for his Islamic recitation skills.) I discuss this further elsewhere (McMurray 2019).

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9. Interview with author, June 7, 2004.

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10., disc 1043. Audio recordings are from the Milman Parry Collection of Oral Literature, Harvard University.

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11. In response to the question about praying, Ugljanin asserts that he was acting in self-defense.

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12. Video of Zaim’s speech can be seen at: His performance of an epic song can be seen at:

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13. This social aspect of media is increasingly obvious in the years that have passed since this essay was first written. But even well before “social media,” it has long been clear that media mediated people and their relationships (among other things). Lisa Gitelman’s pithy formulation of media as “socially realized structures of communication” (2006:7) thus seems especially useful here, not only for recordings of oral poetry but also the poetry itself.

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14. Personal interview/visit, June 20, 2009.

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15. Prior to my 2012 visit, Zaim had sadly suffered from a stroke and struggled to converse with the same clarity as he had eight years earlier (which I discuss briefly in McMurray 2012). I hesitate to read too much into any conversation from that visit given his health circumstances. But