Posted by: kaleidophonic | June 8, 2012

Jonathan Sterne on the Joyful Noise of Quebec’s Casserole Movement

A few weeks ago I got in touch with the editor of one of my favorite blogs, SoundingOut, asking if she would like a guest-post about the role sound & noise is playing in the social movement underway here in Quebec. Alas I was too slow off the mark, and was informed that McGill’s Jonathan Sterne had beat me to the punch. D’oh!

But it’s all good, because Sterne wrote a pretty nice piece for them, which you can read here, as well as a recent article for the Globe and Mail (with Natalie Zemon Davis) and so I thought I’d offer a bit of a response.

When the pots-and-pandemonium first started, I offered a few thoughts here on my blog, which you can read if you like. That post was a bit hurried and I pointed to a “primer” on what’s being called the “casseroles” (the french term for the pots and pans that people are banging in the streets, usually with wooden spoons).

The movement here draws from a very old tradition of “rough music” or charivari, which is a custom that revolved around large groups making raucous noises outside the dwelling of an individual in the community who had transgressed some social norm. While these usually involved reinforcing heterosexual norms, there was also a political angle, especially in French Canada. One of the most-well known examples in Canadian history is the use of charivari during the rebellions of 1837-8, when locals expressed their discontent with British colonial officers.


Sterne points to all this in both pieces about the casseroles movement, so I won’t rehash it here. However, I do want to add something that hasn’t been mentioned much, despite the widespread acknowledgement that the current actions are part of a longer tradition, and that is that the older form of charivari sometimes involved brutally gendered violence. If the actions were directed towards a man who had married a much younger woman, or a woman had somehow trespassed social mores (for example, having an extra-marital affair), it was not unheard of for the rough music to turn physically rough. There are examples of women thrown in pits of mud and trampled to death. This dark side of charivari has not been acknowledged in the “30-second-soundbite” histories appearing in the press, but I think it’s important to recognize that the “rough music” tradition was not always an innocent playing with noise.

That said, the role of play here in the contemporary pots-and-pandemonium is important. One thing that I keep thinking about whenever I go out to participate is the fact that many of the people participating in these events are families with young children. And why not? What kid doesn’t relish the opportunity to pull out a pot and start banging on it? I certainly enjoyed doing this as a child, a playful noise that I always assumed helped lay the foundation for my decision to take up drumming (an activity I pursued for many years but sadly have not had the opportunity to do in the last few years). But I think the role of young children in the Quebec context might be a stroke of genius:

I imagine that more than a few parents were reluctant to join the protest movement, but were worn down by the persistence of a kid pulling at their pantlegs: “Mommy, PLEASE? I want to go play pots and pans!” How could any parent deny their child the amazing experience of making such joyful noise in the streets, playing along with all the neighbors??

The fact that these “casserole” marches are percussive is another facet touched upon by Sterne in his post for SoundingOut. He does a good job of this, but I would like to add one thought. This came to me recently when I was discussing the marches with a new friend who has been recording them each night. She asked me what I thought about the role of percussion and drumming in helping build self-confidence. It’s a great question, and I think the answer is a resounding YES, it does. Take, for example, the fact that many people, when they head out for one of these protests, might feel a little reluctant to clang and bang alone on the sidewalk. But get two or three people together, or two or three hundred, and suddenly there is an unleashing of power, a total overcoming of inhibition. I have seen people who have literally caved in the sides of their pots with such vigorous banging. It’s amazing, it’s cathartic, and it’s beautiful.

In terms of drumming, specifically, I think it might be especially important for girls – girls are still taught in our society to be quiet, to be gentle, to take up less ‘social space’ than their brothers. But give a girl a pair of drumsticks or a wooden spoon and a pot, and tell her to go to town on that casserole, and you will help her tap into impulses that are too often denied young women. Its a wonderfully healthy thing, and I think it’s importance has been yet to be acknowledged.

One last point. At the conclusion of his post, Sterne points towards a Loco Locass song that has been making the rounds of facebook. Aside from this one song (which was actually written before the movement but has since been appropriated by it), there has yet to emerge a musical movement around this social protest. I imagine that in more than a few lofts and garages here in Montreal musicians are experimenting with their pots and pans, but I have been wondering, for some time now, why Montreal has yet to produce a strong or characteristic protest music that centers around the joyful clamour that is happening in the streets. Even the viral video that everyone by now has seen (you know the one, its black and white and features a nice soft folk song) seems to me to have missed the mark. Where’s the NOISE? Why is this video so soft and folky when these movements are, above all else, LOUD? People have been wearing earplugs to them, for crying out loud. This kind of banging out frustrations on metalware is much more suited to punk or metal or garage rock. I’m still waiting for a song that seems to crystallize all these facets.

So, that’s all I have to say for now, except one last thing, a sort of public service announcement, if you will. While I love the fact that these protests have become family affairs, please people – very young children should wear ear protection. And please don’t bring your dog. It’s probably torturous to the poor creature’s ultra-sensitive ears.

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