Sunday 25 September 2011

The Voynich Manuscript - An Acoustic Interpretation

The baffling Voynich Manuscript, written in an apparently indecipherable script, has caused much head-scratching since its rediscovery in 1912.  Thought to be of mediaeval origin, it contains quasi-astrological diagrams, depictions of strange devices, plants - unlike any earthly flora - alongside nude figures bathing in complex networks of 'pools' featuring recycled water (some mechanisms of which look decidedly unhygienic to modern eyes).  Some reckon it to be an alchemical text, whilst others believe it a hoax or an artistic exercise in glyptolalia.  Judge for yourself here.

One intriguing set of theories proposed by H. Richard SantaColoma speculate upon its possible representation of Sir Francis Bacon's New Atlantis, specifically Solomon's House - its college.  For this, it must be assumed that the manuscript was written in the early 17th century (or slightly earlier depending on the actual conception of the New Atlantis utopia) albeit on 15th century vellum (as carbon dating has proven).  The optical activities of the 'Perspective Houses' along with the grafting of diverse plants are considered as being represented within the manuscript.  However, if this theory is true, where are Solomon's House's famed 'Sound houses'?  Could the 'sound' chapter have once comprised the now missing excised 32 pages?

Sonic activities in Solomon's House, New Atlantis

These theories are inspiring to contemplate.  There are so many conflicting ideas vying for consideration surrounding the Voynich manuscript that it wouldn't do much harm to throw in my tuppence worth, as far fetched as my following speculation may *sound*...

It seems that nobody has yet considered the Voynich Manuscript entirely in terms of acoustics.  Does the whole manuscript in fact concern sonics?  Admittedly, at first glance it would appear that sound or music is entirely absent, but to those acquainted with cymatics a possible avenue of investigation reveals itself.  (This may be a cue for some people to stop reading any further, especially for those who stand by the old adage "all comparisons are odious").  In the tradition of Daphne Oram's bravura sonic speculations, tentative explorations can be made with this acoustic angle.

In the 1880s, the singer Margaret Watts Hughes developed a technique of producing 2D organic forms on a flexible membrane strewn with a fine powder, a la Chladni's plate (but with the singing voice as the agitator).  The membrane was stretched over a sounding chamber with a pipe connected to it, through which Hughes would sustain tones, varying in timbre.  Upon the membrane, plant-like and fern-like forms were made by steadily moving the eidophone membrane over paste-covered glass, in effect creating a recording.  This technique produced entire gardens of sorts.  In 1891, Hughes wrote "(…) day by day I have gone on singing into shape these peculiar forms, and, stepping out of doors, have seen their parallels living in the flowers, ferns and trees around me; and, again, as I have watched the little heaps in the formation of the floral figures gather themselves up and then shoot out their petals, just as a flower springs from the swollen bud".  Could the Voynich manuscript depict eidophonic activities?

A Voynich 'rosette'
In the 20th century, Hans Jenny coined the term 'cymatics' to refer to the basic visible-sound phenomena.  Jenny used piezo-electric agitation, and also employed water-filled plates (although producing forms in liquids with only the voice would be very difficult - requiring acute volume and pinpoint pitch).  However, many of Jenny's most iconic cymatic figures were produced by electronic oscillators operating in the kilohertz domain - above vocal range.

Throughout the Voynich manuscript, 'sprays' and 'streams' can be seen issuing from bizarre pipes.  The wavy streams are evidently liquids of some sort, although the sprays are more incongruous.  The technique of producing fine sprays from liquids was proposed by Bernoulli in his 1738 book 'Hydrodynamica' and was only perfected in the form of atomisers in the mid 19th century.  Some of these spray emissions in the manuscript seem to defy gravity, ruling out powder sprays.  Are these sprays early representations of sound?  It's worth mentioning that the now-discredited corpuscular theory of sound was 'in the air' since the 1620s.

On page 77 of the manuscript, five 'elements' are illustrated issuing from a pipe manned by figures at each end.  The figure on the right has an apparent emission towards or from the mouth.  Does it represent the formative powers of sound?  There are other suggestions of this power, such as in the 'rosettes' fold-out where buildings are seen emerging from the primordial patterns.  Also, the majority of the figures shown throughout have their mouths in an 'O' shape hinting at voice production.  The images of 'bathers in pools' may actually depict naked choirs all sounding the same resonant note, crowded inside large resonant drums and cavities sending their voices through tubes to membranes, upon which large voice figures figures may be produced.  Their nudity might be due to the fact that clothing absorbs sound, whereas skin (especially if wet) is more reflective of sound (performers today note that acoustics of rooms alter when an audience is present) thus preserving resonance.

The manuscript's astrological charts show some similarities to cymatic figures.  The charts showing improbable spiral forms may indicate motion, as the combined voices of the singers would be rife with rich phasings (chorusing) which would translate as an unstable, moving cymatic figure, with manifest rotary motions.  The symbolic demarcations of some charts might be attempts at macro/microcosmic integration by corresponding the limbs of voice figures with astrological houses.

The chorusing, that is, the cumulation of pitch and tone discrepancies in a choir voicing the same note, would create 'blurred' unstable voice figures.  Maybe the vase-like devices shown in the final section of the manuscript are Helmholtz resonators, or Vitruvius' urns, tuned to enhance/amplify the purity of the tone?  Furthermore, were membranes stretched over the mouth of these ornate resonator urns?  (H. Richard SantaColoma suggests these devices shown were not resonator urns, but early microscopes).

If an eidophonic system is depicted, the manuscript's exotic plant forms may derive from species of cymatic/eidophone voice figures.  But this begs the question as to why the plants are coloured - as any particle-based eidophone figures would certainly not be colour specific.  Of course this is all an extremely tenuous speculation.  All natural forms have harmonic characteristics (most notable in phyllotactic patterns) and are thus potentially translatable into sound.  Besides, there's scant historical record of any such vibratory practices occurring in antiquity, and certainly none this elaborate.  However, it may be remembered that study of natural phenomena was strictly forbidden for centuries in Christendom, and beyond.

The likeliest theory is that the Voynich manuscript is a fantastical piece of systematised confusion: a dreamscape of pure flummox, maybe of hallucinatory origin.  The style was even expertly pastiched by Luigi Serafini in his 1981 masterpiece 'Codex Seraphinianus' - a monumental oddity of glyptolalia.  Imagine randomly finding a book so utterly odd it can only be assumed to originate from another planet.  Incidentally, this is surely the touchstone of mediadropping!

As a footnote, the woodcut a few paragraphs above showing a New Atlantis 'Sound House' appears quite a lot online, and is often said to originate from an old imprint of New Atlantis.  It may go some way to show how easily we may be deceived by forgings of period styles, as, after some research, it transpired that it's in fact a pastiche of 17th century engraving created by 20th century U.S. artist Lowell Hess.  It's from a 1970 book titled 'Graphic Design for the Computer Age'.

UPDATE 22/10/11: H. Richard SantaColoma has pointed out that the 'rosettes' fold-out page of the Voynich Manuscript most likely depicts a map, perhaps detailing the various departments of the House of Solomon.  Here, a candidate for the Sound House is identified in the top left hand corner.  He draws attention to the pointed loudhaileresque tubes, seen both as an extended pentad on the Sound House, and in shorter clusters surrounding the central House of Solomon.  It can be seen here.