[Note: This talk took place at Naropa University on Monday, July 22, 2013 as part of the Summer Writing Program MFA class. This transcript contains all the links and audio clips embedded into the lecture. If you click on a link it will open in another window and you can continue to read.]
For today’s talk, I will mostly focus on the micro-level (or at least the relatively small-scale) elements of sound and language in recorded performance. I am thinking about how various sonic elements might be perceived with greater acuity and awareness. I am thinking about the ways in which attending to tiny moments, to seemingly extraneous fragments, and to densely knotted fields of interaction can recalibrate one’s attention to poetic language and enhance one’s connection to community. I want to address different modes of listening and to suggest ways of developing a listening practice to accompany your own reading and writing. I also want to think about how these ideas intersect and interact with one’s relationship to audio archives. We will listen to selections from several archives, including the Naropa collection, and address some of their aesthetic, contemplative, social, and political ramifications.
By beginning from the particular, the particle, with a clip, a segment, a sample, a micro-sample, a breath, the sound of a turning page, a stutter, a variant in pronunciation, the voice vibrating against the hiss of a room, the shifts between speech and song, we engage in an expanded mode of perceiving. We discover both the ambient and intimate sounds of the performance space in the same way that John Cage’s silent piano performance 4’33” tunes us into the music of our own coughs, fidgets, and pulses. We find fragmentary entry points into the practice of what the musician and composer Pauline Oliveros calls “Deep Listening.” Oliveros describes this practice as “listening in every possible way to everything possible to hear no matter what one is doing.” Deep Listening “explores the difference between the involuntary nature of hearing and the voluntary, selective nature – exclusive and inclusive — of listening. [. . .] It cultivates a heightened awareness of the sonic environment, both external and internal, and promotes experimentation, improvisation, collaboration, playfulness and other creative skills vital to personal and community growth.” Among other things, Deep Listening encourages us to experiment with letting in some of what we hear but tend to disregard. I want to follow Oliveros’s lead in her emphasis on the importance of small acts of attention within the larger field of sonic and social interaction.
Two Types of Grain or [The Grains within the Grain]
1. In Roland Barthes’ essay The Grain of the Voice, while discussing the inadequacies of the terms used to describe the qualities of vocal song, he introduces the idea of the ‘grain’ as an underappreciated element one might experience while listening. He writes: “[. . .] rather than trying to change directly the language on music, it would be better to change the musical object itself, as it presents itself to discourse, better to alter its level of perception or intellection, to displace the fringe of contact between music and language.” Instead of developing new adjectives to discuss song, Barthes suggests we pay attention to a layer of sonic information that tends to get lost in the cognitive shuffle, which he calls ‘the grain.’ Barthes writes: “The ‘grain’ is the body in the voice as it sings, the hand as it writes, the limb as it performs.” and “The ‘grain’ is that: the materiality of the body speaking its mother tongue.” Here the ‘grain’ refers to a textural quality. You might think about it as the body’s noise embedded into and vibrating against the smoother signals of the sounds that tend to draw the majority of our attention. In his essay, Barthes was dealing with vocal singing, but I want to borrow his idea of ‘the grain’ to listen to recorded poetry. This excerpt of Bay Area poet Sara Wintz reading, might give you an exaggerated sense of what this sounds like, removed from the context of singing, so you can hear it more clearly.
2. The Grain in Granular Synthesis
Now I want to consider the word ‘grain’ in another sense, in terms of its scale, as a microscopic unit of composition and assemblage in synthetic music. In music compositions that use granular synthesis: “The grain is a unit of sonic energy [...] with a typical duration of a few milliseconds, near the threshold of human hearing.” Granular Synthesis is the process of generating novel sounds by layering grains on top of each other. These tiny, moveable pieces can be played at different speeds, phases, volumes, and frequencies. Here, a grain is a micro-blip. Or a bunch of very tiny blips that can be manipulated, stretched, and re-integrated so that the blip that you can actually perceive is more complex and unexpected in some way.
I’m going to play an early example of granular synthesis, a brief clip of the Greek composer Iannis Xenakis’s Analogique A + B (1958-1959), which is a sort of call and response between orchestral instruments and a micro-assemblage of grains. Every second of the synthesized portion was comprised of many re-arranged grains, in the scope of milliseconds. You will first hear the orchestra, followed by the tape music.
Barthes’ sense of ‘grain’ (“the grain of the voice”) tends to emphasize small residues of embodiment and human physicality in performance, while the second ‘grain’ (the tiny unit of composition) tends toward the disembodied, the dispersed, the atomized, the microscopic at or below the threshold of human perception. I want to consider these two different but related understandings of the same word together because I think it leads us into a more active experience of the digital audio archive. These two intertwined ‘grains’ are models for a kind of attention that both investigates the qualities and character of lived performance as well the intensely aurally-pixelated detail of the digital realm.
[Note: For another consideration of the basic elements that come together when one listens to digital audio recordings of poetry, see Steve Evans' excellent piece The Phonotextual Braid. In his brief commentary, Evans is concerned with accurately describing and defining the audio file as an object of study. In this lecture I want to try to give you a sense of why and how a poet-listener might benefit from paying sustained attention to recorded poetry.]
The 3 Listening Modes & Repeated Listening
The French composer Michel Chion, in this excerpt from his book on film sound, Audio-Vision, describes three different listening modes: Causal listening, which we use to determine where and from what source sounds originate. [For example: If I hear a sound and think: Is that an owl hooting in the trees?] Semantic listening [how we filter and process speech sounds or systems like morse code; sound interpreted for its symbolic meaning rather than appreciated for its material qualities; AKA what you’re mostly doing right now) and finally, reduced listening. Chion explains the idea of “reduced listening” as formulated by Pierre Schaeffer, an earlier French composer and innovator of Musique concrète (concrete music). Chion writes: “Pierre Schaeffer gave the name reduced listening to the listening mode that focuses on the traits of the sound itself, independent of its cause and of its meaning.”
Here, “reduced listening” means a kind of intense, focused, perceptual investigation of the sonic environment that temporarily de-emphasizes other concerns while it lets in previously unacknowledged qualities. [Chion talks about the 3 listening modes as sequential, like the stages of a rocket blasting off and leaving behind its boosters. For example, you might initially hear a sound and think of its cause, (say, the sound of my voice) then you might move into a stage of decoding the words for meaning, then, you might have an experience of the nuances of the sounds-in-themselves (the nasal quality of my speech, the clicks of my tongue, my inward breaths between utterances), separate from what they mean or where they come from. ]
How does one actually enter into the state of “reduced” listening, especially in the presence of spoken language? Here are 2 strategies. Acousmatic sound is sound in which the source is not visible. Chion explains: “When we listen acousmatically to recorded sounds it takes repeated hearings of a single sound to allow us gradually to stop attending to its cause and to more accurately perceive its own inherent traits.” So, in addition to listening acousmatically (shifting our attention away from purely causal or purely semantic listening), another one of the ways of achieving “reduced” listening is through repetition.
Think back to the example from Joanna Ruocco’s lecture on repetition, in which she gave the example of saying the word “cat” until it loses its referential meaning. Now imagine what you are experiencing during this suspended state, when the word is loosened from its creature. What new sensations might emerge? Is your sense of ‘cat-ness’ or your experience of your own body somehow enlarged by your momentary departure?
I want to apply these ideas to recorded poetry, and by extension, to the experience of audio archives. In poet and critic Michael Davidson’s essay By ear, he sd’: Audio-Tapes and Contemporary Criticism, he writes: “By listening over and over again to a reading, the listener begins to hear what the page can never render: the emphasis and character of the line, the pausing and halting of a voice among caesurae, the pattern of vowel music, the tone of delivery—and of course those points where the ear has failed and the line has gone flat. The ear hears the general trajectory of words, the large movements of syntactic play, the rhythms, which remain as much the meaning of the poem as does its semantic content.” (par. 26)
Davidson’s idea is that repetition activates the appreciation of patterns and textures in the listener. It accumulates a palpable sediment that we can observe, explore, and eventually integrate into our understanding of the work’s meaning and its social contexts.
[Note: The emphasis on small acts of attention is not intended as a distraction from content or as a move away from the importance of the text itself in favor of appreciating hisses and beeps in the background. On the contrary, by actively listening to the entirety of the sonic field, and by becoming aware of the limitations and tendencies of our often habitual, passive relationship to listening, I want to suggest that we eventually come into more intimate and meaningful contact with the poem.]
Paratextual Comments as Poetic Speech
I want to make a bit of a jump now to consider an experience that often happens if you’re spending a lot of time listening to archives of recorded poetry readings. Certain aspects of the writer’s speech that aren’t part of the poem start to strike you as poetic fragments. I will play some examples I have come across:
Eleni Sikelianos (“You might take a cue she’s laying down to listen.”)& Eileen Myles (“I started writing the skies and I never wrote the stories.”)
I won’t dwell on these small samples very long, but I think what happens is that while listening to a recording of an entire reading, we are primed for patterned language, and this blurriness into everyday speech creates an interesting gap or overlap.
Reuven Tsur, a scholar of cognitive poetics, argues that there is a “poetic mode of speech perception” that we can switch into when listening. Tsur writes: “When the acoustic signal is processed in the nonspeech mode (by the right hemisphere of the brain), we hear it as if we heard music sounds or natural noises. We attend away from overtone structure to tone color. When the same signal is processed in the speech mode (by the left central hemisphere), this tone color is suppressed. We attend away from formant structure to phoneme. In the poetic mode, the main processing is identical with the processing in the speech mode. However, some tone color from the processing in the nonspeech mode faintly enters consciousness” (What Makes Sound Patterns Expressive 18).
So, we experience a more pronounced overlap between the material qualities of the language as a kind of productive noise that enhances the meaning. In this passage, Tsur is in the middle of a very nuanced explanation of a phenomenon unrelated to the one I just mentioned, but I think it is useful to know that there is a concept of the “poetic mode of speech perception.” When I listen to the drift between the end of Eleni Sikelianos’s poem, her address to the child in the audience, and her uniquely lyrical phrasing of an idea, I can tune into that part of my brain that hears speech as poetry. By framing these moments in comments between poems, I hope to point to another way of listening, and by emphasizing their status as segments I want to say something about poetry in general.
This experience of the power of the segment made me curious about what about the act of framing language in such a way enacts itself as poetry. Poet and critic Rachel Blau DuPlessis, in a coda to her 1996 essay “Manifests” attempts to articulate the fundamental characteristic of writing that is framed as poetry. She proposes the term Segmentivity in order to discuss the one element that is somehow indispensable to poetry’s definition. DuPlessis writes:
In short, all the meanings poetry makes are constructed by segmented units of a variety of sizes. The specific force of any individual poem occurs in the intricate interplay among the “scales” (of size or kind of unit) or comes in “chords” of these multiple possibilities for creating segments. To write poetry is, as George Oppen said, to control the ‘sequence of disclosure’ by segments, segments that have a strong relation both to melos and to meaning [. . .] Therefore, I propose that segmentivity–the ability to articulate and make meaning by selecting, deploying, and combining segments–is the underlying characteristic of poetry as a genre. (DuPlessis 51)
The quality we identify in our listening to these recorded fragments as “poetic” might arise out of the ways in which we call attention to their segmentivity in addition to the expressive nature of the delivery or the aphoristic quality of the language itself. [Note: I want to emphasize that DuPlessis's discussion of the segment's poetic possibilities is tied to "selecting, deploying, and combining" these units. Segmentivity implies larger movements and more complex processes than just selecting a chunk of text. I don't mean to imply that all language that is segmented is automatically poetry, or that one individual piece of segmented language automatically becomes a poem (although it is possible for a poem to exist on that scale), but that segmentivity is an important element in what primes listeners and readers for an experience of a grouping of language as "poetic"]
Segments from the Archive
I want to quickly clarify that my goal is not to get you to stay in this state of “reduced” listening and ignore the content and social context of what’s being communicated, but to be able to develop a listening practice that allows you to be mindful of the full array of information coming your way, so your own sense of poetics might become enriched in the process.
The poet Harmony Holiday curates an ongoing series of audio excerpts derived from investigations into various archives. She creates mixtape-style voice and sound collages on SoundCloud as well as a daily-updated Afrosonics Tumblr page that began this April, which she calls the “Beautiful Voices Project.” The Tumblr is a collection of brief segments and samples of Black musicians, critics, poets, activists, and other voices. These clips, even when they’re not excerpting language framed explicitly as poems, often emerge as highly-charged poetic fragments or aphoristic statements on music, poetics and politics.
I want to listen to this brief, minimally processed, looped segment Holiday created using comments Sonia Sanchez made before reading a poem. Another, particularly powerful clip is this selection discussing the murder of Trayvon Martin in which Holiday repeats and echoes a sample within the segment.
I recommend following Holiday’s project and reading her book of poetry, Negro League Baseball. (This is a link to an interview with her and this is a link to her Tumblr.) What excites me most about this project is that it suggests one poet’s personal window into the vast experience of navigating audio archives. Holiday’s segments create powerful arguments, sharp insights, and musical gestures through the precision of her attention. Her Tumblr project might be seen simultaneously as a mixtape, a poetics statement, and as a political manifesto in the form of an extended cento.
I want to suggest some ways of listening to recordings so that they might activate qualities in one another. I’ve already mentioned two strategies: listening to and creating segmented moments from comments between poems, as well as simply listening to the same recording on repeat for an extended period of time, but there are a number of other things you can do to learn from audio texts.
1) Versions. You can listen to 2 or more performances of the same text back to back in order to attend to any differences in the poet’s rendering of the work as well as the effect the ambient sound in the recording has on its reception. I want to play Bhanu Kapil reading from Incubation: A Space for Monsters and Amiri Baraka giving 2 performances (#1 , #2) from the poem “Black Dada Nihilismus.” Kapil’s first recording has much more audible crowd response, laughter (which I have noticed is often the result of intensity or surprise rather than humorous content), and she increases her volume around the phrase “There is no such thing as skin!” There is also a more naturalistic sound to the first recording and more digital residues in the second. In Baraka’s first recording, he reads more quietly, though still with marked emphasis while in the second recording, a remix by DJ Spooky with an added musical soundtrack, he enacts in the performance the volume of shouts and screams. I’m also fascinated by the sound of the page turning in the first recording, which extends the pause between the words “unearthly” and “hollering” and subtly points to the text as a score, a physical object in contrast to the direct emanation of the speaker’s voice which is enacted in the second recording.
2) Pairing ambient and highly absorptive recordings. You can listen to one recording that suggests ambient or textural listening and then contrast that with a text that focuses your attention in another way. For example, you might listen to the entirety of Clark Coolidge reading the atomized, anti-narrative book Polaroid, followed by HR Hegnauer reading the chapbook version of her book Sir, which is comprised of narrative vignettes.
3) Hearing Spaces: Ambience & Audience. You can consider the ways ambient sound and social context affects your interpretation and experience of the text. I’ll begin with a recording of Joseph Ceravolo reading at his home in New Jersey in 1968. In the poem Rain there is a moment of near silence (with a little tape hiss) before the music arrives, then both hiss and music are superimposed with Ceravolo’s voice. I almost hear the word “surrounded” echoed in the background singing voice when Ceravolo reads that word. The music alternates between interference and sympathetic emphasis throughout this entire session, with serendipitous moments constantly emerging and dissipating. The space I imagine when listening to these poems is very private. Compare the atmosphere of this recording with a live reading ten years later at the The Poetry Project. Ceravolo’s introductory comments and his quick, energetic reading of poems such as Lightning stand in stark contrast to the earlier home recording in the way they emphasize his relationship to a particular New York poetry scene in the late 1970’s. Finally, Ceravolo’s piece included in Tape Poems, a 1969 audio anthology, exists in a space of purposeful distraction, with friends talking in the background. As a listener, you move between auditory planes as the idea of signal and noise oscillates.
This recording of Bernadette Mayer’s 1978 class discussing her book Memory, from the Naropa audio archives, is a fascinating listen for a number of reasons. It’s an incredible document of Mayer talking about the processes and thinking behind some of her most ambitious projects. I’ve listened to it several times primarily paying attention to the ideas and lively exchanges, but in the background there’s a barely audible soundscape of something that seems like singing or chanting. In the talk, Mayer says (about her piece Memory): “I was still trying to get myself away from the printed book. I was trying to figure out a way– I mean where is that space? Where should the reader be?” There is an impulse in much of Mayer’s work to try to let in as much sensory data as possible, to enlarge and amplify what registers as significant that connects to the listening experience of this recording.
The main goal of these listening experiments is not to definitively interpret or analyze the work more clearly, although that often happens, but to loosen some of your habitual patterns of reception and to attempt to widen the ways of experiencing aural texts.
The Sounds of Community & Lineage
I will begin with this brief audio excerpt from Anne Waldman’s new book, Gossamurmur
What was in the archive?
It held a slice of belletristic time, radical and political. It held multiple discourses on the limits of the body, on unlimited and de-limited consciousness. It held Sprechstimme and performance, and high talk and sacre conversatione. It held a new poetry and beyond.
The Naropa Archives are vast and varied, but something that I noticed about this particular body of recordings is how many times poets are reading the works of other poets, either during their own readings or as part of lectures and colloquiums. There are obviously innumerable recordings of poets delivering amazing readings of their own work, but I wanted to play a few recordings that gesture toward the ways in which Naropa’s history has been one of listening closely to its myriad lineages and transmitting that knowledge through the generations. Obviously, I don’t mean for these few recordings to be taken as somehow definitive or comprehensive, but that each poem and each of these important poet’s voices here (both reader and author of the text being read) strongly resonates within the space of the larger archive. Consider these recordings as a few possible points of departure. In spending more time in the archive, you will encounter the primary materials of some of the most exciting developments in 20th and 21st century’s poetics and you will develop a more complex understanding of how poets write their best work and create community by listening to one another and by paying attention to the poets that preceded them.
Some selections from the Naropa Audio Archives
*Allen Ginsberg comments on Philip Lamantia; reading Lamantia’s “Voice of Earth Mediums”; text of poem
*Anne Waldman comments on Gertrude Stein; reading Stein’s “Susie Asado”; text of poem
*Lorenzo Thomas comments on James Weldon Johnson; reading Johnson’s “The Creation” from God’s Trombones (full text)
Hopefully, presenting these types of segments creates curiosity in listeners so that they’ll go back to the full recordings. I don’t mean to suggest that we should experience the archive purely in terms of these small sound-bytes and samples, but listening for moments of intensity and detail in longer recordings provides a way of engaging with their entirety.
How to Live. What to do.
I was thinking about the end of Richard Froude’s lecture on violence and ecology, how he provided some concrete steps to proceed in the world in the wake of the issues he discussed. Sometimes, when I feel overwhelmed, I think of the title of Wallace Stevens’ poem “How to live. What to do.” and I wish that when I open his book, it will just be a numbered list that would help me negotiate my life. But re-reading it last Thursday morning, in a low-level panic, while working on this lecture, I realized that the poem, in this particular context, is actually very instructive. The last stanza reads:
There was the cold wind and the sound
It made, away from the muck of the land
That they had left, heroic sound
Joyous and jubilant and sure.
It describes a moment in which the senses are honed and uncluttered. It is one model of contemplative listening. That covers the “How to live” part. As for “What to do.” now, I have some suggestions:
Create your own personal window into archives, and the Naropa Archive in particular, by starting an audio blog, twitter feed, or tumblr page with segmented files combined with explicitly credited links back to their archival sources. This is free and easy. Get in contact with me if you have technical questions about how to do this. You might think about Harmony Holiday’s approach of moving through the archive in search of poignant moments to frame and share. You might create your own audio anthology derived from the archive. You might pay attention to the seemingly extraneous sounds and language before or after events. You can use this space to articulate your own affinities and poetics. You can use it to locate, situate, and discuss important sites of poetic disagreement. You might create playlists around specific themes. You might, as I have done, create a playlist of poets reading the work of other writers.
There are decades of amazing recordings. The archive asks to be constantly activated and directly engaged. Listening to and drawing attention to moments from the archives is a kind of outward-directed community building project such as editing a journal, or running a reading series, or translating works. It is a service to the world of poetry that rewards you by sharpening your ear and engaging you directly in historical conversations. It is also a form of contemplative practice. It will give you energy when you need it. The archive will show you “how to live. what to do.”
(END OF TALK)
Poetry & Poetics Audio Archives:
Naropa University Poetics Audio Archives
San Francisco State University Poetry Center Archives
Kootenay School of Writing
University of Arizona Poetry Center archives
Harvard Woodberry Poetry Room
Poetry Project audio archive
From the Fishouse: an audio archive of emerging poets
Academy of American Poets
A Voice Box: Bay Area Recordings of the Recent Past (Andrew Kenower)
Annotations/Commentaries on Poetry Audio Recordings & Listening:
Harmony Holiday’s Beautiful Voices Project
Steve Evans: The Phonotextual Braid (Jacket2)
Steve Evans “On Coteries, Infrastructure, and Gossip” talk at Naropa SWP in 2010
Steve Evans: The Lipstick of Noise
Al Filreis & Steve Evans discuss audio pedagogy
Eric Baus: Notes on PennSound (Jacket2)
Eric Baus, “Teaching with online audio archives” talk at 2010 AWP conference
Christine Hume Essay, Carla Harryman’s Baby: Listening In, Around, Through, and Out
Digital Editing Tools
Audacity (free software that allows you to segment MP3’s)
2013 SWP MFA class audio recordings [At the end of each of the 4 monday afternoon classes, each class member recorded a brief selection of their writing from the exercises.]
You can find contact information for me here