Friday, May 27, 2011

Music for Writers 4: The Sound of One Face Flapping and the Slow Unfolding of Prisoner Time

flababble 1 from Jaap Blonk on Vimeo.

The remarkable Dutch vocalist, writer, composer, and sound poet, Jaap Blonk, has recently began exploring video. The little piece posted above is a funny and fascinating exploration of the secret performances of the face.

Much of what happens in the world and in our bodies is invisible or unknowable. Slowing things down, whether through the technology of a haiku (eg. isolating a frog jumping into a pond) or through the slowed down playback of a video (as in this examination of the horizontal flapping of a face going buh-buh-buh-buh) takes us into another world, one different yet parallel from our own. Time is the only difference here. What else don't we see? The wings of a hummingbird? The moment before someone pulls a trigger? The almost instantaneous spread of a cultural meme? How many of us do silly or extreme things in front of a mirror? In front of a camera?

When we first see this video, we can't figure out what is happening. How can a face be so malleable, how can it shake so, the flesh so far away from the bone? Is Blonk a physiognomical virtuoso? Then we realize. It's slow motion. It actually a very common kind of movement. The result is grotesque, playful, humourous, and strangely mesmerizing and unsettling. And what is that sound? It's not a giant killer hummingbird. It is Blonk's voice making the sounds which accompany such facial movements.

What is the sound of one face flapping? What would it look like if our perceptions existed in a different temporal plane than the events before. This is, I understand, how some animals see things. How astronauts gazing back at the citizens of the world see, looking back at us all shaking our heads, "no, no, no." Maybe we're all in disagreement. Maybe we're amusing a small child. Or ourselves. Maybe we're trying to shake loose of our own bodies. Or time.


Coming Together, by Frederic Rzewski, performed at RPI 2008 from Michael Century on Vimeo.

The American composer Frederic Rzewski frequently engages with political issues in his work. His monumental piano piece in an accessible style, The People United Will Never Be Defeated is a set of variations on the famous Chilean leftist liberation hymn. His music, however, not only explores radical political ideas but often explores radical musical forms and relations between the performers and the composer.

The video which appears above is a performance of his piece, Coming Together which is based on letters written from Attica State prison, in upstate New York, by the anti-war protester and member of the American radical left organization, The Weather Underground Organization, Sam Melville, during the first months of his incarceration in 1971. The piece is quite simple. A repeating minimalist instrumentalaccompaniment of a spoken text. However, a powerful and slow building tension  is created over time by the repetitive gradually changing text and music. This reflects the narrator's battle with self-control, anger, boredom, sanity, and the prison experience. Prisoners experience a difference sense of time, and listening to this piece, we experience that, too.

The above performance is performed by Kevin Craig West, (vocalist), and the Rensselaer Contemporary Music Ensemble in a performance led by David Gibson.

Gary Barwin is a writer, musician, and performer. His PhD disertation, Martin’s Idea (listen here) was a composition for reciter, interactive computer system, and MIDI keyboard. Some of his other music with spoken text can be found here. His new books are The Porcupinity of the Stars (Coach House, 2010) and The Obvious Flap (with Gregory Betts), just out from BookThug.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

I was not far enough out, and simply waving, not drowning

Is poetry a domesticated art? Are we drowning in it? Or are we in fact not drowning enough? This is what I’m thinking as I peer out into a green ravine in the Druid Hills area of Atlanta. There is all this writing, but it seems very little gets said. And then we have the strand of thinking that says, well, it’s very difficult to say nothing very well. And no, that is not the conceptualists speaking.

In fact, I think many of the conceptual writers would agree that there is much poetry about nothing. As would the flarfistes. But I think we have a different notion of what nothing is. And what feelings are. How rare is it that one comes across a line of poetry that makes the hair on one’s neck stand on end? Or in the case of Vanessa Place, makes one want to burst into tears? Or upon hearing an entire reading of Kenny Goldsmith’s Traffic, want to rip one’s head off. That’s a visceral response.

What we respond to is very different, clearly. And when we respond. With conceptual writing, the poetry is about the idea behind the project, the realization of the project, the material gathered into the project, but more so, or as much as that, it’s about the discussion. The “thinkership,” as Goldsmith says, not the readership. The ideas behind conceptual writing—Vanessa Place’s Statement of Facts, for example—can make the hair on my neck stand up as much as a great lyric poem, or a narrative poem; a line by Alice Notley, for instance, or Jorie Graham. But neither the intention of the poem, nor the craft of the poem, is enough to garner such an effect.

There are lovely poems out there filled with stunning images, gorgeous syllabic, gymnastic language, perfectly crafted, and yet, they leave me absolutely cold. There are poems out there filled with heartfelt sentiment, “true” emotions, reported from the poet’s depths that leave me absolutely cold.

Over on the CBC Canada Reads book talk the other day a poet said that contemporary poetry “terrified” her students. Wow, I thought, what is she reading? I want some of that. Because I don’t think there’s enough poetry out there terrifying us. Or making us feel, or think. Dale Smith, on the other hand, wants less of this terror. In his Slow Poetry Manifesto he asks, is this terror really serving us? That’s a good question too. For my part, I guess it comes back to a question of thinking. Is the poem offering us a way to think about something? Does it wake us up? Because it seems to me, that’s one of poetry’s great tasks.
Soothe me okay, particularly after you’ve ruffled my feathers. But don’t smother me with niceness. Don’t insult me with simplicity. If I’m dying of cancer, don’t tell me it’s all going to be fine. Don’t tell me to relax and be positive. Tell me how I can think about what I’m facing. The world is a complicated place, and only becoming more complex, this is true on many levels, from material to technological to psychological, even how we learn…so yes, the writing I encounter better in some way have come to terms, or at least acknowledge the difficulty of coming to terms with what we’re facing.

So yes, when I come across a voice like Alice Notley, I do feel terror. But I feel terror because she is looking very directly at the world. In doing so she reminds me that I can to. And I might not even need to be soothed. I might in fact be stronger, more capable than I thought. When I read the narrator in an Anne Carson poem wiggling her ass before the man who spurned her, I feel more than a little empathetic, just as when I read about her thinking about Bronte while sitting with her aging mother I understand the complexity of simple human presence. When I read Darren Wershler’s Update I feel moved because he tells me something about the language I am using every day, because he folds literary history and play showing me the potential in what is now the benign, the daily, status update. It’s a quality of intellectual and emotional stimulation that does not leave me cold.

So what is this quality of writing precisely? Intelligence? Insight? Emotional intelligence? Bounce, as Goldsmith says? Lyric intelligence, as Jan Zwicky might say? What is this quality in the writing, and how do we get to it?

Monday, May 09, 2011

Music for Writers 3: The Music of Speech

Leonard Cohen has his Tower of Song, and there’s that other famous tower, the one that didn’t contain Hank Williams: the Tower of Babel. Two towers: one of speech and one of song. But speech and song aren’t two towers, or two solitudes. Like two lungs, they are connected and sustained by the mouth.

Try to sing without using consonants or vowels. You sound like a space heater.

Try to speak without using rhythm or pitch. You sound like a font.

The eminent American composer, Paul Lansky, writes:

Speech and song are commonly considered as different and distinct as apples and oranges. It is my feeling, however, that they are more usefully thought of as occupying opposite ends of a spectrum that encompasses a wealth of musical potential. This fact has certainly not been lost on musicians: sprechstimme, melodrama, recitative, rap, blues, etc., are all evidence that this is a lively domain.[Lansky's excellent website is here.]

And neither have the musical possibilities of speech been lost on writers: rhyme, rhythm, assonance, alliteration, repetition, for example, not to mention numerous other performative and structural elements.

In the next two posts, I’d like to discuss several musical examples which engage speech, language, and the spoken word.


Rhythm and pitch is inherent in our speech, though sometimes, annoyingly, meaning gets in the way.

Let the piano explain:

Or, let’s let someone who is being played or is perhaps doing the playing, explain:

It’s fantastic how, by emphasizing the rhythms and pitches inherent in speech, we hear what was already there. It’s like a well-made poem, organizing the sounds inherent in words and phrases to bring out their inherent ‘musicality.’

Scott Johnson’s  “John Somebody” (1982) explores the rhythms and pitch content of a tape-looped voice. Listen here. There's more discussion and links on the amazing music website Music for Maniacs.

There’s something magical about revealing the musicality of everyday speech. Charles Spearin (of Broken Social Scene) created the insouciant Happiness Project. He wrote music based on (and to accompany) what his neighbours said about happiness.

Here’s Mrs. Morris:

And here’s Anna:

It’s powerful for music to be found in the everyday words of everyday speakers. The Quebec composer, Rene Lussier, explored a broader canvas of Quebecois speech in his truly remarkable composition/recording Le Trésor de la Langue. He created music from both public and private speech. And of course, language, both public and private, can be even more politically charged in Quebec. Lussier sets Charles de Gaulle’s "Vive le Québec libre !" ("Long live free Quebec!")

Creating a crafted art-object, in this case, a piece of music, out of words which are spoken, frames it. Makes it important, Honours it. Validates and enfranchises it. And celebrates it and the inherent beauty and power of its elements.

The major American composer Steve Reich’s powerful “Come Out” tape composition from the 1960s makes a short tape-loop of the voice of a youth involved in the 1965 Harlem Riots. (I couldn’t find an online version, but it’s widely available in recordings) He takes this highly charged speech-event and plays it out of synch with itself (eventually using multiple tracks.) The result is that this casual, if emotional, speech fragment becomes monumental and speaks to something more than itself. It embodies and transcends its moment.. Only the rhythmic and pitch material are discernable. It is like looking at the sound though a microscope and a telescope simultaneously.

Reich explains and plays an example from a similar, earlier work (the words of a street preacher) in this excellent video interview (at c. 3’00”)

For much of his career, Steve Reich, like many conceptual writers, was interested in creating his work out of clearly discernable—and audible—processes. He explains this in his essay, Music as a Gradual Process (1968) He has also continued to have an abiding interest in speech and speech rhythms. His major work, Different Trains, takes its name from the fact that when Reich was a young boy travelling from one American coast to the other (from one parent’s home to the other), there were other Jews travelling on ‘different trains’ in Nazi Germany. The piece takes much of its musical material from the rhythms and pitches of documentary recordings (as well as train sounds and rhythms.) The opening movement is based on the voices of the Reich’s governess and an old train porter.

Again, repetition and the abstraction of material, both pitch and rhythm, change how we listen to the voice and what it says, and make its timbre even more vivid. In the next post, I will discuss how the grammar and syntax of language has been used to structure music (note: a Gertrude Stein alert!) but it’s important to note here how, unlike some of the previous examples, Reich breaks apart normative speech into smaller units and uses repetition. He employs the materials of spoken language not only as inspiration for his musical materials, but also as if these materials were musical materials, employing musical techniques and structures such as repetition, canon, fragmental, and variation.

But talk is not only cheap. It's old. A little history:

At the beginning of the 20th century, composers, particularly Arnold Schoenberg, explored the relation of speech and song in creating a conscious hybrid of the two, Sprechstimme (which is literally, ‘speechsong.’) This was a musically notated manner of performance wherein the pitches and the rhythms of the reciter were notated. It sounded like a very stylized and exaggerated speech style. Pierrot Lunaire is Schoenberg’s most famous piece using this style of performance, but his Survivor from Warsaw is, to me, the most moving. Again, there is an interest in using documentary ‘real-world’ text – in this case the account of a Jewish survivor from the Warsaw ghetto. The survivor describes (in Sprechstimme) what he witnessed: about to perish, the men of the ghetto begin to simultaneously sing the central prayer of affirmation of Jewish faith. They are going to die with dignity and strength, and their identity and humanity intact. Schoenberg uses the contrast between speech and song very effectively: the moment when these men break into song (as they literarily do in this composition) is remarkable.

To go a little further back, and to allow me to put on my tights and codpiece:

We could no doubt consider many kinds of chant to be speech/music hybrids, but speech explicitly entered into western music at the end of the Renaissance and the beginning of the Baroque. Italian madrigals (the immediate forerunners of opera) began to become more and more complex, both dramatically and musically. Many were multi-part compositions that told quite involved stories. Composers were looking for ways to be more dramatic, to include vivid contrasts and portray vivid emotions and characterisation in music. The stile recitativo evolved to meet this need. This technique was in many ways, similar to Schoenberg’s later Sprechstimme. The pitch and rhythm of stylized speech was carefully notated and accompanied by instruments. Claudio Monteverdi was the master of complex madrigals. His "Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda" (from Book 8 of his Madrigals) tells a dramatic story of a Christian knight who falls in love with a Saracen woman; they fight against each other, in disguise, in the battlefield.

I’d like to end with a catchy and witty example from Paul Lansky who I quote way up at the top of this Tower of talk.

Lansky, a long-time professor at Princeton, has written a charming series of pieces entitled, “Idle Chatter,” and “Not Just More Idle Chatter.” Though it sounds like there are actually voices speaking, these pieces are entirely synthesized through very complicated computer programming (Linear Predictive Coding, bubble gum, The Oxford English Dictionary chewed by a goat, and a handful of  binary code.)

I think of this as asemic speech. It sounds like talking. It looks like talking. But it’s a duck.

Because the meaning and, indeed all identifiable words, have been extracted (actually, not put in in the first place – it just statistically resembles speech sounds) we learn something about speech. What do we track when we listen to speech? To the speech of crowds? What attracts our interest? What judgements or conclusions do we draw from which sounds and rhythms? What pleasure do we take in speech – its structures, shapes, and flow – independent of semantic meaning? And what about accent? Vocal timbre? Vocal performance? Human-ness? Is this speech without language? Is it song?

How far could the transformation of speech go before it isn't speech anymore? Before it's music. Before it's not language. Before it's not human or organic. Or how far could the transformation go before we hear words? grammar? emotion? meaning? And how does this relate to our body -- could we hear speech the way we might watch dance? Do rhythms and speech contours relate to movement? To a cognitive rhythm? a cardiac rhythm? a body rhythm? Does a harpsichord affect us in the mouth? An electric guitar keening? Inside the vowel there's the secret music of overtones. The stochastic noise of the consonant. The harmony of language. Dissonance. The tension and resolution. Counterpoint.

Tom Waits says that songs are "an interesting thing to do with the air." Words are made out of many things. One of them is air.

Gary Barwin is a writer, musician, and performer. His PhD disertation, Martin’s Idea (listen here) was a composition for reciter, interactive computer system, and MIDI keyboard. Some of his other music with spoken text can be found here. His latest book is The Porcupinity of the Stars (Coach House, 2010); The Obvious Flap (with Gregory Betts, BookThug) is due in May.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Conversation with Steph Colburn and Lizy Mostowski on Sheryda Warrener's "Hard Feelings".

SC: I feel that this book should have been prefaced with no hard feelings, eh? --an expression to put these pieces into a perfect picture- slightly hurting, slightly funny, always sincere in its sentiment. Sheryda Warrener’s Hard Feelings explores connection between people, place, and objects seamlessly throughout four very distinguishable sections, though some more humorous than others. Did you find the tongue and cheek humour easy to pick up on? Which sections resonate best with you? In this way or in another?

LM: I disagree with your idea of having a preface, it would take away from the interiority of the poems. Warrener’s sincerity can speak for itself.

Sheryda Warrener’s humour hit me at unexpected moments throughout. A moment which stood out for me, in the section entitled “Ordinary & Remarkable” was the line: “I took ‘flight of stairs’ literally and took off from the top landing—if dreams count, not only have I flown, I’ve also spent some time with Nixon.”(12) Warrener’s prose poetry seems to strike a personal, nostalgic tone which really resonates with me. She ties humour in with curiosity, a fascinating fusion.

My favourite section of the book was Mother/ Father. I felt as though they were in conversation with one another while being in separate worlds. Warrener’s formatting seems to speak directly to the two worlds becoming closer to each other from the original divide. Did you feel the same?

SC: I felt the Mother/Father section was the section that stood out to me. But I think because it is the most directly moving of the sections, as it most honestly portrays “hard feelings”, being the struggle between family dynamics and a child’s relationship to that.

I think Warrener does a beautiful job of being extremely involved in this section emotionally, while her character, the child, is involved almost strictly as an observer. This relationship, or rather disconnection, really put the sentiment in the foreground. And emphasized the family’s “hard feelings” toward the situation, rather than the situation itself.

SC: “Ordinary and Remarkable” was exactly that, it took an ordinary moment/experience/person/situation and concentrated around its remarkable quality, whether that be in a positive or negative light. I thought it was kind of mirrored because this section was composed of a bunch of prose poems, which also seem like a big moment that needs to be delved into to find the remarkable. Did you find that the prose poems worked in these sections? Why/why not?

LM: Although the section had many prose poems, I don’t think that they overwhelmed the sections. I did find each remarkable on their own, and did not feel like I needed them to together represent something. I think that each poem not only stands out on its own but stands out on its own. “What does it feel like to reach in, pull that white bulb out?” asks the speaker in the poem Glass Eye, this poem was the most sensory for me.

How did you feel about the prose poems which were both titled “Hard Feelings” in the section? Were they the strongest, in your opinion, like the title story in a collection, or was it just a coincidence that they described scenarios of bitterness?

I actually found these two to be the two that stuck with me most in that section. Though the bitterness in these two prose poems is definitely a substantial, I don’t think that emotion is all that the title of this collection is getting at. I think “Hard Feelings” was meant to reveal the genuine but bizarre human impulses and the primal moments of anxiety that are involved with that. I think that both of these prose poems depict this perfectly, and that the bitterness was more of a connection to loneliness, rather than a main focus.

SC: I personally felt that “Unequal Hours” felt sort of loosely curated, as it tied together in the sense that they were all about travel throughout Argentina, Spain, New Mexico, Japan, British Columbia and Ontario, but I didn’t feel as though they were connected in a structural or contextual sense. Did you feel the same? Did you find a strand through each of these that tied them together differently?

LM: I felt a strong strand running through “Unequal Hours”: a clear motif of outdoor settings with repetitive imagery and a somber tone, to me, this was context enough. The speaker in each poem finds themselves in an outdoor space for example a patio or a balcony in a place where they are disconnected and are merely an observer. This sense of disconnection and observation, in my opinion is tying the different experiences of travelling together, making the reader realize similarities amongst both the places, the spaces and the poems.

SC: That being said, I appreciated “Unequal Hours” once I got to “Last Door”, as I feel like it took you through a world travelogue but avoided the sort of inner movement, and then placed you in “Last Door” where the character is completely opposing this as they are stuck in one physical place but working inward as well. Do you think that the contrast of the two sections works well together, or did you find it jarring? Did you also find “Last Door” easier to connect with?

LM: Last Door—the last section of the book in which the speakers interior and exterior dialogues are put side-by-side is jarring aesthetically, but I would disagree that it avoids inner movement. The poem displays an exterior dialogue of confidence, and an interior monologue of loneliness. This poem is something similar to a travel journal—tracing the speaker’s journey through the places O’Keeffe once wandered

“A poem is an opening without edges.” (67) The analysis of a poem within a poem reminds me of Marianne Moore’s “Poetry”. How do you think that this line works or doesn’t work in “Last Door”? Why/ why not?

SC: I think it has a lot to say about an opening and getting into something, being poetry, and this all very obviously ties in to the concept of the “Last Door”. In that regard, I think this line works well. This section of the collection really ties together, and allows “Unequal Hours” to stand after the two first sections, which were all in all unique and impressive. I’m excited to see what comes next from Warrener.

Warrener, Sheryda. Hard Feelings. Montreal: Snare Books. 2010. Print.

Monday, May 02, 2011

Matthew Hollett Translates bpNichol's "The Complete Works"

As a visual artist who is interested in poetry and experimental literature, bpNichol has long been a source of inspiration. "The Complete Works" from "An H In the Heart" is one of my favourite poems; I love the way it epitomizes bp's playful exploration of combinatorics, meta-literature, typography, and visual systems.

In "The Complete Works (after bpNichol)", I sought to translate bp's poem into the realm of digital imaging; in the same way that bp's poem consists of every character on his keyboard, my image proposes every possible pixel colour. Wanting to echo the aesthetic of bp's typewritten text, I displayed the image as if in an old Mac OS window.

I made "The Complete Works (after bpNichol)" in 2006. At the time I was working on "index of first lines", a digital artwork in which I used PHP code to compile the first line of pixels from thousands of my digital photos. Much of my digital artwork involves mashing systems together, applying the rules or elements of one system to another to see what new systems emerge.


Matthew Hollett is a visual artist, web designer, and art educator. He is currently teaching at Grenfell Campus, Memorial University of Newfoundland.

Sunday, May 01, 2011

Bhanu Kapil Introduces Kristen Stone

Although there is a non-Marxist vibe to selecting the work of one particular student to showcase, I have selected the Domestication Handbook of a current grad student, Kristen Stone, for where it is written: at the intersection of social justice, agricultural and lyric aims. What would a training manual for "pets and other animals," as written by a queer *goat farmer look like? Kristen brings the philosophy of Donna Haraway, contemporary farming techniques, and suburban girlhood together, in a three-part work that is both entertaining, slightly wild and incredibly brave. The work is in its final draft stage, and so I don't know about quoting directly from it when I am not sure that Kristen is finished with her revision process. Instead, I asked her to send me the letters that framed the first drafts of the book, and have her permission to cut and paste from them. Here are two excerpts, one from the beginning and from the end of a letter, with some sense, I think, of Kristen's cheeky genius and the innovation she brings to the question of what a book of poetry could (possibly) be. Be for:

"Dear Bhanu,

I write to you on a bright February morning when the Chickasaw plums are beginning to bud on the dark, striped branches of the trees by the front door.

Bhanu, I am going slightly insane. Also, I am happier than I’ve been in many years. The flush of green. Part of it is radically remaking the sense of where I’m from and all my old bad assumptions about Florida. Part of it is revisiting my undergraduate thesis on homeless shelters, now, working in a shelter environment again. Having made a study of narrative and place in the meantime. Having become more interested in the stories we tell ourselves than an abstract System. I am part of a special club now, Bhanu, called Empowerment Advocacy. [Potentially triggering information follows] It involves not telling people what to do but nodding a lot and saying things like, it sounds like he really knows how to hurt you and since you’re telling me you want to go back to him, let’s talk about ways to help you stay safe. Another book, maybe— will be about the highly specific linguistics of Empowerment Advocacy. How to help someone shape, through language, her sense of herself as a survivor. A certain kind of elaborate, guarded empathy, knowing there’s a very good chance that the person—okay let’s be real here, the woman—you’re working with might go back to the partner who kicked her down a flight of stairs. Who broke a window with her head. Etc. there’s kind of a Renee Gladman thing going on—a refusal to interpret for someone else. A kind of sharp honesty, which is also a totally different way of speaking (writing). Does any of this make any sense?

Yesterday afternoon the woman at Dunkin Donuts—she is tall and thin and she has a name that I can’t read tattooed on her neck in thin script—prepared my coffee as soon as I walked in the door. She punched my card four times and told me she’s pregnant. “Next one’s free,” she said.

[Here is the problem—not the problem, the tension—between being a writer and being a social worker. In social work your aim is to assess people, to see each individual as a locus of types and risk factors—patterns that may be intervened upon to help someone maintain stable housing or avoid being killed by a batterer. As a poet though I want to be surprised by people.]

And from another letter:

"PS- I have been reading Kate Zambreno’s blog. Occasionally I make a comment and she makes a comment back. Today I told her she should join a CSA and she told me how to massage kale. My life is slowly becoming unintelligible, full of interminglings. Okay this is a very long letter. Toad is howling at the door, at the moths that try to get into the kitchen, to the lights that hang over the counter.

I wish for you a flush of green on the mountains and a torch of cheese.

Thank you,


*I sent this to Kristen to see if it was okay to excerpt her letters like this before sending it (this) (them) to Lemon Hound. She pointed out that she, herself, is not, as yet, the particular owner of any goats. Though: she does work with goats. This is what I meant by goat farmer. (To clarify.)


Bhanu Kapil lives in Colorado where she teaches writing and thinking at Naropa University’s Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, as well as Goddard College’s low-residency MFA. She has written three full-length works of poetry/prose: The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers (Kelsey Street Press), Incubation: a space for monsters (Leon Works), and humanimal [a project for future children] (Kelsey Street Press).