This post is for anyone attending the 4/7/2014 session on sound and poetry in Charles Bernstein's poetic seminar.
Practice with waveforms
I thought it might be a good idea for everyone to get some familiarity with waveforms before the actual session. It seems like SoundCloud is the easiest way to go about this (no need to install any software, we can work on something collaborative, etc). So, to this end, I've uploaded a reading I spend a lot of time thinking about, William Carlos Williams' 1942 reading of "To Elsie." (I have an essay coming out on the context and provenance of this recording, and will post the link if it's out in time for this session.) You can see the recording here.
SoundCloud will allow you to see the recording in its waveform form. It should be pretty intuitive to look at--the x-axis is time and the y-axis is intensity/volume. This is the visualization that most people use when they edit audio (though audio tools will let you zoom in and out, etc.). This image is a screenshot from Audacity, a fantastic and free audio editing tool.
It would be great if everyone could take a look at the recording, but for the intrepid souls amongst you, please do consider creating a SoundCloud account and commenting within the recording. Instructions on commenting are available here. I dropped in a couple of annotations, which will pop up when the player gets to the segment of the recording where I've appended them. If you'd like to add some comments (which I hope you will), it might be a good idea to focus on the sound of the recording. For example, how do the expressive properties of the sound (pitch, volume, prosody, tempo, etc) at any given point interact with the form and the content of the poem?
If anyone is interested, here is a copy of my seminar paper from my Fall 2013 poetics seminar, where I work toward a phonotextual analysis of this poem. It's still very rough, but I hope to build upon it this term. Any comments very welcome! The paper goes beyond waveforms to spectrograms and musical notation, but I think it gives a decent overview of some of the phonotextual considerations.
Friday, February 28, 2014
One of the topics I’ve been interested in for a while is how a poet “phrases” his or her poems when performed. Where does the poet pause when reading, and how does the pause interact with the sonic expectations set forth by the visual form of the printed poem? I think of these phrases, as delimited by pauses, to be manifestations of Pound’s famous dictum, “ to compose in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of a metronome.” I think that this distinction between sonic phrasing and visual form—both lineation/spacing and grammatical/syntactical form—is crucial. Many times, when hearing a poet read, the performance will roughly align with the sonic expectations created by the printed poem. But in many other cases, it will not. And herein do we get to consider the phonotextual relation of the poem as sounded entity to its existence in print.
I wrote a seminar paper on this topic for my poetics seminar with Bob Perelman. To write the paper, I used digital audio tools, paired with close listening, to meticulously parse four performances of WilliamCarlos Williams reading “To Elsie” into aural phrases. Afterwards, I compared the commonalities in the way Williams phrased the poem in performance against the text of the poem, looking for aural-textual agreements and disagreements. As I was discussing the paper with Al Filreis, he asked me whether the pauses could be just breath pauses, rather than dramatic devices. I’ll spare you any anticlimactic disappointment by telling you now that this blog post does not/cannot answer that question! But what some new techniques I learned recently helped me make some progress in considering the question.
Using ARLO (Adaptive Recognition with Layered Optimization), a cutting-edge digital audio tool developed through the HiPSTAS (HighPerformance Sound Technologies for Access and Scholarship) initiative, I sought to expose facets of the pauses delimiting the aural phrases I heard, facets difficult to hear with the human ear alone. Here’s a spetrogram of Williams reading the first few lines of “To Elsie” in 1942:
In the spetrogram, we see clearly delimited phrases of speech. The first, the one to the far left, is Williams reading "The pure products of America/go crazy--" After a defined pause, we see the second phrase, "mountain folk from Kentucky//or the ribbed north end/of Jersey/" Finally, after the second pause, is the third and right-most phrase: "with its isolate lakes and/valleys,"
By listening to the recording, and even by looking at this sophisticated visual representation of the poem, these look like cleanly carved out phrases, with no sound occurring in between. But let's turn up the "gain" in ARLO to amplify the visual representation of the sound. In other words, we will create a new visualization that renders perceptible very quiet sounds that are difficult, if at all possible, to hear with the ear alone.
We can now see a sonic phenomenon that was not present in our first spectrogram-- (faintly) circled in red here. These are visualizations of the sound of Williams taking a breath. Under amplification, they become visible. In fact, when you listening again, you can almost hear the first breath.
So this brings us back to the question Al posed me: are these pauses just breath pauses? Maybe. But it's worth asking the question: is there a pause because of a breath or is there is breath because of a pause? Can we determine a causation, or can we merely claim correlation? Is it possible that, like in musical vocal performances, Williams takes his breaths strategically to fall within "rests" in his composition?
I'm not sure that there is a way to answer this definitively, but perhaps one approach would be to consider the length of the pauses. Do there exist short pauses, which are functional, just to take a breath, vs. longer pauses of a more standard length that denote aesthetic choices? If the latter, can we start to consider the visualization of these poems a kind of musical score, thinking of sound in terms of pitch and duration, "notes" and absence thereof ("rests"?), phrasing and syncopation?
In Al's post on using ARLO, he references Louis Zukofsky's famous integral for locating poetry, a calculus, I think, that technology constantly serves to reify:
Sunday, February 9, 2014
|Robert Creeley, image from PennSound|
Some thoughts on the poem
I think that this poem dichotomizes learning through language and haptic learning. The poem's speaker seeks to address the problem of the surrounding darkness through language and expression, wrought through a kind of solipsism. His self-centeredness is displayed through addressing his interlocutor with an incorrect name and the repetition of "I" in the first stanza--and indeed the I as the first word and subject of the poem's title, a subject that operates epistemologically on a generic object, "A Man." This generic and marginalized man, whose name is not John, ultimately gives potentially lifesaving advice:
drive, he sd, for
christ’s sake, look
out where yr going.
In other words, grasp (literally, in terms of the steering wheel) the here and now if you want to avoid an immediate darkness. Do--do not say.
The ineffectualness of language (rather than action) to address the encroaching void is best shown through the abbreviations Creeley uses: "sd" for "said" and "yr" for "you're." I interpreted these to be reductive poetic devices to show that a word can have a patina of meaning, the form of efficacy, but be hollow and decentered. The outer bounds of "said" are present, but the word has been excoriated. This, to me, connotes a doubt in the efficacy of speech over action. It also parallels the use of language with the speaker's pseudo-solipsistic (or at least self-centered) views. Note too that the main verb of the poem, "drive" is not abbreviated. Related, the subject's interlocutor enacts the content of the poem through the inverse of the subject's actions: when he speaks all of his words appear in full, with the exception if "sd" and "you're." The latter case seems to me to act against the subject's self-centeredness by reducing the subject through the reduction of the contraction (the contraction of the contraction?).
All in all, I think the poem is meant to be a playful reminder that, while intellectualism is important, it cannot function outside some form of practicality.
On the deformance of the poem
Given that this is one of Creeley's best-known poems, I thought that it could benefit from a deformance, in order to allow those who've read/heard it many times a fresh look at it. As noted in the PoemTalk on "I Know A Man," a key feature of the phonotext is the wavering, sometimes-tremulous, voice Creeley uses to perform it. I think that the hesitance, perhaps trepidation, expressed by the performance serves as a counterbalance to the strong egotistical tone connoted by the speaker's choice of words. In other words, it creates an interesting form-content disjuncture. The solidification of the voice when it considers buying "a goddamn big car," comes more into tune with the content, as it's likely that this sentiment is one of defiance. The tone hardens and becomes resolute as the subject considers whether a commercialistic act of resistance is the right action if the face of the daunting void. So, to me, the performance of the poem interacts well with the content--the hollowed out "said" ("sd") performed without the resoluteness of performance that one might expect from the text alone, a hollow egotism.
The deformance of the poem is quite paratactical. It does not flow together logically, like the originally ordered poem, but this is the point of a deformance--to defamiliarize. To me, the deformance connotes a stammering, stuttering attempt at saying (sy-ing?) something. It's like the speaker wants to tell us something badly, but words themselves are failing. It's in action, in the physical action of speaking, that the speaker communicates to us. We somehow feel what he means: that there is something great that needs to be addressed, but cannot be sd. It's through the act of his trying to say it that it can be addressed.
Wednesday, February 5, 2014
Monday, January 27, 2014
Aural Dialectics: On Allen Ginsberg’s Musical Rendition of Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience
William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience (1789) is a collection of illuminated poems separated into two groupings, Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience, that engage with their respective, eponymous forces and ostensibly present them as a dichotomy, or perhaps rather as a linear transition, with innocence giving way to experience. But to consider the poem a presentation of binaries or opposing forces, discounts much of the Blakean aesthetic. For me, it wasn’t just the text and the accompanying illustrations that helped to frame and reify the dialectical counterbalance between innocence and experience in Blake’s work, but rather the addition of a third dimension: Allen Ginsberg’s musical renditionof the work, available through PennSound. It’s through Ginsberg’s off-key, warbling, sometimes out-of-time, performance of the lyric that we get a simultaneous embracing of the Romantic ideology and the Modernist rejection of it, coexistent and counterbalanced to great aesthetic effect.
Content and form of the original poems
First, a little on my view of Blake’s work. The presentation of Blake’s poem, the separation into groupings of innocence and of experience, would imply that each grouping is discrete and addresses solely its own force. But that’s not how Blake’s collection works. It begins with the presentation of innocence, focusing on youth and pastoral imagery as a kind of thesis, but intersperses challenges to the purity of innocence, such as slavery and child labor. Through this impingement of Experience upon Innocence’s textual ground, it would be tempting to assume that Blake would chart a linear progression, with an inverse relationship between innocence and age (for which experience is an ostensible proxy or metonymy). Similarly, in Songs of Experience, we see the focus shift to the apparent corruption of innocence: the turn toward death of the vegetal imagery (a symbol of innocence) in “The Sick Rose,” a formerly fertile pastoral space turned fallow in “The Garden of Love,” etc. But the balancing factor of this antithesis is the form, both the poetic and visual form of the work. The ballad-esque forms that project the feel of a soccer supporters club singing in a crowded pub and the bright, Technicolor images that display a kind of childlike, Crayola vibrancy even in their depiction of dark subject matter both serve to illustrate (literally) the encroachment of Innocence upon Experience.
When I first read the work, I was expecting to see a kind of Hegelian dialectic take shape: thesis (Innocence) collides with antithesis (Experience), with the residue of the collision, the synthesis (death?), resolving, in time, the conflict. But what we actually get is a non-Hegelian dialectic, similar to the way Henry Sayre describes William Carlos Williams’ dichotomy between reality and the imagination. It’s not that one force is the established hegemony and a challenger will seek to supplant it, but rather that the two forces can and do coexist symbiotically, even if ostensibly opposed. Innocence needs Experience to care for it. We see this repeatedly throughout the poems—imagery of shepherds and mothers and nurses representing Experience’s nurture of Innocence. Later, we see the content turn dark, toward Experience, but the form seeks to counterbalance it through interspersed innocence, including youth as a palliative presence in “London," and the persistent presence of vegetation as a symbol of innocence. Through this disjuncture, Innocence offers its help to Experience. It seeks to show that reality is constructed through perception, through the imagination (as WCW would claim over a century later), and that Innocence is ever-present and can be invoked at any point to act as a counterbalance. In this manner, we get two contingent and interdependent forces, which can never devolve into one superseding the other, nor a Hegelian synthesis. It’s perhaps Kantian, in that innocence is tied to perception (phenomena) and experience gets bound up in an immutable reality, a progression toward death (noumena). We can’t altogether avoid the noumenal reality of things, but we can and do construct a phenomenal reality through perception. Blake suggests that this process can be conscious—innocence can be recalled and applied to temper experience—in much the same way Williams calls upon the imagination to temper reality.
Ginsberg’s performance of the collection
While Ginsberg offers a unique interpretation of the Songs through his musical renditions, I find that listening while looking at the original illuminated texts provides the best feel for how Ginsberg extends and complements the content and form aurally.
Starting from the first song, the introduction to Innocence, the poem describes a biblical divine inspiration, wherein a piper meets a messianic child on a cloud who is moved by his song. The child asks the piper to “pipe a song about a Lamb”—note the capitalization here, likely an allusion to the Christian “Lamb of God” and reflexive to the child who requests it. From there, the child asks the piper to sing, and then finally to write. The order here should not be overlooked. This subordination would be echoed by poets from Ezra Pound (“music begins to atrophy when it departs too far from the dance…poetry begins to atrophy when it gets too far from music”) through Olson (written poetry as derivative of kinesis and human breath) through Vachel Lindsay (who saw written poems as librettos to sung/performed poems). So the progressions goes: melody to song to text, the latter being necessary for preservation, though inferior to the former options. This framing works well for Ginsberg’s performance, where he becomes the inspired, revitalizing the textual representations of the Songs into their intended sung forms. As discussed in the PoemTalk on this work, he becomes the bard who composes and sings these songs to us, through a divine inspiration.
In addition, the musical choices made throughout Ginsberg’s interpretation of Blake intertwine with the content and form. Starting from the introduction to Innocence, we hear the choice to include a flute, which seems meant to evoke the piper’s pipe. The flute exists throughout the Songs of Innocence, and seems to become an aural symbol of innocence. Its presence in poems where Experience impinges upon Innocence, such as in “The ChimneySweep,” begin to create an aural disjuncture parallel to that created between the darkening theme of child labor against the images of children embracing and perhaps celebrating their liberation by the angel. The flute all but disappears as we progress into Experience (save for “To Tirzah.”)
Most interesting to me in terms of musical arrangement is the lack of drums in Innocence, and their appearance on certain tracks in Experience. To me, this is a crucial detail, as drums mark regular time and evoke the metronome, an anathemized symbol in the modernist aesthetic—“compose in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in the sequence of the metronome,” said Pound—for its association with mechanized poetic forms. The introduction of drums in “The Garden of Love” and culminating in “The Grey Monk,” (though this work is not part of Blake's Songs of Experience) with drum legend Elvin Jones playing on the latter, to me connotes a conscious aesthetic choice to chart a course toward the Romantic aesthetic of poetry, as innocence becomes background to experience. To counterbalance the Romantic ideology, we have Ginsberg’s warbling, whimsical, out-of-key vocals continuing to evoke Innocence, now impinging upon Experience, through their association with childlike revelry. Herein do we get an aural, non-Hegelian dialectic taking shape.
Finally and most importantly, I would note the increased degree of production and polish we can perceive when we arrive at the final song in Ginsberg's Songs of Experience, “The Grey Monk.” The fact that this track is appended to the album is an interesting aesthetic decision itself, as "The Grey Monk" is not part of Blake's Songs of Experience. Ginsberg's decision to include it as a conclusion seems to signify where he thinks the Songs' logical end-point lies should innocence be depleted: violence and renewed tyranny. Only an "intellectual thing" like a tear, which also has religious connotations of contrition, forgiveness, and thus return to innocence, can restore balance.
The music that started out sounding like a ragtag group of folk musicians in the introduction to Innocence now takes on a much more professional and produced feel, even moving toward including professional musicians like Elvin Jones on the track. This move toward a manicured production is directly in parallel with the Romantic aesthetic of attempting to reach a kind of purity through form. At the same time as the we reach the (overwrought?) zenith of this formal trend, we reach the nadir of the darkening of the content. So the Romantic aesthetic seems to chart a linear course with the growing hegemony of Experience. At the same time, Ginsberg’s out-of-key vocals conjure the modernist aesthetic—the kind of beauty-in-the-broken aesthetic captured so well by William Carlos Williams, a primary inspiration of Ginsberg’s. So here we have the Blakean concept of Innocence merging with the modernist aesthetic of Ginsberg's time, present and acting as a counterbalance to the Romantic Experience that has come to the fore.
And so I propose that, not only do we get a dialectical balance between innocence and experience in Ginsberg’s rendition of Blake, but so too an interplay between Romanticism and Modernism. And all of this is made present by the aural facets and production choices made in the creation of the album. In this way, Ginsberg helps us to perceive both the complexity of Blake’s work and Blake’s position as a proto-modernist.
Thursday, January 16, 2014
|Picture by Brenderous, used under Creative Commons license|
In the course of the research, I suggested that Melodyne, an audio tool that is capable of transcribing audio files to musical notation, could be used to consider the "musicality" of a poet's performance of a work. In particular, I suggested that it offers a unique visualization of pitch dynamics and tempo accelerations and decelerations. As an example, I exported William Carlos Williams reading his famous poem "To Elsie" to a musical score and compared the musical visualization of a segment with the poem's form and content. As I was learning to do this, I also experimented with exporting Williams' voice to MIDI files, which I then read back into MIDI digital instruments and rendered the literal musicality (a term so often used to speak metaphorically of the mellifluence of a poem) of the performance.
I originally did this with a lesser-known Williams poem called "The Wind Increases," read in 1942 for the National Council of Teachers of English's Contemporary Poets Series. I chose it because I found it to be sonically beautiful (in addition to being inspiringly Whitmanian). Here is the recording, taken from PennSound and with some hiss removed to aid in the conversion. Listen to the sonic properties--consider how Williams' performance kind of crescendos in tempo, intensity, and pitch. It's a great example of a poem's aural properties being particularly expressive of its content, I think.
My first step was to convert the poem to MIDI, a format that can be read by digital musical instruments. Melodyne offers three ways to export MIDI: 1) percussive, 2) melodic, and 3) polyphonous. A percussive export offers a single note or tone in the cadence of the source. So for example, when used with speech, it should resemble the prosodic properties of the speech. A melodic export offers the pitch and tonality of the source, too. So it can output multiple notes and resemble the pitch AND prosody of the source. A polyphonous export is like a melodic export, except that it's capable of representing chords, multiple notes hit at the same time.
So let's see what happened when I created a melodic export of Williams' voice from his reading "The Wind Increases" and passed it through an electric guitar MIDI instrument:
As you can see, we are presented with a literal interpretation of the musicality of the poem, give or take (I can't confirm that Melodyne's transcription is error free). Pretty cool, I thought!
Or how about the polyphonous export passed through a drum kit MIDI instrument:
(I also created a bass track using a percussive export, but that's not very interesting on its own.)
All of this brings us to the main event of our show this evening, to the headlining act: The William Carlos Williams Band. Here you have WCW on vocals (reading his poem), guitar, bass, and drums, all at the same time. All of the tracks are different renderings of his voice reading the poem, overlaid:
There you have it. Now you know what happens when you turn someone who knows just enough to be dangerous loose in a poetry archive with sophisticated audio software and too much time!
I'm still considering how, if at all, Melodyne can support phonotextual analysis, but I thought you might enjoy these byproducts of my research.
Thursday, January 9, 2014
|Photo by StudioTempura, used under CreativeCommons|
I’ve since come to have a standing time, Sunday evenings, to listen to a local soccer show on AM radio with my wife (we’re both big soccer fans). It’s become one of my favorite events of the week. We sit together and listen to the hosts discuss various topics, and we give each other skeptical looks when we disagree with something or nod vehemently when we agree. Why did we just start doing this now? And, more importantly, are there other formerly social—and I use that in the purest sense of the word, not as in “social media”—technologies that have become privatized and could be resocialized?
I thought it might be useful to think through some areas where the acquisition of private technologies have had a social cost. I’m aware that this post could end up being circulated with the hashtag #oldGuyThingsToSay, but I’m willing to take that risk to clarify my thoughts on the matter. While I do no suggest that we revert to some idyllic period where we throw our laptops against the wall in a frenzied act of liberation, I do invite you to ponder the topic.
1. Video Games – I grew up during the death throes of the American arcade. Arcades were still around (and I loved visiting them), but they had started to be supplanted by the home gaming console. It’s true that, during this time in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, the hardware in the arcades outpaced home game consoles, but the home games were pretty damn good, and more importantly, convenient. But as people flocked to the more convenient option, something social was lost. Sure, you could have a friend or two over and play, but that’s not the same as a public space (what sociologists sometimes call a “public,” used as a noun) where people could meet others and socialize in groups. I realize that there is a kind of virtual socializing that comes with massively multiplayer games, but I think that’s something different. I think, like facebook, it fosters numerous weak ties and few strong ones.
2. Video Rentals – Yes, functionally speaking, there is no comparison between the video store days of
yore and the experience
of having access to the wealth of material provided by Netflix and Amazon VoD.
But hear me out on this one. Think about going to Blockbuster (or West Coast
Video) with your friends or family to pick out a tape. The trip to the store
and the physical browsing was, I would argue, more of the overall experience
than watching the film itself. It’s not social in the same way that arcades
were, but it was still a public of sorts. You could run into friends and their
families there, etc. The ubiquitous access to movies anywhere with an internet
connect is a vastly superior functional experience, but it’s hard to argue that
nothing was lost in the privitization of the home movie watching process.
|Photo by Daniel Spils|
Used under CreativeCommons
3. Computer Labs – Being the son of a faculty member and working at a university since I graduated from one, I’ve been at universities my whole life. When I was going to school, I worked in and spent much of my time in the computer labs (yes, I’m a geek). The reason was that all of my friends were there. We would work on assignments there and play games (sometimes more games than assignments). It was one of the greatest publics I’ve experienced to this day. People would come and go, and we would make new friends and spend hours with current friends. We would have food delivered (we didn’t see that sign that said “No food or drink in the labs!!!!”), and it was a kind of home to us. As a result, you can imagine how I feel about the current question that comes up constantly at universities: “Can we get rid of labs? Most students have their own computers.” Functionally speaking, yes. We could probably almost get rid of labs (not quite). But socially speaking, I think it’s a big mistake. It will be yet another public subsumed into the privitization of technology. I understand that there is no lack of socializing in college, even without the labs, but for some people the lab is an important hybrid space between work and play. It will be sad to see it go the way of the arcade. See here for more info.
|Photo by John Kannenberg, used under CreativeCommons|
My friends who meet up to listen the radio got this so very right. And it’s not the fact that they use an actual radio; they could just as easily stream the show online. The point is that they listen together, in person. I’ve taken their good example as a challenge to consider the way I use technology for entertainment and for consuming cultural material. While I probably won’t be picking up some Sour Patch Kids to go along with my VHS rental anytime soon, I’ll keep an eye out for ways I can restore the social aspect of life where it has been lost.