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

The William Carlos Williams Band: The Musicality of "The Wind Increases"

Picture by Brenderous, used under Creative Commons license
As I was conducting research for my seminar paper last term, a paper that used a William Carlos Williams poem to work toward a computational, phonotextual theory on performative commonality, I generated some byproducts that are best described as...curiosities.

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

Resocializing technology: the loss of public spaces to private technology

Photo by StudioTempura, used under CreativeCommons
I was speaking with a friend recently, and he mentioned in passing that he has a standing gathering with other friends to listen to a monthly radio show together. I’m not sure why this social gathering around radio resonated with me so much, but I have been thinking about it since. I think it’s because I conceived of traditional AM/FM radio as a solitary activity, something you listen to in the car while traveling, perhaps. The idea of recontextualizing it as a social activity was fantastic to me.

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
Photo by Daniel Spils
Used under CreativeCommons
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.

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
So what’s the point? Is this a verbose old-guy lament for the halcyon days of the past? Maybe a little. But more than that it’s a suggestion. A suggestion to consider how you can resocialize the aspects of your life that have been privatized by the ubiquity of technology and internet connections.

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. 

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

A Comment on PoemTalk #73, Steve Benson's "Did the Lights Just Go Out?"

As I listened to the newest episode of the fantastic PoemTalk podcast, I found myself wishing, as I sometimes do, that I could contribute a comment to the group's reading of the poem. Then I thought, "Wait--I have a blog! That means that I can contribute a prolix, meandering comment without getting the stage hook, as I would if I were there!" And so begins my post.

In this episode of PoemTalk, the discussion centers around an improvised performance poem comprised of a series of questions, a poem by Steve Benson recorded at the Bowery Poetry Club, available at PennSound. The poem was later transcribed as "Did the Lights Just Go Out?" Benson performs a similar (similar in that it is also comprised of serial questions) improvisation three days later at the Kelly Writers House, also available at PennSound.

While the content and formal aspects of the poem are clever and interesting, the expressive value of sonic properties of the performance were to me, the most striking. Have a listen to this excerpt from the BPC recording and this one from the Kelly Writers House. What strikes you first? For me it's the percussive, sometimes-staccato cadence of Benson's reading, mixed with the slight nasal timbre of the way he chooses to read it. The minute pauses interjected into natural language serve as a disruption of what Tsur would call the "speech mode" and cause a shift into the poetic mode. That's because words run together when we speak them. Language does not sound the way it looks, in that most textual representations of language consist of words delimited by spaces, whereas spoken language crams together streams of words and lets the brain sort 'em out, as it were.

So what does Benson's disruption of the continuity of expected speech express? My first thought was that it approaches the robotic, and more specifically, the way a computer speaks when it converts text to speech. To me, this is brilliant. Why? Enter the content and form. The questions from Benson's series of queries range from the quotidian ("can you sew it on?") through the thought-provoking ("what makes a reason good?") through the soul-piercingly perceptive, paradoxically declaring through its interrogatives:

Is there a reason to go about things
the way that you're doing it,
or is it sort of automatic, intuitive?
Is it spontaneous?
Are you expressing yourself?
Are your senses experiencing the expression of yourself,
or does it only extend outward from yourself,
and where do you locate yourself when you express yourself?

before returning to the mundane: "have you found your hat?"

The PoemTalkers have it just right when they note that the questions are almost a mimesis of a child asking his or her parents for more information about the world. But I think that that the knowledge-thirsty questions aimed at explaining experiential phenomena paired with the disrupted, robotic sonic properties of the reading evoke a kind of artificial intelligence asking the listener to teach it. The framing that most PennSound listeners would have for the recording, that of listening to it on their computers, gives extra weight to this feeling, and changes the aesthetic of the work from what I would imagine hearing it live would be, and certainly from its textual representation.  

The brilliance of Benson's work, to me, comes from this aesthetic paired with the dramatic ordering of his queries. I pictured my computer or an automaton  trying to learn from me by asking me basic questions, crescendoing, as it learned, to queries that demonstrated that it had a better grasp of humanity than I, a human, did. 

Just for fun, I've created a recording of my computer reading the above block quote from Benson's poem through text to speech:

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

New Tab Redirect

It's been a while since I've written any tech tips here (yes, yes--indeed a while since I've written anything here), so I thought I would mention a new Chrome extension that's improved my usage experience.

The problem: Whenever you open a new tab in Chrome, the tab defaults to Chrome's "New Tab Page," a landing page with a faux[1] Google search box and some tiles that go to frequently accessed websites. I do not want the New Tab Page to open every time I open a new tab; I'd like to be able to set my new tab page to anything I want. Alas, Chrome's built-in settings do not allow for this. You can set your startup page and your home page, but not your new tab page.

The solution: There is a Chrome extension called New Tab Redirect that solves the problem. Just install it, and you have the ability to set your new tab page to anything of your choosing, including locally hosted HTML pages. Super easy and, I think, a much better user experience.

[1]I use "faux" as a modifier here because the search box does not do anything, per se. It moves your cursor to the URL bar ("omni bar" in Google parlance), which allows you to execute search queries directly from it. I don't like this model, personally, because I disable auto-complete for searches in the URL bar for privacy reasons (I don't want all keystrokes in the URL bar sent to Google, regardless of whether I am searching). That said, when I do intent to search, I want auto-complete. So I always search from So, in my particular case, I actually ended up using New Tab Redirect to set my new tab page to Seems like this should be a built-in option in Google Chrome.