Friday, February 28, 2014

"Breath" and Depth: Distinguishing between dramatic pauses and breath pauses in poetry performance

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:


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