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A Poetics of Listening

I have been reading about Lavinia Greenlaw’s Audio Obscura, an installation in Manchester’s Picadilly Station that invited participant listeners to overhear the voices of people passing through the train station and, I think, to begin to reassemble that human noise into a vestigial poetry. The work is currently “on tour” in London’s St. Pancras Station as well. These works are site-specific, of course, and I can have no direct experience of them myself, but the concept is resonant, for me. Listeners wear earphones as they circulate in the councourses of the stations, which seems to me to create, with a very tactile apparatus, a blur of public and private audition. The enclosed audio world of the iPod/earbuds wearer opens itself up, as what is heard — what they’re eavesdropping on — is the audio mix of the passing voices around them. The earphones become something like prosthetic membranes. Greenlaw herself (in a column about the work published about a month ago in The Guardian) associates this permeability with what she calls “unsettlement,” and in reworking some of the recorded overheard material into script or text or poem, she re-positions herself, as a poet, more closely in the role of orchestrator or listener rather than ego-centric speaker: “By listening instead of speaking, and orchestrating instead of editing, by doing everything I always do but differently, I prolonged the unsettlement in myself. I thought it was taking me to the edge of what I do as a writer but I can see now that it has taken me to the heart of it.”

This concern with the poetic work of listening has been a key part of her writing for a long time now. I have taught The Importance of Music to Girls several times, and one of its significant aspects is the refashioning of self in listening, in the byplay of fabrication and physiology. One of my favourite of her poems in “Millefiori,” in which she addresses an audiovisual-tactile mix by encountering a moment of resonance in glass, a glass eye. In a poem from The Casual Perfect, just published, she writes something like: “We have no choice. It is in our particulars and variables to write noise.” (I have this only via an audio version, in an interview; I still need to buy the book.) Making noise into poems doesn’t mean righting it, editing it out; it means turning an ear actively toward the in-betweens where audio reaches toward form, where it emerges into audition.

Command Line Prompt

In a brief essay in the latest (October 2011) issue of Poetry, Boing Boing’s Xeni Jardin writes that “Poetry is, you might say, the command-line prompt of the human operating system, a stream of characters that calls forth action, that elicits response.” Nice. But she also makes a sharp, blunt distinction: “I am not a poet. I am a blogger.”

Still, I like the idea of a poetics of blogging. Its particular species of flow. That stream.

Fronts

I heard Wayde Compton at the Vancouver Public Library on September 20, 2011, giving an inaugural reading as the VPL’s seventh writer-in-residence. Rather than poetry, he read from a manuscript version of a short story he’d been working on, part of what he said was an emerging collection of fiction that was likely to see publication in the coming year. (He would read another story from this set at The Word on the Street that coming Sunday, as part of Event magazine’s event there.) My notes are faulty — I was trying to listen rather than copy things down — but I think the piece was called “The Front,” and consistent of what he called an annotated bibliography for a fictional — meta-fictional? meta-non-fictional? — art-movement known as “rentalism,” which he imagined had emerged around Vancouver in the past decade or so, cued by a passage from an obscure black British Columbian writer (“Nothing’s for sale, but you’re free to browse . . .”), which decribed storefront arrangements of goods and objects as art installations. Wayde C. said in response to questions afterward that he is interested in hoaxes and false histories, and the intersections between fiction and history, but his narrator (as I heard it) in some ways put things more succinctly: “When I read this now I don’t know if I believe it anymore.” This wasn’t, for me, an articulation of some post-modern knowingness, but instead a kind of celebration of creative uncertainties, how voices inhere, often unacknowledged but still making themselves nearly heard, in the cracks and fissures of the visible and the audible, as small but signficant “hacks” of the apparant surfaces and walls of sound that surround us. This story seemed to me to be a significant development on something like what Linda Hutcheon called “historiographic metafiction,” working to restore something of the experiential textures of hand, eye and ear, of sensory apparatus — which Compton seems to find displaced metonymically into the material contacts of stylus and tapehead and dial — to its often disembodied archeologies.

Lip Shake

Lip Shake” is a brief piece composed for and during a master class with Dave Douglas at U. B. C., on 22 September 2011. Dave Douglas was in town working on a commission for the Turning Point Ensemble. The master class was a hands-on discussion of composition, during which Dave had everyone present — mostly music students and academics — write a composition for the available instruments, a trumpet and a trombone, with trap percussion, in about 9 minutes. I tried some notated music, but quickly realized I had no ear for sight-reading or sight-writing at all, so I wrote some words on the supplied manuscript paper instead. The poem, which I think of as a score for saying words through a solo trumpet, was revised from this draft later. (A reproduction of this draft can be seen in this post, below; the finished poem-score can be found by clicking on the title link above. You can see if you squint hard at the image how it was originally intended as a duo for two horns, but I don’t think the counterpoint worked, and I also like the idea of the solitary voice as horn and as sort of cracked a little, as inherently not quite itself.) Needless to say, I found I was a bit shy about offering it up to be played at the session. Despite the encouragement to experiment, there seemed to be a real expectation both from Dave Douglas and from the attendees for conventional notation and performance styles; by conventional, I mean generic, I think. We were certainly encouraged to think a little bit outside of our cognitive boxes. What I saying isn’t a complaint about the class. I was an interloper there, and really didn’t want to stand out in any way, or be thought of as intruding. I find I can learn a lot about word music, melopoeia, by paying attention to musicians and composers, particularly around texture and rhythm. And particularly musicians and musical thinkers of this very high calibre. I’m really grateful to have been able to attend the class, and to hear a little bit about how those present thought about sound, both theoretically but — really more pertinently — practically. The idea, for instance, of rhythmic duration, of a beat having extension rather than being some kind of singularity, I find fascinating.

The class was great, very useful. Dave didn’t do a lot of lecturing, but encouraged feedback — not just from him but from everyone there — on the material that had been instantaneously composed and played. He even produced his own on-the-spot composition, for which he invited feedback, as if he too were a nearly-equal particpant in the various compositional processes unfolding around him. The point was, he said, to try to really write what you’re hearing in your head. In music, as he put it, “you can’t outrun who you are.” He quoted something he’s heard from Anthony Wilson: that composing is “the process of transcribing a melody that already exists in your mind.”

For me, in some ways, treating the poem as score means both something linked to this idea of noetic transcription — getting your mind onto the paper — and something opposed to it: opening the page up to the unruly aspects of imaginary performance, leaving space amid and even within the phonemes and dipthongs for alternatives to sound. Potentiality as typographic space, as leading.

This score is called “lip shake” because Dave Douglas mentioned different kinds of trumpet sounds during the class, and that one stood out, and because making the phonemes sound down the brass tubing is going to involve particular kinds of manipulating of your lips, tongue, teeth, windpipe, embouchure, against the mouthpiece. If, that is, you decide to perform it that way.

Audio

Recording audio text can be difficult. Everyone has experienced, I think, a kind of shameful distance from their own voice in playback. Hearing yourself without the contiguities of resonant skull bone – ear sockets, jaw, nasal cavities, sinuses – makes your voice seem higher, more insubstantial. Not exactly yours, not you. At such times, you are not what you hear yourself to be. And I think the feeling, the affect, produced in playback, in the looped recurrences of any recording, is a form of shame. Shame inheres in the membranous displacement between articulate and receptive selves, in what Jean-Luc Nancy seems to me to call “resonance.” Sounding oneself across the temporal gapping in the present tense – the extended moment of any given now, a materialized Jetztzeit, an extemporaneity – creates for me not bliss but a discomfiting. Listening carefully, listening well tends not so much to enlighten as to embrace the embarrassing bathos, the awkwardness, that circulates through the heart of the verbal.