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Possibility Abstracts: Taylor Ho Bynum, Nathaniel Mackey and Discrepancy (Audio)

Here is an audio capture of “Possibility Abstracts: Taylor Ho Bynum, Nathaniel Mackeyand Discrepancy,” a paper I delivered in Prague, in the Czech Republic, on 18 July 2014 as part of the vs. Interpretation symposium, sponsored by the Agosto Foundation. The text riffs on the epistolary form of Nathaniel Mackey’s serial novel, From a Broken Bottle Traces of Perfume Still Emanate, particularly the fourth volume, Bass Cathedral, on which Taylor Ho Bynum draws for his modular composition Navigation, versions of which he recorded with his sextet for release on Firehouse 12 records late last year. (See firehouse12records.com/album/navigat…12-recordings.) For me, this music is a contemporary masterpiece, negotiating the liminal zone – the discrepancies – between the improvised and the composed, and doing so in such as way as to creatively undo that rather careless binary. There is an excellent review of Navigation by Stuart Broomer in Point of Departure.

Alias Fonds 1,2 (Justin Bieber Has Collapsed!)

Recent news items about Justin Bieber’s arrest in Miami (where he was charged in January with DUI and with drag racing) and about his subsequent mugshot, as well as earlier reports – to which I had access, like millions of others, via Twitter – of him vomiting milk during a performance and of him collapsing on stage at a concert in London, seem to offer opportunities to interrogate the collision of the body and image, of self and celebrity, and of lyric and media.  And to get a little wordy. I have ended up producing two texts, which I’m calling “Alias Fonds.” The headline for the report on Justin Bieber collapsing in London, when it appeared on a Twitter feed, read like a phase-shifted snippet from a Frank O’Hara poem, which set the composition of the first part in motion. I also overheard a conversation in a coffee shop at the time between two people I took for graduate students in actuarial science. The second part draws on the lyrics of a typical Justin Bieber song, mashed up with Dylan Thomas, W. H. Auden, some high school chemistry, and media reports on the arrest. There’s a lot of bent replication. The texts of the poems can be read here.
         Justin Bieber started out with homemade videos on YouTube. I’m no Bieber, of course, but the homemade audio is meant to gesture at these origins. There is only natural reverb, for instance, on the voice: no effects. I play the instruments – a baritone ukulele and a student-model Yamaha trumpet – and I programmed and sequenced the drum machine (a DM-1 cloned on an iPad) partly to reflect the 5-on-4 metre of the first section. (The second section shifts the rhythm a little, but it’s still there, ghostly-like.) I intend the trumpet loops to be an homage to Bill Dixon. The two poems were written in the space of about eight months. The recordings happened from October 2013 to March 2014. So there you go.

Wanted, Veronica Mars

The first thing we hear in the Veronica Mars movie is a snippet of audio from a telephone message, a young woman’s voice asking for her help. The same plea, the same phrasing – “Veronica, I need your help” – will arrive in Veronica Mars’s cellphone inbox, this time from her former boyfriend and antagonist Logan Echolls, a few minutes into the film, setting the main narrative in motion, a nouveau noir-ish tale about her return to Neptune California to investigate the murder of a pop star with whom she attended high school, and who was part of the privileged crowd of so-called 09ers around whom the storylines of the original three-season television series largely revolved. The movie revisits and remakes the series, of course, but this revision involves much more than nostalgically transplanting an extended new episode of the series onto a big screen. In many ways, the contrast between the cinematic and television screens is no longer an issue of screen size or aspect ratio, which are increasingly and asymptotically close, but rather a question of how that image-system is managed and delivered; Veronica Mars, you could argue, self-consciously puts this screen-to-screen medium-shift at issue, investigating how media wrangle and shape not only audience and fandom – our committed and even addictive reception of television drama – but also our shared perceptual apparatuses: how, as a public, we train ourselves to watch (both as onlookers and as surveillance) and how these communal practices of looking and of listening remediate our worlds. As viewers, I’m saying, we implicitly need Veronica Mars, or television like it, to help us.
         The opening scenes of the movie take place in a fictional office space and studio for This American Life, for whom Veronica’s current love-interest Piz – carried over from the third season of the TV show – works as an on-air personality. (We first glimpse him speaking into a microphone.) Now, I’m working from sketchy notes and memory, having only seen the movie once, last night, but as I remember it, Veronica gets the call from Logan as she and Piz exit the building where the studio and offices are housed, and a street musician with an acoustic guitar is playing a version of the opening lines of the series theme-song, The Dandy Warhols’s “We Used to be Friends”: “A long time ago, we used to be friends, / But I haven’t thought of you lately at all.” There are layers of sound, I’m suggesting, particularly of voices, in play at this moment. Here, talk-radio and theme-song offer us a metonymies of the detective-film voiceover (Kristen Bell’s narration defines the teen noir soundscape of the original show) and of soundtrack (an echo ghosted into Veronica’s displaced life, nine years and a continent away from Neptune). The movie literalizes on the screen what its lyrics declare. We hear Veronica’s inner monologue, what she’s “thinking of,” lately:  a snappy fusion of Philip Marlowe and Nancy Drew, maybe, but more than that a textual identification of Veronica’s subject-position, her point-of-view, with our viewership, inviting spectators to become co-investigators, and temporary friends. But we also hear in that contrapuntal layering of voices a fraught nostalgia, a “need” that Veronica will soon feel, the pull of her high school life (she has, we also discover in the scenes at This American Life, been refusing Wallace Fennel’s text-message invitations to come to their ten-year Neptune High reunion), but also that informs a return to the pleasures of television drama, as we are reunited as viewers with the show itself – although it’s been seven years, not nine, but who’s counting. My point is, I think, that this return, this nostos, this homecoming, is both shaped and managed by the textual and aural mediations of the voice, layers that we hear and (in word-bubbles, on screens, on paper evidence, and in the opening montage) also see.
         Veronica frequently frames her return as addiction. Logan, for instance, is the bad boy rich kid lover in Neptune she can’t resist, while Piz – in New York, where Veronica’s potential career as a lawyer is about to bloom – stands for everything a good guy ought to be. It’s important to recognize, though, that despite her attachments to boyfriends and to her father, and despite her character’s obvious uptake and re-purposing, on screen, of aspects of both the ingénue and the femme fatale, Veronica consistently refused in the TV series and continues to refuse throughout the movie to be contained or determined by masculine desire. The help that Logan or that anyone needsfrom her is not so much erotic fulfillment as it is a kind of necessary deconstruction, a subversion from within, of the stultifying constraints of a patriarchal social system choking on its own authoritarian narcissism. The new corrupt Sherriff Lamb in the movie, for instance, skeevily played by Jerry O’Connell, is taken down by Veronica’s manipulation of his vanity, his own perverse need to be in the media, as seen on TV. As with the original series, the movie concerns itself with the murder of a girl, this time a pop starlet with the stage name of Bonnie DeVille – the “good demon”? – a victim whose Catholic guilt (her recent  album is called Confession) seems to be getting the better of her celebrity. Bonnie’s manufactured and sanitized image begins to crack, and to expose its fraudulence and underlying depravity, a disclosure that’s abetted by Veronica’s visual acuity, as she and we begin carefully perusing video, photographic and textual clues. The crime behind the crime, involving another murdered girl, also hinges on a crucial photograph, which the murderer possesses, and uses to blackmail those complicit in the girls’ deaths. (I’m pulling my descriptive punches here, a little; I don’t want to spoil the plot, for those who haven’t seen the movie.) The help that Veronica offers her friends and offers us, at her own peril, is a corrective, a remediation of how we look at images and what we see. It’s about solving a mystery, of course, but she also proactively fixes what amounts to an uninterrogated and even deadly male gaze by actively directing us to re-think, lately, what we have missed.
         In his introduction to a 2006 “unauthorized” collection of essays on Veronica Mars, creator Rob Thomas – who writes and directs the movie – claims that the show “saved [his] career and, less importantly, [his] soul,” and that it does so by allow him to participate in the remediation of the medium of television itself:
I taught high school during my mid-twenties in Austin, Texas. I have clear memories of sitting in my living room watching TV and wondering how clearly god-awful programming made it on the air.
He needed and TV needed, he suggests, Veronica Mars’s help as much as the rest of us. Framed as cultural pedagogy, a late return to the unfulfilled social promises of high school. Veronica Mars, in 2006 when he writes, is imperiled as a program and will very soon be cancelled, but Thomas is keen to articulate his gratitude for the transformative work that Veronica Mars continued to undertake, a transformation that hinged on an emerged viewership, a fandom, tied to visual and narrative acuity, to paying close attention:
We’re in the middle of our third season, so we’ve defied the odds, and I can say with absolute certainty, there’s nothing about Veronica Mars that I take for granted. Sure, we don’t do well in the ratings, but our fans are fervent, and they pay attention to detail.
Veronica Mars, for him, is about this renovated – and I would say critically-focused – attentiveness, about thinking of you, lately and carefully. The movie was made possible by a Kickstarter campaign that raised in short-order over five million dollars in crowd-sourced funding from donations by more than 91000 fans (donations for which they received early access to digital versions of the completed film). The movie is, in many ways, a love-letter to those fans, but I think it might be better understood as something like a response to the need for help, and for friendship, that the opening telephone message articulates. (Fandom, a potentially psychotic fandom, might also be the motive for the murder Veronica investigates.)
         At one point, Veronica has flowers delivered to Gia, one of her not-so-friendly friends (and whose name, coincidentally, resonates at least for me with the final syllables of nostalgia), and of course the bouquet contains a bug. Veronica tells Logan, over the cellphone, that she has had to use some “old school” tech she has swiped from her father, an FM transmitter that narrowcasts to what she thinks is an unused frequency on the public dial. Meanwhile, she sets up her camera – the one with the huge telephoto lens, an iconic holdover from the TV series, reproduced on the movie poster – across from Gia’s apartment, and, through a set of cinematic echoes of Rear Window  (including the lens itself) – we listen to and watch Gia through a grid of windows. Again, the film layers media and voices, reminding us – in the impurity of the audio or the grid-work of the window panes – of the thickness, of the materiality of mediation. We see the graphic surfaces and hear the interferences, the apparatuses that get in our way as much as they enable our access – to information, to character, and even to Neptune’s imaginary spaces. The movie, in my view, feels like television, and I’m not entirely sure why, but part of that sense has to do with its attention not only to smallness, to luminous particulars, but also with its audiovisual self-awareness. Tele-vision – as “distant” seeing – hinges as a medium not only on the feint of intimacy, a scopophilia inherent in surveillance and in the sharp visual analysis on which Veronica’s “investigations” depend, but also on a kind of telephoto thickening, a quality of light. The burnished visual textures that I have come to associate with the fictional Neptune – the red light, for instance, suffused by stained glass throughout Keith Mars’s office – become symptomatic in the film of an almost tactile proximity, a mildly hellish twilight that betokens the lateness, the late return, in which the show is enmeshed. It also draws us in, inviting to reconsider and to investigate our own desires to watch, to look, to see.

David McGimpsey and Daniel Zomparelli at Play Chthonics (Audio)

I am keen to introduce the poets: photo by Ryan Fitzpatrick
Daniel Zomparelli and David McGimpsey read at Green College yesterday, as the third pairing in this year’s series of Play Chthonics: New Canadian Readings at the University of British Columbia. Here is an audio capture of the reading, which includes their responses to questions after the reading. Daniel read new work from his iPad, including a poem about Kimmy Gibbler that he had written that day, dedicated, he said, to David McGimpsey. McGimpsey read from his recent collections: Li’l Bastard (2012), which he describes as a sequence of “chubby sonnets,“ and Sitcom (2007), some of which he noted involved re-casting text from Timon of Athens. Both poets engaged in their own versions of what I think is a kind of pop-culture code-switching, coaxing and inverting lyric from pulverized mass media language and image flows. Zomparelli read a pair of poetic synopses of gay porn films. His poems and McGimpsey’s play with the ways in which, as viewers, we’re alienated from experience by screen or headset and, as participants, we’re thoroughly immersed in and seduced by the variegated and empty textures of spectacle, of hubbub: “That Taylor Swift song is not about you,” McGimpsey writes in sonnet 11, “David McGimpsey likes – then unlikes – this.” The reflexive play, the give and take of mass culture that interpellates us (making us feel as if a song were about you, were calling you) even as it refuses us any shared humanity, informs McGimpsey’s poetics, and lends them something of a pathos of misrecognition: “I tried / to recall lyrics to a pop song once loved.” An “I” – like a dropped syllable – feels as if it’s missing from that last line, which is already metrically slightly ungainly, one syllable over its normal count: a spectre of subjectivity, of a self that wants to call itself into existence amid the tangle and meshes of discourse swirling from phones and pads and pods; but trying is not recalling, and recalling is not reanimating. Words, for both of these poets, seem to act as placeholders, markers of wanting, of what – remaindered and unrealized – might still despite everything get to be called human love.

Sincere thanks to Green College for their ongoing and generous support of this reading series, and to the Improvisation, Community and Social Practice research initiative for helping to sustain the series this year. Copyright for this work remains with the artists.

Audio: Carnets de Routes Improvisées

Here is an audio capture of a paper I delivered on Thursday, September 5, 2013 at the Colloquium of the Guelph Jazz Festival, which took place at the MacDonald Stewart Art Centre at the University of Guelph. It’s called “Carnets de Routes Improvisées: Transcultural Encounters in the work of Guy Le Querrec and the Romano-Sclavis-Texier Trio,” and, like the title says, it connects a number of recorded improvisations by a European trio around the African photography of Magnum photographer Guy Le Querrec to certain concepts of decolonization and latter-day ethnography. I try to suggest, in a limited utopian vein, how viable transcultural encounters might be realized through improvisation – not only musical, but visual as well. I also refer to the compelling historical work of Julie Livingston around biomedical practices in southern Africa, particularly her book Improvising medicine: An African Oncology Ward in an Emerging Cancer Epidemic (2012). This paper formed part of a two-person panel on media and transculturalism; the other presenter was Alan Stanbridge of the University of Toronto. The moderator for the session, whom you can hear offering an introduction at the beginning of this recording, was Nicholas Loess.
Here is the abstract for the paper:
Sponsored by French cultural institutions, the improvising trio of clarinetist Louis Sclavis, bassist Henri Texier and drummer Aldo Romano formed in early 1990 to undertake a tour of central Africa, including performances in Chad, Gabon, Congo, Cameroon and Guinea. Other tours would follow in 1993 and 1997. Despite both appearance and funding support, this group wasn’t engaged in officially-sanctioned cultural promotion, but had been conceived as an artistic and cultural project by Magnum photographer Guy Le Querrec, who appears to have wanted to chronicle in images the encounters of European jazz musicians with mostly rural African audiences. Le Querrec had already taken numerous photographic trips to North Africa—in 1969-71, 1978 and 1984, for example—trips that had produced significant images in his portfolio concentrating on both the troubling appropriations of ethnographic image-making and the complex challenges and impediments to transcultural understanding. His work with the Romano-Sclavis-Texier trio, now seen in retrospect, constitutes a deliberate post-colonial cultural intervention, a re-engagement by both aesthetic and documentary tactics in parts of the world from which colonial France had withdrawn. Le Querrec curates this particular tour of leading voices in French free jazz—he is listed on the recordings as a fourth member of the trio, not merely as a courtesy but as an active if tacit participant in the performances—for two main reasons. First, Le Querrec is one of the preeminent jazz photographers in Europe, and several of his collections centre on historic images of canonical jazz musicians. A 1997 show in Paris saw musicians (including Texier and Sclavis) improvising to projections of Le Querrec’s work; the show’s title, Jazz comme un Image, suggests how closely Le Querrec links his photography to improvisational musical (and visual) practices, a connection he further clarifies in an artist’s statement for the performance:
Être jazz c’est avant tout une manière de vivre, de se promener sur le fil du hazard pour aller à la rencontre d’un imaginaire qui contient toujours l’improvisation, la curiosité, qui oblige à écouter les autres, à les voir, à être disponible pour mieux les raconter en manifestant sa propre poésie.
This complex sense of likeness, at play in the overlap between rencontrer and raconter, to encounter and to give account, traces itself back in the context of French colonialism and ethnography to the Dakar-Djibouti expedition of 1931-33, and particularly the poetic-documentary writing of Michel Leiris in L’Afrique fantôme and L’Âge d’Homme, the latter of which in particular focuses on the Afrological substrata of jazz. Second, both the trio’s music and Le Querrec’s photography investigate the give-and-take, the tensions between re-appropriation and creative misprision inherent in this jazz-based transcultural model. The music on the three compact discs released by the trio (Carnet de Routes, 1995; Suite Africaine, 1999; African Flashback, 2006; each accompanied by booklets collating Le Querrec’s photographs from their 1990, 1993 and 1997 tours) does not come from their live performances, which seem (apart from the photographs) to have gone undocumented, but consists of recordings in a French studio after the tours were done, improvised reactions to the photographs as well as compositions that emerged from their African experiences. The “poetry” of imaginative encounter that Le Querrec describes is enacted musically (and even visually) in the extemporaneous negotiations of difference, and the creative troubling of Eurocentrisms, that these improvisations offer. Rather than reproduce the exoticism and even nostalgia that shapes late colonial, modernist ethnography, these audio-visual “records” investigate performatively how a transculturalism of shared differences, a contingent community of unlikeness, can be brought extemporaneously into being.

Audio: Nicole Markotić and Louis Cabri at Play Chthonics

Nicole Markotić and Louis Cabri read at Green College at the University of British Columbia last evening, as part of the Play Chthonics: New Canadian Readings series. This is an audio capture of their reading. They each offered new work, as well as material from recent collections: Cabri’s Poetryworld(CUE, 2010) and Markotić’sBent at the Spine (BookThug, 2012). (There’s a reviewof Bent at the Spine from rob mclennan’s blog; a review of Nikki Reimer from an April 2010 edition of The Globe and Mail might give some sense of Markotić’s poetics. Louis Cabri has an essay, “Unanimism and the crowd: Early modern social lyric,” in a 2011 issue of Jacket 2 that suggests some of the ways in which he combines poetics with critical-theoretical work.) They also took questions about their poetics. Thanks to both of them for their excellent, engaging readings. The recording, like the one from September also linked to this blog, is fairly vérité, with some air-vent noise in the background, but the voices come through very clearly. The introduction is by Andrew McEwan. Copyright remains with the authors. Sincere thanks to Green College for hosting this event and for providing generous support for the series, and also to the UBC Department of English.

Audio: Jillian Christmas and Chris Gilpin at Play Chthonics

Jillian Christmas and Chris Gilpin read tonight (Wednesday, 18 September 2013) to a small but captivated audience, as part of the Play Chthonics poetry reading series at Green College, U. B. C. I have included an audio recording of their reading in this blog post, below. They alternated performing their own poems, and interspersed their readings with comments on poetics, and answered questions about spoken-word poetry and poetry slams. This was a warm and engaging reading, and it’s a real privilege to have been able to present their work.
         This is a vérité-style recording, but their voices come through very well. It’s just a little marred, just a little, by a noisy ventilation system, and — just to let all potential listeners know — by an overly enthusiastic cleaning person picking up coffee mugs near the end. Other voices you hear include mine and other audience members (among them Andrew McEwan and Carmen Mathes). Copyright for the recording remains with the artists.

         Thanks to Green College, to the U. B. C. Department of English and Faculty of Arts, and to the Improvisation, Community and Social Practice research initiative for their support.

Robert Bringhurst and Anne Carson Translating Antigone (Audio)

Also on Sound Cloud, I have uploaded some audio of my paper, “Ecologies of Estrangement: Robert Bringhurst and Anne Carson Translating Antigone,” which I delivered at Beyond the Nature of Culture: Rethinking Canadian and Environmental Studies, a conference held at the University of British Columbia from 28-30 September 2012. It’s currently being expanded into a chapter, developing connections and contrasts between Carson and Bringhurst by assessing their work on Paul Celan (and Celan’s fraught relationship with Martin Heidegger’s poetic philosophy), and connecting their ideas on translation to Walter Benjamin’s “The Task of the Translator.” In this conference paper, the focus was narrowed to an investigation of the tensions between concepts of poetic ecology and poetic economy. To set things up, here is the opening paragraph, which also works something like an abstract:
Finding intersections between the aesthetics of Anne Carson and of Robert Bringhurst, if you are at all familiar with their extensive bodies of translations, essays and poetry, might appear counter-intuitive at first. Carson’s bittersweet, media-savvy postmodernity seems obviously at odds with Bringhurst’s latter-day highbrow modernism. Her work weaves its genealogy through Gertrude Stein, while his lineage derives from Ezra Pound. Her interest tends to be drawn by the fraught epistemic terrains of language, his by its ontic capacities. Her default to a bittersweet wryness contrasts rather markedly with his typically mindful  seriousness. Still, a critical collision of their work – around their different translations of the “Wonders are many . . .” chorus from Sophokles’s Antigone (lines 332-375) – might prove educational as we try to think through the complexities of how we, as human speaking subjects, aspire to frame the natural. Both Bringhurst and Carson exploit the divagations within the process of translation to call radically into question the results of human technē, and use this foundational Western text to voice critiques of the limits and the reach of poetic and cultural craft, of what people have done and have failed to do for their world.