As readers, writers, students, teachers, or scholars of poetry, many of us have 'first-encounter' stories — hearing Poet X read for the first time; copying neglected Caedmon LPs in the library basement; borrowing a thrice-dubbed cassette of the Black Box Magazine or New Wilderness Audiographics; exploring the personal collection of a generous friend, poet, or teacher. In the days before the web, one might infer the performativity of David Antin, Jerry Rothenberg, Charles Olson, Anne Waldman, or Amiri Baraka through books like Technicians of the Sacred or Open Poetry or envision the scene of a raucous Beat coffeehouse reading, poet jamming with a jazz quintet — but recordings could be scarce. In place of the pleasurable frustration involved in sounding out a Futurist or Dada poem from its suggestive but underdetermined visual text — the reader seeking to hear a poem in 2015 will search online archives like PennSound or Ubuweb.
There seems to me no better way to begin this discussion than with an epistemological thought experiment (as is the case with most discussions). Consider what you heard in the “epiphone” to this essay, which is hiss from a digitization of recordings of Vachel Lindsay, originally made on aluminum records in 1931. It likely sounded like noise, and it is—to human auditory perception. But what if there is a pattern in this noise that is imperceptible to the human ear but recognizable to so-called machine listening? Consider the sample above from the Lindsay, alongside this sample of leading “noise” from digitizations of Harriet Monroe from the same series, alongside this one from the James Weldon Johnson recordings. I’ve been listening to several hours of audio from this series and have come to think that the noise from each of the recordings sounds similar, in the most impressionistic way possible.
The visualization of the sound of Charles Bernstein’s recording of “1-100” (1969), which I presented in a recent commentary titled “Anti-ordination in the visualization of the poem's sound,” struck artist, poet, maker of books Stephen Vincent as interestingly relevant to “haptic” drawings he has made while listening to various poets reading their work in the Bay Area, and I agree. He has called this activity drawing by sound (rather than of). “I like comparing my ‘physio/digital’ responses to the digital electronic ones,” he has written to me.
Through ARLO (Adaptive Recognition with Layered Optimization), enabled by the HiPSTAS (High Performance Sound Technologies for Access and Scholarship) project headquartered at the Information School of the University of Texas at Austin, I sought to visualize the later passages of Charles Bernstein's chanted/screamed list or counting poem, “1 to 100” (1969). Thanks to Chris Mustazza, Tanya Clement, David Tcheng, Tony Borries, Chris Martin, and others, I am finally learning how to use ARLO to some rudimentary effect. Every single PennSound recording is now available in a test space to which ARLO can be applied by researchers, including myself, associated with the project. We are just beginning. HiPSTAS has received two NEH grants to make all this possible, and PennSound is a founding archival partner.