Christian Hawkey

Ashbery's silences sampled

"It reads a kind of ecopoetics back into the poet’s auditory performance."

In the spring of 2012, Christian Hawkey was invited to participate in a festival celebrating John Ashbery at the New School (called How to Continue: Ashbery Across the Arts). Each participant — poets, dancers, filmmakers — was invited to engage his or her work using a variety of media and disciplines, and Hawkey chose to explore his audio archives, or rather, the various recordings of John Ashbery that Pennsound has compiled over the years, beginning with his 1961 reading for the Living Theater

He became especially interested in listening to the room tone and background noise in all the recordings: the recorded texture of the room, the sound made by the recording device itself, and the non-vocal presence of Ashbery himself (a page turning, lighting a cigarette, sipping from glass of water and swallowing). Working with a friend, the artist Simone Kearney, Hawkey scanned the roughly 45 extant recordings on Pennsound to find, in each one, a clip of “silence” — a brief 3-to-7-second non-vocal moment (longer proved impossible to find) between poems, or between commentary and poems, or between title and poem. They then assembled the clips into one audio file.

It was surprisingly difficult to do this, they found, since most sound engineers remove as much dead sound and background sound as possible, or they snip off the silence at the beginning or end of a reading.

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