Intersecting: Sound and poetry
An interview with angela rawlings and Joshua Liebowitz
Note: My inspiration for this interview emerged from a sense that something is missing from conversations about sound and poetry. Sound is not necessarily music. Joshua Liebowitz and angela rawlings (a.rawlings) are two artists I see as deeply engaged with the materiality of sound, and yet their work is extremely different. Joshua’s work uses technology to build and alter sound-structures, while, in angela’s performance-based work, I hear voice and breath sounding the limits of the body. In bringing angela and Josh together, my hope is that the conversation surrounding sound and poetry will continue its development beyond the scope of music. It’s also my hope that by engaging questions of collaboration, polyvocality, language/meaning, and space through an interdisciplinary lens of sound, poetry, and performance, new possibilities will emerge. In the spirit of our subject, the following interview was conducted over the phone and later transcribed. — Afton Wilky
Afton Wilky: Thank you both for your time and willingness to talk about your work. At first your projects seem quite different, but aspects of them are very much in conversation with one another. I hope that in coming together in this way that we can discuss sound and some of the ways that, as a medium, sound plays a role in your work and practices.
a.rawlings: First of all, I just wanted to thank you, Afton, for suggesting we do this in a spoken format rather than a written one. I will say, I am from Canada, and while I don’t have to speak the way I usually do, I have been living in Iceland for a couple of years and I have a tendency to lose words a bit. I’ll be thinking in another language — but mostly you’ll notice that I will say yes as já and I won’t even think about it (já is Icelandic for yes) or I will say it on an inhale, which is an Icelandic affectation that can be unsettling to a foreign ear since it sounds a bit like an asthma attack — já on the in-breath. So if you hear me say já or já [inhaling] then you know I’m in agreement with something. I’m not just having an anxiety attack.
Joshua Liebowitz: Absolutely, we just got started didn’t we? We’re right there [laughing].
Wilky: My idiosyncrasy would be that I say um way too often. I’m self-conscious about it and try not to … that was where I would have said um. Did you hear it [laughing]?
rawlings: You both might enjoy knowing — maybe, Afton, you can pick up this habit — in Icelandic, there are two interjections that people use in lieu of um. The first one is bara, which means just — like, I just went to the store. You would say: I bara went to the store/I um went to the store. And the other one is hérna, hér, which means here, and then na is related to núna, which means now. So it’s like you’re saying all the time, I am here now going to the here now store. It’s like you’re always situating yourself with total mindfulness practice with this Icelandic um.
Wilky: That makes me think of how I’ve been working very hard to learn Farsi (it’s my husband’s first language). In order to speak it, you have to use different muscles — ones that are far back, like your soft palate, and others that are right at the top of your throat. The way that speaking a different language makes you reconsider your relation to things — like you were saying, angela, about the positioning yourself with here now — but then also the way it can shape your body by making use of sounds which occupy different spaces in your mouth …
rawlings: I love that this is a way of traveling. It’s like you’re traveling by just placing a language within your body and getting used to the pronunciation differences. You get to know your body in a different way.
Wilky: This seems like a good moment to segue into some of the questions I was hoping we could address: angela, I’m thinking of your performance of a book project called Eh film nors tu vwy (a title comprised of the letters which spell the pronouns in English) with vocal and performance artist Maja Jantar, at the Kelly Writers House for North of Invention (available on PennSound). And I just have to say how beautiful it was in the video when you listed the letters of the title — you said them so fast, it was clear that you know by heart all the letters in the English pronouns. The experience of trying to catch them all and realizing that, while I speak English every day and while pronouns are some of the most complex and fascinating spaces in language, I couldn’t actually list them myself … it was eye-opening. Introducing the project, you describe the book as a closed linguistic ecosystem, and in the performance repetition seems to be one of the many means by which transformation occurs. In particular, I’m thinking of the “I will not ruin the environment” thread. When it is first performed, repetition allows tonal and harmonic variation to be heard. When it returns, later on in the performance, there are more intense moments of dissonance which resolve momentarily in unison before they creep again towards a new dissonance, occupying an interval between a seventh and tonic not really accounted for by the music theory I was taught growing up (though I’m sure that there must be places where this is addressed).
The experience of hearing this is amazing. But what also begins to happen is that the words themselves start to become similar sounding words. For example, “ruin” becomes “run” and the phrase is then “I will not run the environment.” For me, one of the really compelling transformations is when the “ment” in “environment” be comes “me.” The way that the “environment” in the book is a linguistic one, the way that the author may both “ruin” and “run” that environment, and the way that running and ruin in the performance happen through a sort of slippage and echo is really exciting. By the end of the piece, saying the word “I” becomes impossible — both you and Maja begin to choke on the word. That pronouns themselves are both environments and make up environments becomes evident.
So this is a long preface to my question about how you would describe the roles of meaning, language, and sound in your work.
rawlings: It’s really nice to receive your experience of Eh film nors tu vwy, Afton. You have such a keen ear and way of existing with the performance recording at Kelly Writers House. I think it’s just such a gift to hear your experience of it and feedback in the way that you do … I’m just so thrilled with that. The answer to your question [laughing] is, yes.
I know it’s a really jerky thing to answer a how question with a yes or no. There’s something in the way that you, with such detail and eloquence, capture what’s going on with what you saw in the performance and within the work. In some ways you’ve already demonstrated my relationship to sense-making and to sound within text. But to come back to your question, I’d say … interdependence. … They’re all kind of existing within the same imaginative ecosystem. Eco isn’t exactly right, but it’s definitely a system. They all kind of hang out in the same space and they’re all dependent upon each other, but I think that there’s some way to see their independence at times as well. Or to pull the focus onto one with the other still orbiting around or in support in some way.
At times, with the work that I produce, I will be more focused on one area than another. Like, I may be very focused on something that’s pre-semantic and very sonically driven. At other times, I may be focused on the language or linguistic aspect of the work that may be, in a way, drawing a focus to the materiality of what language is, but which may not be sonically driven or semantically driven. And then at other times I’ll be quite focused on the meaning itself. This “I will not ruin the environment” and the kind of deconstruction/transformation of that line — the kind of transformations that it goes through where there’s a sort of re-jigging of the syntax and an exposing of the alternative semantics that exist, lurking within the depths of this line. But then also the sonic play that comes up and how that can trigger a different … emotional connection. All of this I find quite compelling and, again, to be interrelated spheres, though sometimes I only want my focus to hang out with where the emotion is somehow, or the meaning-making process somehow.
Wilky: I love the way you distinguish between the material qualities of language and meaning, especially the way focus on one over another is temporary rather than permanent. When there’s so much at work, it would be next to impossible to pay attention to all aspects at once. In fact, it seems like any use of language must choose a focus in order to manage all its possibilities. The difference would be in whether or not someone allows that focus to become fixed or ingrained — assumed. And particularly, in your work, where language, as both meaning-making and sound-making, is so shaped by the body …
One of my intentions in this interview is to be able to position your work, angela and Josh, side by side. I see both driven by attention to materiality and sound. I hope that your responses will start to sketch out a space.
My next question is for you, Josh. In your essay “Musical Drift: Toward a Method of Sonopoetics,” published recently in Evening Will Come, you draw a distinction between sound and music. In it, musical traditions have their own sort of “grammar” which excludes some of the sonic material you’re interested in working on:
There is no shortage of chatter on how much Music and Poetry have in common. We hear there is as much a syntax to music as there is to poetry; that poetry and music share rhythm, pitch, dynamics, tempo — timbre, even. What we don’t hear enough about though are the physical properties that give form to both in the first place. This is because the classical characteristics by which we understand poetics and so categorize Music and Poetry just don’t work when we start talking about durations, positions, and tensions of speech units and space, which are the elements of poetics itself.
I’m hoping you could describe the roles of melody, harmony, and sound in your work.
Liebowitz: First of all, thank you Afton for putting this together and angela for being a part of this. Responding to your answer from before, I love this idea of areas hanging out with one another. I think we work similarly in that regard.
I try my best to stay away from melody and harmony. In my mind, that’s the realm of music. To me, music wants metaphor and representation and it produces them through melodic lines and chords, with harmony becoming a sort of sense-pleaser in the end. Whereas I’m interested in how and what we sense and in sound as a material for investigating this question. Essentially what I’m after are sonic structures that offer more than just “hashtag emotion” and allow instead for a direct physiological experience with sound as a phenomenon, so that you become aware of your listening, while you’re listening. This is why I use spectral software: it can split a sound into its most basic components. When the sonic data is broken down there’s less timbral weight and signage to hold on to, but you realize that these quantum bits of loudness and duration, space and time, really, can be bundled together and shaped, bent, curved, or smoothed out … they’re pliable. And so they’re organized differently from a musical composition. I’m layering basic phenomena, rather than notes and instruments. This is also why I’m shamelessly happy to be unfettered by real-time instrument performance, and tied instead to a performance of listening and concentration.
Wilky: Framing seems particularly relevant to the way we distinguish between sounds in the environment and sounds that are “music.” I realize I’m going off on a bit of a tangent here, but to point out sound’s role in orienting the body, I’ll share this experience. The other day, I was listening to a 3D audio track I had recorded at a coffee shop the year before. On the recording was the sound of a fountain, traffic, and two guys talking about football at a table behind me. While I was listening to this recording, I suddenly heard my husband’s voice. He had been with me when I’d recorded the track, but I couldn’t remember him speaking to me. I was trying desperately to remember when I realized my husband was standing right next to me, trying to get my attention. It was a moment of total fall-out. Having been so absorbed by the place I was hearing, I instinctively positioned the sound of his voice in that place.
It seems to me that an important distinction between sound and music is that sound is a primary means of orienting the body. … Three-dimensional sound is captured by positioning one microphone near each ear and allowing your head to deflect sound waves. This ties back to what you’ve said, Josh, about wanting to produce a physiological experience of sound. Considering what you say, Josh, about bending space and time through sound and, angela, the way that you work so often in collaboration, I was hoping we could talk about the multiple voices and audible threads in your work.
angela, you have an ongoing and extensive collaboration history which has resulted in numerous performances and audio pieces. In your text-based work Wide Slumber for Lepidopterists, I also find a number of “voices,” namely a speaker, an italicized voice which responds to the speaker in the poems and perhaps articulates some of what the speaker would not say, and threads of sound caused by movement. I’m hoping you can talk a bit about the role of multiple voices and levels of sound in your work.
rawlings: Seguing from your conversation with Josh, and space, and sound — maybe I’ll just rearrange the letters in space as scape. … I’ve been super fascinated by acoustic ecology and soundscape studies and, in particular, a devotée to a Canadian composer named R. Murray Schafer who did this kind of revolutionary work both by helping to found acoustic ecology as a realm of study but also in his sound education and music education exercises — one of which is, and the one I probably care about the most, called “Ear Cleaning.” It sounds maybe a little bit like the experience you were having the other day, Afton, when you were listening to your omnidirectional audio recorder. So with “Ear Cleaning,” the idea is that you’re listening with attention and awareness to the space around you. For example, listening to sounds which may be perceived as coming from inside your body or from around your body, but then also extending your hearing out as far as you can in every direction — around, above, and below — just to see how far you can hear in all directions and what it is you’re hearing. This isn’t necessarily done to produce a catalog of sounds — like car, child, mouse, pencil — but just to have an awareness that there are things to hear and maybe to start to see how we respond to these sounds (do we label them, how do we label them and relate to them). This “Ear Cleaning” exercise is something that has been close with me for many, many years now and usually done in a stationary way, but then this has been extended into doing sound walks. I, with some frequency, lead sound walks when I get the opportunity to — like whenever I lead sound poetry workshops, or creative writing workshops — if it seems right I will incorporate in an ear-cleaning exercise.
This is a lateral way of moving into your question. I’m in, as much as I can be, a practice of listening, or especially a poetics of listening. To me that means being within a tension and an awareness of the many possibilities that start to come up. Like when I’m starting to script work or if I am sounding/producing sound-oriented work. For example, if you want to talk semantics, what are the different ways in which we can interpret this … but then we could also talk about non-semantic interpretation if we want to, finding out where does this and how does this work carry us. We could consider those kinds of different interpretations to be different kinds of voices in some ways.
But now, to move and step again laterally from that, any time we are writing a text that has any kind of narration to it, like an I as an example, the I is always multiple. There is the I who is writing down the work, but then there’s also the I that is the character of being the I. There are at least two Is present, even in that single I as a pronoun. Then the question becomes, so what if we’re using a we. As an example, in Wide Slumber for Lepidopterists, that book was written entirely using we as the pronoun. We descend on a field by a lake. It’s always a multiple and a collective, but it’s never enumerated how many. The we also implicates the reader as being culpable or part of it. And I think I and you do as well. Maybe he, she, and they are the only places where we start to get off the hook a little bit with how we’re being manipulated as readers. Or even how we’re being implicated or coopted into the linguistic experience.
I’ll just step once more, laterally … I’ve been really fascinated by penning multivoiced works. I think this started when I ran a reading series with an awesome, awesome human named Bill Kennedy in Toronto for about five years. The reading series was called the Lexiconjury Reading Series. It was monthly and we had the real benefit of having people come from across Canada and a little bit from the United States to perform for us. I got a chance to see a lot of different poetry performance styles and through this I got particularly enthusiastic about scripting work for multiple voices. The first text that I picked up to do this with was “Identity a Poem” by Gertrude Stein. I wrote the piece for two female voices and my friend Katherine Parrish, and I would perform this poem — it’s about a four-page poem. This poem is arranged like a play and it talks about itself being a play at times. … There was a kind of exercise for me to explore when I was writing what are the ways we can do things simultaneously, or one person speaking and the other person speaking, we can do something in a round or repeat each other, we can play Beastie Boys with it, like I say a line and then she’ll jump in with the last word, we can start to play with gesture, or speaking and pointing to different parts of our bodies …
After I worked with this text, Katherine recommended Juliana Spahr’s poem “Switching,” and I turned it into a multivocal work. I’ve done this with a couple of other pieces by poets whose works I admire. This gave me a bit of an exercise in exploring the different ways to work collaboratively. With Wide Slumber I didn’t consider performance until after I had finished that book. I’d spent about five years writing it and then once it was published, I realized that I wasn’t done existing within the world of the work; anytime I would sit down to write, it would come out sounding like Wide Slumber. But I knew that I wanted to continue to be in it, so performance was the way. I had the chance to work with two theater/dance/music performers and we did vocal work for three bodies. Since then Wide Slumber has gone through many, many voices — just two people working together, or I do it by myself … and then of course that has extended into working with people who might be identified with other disciplines more often in order to work cross-disciplinarily or interdisciplinarily, working either with many bodies or voices or instruments or different ways of approaching the body and the voice and language.
The last thing I’ll say is that I’ve been very interested in the spectrum that exists with rehearsed work and improvised work, and in how structure plays a role in the rehearsed and in the improvised. I’ve been very much with a practice of working with structured improvisation — both vocal and contact for many, many years now — as a way to supplement the more obviously scripted work that comes out of the page-based stuff I’ve produced.
Wilky: I love what you say about improvisation and structuring performance and also that the I is multiple. The idea that “collaboration” might happen both inside and outside the work, as in the way your experience running Lexiconjury developed into collaborative performances and became a way of coming back to page-based work and revisioning it after that space had closed, is really exciting. Reiterations and reworking of the text through performance seems like another means by which the I multiplies.
In your work, Josh, I find sound creating an extraordinary space out of the layering and recurrence of sonic threads. We’ve touched on this a little bit already, but I hear this as a highly constructed space, in a music-like register but without the types of harmonic and melodic structures one would expect. It’s made up of a series of hums, vibrations, and tensions; it is molded, bent, and manipulated out of other sounds. It is shaped by sound deflected off itself.
Speaking specifically about “Spine,” your collaboration with Rodrigo Toscano based on what he calls a “body movement poem,” even when there are words, the voices which speak have been multiplied and refract themselves. For me, the recurrent sounds serve as an agrammatical sort of punctuation of this space and time. In light of what we’ve been discussing so far, I’m hoping that you can discuss the role of multiple sonic threads and perhaps specifically the role of deflection in the soundscapes you create.
Liebowitz: I’m glad you’ve brought up this issue of framing, because it’s something I struggle with constantly. For me it’s a question of how and where a sound work is listened to, and how the sounds frame one another, in the work. This issue of framing was absolutely central to “Spine.” We knew we didn’t want the performers speaking the text, so the question became about environment, about how to sonify the space encompassing the performers and about their body movements within, and in response to the sound space. This is how the deflections came in. We realized that by letting the sounds interact with the text and interrupt it at a grammatical level, the margins or the space surrounding the text could then be sounded and it could do its own thing. So deflection was a discovery that was harnessed and put to work.
What I’ll also say is that these sound spaces are highly constructed. I tend to think of them more as sound structures than as soundscapes. Soundscape reminds me of landscape and the pastoral. I aim for structures that are highly volatile. I’m not trying to represent an environment; I’m trying to create one that directly interacts with a listener.
For me, it’s really a property-driven thing with the sounds themselves: how the physical and psychoacoustic properties of sound shape a space. Like we were speaking about earlier with the 3D audio: how you can get disoriented in it. Properties like deflection and diffraction accomplish this nicely, and if a listener gets lost, I think they are indeed having a direct experience with the space and the sounds within the structure. There have been many times, when I’m listening and putting pieces together, that I’ve felt sick, like I’ve hallucinated. These sensations are the result of working with the physical properties of sounds in relation to one another. To me these structures create a space of pure abstraction that isn’t necessarily expressive, because it’s lacking melody, and which isn’t trying to convey anything to you. Instead it allows you to have your own, individual experience, which hasn’t been scripted beforehand. The abstract quality of that space, its possibilities: this is my main interest.
Wilky: I definitely feel surrounded by those shapes and structures you mention while I’m listening. I think it’s the deflection you talk about that makes me feel as if I’m in that space. Speaking of it as a volatile space seems really apt. I feel as if I’m in complete darkness with arcs and other nameless armatures surrounding me and emerging from the dark. And, in a way, that it feels like a space comes back to the way that sound causes a bodily reaction. I think we could segue from this role of the body to the role of the body in my next question, which is for angela.
In stark contrast to Josh’s work, in which sounds are often manipulated and warped to the point where their source can’t be identified, in your performance-based work, angela, I hear a sounding out of the limits of the body in terms of its capacity for breath, elasticity, and sound-making. Could you talk a little bit about your use of the body, and perhaps about your body in particular, as a sonic instrument?
rawlings: When I was first getting into sound-oriented work, I think my first exposure was when I saw Steve McCaffery perform work by Claude Gauvreau at a small festival for Automatistes writing and happenings. The sound poetry he was performing just blew my mind — I had never seen anything like that. After that I sought out studies with him in order to learn more about what this crazy thing was. The further I researched sound poetry, certainly sound poetry performance within Canada, the more I was struck by how few female practitioners or examples of female voices there were. It was something I was really craving.
I’ve always been someone who likes to sing along loudly to whatever is on the radio or to whatever I’m listening to in my bedroom. When I was a teenager, Tori Amos and Björk were the favorites. So I got really excited about hearing the limits of what can happen with female voice, but really disappointed that I didn’t find access to this when I was starting to look into these things around 1999 or 2000. This eventually led me to get very curious: what can I be producing sonically and very much from a replication place at first; what sounds do I hear that other people are producing that I can attempt to embody and use to discover new ways of working with my body. It’s like what you were saying, Afton, about your experience with Farsi and sound placement within our vocal folds or the mouth. I was mostly wanting the experience of, first and foremost, a replication of what I’m hearing that’s really exciting. This could be like hearing throat singing, maybe. For example, I’m getting really curious about how far down within the throat these hugh sounds are coming from. And then, can I learn how to do this as well just to feel how this is within the body. To experience ways of sounding with my body that I haven’t had access to. Or maybe haven’t been considered the polite or socially acceptable kinds of sounds to make, or for a female body to make. But then also, maybe, like Diamanda Galás — she’s been very opening for me as a listener. How can I also play with some of the more screechy or extreme sounds; how can I do these things in a way that is not vocally damaging or shredding, that is safe for my vocal folds but that also starts to explore the limits of what I’m capable of producing; how can I really start to learn my own body and push my limits of permissible sounds-making, not only in private, but also in semipublic environments, so that I start to identify or call attention to my embarrassments or discomforts with the kinds of social constructs that exist around the sounds that bodies make, or maybe bodies identifying as female make. This has been maybe a bit of a constant itch within my practice that I’ve been with the last few years particularly getting into with the improvised work.
Wilky: I’m so glad you’ve brought up the role of female bodies in sound poetry. The female body is so often the subject of art, and yet there’s discomfort when she starts making abnormal sounds. To wrap things up, I’d like to get back to the idea of collaboration, which is one of many ways in which writing, music, and performance practices differ. Often, writing for the page is considered a solitary activity or an activity done by one person. In music there may be several stages which include writing, rehearsing, and performing of a score. Similarly, as in the case of jazz, there may be study of music theory and rehearsal prior to an improvisational performance. In addition, musical performances are rarely solos; they often involve multiple instruments (groups, bands, quartets, orchestras, choirs, etc.) and sometimes are conducted. Performance art and theater art also span the range between solo and group endeavors.
This question is open to both of you. Do you see performance and music traditions, which more often involve dialogue, collaboration, and groups of performers, affecting your praxis? Do they offer modes and practices that you see as being useful to writing? Are there overlooked practices outside of these traditions?
Liebowitz: It seems like there’s still this cultural suspicion that collaboration somehow results in a less dignified project. As if even in the twenty-first century, we prefer to close our eyes and think works are made, and have always been made, by the lone artist standing on some cliff somewhere and waving up pieces together from out of the ocean. In my experience, involving people from other disciplines and with a different set of expertise not only fires me up and leads to more ideas, but because everyone involved is then accountable, there’s a sense of trust and intimacy that develops, which makes you feel more comfortable experimenting, and also pushes you to make the best work you can. Some projects for me are solitary for sure, but when I start a work, it’s more often than not because I’m curious about something. So finding out is going to involve dialogue with someone else, planning, going to the studio, more dialogue, then going back to the studio. It’s a process, a laboratory approach.
rawlings: I really think that there’s a big overlap within many of these kinds of practices. It’s called one thing in one medium and another name in another medium, but they’re still similar somehow. For example, we have editors and dramaturges and they’re playing the same type of role, just in a different way in a different medium. I sense that there’s quite a bit of crossover, but then also borrowing, and maybe this is why I’ve had a tendency at times to consider my own practice interdisciplinary or drawn in this way. Even when I was working on Wide Slumber and I worked for a publishing house for five years, I really sensed — and maybe it was using, erroneously, this word collaborative — but I really sensed that there was a serious, collaborative gesture at play within the publishing industry or the ways in which we’re treating works. Yes, I or the author may be sitting and writing something, but that author is showing the work to somebody else who is giving feedback. There are substantive edits that come in, there’s a proofreader involved … there are all these people who are shaping how the work is coming along. There’s the design of the book, the people who are doing the physical print; everybody is having their hands on this somehow. The onus tends to fall on the author, who has to carry this thing around like a tattoo for the rest of her life, but there have been so many eyes and hands and minds in the process that this notion that it’s just this solo slog doesn’t hold great water. Maybe it’s, and I’m back again with this word, interdependence, or I’m just wanting to liken what is happening within literary publishing to what I sense is happening within music production or theater production as places where people are working together to make a thing or to share a thing, rather than it being this activity produced in a tall, lonely tower.
Wilky: What you say about the collaborative gestures happening within the publishing industry makes me think of the way that individual books will respond to one another whether it’s direct, noticeable, or not. This too is a sort of dialogue or conversation. I would just like to say again how fantastic this has been and ask if there’s anything either of you would like to add before we close out this interview.
rawlings: I feel like I really just want to sit in a dark room with Josh’s swooping sound space zooming at me from different directions. I’m really excited about the architecture of this image that’s in my head from the two of you discussing it. And the movement as well. It’s the way you’re designing and responding somehow to the physicality and the movement of that physicality of the sounds. I can feel it and I want to be in it and listen.
Liebowitz: Thank you so much, angela. It’s funny, in the same way I was thinking earlier today about the body and how you were mentioning, what are the limits of your body and the sound inside your body. The body is such a natural resonator that I really think that some of that bending of sounds can come from inside the body. But then I wonder if it would only be perceptible if you made the sounds. Or would someone else be able to hear it?
rawlings: Interesting. And could you just slip a contact mic into your colon and then …
Wilky: I feel like someone has done this.
rawlings: What about a vaginal contact mic? I wonder if anyone’s done that.
Liebowitz: Marina Abramović? But then she hasn’t done as much sound work.
Wilky: Not necessarily recorded sound work, but there is that performance “Ahh” where she and Ulay scream into each other’s mouths until they run of breath or until their vocal cords collapse. Talk about stretching the body to its limits …
This has been incredible, angela and Josh. Thank you both so much.