Fugitive sound: The phonotext and critical practice, part I

Michael Nardone

The poetry phonotext is at least as old as the earliest mechanical reproductions of sound.[1] In 1860, Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville’s attempts to capture the human voice with his phonautograph – a machine meant to record sounds visually, yet not to play them back – offer up two instances of poetic recitation: the first – “Au clair de la lune / mon ami Pierrot / prête moi—” – from the French folk song, “Au Clair de la Lune;” and the second – “S’il faut qu’à ce rival Hédelmone infidèle / Ait remis ce bandeau! Dans leur rage cruelle / Nos lions du désert, sous leur antre brûlant” – from Jean-François Ducis’s translations of Shakespeare’s Othello.[2] In 1877, the first words Thomas Edison uttered into and then resounded from his tinfoil phonograph were lines from “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” a poem originally composed by Sarah Josepha Hale. Then, one of the initial recipients of a cylinder phonograph was Alfred Lord Tennyson – a gift from George Gouraud, Edison’s representative in London – which, at the end of his life, Tennyson used to commit many of his famous works to wax. As John Picker writes, the phonograph allowed the poet of the divided mind – consider, for example, his poem “The Two Voices” –  “the opportunity to perform a kind of self-fragmentation, literally to etch in an ostensibly permanent manner the different voices of the self.”[3] The voice of Robert Browning is arguably the first voice to resound after the death of its speaker. During a gathering in April 1889, Gouraud persuaded Browning to read two poems to become part of Gouraud’s “Library of Voices,” despite the poet’s “most decided objection to public speaking.” The recording would take on a special significance in December 1890, exactly one year after Browning’s death, when Browning’s friends convened to celebrate his life by playing the recording of Browning reading his poems – an event described in the Times as an “unique in the history of science and . . . [an] extraordinary séance. [4] I bring up these instances here to simply acknowledge that the technologies and techniques of sonic reproduction share an extensive interrelated history with poetry.

Since the late 19th century, poets have recorded upon and worked with an array of sonic media. In beginning to sketch out this history, a number of examples spring to mind: the aluminum plate records of Gertrude Stein, Harriet Monroe and James Weldon Johnson; the “Dylan Thomas Reading” LP published by Caedmon that became a staple of 1950s’ record collections; the “New Jazz Poets” LP curated by Walter Lowenfels; the figure of Paul Blackburn and his Wollensak reel-to-reel that was infamously hauled all over New York city in order to record readings; the Giorno Poetry Systems records, his Dial-A-Poem project, as well as his Electronic Sensory Poetry Environments; the “Tape Poems” poets; Charles Bernstein’s homemade tapes from the mid 1970s; Lyn Hejinian and Kit Robinson’s “In the American Tree” radio broadcasts; the outstanding Underwhich Audiographics tape cassettes. This is only to begin listing works in non-digital audio formats.

Presently, I see a considerable interest in and engagement with the poetry phonotext, which Steve Evans defines as “a threefold braid of timbre, text, and technology.”[5] I understand this interest as a factor of the format in which the majority of poetry phonotexts now circulate, the MP3, and to specific digital collections that curate – perhaps the better word is publish? – these phonotexts, such as UbuWeb, PennSound, and SpokenWeb. In addition to these collections, and preceding their formations, there have been various scholars who have argued for the importance of critically engaging the phonemic aspects of poetic works, as well as the social and technological infrastructures that support the performance of poetry and its media. Here, Charles Bernstein, Michael Davidson, Marjorie Perloff, Aldon Lynn Nielsen, and Maria Damon are a few of the first names that come to mind. Yet, despite the present interest in the poetry phonotext, despite the digital collections and the contributions of the scholars mentioned, critical practices for engaging the sonic aspects of poetic works remain limited.

For example, I’ve recently completed researching and writing an essay on the American poet, composer, and multimedia artist Jackson Mac Low (now published on Amodern). The essay focuses on a specific 1971 reading by Mac Low in Montreal. During the reading, Mac Low collaborates with up to a dozen people at once on his improvised, constraint-based score-poems. Mac Low is well-known for these kinds of multivocal and participatory performances, but what makes this performance remarkable is his other “collaborators”: 4 reel-to-reel players that he constantly manipulates throughout the performance. He directly refers to them as collaborators several times during the performance. In reading one of his “Simultaneities,” as eight performers read from the text with him, Mac Low plays four distinct prior performances of the poem from his personal archive of recordings. In the sounded aspect of this performance, Mac Low is not simply aiming to produce a certain palimpsestual or palimtextual noise – though, throughout, there are many moments of cacophony. Instead, his practice is a way to open up the site of the performance to other collaborators, to extend and tune the acts of listening in that space and time to other spaces, other times, and to develop ways to relate and respond to those sounds in the present performance of the poem.

Examining the breadth of criticism on Mac Low’s works, one can find exceptional passages thinking through the pluriformity of Mac Low’s poems, recognizing them as multimodal: the poems exist simultaneously as instructions for performance, as performance, and, often, as some kind of text-document that is produced out of performance. Here, the sonic aspects of Mac Low’s works are always acknowledged as being a crucial part of the performances, yet the sounds are not in and of themselves directly addressed. Two exceptions are found in the writings of Tyrus Miller and Hélène Aji, who detail specific performances and the concept of sound present in the those works.[6] Yet, despite the great care with which Miller and Aji attend to the sonic aspects of Mac Low’s repertoire, neither writer listens to the works. When they discuss the sounded elements of Mac Low’s works, they rely solely upon the scores for performance: either the poem-text or the instructions for performance. This is to say that each time Aji and Miller discuss sound in Mac Low’s works, they are writing about an abstraction of sound based upon what Mac Low intended as author and composer, and not the sounds produced in the performance itself. This is also to say that for all of the attention that Aji and Miller give to the specificity of Mac Low’s instructions for performance, they willfully ignore the imperative that Mac Low pronounced on several occasions to be his primary admonition for performance: “Listen! Listen! Listen!”

The omission of the phonotext exposes a certain critical limit in textual scholarship as being on its own insufficient for engaging the pluriformity of poetic works. Even media-centered analyses like the ones of Mac Low’s poetic repertoire insist upon the centrality of the graphemic document and substrate of paper. This omission makes a certain degree of sense: scholars of literature are, after all, trained to closely read and interpret written texts. Yet the reliance upon a conception of the poetic work as primarily a graphemic text, especially when considering the expanded field of poetic practice, is an inadequate endeavor at its very outset.

In my contributions to the Clipping commentary, I will focus on two phonopoetical questions: What are ways to critically listen to the poetry phonotext? How might one engage the performance of a poem as well as the techniques and technologies that allow for a poem to resound? 

In these contributions, via a concept of fugitivity, I plan to trace out various practices of listening to poetic works and to consider the production of sounds and their migration across formats. I route – as opposed to its homonym root[7] – this notion of the fugitive back through the early history of sound recording technologies. Thomas Edison, in his initial reflection on the phonograph entitled “The Phonograph and Its Future” (1878), writes these opening sentences: “Of all the writer’s inventions, none has commanded such profound and earnest attention throughout the civilized world as has the phonograph;” he then notes the “almost universal applicability” of the instrument’s “foundational principle,” which is “the gathering up and retaining of sounds hitherto fugitive.” Shortly thereafter, Edison lists his five “essential features of the phonograph”:

.         The captivity of all manner of sound-waves heretofore designated as “fugitive,” and their permanent retention.

.         Their reproduction with all their original characteristics at will, without the presence and consent of the original source, and after the lapse of any period of time.

.         The transmission of such captive sounds through the ordinary channels of commercial intercourse and trade in material form, for purposes of communication or as merchantable goods.

.         Indefinite multiplication and preservation of such sounds, without regard to the existence or non-existence of the original source.

.         The captivation of sounds, with or without the knowledge or consent of the source of their origin.[8]

Counter to this idealized captivation, against the rhetoric of commodification in which Edison steeps his dream of the phonograph’s future, Fred Moten – in his lecture “Black Kant (Pronounced Chant)” – describes a “lawless phonography,” a trajectory of sound moving with “dispossesed and dispossessing fugitivity in its very anticipation of the regulative and disciplinary powers to which it responds.” Here, Moten theorizes, via Foucault, how sound is not “totally integrated into techniques that govern and administer it, it constantly escapes them. [9] In other words, aspects of sound always exceeds its inscription. Thus, to critically engage the production of sounds and their resonations, one must focus upon the contexts and means by which such excesses occur.

Edison’s and Moten’s articulations of the fugitive provide the limit conditions for considering the reception, regulation, and migration of sounds. Embedded in Edison’s techno-fantasy are actual inscriptions, though they are impermanent and format-specific retentions of not “all,” but specific and contingent characteristics of a performance’s sonic aspects. The sound recording instrument itself is a part – in certain instances, a collaborator, in others, a warden – of a performance’s reiterations. Yet Edison’s statements point toward a certain Kittleresque machine-centered analysis of the phonotextual object, one that is important for its scrutiny of how and what machines actually inscribe, yet fraught for its notable absence of considering the political economy and the cultural practices in which the machines are produced and used. At the core of Moten’s notion of fugitive sound is an acknowledgment of differential inscriptions, inscriptions that are technological, but also affective, embodied. Yet, there are inscriptions; there is a capture, or an attempt to capture: there needs to be a mark, a marking, a marked body for sounds to resound. For Moten, this negotiation between captivation and fugitivity that sounding out entails is always embedded within a political economy and always indexed to relations of power.

In the remaining space of this initial contribution, I want to begin to sketch out how this notion of the fugitive relates to a phonocritical approach that considers modes of listening to a phonotext and also the contexts or milieus in which a phonotext resounds.

In her book Listening in Detail: Performances of Cuban Music, Alexandra T. Vazquez echoes Moten’s sense of the fugitive to develop a methodology of close listening focused on the detail.[10] “Details are those fugitive and essential living components,” she writes, “that contribute, in very specific ways, to an event and its aftermath” (15). They “effect in flashes and refuse analytical capture” (21). Rather than an account of, listening to the fugitive detail offers an experience with. It is a method “not invested in possession or clarification” (24). Listeners risk responding in the midst of listening: to allow themselves to be affected, to think with or alongside of that which they hear, and to respond from the situation, from their situatedness. Here, a listener is always in movement, allowing the resonances to carry one off on the various lines of flight the sounds induce – toward other sounds and sound-making, into the mesh where one registers and attempts to comprehend how such sounds leave their mark – then back again to the event itself of listening. One listens for tones and textures, for the breath or underlying hum or grunt of a speaker, for the non-lexical acknowledgment from an audience, for their participation or lack there of within the space of a work, for the architectural acoustics of a space, for the grain, glitch, or hiss of machinic sound that becomes a part of the work by the various technologies involved in it’s reproduction. Not only are there an array of details to listen to in the phonotext but also an array of ways to engage these details. 

Moving to the exterior of the phonotextual object, I want to pursue an ethnography of inscriptive and archival practices in order to study the extended history of a phonotext’s production. One begins by asking: What is inscribed? How is it inscribed? What is the recording’s relationship to the event it documents, meaning: what of the event exceeds a specific inscription, how is it exceeded? Has the recording migrated through other formats and, if so, how? Where is the recording collected? What are the means by which it was collected? With what other recordings is it collected? Who has access to the recording and how is it accessed? Here, I want to keep in mind in all situations that the phonotext is a record of – and a record produced by – dynamic living agents, and to perform a work is, as Vazquez writes, not simply “to ossify one’s voice to the record, but to lay down your voice in the hopes of being revisited, or being revised” (20). Therefore, I want to include in a phonocritical approach the contexts and agents of these revisitations and revisions. In Moten’s emphasis to depict the cultural techniques by which sound-waves are captured – how they are “governed and administered,” to use his own terms, in some occasions “without consent,” to use Edison’s repeated phrasing – one confronts a politics of recording and recorded sound that ought to be a point of reflection for any critical engagement with the phonotextual object. Who is recorded? How is it recorded? What is the subject of the recording’s relationship to those who are recording and the technologies they are using to record? Again, to bring this back to the poetry phonotext, this is an interesting point to think about institutions that produce, collect and let others replay sound recordings. There are major differences, for example, between Harvard’s Woodberry Poetry Room and PennSound on the one hand, and there are perhaps even greater differences between these two resources and, for instanceAndrew Kenower’s A Voicebox, a collection of recordings that are not financially supported by any institution and which emerges out of a specific locale of poetry. This is something that needs to be considered further in a phonocritical approach, one of many points to think about in terms of the reception and regulation of sounds.

 [1] I say “at least” so as to leave open space to consider other forms of inscription, transcription, and techniques of sonic notation within the frame of the reproduction of sound, since, in this writing, I focus on mechanical reproduction from the phonautogram to the MP3.

 [2] See Jody Rosen, “Researchers Play Tune Recorded Before Edison,”New York Times, March 27, 2008, as well as “Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville’s Phonautograms” on First Sounds for details about how researchers would develop methods to play back these phonautograms. Many thanks to Chris Mustazza for bringing the digitization of these recordings to my attention.

 [3] John Picker, Victorian Soundscapes(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 126.

 [4] Picker, Victorian Soundscapes, 122-3.

 [5] Steve Evans, “The Phonotextual Braid,” Jacket2, 25 March 2012.

 [6] See: Tyrus Miller, Singular Examples: Artistic Politics and the Neo-Avant-Garde (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2009); and Hélene Aji, “Impossible Reversibilities: Jackson Mac Low” in The Sound of Poetry / The Poetry of Sound, ed. Marjorie Perloff and Craig Dworkin (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009).

 [7] See Paul Gilroy in The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1993), 19.

 [8] Thomas Edison, “The Phonograph and Its Future” in Timothy D. Taylor, Mark Katz, Tony Grajeda, eds., Music, Sound and Technology in America: A Documentary History of Early Phonograph, Cinema and Radio (Durham: Duke University Press, 2012), 29-32.

 [9] As no version of this talk has been published in written form, all transcriptions from it – and therefore any errors – are my own.

 [10] Alexandra T. Vazquez, Listening in Detail: Performances of Cuban Music (Durham: Duke University Press, 2013).