Sonic thresholds

Transitions and transformations

Image by Noah Saterstrom.

This post’s playlist presents recordings from the PennSound archive that explore the continuum between language, music, and other types of sound.

I want to begin with a few related recordings of Nathaniel Mackey and his ongoing serial poem Song of the Andoumboulou. In Mackey’s introduction to a 1997 KWH reading he discusses the poem’s relationship to the Dogon funeral song of the same name, recorded by Francois Di Dio in 1974. Listen to Mackey’s poem Song of the Andoumboulou: 18. I am always struck by this moment  when, near the end of the Dogon recording, as the pitch from the horn wavers up and down, I hear an ambiguity between what could be perceived as a human shout and the sound of a musical instrument. It’s this type of threshold point that has been in the back of my mind when I listen to poetry recordings lately.

In Christine Hume’s poem Induction read in 2010 at the Bon Motley series in Cincinnati (full reading) she reads along with a recording she calls a soundtrack. I’m especially interested in how her relatively quick reading pace contrasts the slower, more ambient shifts of sound in the background. Lines like: “Ice becomes gas blasting into a foam hole//out of which zodiac carcasses crawl” highlight a quality of hovering between states of being and levels of consciousness.

John Taggart’s poem Body and Soul (poem for two readers) from his reading at San Francisco State University in 1987 (full reading) was performed with the help of a recording of Taggart’s voice. In this track Taggart accompanies himself by speaking beside his technological double. As a listener, one can hear slight differences in volume and proximity to the microphone that enact a sense of splitting and fusing within a single speaker’s voice.

Catherine Wagner reads excerpts of a series called  Hole in the Ground (from her recent book, My New Job) at Xavier University in 2010 (full reading). In her introductory comments she sings a few seconds of an Appalachian folksong. I’m interested in the immediacy of that gesture, how she jumps from a speaking voice into full song in a heartbeat and then, just as quickly, resumes talking. In many of the pieces of the series, Wagner creates a continuum between speech and song that is both surprising and engrossing no matter how many times I listen.

Here is Thomas Sayers Ellis reading Atomic Bride at The Line reading Series in 2003. I can’t help but hear a flash of residual music in the staccato sounds of  Ellis’s pre-poem, offhand comment “my dream is to not have to talk between poems.” I often find myself paying attention to moments like this which might be considered outside of the space of the poem. Maybe it’s because each new time I listen to this recording I can’t forget the ways in which his reading of the poem moves in and out of gradations of speaking and singing. This is a great track for continuous repeat listening. Each time I listen I feel tuned into another microscopic piece of the sonic environment. I love the way the sung parts are sometimes so quiet and trail off almost like he's singing to himself while also projecting the poem out into the reading space. 

Cecilia Vicuña’s piece Water is a multilingual weave of whisper, chant, talking, and song. The recording of her performance documents Vicuña’s creation of a sonic space of ritual improvisation. I like listening to this piece on headphones because it’s easier to perceive the tiny seams and fibers of this densely woven text. I hear in the way Vicuña voices her work what Nathaniel Mackey calls the “creaking of the word” (a possibility for hearing new undertones and variants in the twists, turns, and echoes alive but latent in the sonic landscape.) Listen to a Talk/Performance by Vicuña from the Threads Talk Series in 2010.

Alice Notley's Love Song  (recorded in Buffalo in 1987) shifts between several registers in a very short span of time.  In her introductory comments, Notley characterizes the polyvocality of her poem in terms of “a talking voice” "a singing voice" and “a now-I’m-telling-you-this-voice.” In 2006 Notley read her poem More important than having been born is your city at UPenn. Notley’s comments at the end of the poem (“I don’t know if that’s true or not. I think about it a lot.”) create a juxtaposition because the language in the poem is so adamant. I find the phrase “I think about it a lot” especially moving. Maybe it’s the sharp contrast between the forcefullness of the poem and the questioning expressed in the comments, the way the present voice reconsiders the past voice. This mixture of ways of speaking gets at the frequent polyvocality in much of Notley’s writing. I like to try to hear the comments after Notley reads the poem as part of the poem, as another example of the kind of transition that happens in her poem Love Song.

This recording of Kate Greenstreet reading her poem  "on the way to the ice" from her book, case sensitive, was electronically re-sequenced by poet Jen Tynes (whose work you can hear in this 2010 Bon Motley Series reading). You can read the poem and listen to the unaltered recording of "on the way to the ice" here on Greenstreet's author site. In the re-sequenced version, Greenstreet's voice is looped, delayed, and accompanied by spare field recordings. Tynes's sometimes simultaneous arrangement of Greenstreet's voice helped me to hear the wonderful redirections and complexities in lines like  "our great danger/ you know / because--no, /and yet-- /of course".

I'll close with  perhaps the most extreme transformation of language into music. This is Tom Raworth's reading of Poem Poem which, from what I gather, was the result of him running the text of one of his earlier poems through the mechanisms of a music box.


Playlist (right-click on any link below for download options)

Nathaniel Mackey Song of the Andoumboulou: 18

Christine Hume Induction

John Taggart Body and Soul (poem for two readers)

Catherine Wagner Hole in the Ground

Thomas Sayers Ellis Atomic Bride

Cecilia Vicuña Water

Alice Notley Love Song

Alice Notley More important than having been born is your city

Kate Greenstreet "on the way to the ice"

Tom Raworth Poem Poem


More work by artist Noah Saterstrom here and here.