Wednesday, March 09, 2011

MUSIC FOR WRITERS 1: Trevor Wishart, the Supervoice, and the Boundaryless Alchemy of Image


I’m delighted to be writing a series here at the Lemon pound on “Music for Writers.” I’m going to be discussing some musical topics that I think will be of interest to writers. I’m going to try to only talk about music that can be found online so that it can be heard or its notation seen.

There are many intriguing examples of how text, voice, music, sound, technology, and language operate in historical and contemporary music, and in from music around the world (or if we’re talking Karlheinz Stockhausen, from the star Sirius.)

Indeed, sometimes I’ve had the experience of reading about some crazy conceptual poetic idea only to be reminded of a practice in Medieval music. (I mean, beyond the fact that a dove supposedly dictated the chants now known as Gregorian to Pope Gregory. I believe it’s a ferret that tells Justin Bieber what to sing. Or is that his hair?)

Trevor Wishart, the Supervoice, and the Boundaryless Alchemy of Image.

Image of Trevor Wishart from Steina Vasulka’s video, “Trevor.”
Image. Metaphor. The stable or unstable lyric voice. The natural environment as material. The blurring between the human and our world, the unstable boundary between naming and perception. These are important explorations in contemporary writing.

In Trevor Wishart’s tour-de-force of digital manipulation, Vox 5 (1986) (listen here) a sung vowel transforms into a swarm of bees (c. 2’10”) and then returns to vocal sibilance. An exhalation becomes birds and wind then bubbling water then returns to the vocal (from 0’00”) The voice (and human perception, human consciousness) is a stage with no walls. The distinction between the human, the uttered and the natural environment is fluid and constantly changing.

In the much earlier work, Red Bird, A Political Prisoner's Dream (1978) (listen here) Wishart created transformational images without the aid of a computer. Screams turn into flocks of birds (0’00”). A pained human cry “ah” turns into the awk of a single bird then a flock of birds (c. 30’)

At c. 1’26”, the first syllable of the word “listen” turns into the whistling of the wind then more birds. The word “reason” undergoes many transformations. It turns into a buzzing fly moving about the stereo field. At c. 4’10”, the last syllable of “reasonable” becomes the bubbling of water.

What is inside the sounds of words? What is inside their meaning? Can an “image” be formed by the conjoining of the lexical meaning of a word and an identifiable sound from the non-linguistic world? What about a word and an invented sound? This isn’t synaesthesia – the connecting of two senses – but a new way of thinking about image, an image that is created from two seemingly different perceptual or meaning systems. Further, by being organized through the recurrence of sound images (birds, water, particular words such as ‘reason’) Red Bird uses a formal principle common to both poetry and music.


In his brilliant and wide-ranging book, On Sonic Art, Wishart writes about the concept of “lattice-oriented” music. The ‘lattice” is exemplified by traditional western classical musical notation which represents sound-objects on the two-dimensional grid of the musical staff. The staff represents pitch and duration. But what about the dimension of timbre? You could notate James Brown’s “I feel good!” but you’d miss much of what makes that exclamation vibrant. What about sounds which fluidly change pitch and timbre? Wishart argues that sound is a continuum; dividing it into discrete quanta misrepresents its borderless multi-dimensionality.

What about words? Are they unnecessarily discrete quanta, bound by an outmoded notation system? If writers had a toolbox that was more than the dictionary, a toolbox that could contain, well, anything, what would writing look like? My copy of MS Word keeps underlining things when I try to use time and space from a non-grammatical universe.

And what about the timbre of speech? The page is sometimes taken to be the writing itself and not a notation of that writing. Should the page be the hypertextual screen? Should pages be digital, multidimensional, and fluid in space and time if we are to both represent and enact the text?


Wishart’s On Sonic Art, a fascinating and important book about animal and environmental sound, notation, and his own music and ideas. His website.

There’s a brilliant discussion of Vox 5 and some of Wishart’s ideas at sound artist Ed Milligan’s blog and by Lucy Rees here.

And this is Wishart on computer sound transformation.

Gary Barwin is a writer, musician, and performer. His PhD disertation, Martin’s Idea (listen here) was a composition for reciter, interactive computer system, and MIDI keyboard. His latest book is The Porcupinity of the Stars (Coach House, 2010) and he will premiere a new composition, based on derek beaulieu’s novel, Local Colour at Grey Borders in St Catharines, Ont. on March 11.

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