Thursday, March 31, 2011

Meredith Monk

from Four American Composers (1983), directed by Peter Greenaway

To be played concurrently; or, for singular viewing screen: here.

Michael Nardone is in transit.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Feeling full for it

Yes, yes, I say yes, yes to hearing the movements, the nuances, the humour, the wiseness of Stein's amazing piece. Don't fence her in. Don't fence language in. Don't fence Poetry in. Poetry wants to move, Poetry wants a shut open shutter in tights or out with ears and hands and toes and spring in more than a thin running water. Exactly as in kings.
via Poetry Foundation (thanks guys).

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

MUSIC FOR WRITERS 2: Luciano Berio and the Labyrinth of Meaning

Score for the electro-acoustic piece Les chants parallèles by Luciano Berio

Luciano Berio (1925-2003) was one of the preeminent Italian composers of the 20th century. His compositions were noted for exploring extended instrumental and especially vocal techniques. They often drew their inspiration--and incorporated text and other elements--from literary works. He collaborated with many writers including Italo Calvino, Umberto Eco, and Eduardo Sanguinetti. Many of his works incorporated collage, appropriation, or quotation and as such, he is considered a 'post-modern' composer. There is a good article about Berio here.

Perhaps Berio's most famous piece is the extraordinary Sinfonia for orchestra and eight amplified voices. The voices sing, speak, whisper, shout, and use other vocal sounds.

The third movement incorporates “found” music from Mahler and Alban Berg, as well as text from Beckett’s novel The Unnameable, text from Claude Lévi-Strauss, and much self-referential text. It is a witty, self-referential, metaphysical romp. In a later post, I’m going to discuss this piece more when I speak about appropriation and recontextualization in music in compositions from the modern and the Medieval periods.

Many of Berio's work incorporated 'collaged' text from multiple sources. For example A-Ronne (which I write about below) features text from the Bible,  T.S. Eliot and Karl Marx.

The second movement of Sinfonia was originally the independent composition O King written for Martin Luther King. The vocal music begins first with the vowels and then the consonants of MLK's name, only in the end, combining them into his name. It is a beautiful, moving deconstruction and reconstruction of this iconic name.

Berio wrote numerous pieces entitled Sequenza, all which featured solo (i.e. unaccompanied) instruments or the voice. These short pieces explore new techniques for their performers. Sequenza III for extended voice is perhaps the most famous. Berio wrote the piece for the remarkable voice and vocal abilities of his then wife, Cathy Berberian. It incorporates a wide range of vocal sounds not usually associated with 'voice,' but rather with the wide range of human vocal behaviours. Here is the score and a recording of this classic.

Luciano Berio - Sequenza III (for Woman Voice)

Finally, there is Berio's chamber vocal tour-de-force, A Ronne,  a larger piece for eight voices—this is brilliant sound poetry and vocal music. The voice is a theatre in the round (or an otolaryngological singspiel) and you don't know what character or sound will show up. By the way, the title refers to the A to Z of the old Italian alphabet, and appropriately, 'ronne' is beyond Z.

Berio was a prolific composer. He wrote many kinds of work -- from solo to large orchestral works, vocal works, and some operas. Two favourite works of mine are Coro a large work for vocalists and orchestra (incorporating texts from around the world and Neruda)  and Laborintus II (here’s an extract.)

In Berio’s opera, Un re is ascolto (staged in a representation of a giant ear) a king whose only contact with his kingdom is by overhearing the voices and conversations of his people begins to conflate the sounds of the auditions and rehearsals of a troupe preparing to stage The Tempest, with events in his kingdom. This is a perfect metaphor for the composer and the writer. For Berio, language, the voice, indeed listening itself, creates a kingdom, a world. In the beginning was the word. It might have been someone else’s word. It might have someone singing. Or quoting. Or laughing. Or all three at once. Listening, like culture, is a labyrinth created by listening and culture.


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 recent musical setting of derek beaulieu's novel Local Colour is here. His latest book is The Porcupinity of the Stars (Coach House, 2010); The Obvious Flap (with Gregory Betts, BookThug) is due in May.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Jeff Thompson: The Poetics of Data


In this series of posts I will chart possible ways to re-contextualize data sets as poetic texts and the ways that writers, visual artists, and musicians have and are using data in their work. Through this shift of focus, “hard” data can be read, analyzed, critiqued, manipulated, and be inspiration or source.

This conversation flows from my own studio art practice. Originally trained as a painter and sculptor, over the past seven years or so my work has transitioned into new media and performance. Along with this shift, I have felt the interest in image and object draining away and an interest in science, language, and technology rise to the front. I spend much less time in museums and galleries than I once did. No more hours in front of Bonnards or Turrells; instead I have found myself spending much more time thinking about things like the phenomenology of earthquakes or how to build microcontrollers.

[ My former obsession: a painting by Pierre Bonnard in the collection of the Minneapolis Institute of Art; next to it an image of the Rayleigh-Taylor Instability, a fluid dynamics model. ]

Vanessa Place sums it up well in the book Notes on Conceptualisms: “… we should consider that from [Barnett] Newman’s nugatory zip to Gerhard Richter’s squeezed woods to last season’s gallery show of airbrushed portraits of the cast of Hogan’s Heroes, visual images are being systematically drained of image, leaving behind the image referent – language”1. If instead the creation of images is increasingly from language – and that language can take the form of a sitcom script or a WikiLeaks spreadsheet or a raw text file of numbers – countless new languages and texts, and as a result images, become available.

Before examining contemporary practices as I will in later posts, it will be useful to re-contextualize historical examples. I say re-contextualize because the history of data and the arts, in the strictest sense of visualization and sonification, is likely no more than 30 years old. By looking at historical works, in this case Lucretius’ long-form didactic poem On the Nature of the Universe, the river drawings of Leonardo DaVinci, composer John Cage’s use of the I Ching, and the visual artworks of the group Art & Language, we can trace a path from scientific observation to spreadsheets and our contemporary networked culture.

[ A portrait of Lucretius ]

Written in the 1st century BC, Lucretius’ On the Nature of the Universe (also referred to as On the Nature of Things) presents an interesting starting point for this discussion: the use of poetry to argue scientific and philosophical knowledge. As an example from Sir Ronald Melville’s translation2, Lucretius explains how lightning occurs:

For indeed I have shown above the hollow clouds
Must contain very many seeds of fire
And must receive many from the sun’s hot rays.
Therefore, when the same wind that has driven them
Into one place together, has squeezed out
Many seeds of fires, and in so doing itself
Has intermingled with the fire, the whirlwind
Finds its way in, whirls round in the narrow space
And in the hot furnace sharpens the thunderbolt.
For the wind is kindled in two ways: by the heat
Of its own motion, and by contact with the fire.
Next when the wind has reached a mighty heat
And the strong impulse of the fire has entered,
The thunderbolt, now as it were ripe, cleaves through
The cloud by a sudden blow, and the heat, shot out,
Lights all the place beneath with flashing flames.
(lines 271-284)
While the exact details of his account are certainly suspect, this accumulation of careful observations is science in its purest form. The chapter to which this excerpt belongs is introduced in a synopsis at the beginning of the book as dealing with:

Thunder, lightning, and thunderbolts. Waterspouts, clouds, rain, etc. Earthquakes. Why the sea is always the same size. Volcanoes (Digression: difficulty of assigning the true cause to all phenomena). Nile floods. Why some places are fatal to birds. Peculiar properties of springs. Magnets. Epidemics3.
A strange yet beautiful selection, to be sure: it is important not to forget that in the case of a data set (as with a poem) it is both the content and structure that are important and hold meaning4.

The formal arrangement of this work, like Homer’s Illiad and Virgil’s Aeneid. On the Nature of the Universe is in dactylic hexameter, a poetic meter consisting of six parts (or feet), each built out of a specific set of short and long syllables. This structure is necessarily lost in translation to English, but can be represented graphically as:

– uu – uu – uu – uu – uu – x
In dactylic hexameter, “ – ” is long, “u” is short, and “x” is either long or short. The term itself is derived from the finger (dactyl) by looking at the knuckled sections from hand to fingertip, as is seen in the drawing above5. A very good example of dactylic hexameter being read aloud can be heard at:
This strict structure being applied to scientific findings mirrors contemporary data storage such as the universal CSV (comma-separated values)6 format. An example of lightning strike data7 written in CSV format would read as follows:
The first line is a header, explaining what each column stands for; the following lines are the actual data (telling us here that the strike took place on the first of February in Winters, Texas). When opened in Excel or a similar spreadsheet program, the data gets cleaned up into more readable columns. This format will be examined in more detail in future posts. As a nice coincidence, the National Climatic Data Center’s lightning reports, like Lucretius, are divided into six sections per line…

[ River investigations by Leonardo DaVinci and some possible combinations of the I Ching symbols ]

By way of segue from ancient Rome to the latter-half of the 20th century, we look to Leonardo DaVinci’s drawings of rivers and John Cage’s compositional works made using chance operations and the I Ching.

DaVinci’s research occurred many centuries before inexpensive sensors and multi-channel data-logging, so instead his investigation into the flow of rivers and waterways was carried out with pen and paper in the form of drawings. Similarly, in the 1950’s composer John Cage turned to the I Ching, an ancient Chinese book used for divination or, in Cage’s case, for inserting chance operations into his compositional practice. The I Ching is essentially a visual database, with different combinations of long and short lines representing different meanings depending on the context8. Like Lucretius, both DaVinci and Cage used analog methods, each more systematic than the next to gather concrete and discreet pieces of information about the world and while these are not the data formats we are used to thinking of, they presage a shift to an information culture that would gather steam in the later 20th century with the emergence of the computer.

Building on the intellectual history of Duchamp and Cage, varieties of what is now broadly called Conceptual Art arose in the late 1960’s in the United States and Europe. The group Art & Language emerged from this multivalent practice. Based primarily in the UK, artists in the United States (most notably Joseph Kosuth) were also considered part of Art & Language’s collaborative and often intentionally elusive practice.

[ Images of the Index project installed at Documenta ]

In the collection White Heat Cold Logic: British Computer Art 1960-1980, Graham Howard makes a case for viewing the work of Art & Language, especially their Index projects, as related to the rise of cybernetics and the database9. The first incarnations of the Indexes, made in early 1970’s, consisted of collected writings of the group, while later versions shifted to massive stockpiles of words and symbols. Shown in filing cabinets and drawers with cross-references or maps pinned to the wall, the viewer could navigate the texts in many different ways; this might be completely random or by following a system of their own devising. The structure of the Indexes was intentionally non-linear and unlike a book, and can be seen as a predecessor to the hyperlinked structure of the web.

[ Printout from Index 03 ]

Later Indexes pushed this structure further into what we recognize as databases and algorithmic writing, taking the form of dot-matrix computer printouts. Index 03 included 64,000 possible combinations of its own text, represented in a shorthand code created for the project. An example line included in Howard’s essay:

C(EX)AB1(X) & N(EX)BC2(X) & N(EX)CD3(X) & N(EX)EF5(X) & N(EX)FG6(X) & C(EX)GH7(X) & N(EX)HI8(X) & N(EX)IJ9(X) & N(EX)JK10(X) & C(EX)KL11(X) & N(EX)LM12(X) & C(EX)MN13(X) & C(EX)NO14(X) & C(EX)OP15(X) & C(EX)PQ16(X).

This interest in merging logical operations and invented linguistic systems with the formal, visual/verbal, and associative – what we can loosely refer to as “poetic” concerns – presents us another possible Rosetta Stone to begin reading data as text.

The projects outlined in this essay suggest some possible models for this re-reading, and the other posts in this series will investigate other possible methods, both historical and contemporary through the lens of artistic practice. It is important to remember, however, that the data sets used by Lucretius, DaVinci, Cage, and the members of Art & Language were different from those generated by a scientist in a lab: these sets were created or found by artists and contextualized as art products. The required leap of logic comes in finding techniques for reading “hard” data not created for artistic purposes.

As I find myself explaining to non-artists and especially those in the sciences, artists of all kinds (visual artists, poets, musicians, etc) are valuable because of the freedom of process our disciplines allow. We are able to think and work associatively, to make great leaps without worrying about always framing a coherent argument, and a willingness to leave untidy edges when we’re finished. This investigation into the poetics of data will necessarily approach the topic from that standpoint.

I leave you with another selection from Lucretius, illustrating the artist’s leap: here contrasting mechanisms of evaporation, atoms and molecules, and erosion in one breath.

And clothes hung up beside a wave-tossed shore
Grow damp, but spread out in the sun they dry.
But how the moisture first pervaded them
And how it fled the heat, we do not see.
The moisture therefore is split up into tiny parts
That eyes cannot perceive in any way.

Then too, as the sun returns through many years,
A ring on a finger wears thin underneath,
And dripping water hollows out a stone,
And in the fields the curving iron ploughshare
Thins imperceptibly, and by men’s feet
We see the highways’ pavements worn away.
(lines 305-315)

- - - - - - - - - - - - -

1. Notes on Conceptualisms. Fitterman, Robert and Place, Vanessa. Brooklyn: Ugly Duckling Presse, 2009.
A cursory look online cannot confirm whether this is a real show, or made up for the purpose of satire.

2. On the Nature of the Universe. Lucretius, translated by Sir Ronald Melville. Oxford: Claredon Press, 1997.

3. On the Nature of the Universe. Lucretius, translation by R.E. Latham. Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1951 (pg. 26).

4. Understanding the structure of the language of data is imperative. While we have done much better unpacking the language of popular media – Lev Manovich’s older but still very relevant Language of New Media is an aptly-titled example of the unpacking of the language of cinema and video art within the context of new media art practice – the critical dialog about the “hard” language of the sciences is underdeveloped.

5. Metrica:

6. As part of its mission to make data more accessible, the US Federal Government’s website mandates that all data sets be stored in “machine-readable”, standardized formats. Other common formats include TSV, KVM, and XML.

7. Lightning data set:,31.9685988
From the National Climatic Data Center’s live lightning data feed:

8. By way of example, three long lines can mean creative force, heaven/sky, northwest direction, father, the human head, strength, and the dragon.
Source: #Trigrams

9. White Heat Cold Logic: British Computer Art 1960-1980. Ed. Brown, Paul; Gere, Charlie; Lambert, Nicholas; Mason, Catherine. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2008 (pg. 334), from the essay: Conceptual Art, Language, Diagrams, and Indexes by Graham Howard.

Oct.,2010- performing a live soundtrack to the
1974 film "Zardoz" at Drift Station.
Jeff Thompson received his BFA from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design and his MFA from Rutgers University. He is currently Assistant Professor of New Genres and Digital Arts at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln.

Thompson has exhibited and performed his work internationally, most recently at SITE Santa Fe, Jersey City Museum, Weisman Art Museum, Hunter College, White Box Gallery, and Museo Arte Contemporaneo in Argentina. Thompson was awarded the Van Lier Fellowship from Harvestworks in 2008 and a commission from Dispatx, an alternative curatorial platform based in Spain and NYC, in 2007. In addition to his studio work, Thompson co-founded the Texas Firehouse, an alternative gallery space in New York City from 2007-2009 and is currently a co-founder of Drift Station Gallery and Performance Space in Lincoln, Nebraska, USA.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Some Versions of Furniture Music

Kenneth Goldsmith, on Satie:
In the midst of an art opening at a Paris gallery in 1902, Ambient music was born. Erik Satie and his cronies, after begging everyone in the gallery to ignore them, broke out into what they called Furniture Music--that is, background music--music as wallpaper, music to be purposely not listened to. The patrons of the gallery, thrilled to see musicians performing in their midst, ceased talking and politely watched, despite Satie's frantic efforts to get them to pay no attention.

Today, Furniture Music is unavoidable. Nowhere are we free from the tyranny of it; we can't walk into a store or deli without hearing the generally dreadful stuff drifting through the environment. As a matter of fact, people buy Ambient music to fill up the space, to make it easier to work in, to make love in, to relax in; today, there's a goddamned Furniture Music industry. When was the last time you were at a dinner party where there was no Furniture Music tinkling away in the background?


From "Variations on No Theme" by Durs Grünbein:
(trans. Michael Hofmann)


Jack Spicer, Vancouver Lecture 1:

But on the other hand, given a source of energy which you can direct, you can direct yourself out of the picture. Then given the cooperation between the host poet and the visitor—the thing from Outside—the more things you have in the room the better if you can handle them in such a way that you don't impose your will on what is coming through. [...]

Now, Creeley talks about poems following the dictation of language. It seems to me that's nonsense. Language is part of the furniture in the room. Language isn't anything of itself. It's something which is in the mind of the host that the parasite (the poem) is invading.


Kafka, from the 1914 Diary:
(trans. Joseph Kresh)

June 25. I pace up and down my room from early morning until twilight. The window was open, it was a warm day. The noises of the narrow street beat in uninteruptedly. By now I knew every trifle in the room from having looked at it in the course of my pacing up and down. My eyes had traveled over every wall. I had pursued the pattern of the rug to its last convolution, noted every mark of age it bore. My fingers had spanned the table across the middle many times. I had already bared my teeth repeatedly at the picture of the landlady's dead husband.

Toward evening I walked over to the window and sat down on the low sill. Then, for the first time not moving restlessly about, I happened calmly to glance into the interior of the room and at the ceiling. And finally, finally, unless I were mistaken, this room which I had so violently upset began to stir. The tremor began at the edges of the thinly plastered white ceiling. Little pieces of plaster broke off and with a distinct thud fell here and there, as if at random, to the floor. I held out my hand and some plaster fell into it too; in my excitement I threw it over my head into the street without troubling to turn around. The cracks in the ceiling made no pattern yet, but it was already possible somehow to imagine one. But I put these games aside when a bluish violet began to mix with the white; it spread straight out from the center of the ceiling, which itself remained white, even radiantly white, where the shabby electric lamp was stuck. Wave after wave of color--or was it a light?--spread out toward the now darkening edges. One no longer paid any attention to the plaster that was falling away as if under the pressure of a skillfully applied tool. Yellow and golden-yellow colors now penetrated the violet from the side. But the ceiling did not really take on these different hues; the colors merely made it somewhat transparent; things striving to break through seemed to be hovering above it, already one could almost see the outlines of a movement there, an arm was thrust out, a silver sword swung to and fro. It was meant for me, there was no doubt of that; a vision intended for my liberation was being prepared.

I sprang up on the table to make everything ready, tore out the electric light together with its brass fixture and hurled it to the floor, then jumped down and pushed the table from the middle of the room to the wall. That which was striving to appear could drop down uninhindered on the carpet and announce to me whatever it had to announce. I had barely finished when the ceiling did in fact break open. In the dim light, still at a great height, I had judged it badly, an angel in bluish-violet robes girt with gold cords sank slowly down on great white silent-shining wings, the sword in its raised arm thrust out horizontally. "An angel, then!" I thought, "it has been flying toward me all the day and in my disbelief I did not know it. Now it will speak to me." I lowered my eyes. When I raised them again the angel was still there, it is true, hanging rather far off under the ceiling (which had closed again), but it was no living angel, only a painted wooden figurehead off the prow of some ship, one of the kind that hangs from the ceiling in sailors' taverns, nothing more.

The hilt of the sword was made in such a way as to hold candles and catch the dripping tallow. I had pulled the electric light down; I didn't want to remain in the dark, there was still one candle left, so I got up on a chair, stuck the candle into the hilt of the sword, lit it and then sat late into the night under the angel's faint flame.

Mon pauvre vieux, les empires s'écroulent, les républiques s'effondrent et les imbéciles demeurent.

Bravo, Monsieur Ségalot. Ça c'est du meuble.

Michael Nardone lives in the Northwest Territories.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011


sending peaceful thoughts to japan a moment of silence for japan we are thinking of japan sending strength for japan feeling grey for japan wanting japan to contain radiation sending peace to japan arms holding japan dreaming of japan sending peaceful thoughts to japan a moment of silence for japan we are thinking of japan sending strength for japan feeling grey for japan wanting japan to contain radiation sending peace to japan arms holding japan dreaming of japan sending peaceful thoughts to japan a moment of silence for japan we are thinking of japan sending strength for japan feeling grey for japan wanting japan to contain radiation sending peace to japan arms holding japan dreaming of japan sending peaceful thoughts to japan a moment of silence for japan we are thinking of japan sending strength for japan feeling grey for japan wanting japan to contain radiation sending peace to japan arms holding japan dreaming of japan sending peaceful thoughts to japan a moment of silence for japan we are thinking of japan sending strength for japan feeling grey for japan wanting japan to contain radiation sending peace to japan arms holding japan dreaming of japan sending peaceful thoughts to japan a moment of silence for japan we are thinking of japan sending strength for japan feeling grey for japan wanting japan to contain radiation sending peace to japan arms holding japan dreaming of japan sending peaceful thoughts to japan a moment of silence for japan we are thinking of japan sending strength for japan feeling grey for japan wanting japan to contain radiation sending peace to japan arms holding japan dreaming of japan sending peaceful thoughts to japan a moment of silence for japan we are thinking of japan sending strength for japan feeling grey for japan wanting japan to contain radiation sending peace to japan arms holding japan dreaming of japan sending peaceful thoughts to japan a moment of silence for japan we are thinking of japan sending strength for japan feeling grey for japan wanting japan to contain radiation sending peace to japan arms holding japan dreaming of japan sending peaceful thoughts to japan a moment of silence for japan we are thinking of japan sending strength for japan feeling grey for japan wanting japan to contain radiation sending peace to japan arms holding japan dreaming of japan sending peaceful thoughts to japan a moment of silence for japan we are thinking of japan sending strength for japan feeling grey for japan wanting japan to contain radiation sending peace to japan arms holding japan dreaming of japan sending peaceful thoughts to japan a moment of silence for japan we are thinking of japan sending strength for japan feeling grey for japan wanting japan to contain radiation sending peace to japan arms holding japan dreaming of japan sending peaceful thoughts to japan a moment of silence for japan we are thinking of japan sending strength for japan feeling grey for japan wanting japan to contain radiation sending peace to japan arms holding japan dreaming of japan sending peaceful thoughts to japan a moment of silence for japan we are thinking of japan sending strength for japan feeling grey for japan wanting japan to contain radiation sending peace to japan arms holding japan dreaming of japan sending peaceful thoughts to japan a moment of silence for japan we are thinking of japan sending strength for japan feeling grey for japan wanting japan to contain radiation sending peace to japan arms holding japan dreaming of japan sending peaceful thoughts to japan a moment of silence for japan we are thinking of japan sending strength for japan feeling grey for japan wanting japan to contain radiation sending peace to japan arms holding japan dreaming of japan sending peaceful thoughts to japan a moment of silence for japan we are thinking of japan sending strength for japan feeling grey for japan wanting japan to contain radiation sending peace to japan arms holding japan dreaming of japan sending peaceful thoughts to japan a moment of silence for japan we are thinking of japan sending strength for japan feeling grey for japan wanting japan to contain radiation sending peace to japan arms holding japan dreaming of japan sending peaceful thoughts to japan a moment of silence for japan we are thinking of japan sending strength for japan feeling grey for japan wanting japan to contain radiation sending peace to japan arms holding japan dreaming of japan sending peaceful thoughts to japan a moment of silence for japan we are thinking of japan sending strength for japan feeling grey for japan wanting japan to contain radiation sending peace to japan arms holding japan dreaming of japan

Space for Japan. Silence for Japan.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Bob Holman & Anne Waldman

Today at 2pm
Concordia University
1455 de Maisonneuve, LB 646

Bob Holman and Anne Waldman will be part of a discussion at the English department of Concordia University on March 14th at 2pm. The two spoken word legends will discuss their poetic paths and vision of poetry. They will also perform. In conjunction with Concordia, Writers Read and Les Filles électriques. Open to the public.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

The Weekend Read: a homophonic translation

Ordsins List (Hrynhenda)

Our sins lust far beyond Glowthra
(brought first, huge dreams, vistas).
Sina, mindful of badly needed funds,
We ran from the slithering titan and
Huge swords halved Shill,
Half-eyed speaker of Semen-Talkers
Meaning a fluidity in our systems,
Malleable and, in love with itself.

Herrann, her red hems of doubt
Huge with organs, priorities
Mild with hoar hound
Many-hugging arms, tempting.
An uncle killed his cow,
Herrans (many of them parking).
A man eats Pecking Maltahs stinking
With Drottins—a potent gin.

Had we enough to eat, with
Or without our foreskin hats?
Tradition came on a boat
Walked, our feet frozen as sky,
Altogether for tiny herring lined
Lifts with oil enough,
Uplifting you, true to your skin.

I know little of my grandmother's cousin Larus Salomonsson other than he gave my grandmother, whose name I carry, a collection of his poems on her last visit to Reyjavik. The poems I seem to recall mention of, and the book, probably one of the few, if only she owned. But I can't say she ever read them aloud, or entertained any ideas of poetry, though my mother, her daughter certainly did. Perhaps my grandmother had a fraught relationship to the arts? Her father apparently left the farm near Lundar one day, late in life, to go to the city and live an artistic life. He had written poetry all of his life--those long, Manitoba winter nights on the farm--all the while burning for a life in the arts. I am not sure how much community he had on the farm, nor in fact how many years he spent there after arriving from Iceland and before leaving his wife for the artistic life. He apparently found a good one: had a girlfriend, went to the theatre, lived in an apartment in downtown Winnipeg, and wrote poetry. There was folders and folders of the stuff--but it was all lost in a fire when an aunt's apartment in Vancouver burned down in the 70s.

I haven’t had any luck tracing the career of Larus Salomonsson, nor have I found any other information regarding his relationship with my grandmother, if there was one beyond pleasantries. Perhaps he simply met her on one of her trips home to Iceland over the years and offered her his book.

Because I neither speak, nor read Icelandic, the prospect of translating a poem is a dubious undertaking from the outset. I won't bother with my literal attempts as there is little to be gleaned from them...nor is this poem anything but an exercise. I offer it up as one of the failed poems. No one talks about these, but we have them, all of us, piling up in file folders and if we're smart, reminding us that to move forward we best keep on our toes and realize not every tactic fits in our tool belt. Translation, sadly, isn't my game.

-Sina Queyras, Montreal

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.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Damian Rogers talks to Anne Waldman

photo Sheila Lanham
I met Anne Waldman at Chichen Itza in January 2010, when I’d traveled over 5,000 miles to study with her at a writing workshop in Merida, Mexico. It was one of the smartest things I ever did.

Waldman is a unique force in the literary landscape; she has helped shape culture through her tireless work as a poet, editor, educator, community builder, and activist. An enormously generous artist who has devoted her life to mentoring and creating opportunities for others, she has published over 40 books in as many years. In her tenure as artistic director of The Poetry Project at St. Marks and by founding the Jack Kerouac School for Disembodied Poetics at Naropa Institute with Allen Ginsberg in Boulder, Colorado, Waldman provided working models of creative resistance. What struck me most when I met her was her expansive energy and how open and kind she was with everyone, including poets who worked out of more conservative traditions. She was a compassionate, nonjudgmental, and inspiring teacher.

Waldman made time to answer these questions via email. She will be performing with her son in Montreal as part of the Festival Voix d’Ameriques at La Sala Rossa on March 15.

DR: Since you will be performing with your son, the musician Ambrose Bye, at the Festival Voix d’Ameriques, I wanted to ask you a little bit about his influence on your work. Your son has appeared as a muse in your poetry from your 1982 collection First Baby Poems through to The Iovis Trilogy: Colors in the Mechanism of Concealment, due out this summer. Could you speak a little about the role of motherhood in your work? When did you first begin to perform collaboratively with your son?

AW: I found I could access another art of my psyche for my writing after the birth of Ambrose. My vocal tones got deeper. I was drawing on dream and intuition more. And while I felt fierce and was already active around various political and social issues and feminist issues, those seemed even more urgent — especially those related to environment, nuclear proliferation. The MANATEE/HUMANITY project (Penguin Poets, 2009) is a case in point where I take a vow “to include manatee and other endangered creatures” in my work and in my consciousness. And I also wanted — originally — to write the extensive long hybrid documentary epic poem IOVIS as not only a “history lesson for my son” but as a cultural intervention to show the responsibility of the Mother, as a female born at a time of major wars and dysfunction in the body politic. I would manifest active — rather than passive — female rage. I wanted to inspire him. And I included him as a muse that moved the whole project forward, even carrying Iovis into the new century where the boy is an adult. I still find FIRST BABY POEMS (reprinted recently by BLAZE [VOX] in Buffalo, NY with collages by the artist George Schneeman) to capture the wonder of that Experience. And the nourishing spirit of the female principle has been important in the long building of community around The Kerouac School at Naropa, the ongoing collaborations with other artists, editing and curation of projects that include a lot of younger people.

Photo: HR Hegnauer 
I started performing with Ambrose about four years ago. It seems natural, and we are comfortable in the work and on stage together. There’s a live process and then there’s the process in the “studio” where he often selects the texts to create soundscapes around, and suggest how I read them. That’s been the process with the new CD in the works: The Milk of Universal Kindness. He doesn’t want me to ever get too histrionic, although he appreciates the lower tones. There’s one track on which I sound ghostly with sounds like an owl…

DR: You have written of Don Allen’s influential The New American Poetry 1945-1960 that “Out of a total of forty authors in the Allen anthology, only four were women. I took this as a personal challenge.” This reminds me of the recent discussion around VIDA’s The Count 2010. What advice do you have for women writers who are also fighting to bridge this gap in representation?

AW: I think you stay on the case, as it were. And consider how you are immediately affected by the disparity in your own environment, as a writer or artist. Also start your own venues and publications, online magazines and the life. Keep the discourse going. Keep counting the pinks and the blues and attend to those whose genders fall between — there’s a huge spectrum beyond the dominant (usually white male) paradigm. I also like to acknowledge the support of some of my male elders — Allen Ginsberg, Robert Duncan, Ted Berrigan, William Burroughs… One needs to also not be shy and seek out sympathetic elders and hold one’s ground.

DR: You worked on The Iovis Trilogy, your thousand-page epic investigation of masculinity, for 25 years. What was your process for sustaining a project of this scope while you continued to write and publish other collections?

AW: I can somehow manage and be inspired by a number of projects going on simultaneously. I’ve been editing books as well from the Naropa archive, working on recordings with Ambrose, movie projects with my husband Ed Bowes. The Living Theatre did a production of my play “Red Noir” in New York (which ran three months) where I worked very closely with the legendary director Judith Malina. Sometimes the projects feed each other. But IOVIS engaged a particular panoramic awareness, or something like that — “planet news” attention — and the urgency to keep this kind of investigation going to clarify my own thinking and consciousness and be more aware of the time I’m living in, its beauties and disasters was a real commitment. The world and the events in my own life and in the time we are living necessitated the continuation of this project, no matter what. And it needed to cover the time span and the ground of 25 a kind of testimonial of a life lived in a lot of parallel directions simultaneously. I took breaks from it — the writing — but I was always taking notes.

Other projects also seemed to have their own life force and demand. When I traveled to the Buddhist stupa of Borobudur in Java, I knew I had to write a poem that was a peregrination and a philosophical investigation of the Mahayana Boddhisattva path and that resulted in The Structure of the World Compared to A Bubble.

DR: Your most recent collection, Manatee/Humanity, explores various states of non-human consciousness and stretches its imaginative focus millions of years back into our planet’s history. Could you talk a little about the experience of writing “outside the I”?

AW: I found myself in a magical place, coming to levels of concentration I hadn’t experienced quite this way before. I wanted the language of the poem to convey the rhythms and cadences of the life pulse of non-human elementals. It was a very private project. Except for a few excerpts that Ambrose recorded, in particular the Manatee chant where he includes the recording of the actual manatee song, I wasn’t reading or publishing it before the book appeared. It was a hermetic process.

DR: You are an inspiring model of the poet as active community member — you have served your mentors and students alike through constant efforts to build and maintain networks of support for an ongoing circulation of ideas. How has this labor fed your writing?

AW: I think poets in particular have to build their own cultures. And the culture is built on the work — the value we attach to the poems we are making in the world. No one asks you or begs you to do this work. There’s no career description (no matter how careerist poets want to become). But there’s a wonderful energy that accumulates and I am finding myself next to people I have worked with for 40 years and then there are also new ones constantly coming into the mix. And we are exchanging not only ideas, but the work itself. When there’s a loss in the community — as with the recent untimely death of poet Akilah Oliver — people rally and feel the importance of what we are doing as an alternative and cultural opposition to the dominant culture. And I know the importance and preciousness of the literary and audio and video Archive of places such as The Poetry Project and The Jack Kerouac School and the labor also has to do with preserving those legacies.

DR: Your life appears to have always been so full of people and movement, industriousness, prolific poetic activity, and adventure, but there must have also been times of stillness and withdrawal. Did different work come out of these different modes of being in the world?

AW: As I said the Manatee work was more private and when I can I try to take little retreats or “mental health days”, as I call them. And have inner resources to cope with the noise and chaos of the phenomenal world. So that there can be some ongoing sanity at my core. I rarely take a vacation.

DR: You have such a distinctive voice, I find, more than with any other poet, I can always hear you speaking very clearly in my mind when I read your work on the page — you infuse the lines so completely with your unique rhythm. It is as if you stamp your breath into the air. How did you initially develop your own performance style, and how much has it evolved over the years? Do you read out loud as you write?

AW: I don’t know as I really “developed it.” I felt it developed me. It is always an attention to the language and its energy, not always the meaning, or message. I tell students to let their work guide them, not to go with preconceived ideas first. It varies with the different pieces. Some seem particularly wired for performance or sounding, becoming “modal structures.” And the ideas for them are aural, or come to me aurally. I enjoy Sprechstimme — speak-singing as I do with an Homage to John Cage, which very much began as an aural piece, meant to be read over an hour with improvisations based on his music. Sometimes I do sound out something. One takes pieces through various permutations as well.

DR: In addition to the work you’ve recorded with your son, you have often performed with musicians: you were a poet in residence on Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue tour, you created a video for “Uh-Oh Plutonium” in the early MTV era, and you nurtured a scene that helped interdisciplinary artists like Patti Smith and Jim Carroll develop their own style at The Poetry Project at St. Marks Church. How do you see the relationship between poetry and music in underground culture?

AW: The great Underground Culture, yes, thank god for that, all the hybrids and experiments, and passionate originality. That’s not so caught up in the difficult economics of the materialist fame-money-machine. The work of someone like Arthur Russell comes to mind. The relationship has always been there back many centuries. Shaking a gourd. And there’s always this more interesting work going on at the margins, in the interstices. And its always there, all these great indie bands caught up with poetry…building on what Jim and Patti and Ed Sanders were able to accomplish.

There’s the urge to vocalize up against the culture you are in, tinged with your own eros and with opposition against the gray and aged and terrifying doldrums of the war machine. For me it’s inherent in a kind of protest where you can cry out your ethos of radical difference and of envisioning a better world where creatures are not dying in oil spills and humans are not caged and humiliated. And war has ceased. And race and gender issues are at peace.

When? How long? You have to wonder, but you keep at it. And with music and with sounding your text, as I try to do, you have a longer reach and the poet-shaman’s song can extend into parts of your body and psyche where you can wake up your own heart center and you help wake up the world. Ambrose and I have a piece on the new CD “Remember Qana” where I hope that comes a bit closer to what I am talking about. There’s the Qana of the “loaves and fishes” and the Qana of bombings in Beirut.

I see myself as a trobaritz out of another century — of music and poetry — and it’s a subterranean although often audible lineage that continues to travel as I travel…

DR: What is inspiring you most right now?

AW: The fight for freedoms in the Middle East. The warriors and artists of Tahrir Square in Egypt, the experience in the 21st century of those willing to die for their cause in Libya, and so on. Very inspiring. And a new piece with Steven Taylor — a kind of “Poudatorio” — a mini-opera using some of Ezra Pound’s Pisan Cantos and my own text. It’s entitled “Cyborg on the Zattere.” It references a chorus of Goldman Sachs demons in a casino, Pound in his cage at Pisa, his death in Venice, and so on. Steven is working with Renaissance and early Greek music. Four singers, dancers. We have a performance April 29 & 30 in NYC.

The work with Ambrose is always sustaining and my husband Ed Bowe’s next movie The Value of Small Skeletons is something I helped write the script for, which I am enjoying watch unfold. I am reading Robert Duncan’s The HD Book, edited in part by Toronto poet Victor Coleman. A masterpiece and a great labor of love. Yesterday I was involved with nine women in a reading of Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictee, a very beautiful occasion honoring an artist and writer who died over 25 years ago. I guess what inspires me the most is the sense of continuity of the work many of us are doing as cultural activists and archivists and guardians and visionaries.

Anne Waldman and Ambrose Bye will perform on March 15 at La Sala Rossa as part of Voix D'Amerique with Penny Arcade and Bob Holman. $10. Doors 7pm. Anne Waldman and Bob Holman will give a Master Class at Concordia on Monday, March 14th with limited attendance.

For information on the Summer Writing Program at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University, which runs June 12-July 10, 2011, go to their wesbite. Go to Fast Speaking Music  to check out Anne Waldman's collaborations with and Ambrose Bye.

Damian Rogers was born and raised in suburban Detroit, Michigan. She has published poems in various places, like Brick, Salt Hill, The Walrus, Maisonneuve, Matrix, andMoonLit. She is the author of Paper Radio, which was nominated for the Pat Lowther Memorial Award and the ReLit Award. Rogers moved to Canada in 2003.

Silver Car Sessions, Episode 12

Check it: Vancouver poet Jason Christie longs to befreckle Andre Gide's nose. C'est vrais.

Saturday, March 05, 2011

The Weekend Read: Bhanu Kapil we love you

Friday, January 21, 2011

Semi-colons are like long scratches
on a body.  Vowels as saturated.  Rimbaud drinking coffee in a room with red and yellow wallpaper, looking out the window at the jungle rain.  But commas as a scarring process set in motion by the abrasions performed by other kinds of punctuation.  I like commas.  I like semi-colons.  Though they mar a lyric effort, I want them.  I want a sentence that takes up the theme of bodies and violence, thematically.  The theme of the sentence is its grammar.  "What appears in the photograph is unfamiliar.  We don't recognize it."  (Duras.)  Like that: a content dissipating before a person's eyes.  Like smoke trapped beneath a glass, in fairytales.  And bars.  As a late-night trick, in the time when you could light up. Inside.  So that what I assess is the pollen index of a poem, the places where the surface is speckled or torn, with drifting grains.  A dash.  A line.  A stop.  Every texture is diasporic.  Every body, in its fundament, will loosen from its radical core and drift, too.  This is why I prefer cremation over burial.  I don't want to be buried.  I want my ashes to be taken to the Ganges, and to the coast of Oregon, at Florence, where I first saw the Pacific -- I heard it before I saw it, and my heart swung wide.  (Notes towards an Asian-American Grammar Book.)  (Notes for the sea.)
The above is a blog post from Bhanu Kapil's blog Was Jack Kerouac Punjabi. Kapil is author of, among other things, Humanimal, a wonderfully strange and original piece of writing. She is also a professor of poetry and poetics at Naropa. Here's Laynie Brown talking about Humanimal. I read Kapil because her use of language and her take on the universe is unlike any other. She brings, not only an entanglement of cultural experiences, but a resolutely value driven perspective, a commitment to presence and witness, to seeing everything that passes before her. Nothing is taken for granted here, though the text actually may be quite a simple, clear gesture--it rarely looks that way. For example, from Handwritten Preface to Reverse the Book

1 Reverse the book in duration. What does that mean? I am writing to you. These notes now when it’s too late.
   2 If the cyborg you read about in bookstores is an immigrant from Mexico crossing into the U.S. beneath a floodlit court, then mine is a Punjabi-British hitchhiker on a JI visa. This is tunneling as seen from a satellite—sort of concave warp in the dirt of the line

What is a book? A body? A language? I leave you with a snippet from a comment stream at The Voice Box:  


alex potts

in my english class we read bhanu kapil's short story "three voices"
so my teacher asked us e-mail sobody and find out what the story is about.

Austin Jackson

hi.Im Austin Jackson and I am enrolled in an AP English class and we read Bhanu Kapil's short story "Three Voices". We discussed the story yesterday in class but everyone has differing opinions about it. Our English teacher has asked us too get proof of what the author meant by the story. I would really appreciate it if someone could give Bhanu Kapil my e-mail so she could contact me. Thank You!!!

austin jackson

Please respond!!!


Dear Alex and Austin,
My story was not a story; it was a non-fiction account of a winter afternoon in New York in my mid-twenties. As I recall, I was suffering from vertigo. Was I married? At various times, I was. Snow. Ice. Catalpa pods outside the window. As it is, I am now 41 and have lost my heart, time and time again, though now it is back in my body. Not wrapped in a T-shirt in the snow. And the story no longer functions as non-fiction, but as a beautiful story I once wrote about a winter afternoon early in first marriage, which was not a marriage at all. I'd like to add that to assume the author recollects their originating logic is a notion you should disabuse yourself of at once. What is AP? If they haven't told you that yet in this AP, then I am telling you now. The author is not, generally, the person you should ask about their work. What are they going to say? They are going to tell you another thing that doesn't function as sibilance. What's sibilance? That's a better question. Yours, Bhanu, the terrible and vile authoress.
Hear the story yourself.