• David McCooey

This essay proposes the term ‘poetry soundtrack’ for a form of sounded poetry that I have been practising for some years (examples of which can be found in this issue of Axon). The poetry soundtrack is a sonic object made up of original poetry, music, and sound design. Such a form is now being produced—under various names—by numerous poets, thanks to the development of the Digital Audio Workstation (or DAW). In my essay, I argue that the poetry soundtrack has occupied an aesthetic no man’s land between avant-garde ‘sound poetry’ and documentary-style recordings of poetry readings. I propose that a general ‘fear of music’ has led critics to favour such forms, and concomitantly to ignore musico-poetic forms of sounded poetry. In addition, I analyse the ‘digital poetics’ that can be found in producing sounded poetry with a DAW, especially with regard to the ‘vocal staging’ that such technology can produce in the poetry soundtrack.



Keywords: sounded poetry—‘poetry soundtrack’—sound poetry—literature and music—adaptation—digital audio production

What does a poem sound like? Lyric poetry (despite its name) remains profoundly bound up in print culture. Most lyric poems sit silently on the page, read silently by individual readers who ‘hear’ only the ghostly, internal subjective voice of consciousness. But sounded poetry, if one looks for it, is surprisingly ubiquitous. While poetry, lyric and otherwise, has been recorded since the invention of the phonograph, the ‘revolution’ in audio production instigated by the ‘Digital Audio Workstation’ (or DAW) means that poets can now produce their own forms of sounded poetry in ways previously impossible or impractical. While there has, since the mid-1990s, been a growing body of critical literature on sounded poetry, most of this concentrates on avant-garde ‘sound poetry’, with some studies on documentary-style recordings.

This essay is concerned with a form of sounded poetry, which I call the ‘poetry soundtrack’, that is neither the avant-garde sound poem, nor the documentary-style poetry reading. Like the film soundtrack, the poetry soundtrack employs a mix of voice, music, and sound design. A number of my own examples—‘A.M.’, ‘Another Dream’, ‘Another A.M. Dream’, and ‘Car’—are included in this issue of Axon. The poetry soundtrack occupies a surprisingly ignored sonic space between the avant-garde sound poem and documentary recordings of a poet’s unaccompanied voice. The poetry soundtrack adapts and extends the possibilities of the typographic poem. It also illustrates the important connections between typographic and recorded poetry: the ghostliness of poetic voices; the musicality inherent in lyric poetry; the simultaneous mimetic and non-mimetic rendering of speech; and the ways in which voice is ‘staged’ through techniques of intensification. In this essay I will consider these connections; analyse the relationship between the poetry soundtrack and other types of sounded poetry; and discuss some features of the ‘digital poetics’ afforded by the DAW.

Forms of sounded poetry

In Anglophone cultures, the sound of poetry is primarily the sound of the ‘poetry reading’. This genre has a number of characteristics: the author-performer reads her or his own work, usually relying on a text; the author-performer reads with limited prosthetic support (traditionally a microphone); there is no obvious processing of the microphone signal; and the author-performer attenuates the degree to which the text is ‘performed’, thereby dissociating the poetry reading from the putatively less ‘literary’ forms of ‘performance poetry’ and the ‘poetry slam’.

There are differences between recorded and performed poetry readings. Most notably, recordings often lack an audience and extra-poetic content, such as the poet introducing her or his poems. Such differences change the poetry reading from an ‘event’—with its particularity and openness to accident—to an ‘archive’, in which the recorded poetry occupies an abstract ‘spaceless’ space, free of both noticeable audio processing and the exigencies of public performance. (And as Derek Furr points out (2010: 5), the effect of the lack of metadata for much recorded poetry, such as details regarding the time and place of the recording, is to ‘isolate the poet’s voice—to detach it from the recording techniques and social contexts that framed it’). Such recordings, which are akin to the ‘clean’ abstract spaces of typographic poetry, may hold a place in the sound culture of lyric poetry either slightly above or below that of the live poetry reading, depending on what individual auditors value (spontaneity over clarity, for instance). Michael Davidson, in his essay on ‘Technologies of presence’ (1997), traces a shift from treating vocal recordings as an archive of authenticity to seeing the voice as a construct that can be manipulated through audio production techniques. Despite this postmodern move, the poetry reading continues to stand as the default sound genre for lyric poetry.

This default status centres on the importance placed on the poet’s voice, which is seen to offer special access to the poet’s subjectivity and poetic intentions. For instance, River Road Press, which publishes recordings of Australian poets reading their own work, states on its website that ‘Hearing the poem read aloud adds another dimension to the experience—the subtleties of rhythm, intonation, pause and pitch are there in the poet’s own voice’ (my emphasis). Donald Hall, who co-selects the Poetry Foundation’s ‘Essential American Poets’ online audio archive, similarly believes that it is important to hear poetry read ‘in the poet’s own voice’ (cited Furr 2010: 1, emphasis added).

Even those who don’t share such a poetics of presence may nevertheless support a poetry-reading model of sounded poetry. This is the model supported by PennSound, the largest online archive of recorded poetry. PennSound’s co-director, Charles Bernstein, dissociates himself from a poetics of presence—as one might expect, given his association with Language poetry (see Bernstein 2011: 124)—but he nevertheless advocates a surprisingly fundamentalist position with regard to recorded poetry. In ‘The art of immemorability’, he states that he is interested in only ‘the reproduction of the unaccompanied human voice’ (emphasis added), coyly rejecting—it seems—musico-poetic recordings on these terms:

I am not unaware of the importance of sound recording technology for music; and I have been told that there has been quite a lot of material produced and distributed, over the past hundred years, with either just musical instruments or with musical instruments accompanied by singing. Quite a bit of fuss has been made about this and it is evidently today a multibillion-dollar worldwide industry. (2011: 114-15)

In his desire to disambiguate lyric poetry from lyrics (the latter associated with an industry presumably suspect because of commerciality and size), Bernstein casts into a strange no man’s land a genre of audio poetry that is neither the ‘pure’ form of recorded poetry that Bernstein supports, nor the vernacular poetry of popular music. However, his rejection of anything that exceeds the poetry-reading model of recorded poetry strikes me as unnecessarily limiting the possibilities of recorded poetry.

This is not to say that recordings of the unaccompanied poet’s voice are of no interest. Their importance is seen in the recent groundbreaking studies of recorded poetry by Leslie Wheeler and Derek Furr, who both read modern recorded poetry as a complex matrix of ‘poetic voice’, technology, and social context. Notwithstanding the profound insights offered by such scholarly work, and the importance of PennSound, I sometimes find the poetry reading, live or recorded, less than compelling. Not surprisingly, then, I have resisted recording my own poems in this way. Instead, I have for some years been producing a form of sounded poetry I here term ‘poetry soundtracks’: sonic objects made up of original text-based poetry, music, and sound design. The term deliberately echoes the ‘film soundtrack’: each engages a totality of sound—speech, music, and noise—and each employs audio technology to produce its complex effects. The poetry soundtrack does not, of course, match the immense complexity or cultural capital of the film soundtrack, but a candle may dream of being a firework.

Poetry soundtracks do not seek to document how a poem of mine ‘should’ sound. They are, for me, only tangentially about ‘performance’, and I am not especially interested in my ‘own voice’ per se. Rather, I wish to find a sonic space for my poems that I find more compelling than the real or virtual sonic spaces offered by the poetry reading. In particular, given the importance of literary effects relying on the thematisation of the uncanny and the technique of defamiliarisation in my lyric poetry, I wish to find a space that can adapt such effects to a sonic medium. In other words, I seek a form that recognises that recording poetry is not simply a sonic archive of a literary text, but a form of adaptation, with all the creative decisions entailed in moving from one medium to another. While adaptation is ubiquitous in almost all cultural formations, poets are generally less active in this regard. I see no reason why more poets should not use their work as a resource for further creativity.

Self-adaptation strikes me as legitimate creative labour, rather than parasitic or ancillary. Like Linda Hutcheon in A theory of adaptation, I see adaptation as ‘a derivation that is not derivative—a work that is second but not secondary’ (Hutcheon 2006: 61). The conditions of my self-adaptation, however, are considerably different from those large-scale, narrative-form, collaborative adaptations that Hutcheon mostly considers, such as movies based on novels. My poetry soundtracks are not especially costly; I don’t face the legal difficulties of adapting others’ work, or protecting my work from maladaptation by others; and collaboration is not essential. As such, my self-adaptations share the same small-scale, low-cost, autonomous conditions of writing typographic poetry. Such a condition is, no doubt, one of the melancholy privileges of cultural marginality.

To treat adaptations as adaptations is, however, relevant for any work of adaptation, regardless of scale. As Hutcheon points out, thinking of an adaptation as an adaptation draws attention to its inherent intertextual condition, treating it ‘as what Roland Barthes called, not a “work”, but a “text”, a plural “stereophony of echoes, citations, references”’ (2006: 6; quoting Barthes 1977: 160). A ‘stereophony of echoes’ is an interestingly aural metaphor for the condition of textuality, pointing to the hidden affinity between audio- and typographic-recording. Poetry soundtracks are certainly texts that could not exist without other texts. These include the source poem (which evokes its own intertextual field); recorded and edited performances; samples, sound effects and field recordings; and the musical texts and genres evoked by the harmonic language, performance style, and instrumentation of the musical elements of the poetry soundtrack. Metallophones, for instance, may evoke composers such as Lou Harrison, Toru Takemitsu, or Steve Reich. They may, in another context, suggest late-1960s Pink Floyd or Frank Zappa. Sound design also has considerable intertextual potential, especially with regard to basic audio effects such as reverb and delay (features discussed below).

Given the potential for extensive intertextual complexity, and given the emphasis on either avant-garde or documentary styles of recorded poetry in the critical literature of sounded poetry, it is not surprising that I have had to invent a name for the genre of sounded poetry I call the poetry soundtrack. Sounded poetry is far from a clearly defined body of work generally. Indeed, Douglas Kahn and Gregory Whitehead could still in 1992 advert to ‘the absence of anything remotely resembling a coherent tradition of audio art’ (Kahn & Whitehead 1992: ix). The multifaceted interactions in sounded poetry between literary text, speech, performance, music, and audio production form a complex network of genres, cultural values, and production technologies. I hope to sketch out something of this complex network by briefly considering the relationship between avant-garde ‘sound poetry’; forms of music that employ spoken-word material; and audio technology.1

Sound poetry is generally defined as avant-garde poetry that leaves behind semantic meaning, attending instead to the sound of words or vocalisation itself. Early literary examples of such poetry (as opposed to the vernacular forms of sound poetry inherent in traditional cultural formations) include ‘Zaum’, the Russian Futurists’ attempt to find a universal poetic language, and lautgedichte (‘sound poems’), the somewhat less-serious attempt by the Dadaist Hugo Ball to discover a poetry without words. Both of these forms were inherently performance-based modes of sound poetry. Ball, for example, debuted his lautgedichte at the Cabaret Voltaire (McCaffery 1997: 151).

The development of the tape recorder after World War 2 then led to an important link between sound poetry and audio recording, especially through the construction of ‘unperformable’ works, such as Henri Chopin’s sound poems, from using (and misusing) tape recorders. Such a ‘tradition’ developed through the 1960s and 1970s, as seen in the work of John Giorno and Bob Cobbing, through to the digital era, in which poets such as Christian Bök and Amanda Stewart use digital means to produce audio works that anatomise speech and deconstruct semantic meaning. Neither artist, however, rejects performance-based work, as Bök’s The Cyborg Opera suggests, updating what is probably the best-known sound poem, Kurt Schwitters’ Ursonate (1922-1932), through performances that mimic, via human means, music generally associated with ‘machines’ (see Bök 2009).

The importance of the tape recorder to the development of sound poetry illustrates the porous boundary between music and sound poetry. A number of composers have produced work that, in its formal qualities, differs little from the tape-based work of sound poets, but since they are regarded as composers their work is generally classified as music rather than as sound poetry. For example, Luciano Berio, in ‘Thema (Omaggio a Joyce)’ (1958-1959), recorded and manipulated a reading of a page of Joyce’s Ulysses to produce a work radically akin to the sound poets’ experiments in deconstructing speech. Steve Reich’s It’s gonna rain (1965) and Come out (1966) were also akin to sound poetry in their use of out-of-phase tape loops to distort recorded speech. A significant difference between these works and the work of sound poets such as Chopin and Bernard Heidsieck, though, is that the source recording is documentary in nature, rather than a performance by the composer. It’s Gonna rain is related to Reich’s later work, beginning with Different trains (1988), in which the ‘speech-melody’ of recorded speech (Reich 2002: 194)—the source of which is again documentary in nature—is matched with great precision to musical melody, thanks to the use of a digital sampler. Since the 1990s, Paul Lansky’s use of digital processing in works such as More than idle chatter (1994) has often concentrated on the human voice, usually in everyday contexts. In contrast, works such as Einstein on the beach (1976) by Philip Glass and Robert Wilson, and Gavin Bryars’ A man in a room gambling (1997), illustrate the importance of apparently unrelated spoken-word monologues to a postmodern musical aesthetic, in which the mysterious relation between text and music reveals the text to be a kind of found poetry.

Vernacular forms of music have an equally strong, if not stronger, investment in spoken-word material, rap being the most obvious example. Non-rap forms of music that employ spoken-word material include ‘dub poetry’, a form developed in Jamaica in the 1970s in which prepared (not improvised) poetry is spoken over a reggae musical backing, and the ‘spoken-word poetry’ movement, the most notable proponent of which is Gil Scott-Heron. Both forms brought together popular music, social commentary, and poetic texts. In jazz, as Rahsaan Roland Kirk shows, the use of spoken-word material can be an index of a jazz musician’s eccentricity.

The links between poetic speech, music, and audio recording, then, form a complex matrix of styles, cultural value, and genres. While the modes of production are often surprisingly similar, the cultural capital afforded to these forms can vary widely. Neither John Betjeman’s mix of recorded poetry and easy-listening music, such as Betjeman’s banana blush (1974), nor the punk stylings of John Cooper Clarke signify ‘high’ cultural status. Laurie Anderson’s spoken-word recordings, however, do, despite her first single ‘O Superman’ (1981) charting higher than either the work of Betjeman or Clarke. The many spoken-word pieces by Frank Zappa tend to undermine, by dint of their multivalent musical language and general sense of mockery, simple notions of high and low. Zappa’s mocking vocal style, however, adverts to a pronounced link between kitsch and spoken-word popular music, as seen in William Shatner’s The transformed man (1967) and Benny Hill’s ‘Ernie (The Fastest Milkman in the West’) (1971), the latter a parody of the many spoken-word country-and-western songs of the 1940s and 1950s.

However, making distinctions about ‘cultural capital’ can be difficult when working with a category such as ‘popular’ music. As Anderson and Zappa suggest, there is a notable porousness between avant-garde and popular techniques and forms. The Norwegian trumpeter, Arve Henriksen—whose Cartography (2008) includes two audio poems with words and voice supplied by David Sylvian—similarly occupies a grey zone somewhere between popular, jazz and avant-garde musics. (One might say the same about The Doors’ excursions into spoken-word territory). And while the manipulation of speech and vocal sounds in pieces such as ‘PS’ and ‘Of the Word God’ by the American duo The Books calls to mind sound poetry, The Books’ lack of program and pronounced interest in humour distinguish them from sound poetry per se.

Despite their differences, in terms of both style and cultural capital, works such as these do have a formal similarity: they all employ poetry (or poetic speech), music, and sound design. Regardless of this, there is no ‘coherent tradition’, to use Kahn’s and Whitehead’s phrase, of such sounded poetry. Indeed, the critical literature largely refuses to acknowledge its existence, perhaps because of the association between kitsch and popular music that employs the spoken word. The devaluing of the popular can be seen in the tendency among theorists of sounded poetry to ignore links between avant-garde and popular developments. Steve McCaffery, for instance, in his account of sound poetry sees Chopin’s experimentation with the tape recorder in the 1950s (most notably defeating the erase heads for multiple superimposition) as analogous to John Cage’s works for multiple radio receivers (McCaffery 1997: 161-62). A more accurate comparison would have been Les Paul’s simultaneous use of the same technique – known as ‘sound on sound’ – on the million-selling records he recorded with his wife, Mary Ford.

Such indifference or hostility shown by critics towards musico-poetic forms can even encompass critics invested in intermedial forms of poetry. In ‘Points towards a taxonomy of sound poetry’, Dick Higgins, the Fluxus artist and coiner of the term ‘intermedia’ for the boundary-crossing nature of much contemporary art, defines ‘sound poetry’ broadly, but he makes no reference to intermedia works that comprise poetry and music. He does, though, note the ‘surprising’ appearance of a text by Hugo Ball as the lyrics to ‘I Zimbra’ on Fear of music (1979) by Talking Heads (Higgins 1984: 44). Despite his interest in sound poetry, Higgins shows no interest in musico-poetic intermedia. Indeed, in a move that prefigures Bernstein, he emphatically states that ‘One thing that sound poetry is not is music’ (1984: 51). He ends by exhorting sound poets to explore various new intermedia, none of which includes music.

Caught between the avant-gardist aesthetics of sound poetry, and the traditional rendering of the recorded poetry-reading, the poetry soundtrack occupies an aesthetic no man’s land: neither poetry reading, nor sound poem, nor music. There are, as I have suggested, numerous examples of something akin to the poetry soundtrack in popular music, especially from cross-over artists who have links with avant-garde or ‘art’ music. The chief exponent of what I term the poetry soundtrack from such a context is undoubtedly Brian Eno, the paradigmatic example of an artist who can occupy both popular and avant-garde terrain. Eno’s earlier work shows affinities with spoken-word material and sound poetry, as seen in the inclusion of a sample of Schwitters’ Ursonate on ‘Kurt’s Rejoinder’ (on Before and after science [1977]), and in Eno’s role as co-producer and co-author of Talking Heads’ ‘I Zimbra’. Recently, however, his interest in the potential of recorded poetry has led him, unlike the other musicians I have so far cited, to work with a recognised poet, and to produce a sustained, rather than occasional, body of work. Drums between the bells (2011), and its companion EP Panic of looking (2011) use the poetry of the British poet Rick Holland for their source texts, and are unambiguous examples of what I term poetry soundtracks.2

In his ‘Foreword’ to Drums between the bells, Eno – ever the neophile – hopes that the album ‘will signal the beginning of a new way for poets to think about their work, and for audiences to think about poetry’ (Eno 2011). Of course, this ‘new way’, which Eno doesn’t name, predates Eno’s record. Prior to Drums between the bells, numerous poets have produced works that bring together poetry, music, and (if to a lesser extent) sound design. Back issues of Going Down Swinging and Cordite (to choose two Australian examples) make this clear. Hazel Smith’s The Erotics of geography (2008) is a notable Australian example of a poet working in both text and sound media (as well as hypermedia), while Emilie Zoey Baker and Sean M Whelan show the degree to which the poetry soundtrack (my term, not theirs) is sponsored by practitioners of performance poetry and the poetry slam. Radio programs, such as ABC Radio National’s ‘Poetica’ program, present recorded poetry in a number of formats, including what I am terming the ‘poetry soundtrack’. The poetry soundtrack, then, has not been inaugurated by Eno’s auspicious works. But those works can be seen as unprecedented examples of the form as a mainstream, rather than avant-garde or kitsch, genre.

Eno is certainly correct in pointing out that this form (whether new or not) illustrates a special moment in the development of both poetry and music: ‘We are right at the beginning of a digital revolution in what can be done with recorded voices – they can be stretched, squeezed, harmonised, repositioned, inverted, diverted and perverted. Speech has become a fully-fledged instrument at last’. It seems to me that there is no good reason for poets to ignore this development.

Eno might also have added that the opportunity to manipulate voice digitally is part of a wider digital revolution: the development of powerful, but relatively cheap, software and hardware that allows poets (and their audience) to produce complex audio works free of recording studios and record companies. Poets may become, as I hope my work suggests, producers of more than just text: they can become their own cottage industry, using their poetry as a source of ‘content’ for more than one medium.

A poetics of the digital audio workstation

Poetry was present at the birth of audio recording. As Greg Milner reminds us in Perfecting sound forever (2009) the first audio recordings in history that could be played back were Thomas Edison’s spoken (or rather shouted) performances of ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’, recorded first on wax paper, and then the following day on tinfoil (2009: 4). Thus, even at its inauguration in 1877, audio recording aligned itself with poetic speech, albeit the vernacular poetry of nursery rhyme.

As Milner notes, when Edison invented the phonograph he ‘assumed the natural purpose of the machine would be as a dictation aid’ (2009: 34), not to record music. Recordings were expected to be records of information, rather than aesthetic artefacts. Edison did, however, understand the ontological implications of his invention. In ‘The phonograph and its future’ (1878), he claims his invention will ‘annihilate time and space, and bottle up for posterity the mere utterance of man’ (cited Ross 2010: 57). This ‘annihilation’, as Mark Katz notes in Capturing sound, caused a form of phonographic anxiety, based on the fact that audiences could not see a recording’s performers (2010: 22). Such anxiety, he writes, was understandable since ‘voices are typically accompanied by bodies—in fact “hearing voices” without seeing their source is a sure sign of an unwell mind’ (Katz 2010: 23).

This ghostly gramophonic voice is akin to the ghostly voice of poetry, especially since there is a long history of troping poetic creativity as ‘possession’. As Susan Stewart writes in ‘Lyric possession’, the trope of the poet as ‘possessed’ by poetic inspiration suggests ventriloquism: ‘projecting a voice from or across a distance – projecting spatially and, in the metaphor of possession, temporally as well. This voice is distinguished by its origin in another place’ (1995: 36). The recorded voice, which also originates in another place, has a chiasmic relationship to this ghostly voice of poetic possession: the literary ‘voice’ of the lyric poem (for either the poet or the reader) is embodied but not voiced; the gramophonic voice is disembodied but voiced. This uncanny, ghostly element of the recorded human voice, and its affinity with the ghostly voice of poetry, is central to my interest in the poetry soundtrack, as I will discuss below.

The poetry soundtracks represented here—‘A.M.’, ‘Another Dream’, ‘Another A.M. Dream’, and ‘Car’—were all recorded using a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW);3 that is, a computer-based system for recording, editing, and mastering digital audio. Audio software programs (such as Pro Tools) are often called DAWs by their users, but an integrated DAW usually comprises, in addition to such software, a computer, a sound card, a control surface, and an input device. Audio software can also incorporate ‘plugin’ software: virtual instruments, processors, and effects that operate within the host DAW. A DAW, then, is a virtual recording studio, bringing together sound production, multi-track recording, editing, mixing, and other features. The DAW has become increasingly powerful and cheap, offering functionality that only a few decades ago would have been restricted to high-end recording studios.

Much of a DAW’s functionality was available to magnetic tape (reversing, cutting and pasting, looping, overdubbing, and so on), but in the DAW such functionality is immensely easier, faster, and can be ‘non-destructive’ (that is, the processed or edited audio material remains unchanged on the computer’s hard disk). The DAW’s ‘undo’ function, something undreamt of in the tape era, means that the DAW is to sound recording what the word processor is to text, except that audio is much more complex than text. Like a word processor, a DAW allows its user to engage in radical revision, recontextualisation, and manipulation. As the development of the ‘mash up’, and remixing generally, shows, the DAW can infinitely recombine elements of existing audio works.

As this may suggest, the DAW has a paradoxical relationship with mimesis. It can record audio with great fidelity (with high bit-depths and sample-rates common even among home users), and it can easily reconfigure that audio material beyond recognition. Samplers, one of the DAW’s key plugins, can emulate real-world instruments with great fidelity, but they can also be infinitely processed. Similarly, a ‘live’ performance of a virtual instrument, with all its human imperfections, can be recorded (via a MIDI keyboard, for instance), but its various elements, such as pitch or velocity, are infinitely editable. This paradoxically mimetic/non-mimetic space is a powerful tool for any sounded poetry, but it is especially applicable for sounded poetry that seeks to find a space between the documentary representation of spoken poetry and the wholesale deconstruction of poetic speech.

Given its special place in sound and music, the human voice can resonate in powerful ways in the DAW’s mimetic/non-mimetic space. In the DAW especially, a vocal ‘performance’ is a kind of fiction. Vocal tracks are easily ‘comped’ from a number of takes, and any element of a take can be moved to any place in a project. The recorded voices in my poetry soundtracks are edited, compressed, gated, ‘doubled’, and otherwise processed. Doubling a voice, a technique that that was developed in the 1960s, can be done easily in the digital domain. For instance, a track can be copied and then nudged marginally out of sync with the original track. Most ‘vocal strip’ effects include a ‘Doubler’, which allows the user to determine the amount of doubling and the degree of stereo imaging. The doubled voice produced by such effects is paradoxically both a faithful and unfaithful representation: recognisable, but unreproducible in almost all real-world contexts.

Serge Lacasse calls sonic techniques such as these ‘vocal staging’ (cited Doyle 2005: 29). Vocal staging has an immensely long history, from the use of naturally occurring echoic spaces in prehistoric times to the development of highly reverberant religious architecture in antiquity. Lacasse notes a number of functions of vocal staging in modern media, including its use in popular music to represent inner thought (Doyle 2005: 30), a function clearly related to the virtual vocal staging of lyric poetry, with its long association of poetic language with inner thought.

Even more important than the use of doubling when it comes to vocal staging in my poetry soundtracks is the use of reverb. Reverb and delay (both of which are closely aligned to doubling techniques) are the most basic sonic effects in modern audio production, and the most important, staging as they do endlessly diverse sonic spaces. As Peter Doyle writes in Echo and Reverb, while the effects are ‘ubiquitous in popular music making ... questions of how these sonic variables might bring about an affective outcome in listeners have gone largely unasked’ (2005: 5). The evocative potential of echo and reverb is vast. As Doyle points out, a common adjective used in writings about echoic guitar and vocals is ‘haunting’, an adjective especially relevant to the poetry soundtrack, with its disembodied poetic voices. As he also points out, echo and reverberation make music sound as though it is coming from ‘somewhere’ (whether that somewhere evokes inner or outer spaces), and ‘this “somewhere” [is] often semiotically highly volatile’ (2005: 5). This volatility means that any particular use of echo and reverb is not simply associated with a particular ‘meaning’. Echo and reverb are powerful partly because they can be used in diverse contexts in infinitely variable ways. Clearly, however, both are central to creating a sense of intensification and immersion among listeners.

Such sonic manipulation represents just one element in how a voice, or any sound, can be staged in a DAW. Pitch shifting, time stretching, equalisation and reversing are four other important forms of manipulation for the poetry soundtrack. I have discussed vocal doubling and reverberation because they appear quite prominently in the poetry soundtracks represented here, and because they stand as examples of the ‘digital poetics’ implicit in my poetry soundtracks.

The ‘digital poetics’ of the DAW, as I perceive it, stems from the paradoxical mimetic/non-mimetic condition of digital audio: its ability to reproduce audio with exceptional fidelity, and its powerful ability to produce audio that has little or no relationship to real-world sonics. Following such a poetics, then, I attempt neither to (re)produce a simple ‘documentary’ recording of a vocal performance (the ‘poetry reading’ model), nor to radically deconstruct audio representation and semantic meaning in itself (the ‘sound poetry’ model). Instead, I seek to produce an uncanny space in which my poems can resonate in ways that are both recognisable (mimetic) and ‘alienated’ (non-mimetic) from ordinary speech. Such a space is perhaps especially pertinent to lyric poetry, given its common associations with voice and interiority, form and music.

This tension between fidelity and manipulation, familiarity and unfamiliarity, calls to mind the aesthetic category of the ‘uncanny’. If one defines the uncanny as the disquieting effects produced by the interplay of the familiar and the unfamiliar, then the DAW – with its ability to ‘record’ with extraordinary fidelity and manipulate with equal flexibility – is a preeminent tool to produce such disquieting aesthetic effects. The emphasis on uncanny sonic effects in my poetry soundtracks directly relates to the theme of the uncanny in my typographic poetry. ‘Another Dream’ and ‘A.M.’ offer soundscapes that highlight the sense of uncanny space in their source poems. ‘Another A.M. Dream’ distorts, edits, and rearranges various elements of those two pieces, thanks to the recombinant power of the DAW, to form a new ‘uncanny’ poetry soundtrack, unavailable in any print version. The adaptive potential of the poetry soundtrack is seen in ‘Car’, in which a relatively ‘neutral’ poem is made strange through the uncanny soundscape of the poetry soundtrack.

In addition to the uncanny, I wish to highlight the relationship between the poetry soundtrack and intensification via delay. As discussed, the condition of the recorded voice is that of delay, since any recording of a voice was rendered in another time.4 Using vocalised poetry in a musical setting engenders further delay, since for the two modes—speech and music—to act in concert it is generally necessary to slow down the vocal ‘performance’. Such slowing down is achieved through editing the vocal track into phrases or words. These fragments of speech are then placed into the musical context as I see fit. While editing vocal tracks in this way is not a particular ‘high tech’ element of the DAW, it is nevertheless central to the effect of intensification that the poetry soundtrack is trying to achieve. One of the key forms of intensification available to typographic poetry—defamiliarisation—is analogous to the slowing down of the text in an audio context, since it is a literalisation of the idea that defamiliarisation is a form of ‘slowing down’, of impeding perception.5 Victor Schklovsky, the Russian Formalist who articulated the concept of ‘defamiliarisation’, writes that ‘A work is created “artistically” so that its perception is impeded and the greatest possible effect is produced through the slowness of perception’ (1998: 21, emphasis added). The poetry reading, whether live or recorded, does not easily afford the poet the opportunity to slow down performance to the degree available to the poetry soundtrack. In this respect, then, music and sound design (which of course can also be employed in a live context) are not merely decorative effects, but profoundly determine the perceptual context in which an audience can seek to understand the complexities of a lyric poem.

Thematising the uncanny and employing defamiliarisation are deeply consonant literary effects, and ones that operate ‘naturally’ in a musical context. The musical elements of the poetry soundtracks here all rely heavily on virtual synthesisers and samplers to present a mix of synthetic and organic timbres, real-world and invented sounds. The notable processing on a number of parts, as well as the use of the reverse function (heard, for instance, prominently in ‘Another A.M. Dream’ in the form of a reversed harpsichord note), strongly invokes a kind of auditory uncanny in which there is an interplay between the sonically familiar and unfamiliar. Similarly, the harmonically static nature of the pieces, matched with their timbral complexity, might also suggest an uncanny aesthetic.

Given the importance of music to uncanny effects, and the DAW’s obvious relationship with music production, the poetry soundtrack strikes me as a significant way to overcome the ‘fear of music’ outlined earlier. Music, with its long tradition of producing affective responses in listeners, is a powerful tool for anyone wishing to produce effects of intensity and defamiliarisation with words. Using music, and sound generally, to help produce such effects also returns poetry to the dynamism of perception and sensuality.

Such dynamism is perhaps most powerfully related to the feature of sound design in the poetry soundtrack. Sound design is not just sound effects. It is the totality of decisions at all stages of the recording, mixing, and mastering of the audio object that determines how that object will sound: its ‘colouration’, its use of the stereo field, the degree to which it could be said to be ‘clean’ or ‘dirty’, whether or not its mix is dynamic and balanced, and so on. Through its production of virtual spaces, its use of sound effects, and the implicit links it makes between sound and emotion, sound design—like music—has a profound link with metaphor (as seen, for instance, in the distortion produced by a ring modulator on the phrase ‘three immigrants’ in ‘Car’). As such, it is an inherently ‘poetic’ aspect of audio production, and one that has considerable affective potential when it comes to sounding lyric poetry.

The poetry soundtrack, then, is a powerful tool for adapting and extending the effects of typographic poetry into the sonic realm. It is not about capturing the poet’s ‘own voice’, or valorising the unaccompanied voice. As Charles Bernstein no doubt knows, there is no purely unaccompanied voice in any case. Every voice is its own echo chamber, holding within it a vast store of ghostly voices: one’s parents; the accents of a given region; performative genres (such as how to read a poem); one’s colleagues and family; actors and singers; one’s past self. We are always haunted by others’ voices, even when we think we are speaking most with our ‘true voice’. (In Drums between the bells and Panic of looking one of the key decisions was not to solely use Eno’s or Holland’s voices, but to employ various voices, sometimes on the one piece.) ‘Purist’ attitudes to recorded poetry, whether traditional or avant-garde, run the risk of ignoring the vastly important, and adaptable, similarities between typographic- and recorded-poetry: their ghostly voices; their effects of intensification; the different forms, real and virtual, of ‘staging’ the voice; their uncanny rendering of human speech in both mimetic and non-mimetic terms; their links to music.

The DAW’s ability to both produce and reproduce, to engender and engineer, calls to mind cinema’s similar ability. Philip Brophy’s description, in 100 modern soundtracks, of the cinematic soundtrack could equally apply to the poetry soundtrack: ‘It is sound and noise; noise and music; music and speech; speech and sound’ (2004: 1). How to balance these elements is one of the main challenges of constructing either film soundtracks or poetry soundtracks. Walter Murch, the film and sound editor, describes editing a film as:

a question of orchestration: organizing the images and sounds in a way that is interesting, and digestible by the audience. Mysterious when it needs to be mysterious, and understandable when it needs to be understandable. (in Ondaatje 2002: 31)

With my smaller materials, this is what I hope to achieve in constructing poetry soundtracks: to produce audio works that are neither wholly understandable, nor wholly mysterious. I want my voice to be recognisable, but not wholly ‘mine’, either. I hope that such poetry soundtracks might resonate within the tiny movies playing in a listener’s mind.

  • 1. I realise that ‘sound art’ could be included in this discussion. While sound art often, though not always, shows an interest in speech (as in Vicki Bennett’s sound collages), for reasons of space, sound poetry will need to stand as a representative form of sound art.
  • 2. A prefiguration of such work, with words by Eno, can be seen in ‘Bone Bomb’ on Another Day on Earth (2005).
  • 3. For those interested in such things, I used Sonar X1 Producer and Samplitude Pro X software to compose and record the poetry soundtracks included here. Samplitude Pro X was used for mastering. I used virtual effects and instruments by Audio Damage, Cakewalk, Fabfilter, Magix, Soniccouture, and Native Instruments. I played a Fender bass and an Epiphone guitar, and the vocal recordings were captured with a Zoom H1 recorder and a Sennheiser MK4 microphone.
  • 4. Perhaps appropriately, then, in computer-based recording the issue of ‘latency’, the gap of time between when an audio signal enters into and emerges from a system, is a significant technical problem for DAW users.
  • 5. Of course, one can engage in defamiliarisation using other forms of distortion (including speeding up a voice).
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