poems that GO SPRING - SUMMER ISSUE 2003
The Sound of New Media Poetry PRINT

Sound, of course, has always been vital to poetry. As a language art, the sonic elements of poetry-- accent and duration, syntax and line, like and unlike sounds, blank verse and free verse-- have differentiated poetry from prose for thousands of years. (1)

Although the traditional medium of poetry is the human body, the emergence of new acoustic technologies like the phonograph, telephone, microphone, loudspeaker, radio, tape recorder, and more recently, digital audio and surround sound, have altered the range, volume, reach, and distance of the human voice, and prompted new literary experiments that investigate the qualities, characteristics, and material dimensions of these sound transmitting and recording technologies.

When magnetic tape cassettes and stereo tape recorders were mass-produced for the first time in the 1960's, new possibilities were made available for cultural production and representation. As Katherine Hayles points out, the phonograph produced objects that could be consumed only in their manufactured form, whereas magnetic tape allowed the consumer to be a producer as well. (2) As the technology became more sophisticated, affordable, and widely available, tape became a popular medium for electronic artists and musicians to experiment. These experiments ranged from Stockhausen's 1950's tape pieces to the work of minimalist composers like Steve Reich.

Early in his career, Reich composed two works for tape: "It's Gonna Rain,"(1964) and "Come Out" (1966), which introduced the concept of "phasing," a process Reich developed in which two tape loops begin by playing synchronously, but slowly move out of phase with each other before coming back into unison. The result is powerfully hypnotic; words and sentences are collapsed into short phonemes, the building blocks of language uttered as repetitive sounds that, after time, morph into new configurations.

In the liner notes, Reich describes the process he employed and the background that inspired the work:

Composed in 1966, Come Out was originally part of a benefit presented at Town Hall in New York City for the retrial, with lawyers of their own choosing, of the six boys arrested for murder during the Harlem riots of 1964. The voice is that of Daniel Hamm, now acquitted and then 19, describing a beating he took in Harlem's 28th Precinct Station. The police were about to take the boys out to be "cleaned up" and were only taking those that were visibly bleeding. Since Hamm had no actual open bleeding he proceeded to squeeze open a bruise on his leg so that he would be taken to the hospital. 'I had to like open the bruise up and let some of the bruise blood come out to show them.' Come Out is composed of a single loop recorded on both channels. First the loop is in unison with itself. As it begins to go out of phase a slowly increasing reverberation is heard. This gradually passes into a canon or round for two voices, then four voices and finally eight.(3)

A complex interplay is set up between the representational codes of what is spoken or performed and the specificities of the transmitting or recording technology.

In another tape experiment by Alvin Lucier, "I am Sitting in a Room," (1970), several sentences of recorded speech are played back into a room where they are re-recorded multiple times. Over the course of this process, which goes on for about fifteen minutes, the resonant frequencies of the space act as a filter, and Lucier's speech (and speech impediment) is transformed into pure sound.

You can hear Steve Reich's "Come Out" and Alvin Lucier's "I Am Sitting in a Room" towards the end (2 hrs 21 min in) of this WFMU broadcast of Nothing Special with Kenny G.

You can hear Reich's "It's Gonna Rain" (it's first) on this broadcast

I mention these early tape works by means of an introduction, or perhaps, more accurately, as an inspiration for thinking about sound and Web media. Like the tape recorder, new media editing software is changing the dynamics of who is able to produce interactive audio-video materials, and it too offers a rich site to probe the relationship between the technology and sound.

While artists who worked with analog tape media could employ techniques like cutting and splicing, looping, tape echo, and direction and speed changes, digital media artists face new challenges orchestrating and organizing the seemingly endless possibilities that editing software makes available.

Unlike analog technology, digital technology can be perfectly precise, giving rise to new practices and techniques that were not formerly possible. One such moment of digital triumph occurred when avant-garde musician and composer Georg Anheil's masterwork, Ballet mécanique, was performed for the first time in its original instrumentation 75 years after it was composed.

When Arnheim wrote the music for Ballet mécanique in 1924, his production called for three xylophones, four bass drums, a tamtam (gong), two pianos, a siren, three airplane propellors, seven electric bells, and 16 synchronized player pianos (or pianolas as they were called then). (4)

Because it was impossible to perfectly synchronize the player pianos, the work existed as a conceptual piece. Antheil produced other versions, but he never heard the original in his lifetime. It wasn't until 1999 when William Holab and Paul Lehrman hooked up 16 MIDI-compatible (Musical Instrument Digital Interface, the standard computer protocol for musical instruments) player pianos to a central sequencer, which enabled all of them to play in perfect synchronization. (5)

Of course, the artists today that are exploring the new possibilities for expression that audio-visual Web technologies make available are still subject to limitations. Looping is easier than it's ever been to create, but lengthy compositions are a major challenge. The mp3 file format greatly improved the audio quality of Web sound, but the file size is still huge compared to that of text and images.

In addition, adding interactivity to sound work often involves importing the sound files into another software program like Flash or Director. Subjecting the work to the rules of another layer of software programming shapes the possibilities of the final composition.

The three works featured in this Sound issue of PTG were all created using Flash software. We might see this as a limitation imposed by a proprietary technology (as some Flash naysayers might point out), but it also allows us to see a structured investigation of the software as medium, and the way these works are expressed through the sound capabilities of Flash.

Sounds in Flash can be controlled by means of "attaching sounds" to "Sound Objects" using ActionScript code. (An "Object" is a scripting concept that represents a collection of data and methods for manipulating that data. For example, the Date Object stores different pieces of information that relate to time, as well as methods for getting or setting different values, like the current time.) (6)

This can be used to create work that allows viewers to manipulate volume and pan controls by sliding a graphic on the screen, a technique that Jason Nelson explores in Conversation, which is organized around three subjects: injuries, robots, and products. Each section is comprised of a series of volume and pan sliders against a loud graphical display that allows the user to shift the voices from left to right channels, and to turn up and down the volume of the often humorous commentators, who offer looped fragments of stories that relate to products, injuries, and robots respectively.

As the user manipulates the slider controls, the voices result in a bubbling crowd of conversation, with each commentary sewn together so that it becomes difficult to find the beginning or end of any story. The user becomes a DJ selecting voices to silence or spotlight in the construction of this "verbal composition."

In soundpoem 2, Joerg Peringer uses the selective repetition of short words, phonemes and letter combinations to investigate the relationship between words, sounds, and their absences. In soundpoem 1, Peringer applies a similar technique by associating repetitive sounds with specific spaces within the screen. His polite directions, "please drag the circles into the squares" stand in shocking contrast to the resulting cacophony that is revealed to the user who follows directions.

Finally, Neil Jenkin's generative poem-engine Orbital plays with the ideas of space, location, correspondance, and anonymity. Domain name servers exist to translate numerical hard-to-remember IP addresses into the familiarity of words. In this piece, a droning computer voice endlessly lists the IP numbers of each visitor to the project, while the generative text engine runs on two databases-- one that contains the words to Dunlop's text, and another that lists logged IP addresses of visitors to the engine. As Jenkins describes it, the engine is programmed using Perl with Flash's Actionscript to count back through the IP address list and plot the next word in the poem in a three dimensional plane, using the first three numbers of the IP address as its x, y and z co-ordinates. The fourth number in the IP address determines the next word from the poem to be displayed.(7)

Enjoy these works, and as always, feel free to add your comments to the discussion board.

M. Sapnar


(1) See Robert Pinsky's The Sounds of Poetry: A Brief Guide (Farrar, Straus and Girous, New York) 1998 for an introductory text.

(2) Katherine Hayles, "Bodies out of Voices, Voices out of Bodies: Audiotape and the Production of Subjectivity," in Sound States: Innovative Poetics and Acoustical Technologies Ed. Adalaide Morris, University of South Carolina Press: Chapel Hill, 1997.

(3) Steve Reich, liner notes for LP Music of Our Time: New Sounds in Electronic Music (Columbia Odyssey, New York)

(4) For more on Georg Antheil's Ballet mécanique visit the site mainted by Paul Lehrman, www.antheil.org

(5) Paul Lehrman, "Blast from the Past," WIRED, November 1998.

(6) For a basic review of how sound works in Flash, start with Working with Sound and Sound Objects: Controlling sound in Flash 5

(7) From the Rhizome Database statement for Orbital.




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