"I think that anything that is visual can be sounded and anything that is sounded can be made visual... I like the ideas of Norman MacLaren, the Canadian film-maker, who used to draw his sound tracks. Normally. when you make a film, you make sounds and the sound becomes the soundtrack. But you can start the other way. You can make your marks and translate those into sound. And I am just saying that there is a very close connection between the visual and the sound."
-- Bob Cobbing
(Bob Cobbing and Lawrence Upton)
___in discussion with Alaric Sumner,
___August 1999, London
[In this discussion, the phrase "DAN and DAM" is used a number of times, written here as "DAN / DAM. This derives from the title of a booklet (DAN & DAM! A User's Guide by Bob Cobbing & Lawrence Upton, RWCExtra October 1995) to which Upton refers early on in the discussion. What is indicated by the phrase is the serial work Domestic Ambient Noise. The terms "DANs" is also used to indicate the same series]Sumner: Bob and Lawrence, DAN / DAM is a large project in visual and sound poetry. Would you give a brief summary of each of your routes to this project [Laughter] and could you focus particularly on the relation of visible mark to voicing; and could you also give me, please, a brief history of the project itself. Upton: That's a lot. Who's going to start? Cobbing: You start and describe how it came about. Upton: Well, it'll be interesting if I tell you this and then find later that I have contradicted what came out in our published book on the first 50 DANs... What was it? We were both doing improvising collaborations at the [Writers Forum] workshop and Robert Sheppard, who was in South London then, asked if we would end collaboratively his Smallest Poetry Festival in the World. We said yes and then we said, to each other, that, if were going to perform collaboratively, we ought to make a collaborative text; Robert wanted work from contributors for the programme, you see. But there was a problem, because at the time we should have been making that text I wasn't going to be in London and Bob was. We had to work at a distance, therefore. So I sent Bob a pile of copies of the stuff that I was working on and said: "There you are. Can you do something with any of that?".
He picked out a piece that in fact was the visual, non-verbal instructions for handling my new washing machine, which I had mounted on card; I said that it could also be taken as a poem, as it stood, about the break up of Jugoslavia. That's a doubtful statement, I think, but it was exhibited in Serbia.
Bob made 6 variations on it - at this point we had no agreed procedures, he just decided on that himself, which is fine - and he showed them to me; and I was very happy with them as potential material to read for performance.
And he showed me a booklet, containing these 6 images and my original theme, and said "What do you think of publishing this as a booklet like this?" I said I thought it was a fine idea. He said that he was very glad I had said that and handed me a bag of contributors' copies, because he had already printed them on the assumption that I would say yes.
And we agreed that there had to be a reply; so Bob made a theme and I made 6 variations and that was DAN # 2.
Then we said, well, that was successful enough, so perhaps we ought to do some more and agreed to go to 6. And having got to 6, we said we'd go to 10. We were still having fun so we said we'd go to 20, then 150; and I don't remember more than that but certainly we have now said that we'll stop at 300. Those are the facts of it.Cobbing: Yes, I think that's right. The title Domestic Ambient Noise came from the letter from Robert Sheppard inviting us to take part but saying that we must expect a certain amount of domestic ambient noise. We liked that as a title and used that as the title for the first 20 or 30 probably; and then got fed up with using that ... About that time, there was a mention of the work in Artists Newsletter by Tanya Peixoto. A typo rendered the name as Domestic Ambient Moise. We took that up; and then we translated it into French and then gradually evolved into different titles for each particular publication. Upton: That's right. I think that what people will want to know is that we have worked together before, on and off. Probably the first collaboration was, what? Furst Fruts? 1 That was our separate work placed opposite to the other's and not work made collaboratively, but we made a booklet together, for performance... I've known Bob about 30 years - Cobbing: On and off [laughing] - Upton: Yes! Some big offs... and then ons. I feel, quite rightly, in those early days, I was largely learning from you. But there came a time when I began to be able to steal what I had learned from you and give it back to you, different. Then there was a big break and we started working again in the early 90s at your workshop.
It depends if you like Domestic Ambient Noise or not, but thanks to Robert Sheppard for seeing that happening and really bringing us together. He didn't know what he was starting!Cobbing: We did the first two, as Lawrence says, and enjoyed it and the enjoyment has continued and we shall be sorry when number 300 comes up. Upton: I think that's true. I think the enjoyment is to a very great extent that it's a good way of doing new work. It gets us into very odd spaces and it's constrained too. The constraint I think is quite important. You can't go all over the place; you can try out new ideas, but you are limited to a certain extent. Which is often very productive.... So that's how it came about. Sumner: Thank you. I am also wondering about the relation of visible mark to voicing in DAN / DAM. Upton: Yes, you did ask that. Sumner: I did. Upton: It's a big question, that. Cobbing: You could write a whole book about that. [Upton & Cobbing look at each other.] Upton: Ask us something else. I think it'll be best if we creep up on that one, you know, come back to it. Sumner: All right. How do you respond in performance to the marks on the page? As I understand it, Bob, you usually read the page in a synaesthetic sense. For example, when I see movement, I hear sound - a gull's wing beats for example give me a monotonous seesaw sound; though this is a visible rhythm I hear it with an inner ear. Is this at all similar to the way you respond to visual marks? Cobbing: How do you respond in performance to the marks on the page? By instinct. Without thinking about it, just doing it. Upton: [Uncertainly] Right. Cobbing: This brings up the whole question, of course, of the relationship of the visual to the sound and I think that I am inclined to believe in a much closer relationship between the visual and the sound than Lawrence is. I think that anything that is visual can be sounded and anything that is sounded can be made visual... I like the ideas of Norman MacLaren, the Canadian film-maker, who used to draw his sound tracks. Normally. when you make a film, you make sounds and the sound becomes the soundtrack. But you can start the other way. You can make your marks and translate those into sound. And I am just saying that there is a very close connection between the visual and the sound.
MacLaren wrote a whole lot about it. He said if you do a little tiny dot it gives a ping; if you do a bigger sort of blob, it goes a boom!; and he worked it out that you could create the sound you wanted by the way you drew it on the sound track of the film; and that is my whole theory now, that those marks on the page are the notation for sound as his soundtrack was a notation for sound.Sumner: Lawrence, you talk more about improvising; am I right in assuming you do not hear sound when you see visual pattern? Upton: No, that's not true; but I am not sure what the relationship is between the visual and the sound. I agree with a lot of what Bob has just said. To me it's fairly obvious, possibly instinctive, possibly learned, that the bigger and / or darker a mark is the louder I am going to be, et cetera. I don't have a much more sophisticated approach than that - Cobbing: Nor I - Upton: So this is where I raise the question and we never resolve it because we never bother to pursue it - whether one can read a visual text in the same way that one can read a typescript. I think that my approach changes from day to day. I think we are both improvising. I think I just use the word more. Cobbing: I think on this point of changing from day to day, I think if Alaric were putting these questions next week then he'd get entirely different answers, wouldn't he? Upton: [Uncertainly] Yes... but to take a phrase of yours, Bob, there would be a family resemblance... For me, and I think for you, theory always follows practice and I am utterly clear on that. I go on a gut feeling. I don't know that it's "instinct". I am very unhappy with "instinct". What feels right to me is what I do. Cobbing: Quite right. Upton: And then I start to cogitate about it. Cobbing: bpNichol said "Some people think poetry is an intellectual pursuit. As far as I am concerned it is a gut feeling.". Upton: Yes! "Pome poem"! Cobbing: When my article that quoted that was translated into German, they translated "gut" as "good" - a good feeling. Upton: Ah! Well, that's... bp might have been into that too. [chanting] What is a poem is in your belly!... I do hear sound when I make visual patterns but I don't necessarily hear... the same sound all the time, I hear possible sounds. Sometimes I wonder what the sound will be - Cobbing: When I am making my visuals I have no concept of sound at all. I don't think of sound. It's only when I have done the visual that I turn it into sound and it's often quite a surprise to me which sounds come out. Upton: Right! I think in a way I want to agree with that although it contradicts or might seem to contradict what I have just said... Though I think of sounds when I am making visuals I may not be getting it right; and certainly when I am performing DAN with you I am often surprised by what I do; and the other thing is that, because we do it two voice, you never know what it's going to sound like; that's one of the glories - Cobbing: We are responding not just to what's on the page; we are responding to each other as well; also we are responding to the room and the environment, and that includes the audience, or may, and whatever. It's a very complex business. Upton: It's extremely complex. I think the texts of - you look at the text as a visual and that's its limited domain; but as soon as you start to perform it, that domain lifts off the page - Cobbing: It does indeed, yes. Upton: - and it takes over; and it's taking over, not only with elements that one can't anticipate, but it's taking over with some of those elements, a major part, as a mind of its own, for me you and for you me So it's always going to be a surprise. Cobbing: As soon as you start on a poem, whether it's visual or sound, it does have a life of its own; and in a way you are serving that idea rather than imposing on it. Upton: Yes. I think so. I think so....At least about imposition. You can try and impose on it, the poem, but then it won't work... But it's your feeling you're following, not anything from the poem, but it may feel as though it's coming from the poem. Sumner: Are the patterns on the page the same as the patterns of the sounds you hear?
Cobbing: Not necessarily.
Upton: No. Not necessarily.
Cobbing: The marks on the page are a stimulus to sound performance -
Upton: Yes. Cobbing: - but they don't dictate it.
Upton:Yes. Good. I have nothing to add to that. Sumner: Some of your texts have recognisable words on them, and you have both written and performed texts which are entirely in words. What are the performance differences between responding to word texts and to wordless texts? Upton: Well, those are the two extremes. Cobbing: Yes. There's a spectrum there. There are words which are purely sense, shall we say, and words which become notation for sound and those words become more abstract until they cease to be words and they're completely abstract in sound. Sumner: And what are the performance differences? Upton: Imagine a text in what believes it is the mainstream... Anyone who doesn't approach reading even the simplest poem physically is going to be, in my terms, unsuccessful. Breath control, how you look, how you stand, how you move, they're all part of a reading; and, as you say, Bob, they merge. Cobbing: The same text can be performed at different parts of the spectrum. You can go from words as words into words as music and even lose words altogether and become pure abstract sound and all from the same text. Upton: My reading of verbal of purely wordal texts has been improved by being for so many years in what is called, ha ha, sound poetry. You learn and you take the learning back. Cobbing: Oh, quite, yes. I am quite sure that our reading of our verbal poems is very much fuller and richer for experimenting with sound. Sumner: What triggers the use of non-vocal sound?
Upton:It's a good question.
Cobbing:We're born with it. Sumner: In performance. Cobbing: We started off with non-vocal sound.
Upton:Yes. Trying every possible sound. Cobbing: Yes. Upton: And rejecting... One of the things that we may be doing in performance, by the way, is retrieving some of those sounds that learning our languages led us to reject... I think that just sticking to the lexicon doesn't allow you to express a great deal that one would wish to express. Cobbing: Well, I think it gets pretty near it, but one needs a bit of aid from time to time; and non-vocal is that aid. Sumner: You usually work in black and white. Is this choice, availability of materials or does colour sound differently? Cobbing: Well colour sounds differently but mostly we can't afford it. Upton: For me... well... Certainly working in colour is... is - Cobbing: We've done performances of colour and definitely the colour does colour the performance. Upton: I felt that we didn't do justice to it. Maybe it's just lack of experience. Cobbing: I think you're right. It is a matter of experience. If we did a lot more work in colour, it would enrich the performance quite a lot. Upton: I don't think I am yet able to really sound the differences. Cobbing: I don't think we have had enough experience to answer the question fully. Upton: What we need is a patron to fund the production of colour material - and everything else actually. That's an advert. Contact me.
Having said all that, working in black and white is very nice and sometimes when you're collaging and taking -Cobbing: One could almost say that working in black and white is richer than working in colour in some ways. There are tremendous subtleties in black and white which can get lost in colour. I am thinking of black and white film. There's a richness there that isn't in colour. It needn't be that way, but in film it usually is, colour is used naturalistically rather than emotionally. And there's a danger of our working in this medium of its becoming too naturalistic rather than purely emotional. Upton: My colour vision is imperfect. So - Cobbing: [Laughing] That could help... A lot of the effects I get, I know, are due to my impaired eyesight Upton: I often take colour images and reduce them to greyscale and find then that I see things that, particularly where there's red and green confusion, I hadn't seen in the original; but the greyscale picks it out of course. Sumner: When you are creating the pages, are you thinking about the visual patterns alone or also about the sound they will make in performance? Cobbing: I'm not, no. I said, the sound comes as a surprise to me. Sumner: They are separate processes then? Upton: I do try to, I don't know how successfully, to think about it; and in some of the solo things I do, I certainly think "How that's going to sound?". I am talking about outside the DAN / DAM thing. If I am making a thing that I have decided is going to be multivoice then I am much more inclined to just let it happen. If I am making a thing that is going to be performed solo then I do at some point before the performance try to think of it as a notation, either after making it, or increasingly while I am making it. Sumner: Though you both use words in DAN / DAM, you both also tend to obliterate them. Is there something less direct, truthful, communicative about verbal language than non-word-based communication? Upton: No. Cobbing: No, there needn't be; there some times is, but there needn't be. Upton: No. Sumner: Bob, you have worked with musicians quite a lot (Birdyak etc). Does 'song' not describe what both of you do? Cobbing: No. Music and sound poetry are not the same thing at all. Going back to Shlovsky's "ballet of the speech organs", sound poetry is much more concerned with articulated speech than it is with melody and harmony and so on. It may sound like music sometimes but it's much nearer to speech than it is to music. Upton: That's really interesting. I don't really disagree with you. But you have used the word "song" in your - Cobbing: All right, I called a publication SongSignals, but I still don't think the result is song. Upton: OK. I brought it up because - Cobbing: The notation is stimulus for sound and a lot of people wouldn't distinguish between what we do and song; but I do. I think what we do is articulated speech rather than song. Upton: "Articulated speech" is good. You've used that before. I must nick it. I call a lot of my things songs and I don't really think they are, as the word is normally used. Cobbing: The same thing happens in music. They talk about tone poems, for instance. Sumner: So you call what you do "sound poetry" rather than "visual scores for wordless song", for example? Cobbing: We definitely regard the work as linguistic. Upton: I only say "sound poetry", if and when I say it, well now I only say it because other people say it. Cobbing: Exactly: We are influenced by what other people say and the concepts they have of what we do. Upton: Yes, if you are living with someone and people say "your wife", they don't want you to go into a long discussion of well actually we just live together; or if you're abroad and someone says "Are you English?", I'm probably going to say yes although I might at some levels want to debate that. It's not what they want to know and it's just not worth the effort in every situation. [Cobbing's cat jumps on the table and sits down, vocalising as it does so.] The cat says miao.... I don't know about "sound poetry". I'm not going to deny the term, but because it means so many things to so many people - Cobbing: You can't escape it. Upton: You can't escape it, but it's not terribly useful; and left to myself I wouldn't use it. I would say: well it's just this thing that I'm doing. [The cat, standing up now, seems agitated.] Calm down, cat, calm down. Sumner: Could you perform any patterned surface - Paula Claire's pebbles, leaves et cetera - and if so, are those marks "language"? Cobbing: Yes, they can become language. Upton: Yes, you can perform any patterned surface; and if you think they are linguistic then I guess they are. Of course, it's an odd meaning of the word linguistic. You're choosing to make it expressive. You haven't got a transmitter-receiver model, just a receiver, or maybe it's a transceiver generating its own input. But, who cares - Cobbing: I quite enjoy in performance sometimes going up to a painting on the wall and doing that. It startles people, but the painting has a pattern to it and that pattern can be interpreted in sound. Upton: You did that at the Voice Box recently, when you read with Maggie [O'Sullivan]. Cobbing: I did. Upton: I wrote about that and I don't think you've seen that. I must post you a copy. Sumner: Is made-pattern performable where 'natural' pattern is not or more so? Is artistic intention what gives you the stimulus to perform a text? Cobbing: One doesn't have to perform a text. One only performs a text through some sort of artistic conviction that it is appropriate to do so. Upton: Sure. I actually prefer made pattern to, quote, natural - Cobbing: So do I - Upton: - as Alaric just indicated there are quotes around that word; and I think - Cobbing: One is, in one way, making new marks in nature when one is making one's visual poem. As far as I am concerned there is a lot of my observation of the visual world going into the marks that I make on paper. Upton: Yes, yes, it's the process of abstraction. I am a lot happier, for performance, with the leaves when they've been photocopied than if they are lying in my hand - Cobbing: Quite Upton: I was always a bit worried by that with Paula. And that process of the photocopier - Cobbing: I prefer our method to Paula's, quite honestly. Upton: Or it could be a photograph or whatever - Cobbing: Interesting point. Guy called Frank Southey who used to paint abstract paintings; and he painted this picture that was quite exciting in its textures and shapes; and coming up by train to London one day he looked out and suddenly realised "My god! that's where it is". What one sees does influence tremendously what one makes. [Laughter] Upton: I overheard a conversation in St Ives recently. Someone said "Well there was a light snowfall here that vanished within hours; and, as you looked down, for that brief time, towards the island, the whole of the roofscape became a Ben Nicholson" I thought that was more than interesting. One wouldn't want to say that now we understand Nicholson, in the sense of locating one to one reference, but nevertheless there is something going on there... And I am thinking of Lanyon's resistance to being called abstract and saying "No, abstraction is one of the processes I use but I am taking the process further on". That's probably not exactly what he said, but that's what I have heard him say, in my head; but what he did say was very close to that. Cobbing: I feel very much like that. A lot of these visual things that I do which may look completely abstract are not so completely abstract as you think they are; quite often they are realism slightly manipulated or more than slightly. Upton: Yes... And recently I was standing in front of the late Pollocks when they were in the Tate in London and picking up on that word song... If you stand in front of those things a long time - and I didn't organise it well enough to stand in front of them as long as I wanted - and they just - I was going to say - it's a cliché - but they begin to sing. And you begin to see things in them. The more you resist that, the more you see and the more it sings. I don't quite know where that goes, but I am happy to follow it. There's a dialogue and anyone who tries to make a Pollock, perhaps as a learning exercise, finds that, you know, you drip the paint, you splash the paint, but you don't make a Pollock - Cobbing: No. Upton: It's very craftily done. Cobbing: Pollock is of a particular physique; the way that he dribbles paint has a lot to do with his physique - Upton: Yes Cobbing: And if I do it or you do it, the muscular movements that one makes are quite different and the painting will turn out to be an Upton or a Cobbing rather than a Pollock. I've got a lot of belief in this whole idea of what we do in art is to do with our bodily make up, our proportions, our natural movements. I feel that when I am making a poem on the photocopier that I am making the same sort of muscular movement as I do in performance and that movement in performance is very much to do with the voice as it comes out. We are governed by our physique, I think. We try to transcend it, but we are what we are. We are our bodies. Upton: It's that wall you can't see that you're - we're - constantly trying to get over; you don't make it but you keep trying... I've watched you at the photocopier and I confirm it's the same movement... But this also happens in cut up, I mean textual cut up. I think if we all had the same, say, set of material and we all applied the same near-aleatoric processes we would all produce - you would produce Cobbing and I would produce Upton. And, if I am right, I have absolutely no idea how that works. But I think it's the case Cobbing: I can analyse some of the things I do. I know that I have a tendency to do a line like that [he indicates a diagonal line with his hand] and a line like that [indicates a line sloping the other way, joining the first] . I think it's natural to me and it comes up again and again in my work. Upton: So it does. Cobbing: So there are things which are natural to us and those are the things that distinguish my work from yours and our work from anybody else's. Upton: Years ago, when I was collaborating with cris cheek and with Clive Fencott... you could always see the differences between our individual work. What's been interesting about DAN / DAM is that sometimes it merges. Cobbing: This is unfortunate to some extent, I think. You and Clive [Fencott] and cris [cheek] were at that time very different and that difference made a lot of the impact of the performance; but we are in danger of becoming one person. Upton: What a horrible thought - for both of us, I suspect. Cobbing: We must fight against it. Upton: A shock for your wife and your cat. Cobbing: Looking back through some of those DANs, I am not at all sure if I did it or you. It's partly because we are collaborating and making variations on each other's themes; but there is a - we are learning too much from each other. Upton: Well, as I recall, we have several times set out to work as the other one. Cobbing: Yes, we have. Upton: Well, I find what happens then quite interesting. There was that thing, thinking of Clive, in Alembic magazine where I tried to work with Clive [Fencott]'s style, quite successfully, I think. It was quite spooky because it isn't me at all, but it was quite interesting trying. Robert Graves told us to do that, didn't he? I'm not sure he meant it with visual poetry. Cobbing: I've been surprised by some of the covers I have done for your Sub Voicive [Poetry] series - they have come out as something quite different than me. Upton: When I showed Jeff Nuttall the cover of his RWC he said "That's great - I like Bob's work" and of course it was mine. Cobbing: So where have we got to? Sumner: What differences do you experience in the way you each perform? Cobbing: I don't know. I know how I perform. By instinct. I don't think about it. I just do it. It can be stimulated by what's on the page. It can also be stimulated by what Lawrence is doing. It can be stimulated by the environment, by the audience and so on; it's a very complex business. Upton: A lot of what I do with the more abstract texts, I have learned a lot of what I do from Bob, the approaches, although I would say they are mine now. But I have learned from a lot of other people. There were things going on in jgjgjg - you weren't learning them so much as making them up - you were trying to do things that, I believe, no one had done before, in the same way that I think we are doing visual and sound things that no one has done before. I would happily confess to having learned a great deal from the brief visits of Paul Dutton - you watch him and you think "I'm having that" and [laughing] steal every technique you can manage to work out how he did it - because for me the man is absolutely technically brilliant and an interesting maker and that's a rare combination. Cobbing: And, again, he does a great deal of it with his body. Upton: Yes... And... I think the way... I've begun to try to observe it but it's very hard to see yourself, but I am told that we behave very differently in the way that we move, you and I; but I don't know what those differences are; but we are different. Cobbing: We move in a way that is natural to us as individuals. We're different individuals and we move differently. Upton: Me twitching and shaking all over the place and falling about all over the place - I don't know... Ask us another question, Alaric. Sumner: The DAN / DAM project is a large project. It seems unlikely that you will perform every single piece from it. Or do you have a system to ensure every page will be performed? Cobbing: No. I think we've performed a part of every book that we've done; but very often we take the cover and the middle spread. We never have attempted to perform a whole book, have we, Lawrence? Upton: We performed one the other day. Cobbing: Did we? [Laughing] Upton: The last one we did. My one about tigers. Cobbing: Oh yes. Yes, we have, on occasions, performed the whole of a DAN, but very rarely. Upton: But that was an interesting departure, because that was going from beginning to end as though it were sequential. Now the story is that each one is a variation and I think that's so. Cobbing: But we made a story out of it. Upton: We made a story and a very odd story. But I've got poems apart from - Cobbing: What I'm doing when I'm doing a DAN, I've got one of your themes and I do 20 to 30 variations and then I usually get Jennifer to come along and pick out the ones I am going to use, getting another opinion on it; and quite often she puts them into order; and quite often she puts them into an order which does make a story; it's not haphazard; it's a sequence of variations. Upton: I look at it as a - like you I used to make loads of variations. Now we're looking for 8 images, the 6 and a cover and back page. Now I might make 9 or 10 - Cobbing: I have done a DAN with only 8. Upton: I would spread them out, when I made many, and stand on a chair to look down. It's very important to me to arrange them as a book even though I am saying they are separate pieces, the book must be experienced visually. Sumner: But you aren't going to perform them all? Upton: I wouldn't want to perform them all. I wouldn't mind performing them all, but I don't see - Cobbing: There's no earthly reason why we shouldn't Upton: Yes... but this is like walking, say when I walk a coastal path, I am asked "Have you walked all of it?". Why would I want to? It doesn't matter in such cases about being complete. The idea that it matters that we haven't uttered every page - It's an illusion anyway because in any process one can go into greater and great detail so even one stage is never complete. That's certainly true of DAN. Cobbing: When we have done longer performances, many pages from many books, there again we put them into some sort of sequence. Upton: And that changes the individual pages. I've played people the tape of the Senate House gig. I particularly like it. And they often ask if I can show them the texts we were performing; and of course I can't. If it were one text, I might have a chance, although there's a hell of a lot of images to remember; but in a new sequence, once you blur them together, they change their character in the new context. Cobbing: That's it. Upton: And similarly that stuff that was put on that CD. 2 That was done in confusion and darkness with that dog barking; and one was concentrating on making a whole thing... And because one was trying to make a whole thing, identifying bits is not on - especially as he edited digitally after. Cobbing: Right. Upton: Anyway, in a situation like that, one is performing in a defined space and performing the space to some extent. And I am performing your performance and you're performing my performance. Sumner: In your performances you do not show the audience the text from which you are working. An exception to this was the performance at Sub Voicive Colloquium during cris cheek's presentation on DAN / DAM, during which he projected slides of DAN / DAM pages and both of you performed vocally with Jennifer Pike performing the texts in movement. There were moments when Jennifer's movements were visibly echoing in action the marks she was performing. Is it important for your audience to know you are reading a text and would it be an advantage or disadvantage for them to know which particular bit of an image you were responding to? Cobbing: No. I think that if you are performing and the audience can see the text, they get too worried about trying to interpret which bit you are performing and they lose the impact of the work itself. Upton: We've been experimenting with projecting - Cobbing: I think if you are going to use the projection as part of the performance the projection has got to be the sort of thing that Jennifer does, manipulating the machine, to make it part of the performance rather than just something we are performing to. Upton: Absolutely. I am very happy with that. What I found when we were last doing that was that it may have helped the audience but it completely threw me because I couldn't see the text. I was in the text. [Cobbing chortles merrily] I'll perform without a text and just improvise, but it's utterly different - Cobbing: Yes. Upton: Even though I am leaping off from a text I like to have it there in front of me if that's what I am doing. Cobbing: When the screen is playing, it's much more important to us to have the actual text in front of us rather than having to try to perform to the screen. The screen is performing to the text, we are performing to the text. Upton: If we do follow this up - we did it at Klinker, 3 didn't we, as well, which Alaric didn't see - if we follow it up, I want a music stand off to the side, with the texts - Cobbing: Yes Upton: - maybe on a long thin board so there can be many of them. It would be nice to have a monitor, but I'll settle for photocopies. What we see may be different to what the audience sees. I think it can be interesting for the audience to see the text, important actually, though if they were to get caught up in worrying about "Where are you now?" it's - Cobbing: It could worry an audience, I think. "How are the sounds you are making relating to what I see in front of me?" Upton: Well that would be a distraction... But... I think, Alaric, your question is wrong... Maybe, on the times you have seen us, for some reason we haven't done it, but I make a point of showing the audience what we are about to perform. Then, of necessity, I take it away because I need to read it. Cobbing: It's important for the audience to see that we are performing from a text. Upton: It can only bring them in; and it's a provocative thing to do, but I would be so frustrated - Cobbing: Going back to this colloquium thing when Jennifer, I thought, did marvellously with her dance - Upton: Me too. Cobbing: I thought we were pretty poor then at the sound we were making. Did you feel that? Upton: I didn't. Cobbing: I thought we were under par. Upton: Ah well that's a different matter... Certainly we were under par. It takes a while - Cobbing: It takes a while, yes. Upton: And you'd been sitting there since the morning and I was knackered, as well having been treated like a piece of shit by someone in Senate House. Cobbing: I wasn't happy with it. Upton: Well, we didn't really perform for that long. Cobbing: No, we should have done more. If we had done more, it could have been improved. Upton: I think so. There's your axiom that if it isn't going well keep going and I think that's right. Cobbing: But we didn't do it. Upton: Well, there wasn't time. I had to stop us. What was interesting is that those who were there, among those who are inclined to enjoy us, thought we were fine. I didn't think we were poor, but we weren't as good as we could have been. Cobbing: OK. I'll settle for that. Sumner: Would you both agree that your work is very different from the other's, and if so, can you identify any specific recurring differences in the visual material you each come up with and in the choices you make in performance? Cobbing: Well I hope our work is different from each other's. As I said, the danger is sometimes that we are learning so much from each other that our work is becoming a little too similar. But we make every endeavour for that not to happen; and I think that we, at least I do, strenuously try to input something different into each DAN which is of me. Therefore, I hope that our work will remain sufficiently different. Upton: I think there are big differences. I am not sure I can name them. Cobbing: We work in very different ways. Upton: Oh yes, means of selection and means of transformation are really quite widely different. One could list them but that doesn't tell you the qualitative differences and I am not able - I don't particularly want to say what that is; because that becomes - it is very difficult to say that without being evaluative and I don't want to start - I can't - I don't want to evaluate and say "I think I do this bit better than you". Robert Sheppard's picked up on some of that and suggested it may be generational. 4 There may be something to do with it, the kind of things we pick up; but then, as you say, we copy each other. Cobbing: We're working to each other's themes. Upton: We're working to each other's themes, but we also take each other's methods. Cobbing: At the same time we are injecting something of our own into the variations. You tend perhaps to input different ideas into your variations. You work in a different way, I think, to me, in that respect, I can't exactly put my finger on how you add to the material compared with how I add to it. Upton: And no matter - Cobbing: Partly it's the machines we use. You work on entirely different machines to me - Upton: That's right. Cobbing: And that definitely has an effect. Upton: Well there are certain things you can do which are extremely difficult for me to do and the other way round. Cobbing: Yes and I think that's good too. Upton: Yes! It's to do with what we were saying about bodily rhythms and psychological rhythms and I think that one sign that a thing isn't lively would be that we were doing the same thing. OK so one week I end doing something like you or you me; so what, because next week it'll veer off again, or has up to now. Cobbing: That's right. Upton: There was a thing - Cobbing: These last two are hugely different I think. [pointing to the two latest issues of DAN on the table] Upton: What Arbeiter surprise and Workman verwunderung? Cobbing: Yes. Upton: Yes, they are utterly different, aren't they? And that's not just the machines. It's a case where the one that you've originated - Cobbing: I tend to be a bit heavy-handed I think and you often get a lighter touch. Upton: Maybe. Which is neither good nor bad but... it's different.... I would not, in a month of Sundays, have produced that latest one of yours and I think the same is true of - Cobbing: Quite. I think there they are quite different and quite clearly made by two different people; but there have been occasions in the past when, as I say, I can't be sure sometimes who did what if I see them out of context; and I've asked you. Upton: It's where you start saying, as an exercise, for me "OK now I am going to go towards Bob stylistically" and the end result of that can be that I don't know - that's when I have been successful, I suppose. And I have a pile of stuff by my drawing board of the scrapings of DAN that look as though they might be useful. I don't always know who did those.
The first time I really experienced that was when I made The Last Man's Song in the studio at Fylkingen 5 and I used your voice with mine and then started filtering them so that you sounded like me and me like you, so that I could get the effects that each could get in their voice but that not both could get. A year later when Laurence Casserley brought in his quad machine and played the tape, I didn't know who was doing what at all. It had become one voice. That was pretty weird, but you learn things from those experiences, and the piece itself was good, I think.
If we then stayed there, sounding like each other, or looking like each other, I mean in DAN, then I'd say "This is dead"; but if there's still elasticity -Cobbing: We are still coming up with surprises. That's important. Once we lose that surprise element we might as well finish. Upton: It's not competitive though. It's like - it's the difference between watching, say, professional tennis and people playing a similar game on the beach. In one the players are trying to make the other lose, to outwit each other, whereas in the beach game they are trying to keep the ball or the shuttlecock in the air. I think it's more like that. We try to keep it going although we are trying to surprise each other; we are also trying to surprise ourselves. We are trying to keep each other in the game. It's like a conversation. Cobbing: Yes, that's what it is. Sumner: What are the benefits of using multiple voices in realising texts? Cobbing: Most of the stuff I do in visual terms I would feel lacking if I used my own voice alone; because it is too complex with one voice, there are too many things going on at the same time. Upton: And, structurally, Domestic Ambient Noise, would be very odd. There we are in that collaborative supportive way, making the poem together; it'd be pretty odd if one of us went out alone and did it. It's not the same at all as, say, a lyricist and musician making a song and then one of them performing it. It's not like that. It's a different thing. Because we are both doing everything. Sumner: Why are some texts ok to be performed solo and others not?
Cobbing:There are purely verbal ones that can be performed solo and one can have certain visual texts that are easy enough to be performed solo. If one's driven to it, even some of the more complex ones can be performed solo; but it's not ideal. Upton: You, Bob, have done many solo performances; and that calls upon immense reserves. It's a struggle; and I think in that struggle, though it's unwelcome, that you find things. There was that text I performed solo at V.I. last December 6 . The performance, I thought, failed. It was an ok performance, but its subject became almost my inability to perform my poem solo, because it was too complex. I learned a lot out of that. It pushed me to the limit just as I had pushed the text at least to the limit. In a way I wish that I had got someone else to perform with me. There was Jennifer dancing and that probably made it easier for the audience, as well as bringing out aspects of the text that voice alone could not, though I couldn't see what she was doing; but I am quite interested in doing things even if they don't work. It's an investigative jump, but it needs to be a performance to be one. A rehearsal for a performance isn't the same. It's quite interesting going into things thinking "I know that if two of us do this we're going to come up with something worthwhile"; but let's get a real experiment here, not that rough name of "experiment" for anything you can't classify [Cobbing laughs]. What happens if I do that when it may not work? Cobbing: I think that's the kind of risk we're taking all the time. Whatever we do. It's important to take those risks. Upton: I think so, yes. Sumner: Are there texts which are better interpreted by musicians than poets? For instance, Bob, are there texts which it would be better to perform with Hugh [Metcalfe] than with Lawrence? Cobbing: No. There are differences, but I'd just as soon perform with musicians as I would with poets; though the result, obviously, is quite different. Though there again there's a family resemblance. I don't think you can say that any text is better performed by musicians than poets or vice versa. Sumner: Do musicians interpret texts differently to poets? Cobbing: Yes. The interesting thing is, with Paul Burwell and David Toop particularly, they are very definitely performing the text through their instruments, very close interpretation of the texts indeed. Working with Hugh [Metcalfe] and Lol [Coxhill], what they do is not a close interpretation of the text, but a general atmospheric approach to the text, which I think is ok. Upton: Some years ago, twenty years ago, I was around City Lit and Morley College a lot. cris [cheek] was there and Erik Vonna-Michell. We went to workshops. They were musicians' workshops. And the others were all musicians! cris, of course, had a clarinet, but I had a set of Mr Kipling cake containers, carefully washed, and a drum stick, which soon smashed the containers and then they made a different sound. And I know that at various times we completely pissed off the musicians, not that we wanted to; but slowly, the people in charge were very broadminded, Philip Wachsmann particularly, slowly people began to say that what we were doing interested them. We would always affirm that we were there to make music, because it was for musicians, but actually we were there for poetry - if you want to call it that. I mean I don't care what it's called, but there are intangible differences. It was a difference of sensibility.
I also remember a performance that I did with prepared tape and there was a chap there who liked it, not least because of the apparent layering of the tape. He asked how many channels I had used. As I recall, I said 9 and he confirmed that he could hear them. I said it because he didn't want to hear that the prepared tape had been live, one take, no layering beyond simultaneous activity!
We were coming from different directions, him careful preparation, me chance, accident and improvisation, and there was going to be no meeting; but if I could persuade him to hear the tape itself he then heard it as being ok. I say 9, but I am not sure. It was a very complex sound... but it was just a complex sound.Sumner: When you are performing a text with another and they make a major change in their utterance / performance, do you then move to another part of the text? or change your mode of interpretation? or just carry on? Upton: I jump. I nearly always do. Say Bob's just done a radical change - and we do - we've never discussed this but I think it's true that although it's nice when we meet we don't like to stay meeting too long - Cobbing: No, no, that's right Upton: So if I - I will carry on with what I am doing for a bit, a different length of time each time, I think; and then what I do is go off, I think, I think, I might sometimes do something different with the bit that I am reading; but I think that I am more likely to go to another bit of the text and then perhaps come back and do the same bit of text differently; but if I hear the utterance change radically, generally, I move. But not always. Cobbing: One is either following the shape of the text with a wandering eye across the page or very often make a jump to another part of the page; but that depends very much on what the other person is doing. One instinctively feels the need for a change. Upton: I like sudden jumps... It has its parallel in verbal linear poetry. Cobbing: It has its parallel in all art. Upton: The first time I remember meeting that was at a workshop with Sean O Huigin saying here's your copy of a multivoice text: start and stop where you want. And then about 15 years later Eric Mottram started doing it, though actually it was different to Sean's approach, anyway, there's a link. I think Eric thought he had invented it. He did it differently and he did it very well, but it had been done. There are lots of people doing it, the equivalent. It's not particularly a thing of visual work and - Cobbing: And not particular to DAN either. Upton: And not particular to DAN... You don't need to start from the top left hand corner. That, in some ways, is a tyranny, or can be. Cobbing: Yes, yes. Sumner: It seems to me that in reading your texts you are able to jump from one place to another in a way that would be very difficult with a text in a book. Is it that you have a different kind of text? or a different approach to reading texts? Cobbing: A linear text where you read from top to bottom? Visual poetry is different to that. You don't often do that. The text dictates its own way of being approached. Upton: And once you are into performance, you're talking about an expanded text, a spreading domain, so that it's going to dictate its way of being approached in different ways each time - Cobbing: That's right. Upton: So in that way a visually-oriented text is a virtual hypertext with links all over it and it can go where you want - where it lets you - and it seems very much that it's the sound and the movement which is guiding, it's what is being seen and what is being heard that we are reading, though that is being guided by the visual text.
Sumner:How do you stop a performance? Cobbing: A performance naturally comes to an end; and we quite often sense the same natural moment as each other; and we often stop in the most surprising places; and we know when to finish. Upton: We sometimes offer each other stops; but I no longer know, properly, when I am offering a stop and when I am just stopping for a while. I do like to - I don't like both of us making sound all the time. It's nice to have some quiet. But that's not the same as saying "Oh Bob's going to do his saxophone solo now". I don't think we do that, what the musicians sometimes do. It's not appropriate and I don't want to foreground that sort of implied virtuosity. But the more we go on, the more we get to sense how we are going to stop - but the surprise is part of a structural response - I don't want it to end on a dying fall. Cobbing: No! Upton: I don't want it to be shaped like a bell curve! Cobbing: No! No! No! No! No! No! Upton: Early on, in this sequence, we used often to build up and up and up and then stop. We do that less and I think that's for the better. It was a bit rock-musiciany. Cobbing: Yes. Sumner: What is the relationship of the sounds in your performance to silence?
Cobbing:I think probably we don't use enough silence in our work. I think it's something we might explore more.
Upton:I think we should. Cobbing: We tend to fill the whole space rather than making silence an aspect of it. Upton: In my head, there's lots of silence, I mean in Domestic Ambient Noise, but also in my head! And there's lots of silence in my own solo writing... but we don't do enough to make silence in DAN. That would be a real criticism of it, I think. Cobbing: If I am silent, you are still making sound; and if you are silent, I am still making sound; and the silences don't tell sufficiently perhaps. Upton: No... No... Yes...
Sumner:Are there silences between the pages of DANs?
Cobbing:Well, of course, if we were doing a whole book then there would be a momentary silence at any rate. When we did the whole book the other day, we made it clear when we were going from one page to another. Upton: I do like the idea that, at the edge of each page, there is a break. I don't want that continuity that you get where you're desperately trying not to show that you're page turning. I wrote somewhere about - Cobbing: Yes, these are poems; and each page is a poem; it's not a novel. Upton: I like showing the artificial nature of the material. I wrote of Paul Dutton that he never hides the fact that he is generating the sound. I like the way that, in between each change of effect, he just takes another deep breath to fuel what he is about to do. The performance is a series of made things and he's not hiding that. I like that. Let's hear the page turn. Cobbing: Right.
Upton:Not long ago I was asked to make a recording of a poem and I was asked to do it two or three times so that the sound of the page turning could be cut out [Cobbing laughs] but the recording of my work for this publication, you'll hear the turning of the page. Alaric made the recording and he doesn't worry about the sound of paper. [All are silent for quite a while] We did a page in DAN where all it says on it is "Listen!". Cobbing: That's right. Upton: I don't think we ever tried to perform that, so we don't really know what it sounds like.
Sumner:If you are not uttering when the other is not, are you being silent?
[No one speaks for some time. All are straight-faced.]Upton: It depends. You need to decide what value you're, what semantic value, you're putting on that word. Sumner: You decide! Upton: It's not just not making a sound. I like it to be very active. If it isn't, the audience may start clapping so you have to show in some way that you're still performing Cobbing: Well there are lots of ways of showing you're still performing without making a sound. Upton: I'm for silence being an active thing. Cobbing: You're right. Upton: There's a thing in Newlyn Art Gallery, James Turrell, Alaric pointed me at it, where most of the installation is darkness; and... it's active. The darkness is active. Cobbing: What is the sound of a blank page?... Upton: And we've both rustled papers and pages. Cobbing: Yes. Upton: The book can be a poetic instrument - Cobbing: Yes. Upton: - as Steve McCaffery has shown us too!
Sumner:How are these things read and where from?
Upton: ...Imagination... I don't know... Improvisation...
Sumner:DAN / DAM is published as booklets; and booklets tend to be seen as sequential and to be read along a time line. But you don't do that, do you?
Upton:No, but we read whole pages.
Cobbing:Pages, yes. We can perform books - Upton: Yes. Cobbing: - but we don't often... Upton: That's when, we were talking just now, when you take a whole sequence of pages because someone says "Come and give me 40 minutes of Domestic Ambient Noise" and what they're actually getting is a very long composite page. We may get out of step. We did that at the Klinker. Cobbing: Oh yes, we certainly did [laughing]. Upton: And it was interesting to me how disorienting I found that, I don't know about Bob. One of us dropped our pages and for a while... Cobbing: We were quite out of gear. Upton: Whether or not the audience noticed, I remember my distress [Cobbing laughing merrily] because I was performing a page and you were performing a page but they weren't the same page. Cobbing: Yes. Mind you, that is another way of working. When I did tours with Clive [Fencott] many years ago, we used to take whole bundles of texts and chuck 'em up in the air- Upton: Oh yes! Cobbing: And then go around and each pick up a different one. But Lawrence and I don't do that with DAN; it wouldn't be appropriate to do that with DAN. Upton: I think I agree with that. If we were doing that, then it would be fine. It's purely your mind set. You think you're going to be doing one thing - Cobbing: And also besides picking up pages and reading at random we would wander round the room and go out of the door and down the steps and yet it was amazing really if you heard a recording of it how together we were in performance though it might be thought we had done everything to make sure that the performance didn't work. Upton: The wider and the looser the net you make the more everything becomes relevant - against your judgement... your experience... takes over... Sumner: How has your understanding of how to perform texts changed over the years as you have engaged in different collaborations?
Cobbing:I think it's become much more instinctive now than it used to be. The best results are when you don't think too much about it and I think that we have learned that lesson, not to think too much about it. Upton: You build up such a set of resources... Cobbing: That's another aspect of it. We have built up very much more... resources than those we started off with... Upton: I used to with jgjgjg... we had discussions... we didn't rehearse but we spent a lot of time talking about how we were going to do it. Cobbing: I used to think about it beforehand but I don't now and I think it's better now. Upton: Yes. With my performance Game on a phrase of Scott Thurston that Alaric has recorded, I did it almost without warning, I didn't tell myself I was going to do it before I did it.
Sumner:And to what extent is DAN another stage in this process or is it qualitatively different to other collaborations as a text you read? Cobbing: I think DAN is quite different to anything else we have done and quite different to anything else that anybody else has done. It definitely has a character of its own. Upton: Yes... Yes. There are elements in it of other things that I have done - Cobbing: Yes. Upton: - and certainly with cris [cheek] and Erik [Vonna-Michell] rather than with jgjgjg, but that was on such a relatively small scale and for such a relatively short time... I've come to this with so much more experience and I think this is much more productive... but then I wouldn't have been here if it hadn't been for the earlier work - and I am judging myself rather than the others involved in the earlier collaborations. This is opening up ideas that it's going to take me another half century to work through. [Cobbing laughs]