"I found certain tracks rivetting - punching through me and making me search out the author's work or making me revisit works I already knew ..."
-- Alaric Sumner
A Celebration of Sound Poetry
Edited by Stephen Scobie & Douglas Barbour
Published by Red Deer Press
A Review by Alaric Sumner
The more I have listened to this CD the more I have appreciated it. When I first heard the CD, I found certain tracks rivetting - punching through me and making me search out the author's work or making me revisit works I already knew (Steve McCaffery's Carnival for example - the panels of which, by the way, are now webviewable from Coachhouse Press's website; I have been listening to the CD while reading the screen, a particular pleasure while constructing the sound/text section).
In Snare, Kick, Rack and Floor, Paul Dutton's spectacular rendition of the words 'combustability/ compatability', almost accompanying his vocal utterance with a percussion of lip noise, breath noise and expert use of the acoustic of the space (bouncing percussive sounds off the walls), show what can be done with the form - making repetition startling and unexpected; no longer repetition, but a Steinian 'beginning again' - no longer permutation but transformation.
The tracks that most excite me on the CD are Dutton's and both McCaffery's rendition of his own Carnival and his performance of Gauvreau's Jappements ‡ la lune. These are all live recordings or unedited single takes. The energy the body exerts in these utterances is a major part of the communication - Dutton seems to perform for my ears only, while McCaffery is clearly negotiating an intricate and expressive path through his audience's reactions. Dutton utters and I listen amazed, enthralled; I hear McCaffery generously manipulating his hearers. Christian Boek on the other hand seems confrontational - 'listen if you want or piss off' (particularly appropriate for his Ubu Hubbub piece) - which has a long and honourable tradition in sound poetry. Penn Kemp gently insists that I listen to her rocking words from sound to meaning. One of the quietest tracks on the CD, Sin Tax draws more out of me than some other poets' bluster. Her ironic sounding of the final sentence (the final permutation) "intense imagination breeds literary history" is playful and disrupts confidence in what precedes it. Richard Truhlar in Fossil Motion transforms ("processed electronically in real-time") "only the composer's voice" into a sonic event often with only residual reference to voice.
Yet anthologies inevitably irritate, especially if they purport to represent, encapsulate or encompass a field of work, or a national part of that field ("On this CD, we have tried to represent the (sic) range of contemporary sound poetry in Canada"). It would not of course be possible to provide everything necessary to place 'contemporary sound poetry in Canada' in context on a CD, yet it would have been interesting to have had more historical examples and 'ethnic' Canadian examples. Which Canadas are they defining here? Certainly, the definition of 'sound poetry' is predominantly one from an English heritage (even the Gauvreau is presented in the voice of an Englishman) - and other poetries in sound exist within the borders of Canada. For a survey such as this, it would have been useful to provide this wider context, the informational arena, in which to place, appreciate and analyse the works presented. Of course, most people who seek out this CD will be people who are already knowledgeable enough about Canadian Sound Poetry to find such contextualisation unnecessary. And could any anthology be required to represent the entire field? The inclusion of a track of Christian Boek performing Hugo Ball gives a hint of the European side of the history of the genre. Steve McCaffery provides an entertaining and apparently exhausting rendition of French Canadian Claude Gauvreau's work. Two women feature - Susan McMaster (of First Draft) and Penn Kemp. Whether or not the editors have suceeded in "representing the range of sound poetry in Canada", they have produced a very enjoyable and useful CD. It is the claim that rankles.
There is some work I do not enjoy - repeated permutations of words or phrases (for example W Mark Sutherland's Hiroshima ("Hiroshima - hear a screamer") is one I found crass on first hearing and it had not improved after its thirty or so repetitions nor after repeated listenings). There is a lot of this sort of work around, using repeated slight variations (frequently with rather obvious juxtapositions of meaning), so there is obviously a market for it. I find it tedious. Yet repetitions and permutations can be stunningly moving/stretching in the work and voice of an Amirkhanian or a Dutton. On Carnivocal, Gerry Skikatani's rich, sonorous voice rendering Wish (for bp) (permutations of the letters w, i, s, h) manages to furnish this simple idea with great interest, where a few others strut out the over-significant phrase time and again without apparent purpose. Even The Horsemen and Owen Sound repeat "She was a Vistor" so many times with the same stress on the second word that I get exasperated and find it hard to listen to the surrounding vocal sounds.
Two tracks stand out as 'other' - bpnichols' 'what is a poem' and bill bissett's Opening Chant. These two poets romp through these songs (I see no reason to avoid this term - rhythmical, conventionally tuneful); texts which would have one value in print, but in performance have another, which can be inspirational - can you let go enough to hear?. Reading bissett on the page can be slow because of the unusual spellings, yet hearing him flows. Verbomotorhead's controlled romps through Monks of the Holy Throat and Fat Summer seem to me to have some similarities with bill and bp in their rhythmic, songlike chants and their playfulness; yet their work seems to employ more cynicism, analysis, ironic investigation. But bill and bp have a more direct influence on my body's rhythms, perhaps.
bpnichols' death is commemorated by this CD so it is fitting that his is the first track. "He is the presiding saint of this anthology, and it is dedicated with love and loyalty to his memory."
For information about purchasing Carnivocal, contact Vicki Mix at Red Deer Press. The cd will be released in the U.S. in the spring of 2000. Expected retail price, $12.95.
Author's post publication note:
Lawrence Upton objected to my comments on Sutherland's Hiroshima on this CD. It was not my intention to attack Sutherland's work in general, nor his other work on this CD. I was reacting only to the conjunction of the phrases "Hiroshima"/"hear a screamer".
I find Lawrence's comments very interesting and useful and am pleased that he has agreed to let me publish it within this issue of Riding the Meridian.
Alaric Sumner (M.A., University of Leeds) is a writer, performer, artist, editor, critic and educator.
EMPLOYMENT: He is Lecturer in Performance Writing on the BA (Hons) and MA courses at Dartington College of Arts in Devon, UK (where he is also studying for a practice-based PhD in "Difference and confluence: writing, performance and Collaboration"). He was formerly Writer in Residence at the Tate Gallery, St Ives, Cornwall, UK.
EDITOR: He edited the Writing and Performance section of PAJ 61 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999 (formerly Performing Arts Journal)) which includes an interview with Reedy and work by Reedy, Upton, Cheek and Bergvall. He is UK Associate Editor of Masthead Literary Arts Magazine (Melbourne, Australia). He is editor and co-founder of words worth (Journal of Language Arts) and founder and editor of words worth books. PERFORMANCE: His performance work has been presented in New York, Buffalo (NY State), Cleveland (Ohio), Montreal (Canada), Oslo (Norway), Vechta (Germany), and many UK venues. Voices (for 9) was performed at the Royal Court Theatre, London, in 1994. His collaboration with Joseph Hyde, Nekyia (for speaker, singer, electroacoustics and video) is currently touring. The Unspeakable Rooms (a collaboration with Rory McDermott funded by the Arts Council of England) was described by Frank Green in the Cleveland Free Times as "one of the most powerful performances I've ever witnessed, and I've attended hundredsS a difficult masterpiece".
PUBLICATIONS: Alaric's publish books and booklets include Waves on Porthmeor Beach (Illustrated by Sandra Blow RA) (words worth 1995), Bucking Curtains (Mainstream Poetry 1999), Aberrations of Mirrors Lenses Sight (RWC 1998), Rhythm to Intending (Spectacular Diseases 1994), Lurid Technology and the Hedonist Calculator (Lobby Press 1994), Songs of Nonsense and Experiment (Zimmer Zimmer 1976). His collaborations with sound artist John Levack Drever have been broadcast and performed in concerts around the world and published on CDs from ISEA and Doc(k)s. Joseph Hyde used Alaric's texts from Nekyia in his CDRom work for Performance Research. Alaric's work is included in Word Score Utterance Choreography (Writers Forum 1998), My Kind of Angel: i.m. William Burroughs (Stride 1998). Conference papers are due shortly from Peter Lang Verlag (Frankfurt) and the University of Debrecen (Hungary).
CURRENT PROJECT: Among other things, Alaric is working on a long piece - Letters for dear Augustine - letters to a fictional person of unstable gender. A number of these Letters have been performed in New York and in London at New Playwright's Trust's Challenging Language Conference and Sub Voicive Poetry.