This is the text of my paper delivered at “Bigger than Words, Wider than Pictures”: Noise, Affect, Politics, the conference organised by the University of Salford Research Centre for Communication, Cultural and Media Studies and School of Media, Music and Performance that took place from Thursday 1 July – Saturday 3.
I delivered a slightly truncated, and more informally delivered version of what you read here, but there is no significant difference between the two. I may write more about the conference in the coming days. Briefly, the embedded audio below are samples I created, the audio samples of Bob Cobbing and Henri Chopin can be found at the links provided. An illustration of non-linguistic sound poetry I performed as part of the paper is provided only as a score. I may add a recording at a later date.
My paper was called Resonant Frequencies: The Relationship of Sound Poetry and Noise mainly because it had to be called something I had no better ideas.
Resonant Frequencies: The Relationship of Sound Poetry and Noise
My intention is to demonstrate areas of similarity between sound poetry and noise. I believe that they are on a continuum of practices that also contains what’s often referred to as sound art, and share a number of important characteristics. This is a purely personal perspective, and I would like to emphasise from the beginning that I am not a musician but a sound poet. My background is more literary than musical, essentially I am a partly-informed layperson.The first characteristic I see sound poetry and Noise music sharing is their heterogeneity. By this I mean primarily the heterogeneity of materials and approaches. Or approached the other way, they are united in their avoidance or subversion of traditional techniques and tools. So in noise music, as in sound art, a guitar for instance can be treated not as a guitar – an instrument freighted with history and with an accepted range of ways to play it – but as a sound source that has no need to sound like a guitar or any instrument. Similarly in sound poetry, if we decide to assume for the moment that it is based around the voice, the poet can not only ignore traditional ways of ordering language, but ignore language altogether. The poet can reduce their utterances to phonemes and other vocal sounds. But as already hinted sound poets are not limited to the sounds their own voice or body can produce. Even just making use of cassette recorders significantly broadens the palette.
That mention of tape recorders is a reminder that perhaps some of this heterogeneity of materials and approaches in both noise music and sound poetry is technologically enabled. With tapes (and now with digital technology) any sound is reproducible and manipulable. The sound of someone going ‘Ssh!’ can be repeated:
It can be speeded up:
It can be re-recorded repeatedly, as with Alvin Lucier’s I am sitting in a room until the original recording is lost, until only the resonant frequencies remain:
As with musique concrete or with concrete poetry the materiality of the sound, of the object generating the sound, of the physical circumstances in which the sound is created become part of the piece. They are no longer obstacles to be overcome in pursuit of some Platonic ideal. Obviously that mention of Alvin Lucier is not accidental in any way. It is part of my argument that there are no clear boundaries with these sorts of exploratory practices. That I could just as easily argue that in places sound poetry overlaps with music composition, or with improvisational practices. That in some cases perhaps what distinguishes the work can be where it started rather than where it has ended up.
Although I am not going to debate terminology, despite the fact that I am aware that some people contest terms like ‘sound art’ or ‘sound poetry’, I would like to make one mention of it here. The artist Dylan Nyoukis in an interview published in The Wire magazine for March 2010 is quoted as saying, ‘I can’t emphasise how bummed out it makes me feel that still, since 1993 or 94, I’m having to add an ‘s’ on. Not Noise with a capital N – a small n and a small s.’
To me he is not just querying a vague descriptor, but he is also emphasising the heterogeneity, the diversity of materials and techniques available. To say ‘noises’ with a small n takes you away from any school or preconceived idea, and back to the notion that anything can be used in any way. Whereas Noise with a capital N instantly has a lot more baggage.
The second characteristic I see sound poetry and Noise music sharing is a contradictory character where on the one hand they are regarded as contemporary exploratory practices, partly perhaps because they are unfamiliar, while on the other hand they reject or misuse refined recognised techniques and materials. And where refined recognised techniques and materials are rejected or misused the work can be not just unfamiliar but abrasive, seemingly crude, unsophisticated, or primitive.
So for instance in a sound poem I might use pre- or non-linguistic vocal sounds:
Gurgle shifts to squawk.
Squawk changes to throaty blow/roar.
Blow changes to tone that climbs and alters to scream.
Screams collapses to sneezes.
Roar/bark while shaking head.
Those sort of sounds are easy to mistake for crude, primitive, childish, or downright silly. I would agree actually that childish or silly are good descriptions of what I just did. But to say it was crude or primitive for me would miss the point. I mentioned earlier that within Noise music and sound poetry there is no need for a guitar to just be a guitar and tied to that specific history, and that there is no need to pursue a Platonic ideal of melody or harmony, or whatever it happens to be. Both of those statements prefigured this argument.
Although there is a place for refined recognised techniques, for a guitarist for instance to spend years learning and rehearsing, to try and use the best instrument, to play in the best acoustic environments, to choose a demanding and diverse repertoire, and always attempt to improve, I think it is a mistake to imagine that is the only legitimate route available. I would also like to make clear that I do not see these routes as exclusive. Clearly you can have mastery of technique and your instrument but choose not to play it that way.
At the same time I want to draw attention to the fact that I talked about the rejection or misuse of refined recognised techniques and materials. By which I mean that there is no requirement to ignore the traditions that have built up around the guitar, or around the idea of a poet performing their work. They can still be referenced and played with. So Bob Cobbing’s Variations on a Theme of Tan has echoes of sung liturgy, and of the way some poets, like WB Yeats, have approached performance:
The third characteristic I would see sound poetry and Noise music sharing is important for my justification in linking the two artforms. It was also alluded to in the first section when I referred to Alvin Lucier, and my belief that there are no clear boundaries between exploratory practices using sound. It is just that, that this continuum of practices including sound poetry, Noise music and sound art blurs the boundaries between otherwise quite separate forms.
For instance the tape work of Henri Chopin would seem to bear an obvious relationship to Pierre Schaeffer’s musique concrete, and to Lucier’s I am sitting in a room, mentioned previously. This is a section from Chopin’s Les Pirouettes Vocales Pour Les Pirouettements Vocaux:
Henri Chopin, Pierre Schaeffer, and Alvin Lucier in I am sitting in a room all make use of recordings to create something quite unfamiliar, and something that meets Dylan Nyoukis’ description of small n noises, rather than large N Noise. Perhaps their use of collage and a more obvious playfulness links Chopin and Schaeffer more closely. But the three artists are very different, and looking beyond perhaps neither Schaeffer nor Lucier are likely be linked to Bob Cobbing for example, who is often linked with Chopin, and who we have also encountered in this exploration.
There may be several reasons for this blurring of boundaries. Perhaps the most important, referring back to the example of the guitar, and to the Platonic ideal that much music perhaps strives for, there are simply not the same rules and limitations in place with sound poetry or Noise music. Or sound art for that matter. As already discussed, refined recognised technique can be rejected or misused. Because of that the actual sounds become more important than the familiarity of how they are arranged.
For me, although I can see why some people do get exercised by vague terminology, or terminology they see as misleading or inaccurate, this is why I am not especially concerned about what particular sound practices are called. I think that once you start narrowing definitions you start to close off possibilities at the same time. Of course there is a whole separate argument about working within limitations. My view is that there is a lot to be said for artists using arbitrary self-imposed limitations for particular pieces of work, rather than shutting off possibilities altogether. So for instance I would be happy to create a piece of sound poetry using only my voice with no technological intervention. But I would not want to then argue that sound poetry should never use field recordings for example.
Late in my writing of this paper I heard an interview with Bob Cobbing, I believe his last broadcast interview, with Martin Spinelli for Radio Radio. Around halfway through the interview Spinelli says to Cobbing, ‘One of the words that has been used to describe your work is noise, do you think that’s accurate?’ Cobbing’s reply is:
Oh certainly it’s noise, yes. It’s somewhat organised noise, but noise is definitely the basis of it, yes.
Now I do not think either Cobbing or Spinelli are using the term ‘noise’ in quite the way it has been used through this conference. Except that perhaps it is a term that can be applied from outside with pejorative intent, and then adopted in defiance by the artist.
Which brings me to the final characteristic that I think sound poetry and Noise music can share. That is that there is often a conscious retreat not just from mainstream practice but even from the possibility of being embraced by the mainstream. These are niche interests with seemingly no desire to explain themselves. Sound poetry, for example, is arguably a niche of a niche of a niche. Within literature is poetry, within poetry there are a variety of innovative practices, and within those there is sound poetry.
Ultimately I am not sure how convinced even I am of the link that I have drawn between sound poetry and Noise music. But the four characteristics that I have defined perhaps provide one way of looking at how these forms might be related, and some basis for debating that further.
As a brief reminder those four characteristics were: first, the heterogeneity of materials and approaches used; second, that they have a contradictory nature in that they are contemporary exploratory practices that reject or misuse refined recognised techniques, which can lead to them appearing crude or unsophisticated; third, that they blur the boundaries between otherwise distinct artforms; and finally that we can detect in them a conscious retreat from mainstream practice.