Aloud: The Sonics of Language
Edited by Brandon LaBelle & Christof Migone
284 pages with Compact Disc
Writing Aloud: The Sonics of Language book/CD eds. Brandon LaBelle and Christof Migone, PARACHUTE No.107, review by Jim Drobnick
Conventionally, the body and language are terms mired in opposition. At one extreme, theorists such as Parveen Adams declare that the body does not exist outside of discourse. At the other, theorists like Elaine Scarry point to how the body, especially when experiencing ecstasy or suffering, obliterates language. Poised between these polarities is the anthology and CD of Writing Aloud. Its engaging series of essays, manifestoes, poetry and audioworks demonstrate that in regard to the absolute belief in the ability of language to define and contain, the corporeal is a radical and continual disruption. Yet, even with its chaotic energies and unpredictable excesses, the body can manifest its own form of communication, forcing a reconsideration of its meaning-bearing potential. It is at this fertile intersection between the semantic, the sonic and the somatic that Writing Aloud stakes out creative and intellectual possibilities. The essays, by media artists, radiomakers, poets, composers, cultural critics and literary theorists alike, analyze aural phenomena typically at the edge of language, especially when it abuts, melds into or erupts from the body. The editors, for instance, investigate microphonic invasions and the sonicity of the body (Brandon LaBelle), and ectoplasm and ventriloquy (Christof Migone). Other chapters feature subjects such as glossolalia (Vincent Barras), death rattles (Lionel Marchetti), and yodeling (Bart Plantenga). Vanguard poetry emerges as a volatile site of activity in Nicholas Zurbrugg's discussion of concrete poetry, Fred Moten's inquiry into the avant-garde and difference, and Sean Cubitt's tracing of the co-evolution between voice and technology. Michel de Certeau once postulated that all experience that is not a cry of pain or pleasure can be institutionally appropriated. The CD accompanying Writing Aloud might have taken this statement as its motto as cries, screams, groans, stuttering, babble and other phatic utterances pervade thirteen experimental audio works by Marina Abramovic, Michael Chion and others. Also featured are works based on ambient drones, microscopic tonalities, overlapping voices and synthesized effects by Gregory Whitehead, John Duncan, and Yasunao Tone, to name just a few. Writing is usually considered a silent activity, but writing requires a body, and the cumulative result of this anthology/CD is a shift not only in the understanding of embodiment as an instrument, but also corporeality as an entire listening device.
Topical anthologies tend to take one of three paths: encyclopedically encapsulating the subject, or summarizing the state of the art, or curating a complex combination of historical and current work. Writing Aloud ambitiously strives for the latter and veers from the brilliant to the inexplicably pedestrian. The book's essays, interviews, scores, and photographs sprawl gloriously from Bart Plantenga's arresting cross-cultural overview of yodeling to David Dunn's score for Madrigal to Nicholas Zurbrugg's knotty but ultimately rewarding ruminations on connections between sound poetry and the avant-garde. Apart from some dubious poetry and unremarkable photos, there are many other fine essays as well as intriguing interviews with Robert Ashley and Alvin Lucier. I was thrilled by the CD's archival tracks (Arthur Petronio: Tellurgie from 1965, Vito Acconci's Body Building in the Great Northwest, and Marina Abramovic's Freeing the Voice, both from 1975) and can easily recommend most of the remaining pieces such as the extract of Chion's Gloria and Whitehead's Market Share. A few of the tracks, seeming to have nothing to do with language or writing, mystified me, though. For those interested in the long-form intersection of text and music, Randy Hostetler's Once Upon a Time, Glenn Gould's Solitude Trilogy, and J.K. Randall's unnerving intimacy (a polemic) merit investigation. Quibbles aside, this bold anthology is a bargain. By contrast Music, Electronic Media and Culture is more consistent, but takes fewer risks. I was mildly annoyed at the bibliography blithely listing CD release dates instead of those all-important dates of creation. While it's unlikely that most adventurous musicians will think Stockhausen's Kontakte and Wishart's Red Bird were composed in the early 1990s, others might be misled. Nonetheless, despite the occasional ungainly terms such as "problematise" and "paradigmatic", the essays are well written and teem with marvelous insights, such as "The modern tendency to regard tradition as a series of historical objects and as the antithesis of innovation... fails to acknowledge that traditions, to have continuing social currency, tend to change constantly. A contrasting Japanese attitude towards history and tradition is best exemplified by the case of a national shrine – a fourteenth century Buddhist temple – which is completely rebuilt from new materials every two years, and in which the tradition is regarded as not residing in the object itself but in the continuing knowledge of appropriate materials and building techniques." (Simon Waters, "Beyond the Acousmatic"). And this jolt from editor Simon Emmerson: "We should not forget that the phrase avant-garde was first used by Henri de Saint-Simon in France (1825) at almost exactly the same time as Mendelssohn's inauguration of the museum culture in Western concert music with the revival of Bach's St. Matthew's Passion (1829) – the past and the future at once..." Robert Worby's "Cacophony " offers eminently readable pillar-to-post explanations of Fourier analysis, harmonic partials, and guitar pickups as well as good summaries of the Futurists, early Minimalism, and Industrial music, though I wish he had devoted a few more sentences to Japanese Noise. Also included is Chris Cutler's indispensable "Plunderphonics," which outlines historical antecedents (Hindemith and Respighi, yikes!) and masterfully explores the swirl of contentious copyright issues. Unlike the recent Arcana essays edited by John Zorn, I suspect neither of these fine anthologies will get much press, but they are both well worth owning.