and Post-Radio Performance
by Nicholas Zurbrugg
Lecture at the symposion "With the eyes shut" at the steirischer herbst 88>
In 1935 Raoul Hausmann, the dadaist writer, gave a recital of excerpts from his novel. lt was a text overloaded with details, precisely described; lengthy revelations; a baroque richness in every sentence ... The acoustical emphasis, the foaming waterfall of words, anticipated a literature of phonograph records and of the radio - not yet accepted but in the making.
As Laszlo Moholy-Nagy suggests in "Vision in Motion" (1947),(1) one of the most signifcant literary developments of the twentieth century is the emergence of "a literature of phonograph records and of radio". At this point in the late 1980s, it is now possible to look back at the evolution of radio art, and at the same time, to look forward toward those more recent multi-media artforms deriving from radio art, and extending the potential of radio art into new, "post-radio" realms.
What is "radio-art"? Defined most simply, radio art might be identified as that creativity predominantly dependent upon radio technology for its conception, for its realization, and for its distribution. In its most pure form, radio art might be thought of as exclusively radiophonic materials orchestrated and disseminated by radiophonic technology. The East German composer George Katzer's (1985), typifies many aspects of this genre.(2)
As Katzer explains, "Aide Memoire" - a composition processed in his own studio, and then mixed in its final form at the GDR Radio studios - is primarily composed of original radio recordings from the Nazi period in Germany between 1933-1945. Katzer characterizes his composition as:(3)
"a monstrous collage of phrases, slogans, march music, mass cries, all cut from original sound-documents of the Nazi period and put together to form 7 Nightmares, between which the sleeper can find no rest."
At first sight, "Aide Memoire" seems the very archetype of radio art. lt is produced in a radio studio, and its very materials are fragments of radio broadcasts. In a very real sense, this work could not exist without radio. At the same time though, "Aide Memoire's" texture is not exclusively radiophonic. Sometimes Katzer employs purely radiophonic materials, such as specific news items made by radio stations. On other occasions, his composition includes musical recordings and live speech which were certainly broadcast by radio, but which first existed live or on record, independently of radio. "Aide Memoire" has something of this mixed status. lt originates both from the composer's studio, and from the studios of GDR Radio, and it exists both as an L.P. record and as a master tape recorded by GDR.
My point then, is that contemporary composers and sound artists frequently work in quite a vast interdisciplinary sonic realm in which radio is just one potential source of material and distribution. To be sure, many conservative writers refuse to combine the signs and the sounds of their art by working for radio, for record, or for tape. As the American novelist William Burroughs reminds us,(4)
"Most serious writers refuse to make themselves available to the things that technology is doing ... Many of them are afraid"
At the same time however, many of the more adventurous writers, composers, artists and 'performers' of the '80s have systematically made themselves extremely available to 'the things that technology is doing'. While composers like Katzer have made complex collages of radiophonic and recorded materials, 'text-sound' composers such as the American, Charles Amirkhanian, have turned to television for their inspiration, recording and re-recording its sound-tracks in new partially musical, partially literary, compositions tor tape, records, and radio. Amirkhanian's composition "Metropolis, San Francisco" re-orchestrates the soundtracks of a Chinese television programme broadcast In San Francisco,(5) transforming this raw material into something which might weIl be broadcast by radio as 'radio art'; which might appear on record or tape as 'sound poetry', 'audio art' or environmental 'soundscape'; or which might contribute to certain modes of partially live, partially pre-recorded 'performance art'.
Given these differing creative and critical categories, it seems possible to conceive of radio art both as a pure art, or as part of a growing range of multi-media, hybrid art-forms. Three primary categories of 'sound' creativlty come to mind. First, as a 'pre-radiophonic' genre, sound-art created in real time combines sound, music, speech, and image, colour and gesture. Second, as a 'purely radiophonic' genre, created in studio time, sound art orchestrates sound, music and speech in an art exclusively tor the ears. Thirdly, as a hybrid, 'post-radiophonic' genre, sound art combines sound, music, speech, and image, colour and gesture in both real time and studio time in variously technological broadcasts, installations and performances. The differing sub-categories of these three genres may perhaps best be represented in the following diagram:
The most significant developments within the contemporary multi-media creativity that one might associate with radio art seem to be the ways in which innovations elaborated technologically, in 'studio time', become part of new modes of partially technological and partially live performance in 'real time'. In this respect, the present seems characterized by hybrid modes of 'post-radiophonic' creativity, such as video and television art; video installations involving spectator participation; audio installations involving spectator participation or movement; and the synthesis of video and audio installations in complex, live, multi-media installations.
At the same time, live performance, in real time, frequently attains considerable sophistication and conceptual transformation. Such, at least, is the general trend In Australia. While most Australian artists working within the general realms of sound art and audio art are fully aware of the creative potential of the new post-modern technologies, they often elect to work with live performance in 'real time'. Such work is perhaps best characterised as the exploration of new kinds of heightened narrative, or the attempt to tell stories in a new dynamic, live real-time rhetoric, influenced by earlier technological, studio time, experimentation.
As these remarks might suggest, it is difficult to locate many Australian examples of 'pure' radiophonic creativity. Nevertheless, the influence of radio has been quite crucial to the development of the new kinds of heightened, real-time sonic performance presently explored in Australia. Radio's general impact falls into three main categories:
(ii) as a source of technological innovation and creation
(iii) as a source of conceptual revolution
The A.B.C. programme Surface Televsion, broadcast every Saturday afternoon until its recent demise, consistently documented new forms of Australian and international sound art. A typical programme played recordings of a Swiss alpine horn, from the studios of French radio, and recordings documenting live 'sound art' performances from the Performance Space gallery in Sydney. One of the most interesting of these performances was a narrative entitled "Terrier" by Allan Vizents, a 'new Australian' born in California, who first worked with the Perth collective Media Space (combining photographic, graphic, recorded and written work), and then moved to Sydney, where he directed Performance Space until his untimely death in 1987. Vizents' poem "Terrier" typifies his extremely imaginative mature narrative performances, and in the process, offers memorable verbal realization to Franz Marc's aspiration to 'paint the existence of a dog as Picasso paints the existence of a cubic shape'.(6)
Vizents achieves this evocation of the feelings and thoughts of a dog by combining two levels of narrative. At its most fanciful, semantic level, his poem dramatizes the musings of a terrier, in a poetic variant of the kind of fictional 'magic realism' elaborated by Garcia Marquez and Günter Grass. At its most literal, mimetic level, Vizents' performance counterpoints and punctuates this text with a recording of a dog panting (creating something of the same effect explored by Beckett in his play "That Time", in which the three narratives of his protagonist are similarly counterpointed by the sound of 'audible, slow and regular' breath).(7)
"l'm a dog so l bark. I can bite you bet, sure, bit and shake. l like the chair by the window in the afternoon. I lay there and look at the lace patterns on the window. lt goes straight in, circles and stars inside. There is a tear in the flyscreen. I don't mind that either. The chair is smelly, my chair, dog chair. When a cloud passes by, I open one eye and feel the cool change go straight in.
One has to imagine the sound of a panting dog between the conclusion of the poem's first section (with the words 'go straight in'), and the beginning of its subsequent section (with the announcement 'I am a spy'). One also has to imagine the strange conjunction of Vizents' Californian intonation, asserting 'l'm a dog', and his poem's subtle delineation of the details of Australian suburban existence: the inconvenience of 'a tear in the flyscreen', and the welcome relief offered by the breeze, as one senses a 'cool change'. Vizents' "Terrier" typifies what one might think of as 'post-radiophonic' work, offering a highly individual synthesis of live and recorded narrative in a fusion of real time and studio time, generated by sound, speech and gesture.
Significantly, Vizents' mature work derives from a succession of earlier technological experiments documented upon the audio-cassettes distributed by the Media-Space group, such as 'sound-drawings', made by moving a microphone around objects of furniture;(9) collective verbal and instrumental improvisations;(10) and relatively simple permutational poems reminiscent of Brion Gysin's pioneering work in this genre.(11)
In the following years, Vizents developed his own extremely individual - and extremely sophisticated - performance style, until he finally reached the point at which he preferred to minimize the technological accompaniment and equipment that had initially given birth to the verbal distortions in his poetry. In Ihe course of an interview of 1984, shortly before a performance of his work, Vizents charaderistically remarked:(13)
"l've performed with pre-recorded tapes, but over the past few months l've gradually eliminated them. In fact l've tried to get the sound system turned down to the barest minimum tonight so there won't be so much interference with the quality of voice."
Some two years later, at the beginning of one of his last readings, Vizents triumphantly informed his audience that his technological equipment was not working, adding that this was not really a serious problem, since his performances did not really depend upon the technological accompaniment of the pre-recorded tapes with which he had planned to counterpoint and, as it were, expand and extend his work. As a radio broadcast of one of his subsequent performances demonstrated, Vizents' use of pre-recorded tapes and live declamation generated beautifully orchestrated comic monologues, in which the pre-recorded tape added supplementary comments - almost footnotes - to Vizents' primary, real-time, declamation.
But as Vizents' mature performances demonstrated, his work had reached the point at which meticulously timed, live improvisation virtually eclipsed the impact of pre-recorded montage. While his real-time performance lacked the quantitative advantage of multi-layered narrative, its 'quality of voice' (to quote Vizents' phrase), attained a remarkable sonic virtuosity, with all the excitement and surprise of live, spontaneous theatricalty, 'inventing words and mucking Ihe language up, in a sense, so that it doesn't follow the strict rules of grammar'.(14)
At its most coherent extreme, Vizents' experiments with grammar lead to highly amusing colloquial narratives, full of impatient repetitions and abbreviations, such as "I'm Busy": a wonderful satire of the Australian suburban ritual of lovingly repairing decrepit automobiles. Commencing with another of Vizents' splendidly abrupt assertions, this poem announces:(15)
"l'm going to explain this real simple, l'm busy. I'm really busy with this car here, l'm dirty, greasy, grease under the fingernails, greasy hands, greasy pants, greasy shoes, and l can't come in the house right now, and I can't answer the phone cause I'm busy and I won't be answering the phone when any granny calls or any mum or dad or Dave, that kind of stuff, cause l'm busy ..."
At its least coherent extreme, Vizents' work abandons normal language, and enters a realm of frantic nonsensical improvisation, such as the following lines from "Fill lt": a poem satirising the administrative conventions requiring one to till forms up in triplicate.(16)
FiII it out in triplicate would'ya?
Fill it out in triplicate would'ya?
FiII it up in triple it wichya?
Fill it up en tripleit wichya?
Fill erup en tipleit wichya?
By line nine, the poem's initial imperative transmutes into the bizarre request: 'Fositup in tripple whenchya?', while lines fourteen and fifteen contort this phrase into the still stranger supplication:
Such permutations are not new, but the virtuosity of Vizents' intonation and the precision of his timing are extremely unusual, as George Katzer remarked, while discussing a recording of this poem at the Graz Radiokunst symposium.(17) Vizents' masterly mature performances seem the consequence of two main influences: his own earlier creative experiments in the recording studio, and the more general, conceptual impact of exposure to the work of other artists at festivals, on records and tapes, and via radio programmes such as "Surface Tension". Whereas European and American sound poetry and performance frequently tend towards abstraction and a certain universal quality, Vizents' texts typify Ihe relatively specific, satirical impulse in a great deal of Australian sound art.
The general consequence of this humourous, satirical impulse in Australian sound art is its surprisingly accessible public quality. One of the greatest problems for most Australian poets is the initial task ot successfully introducing innovative sound art and performance to a wider audience than their immediate circle of friends. The gradual development and acceptance of Australian sound art seems to follow a fairly predictable series ot initiatives:
Gradually, then, through live readings, rare tape cassettes, occasional multi-media festivals, and a variety ot radio programmes, sound art has become increasingly familiar to Australian audiences.
As the Californian poet, Larry Wendt, acknowledges in a recent letter of December 1988, purist concepts ot sound art or of radio art seem very much a thing of the past.(19)
"Sound poetry has perhaps died out as a specific area of working or perhaps it's not called that any more by new people working in that area."
Yet as Wendt very significantly adds, if the concepts of radio art, of sound art or of sound poetry now seem a little old-fashioned, the different practices designated by these terms are still remarkably healthy:
"Actually, there is probably more electro-acoustic Iiterature and language art being done now than ever before. lt's often just called something else. One doesn't hear the words 'sound poet' as much, or even less 'text-sound composer' any more - only us die-hards still speak in those terms."
Finally, discussing his own work in the field, Wendt relates:
"Last year, I formed a 'band' with another technician at San Jose State ... and we did a concert of 'post-industrial music'... The campus radio station went nuts over it and will play anything now that we give them over the radio ... I always thought that one had to die to gain that kind of recognition. All that I needed to do was call it by a different name as some kind of experimental rock n'roll... These are strange days indeed."
Wendt's letter very interestingly testifies to the ways in which popular forms of radio broadcasting - in this instance, a university rock n'roll station - have both redefined certain experimental art practices, and extended their audiences, by associating them with more accessible categories, such as 'post-industrial' music. In something of the same way, concepts like 'sound sculpture', 'sound installations' and 'video installations' have allowed different kinds of 'sound art' to find more widespread exhibition, and more significantly still, to be created for more widespread exhibition. Significantly, Ed Tomney, an American composer who also contributed a work to the Graz Radiokunst festival, describes his exhibit at the festival - a piece entitled "Whispering Elms" - in terms of its flexible format in time and space. Discussing this work in a letter of October 1988, Tomney writes:(20)
"The piece is a work-in-progress, meaning it can be subject to changes and additions through two means. First, as a multi-track recording, voices and sounds can be added to the pre-existing first hour, so that groupings of sounds can be made dense or sparse. Second, new material can be added to the first hour, so that the piece expands in linear form as new material is added ... The reasoning behind this formula is that this work is often presented in different mediums, and is not intended to be any one specific duration of time ... Different sections of the material can be used in specific situations."
At present, Australian sound work - or at least, sound work by many of the most interesting experimental Australian poets - neither approximates to rock n'roll, nor to the kind of open-ended technological audio-installation created by Tomney. What Australian sound work does do, however, is to explore a range of predominantly narrative genres modifying and satirising verbal and social conventions. Somewhat as Allan Vizents plays with colloquialisms and cliches of administrative jargon, the Melbourne poet and composer Chris Mann wages war on received diction and grammar - particularly English diction and grammar - in the attempt to generale an authentically Australian discourse.
Language, then, is very much Chris Mann's primary concern, particularly the social and the ideological consequences of different verbal conventions. Whereas Larry Wendt's work may lend itself to redefinition in terms of music, and whereas Ed Tomney's compositions seem to explore the open-ended, variable composition encouraged by Cage, interweaving sound and sense in what one might thihk of as some sort of sonic 'mobile', Mann's work appears to be far more committed to concrete social contexts. Such, at least, is Mann's aspiration. Discussing his work in an interview of 1983, Mann explained:(21)
"Yarns, intonation-games, skip-rope songs, jokes, nonsense words... I think that's the tradition that we slot into. I think it's a popular culture. I don't think it's a bourgeois culture. I don't think it's an art culture. There's a whole tradition particularly in Melbourne ... of dealing with language as an issue. lt's like the role of the Grammarians in the French Revolution and the role of the Proletcult in the Russian Revolution."
Mann tries to deal with language as a popular social issue by inventing, or at least, by refining, a quintessentially colloquial form of Australian diction in narratives performed at maximum speed. In this way, Mann aspires to evade English literary traditions, and to reveal or revive a more democratic, more authentic, antipodean utterance. Mann's performance often take the form of somewhat whimsical monologues, rather like John Cage's anecdotal lectures. But whereas Cage's subject matter tends to lead his autobiographical stories towards more general meditations upon the nature of order, chance, composition and art, Mann's texts focus upon questions of linguistics and philosophy before breaking into idiosyncratic semi-phonetic colloquialisms reminiscent of Joycian wordplay in Finnegan's Wake. The following extract from Mann's monologue commencing "SCRATCH SCRATCH" gives some indication of the inventive ways in which he mixes polemical overstatement with semantic compression and distortion.(22)
Mann's utterance clearly deploys several quite distinct levels of discourse. On the one hand, it exploits cryptic, epigrammatic witticisms, such as 'Chomsky was an early Nato setup', or 'Credit is distraction formalised'. At a more coherent level, it employs sustained anecdote, such as 'the one that goes that there was this lady philosopher'. But as the concluding lines of this extract demonstrate, Mann's performances also frequently erupt into abbreviated slang, colloquialisms and obscenities verging upon quite inaccessible nonsense language. These experiments have prompted quite varied responses. Cage, for example, comments:'I think of Chris Mann's work as being fresh and a new direction in poetry',(23) remarking elsewhere: 'lt is very striking. Congratulations. I would also like to know how you wrote this text'.(24)
Gage's comments upon the fresh and striking quality of Mann's work obviously emphasize its formal and ludic originality. As Allan Vizents similarly comments, in an interview of 1986, Mann's texts and performances are inimitable:(25)
"He's ... refined a style, an approach, and a method of constructing language, that is highly ... idiosyncratic ... only Chris Mann could have developed that kind of text."
But Vizents is also more critical of the ideological implications of Mann's writing, insofar as Mann claims that he is not so much creating art, as problematising language and national identity. Vizents disputes this claim, on the grounds that there is no obvious or explicit political impact in Mann's utterance. One could perceive Mann's work as some sort of revolutionary demonstration of the desirability of an Australian grammar. But one might equally well consider Mann's readings to be highly amusing, highly versatile and highly subjective forms of verbal play. Considering some of these questions in the same interview, Vizents observed:(26)
"Is his idiosyncratic language working? Or is it just entertainment? Does it carry any meaning beyond that sense of play ... And on another level, is it refleoting extreme nationalism that says, my language is particularly Australian - that's what makes it good, valid, and a valid form to work on?
One detects a certain irony here. Vizents himself has described his work as an attempt to modify conventional grammar, and to generate what he calls 'messed-up grammar' in order to 'reveal the ironies in the way in which we look at the world and the way in which we perceive the world'.(26) Like Mann's texts, his work reflects upon the Australian cultural environment, and, as it were, upon the Australian linguistic environment. Unlike Mann, however, Vizents seems happy to combine notions of the aesthetic and the social, the idiosyncratic and the public. While Mann has argued against 'private language',(27) Vizents seems far more interested in the exploration of the individual sensibility. Praising the work of another Melbourne poet, the Polish-born writer and artist Ania Walwicz, Vizents comments:(28)
"She puts forward a kind of exploratory-of-her-own-consciousness kind of image. And it seems that she's committed toward that working on herself. And I appreciate that. lt's tough work. lt's hard work."
Ania Walwicz describes the evolution of her poetry and performances in terms of her childhood memories of listening to poetry being read in a foreign language.(29)
"I suppose my first perception in my childhood of poetry was my father who used to know a lot of poetry by heart - a lot of German poetry - and he used to say it to me, and then he would translate it. So the way I encountered poetry as such, was just sound and also sound in a foreign language."
Walwicz's own poems have something of this mysterious quality. As she explains, they attempt to register a dream-like sensibility:
"l'm not specially writing in a sort of distorted manner on purpose. lt's more the language of the subconscious thought, or the language of inner thinking, not the conscious literal language."
Like Allan Vizents and Chris Mann, Walwicz seems primarily concerned to explore alternatives to conventional grammar and 'conscious literal language'. While the general thematic and emotive tone of her work varies considerably on occasion, ranging from impassioned evocations of remorse to placid meditation upon domestic interiors, Walwicz's performances are most frequently characterised by a sense of subdued intensity, conveyed without compromise either to exaggeration or simplification. In other words, whereas certain American performance artists, such as Diamanda Galas, have transformed sonic histrionics into an artform, while others, such as Laurie Anderson, have captivated audiences with consciously accessible confessional anecdotes,(30) Walwicz works betwee these two poles, gesturing towards emotion and confession in her own terms, rather than opting to make them perfectly explicit.
Paradoxically, this kind of seemingly private aesthetic can have surprisingly public impact. Pondering upon this possibility with reference to the way in which his own poems are 'completely personal, absolutely 100% subjective', the American poet John Giorno explains:(31)
"When it works, it's like the subjectivity becomes the objectivity. lt becomes the subjectivity of the audience, so it's what the audience wants to hear ... So it's not subjective in the sense that it's just me - it's everyone in the audience, and it becomes completely objective."
In much the same way, Ania Walwicz reports that her own highly subjective texts seem to overlap with her readers' experience, in the sense that they provoke the same evocative intonation when read aloud by others. Discussing a series of ten 'colour' poems, 'each dealing with a particular level of feeling or being', and each written to 'enact that particular state of feeling within me' in terms of a 'particular form of tone', Walwicz recounts:
"I asked other people to read my work to see how it would turn out - whether I was just projecting the sound value onto it. I asked them to read it without formally having heard it read by me. And in actual fact they did sIot into a form of reading which I actually do myself."
The following lines from "Red" - an 'angry' monologue from this series - gives some idea of the partially private, partially public, qualities of these poems:(32)
"kill cow hang butcher am angry hot head big ideas stronger know what bloody mary hates me look what feel over hurt knee what to do bright colour put bandage around don't want to see now look bag big things kills wife redhead in my house is jeabus so jealous tulip is loud apple is ok dwarf is nasty peaked hat knife in gut was murderer eats children..."
As Ania Walwicz remarked, while participating on a radio forum simultaneously recorded in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane, her work encompasses a variety of genres and motivations:
"Not everything I have written was meant to be read... But then, of course, l never saw mysel in any particular category, and didn't set out to produce complete sound poetry. lf that was so, I could put out tapes instead of writing it. But in my case, I do want the Iiterary part of it to exist, so that people can read it."
Questioned during the same forum about the overlap between her Iiterary and nonliterary work, Walwicz agreed that both fields explored similar subject matter:
"My work in the visual arts is neo-expressionist, and this form of writing deals with that as weIl. I'm dealing with that autobiographical notation and enactment of inner feeling and being, and in my performances I've dealt with the same aims. So all of my work is under the same heading, using my own life."
Like most of her fellow sound artists in Australia, Ania Walwicz's work fluctuates between 'pre-radiophonic' compositions, radio art and 'post-radio' performance. The latter category is best exemplified by "Voices", a piece for 'four speakers, speaking to one another', presented at the Soundworks festival at the 1986 Sydney Biennale.(33)
"Voices" was first recorded and orchestrated in a recording studio, before taking its final shape as a predominantly live performance during which Walwicz lies on the stage, listening to the four voices issuing from the four surrounding speakers. Walwicz explains:
"I wanted to portray an inner state in which you heard all these different voices ... In my case it was dealing with a particular personal situation, my mother's death, my reaction, and the feeling of it, which was all sorts of thoughts: my mother's voice, my father's voice, my sister's voice and mine. I recorded this in Adelaide in a studio, distorting my voice, using different voices and creating different personae."
While certain 'text-sound' composers, such as The American poet Charles Amirkhanian, prefer to work directly with recording tape, Walwicz specifies that "Voices" 'was first notated on paper', rather than being 'immediately produced as sound'. Amirkhanian, by contrast, insists that he is 'particularly uninterested in producing scores ... for printed media', adding that his text-sound compositions 'are finally done while listening to the sounds on tape and are not pre-composed'.(34)
"I would like to do more recording, experimenting with different things I could do with my own voice - not so much using musical instruments, but using overlay of my own voice and seeing what could happen with that."
Jas Duke, another Melbourne poet associated with sound and performance poetry, similarly recounts that he first became interested in the sonic quality of poetry while listening to his father reciting verses.(35)
"My father as an enthusiast for eighteenth century didactic poetry. He like people like Gray and Samuel Johnson - he really Ioved reading out aloud, no matter what the circumstances ... he really loved pounding that out ... lt wasn't the didactic side that impressed me ... lt was the whole sound quality ot it."
Duke's own poems range from the more or less abstract "Sound Poem" to more didactic satirical meditations such as "Five Years in Primary School" and "Our Traditions of Govemment". The latter two poems end on a neo-Brechtian interrogative note, prodding the reader's or the listener's conscience with such questions as:
What do you think I learned?
and I reckon that's a tradition worth reviving
"Just repeat the word STALIN until you fall down exhausted. Try to convey both the terror and the mediocrity and the seIfconfidence... You're dealing with a species of evil spirit. Try to remember that."
As Duke explains in his preface to DADA (another single word 'repeated in a series of set sequences'), his sound poems have something of the quality of a jazz improvisation played on the voice - 'Like playing a saxophone without the saxophone'.(38)
"This really is a performance piece and needs a living breathing person rather than a disembodied voice. Walk onto the stage ... bent forward, hands grasped behind your back. Face the audience and take an exaggeratedly deep breath. Say "The next one is a sound poem called SOUND POEM" or something similar."
Not content with mere sequential repetition on this occasion, Duke's text advises the performer to accompany their reading with the following gestures and contortions:
"Repeat the words SOUND POEM giving the OUND-sound full value. Gradually get faster and louder and when you're going full blast stick the fingers of both hands into your mouth. Talk round your fingers and try to maintain the sound at the same speed and loudness as you were using before. Tear at your Iips and use your fingers to pull your mouth open. Try to put your whole hand (or hands) inside your mouth ... All the while keep shouting SOUND POEM. When you - or the audience have had enough take your hands out of your mouth and say the words SOUND POEM a few more times, dropping your level of sound down to normal speech. Then stop."
Duke's own performances obey these instructions with the utmost fidelity, to the delight of his audiences. Reflecting upon his career, he reminisces:
"I started off as a sort of stand-up comedian, I guess. I read to very rough audiences in pubs and public places, and just to survive I had to inject a fair amount of humour into the act. I didn't start among technological people, I suppose. I worked out a way of doing it just with my vocal chords alone... I do the performance first, and then I notate it afterwards. lt's actually worked out on the night, in front of the audience, with sweat running off me, and sweat running off them."
As becomes evident, Duke favours live, real time performance, and considers the sense of communion shared by the simultaneously sweating poet and audience to be an essential aspect of sound performance. Not surprisingly, he criticises the dramatic limitations of purely sonic, technological presentation.
"I think one of the least impressive things of new music or electronic music is the actual lack of visual impact in the performance. The performer's sitting at a control desk, madly twiddling knobs, and even though the sounds might be tremendous, the actual visual impact of the performance is nil. l'd rather have Paganini playing his violin or Elvis Presley and his guitar, or something like that. I think the visual part of a performance is quite important."
Duke concedes that his own eccentric appearance and mannerisms probably account for his enthusiasm for visual modes of performance, and finally admits that he too might be tempted by technology, were he offered the opportunity.
"The fact that I am a slightly bizarre looking character, I suppose, with a bald head and a big beard and a big belly that sort of adds to the performance, l think. Also, I tend to dress in a casual, rough way. l'm pretending to be unsophisticated, when l'm not: it has all this actor's deception type of thing. But l suppose if someone were to come along and say: "l've got this terrific studio, and it will be all at your services", I could become a technologist. l'd have to go back to school, l suppose, and learn the A.B.C. of technology. l'm not really against it as such."
Duke's comments typify two of the recurrent dilemmas of the contemporary sound artist: a sense of reservation regarding the validity of technological performance, and a sense of frustration regarding the inaccessibility of technological hardware. Firstly, as Duke remarks, even when advanced technology allows the artist to twiddle knobs in real-time, such performance has very limited visual impact when compared with more conventional modes of physical stage presence. Nevertheless, one might well retort that real-time technological performance involving the live manipulation of sound, does introduce a new, somewhat minimal, sense of drama, as one learns to focus upon the movements of the artist's hands and face, rather than awaiting more familiar, melodramatic movement.
Considered in a rather different context, in terms of Jean Baudrillard's meditations upon the 'ecstasy of communication', the realm of scenic pleasure might be said to mutate into 'pure fascination'. Baudrillard rather ambiguously associates this state with positive 'original' sensations, and with a seemingly negative 'new form of schizophrenia' precipitated by vertiginous awareness of the 'perpetual interconnection of all information and communication networks'.(40)
"Pleasure is no longer that of the scenic or aesthetic manifestation (seductio) but that of pure fascination, aleatory and psychotropic (subductio). This does not necessarily imply a negative judgement, since the forms of pleasure and perception undoubtedly undergo a profound and original mutation ... In applying our old criteria and the reflexes of a "scenic" sensibility, we run the risk of misconstruing the irruption of this new ecstatic and obscene form in our sensorial sphere."
Baudrillard himself misconstrues the difficulty of evaluating such new mutations of 'scenic' performance. As Duke observes, new kinds of technological performance may often easily be evaluated as inconsequential displays of 'tremendous talent and no content'.(43)
"In a way l suppose electro-acoustic music has become a bankrupt artform as a result of this commercial intrusion - the 'low-road' stuff though more accessible has become increasingly moronic, while the 'high-road' stuff remains difficult to obtain on recordings and often too interested in justifying its existence through excessively academic posturings. There seems to be very little in terms of exploring wildernesses or wild experimentalism in the field."
While Wendt and Duke have reservations about many recent developments in technological performance, they clearly acknowledge the possibility of positive creativity. Duke admits that given the opportunity he could 'become a technologist', while Wendt, a veteran 'technologist', reports that he has recently invented a new portable digital signal processing system permitting unprecedented 'flexibility at processing sounds' in live performance.(45)
Duke's second generalisation becomes particularly pertinent here. Whereas he acknowledges that he has never had access to radiophonic technology, and concedes that he would be willing 'to go back to school... and learn the A.B.C. of technology', Baudrillard converts his initial confusion before the plurality of FM radio stations into the traumatic relevation of 'the negative ecstasy of radio', bewailing - or perhaps, celebrating - the discovery that 'I am no longer capable of knowing what I want'.(46)
Presented in a staccato mixture of declamation, cry, splutter and song, Amanda Stewart's poems focus primarily upon political and ideological issues, particularly sexual politics. "lt Becomes: July 1981" typifies many aspects of her art. Intermingling parodic cliche, fragmented colloquialisms and direct reference to politicians and world disaster, this poem - or performance score - begins:(47)
US. I MEAN
WITH ALL THIS WITH ALL THIS I MEAN
lT'S ALL THIS. 0. lT'S
JUST DISGUSTING. lT'S lT'S lT'S
lT IS lT IS lT IS
0FF THE AIR/INCREDIBLE/OFF/HORRIFIC/TYPICAL/
I MEAN lT'S AMAZING lT'S
As these lines suggest, Amanda Stewart's poetry employs a highly evocative rhetoric resounding with threadbare hyperbole such as 'I mean it's amazing'. Syncopating and satirising banal conversational generalities with explosive, highly subjective, declamation, her live performances convey much the same intensity as Lichtenstein's and van Hoddis's sharply focussed expressionist Iyrics without ever describing the kind of specific detail catalogued by these poets. "Collaboration" - a nine piece radiophonic suite made in collaboration with Warren Burt in 1987 highlights Stewart's powerful diction by amplifying the sonic potential of her early poems with a number of different kinds of technological accompaniment.
Discussing this collaborative venture in an interview of 1988, Warren Burt began by stressing its radiophonic quality:(48)
"Amanda's pieces in "Collaboration" were indeed meant for live performance over the years. But here it's not live performance, it's radio, which is a whole other thing. We were making a radio piece with her voice."
Burt describes his own contribution to this collaboration as the attempt 'to use her voice, and extract a music from it, which then accompanies it', adding:
"Hopefully, I'm not obliterating the music of her voice, but am in fact accentuating it, accompanying it, and doing what any good setter-of-texts will do throughout music history, which is to bring out other aspects of the word through the setting one gives to it."
In the case of "lt Becomes", Burt used a sampler to synchronize Stewart's live reading of the poem with pre-recorded readings of its lines, following a 'logic' of sequence and pitch. He explains:
"Here we recorded each line of the poem as a separate sample. Each of the sixteen lines of the poem goes across the keyboard. Then Amanda reads the poem, and the pitch of her voice ... extracted lines from the poem to accompany her. So the higher she speaks, the later is the line which accompanies her. lf she speaks very high, then line sixteen is played by the machine. lf she speaks very low, line one is played ... You could hear many more than two lines simultaneously. Once a line's triggered off it will play for quite a while ... So you could get a number of voices happening - a number ot Amanda voices."
While he acknowledged that these voices might appear confusing Burt argues that "It becomes" is well suited to such sonic amplification:
"Because we know the text we can follow it through, and hear very clearly what is live voice and what is accompaniment. Other people would have difficulty doing that, and that's fine, because of the nature of the poem. "lt Becomes" is so chancey and incantatory that having other lines from other parts of the poem actually makes structural sense."
Other sections of "Collaboration" include two improvisations: "lmprov I" and "Improv 2". Once again, Burt extended live performance by recording and recycling fragments of earlier readings. Recalling that he first asked Amanda Stewart to 'improvise funny non-verbal vocal sounds', Burt continues:
"While she did that, I had the microphone going all the time, and whenever I heard a sound I Iiked, I sampled it into the sampler, and ended up with seventeen little short vocal sounds... I then arranged the keyboard of the sampler in such a way that each three chromatic pitches had a different Amanda sound on it. Over the course of a four octave keyboard I had seventeen sounds available. So that C, C sharp and D might be such and such a sound at three different pitches, and so on. And then l said, 'Why don't I improvise on this keyboard while you improvise against it'?"
Not all responses to these collaborations were favourable.
"A lot of Amanda's feminist friends were very scandalised by the piece - (a) because she dared to work with a male, (b) because she dared to use technology, and (c) because there was music in it that they didn't understand at all."
While these responses typify the highly politicized perspective of many Australian poets, Burt's own reactions to the collaboration have much more in common with the more formal explorations of the interface between speech and music in the work ot American composers such as Laurie Anderson, Steve Reich, Alvin Lucier and Robert Ashley. Considering "Collaboration" aesthetically, Burt drew attention to the ways in which its successive sections add various kinds of 'corona of sound' to live declamation, and create an overlap between real time and pre-recorded performance. For example, referring to the twin tracks of the improvisation, he comments:
"There are moments when its obvious that one is a machine thing being played, and the other is a live human being. But there are other moments when it blurs ... Those moments are actually very nice."
As Burt also very significantly remarks, the most important consequence of these collaborations are their general conceptual challenges, rather than minor generic distinctions between music and poetry, or between live and technological tonality. Pondering upon the apparent simplicity of the sampler, and upon its more substantial creative challenges to the poet and the composer, he memorably concludes:
"This is something significantly new, but l don't think it's a huge disjunction with the equipment we've had in the past. All the sampler enables us to do, is to do things that could have been done with magnetic tape and razor-blade, but which can now be done much more easily, in real time. And that ease, and that real-timeness, then present a whole new set of conceptual problems."
These crucial 'conceptual problems' simultaneously invoke new forms of radio-art, created for and by radio technology, and new forms of live - or partially live - performance, predicated upon radiophonic technology. Envisaging both of these options, Burt anticipates that his next collaboration with Amanda Stewart 'will be a piece specifically conceived for the medium we're working with'. At the same time, he also contemplates the possible use of sampler recordings in live, real time performances, during which 'I may sit there at the keyboard ... while Amanda improvises against it'. Poets, composers, performance artists and 'sound artists' of all kinds are constantly extending the assumptions of their art in this way, fluctuating between real time and studio time creativity.
As the American composer Philip Glass remarks, contemporary technology permits innumerable multi-media effects that 'we couldn't have produced ... five years ago'.(49)
Dr Nicholas Zurbrugg,
Dr Nicholas Zurbrugg,
Division of Humanities,