This article was written on 07 Oct 2013, and is filled under Literature.

The Audio File Audiophile: Listening for Ambient Poetry


Already by 2007, eight million files were being downloaded annually from PennSound, the audio poetry site housed at the University of Pennsylvania and curated by poet Charles Bernstein. The question arises, then, as to what people are doing with all of these files. Listening to the audio file of a poetry reading is as distinct from attending the event as it is from reading a poem silently to oneself. While attending a reading, one can be mesmerized by the person of the poet interacting with the words. One looks for how the poet works his or her way into the language enunciated and projects this form of inhabitation out toward an audience, and also at how the audience engages with or turns aside from the performance. With an audio file of a poetry reading, though, there is no poet, no audience, and no possibility of locating oneself within the physical space of that reading. Listening to an audio file is an ambient activity, a steady flow of words taking place for a period of time in the presence of other files and applications on a computer desktop (or other device) and alongside ongoing events within the physical location of listening. In essence, an audio file is a form of ambient music. It creates an allover sonic environment that moves back and forth between the foreground and the background of awareness.

As chronicled by Mark Prendergast, ambient music’s history begins with experiments in aural texture by Mahler, Satie, Debussy, and Ravel, continues with the generation of noise and electronic sounds in Varèse, Cage, and Rock and Roll, and comes into its own with Minimalism, Techno, Electronica, sampling, and remixing. Its main elements are timbre and texture, repetition and rhythm, and the electronic generation of sound. Brian Eno, one of its most articulate practitioners, calls it “a drift away from narrative and towards landscape, from performed event to sonic space.” When it settles into the background, ambient music provides a programmed sonic environment in which other events can take place. When it moves to the foreground, ambient music’s textures become more prominent, so that particular sounds overtake the experience of the moment. Whether as background or foreground, ambient music creates a space to inhabit, a space less subject to rational thought than to the phenomenology of sensory and proprioceptive experience.

From a somewhat archeological stance, a listener can set aside the ambient quality of an audio file and listen to it forensically in search of clues that divulge a writer’s thoughts about a poem or add to the genetic or textual history of its composition or dissemination. Most of the millions of files downloaded annually from PennSound are listened to not in this way but ambiently, the listener moving in and out of awareness while other activities take place. In many instances, these audio files enter an unplanned electronic mix, blending with other sources of sound on the computer or in the room. Having noticed the unique timbral properties to be found in poetry audio files, DJs have begun to mix them with sampled electronic music and programmable beats. DJ Spooky that Subliminal Kid (Paul D. Miller), for instance, has taken many of the classic audio files of modernist poetry, such as Gertrude Stein’s “If I told Him” and “A Valentine for Sherwood Anderson,” Kurt Schwitters’ “Anna Blume” and Ursonate, James Joyce’s “Anna Livia Plurabelle,” and vocal texts by Antonin Artaud, Marcel Duchamp, Hans Arp, and Jean Cocteau, and mixed them together with contemporary forms of electronic music. The audio files he selects to remix have distinctive sonic qualities that lend them much more aural presence than a run-of-the-mill poetry reading.

Stein in particular has become a major progenitor of poetry audio files and of ambient poetry itself. Her famous Caedmon recordings, made originally in New York City (January 30, 1935) during her lecture tour of America, have a firm precision and an unfaltering rhythm. For today’s listener these audio files cry out for blending with electronic beats; her stylistic hallmark of repetition with slight variation is the primary formal trait of much ambient music. Listening to an audio file of her reading is an inherently immersive experience, in which both the vocal qualities of her delivery and the repetitive verbal rhythms of her style create an all-over, highly textured environment. As what Eno calls a “landscape” or “sonic space,” her writing refuses to yield itself to distanced contemplation; it demands inhabitation. In her “completed portrait” of Picasso, “If I Told Him” (1924), for instance, she constructs a sound and rhythm environment by rhyming the phrase “if I told him” with the word “Napoleon”:

If Napoleon if I told him if I told him if Napoleon. Would he like it if I told him if I told him if Napoleon. Would he like it if Napoleon if Napoleon if I told him. If I told him if Napoleon if Napoleon if I told him. If I told him would he like it would he like it if I told him.

After taking in the satiric intent of Stein’s comparing Picasso to Napoleon and her sly speculation about how he might react to such a comparison, the listener settles into the primary activity of the portrait as audiotext, which is to evoke the sensuousness of ambient listening. Stein’s portraits have been called “cubist,” but from the sonic perspective they are anything but angular, jagged, or juxtapositional. They are saturated with the pleasures of repeated and slightly modified sound in rhythmic divisions of durational length. In this sense, Stein can be seen as a progenitor of Minimalist music, as influential as her contemporaries Satie and Ravel. It is hard to imagine the groundbreaking Minimalist opera, Einstein on the Beach by Philip Glass and Robert Wilson, for instance, without the ambient verbal music of Gertrude Stein.

Another master of poetry as ambient music is John Taggart. In poem sequences like his “Marvin Gaye Suite” and “Rothko Chapel Poem” he uses rhythmic repetition to structure blocks of poetry that partake of the immersive ambience of the audio file. The “Marvin Gaye Suite” (1991) begins with an evocation of one of the signature ambient moments in popular music, the opening to Gaye’s “What’s Going On” (1971), in which we are dropped in the middle of a crowd at a party, with no particular sound to focus on until a saxophone finally arrives to provide a platform for Gaye’s first words, “Mother, Mother”:

17 seconds of party formulaics by professional football players
intro of 17 seconds of hey man what’s happening and right on
party of those gathered to be laid by the voice that lays
don’t have to be a jock to be gathered brought together for the lay
Marvin mixed over the party Marvin calls out twice to mother
surely mother must be the answer forget about the father’s tongue
if not one then the other not father unexpected relief of the other
. . .
and in the mean time it’s right on baby it’s right on right on
I’m a witness I’ll talk to him so I can see what’s going on
what’s going on party of those gathered brought together for the lay
party of those gathered to be laid by the voice that lays
. . .
(Loop 216)

The poem weaves together the sounds and words of Gaye’s song with the responses of the poet, setting the poem within the song as part of its extended ambient condition. That is, the poem responds not as a separate aesthetic event but from inside the space of the song. It is a listening to and meditation on and reception of and response to the song, and as such cannot exist without it. If you do not hear this song or call it up in memory, the poem gives you very little space in which to move. As a work of writing participating in the ambient environment of the audio file of nine songs that make up Gaye’s What’s Going On, the nine poems of “Marvin Gaye Suite” imitate sounds, give responses (as in call-and-response), and open the songs out to myriad biographical, social, and musical contexts in which they continue to reverberate.

Although you must hear Gaye’s song (at least in memory) in order for Taggart’s poem to reach its full ambient resonance, Nathaniel Mackey has managed in his ongoing serial novel From a Broken Bottle Traces of Perfume Still Emanate (1986-) to create in language the phenomenological condition of living inside an imaginary improvisatory jazz band, The Mystic Horn Society (later named the Molimo m’Atet). Within the novel, every thought expressed can be matched by instrumental articulations by the band, and every sound produced by the band can be heard as a thought entering into dialogue with earlier thoughts. Initially, we are taught by Mackey how to enter the ambient space of thought–as-sound and sound-as-thought through a device similar to Taggart’s residence within the songs of Marvin Gaye: the epistolary narrator N. can be heard describing in exquisite detail the thoughts, motives, and effects of specific moments in classic jazz recordings. N. lives so deeply into these recordings that he is able to portray the qualities of their sounds and relate a sound or a song to others within a huge interactive web comprised of jazz, soul, and world music. This ability may be a defining quality of the jazz buff, but Mackey transcends that designation by creating new, non-existent jazz audio files that the reader can experience and move around in. In the novel, N. presents his band as writing, rehearsing, and delivering actual songs, complete with names and dates of composition, which have never been heard. His descriptions of the mental, physical, imaginal, responsive, erotic, allusive aspects of making music in the complex society of a jazz band are so finely drawn and so linguistically labile (full of puns and sound slippage) that the reader enters into an ambient condition that is tantamount to hearing the non-existent audio file of the “song” Mackey has composed in language.

I would like to end this brief overview by pointing toward other recent explorations of the ambient qualities of poetry as audio text. Two prominent examples would be Tracie Morris’s marriage of sound poetry with the hip-hop aesthetic and Pamela Lu’s invocation of ambient music as an entire world inhabited by characters in a novel. One of the most remarkable qualities of Morris’s audio files such as “Project Princess” and “Slave Sho to Video aka Black but Beautiful” is her verbal dexterity in using voice to imitate electronic effects. In Pamela Lu’s Ambient Parking Lot, a new work that explores the situation of the audio file audiophile, the characters of this poetically resonant “novel” go to extraordinary lengths to document the ambient sounds of a parking garage, which they present as a new musical and political manifestation. (See also the ambient poetry and prose of Tan Lin, in particular his essay “ambient stylistics.”) Morris and Lu compose out of sensibilities already saturated with ambient music and poetry audio files. Far from having a merely documentary function, poetry audio files themselves now provoke the composition of new works of writing meant to reside within the capacious realm of ambient music.

-Stephen Fredman, University of Notre Dame

One Comment

  1. […] response is one I just came across, in Stephen Fredman’s discussion of audio files of poetry readings, published at Feedback. The whole thing is worth reading, but […]