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Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Robert Sheppard: The Challenge of Writing about Poetry and Music: Fluvium by Martin Archer, Julie Tippetts and Geraldine Monk








Martin Archer at The Grapes, Sheffield


Discus CD Fluvium: details here; listen to excerpts (particularly the first 2.40) here

What is the relationship of the text on the page to the CD I’m listening to? Take the simple device of centring the text on the page (which is not followed in the sleeve-note printing, so is literally not present on the CD if we accept it as material object): a formalist reading must insist upon this as a contributor to the effect of the poem. But all we hear on track one as it opens is the buckled electronic sounds of Archer. As a kind of introduction to the piece, is that the equivalent of my eyes saccading all over the page and establishing that the centring is a particular artifice I must accommodate? Not really.

When Monk begins to read she whispers the text. Where is that sound on the page? Is the text whispered? Empirically not, of course; it’s written. But if I’m reading the text as I listen, does it take the whisper into itself? Is the whisper now on the page as part of my act of forming of the text? ‘Responding to a poem being recited involves performing the particular performance of it that I am hearing,’ says Derek Attridge. (Attridge 2004: 86) And that includes the whisper. There are some theories of audition which think that this is so. I return to the Christopher Middleton distinction between the exophone and the endophone with which I end The Poetry of Saying more than I thought I might. But even going down that avenue, which I won’t, other than to nudge the sedan into the parking bay, where is the whisper: in the reader, in the ears of the listener, or – more controversially on the page? For a formalist reading this could involve problems unless we follow the model offered by Attridge (usually the fount of contemporary literary wisdom).  Responding to the Monk poem being recited involves performing the particular performance of it that I am hearing.  Responding to the Monk poem being recited as part of a composition with Martin Archer involves performing the particular performance of it that I am hearing on the CD. (My memory of seeing it being performed is hazy and only contributes a general but largely visual impression, I must admit, dominated by Julie Tippetts.) I have now listened to it several times and now the performance is no longer ‘the particular performance of it that I am hearing’, but is composite. (The same could be said of any piece of recorded sound, from my own voice reading my latest poem, something I do to check on sonic qualities I might otherwise miss, through to the Jack Bruce album I played last night; actually my checking of his version of ‘I Feel Free’ against the Cream original is another kind of composite memory, the assessment of variation.) Somewhere Attridge says that as long as I retain something of the poem as a poem (not a paraphrase) then I retain something of its form. That’s true here: the poem is unparaphrasable and the music has to remain formal because music has no content (leaving the controversy of that statement to one side for a moment).

Is there one form or are there two forms here: the text and the music? The existence of the separate text is clear but there is no separate music, either as performance notation or post-performance description: it can’t exist like the words of ‘Round Midnight’ which I didn’t know for decades and which, when I did (thank you Mel Torme), it altered my perception of other instrumental versions (Monk, Theolonious, and Davis, Miles say), actually altered what I thought of as the melody by separating it more clearly from harmonic structures which a jazz musician’s improvisatory gestures might have blurred, certainly Miles, to form an alternative melody, as it were.

Do we regard the entire piece we hear  – to reprise the information theory of Yuri Lotman – as a multi-systemic artefact, where all elements operate with some degree of autonomy from one another? He talks about ‘everything contributing to the impact of the work upon the reader…. All levels may carry meaning – not just lexical meaning but a full range of esthetic, ideological, and cultural meanings’. (Lotman 1976: xv) That extension goes well beyond the formalist reading I want to hold together (I want to exclude Julie Driscoll’s ‘look’ as the background to the CD; so does Julie Tippetts!). But it allows for such a thought, or an approach that I might find usable to analyse this CD.

It would go something like this: the ‘text’ for the sake of a multisystemic formal reading must include the text on the page (since it is offered to us, in the book publication and in the sleevenotes, however variant) and the music as it is heard on the CD (not as separately notated, although I think Archer works directly on his materials and, as with earlier work, incorporates acts of improvisation into the overall poesis). It includes the performance of that text (here with the exophonic presence of the author and another voice, one singing, the other speaking, although that distinction is not held to rigidly, perhaps combines into a single ‘voice’ level for analysis), with the grain of the voice, and with every other element of organised sound (to appropriate John Cage’s catch-all definition of music. ‘Fusion and interaction are acts of risk, the clash of two (or more) formal disciplines, formal practices, formal languages, that threaten (in cybernetic language) to produce noise rather than message,’ I wrote earlier on Monk’s poetics. And Monk sees the interaction herself as not one of harmony, but of dissonance:

abstraction of
itterance
meaning
fighting for
dear
squalled in
sownd

To be simpler (and to remove parentheses, like this one!)…

To be simpler: the ‘text’ of a multisystemic formal reading must include the text on the page and the music as it is heard on the CD, including the performance of that text, with the grain of the voice, and with every other element of organised sound.
Fusion and interaction are acts of risk, the clash of two (or more) formal disciplines, formal practices, formal languages, and the effect may not be of systems working purposefully together but of working against one another, each autonomous. The resultant complexity, the interinanimation of its forms, are formed in a multi-sensory act of readerly forming, so that the forming of it because its performance and the trace of that event its meaning. As so often in this research, form becomes content.




Print works cited

Attridge, Derek. The Singularity of Literature. London and New York: Routledge, 2004.
Lotman, Yury, Analysis of the Poetic Text (Ann Arbor: Ardis, 1976).
Middleton , Christopher, Jackdaws Jiving (Manchester: Carcanet, 1998)

accessed 18th March 2014

(For a full description of, and links to every post from, my The Meaning of Form project, click here.)



Update September 2016: For those who can buy The Meaning of Form in Contemporary Innovative Poetry, or order it for libraries, here are the places