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Thursday, May 29, 2014

Robert Sheppard: Listening to Fluvium by Martin Archer, Geraldine Monk, Julie Tippetts


On the Discus CD Fluvium, the collaboration of Martin Archer and Julie Tippets with Geraldine Monk is close in that Monk is for the first time performing with them, and she is working with a complex text, free of the expectations of ‘song’, unlike the earlier Angel High Wires. The ‘text’ of a multisystemic formal reading of this ‘fused sonics’ must include this text on the page (even this is offered to us in book publication and in the CD sleevenotes with slight variations) and the music as it is heard on the CD. (It is not separately notated; Archer works directly on his materials and, as with earlier work, incorporates acts of improvisation into the overall poesis undertaken in the studio). This includes the performance of that text, along with the grain of the voice (here with the presence of the author and another voice, one speaking, the other singing, although that distinction is not held to rigidly in the mix), and with every other element of organised sound (to appropriate John Cage’s catch-all definition of music) taken into account: ‘fused sonics (interaction)’ (to use some terms from Monk’s poetics, Insubstantial Thoughts on the Transubstantiation of the Text. I posted the (exhaustively) long version of my account of this on Pages (first of 5 installments here).

These involve 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; they run the risk of ‘Sonic v semantic’ (another term from the poetics). To adapt the information theory of Yuri Lotman, the recording as experienced is a multi-systemic artefact, where all elements operate with some degree of autonomy from all others. The resultant complexity, the interinanimation (and non-interinanimation) of its forms, is 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. Responding to the Monk poem being recited, to adapt Attridge’s remark, involves performing the particular performance of it that I am hearing. Responding to the Monk poem being recited as part of a recorded composition by Martin Archer involves performing the particular performance of it that I am hearing on the recording which, after several hearings, is a composite one.[i]


What follows here are my notes, made listening to the recording, and then immediately ‘cleaned up’ for style and sense. Otherwise, for this post, they have not been changed, other than adding the correct spelling of the Stockhausen piece. Monk’s text was not consulted. The words in inverted commas are what I heard, or thought I heard Monk say, or sing. A generous sample may be heard here.


Archer’s buckled electronics start the piece off, though is there a voice, some sampled trace of utterance, in the jerking word-like chimes, or ringing? Not sure. Glissandi, gratings and swoops crowd together, build up. A single piano note is struck, then returns sampled, several times, transformed, as Monk’s whispers begin, a brief sound at first, but then she clearly recites the text, in a whisper surrounded by, swamped by, outnumbered by electronics (and, a little after, by multi-tracked sax). There are deft and grand electronic sounds that remind me of Stockhausen’s ‘Gesang der Jünglinge’, but this is the home-brew version (I mean: what took hours in Darmstadt in the 1950s can be done on a lap top today). ‘Lush lush.’ The saxes return with a rondo that sounds like the World Saxophone Quartet, though perhaps more out there like SOS from the 1970s or the Rova ensemble today. Archer will know that. (Brief memory that he name-checks the Soft Machine.) But electronic noises like JLIAT’s thunder and crash there too. The WSQ sound emerges and electronic voicings (literally voices, treated, I think; they cannot be understood) speak over the rondo, which then fades and leaves not silence but a low hum. A space opens, fills with oscillating electronics, a piano note, but it’s preparing for a concentrated and longer reading from Monk: I hear ‘raparapraprparaparp’ (echoed, sampled). The voice recites close. I hear the music of ‘lips lit lips lit’. ‘Dark dark: dark dark’: repeated like that, before a return to the chorus of ‘raparapraprparaparp.’ ‘Is there anybody there?’ is repeated 4 times. It sounds desperate because there is no reply, not even musically.


A pure electronic tone (though interrupted constantly) leads to a juddery fade. We hear a deep indiscernible male-sounding voice and a continuous dirty tone (like a vacuum cleaner) though the pure tone briefly recurs. The guttering low sounds may be speech slowed even further than male-ness. (The voice must be either Monk’s or Tippetts’, if it’s a voice at all.) Tippetst enters, sighingly, improvising one of her melodies that always sound vaguely eastern, a plaint to be sure. Electronics pop (low), saxes repeat a rondo-like riff, a melodica enters and fades. The sax and voice popping against one another continues for some time. An insistent low tone; then Monk reads, slowly, emphatically, close-miked, over the same kinds of sounds as just described. Did she breathe ‘BREATHE’? ‘It is seethe,’ she intones, as the backing textures build in volume, Tippetts breaking into throat-singing and falsettos, louder. ‘Slo-mo blink,’ does she say? Snarling, breathing low. Two Tippett voices improvise behind her and around the repeating melodica. Monk’s voice stumbles, the singing chirps and blips, ‘Is it?’ It’s like birdsong, chittering in confusion. ‘What is it?’ the voices (both, all) cry. ‘It’s like like like like … it’s like animals,’ I hear, but Monk is off on a roll, dancing down a long stretch of language (as I’ve heard her do in dozens of solo readings) and Tippetts glides over the speech, tracking it, it seems. The track segues into the next…


Is that breathing? ‘It was a very very very (Monk’s tones lowering with each iteration) curled up beer mat.’ The voice is clear with arpeggios of warm electronics surrounding it, chilling to a glissando which slides up towards inaudibility and goes. ‘Time dripped unnoticed and then and then it       stopped. Blotted out…..etc.’ The text is clear, slow enough to write it down, not just listen to it, though Monk elongates a word here and there and it merges into sound, is lost. Every new cluster of words evokes electronic build up: a break in one dictates a break in the other. The music and sound are following the words, or more precisely, following the voice, Monk’s speaking voice. This continues throughout. ‘TAKE ANY SHAPE,’ Monk cries, a grainy voice. A sudden solo sax is clear behind the voice, adopts trills and sliding: Monk went ‘looking for night’ (we hear several times). ‘Out there, the condemned …’ You catch that word again: ‘condemned’; it is auspicious and the extended delivery emphasises this. The textures are building over the basic pattern. Did she say ‘Inscape’? Hopkins in this sliding world, the sounds busy but following the presence and absence of the voice with their own. ‘Ghosts/hosts’, I hear, but the stuttered voice turns almost to pure sound in its cutting off, and even sounds non-English at points. Or glossalalic. Then silence. End of track.


A single electronic chime, a blast, and then: there is Monk’s voice, loud, audible. Other instruments around, Tippets again follows the flow of the speech, tracking the text’s vocal realisation, with blips (as does the electronics). Monk swoops her words, she is singing, really. ‘Yip,’ she says. Blip, she sings. She glissandos (that’s a verb now). Tippetts sopranos (that’s verb too: everything is action). ‘Label.’ The roar rolls on: Monk’s rolling r’s across a stretch of r-words. Alliteration recognised, although the meaning isn’t caught. Musique concrete blaps and sax squeaks, like 60s free jazz, but also vaguely the contemporary avant-garde flutterings of a John Butcher. I hear what feels like a list of words, a row of notes accompanying it, climbing, broadly following the voice (again). Throat sounds: ‘oh!’ Phatic social noises are flung around the sound-space. Gong-tones, guitar brush. ‘Arpeggio,’ Monk says. Wisely the musicians (and Archer mixing them, remember: some of them are him multi-tracked) don’t take this as an instruction, resist the worst form of musically mimesis, but blip and blonk again instead (or in definance). ‘GRINGO?’ I’m hearing words, for sure, but I am unsure they are really spoken. It’s no wonder. There is a lot of interfering sound here. Lotman’s multi-systemic aesthetics seems too neat to describe this. The back and forth of a machine, dirty electric acoustic sounds are grinding against cleaner electronic sounds (it seems) in the same way that Monk’s smoky-smoggy voice growls and grounds the purer flight of Tippetts soaring voice, though she begins to emit long clear but quieter notes as Monk’s speech lowers into less audible utterance. The zizzing electronics in echoing reverb grate and blurt rather than chime, though chiming continues, swamped by, and sinking into, the overall grainy texture. By the time there’s no voice left, these noises are breakages, torn sounds across the nerves of audition. They fade. End.    


This text is impressionistic as yet, but there is an awareness of the multi-systemic theory in its descriptions. I am surprised how little of the text I have apprehended, and certainly in no way do I interpret it. I mis-hear it: ‘lush lush’ for ‘lash lash’; ‘dark dark’ for ‘dart dart’, for example. The task of joining up the written text to performance awaits its day. In the meantime I can take joy in having descended very far down into the piece, so much so that the words were only as important as the sounds. ‘Sonics v semantics’ does not so much happen here at this sonic substratum. I listened intently to the music but didn’t hear (or misheard) the words. The whole feeling, on the other hand, is dictated by the auspicious, slow, caressing, but broken tone of Monk’s voice. It’s ghostly, ghastly, and we’re aghast.

TITLES and Text

Titles are important lexical items and formal pointers in most poems, but in the case of this recording they are also the titles of tracks to be selected, and in one case, the title of the entire musical composition. They might be the only words read by a listener. ‘Fluvium’ is not the Latin for river (as I thought). That is ‘fluvius’, though it is derived from fluere, to flow, hence the English adjective ‘fluvial’, of or belonging to rivers. ‘Flow’ is encoded in the etymology. ‘Fusile’ seems to be clustered with similar words as ‘fusible’ or ‘fusil’, a noun meaning melting, the state of fluidity (again) from heating. ‘Metablethers’ sounds strange although we all know ‘Meta’ often implies change. Somehow (how?) I thought ‘blether’ would be Scottish and it is, meaning blather, to talk nonsense, but it implies fluent garrulity. So flow again. Metablether implies transformation (to use a central word for my current researches), transmogrification (to use a word in the text itself) or transubstantiation (to use the word from Monk’s poetics).

‘Espial’, on the other hand, as could be guessed, means ‘the act of espying, observation’, where ‘epsy’ means to watch, from a distance, with connotations of discovering something unexpectedly. ‘Ghast’ can be a verb, the Shakespearean ‘to strike aghast’ or to affright, again the unexpected. Old English.

These words construct a kind of lexical prospectus for this poem (and possibly for Archer’s music): everything is in danger of transforming, at the levels of content and form. Material ‘blather’, the ordinary bits and pieces of our world are focussed upon (‘espial’ might be right for this recognition of banal singularity with its musical but redundant hyper-modification):

…. a very very very
curled up
beer mat.
Singular. Stiff.’ (Monk 2001: 87)

is ‘transmogrified’ in a ‘Night of urban freefall/ funlovers’. (87) The poem identifies flow as life. Even under this city pleasure dome (one of the rare social glimpses of the poem) ‘death and what not’, the ‘ghast’ details, are fended off with the minatory ‘Take any shape but THAT’, with its excessively emphatic typography (which perhaps Archer interprets as authority for sonic excess). Taking shape again suggests transformation (perhaps shamanistic this time), and escape. The world of ‘Abandoned moon buggies’ with which the poem opens (amid all that whispering as though this a secret place, barely audible) is both recognisable, the urban detritus of dumped motor vehicles, and alien; to annex a phrase from the poetics, this is a ‘lunarscape’ as well, with cast-off space-junk scattered across its surface. Archer re-orders the poems (or his realisations of them) so that the work no longer ends at a state of rested totality amid the fragmented urbanism of ‘fisile’,

come-come to me soothing/
(wayafter aching midnight), (Monk 2001: 91)

but with the more ghastly image (and call to music, of course, authorising Archer’s elaborate coda described aboove):

sing while
            ’er blueberry hair
                        stalagmites (Monk 2001: 90)

Only a witch or some ghastly ghostly creature could possess hair made of blueberries. Its transformation into spiky, prickly stalagmites (the word itself transformed from static noun to active verb) is a necessarily slow one, and reminds us that transubstantiation (whether of words or objects, whether in life or performance) happens at a variety at speeds. Additionally, collaborative work such as the recording of Fluvium occurs simultaneously at various synchronised and non-synchronised, but collectively signifying, multi-systemic levels (to use Lotman very loosely again).    


Perhaps the most extraordinary proof of this mode of conceiving of work in performance as the interactions of ‘levels’ is Archer’s composition ‘Aftershock’ which completes the CD: it is a re-mix of ‘Fluvium’, and perhaps of other materials not used, to create a dense remoding of the earlier piece, both voices and musical sounds, though occasionally leaving allusive space for recognition of its fragments. It consists of vocal samples of speech, song and sprechgesang, with minimal electronics. The words are sometimes recognisable (‘Is there anybody there?’ most memorably) but the reprises are transformed, by a much fiercer sampling, cutting, repetition (particularly the ‘Rappa rappa’ chorus) and with formidable overdubs to pulverise the sounds to ‘micro-vocal particles’ (to use Henri Chopin’s words) and non-lexical vocal sounds (but still preserving the timbre of Monk’s voice) while Tippetts’ multi-tracked voice skitters around them. This passage is close to the formal electro-acoustic manipulation of Stockhausen’s ‘Gesang der Jünglinge’. It builds to an echolalic chittering as aural texture. ‘Aftershock’ is a demonstration of much of my thesis about form (in extended inter-media): it is a formal recognition that any formed and formal artefact may be de-formed and re-formed, that any form may be transformed – and that the modes of transformation – re-writing, re-composing, translation, and finally reading, and listening themselves, are stages in an infinitely expandable (though humanly constrained) formal (and thereby human) adventure.    

(For a full description of, and full set of links to, my project The Meaning of Form 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

[i] Details of both CDs may be accessed here: Angel High Wires :; and Fluvium: (accessed 18th March 2014).