the language moment review
The Language Moment started in a more sombre and insurrectionary mood than might have been expected. And it felt like different time-periods collided.
There was the bad news that day that after 28 years the greenroom will close at the end of May. Add this to Castlefield Gallery's loss of Arts Council funding and artists might very well feel besieged.
It also seems perversely apt that a centre born during the previous Tory administration should end during another. Albeit in coalition with Lib Dems.
Sarah Boothroyd's sound piece which opened the event and the festival was created in response to the work of Luigi Nono. It was another one of those points where different periods crashed into one another.
The piece comprised of sounds, music, and audio material from broadcasts apparently covering the recent unrest in the middle east and north Africa. For me it summarised some of the interesting creative tensions within the evening. Tensions which may or may not spill over into the rest of the festival. I'll come to these tensions shortly.
But that crashing together of periods I mentioned. There is the coincidence of the birth and death of the venue under Tory governments. There is the recent unrest reminiscent of the collapse of Soviet rule from 1989 onwards. Then, too events in China at the same time which my parents presciently compared to the Prague Spring. Which takes us further back to the 1960's.
In the work of several of the artists there were obvious echoes of the past as well as reminders of the present day.
The tensions in the piece, for me, were between the use of sound as material in its own right and sound as separate from (subservient to/disruptive of) music as organised sound, between the narrative and the non-narrative, and between art as explicitly polemical and art as personal.
So sound as material or sound as separate from music. While I don't feel I've resolved this tension in my own work and thinking my preference in recent years has been for the former. As a result I felt slight disappointment whenever the piece threatened to resolve itself into something primarily musical.
I'll return to the other tensions - between the narrative and non-narrative, and between the polemical and the personal later.
I've taken some time over the first piece to set up the context of the evening, and to start exploring some of the themes that will recur.
Philip Davenport and Ben Gwilliam followed with a sound piece derived from Philip's appeal in air spreadsheet poem. Immediately there was another collision with the past in the form of four reel-to-reel tape players. Many people have used these tools to sculpt sound but in this context I thought particularly of Henri Chopin.
While perhaps they didn't do anything as extreme as some of Chopin's works the piece they did produce felt less limited than some of his works, and more contemporary.
But comparisons aren't that helpful. What's more important is what they actually did. The tapes had recordings of Davenport and Gwilliam reading from the (extensive) poem. Large sections of the poem consist of names of both historical and current practitioners of linguistically innovative, sound, and visual poetry. Other sections consist of the names of birds.
It was these two sets of names that made up the majority of the readings played out. The words overlaid each other from different parts of the space, sometimes sparse and other times more densely arranged. As the piece progressed some of the tapes were slowed, some sections sped up, and at other times the tapes audibly span backwards.
When the tapes were slowed they slowed to a speed where the words were deep and heavily distorted but recognisable. They also slowed more extremely where they were reduced to a pulsing growl. Toward the end they were more often slowed by a subtle degree to give a narcotised effect, or like the speaker or listener had suffered trauma to the brain. The gradually the tapes stopped one by one until there was just an electric hum.
I've seen Philip's spreadsheet poems a few times in different versions now. There was the bundle of sheets hung at Castlefield Gallery in September last year so you had to interact with the exhibit and flip the pages to read the work. There was the wall papered with one of the poems for ghosts move about me patched with histories in December last year at Chinese Arts Centre. There were pieces on the walls for Counting Backwards in February this year.
This was an interesting iteration of the idea and perhaps more accessible than the printed poems themselves. Though of course lacking the context of the spreadsheet and therefore perhaps most of the idea of the way we impose value on things.
The relationship of the piece to the space was completely different from the printed poems as you'd expect. The dialogue between the sound and the space is utterly unlike the relationship of printed sheets, however large, to any space. Additionally the pulsing growls, the underlying electric hum, and at one point a runaway roar of sound from the equipment reflected the periodic and remote rumble of trains overhead.
The second half closed with a complete contrast in the form of Maggie O'Sullivan reading a number of her poems. There were links. Mentions of the natural world, notably birds, linked back to the previous performance. So too the history of innovative poetry which O'Sullivan has been a part of and continues was highlighted by the list of poets previously.
Like both the previous pieces Maggie O'Sullivan's touched on the places where language becomes sound, no longer carrying the same meaning.
In Sarah Boothroyd's piece it was the corruption of sound by low fidelity recording and playback, by volume, by the layering of sounds, by unfamiliar languages. In Philip and Ben's rendering of Philip's text it was the corruption of sound by alteration of the speed, by the layering of sounds, and by the repetitive nature of lists which tend to cause your attention to wander.
In Maggie O'Sullivan's work it was the phonetic rendering of non-verbal sounds and the juxtaposition of seemingly unrelated words that defeated understanding which caused language to become sound. If you like, a tension between meaning and non-meaning, between the voice making abstract sounds with clearly defined meanings (words) and the voice making more imitative sounds also carrying meaning - but less rigidly defined.
It was a fairly conventional reading of the work. But the work is far from conventional. Many more capable critics than myself have written about O'Sullivan's work, its qualities and significance. I'd suggest starting there for insightful discussions.
I found that I enjoyed the slippage from clear impressions of objects and sounds to more abstract passages where sense and even language proved elusive to clusters of thoughts prompted directly or indirectly from the work. O'Sullivan manages to integrate the conventionally observational with the linguistically innovative and abstract with the political with the personal without causing the poems to fly apart.
This was followed by a break during which pieces by myself and Sarah Sanders were played out. I won't say much about these - in Sarah's case because I wasn't actually aware of it at any point and so am in no position to comment, in the case of my work because I'm in no position to judge.
Sarah's piece is apparently currently untitled, and I haven't looked online yet to see if there's a recording anywhere I can direct you to. If I find - or get told about - one then I'll link it here. My piece was one of my sound poems from early in 2009, tear, which I recreated live for Hiss Heads at the beginning of last month.
I was actually amused when the feedback at the end started up and the piece was gradually turned down. I thought initially someone behind the bar had panicked and thought there was a problem with their speakers. In fact Tony Trehy had thought there was problem with the recording having only previously listened to the piece on a laptop and had asked for the piece to be turned down and then off.
As it happens most of the piece had been played at that point, and although I didn't stay to hear it through, it was played out again in the theatre space at the end of the night. It certainly wasn't a problem and I don't imagine it seriously affected anyone's response to the piece if they noticed it at all.
The second half was more surprising and less familiar. There were just two performers - Phil Minton and Eiríkur Örn Norðdahl - each different from the other and each different from what had been seen so far.
Phil Minton's performance included extraordinary non-linguistic vocalisations. Some were imitative of bird song or other natural (and non-natural sounds). Others were the kind of breaths, belches and vocal sounds you might make just messing around.
Sometimes the sounds were quiet or had continued in a similar vein for a long time before being interrupted by a sudden loud outburst.
Sometimes it felt like there might be a kind of narrative on the verge of appearing, at other times as though the primary concern was textural and aural rather than led by some external structure.
To see someone in the flesh doing a variation on throat singing where they achieve two clear and separate tones was also impressive. And the fact that this was all achieved with just a single microphone - no loops, no sound-sources was likewise impressive.
The tension between sounds that seemed throwaway, easy to make, even silly, and the control and flexibility of Minton's performance didn't for me resolve either way. I suspect it may have been different for others.
In a sense what he did was perhaps closer to music than Sarah Boothroyd's work. There were parallels - or hints of - free jazz and improvised music. It felt too that Phil Minton was closer to what I understand by sound poetry than anyone else on the evening.
But for me the real tension was that between narrative - in the sense of something that tells a story and has a through-line that the audience can follow - and non-narrative - in the sense of something that has a coherence that is more textural. As I mentioned earlier.
My personal preference is for as little narrative as possible. I believe that the familiarity of narrative and the dominance of particular narrative structures can tend to make both artist and audience lazy. Phil Minton seemed to me to keep the two extremes in check.
Eiríkur Örn Norðdahl was the only performer described as a sound poet. I found him rather more conventional than that description might suggest. This is not to say that he was bad. I very much enjoyed his performance, I was impressed by the speed of his delivery at times, and overall the performance did prompt a few thoughts.
Prominent amongst those was to wonder whether in Northern European poetries of the present day there is even less polarisation between the 'experimental' and the 'mainstream' than in current Anglo-American poetries.
At times - whenever Seamus Heaney makes some dumb remark about experimental poetry, or Alan Brownjohn tries to denigrate the British Poetry Revival - I feel there's a very sharp divide. But then these are writers who both seem way out of touch with contemporary practice. Younger generations of writers appear to be interested in and less aware of such boundaries.
For my part since I barely write poetry any more the debate is of less interest than it was. My interest in writing, as in sound and visual art, is for what works and what I'm happy with.
But back to Norðdahl. His poems were wide ranging in tone and approach. At times he was playful, even childish, punning and making jokes. At other times he was harder to grasp, more serious, sometimes abstract. It was as though he were racing back and forwards in some theoretical space between Maggie O'Sullivan and Phil Minton. And in the English poems doing it in what is not his first language.
I enjoyed his reading. If Phil Minton, Maggie O'Sullivan, and Philip Davenport with Ben Gwilliam were my highlights then Eiríkur Örn Norðdahl was not far behind.
The evening overall was a fascinating mix with no particular approach dominating. One question that I had is the same question that I had over the last Text Festival, and which I also have with Counting Backwards. It is to wonder why there is a tendency for the emphasis on text to tend to lean more toward poetry than any other written medium?
Perhaps it's the same reason why I first began to call myself a poet. Because while at that time I was also writing short stories, essays, and more, my interest was in compression and allusion rather than being expansive and explanatory. Poetry just seemed to be the best descriptive fit and to offer the greatest flexibility.
I suppose when visual text art and textual sound art happen it is easier to associate them with, or derive them from poetry. A visual novel - if it wasn't what we'd call a graphic novel - would nonetheless be a different entity to a visual poem. Perhaps this is what Tom Phillips' A Humument is? A sound novel likewise is less easily apprehended than a sound poem.
Many of the thoughts here are unresolved. I think this is a good thing. I also think it's part of what good art should do, and by extension collections of art - whether galleries, festivals or other gatherings. I look forward to the festival prompting even more unresolved thoughts.