The Audio Culture of Writing

Caroline Bergvall Kritiker #7, december 2007

The digital era facilitates the audio recording of texts. It provides an easy access to both micro and macro articulations of the speaking/reading voice. It can also allow for a greater cohabitation of social speech and poetic text and can infiltrate into poetic matter, speech patterns and speech environments that were previously absented from it. We deal with reading out rather than with reading, with listening to the reading voice, as it coexists with technology and poetics. The sounding rather than graphism of written language is brought to the fore and this will transform our relation to textuality. In this short piece I want to discuss some of the implications of the audio diffusion of written texts, and the cultural shift this signals. My own work as a poet and text-based artist is fundamentally concerned with states of language and states of inscription of language, of which sounded and recorded text play a crucial part. It seems to me that is in the distillation, registering and recording of many forms of language in use and in context that poetry and poetics matter.

Of course, there are forms of writing and of poetry, from the avant-gardes of sound poetry to new improvisatory spoken forms, that have from the start emphasised the sonic composition of writing. In these contexts the dissociation between reading and listening has always been very profound. The past hundred years have seen a flurry of forms of writing and of handling language audiophonically that reject or question the exclusive hold that book publishing has had over writing and wish to favour performed or uttered poetics: from the classic text-bound poetry reading to more distended relations between live reading and poetry, or between recording textual speech or recording voice, such as in for instance live improvisation, performance poetries, the audio manifestations of Concrete and sound poetries, or audiotext practices influenced by more recent time-based and web-based arts that seldom even utilise the book publication.

Very interestingly, in the commercial sector of book publishing, the biggest rise these past few years is in audiobooks. In the UK alone, audiobooks and spoken word sales have risen by 30% and the percentage of sold audiobooks is on a steady increase. In the US, where the market is the strongest, sales are now topping eight billion dollars. Nevertheless, the output is still largely ignored by critics, who fail to see in it anything more than a market ploy, and consider it a secondary source to the written book. Yet audiobooks are increasingly seen by publishers themselves as the best kept secret, the fastest rising and most promising new wing of publishing. Websites dedicated to the audio recordings of poets are also numerous and influential. They combine streaming technology with downloadable formats sympathetic to podcast culture and to this listening-on-the-go, which signals one of the reasons for the undeniable success of audio books. Listening to literature is becoming a socio-cultural reality intrincately connected to ways of living and of accessing cultural material. This cultural development of literature as an artform increasingly listened to is fascinating. What are the implications for writing if it is no longer simply published as a visual and graphic mode, but also finds itself housed or hosted in forms that sound or voice the text? What might this come to mean for the way writing conducts itself, through and beyond the literary as we know it, if the sounding or voicing of the text is increasingly being used and resourced?

Inevitably, there are different production and reception rules for audio and for printed culture. Any audio piece of writing, from reading to sited work, obeys at entry different production and reception rules than the literary. It also breeds other kinds of audiences: readers are no longer necessarily readers. They are first and foremost listeners. There is a sensory shift, hence a mental and intellectual shift, in the acquisition of the textual information, from the eye to the ear, from the seen to the heard. This registers a radical shift in perspective on the literary text, on the experience of poetic works and, more broadly, on the acquisition of knowledge at the heart of our increasingly multimedia literacy.

Listening to a text audiophonically does not only represent its literary value, its ways of writing and poetic methods etc. It is also tied to the many literacies involved in listening and interpreting cultural voices and their sonic representations. And it becomes crucial to develop an awareness of histories of reading practices as well as listening practices. This can include points such as: who reads and in what way; how and why one reads a text aloud; how it is treated by the recording; how does one access listening, what is listening about; what does it involve; what kinds of skills or methods are needed; what does one listen to and for in the audio text; what is the relation between the written source and the recorded piece; what is the relation between the text and the audio technology;1 how is the audio piece made available and through what channels,...

Much depends on the actual stretch between the text and its voicing. Is the audio piece more than an additional platform for the dissemination of the published text? Does it utilise the audio format actively, even compositionally? For instance, writing envisaged from the perspective of its audio assimilation has a temporal dimension that a printed page doesn't have. Sounding and listening inevitably involve the experience of time on both the speaking and the listening body, a sense of corporeality far more present than during a silent reading.2 The tape recording »gives the poet back his voice« as the sound poet Bob Cobbing would say. By which he didn't mean metaphorically, or stylistically, but rather experientially and actually. Yet many poetry sites and poetry audiobooks still emphasise the live recitation as subsidiary to the initial poetic output, and consider the poet's voice (speed, intonation, poetic emphasis) as a resource of the text, a way of grappling with the »secrets« of the text. This is a very partial and narrow view of what it means to read a text aloud and has less to do with listening than with reading. Yet all in all the audio reading will always add dimensions of temporality and of verbal articulacy to that of literacy; and of social fluency and techno fluency to literariness and textual poetics.

For the poet Charles Bernstein, founder of the audio archive PennSound, the reading of a text or poem is always a separate event from the published text. Since »to perform a poem is to make it a physically present acoustic event, to give bodily dimension - beat - to what is otherwise spatial and visual«,3 he argues that the reading is therefore always performative, rather than illustrative. This is a very useful point. Within this is the valuing of an apposite and differential reading scene for poetry.

It might lead one to imagine somewhat naively that the audiophonic appraisal of poetry and other literary texts will implicitly also release the prejudice against oral improvisatory forms so long imposed by print and high culture. The aesthetic remit of the voiced poetry taps into a range of traditions that are as much musical as they are literary, as social as they are poetic, and can fruitfully be integrated to poetic awareness. This is superbly argued in Nathaniel Mackey's now classic collection Discrepant Engagement4 (the African-American poet Tracie Morris, whose work is an explosive and sophisticated blend of urban hip-hop and avant-gardist sound poetry, argues furthermore for the influential and liberatory role played by such poetic forms in contemporary American popular culture). Yet when it comes to orally-based writings that do not have an avantgardist root but rather a popular and activist one, such as those practiced by the Nuyorican poets and other performance poets, hip hop and urban griot writers, they are still far from valued. »Theorists who attempt to discuss connections between history, orature, performative literature, and sound technnology tend to focus on modernist, postwar, avant-garde, or postmodernist experimentalism« writes Loretta Collins in her article on the hybrid and vernacular strategies of current Caribbean poetics.5 The transcultural potential of an audiophonic culture of writing may be in process but it is culturally and politically far from realised. One must work to see that the increase in audio activity de-ghettoises and diversifies contemporary poetic cultures that are audio-reliant. And that an awareness of the representational hold given to spoken forms as much as to the speaking/reading voice is acknowledged and discussed.


What interests me very particularly at this point in time are audioworks and multimedia writings that work not only as a combination of poetic and artistic text productions, but also as a combination between oral and aural works. Works where the social sourcing of voices and sounds are integrated to the audio text. And the ways in which this can also favour the exploration of speech patterns, of aural (socially inscribed) sounds as much as of poetic discourses and cultural technologies. Reclaiming the disembodied recorded voice so hateful to Artaud, the audio recitation of the text can bring out the speaker's voice and make it function at a re-contextualised incorporated level. Through sound production and the production of acts of listening, the audio dimension of writing can come to value the accented or local production of speaking as an integral part of the poetic dimension. The text being now located in the articulate throat as much as in the recording technology, the way one speaks it, the social or cultural accent that one has or doesn't have generates a state of separation or of identification with the listening ear at another level than textual. A writer's/speaker's physical and social conditioning (age, race, gender, background, training, etc) can inflect their work, not so much towards strengthening or confirming identity, but to examine the social assumptions also at work in listening to the text in the first place.

The performed audiowork One Million Years, by the Japanese conceptual artist On Kawara, is a touring piece that has so far been staged in New York, Paris and London. It consists in a continuous reading by two voices for a non-stop period of one week of a long list of abstract dates from the past (»from 998,031 BC to 1969 AD«) and the future (»from 1980 AD to 1,001,980 AD«).6 What makes the work remarkable is the artist's insistence on finding speakers whose voices are the most gender and culturally neutral. Voices that do not exhibit specific social characteristics or physical tone. Voices that display a social performance of reading that has eliminated the speakers' individual vocal phrasings or communal grain. Both voices must be tonally mid-range and culturally standardised, such as the accent created by BBC English, for instance. It assumes a kind of elocutory adaptability that neutralises or hides speakers' backgrounds. It depersonalises the speakers and somehow naturalises, or rather, nationalises their voices. These are the voices of a mid-range, classless, seemingly objective national and corporate structure. They suit in an eery way the abstracted nature of the readings of dates.

At the other end of the scale, the German composer Heiner Goebbels is commissioned by the ICA in Boston to compose a piece for radio, later produced as a CD.7 He asks one hundred randomly chosen passers-by in various areas of Boston to read one line each of the German playwright Heiner Müller's text Landscape with Argonauts translated into English. Along with the readers' voices, he retains the ambient landscape, the lived space that each voice was lodged in as they were approached to read. Car noises, screeches, street activities, small remarks, passing conversations are heard in the mix and maintained throughout the fifty minute long recorded reading. It lends dailiness, currency, and incompleteness to the already dislocated Heiner Müller text and disperses it back into the city. At entry the recitation of Müller's text takes place as a weave of textual and social speech.

As the piece progresses, repetitions of verbal phrases and environmental sound snippets and muscial accompaniment are treated as rhythmic units and signal the highly composed nature of the piece. Still there'll be none of the extraordinary architectures of sonic poetry, nor will there be the interior digital soundscapes that have latterly largely defined the electronic ends of audiophony and radioart, but rather a form of ambiguous documentary radiowork, that functions through a range of means and methods. Questions of textual production and artistic value are located in the very nature of the sonic emplacement chosen by Goebbels. Indeed, the sounding of Müller's piece is concerned with place, with exploring the sounds of the place, here the sounds of Boston and its inhabitants. And the poetic text, immediately freed from our specialist attention, opens us up simultaneously to forms of attentiveness that are not exclusively intellectual, or even poetic, but rather broadly cultural, and even intimate.

In this, the audio production of Landscape with Argonauts sits easily within the performative and process-related ends of verbal practices that utilise recording technology to politicise and dynamise in various ways their socially integrative forms. For instance, the survivors of Steve Reich's Different Trains carry their emotional depth into the piece because they are still heard telling their own story. There is an extent to which this kind of source recording values the biographical dimensions contained within the voice. Recorded speech can bring testimonial quality to the sound work. One can also think of John Cage's Roaratorio, its combination of field recordings, recitation and musical composition; Bob Ostertag's harrowing Sooner or Later of a Nicaraguan funeral he witnesses; Krystozf Wodiczko's Mouthpieces performances that are narratives of recorded exiles or immigrants played out through video prosthesis worn in the streets by solo participants; Janet Cardiff's The Missing Voice (case study B), an audioguide that utilises to great effect the strange spatial intimacy of binaural recording and invites her solo listener to wear headphones to follow her down some of the streets of East London. All these pieces explore stagings of languages and social bodies and do so in ways that forefront an intimate, often one-to-one process of exchange. Text here is part of a broader, and partly non-poetic, involvement in both cultural and mental landscapes.

The critic and psychoanalyst Nick Piombino has once described as »aural ellipsis« work that can be experienced as a holding environment, and that emphasises »innovative conceptions of the relationships among perception, language and reality«.8 This allows or facilitates a resocialised experience of the artistic process. A holding environment encourages, among other things, more connective ways of relating to the artistic event and favour a highly located or personalised experience of it. He cites Robert Smithson's non-sites, and Bernadette Mayer's Midwinter Day poem as examples. They reflect a way of utilising formal artistic methods to comment on the non-artistic part of the processes. Art's transformative role is here envisaged and valued at both a micro and aural level. It explores and exposes social habits and individual responses at a personal and transpersonal level.

The aural street-scenes of Landscape with Argonauts lend a journalistic slant to the textscape. Initially, it is not even the textual composition, but rather the voices of the reciters that lead the piece. Or rather, the voices of the reciters are first heard, listened to, socio-linguistically. Gendered, ethnic and linguistic markers, as well as class signals appear sonically in the hesitations, the exclamations, the expressions and comments of the readers. The social saliva located in the speaker's mouth and provided for by voices recorded in situ creates an additional, previously absent and unscriptable layer to the text. It emphatically retains the sound of their locale even as they speak a dislocated text. »In the sound of their pronunciation, the passers-by, all totally unprepared for this, gave me not only an idea about biographical information, such as class and education, but also an impression of the ethnic fabric of Boston with its Irish, Russian, Italian, Asian immigrants«.9

The Bostonian readers' ease, difficulty or inventiveness with reading the text marks social and individual thresholds of literacy as one of the surprising and problematic layers of the audiopiece. It also points to a fundamental and decisive collusion, rather than collision, of the literary or text-art with ordinary verbal spheres. Heiner Müller's artistic text is willfully artifical, stylistically removed, seems explicitly too remote to be of any import or consequence here in the noisy streets, outside of its own coded bounds and readerships. Heiner Goebbels is highly familiar with Müller's work and has adapted it on several occasions. His choice of an aural, non-specialist treatment of Landscape with Argonauts transforms the text and its rendition as much into a radiophonic literary event as a pretext for interaction. One can see in this a way of applying Müller's oft declared sense that literature participates in history only »in that it participates in the movement of language«. For him, this movement of language is language spoken, overheard, in progress, in motion: »slang«.10 Slang as dailiness but also cultural and sub-cultural affiliation, participatory speech, functional banter. It is aural, ambient environmental language. »As long as literature is born out of the rift between everyday and formal language, instead of directing this rift as a question against itself, it cannot participate in the movement of language«. Literature participates in history only when it is in play with the changing and resonant moments of its cultural aurality and technologies. Poetry finds its points of renewal, of events and action, not only in the way it questions its relation to poetics and literary histories, but in its relation to speech, sub-speech, aural and audio speech as the languages of its time. An awareness of the ways this language or these languages are heard, registered, »published«, utilised and disseminated, or the ways in which they are discarded and diminished by the prejudices replicated by art itself,11 remains zone of the basic criteria in the understanding of what a poetic culture of audio listening might come to represent.

1 Some of these points are addressed by Steve McCaffery from the perspective of avant-gardist sound poetry in his »From phonic to sonic:...« in Sound States: Innovative Poetics and Acoustical Technologies ed. A.Morris (University of North Caroline Press, 1997), pp.149-168.

2 Georges Perec discusses the many physicalities actually involved even in silent reading. See Penser/Classer (Seuil, 1985). The critic Garrett Stewart makes a case for the fact that silent readings are (sub-)voiced and that in this they inscribe physical gestures. See Reading Voices: Literature & the Phonotext (University of California Press, 1990).

3 Charles Bernstein, »Thelonious Monk and the performance of poetry« in My Way: speeches and poems (University of Chicago Press, 1998), p.21

4 Nathaniel Mackey, Discrepant Engagement: Dissonance, Cross-culturality and Experimental Writing (Alabama University Press, 1993).

5 Loretta Collins, »Rude bwoys, Riddim, Rub-a-Dub, and Rastas« in Sound States: Innovative Poetics and Acoustical Technologies ed. A.Morris (University of North Carolina Press, 1997), p. 171.

6 Quite apart from a number of CD recordings and boxed sets, an hour-long segment exists at

7 Heiner Goebbels, SHADOW/Landscape with Argonauts (ECM 1480)

8 Nick Piombino, »The Aural Ellipsis and the Nature of Listening in Contemporary Poetry« in Close Listening: Poetry and the Performed Word, ed. C. Bernstein (Oxford University Press, 1988), p. 55.

9 Heiner Goebbels, »Text as Landscape with the qualities of libretto, even if unsung« (1997):

10 Heiner Müller, Germania tr. by B & C Schütze, ed. S. Lotringer, (Semiotexte, 1990), p. 112

11 What is very troubling in this recording is how they actually end up replicating aurally a number of cultural prejudices about class and/or ethnic belonging. For instance, the man whose dialect is African-American and whose reading is emphatic and performic and who hustles for a dollar is given a noisy funk-rock backdrop, the dramatic, overly literate and self-important woman is given violins, the Irish male voice who gets to speak the last words of the piece hints at a recognised tradition of European poetic recitation. Through the music, the voices are provided with musical taste and musical parameters which organise their cultural or class belonging for the listener. Furthermore, the text starts in the noisy, wet streets of what feels like the hell of downtown, to move progressively to more sedate, educated and self-conscious settings. The more the piece progresses, the less there is a mix of vocal and cultural register. The diversity of responses to the text, which also seemed initially to wish to highlight various responses to recitation and public speaking ( black rhetorics, »good« poetry, etc) gives way to a more homogenised reading voice, authoritative rather than personally and culturally invested. The contextualised recording is here reinforced by the type of »musical accompaniment« Goebbels increasingly gives his readers. Unavoidably there's a sort of racial and cultural determinism at play in the way Goebbels chooses the background musical accompaniment and it is difficult to understand why this is happening quite apart from latent cultural bias.

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