Hyperrhiz 19

(Remixed) Test Pattern for Listening: Sound Poetry as Electronic Literature

John F. Barber
Washington State University Vancouver

Commentary by Nuno Miguel Neves
University of Coimbra

Citation: Barber, John F. and Nuno Miguel Neves. “(Remixed) Test Pattern for Listening: Sound Poetry as Electronic Literature.” Hyperrhiz: New Media Cultures, no. 19, 2019. doi:10.20415/hyp/019.e02

Abstract: This essay explores test cases, “test patterns,” using non-vocal yet still generative and combinatory sound(s), to provide, through performance, expressive and material practices that re/trans-mix/create/code perspectives on sound poetry and electronic literature.

Keywords: sound-based electronic literature, voice, sound poetry, code, decoding, technology, voice performance, poetic apparati, remix


Some readers may recall the early era of television technology and culture, where broadcasters would transmit a “test pattern,” a chart of intricate designs most often used for adjusting studio camera focus and resolution, but also as a placeholder, a sign that something new would emerge, soon, on the screen.

As part of a panel presentation at the Electronic Literature Organization 2017 international conference, in Porto, Portugal, my colleagues Nuno Miguel Neves, Tiago Schwäbl, Anna Nacher, and Monika Górska-Olesińska and I explored how different aesthetic conceptualizations and material practices of voice might provide placeholders and inform the future basis of literary expression.

In our presentation, “Test Pattern for Listening: Sound Poetry as Electronic Literature,” we envisaged voice as a node of deformations and technological appropriations, emulations, virtual interpretations, and re-readings, in order to position sound poetry, which we defined as the creative use of sound, often beyond recognizable human speech, as providing support and means for the performance of voice as the basis for electronic literature. Each participant was to outline different models, “test patterns,” to explore voice in electronic literature. I was to provide summary and suggestions for practice.

This essay evolves from that panel presentation. With this essay, I want to share my continued thinking. To provide a background, I will begin by briefly outlining remarks made by my colleagues, and then continue with my own connections. I invited each panel participant to contribute remarks and/or responses to this essay. Only Nuno Neves responded. His responses are noted throughout.

Voice is a technology immediately to hand, made from native materials. We need not seek some more remote technology. Writing, while an invaluable aid to memory, can be misleading. (Ansuman Biswas)

Nuno Neves spoke to the topic of “Voice: code speaks louder than words,” providing a scaffolding of diachronic and genealogical perspectives. He argued that voice, a technology of integration with acoustic space, is embedded and primary in all media that follow: print or pixel. To reclaim ergodicity, sound, from futurism to dada to fluxus to soundart, has undergone avant-garde re-creation/coding so to move beyond language and connect more directly with the listeners’ imagination through the act of deep listening (RIP Pauline Oliveras). Still, several contemporary critics claim to recognize sound poetry only when in the presence of language even if that presence constitutes itself in unexpected ways. Although this notion is useful when considering pre-digital sound poetry it seems significantly unable to describe contemporary sound poetry practices. Thus, Neves sought to address the role of language and voice in digital contexts where more traditional assumptions are no longer productive. For example, what happens to voice, and language when it is digitally recorded? Are they different from other recorded sounds? Is a digital sound any different from synthesized speech?

Neves provides the following comment to this summary of his presentation:

This title is somehow permeated by a pessimistic tone in which code has replaced the emancipatory possibilities of voice. The acknowledgement of the following is an absolute necessity if one wishes to maintain an utopian view of experimental poetics: ‘[…] communications sciences and modern biologies are constructed by a common move — the translations of the world into a problem of coding […] The biggest threat to such power is the interruption of communication. Any system breakdown is a function of stress’ (Haraway 23).

Thus, instead of the ‘Don't hate the code. Be the code,’ with which I finished the presentation, it might be more productive to state ‘Stress the Press.’

In the same sense, it might prove more fruitful to ask ‘Voice vs Code: which speaks louder?’ Referring to the naming of high-tech corporations, Donna Haraway mentions the following: ‘If we are imprisoned by language, then escape from the prison house requires language poets, a kind of cultural restriction enzyme to cut the code; cyborg heteroglossia is one form of radical culture politics’ (Haraway 11).

The implications of this struggle toward an analysis of synthetized speech turn it into a particularly problematic field. How to inject voice into code? How to function within code without being overwhelmed by its protocols and syntax?

Language is the primary repository of culture and history, and once a language is no longer spoken, the rich knowledge it carries is gone forever. ... Sound art may offer [a] para-linguistic strategy for exposing cross-cultural experiences that language itself cannot achieve. (John Wynne)

The subject of Tiago Schwäbl's presentation was “Voice of Sound Poetry: Ample, Amplified, Samplified.” He moved beyond the aesthetic antecedents of voice to explore sound poetry, arguing that sound moves beyond semantics but still conveys meaning. Sound provides untold archeologies and unheard re-readings, diagrams for expanding awareness of the history and diversity of electronic literature. One network of aesthetics might be provided by combining sound and poetry.

For example, sound poetry has always explored the limits of ample voice around and beyond (a certain materiality of) the text (or its minimal units: words, syllables, phonemes). The text was a reference for further/future voicings or operative games at the margins of the written. With the advent of technology, the amplified voice was able to become more independent. Felipe Cussen's sound poetry album, Quick Faith, sounds more electronic than vocal. At this stage, voice becomes samplified. The voice is there—an audio file modeled graphically as an image of a voice frequency—but where is the text? Is it present? Is it necessary? Is it open to transformation and play within and beyond the devices?

One can hear musical aesthetics in the speech contexts that surround them. (Michael Vincent)

Addressing these questions, Anna Nacher spoke to the topic of “Vocalization,” exploring specific materializations of ephemerality and meaning through media recording of vocal expression. As an example, she introduced joik and joiking, a traditional form of singing by the Sami people of northern Scandinavia and Kola peninsula. Believed to be one of the oldest music traditions of Europe, joik is not so much a way of “singing about” as it is rather the form of embodying a landscape, a person or an animal through vocally evoking their most specific characteristics thus binding the performer and his/her environment (both in terms of that to which a particular song refers and the immediate situation of the performance where the joiker relies on the ability of the audience to decipher the meaning). A focus on the particular joik, Renhorden på Oulavuolie (Reindeers from Oulavuolie) by Nils Mattias Andersson, shows the specificity of recorded vocalization as the practice of ambivalent materialization of meaning, elusive yet tangible enough to let the audience grasp the sense of place. It is a joik that has been performed by Andersson only once, for the purpose of recording the Sami joikers, a project carried out by Swedish National Radio during the 1950s and documented in a special publication. What is particularly interesting in this case is how the situation of recording inspired the one and only performance of the song that otherwise probably would not have come into being. Is then the recording of a voice “just” its repetition and doubling or is it rather a more ambivalent form of a contingent materialization? How are the ephemerality of situation of performance and the materialization of vocal expression balanced? What is the function of media apparatus?

Voice-based compositions and performances involve precise demands for listening and learning, but the immense possibilities realized from ‘playing with words’ are inspirational and informative. (Cathy Lane)

Again, following the questions and proposing answers, Monika Górska-Olesińska called attention to “Voice-based Performances,” a hybrid genre blending the supposed binaries between human and machinic speech. Using the concept of New Aesthetic introduced by James Briddle, Górska-Olesińska referred to Ian Hatcher’s live performances—Prosthesis (2011) and Drone Pilot (2015)—making a comparative analysis between them and the animatronic sculptures of speaking figures (quasi-alive, quasi-intelligent puppet- or marionette-heads) created by Ken Feingold (Self-Portrait as the Center of the Universe, Head, The Animal, Vegetable and Mineralness of Everything, Hell). Through comparing Hatcher’s and Feingold’s artistic practices Górska-Olesińska explored different poetic metalanguages they create to deconstruct communicative structures that demarcate the post human era.

Test Patterns

I began my own presentation by suggesting that from these perspectives, sound poetry might be considered a test pattern, both as placeholder and a way to expand understanding of literature and textuality as vehicles for exchanges in and across media, languages, and cultures. Given this context, I suggested that we might consider sound-based endeavors with electronic literature.

There are so many layers to the voice and once you incorporate language you can connect to traditions of poetry and drama and literature but also with the everyday use of speech. (Trevor Wishart)

I am inspired by Charles Bernstein, who argues that we must pay attention to both poetry as written, and as performed. Attention to the performance of the poet reading her work brings attention to the sonic materials on which the performance is based. Hearing poets read their works, says Bernstein, “we change our hearing and reading of their works on the page as well” (Bernstein 6). In this regard, the aurality of the performance is not an adjunct, nor is it secondary, to the text of the poem (Bernstein 8).

Following Bernstein, ideally, we would read and listen to poetry across the divide of sight and sound, between text and performance, using both our eyes and our ears. One way we might do this is described by Amy Cowan in her interview with research scientist David Frohlich who is developing a system he calls “autophotography” where an audio track records the sounds surrounding a scene at the time it is photographed. This sound track can be replayed whenever the photograph is viewed thus adding to the viewer's ability to recall the details associated with the image. Sounds are thought to capture the emotional setting in far richer detail than the image alone, and to aid the viewer's recall of those details (Cowen).

An approach similar to autophotography is easily accomplished by including words on screen, as image, or generating them as part of the work, as performance. More interesting, however, is the challenge of introducing new sounds to represent or augment, or even disrupt, what we can see. “The reader acquires ears,” says Christof Migone. “What we hear are the sounds of our imagination interpreting the text, a process which exists in all reading to a certain extent” (Migone 47).

Test Pattern: Futurism and Dada

As a test pattern, we can draw upon Futurism and Dada sound poetry and their attempts to provide expressive and material practices for vocal narrative performance comprised of language without words, or, even, without (known) code, yet still capable of binding speaker and audience to subjects understood through the act of listening.

Consider Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, an Italian poet, who developed the concept of parole in liberta (roughly, words in freedom). His scope included the page on which his poetry was printed as well as the sound of a voice reciting them. He experimented with typography, scattering words of different sizes, in different typefaces, over the page, freeing them from the tyranny of the paragraph, visually representing the sounds of the words as they might be spoken by the poet. In speaking his poetry, Marinetti experimented with onomatopoeias to create the sound effects he visualized with typography.

In Russia, Futurism developed around the experiments of Velemir Khlebnikov (1885-1922) and Aleksej Kruchenykh (1886-1968) to abstract language into sounds rather than meanings. They called this approach zaum. Their pioneering work formed the basis for what we now call “sound poetry.”

Test Pattern: Dada

The focus on phonetic sounds of speech rather than semantic meaning, inherited from Marinetti and the Futurists, remained strong for the Dadaists, and provides another test pattern for listening. Hugo Ball, his companion Emily Hennings, along with Marcel Janco, Richard Huelsenbeck, Tristan Tzara, and Jean Arp, experimented with sound poetry and simultaneous poetry, where multiple speakers spoke, or made other vocalizations, simultaneously. For Ball, the sounds of words were most important. They were, as he noted in his 23 June 1916 diary entry, the “innermost alchemy of the word,” the “last and holiest refuge” of poetry (Ball 70-71).

Ball also claimed to have invented a new genre of poems, “Verse ohne Worte,” poems without words, in which the balance of the vowels is weighed and distributed solely according to the values of the beginning sequence (Ball 70-71). Ball’s most notable poem without words is perhaps “Karawane,” which he performed at Cabaret Voltaire, the Dada club he founded for artistic entertainment, just before its closing in July-August 1916.

Other sound poets followed this lead, creating a vocabulary of new, unheard sound(s) that not only challenge our knowledge of how to listen but also provide opportunities for remix. As example, consider glossolalia, a phenomenon in which people speak, or appear to speak, in languages unknown to them. For some linguists, this “speaking in tongues,” the fluid vocalizing of speech-like syllables that lack any readily comprehended meaning, does resemble human speech in that accent, rhythm, intonation and pauses break the speech into distinct units comprised of syllables formed from consonants and vowels from a language known to the speaker. This resemblance is only superficial, however, with no other connection to a known language.

The word “remix” in the preceding paragraph prompted this response from Neves:

I've actually been thinking about an historical description of Sound Poetry through the letter R:

[R]esistance: Modernism is characterized by audiotopias (phonotopia might be a better description), spaces and moments of resistance based on sound and acoustic activities and détournement.

[R]umble: According to McCaffery who spoke about the '[…] rumble beneath the word […]' (McCaffery 2001, xix). Roland Barthes would call it 'le bruissement de la langue' (Barthes).

[R]adio: radio not as a medium but as a mode of imagination. Marinetti's parole in liberta are an appropriate example of a wireless imagination.

[R]emediation: Page – Voice – Ether – Tape – Binary. The history of sound poetry, and one that might be fit to depict the different test patterns, is of permanent remediation.

[R]epetition: as compositional technique.

[R]emixing: as compositional technique.

[R]egistration: The vinyl, the magnetic tape, and digital inscription that instate and perpetuate the age of the perpetual echo.

Test Pattern: McLuhan's Spaces

Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980), communication theorist and author of Understanding Media (1964) and The Medium is the Massage (1967), argues that every communication technology, every media, or, in his term, “figure,” operates through its own context, or “ground” to affect and alter those who use it and function within its environment (McLuhan 1964). The present media-technology environment, made of (or remediated from; see Bolter and Grusin) the effects of previous technologies, gives rise to new technologies, which, in turn, further affect society and individuals.

For McLuhan, media are either “cool” or “hot.” Cool media, like speech or the telephone, are characterized as “low definition” in that they provide very little information thus demanding high participation from the audience to provide or complete missing information. Cool media focus on the perception of abstract patterns and the simultaneous comprehension of multiple parts. In contrast, hot media, like radio, are “high definition.” These media are filled with information, thus requiring low audience participation. Hot media favor analytical precision, quantitative analysis, and sequential ordering (McLuhan 1964, 36).

Whether cool or hot, different media engage different senses, and alter our perceptions of the surrounding world. For example, media that engage primarily the eye, or vision, a single of the human senses, like a phonetic alphabet or print, McLuhan argues, alters our way of perceiving the world by stressing linearity, the notion that objects in the visual plane are connected to one another and follow rules of sequential order and logic. This rationality, in the end, surrounds humanity in a container offering only a limited perspective. McLuhan calls this limited sensory engagement “visual space” (McLuhan 2004, 68). On the other hand, media that engage multiple senses simultaneously are said by McLuhan to produce a space unconquered by the “uniform ethos of the alphabet” (McLuhan 2004, 68). To understand such a space, one must perceive all of it, figure and ground, simultaneously working together.

McLuhan develops these ideas further through his discussion of spaces dominated and determined by different media. Each space provides comprehensive facilities and incentives for connectivity. These spaces, although they represent generalized tendencies or categories, are not necessarily distinct and separate. Instead they may overlap and leak and flow one into the other. For our purposes, exploring these spaces may promote test patterns for tangible interfaces with information environments that feature new forms of temporalization, involvement, and perception.

As noted earlier, McLuhan argues that every communication technology, every media, or, in his term, “figure,” operates through its own context, or “ground” to affect and alter those who use it and function within its environment. Each new media (figure) draws from the ground of previous technologies, affecting both society and individuals in different ways, including how we conceive of, interact with, and utilize information.

Neves responds:

A brief note to account for the debate regarding Literature as a sub-branch of media studies. As David Wellbery notes in his introduction to Friedrich Kittler’s Discourse Networks, “Mediality is the general condition within which, under specific circumstances, something like ‘poetry’ or ‘literature’ can take shape. Post-hermeneutic literary history (or criticism), therefore, becomes a sub-branch of media studies” (Wellbery xiii).

Wellbery’s position contrasts with that of Lori Emerson, director of the Media Archaeology Lab at University of Colorado Boulder. Interviewed by Katie Price, Emerson says, ‘If you believe that media archaeology largely coalesces in the writing of Friedrich Kittler, then media archaeology wouldn’t exist without literary studies! […] So while I do use the Media Archaeology Lab to work through a version of media archaeology that concerns itself with excavating failed media or dead ends in the history of technology, I am equally fascinated with what I’ve been calling “media poetics,” or poetry that registers media effects and that does not necessarily demand hermeneutic interpretation’ (Price).

McLuhan posits several spaces, which are briefly described, below.

Acoustic Space
In the beginning there was only acoustic space, a seamless web enveloping humans in sound. McLuhan says that acoustic space continuously and simultaneously reverberates with sound from all directions. The spherical nature of acoustic space is pervasive, temporal, sensual, perceptual, and conceptual. Acoustic space is boundless, directionless, devoid of any horizon or straight lines, objects resonating with each other in a circular order, multicentered (McLuhan 2004, 68).

The dominate sense for understanding within acoustic space is hearing, with the ear. But, says McLuhan, the ear favors no particular “point of view,” nor provides a way to shut out sound. “We simply are not equipped with earlids” (McLuhan 1967, 111). As a result, in acoustic space, the world of the ear, the world of sound, one is surrounded, always, by simultaneous relationships. Acoustic space is ubiquitous. We might characterize acoustic space as multiple objects resonating simultaneously with each other in a circular order, representing a form of ubiquity that potentiality exists prior to and extends beyond embodied human awareness and affect.

Speech Space
With the invention of language technologies, speech sound was embedded in the folds and events of the human life world(s) within acoustic space. Speech became a real-time communication system designed and utilized for interfacing and providing a literacy for the mixed realities of memory and narrative. Speech/spoken language provides a methodology for charting the terror of acoustic space. Speech technology provides a repository for memory. The sensual appeal of speech is marshaled to ensure faithful transmission of culture from generation to generation.

Neves comments that the term speech space

corresponds, I believe, to a first moment of ‘earliding.’ We are taught to focus solely on the message, not on the medium that carries it, thus learning to ignore other levels of communication and meaning based on that which is not said and is conveyed by prosodic indexes. The learning of listening corresponds to the loss of hearing.”

Early speech may have been a solitary voice beside a tribal campfire, the aural magic of words describing and inscribing the day's events to a collective mind. At its height, arguably in the forums and agoras of Ancient Greece, rhetors used the sensual appeal of speech to persuade, inform, or entertain an audience. Both speakers and listeners used locative speech sound(s) to articulate, to analyze, and to expand and evaluate their spatial and temporal worlds.

Writing Space
These worlds grew exponentially with the advent of writing technologies. The technology of the Greek phonetic alphabet, according to McLuhan, evolved from Phoenician cuneiform accounting and the sounds and actions captured in Egyptian ideographs, which proved to be, at least at the beginning, “a mode of representation having neither visual nor semantic meaning” (McLuhan 2004, 71).

No longer temporal, sound was fixed by writing, but also made mobile, able to travel far beyond the bounds of the agora, to live long past the span of embodied human awareness and affect, and to translate knowledge between cultures. But this existence is disembodied, removed, disconnected from the context of the original speaker, no longer favoring the ear but instead the eye, even while embodying thought and promoting rationality. As McLuhan and others have argued (for example, Plato in The Phaedrus), the rhetorical, oral tradition of Ancient Greece gave way gradually to one based on alphabetic writing. The technology of a phonetic alphabet positions the eye as the dominant sense organ. Alphabetic bits, strung together like beads in a prescribed order, form visualizations of spoken words.

Printing Space
The speaker and the reader become separated as printing technology—McLuhan called it a “ditto device” (McLuhan 1967, 49-50)—extends the technology of visual literacy, creates the technology of the book, and exchanges the aural magic of the tribal word resonating in acoustic space for a web of meaning inscribed on some surface, often only available through a silent, individual, detached, personal experience. Printing technology eliminates the aural-tactile sensory quality of the oral tradition, replacing it with a systematized language based on standards for pronunciation and spelling and meaning.

Neves responds,

Printing technology is pervasive to the point where it infiltrates even sound. Some sound poetry collectives (v.g. Four Horsemen) would refuse recording of works and performances under the pretext (ironic choice of words) that it is simply another form of graphism. Referring to the Ultralettriste magnetic tape work, Steve McCaffery writes: ‘Clearly they signal a return to a graphism, arrested and repeatable, but most crucially, through their recovery of human expenditure as a new vocabulary for secondary orality, they signalize a revised poetical economy […] For with the seductive advent of the tape recorder, technology offered Prelinguism a secondary orality capable of transforming its acoustic ephemerality into the electro-acoustic data of the Foucauldian archive.’ (McCaffery 1998, 168)

Visual Space
With the collapse of the Greek oral tradition, and steady movement toward printing space, McLuhan says the Western world lives in a limited container, built rationally bit-by-bit like words of type on the printed page, with all things arranged in a linear geometric order leading to a distant vanishing point (McLuhan 2004, 68).

The intensity of this visual orientation leads to suppression of hearing and other sensory connections with the surrounding world, as well as a chronological orientation of past, present, and future as distinct frames of reference along a linear path. Trouble, McLuhan infers, occurs when one sense receives more energy than others. For Western culture, this is the case with the visual. By neglecting ear culture, humankind shifts to a world that favors a linear conceptualization based on visualization (McLuhan 2004, 69).

Electric Space
As an escape from this tyranny, McLuhan finds hope in the burgeoning electric technology developed up to the time of his writing: sound recording, radio, and television, as well as those evolving at the time of his writing: the communications satellite, the computer data base, teletext, videotext, and international communications corporations. He sees these technologies as offering resistance to the printed word as the sole carrier of public mentality.

With electric technology, because all factors of the environment and experience coexist in a state of active interplay, a simultaneous happening, there is no more building of rationality bit-by-bit. Electric media, says McLuhan, involve all of our senses, the entire human nervous system, simultaneously. In fact, McLuhan argues that electric media extend the human nervous system far beyond the confines of the corporeal body.

As a result, the contained, the distinct, and the separate become flowing, yet unified, fused. As a result, humans become members of a Global Village, returning to the sensual imaginative nature of tribal life. No detachment or individual frame of reference is possible. Time and space vanish, everything is interconnected.

Test Pattern: Interconnected Media Spaces

These spaces, although they represent generalized tendencies or categories, are not, however, necessarily distinct and separate. Instead they overlap, interconnect, and leak and flow one into the other. For example, sound returned with technologies that allowed the ear to travel where the eye could not. Ethereal radio voices, drifting through the atmosphere, described events, people, and places remote and unknown. The informational soundscape promoted their articulation, perception, and explication. But visual communication technologies, like film and television, once again displaced the ear, giving prominence to the eye. Sound became a subset of the visual stream originating from these media, but was often not necessary, especially if the visual images were particularly powerful.

The emphasis on the visual continues with digital media technologies. Despite pioneering (and quite beautiful) work in choreographing sound and geometric pattern and shapes by Oskar Fischinger and Walt Disney (Fantasia, for example), contemporary music videos are more about the visualization of performances or fantasies than any aspect of the sound. Web pages collapse all senses into the visual. Seeing is as good as being there.

Current social networking technologies continue this affective environment, fostering visual temporalization and interaction over other sensate involvement, like sound. We “hear” our friends’ voices through the visual (linear) reading of their text-based posts and Tweets. We can read any additional information provided through various tagging technologies (location, time, date, observations, etc). But sound, vibrations originating at a source, oscillating at a specific frequency within range of recognition, and “heard” when they reach appropriate sensory devices (ears), if available, is lagniappe.

Neves responds,

The dominance and even return of the visual space seems to be confirmed by the ‘evolution’ of social media: Facebook – Twitter – Instagram. The tendency is to gradually replace the voices of our friends (even if written) by increasing exclusive visual content. Depth is replaced by surface. Air vibration is replaced by screen frequency in which even typography is obliterated or deleted. Guy Debord predicted a world in which images would constitute (substitute in fact) relations between people: ‘The spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images’ (Debord 7).

Test Pattern: Screen Thinking

To quickly review, McLuhan says the technologies of speech, writing, printing, and reading divert attention away from the ear, focusing the eye as the primary receiver of sensory input. But electric space, says McLuhan, reverses this trend because all factors of the environment and experience (figure and ground) coexist in a state of active interplay, a simultaneous happening. There is no more building of rationality bit-by-bit along a visual perspective. Electric space, says McLuhan, involves all of our senses, the entire human nervous system, simultaneously.

Currently, and beyond the scope of McLuhan's work, but still predictable from his probing of mediascapes, is the overlay of acoustic and electric space realized in networked computer technologies: the Internet, the World Wide Web, and mobile telephony cells—a seemingly ubiquitous extension of the human central nervous system and an unexplored space regarding the full range of its potential.

The interface between human experience and this ground (to use McLuhan's term) is the computer screen in its various forms, desktop to mobile. Traditionally, the screen and its contents, the sign(s), have been considered as separate. But, as Anne-Marie Christin argues, the verbal, the written word, is a variant of the image. Text is, then, fundamentally, a visual sign. The screen, however, is not the vehicle for the sign, not simply a separate context for looking. Instead, the proximity of text and image on the screen causes each to mutually influence, determine, and shape the other. Each may even become the other, producing new meaning(s) from their complex and shifting relationships. The screen, rather than simply a separate passive context for looking, is an active one for signification, a virtual tension capable of producing new meaning(s) from the complex and shifting relationships between surfaces and signs, a context that must be interpreted by the user.

The end result, according to Christin, is the realization that the alphabetic system may not be best suited for spaces engendered by the multimedia computer because, rather than a transcription of oral utterance, writing and reading (the text-image relationship) are redefined as visual, thus exacerbating the split between signs and screens.

Neves responds,

One might wonder whether this return to a 1-by-1 representation, a full-scale world map, could be an attempt to overcome the trauma instituted by schizophonia (Schafer) with which ‘civilization’ has never been able to cope completely.

One should note that the separation between aural and written technologies has been contested by several authors like N. Katherine Hayles: ‘[…] there is another story to be told, one that would see aurality and writing not as indicating separate domains but as suggesting a bodily response to certain literary possibilities.’ (Hayles 74), and, in the same sense, Paul Zumthor: ‘It seems clear to me today that the oral / written dichotomy proposed by McLuhan forty years ago and then more subtly by Walter Ong in the 1970s cannot be strictly maintained as such’ (Zumthor 21, my translation).

Meaning might be said, then, to be chosen, but not fixed, by the reader/spectator/viewer/user/interactor. Meaning is not conceived as a synthesis, but rather as, and through, an association. Arguably this outcome is visible in present day Internet-based social networking technologies (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube—all seemingly ubiquitous) that seem to foster visual temporalization and interaction over other sensate involvement, like sound. In a sense, these technologies function in a manner McLuhan ascribes, as we will see, to radio: by providing a source for personal information frequently utilized to involve people with one another.

But the medium is cool, low definition, favoring the eye, and thus, in the long run, is low participation. To increase participation and potential a solution might be the incorporation of aural voice and other sounds, thus adding ideographic, multimodal, and multimedia components into the interwoven complexities of now current sites of interaction. This would seem to promote Christin's call for new ways of thinking about the overlay of different media as seen on the screen. From each perspective the addition of sound would seem to provide the opportunity for complexity of communication and participation that seemingly has existed prior to human embodiment in the space the screen represents.

Test Pattern: Radio Global Village

According to McLuhan, electric technologies, over the past century, have extended the human nervous system into a global embrace, abolishing time and space (at least on this planet), imploding divisions between formally diverse peoples and cultural issues. The world has shrunk to village size. Within this Global Village, issues and peoples are no longer separate, or unrelated. Instead, they are part of our lives, involved in our lives, and we in theirs (McLuhan 1964, 20).

For McLuhan, the electric medium of radio resonates as a tribal drum, its magic weaving a web of kinship and prompting more depth of involvement for everyone (McLuhan 1964, 259, 260). Radio is an extension of the human nervous system that is matched only by speech. As such, radio affords a tremendous power as “a subliminal echo chamber” to touch and play chords (memories/associations) long forgotten or ignored (McLuhan 1964, 264). All the paralanguage qualities that printed text strips from spoken speech are returned by radio. Given only sound, one must fill in missing information using all the other senses, not simply relying on the sight of the action involved with the production of the sound.

A digression may be appropriate here in order to illustrate this last point. I lead a radio art project called Re-Imagined Radio which rethinks classic radio theater/narratives as live community performances. Even in the context of live performance, sound is important. For example, a large balloon filled with beans may not sound like thunder when it is manipulated by a foley artist in sight of an audience. But when the sound is presented so as to favor the ear rather than the eye, as is the case for the audience listening to the live stream of the performance, or a recording, later, the sound effect is quite believable. The same is true for other sound effects employed to represent wind, or stampeding buffalo. Hearing, not seeing is believing.

Now, back to McLuhan, who says radio functions as a new and separate central nervous system. By providing news bulletins, time signals, traffic data, and especially weather reports, radio produces an insatiable thirst for gossip, rumor, and other genres of personal information frequently utilized to involve people with one another (McLuhan 1964 265, 267). Radio, says McLuhan, offers a “world of unspoken communication between writer-speaker and the listener” (McLuhan 1964, 261).

Neves responds,

It [radio] also provides the conditions for a dismemberment of language through exposure to a world of semantic decay caused by poor conditions of reception. Take a look, for instance, at [James] Joyce's Finnegans's Wake. According to Lewty: ‘I have suggested that the voices ‘heard,’ or coaxed, from his mind were directly drawn from exposure to radio, which blanketed access to home on the dial, crafting false words out of white noise.’ (Lewty).

J. A. Connor, who also writes about Finnegan's Wake, describes the radial experience of the 30s: ‘If any two radio frequency signals are close to each other, the difference between them becomes an audial signal, an eerie wail on the headphones, like the voice of a poor dead soul bouncing up and down along the Heaviside layer. These voices-moving, shifting, piling on top of one another, settling, whistling, humming, and screeching-must have sounded in all their constant flux like the coils of hell’ (Connor 20).

As a “fast hot medium” radio provides accelerated information throughput, thus contracting the world to village size. This tendency to connect diverse community groups, McLuhan says, is further exacerbated by uniting radio and the phonograph (both featuring speech translated into electromagnetic waves) to produce an artifact more compelling than, for example, the newspaper, with its continued emphasis on the linear pattern of the printed word. In short, sound reporting is much more effective than written reporting.

Test Pattern: Playing with Words

McLuhan connects sound with a “subliminal echo chamber” capable of evoking memories/associations long forgotten or ignored (McLuhan 1964, 264). As to how this might work, composer, performer, and poet Jaap Blonk notes that, “Hearing is everywhere. And it knocks at every window of your cochlea. ... You hear! You hear, you hear sound! Sound” (Blonk 32, 33). Alan Hall says that listening to sound(s) opens a “portal through which a deeper, often inarticulate, consciousness can be glimpsed” (Hall 99). Such glimpses may promote imagination, interaction, even immersion, which Tim Crook says effectively prompts life from little details “seen” in the mind‘s eye (Crook 8).

Ansuman Biswas draws inspiration for his work from Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi who in his teachings speaks to the attribute in the human spirit that restricts us to the use and service of the immediate surroundings rather than the remote. Viewing the human voice as an example of technology most available at the local level, Biswas says, “I love the immediacy and constant availability of the voice” (Biswas 46).

Where Biswas feels writing is an invaluable aid to memory, despite the fact that “it can also be misleading” (Biswas 45), Joan La Barbara describes how she begins her composition of music with stream-of-consciousness writing, listing all the words she can determine as possible inspiration for the new composition. For La Barbara, writing is the basis for sound. In addition to words, her notebooks also include graphic shapes to help her visualize the energy of a particular sound, or the mood of a section. The combination of words and imagery help her “transmit a more precise sense of the trajectory, energy, and delivery of the sound” and allow the listener to recreate her sonic idea in their own minds (La Barbara 56).

When we listen to what we hear, we experience mostly voice. Composer Trevor Wishart notes the “richness and complexity of everyday sounds,” especially those associated with the human voice, and says, “The voice connects with so many things. When we speak we not only convey meanings but we portray things about ourselves, simple things like what gender we are or whether we are ill or healthy, but also, perhaps, what our intentions are, what our mood is” (Wishart 71). These qualities of individuality that come through one's voice promote both the capture of the individual quality of voice as well as its abstraction. As a result, new information is available.

For John Wynne, a sound artist who works with the click languages of the Kalahari Desert people, language is the primary repository of culture and history, “and once a language is no longer spoken, the rich knowledge it carries is gone forever” (Wynne 81).

Paul Lansky, recognized as one of the pioneers of computer music, posits his use of the computer as an instrument in order “to project the image of the human performer behind the screen.” In using freeform versus scripted narrative, Lansky calls the former “everyday sound” and “performance” while the latter is “eavesdropping” (Lansky 109).

Laurie Anderson calls words “magic,” says they can change people's minds, and concludes “there are no more powerful things in the world than words” (Anderson 2008, 184).

Katharine Norman notes the give and take between words, language, text, and place produces “play,” and, by extension, provides the opportunity to tell stories (Norman).

The preceding references are taken from a collection called Playing with Words: The Spoken Word in Artistic Practice, edited by Cathy Lane, who notes in her introduction a social, cultural, and political power in words, as there is the opportunity for “artistic intervention” to bridge the gaps between the semantic and abstract components of words (Lane 10).

Test Pattern: Remix

We can, and do, play with words in different ways as detailed by my colleagues and these additional examples, and as I suggest, through the remix, described by DJ Spooky as “Lay[ing] one metaphor onto the other, remix[ing], and press[ing] play.” The sampling machine, he says, “can handle any sound, and any expression. ... Form and function, fact and fiction, art and architecture—all woven into a testimony of human reconstruction in media” (Miller 6, 8).

Neves responds,

Which is equivalent to what we might call the Sound Poetry Machine, [which] Deleuze and Guattari [describe as] ‘constituted by contents and expressions that have been formalized to diverse degrees by unformed materials that enter into it, and leave by passing through all possible states’ (Deleuze and Guattari 7).

The remix can promote both the capture of the individual quality of voice as well as its abstraction. Language Removal Services, for example, provides “a full range of language removal services for both businesses and individuals.” The website provides interesting examples of what is left after removing words, say for example, from the debates of the California Gubernatorial Recall Election of 2003. Even with all words removed, and only paralanguage remaining, there is no doubt as to the identity of the speaker provided as example of the service's identity and/or abilities (Language Removal Services).

The theory and practice of the remix follows the lead of work(s) by John Cage, William S. Burroughs, Brion Gysin, François Dufrêne, Kurt Schwitters, and Henri Chopin—sound poets, text sound artists, composers, and verbal experimenters—storytellers, and all, arguably, continuing the Futurist and Dada experiments regarding poems without words.


My colleagues and I explored how different aesthetic conceptualizations and material practices of voice inform the basis of literary expression. Sound and poetry are considered an exchange between language and code, and thus at the center of our understanding of language arts. The desired outcome is to expand understanding of literature and textuality as vehicles for exchanges in and across media, languages, and cultures. Together, we presented test patterns, models, contexts, for listening to voice as the basis for literary endeavors, including electronic literature.

Simply put, a test pattern for listening suggests the overlay of acoustic and electric space, each with its particular figure and ground. This overlay represents a theorized ubiquitous information environment where close relationships may develop between sound, speech, text, and the visual.

Neves responds,

I would argue that even though contemporary environments are now using sound there is still a user bias that relegates it to second place. The challenge would therefore be to find strategies to reverse the eye/ear hierarchy.

Voice, sound, music, noise, strange vocalizations, vocal performance, post-sound poetry, all present themselves as literary disruption devices by suggesting language as (or versus) technology.

Neves responds, suggesting we also think of

LSDs: Literary Sound Disruptors, powerful mechanisms with the sole purpose of striping meaning from language, used to induce ‘hallucinatory’ acoustic experiences characterized by total or partial loss of referentiality.

With vocal-sound poetry as a form of electronic literature we confront multi-national views / hearings over the subject and its materialities. Specifically teasing out the “Affiliations” and “Translations” threads of the 2017 Electronic Literature Organization conference, we speak of and with many voices of vocal and sound poetry, arguing that voice(s), as a technology for conceptualizing and communicating abstract thought, together with non-vocal yet still generative and combinatory sound(s), provides, through performance, expressive and material practices that re/trans-mix create/code perspectives for electronic literature.

To conclude, we might consider sound poetry as indicative of a fluid creative source easily involved in the construction and manipulation of aural experiences. Sound, as in voice and poetry, through trans-remixing, may provide new horizons for future sound poetry art. I have imagined here voice as a node of deformations and technological appropriations, emulations, virtual interpretations, and re-readings, all of which support and provide means for the performance of voice as a basis for electronic literature.

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