Monday, December 21, 2009



Playing with words: The spoken word in artistic practice, Ed. Cathy Lane
(CRISAP, London, 2008)

The blurb on the back cover of the book advertises it as “an anthology of works from over forty leading contemporary sound artists and composers who use words, particularly spoken words, as their material and inspiration.” Sounds good. But what’s actually in the book is even better.

Playing with words is less “an anthology of works” in the traditional sense and more a curated space, where each contributor has been given room to display her practice. Some contributors are represented by sound poems and scores, but presentations also consist of interviews, essays, memoirs, documentaries, and manifestos. For example, there is an essay by Clive Graham about the history of sound poetry through the lens of his presenting a show devoted to sound poetry on British radio; next to that is a manifesto on sound by Jaap Blonk; that piece is in the neighborhood of an interview with Trevor Wishart about his uses of computer technology to organize compositions based on vocal characteristics such as pitch or accent; and that is near David Toop’s reminiscences about collaborations with Bob Cobbing. The book’s heterogeneity feels fresh to those used to the structure of typical literary anthologies because it emphasizes that what is on display is an activity, not a product, and not one type of activity but a wide array of approaches to language and sound. Even among those who contributed artistic pieces there is a variety, ranging from Sten Hanson’s “Rann Sten,” a sound poem transcript complete with context and explanation, to Iris Garrelfs’ tantalizingly inscrutable “A composer’s idiosyncratic method for bringing about structural associations and developing contextual collages,” which consists of an abstract photograph with a short text beneath it, presented on a single page. Garrelfs’ piece could be a conceptual score, a illustrated manifesto, or something else, but it revels in its nebulosity.

While the book purports to exhibit artists who “use words,” this parameter is thankfully interpreted loosely. In actuality, the book focuses on those practicing at the intersection of language and sound. Many of the artists are concerned with the non-lexical elements of language, their relationships, and the aesthetic, social and political aspects of these relationships. In fact, what writers should appreciate about this book are the many strategies for composition-- that is, the organization of language-- that don’t utilize words or similar literary or even linguistic strategies. Writers by and large are part of a tradition in which semantic aspects of language get foregrounded (by readers and then by themselves). Music composers by contrast come out of a tradition focusing on the relationships between sounds; they approach language on a musical level* indifferent to concerns of (or problems with) sign/signifier relationships, akin to the way in which B.F. Skinner approached language as a part of human behavior, jettisoning traditional linguistic categories in favor of his behaviorist ones. Ms. Lane’s collection of composers, musicians, and performance artists serves to remind writers that they are part of a wider artistic practice of “language organizing” and that they should not be constrained by traditional methods of composition.

There are only two drawbacks to this book. First, the book only includes 40 contributors: an anthology with this rich a set of ideas at its core begs for a wider sampling. That’s not to say I have a quarrel with the sample being more of a cross-section than a “survey of the greats”. The fact that prominent artists like Joan La Barbara, David Toop, Trevor Wishart, Jaap Blonk, Laurie Anderson and Sten Hanson appear alongside student work accentuates the democracy of both language and sound (or at least their capacity for democracy). To spin the drawback more positively, the book is a good start and hopefully the beginning of a more ambitious project. The other drawback is that there’s no accompanying CD/Web page with examples of the sound works described/scored in the book. Several of the artists do include a Web site with some samples as part of biographical details**, but readers would have benefited from a more systematic integration of sound samples with the related texts. Ultimately, these drawbacks are minor and are a common side effect of success: any book that has the reader asking for more at the end must have done something right.

*Not, for example, when they write librettos or song lyrics.

**I’ve reproduced some of the links below:

Tomomi Adachi’s site:
Brown Sierra’s site:
Viv Corringham’s site:
Iris Garrelfs’ site:
Clive Graham’s Resonance FM—Sound Poets Exposed playlist:
Dirk Huelstrunk’s site:
Joan La Barbara’s site:
Leigh Landy’s site:
Language Removal Services’ site:
Joerg Piringer’s site:
David Toop’s site:
Michael Vincent’s site:
Julien Weaver’s site:
Trevor Wishart’s site:
John Wynne’s site:
Pamela Z’s site:


James Sanders is the most mycophobic member of the Atlanta Poets Group. The group publishes the sound poetry magazine aslongasittakes and the paper-based spaltung. James' book Goodbye Public and Private is out from BlazeVox.

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