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Author Archive

SOUNDINGS: A CONTEMPORARY SCORE

Monday, October 7th, 2013

florian hecker hinge

Barbara London recently curated an exhibition titled Soundings: A Contemporary Score at MOMA, which investigates the relation between auditory events and everyday life.  Anyone who was involved in my undergraduate career came into contact with my thesis on urban sound as poesis, and indeed, as an occasion for auditory poetics. The sustained investigation took me across the globe from New York to Paris and London in search of a research platform. I spoke to and collaborated with many sound artists in the generative process. The results were lasting, as much of my current research continues to explore the hybrid terrains between auditory events and visual reading. That is to say, I am at work on deconstructing the ambiguity of the auditory as a phenomenal event and exposing how the visual becomes reified in canonical Anglo-American criticisms.

William Empson, in Seven Types of Ambiguity, characterizes a poetics of sound in the following manner:

“Once you abandon the idea that sounds are valuable in themselves you are thrown far towards the other extreme: you must say that the sounds are valuable because they suggest incidental connections to meaning. If this be true, one can do a great deal to make poetry intelligible by discussing the variety of resultant meanings, without committing oneself very deeply as to how they have been suggested by the sounds” (Empson 11).

True, Empson’s prose presents problems of accessibility for lay readers. Where could Empson possibly derive a thesis concerning the “value” of sound for the articulation of a poetic process, let alone a science? One can hear echoes of a poetic defence filter into Empson’s writing. He proceeds to characterize the aesthetic ambiguities of poetry by way of reference to a “latent fundamentalism” in “sound” (15). It is precisely such “fundamentalism” that Soundings: A Contemporary Score uncovers. Sound art provides the opportunity for a brand of fundamentalism insofar as noise goes unnoticed in the practice of everyday life. We do not question how things sound, much less how we sound.

Indeed, much of Empson’s reading in the early chapters of Seven Types of Ambiguity relies on a fairly nuanced paraphrase of the theory of Paget, whose empiricism set readings of sentiment aside in favor of precision. Here is Paget, from his volume Human Speech, where he describes the audio event of speech. The selection I have selected here is somewhat obtuse, but nevertheless conveys the idea:

…owing to the comparative paucity of different mouth-gestures, each mouth-gesture—which produces its own particular sound or root word – has to stand for a considerable number of hand – (or other bodily) gestures; to put it in another way, each root word is naturally liable to bear many meanings…One other point may be noted; the same mouth-gesture may be naturally construed in many ways. Thus, the movement of tongue or lips may represent a pantomimic movement, symbolizing a real movement, or a spatial relation of some kind, e.g. above, below, around, or it may represent a shape of some kind drawn in outline. Finally, any of these meanings may be used figuratively instead of concretely (Empson, 15).

Paget’s distinction between figurative as oppose to concrete meaning resonates in the curatorial ambition of Soundings: A Contemporary Score. The exhibition, a first of its kind in New York, covers auditory events and performances from 1960s onwards with the advent of musique concrete. Moreover, the various works on display document innovation across the globe in London, Stockholm, Kolm, Milan, and Melbourne. The result is a magnificent tour de force from mixed media artists working in contemporary audio design and programming.

For the sake of brevity, I will foreground several pieces. Richard Garet’s 30 Cycles of Flux (see above image) takes cues from Russolo, Futurism, Dadaism, and Fluxus, in a project of self-definition. Garet describes his manipulation of audio as material practice that enabled him to “reinvent myself sonically” (London 30) by crafting sound as a material, much like L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets came to sculpt language as material practice. According to Garet, the material allows him to “engage conceptually and subjectively with my broader investigations of technology’s function-and-defunctionalization, commodity, culture, and environment” (30-32).

Other pieces of strong resonance include Florian Hecker’s Hinge, which is on display on the first floor of MOMA. In minimalist fashion, audio speakers drape from the ceilings and rotate around a room, conveying what Hecker characterizes as a confluence of subjectivity and space. With similar ambition and ambiguity, Tristan Perich’s Microtonal Wall (2011) colludes with the audience to interrogate and expose the “physicality of code” (London 58). We could invoke Donna Haraway’s argument in A Manifesto for Cyborgs to mobilize “coded devices” (2190) in the service of new aesthetics.In the case of Microtonal Wall, the text is both self-developing and designed to reproduce frequencies that engage audience as well as producer. In Perich’s own words, “each listener’s exploration of that aural space shapes what they hear, from the totality of white noise (from a distance), to the single frequency of each speaker (up close). The piece functions according to the inverse square law in physics: the volume of a sound drops off over distance from its source” (59-60).

Soundings: A Contemporary Exhibit is on display at MOMA through November 3.

 

Works Cited

Empson, William. Seven Types of Ambiguity. New York: New Directions,1966. Print.

Haraway, Donna. “A Manifesto for Cyborgs,” in The Norton Anthology of Theory

and Criticism. ed. Vincent B. Leitch. New York and London: W.W. Norton & Co, 2010.

2187-2221. Print.

“Richard Garet,” in Soundings: A Contemporary Score. ed. Barbara London. New York: MOMA, 2013.

“Florian Hecker,” in Soundings: A Contemporary Score: ed. Barbara London. New Yorlk: MOMA, 2013.

“Tristan Perich,” in Soundings: A Contemporary Score: ed. Barbara London. New York: MOMA, 2013.

 

ALEX KARPOVSKY

Friday, October 4th, 2013

alex

If you’re up to speed, you have probably heard of Alex Karpovsky. In recent years, Alex has solidified his already remarkable career as an actor, director, writer, producer, and editor. You probably know him as Ray on the HBO comedy series Girls. Alex has also starred in many films including but not limited to Trust Us, This is All Made Up (SXSQ Film Festival, 2009), Rubbermeck (Tribeca Film Festival, 2012), Red Flag (LA Film Festival). We got to talking about guilt, IPod Playlists, and Oxford:

Q: Tell me about your experience at Oxford.

A: My experience was illuminating and rewarding and I would love to go back there and study what I left off on. It helped me to look at the world critically.

Q: Why do you think comedy is an important genre?

A: Well, I think comedy exposes the absurdities and ridiculousness of life in a public forum which could have unsavory consequences on people if expressed otherwise.

Q: What songs are on your playlist at the moment?

A: Night Jewel is the artist who I am listening to the most right now.

Q: What would be some of your advice towards young writers?

A: I’m the kind of person who gets better and things by doing them, which is to say that I learn better through practice than theory. Write every day and within an hour of waking up write 1000 words. Do that five days a week and nurture a lot of guilt if you break that pattern.

 

 

 

GAVIN TOMSON

Tuesday, October 1st, 2013

gavinWORK

 

Gavin Tomson’s fiction has appeared in Scrivener Creative Review and is forthcoming in The Milo Review, Weijia Quarterly, and The Materialist. His first chapbook is set to be published this winter by The Materialist Press. He lives in Oslo, Norway.

The following is an excerpt from Gavin’s story titled “Ingeborg’s Animals”

——

Last summer, I started visiting Songsvann, a lake on the north end of Oslo, where I’d recently moved. Looking back, I don’t really know what drew me toward the water. Perhaps I found something like peacefulness, or tranquility, but I could just be saying that because it sounds nice, I’m not sure. Songsvann was a quiet place, even for Oslo. The beach was almost empty on all mornings but the hottest and I never had trouble finding a spot to rest on my own. Each time I did find a spot, I’d go through the same little ritual. I’d unfold my white towel, remove my shoes and top, and lay down on my side, head propped on my palm. Sometimes, when the air was hottest, I’d dip my head or feet in the water, and sit on my towel and watch the swimmers until I dried. I myself never swam, however. Swimming just wasn’t for me.

I began going to Songsvann after discovering some drawings. They were secret drawings, made by a patient at the seniors’ residence where I worked. My official job title was Medical Assistant. But it would be more accurate to call me a Caretaker, since all I really did was care for a woman named Ingeborg Dahl. Ingeborg was deaf, white haired, five foot ten, and slender. She spent her time in bed looking out the window and playing with the frays on her medical gown. For the most part, my responsibilities toward her were simple. I had to feed her, make her bed, tidy her room, and wipe her occasionally fevered forehead with a cloth. The head doctor, Andersen, told me that Ingeborg felt much better whenever I was around, and although she couldn’t express it, she appreciated it more than I knew. I’m not sure if Andersen meant it, though. I mean, Ingeborg never so much as looked at me. Once, I think, she wanted to tell me something. She raised her hand to her cheek and opened her mouth as if to form words…but soon her hand fell back to her gown, as though forgotten, and she returned to looking out the window again.

That’s why it surprised me so much the day I found her drawings. Even in her senility, Ingeborg had managed to keep them a secret from me. I’d been folding her clothing as she slept thinly through the daytime when I found a crumpled piece of paper in one of her socks. The paper contained drawings of animals, sketched with pencil, and everything about them reminded me of a child’s: the warbling lines, the happy human features, the lack of attention to feet and to ears…Perhaps it was only because I was having trouble sleeping those days, and my system wasn’t reacting well to the pills, but observing those drawings (I remember one was of a reindeer), I felt Ingeborg’s life pass through mine, like a light through a shadow, and leave me hollow and dark inside.

Julie Mannell

Tuesday, October 1st, 2013

julei

Julie Mannell is a Montreal-based prose and poetry writer, as well as a feminist commentator. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Huffington Post, The National Post, Joyland Magazine, Maisonneuve, subTerrain Magazine, The Bull Calf Review, and The Barnstormer. She is the recent recipient of the Lionel Shapiro Award for excellency in creative writing and The Mona Adilman Poetry Prize, and was awarded a fellowship position at the Summer Literary Seminars in Lithuania 2012. Julie Mannell’s work has been praised by celebrities like Roseanne Barr who recently gave her the “Vagenious” award on her website. Her forthcoming novel is tentatively titled Little Girls. 

The following excerpt is from a story titled “The Politics of Laughter.”

———

This wasn’t the first time he’d spoken this way. Unassuming and cowardly middle age women were lined up behind us. Beneath tightly wound babushkas they spat filthy looks in Shawn’s direction but said nothing. Shawn probably wouldn’t have cared much anyhow. The 80 bus pulled up next to the faded STM sign, bent from various seasons full of bad weather. Winter was coming, it was something I could always smell before it arrived. We were going to pick up our friend, Aurora Bronson, and then hit up a party at a new bar called “The Laundromat,” hence his diatribe. 

Inside the bus the light felt pickled and eerie. We took two stiff blue spots beside the back stairs. An pissed-off looking teenage boy sat adjacent, he was horking into the seat beside him repeatedly. There was a seriously underage anger in his eyes and each phlegm sac was projected with deliberate and ambiguous purpose. “Goddamn animal,” said Shawn, audibly. We exited the bus around Van Horne, Shawn grunted something about wanting “to teach the kid a lesson about decency,” but his voice trailed off and into the sprawling, inaccessible rhythms of his mind. Aurora answered the door and let us in.

Aurora has many secrets. They are her enemies.

 

ALEX DIMITROV – BEGGING FOR IT

Sunday, March 31st, 2013

 

Undertow favorite Alex Dimitrov’s first collection, Begging for It, is off the press @ Four Way Books.

 

Passage

At the St. Mark’s baths Hart Crane washes my hair
and I tilt around the cold porcelain of the basin
with strain and delight, trying to look at him.

But before I meet his sea-tempered eyes
I feel his hands easing my head
into the dark water,

as if he were a sailor calming a storm
on a ship with insatiable men.
When he tugs at the ropes that are my hair

my American youth streams down—
one year so heavy, it finds its way under the towel
around my waist and rests near the curve of my thigh.

Who am I? I think. And I try to remember
the beginning of beauty—before Orpheus,
before winter—

before this man who sings
for the drowning, touches my lips,
and I ignite.

Lisa Robertson

Wednesday, March 13th, 2013

Lisa Robertson is doing some of the most innovative work in contemporary Canadian poetry. I’ve been reading her incessantly for the last couple of months. Below is a poem titled “Envoy.”

I have tried to say

that, although Love is not judgement

analysis too is a style

of affect

since the scale that rends me vulnerable

has cut, from abundance, doubt

(not that identity shunts

civic ratio or consequence) Sure —

I would prefer to respond to only

the established charms (and forget inconvenience)

but her hair was also a kind of honey

or instrument.

 

All that is beautiful, from which I choose

even artifice, which I hold above nature

won’t salve these stuttered accoutrements.

Thomas Heise

Friday, February 1st, 2013

I’m currently assembling my first book of poems, Rainpaint, under the editorial direction of poet and professor Thomas Heise, who teaches contemporary American poetry & fiction, critical theory, and creative writing at McGill. Here is some of his recent work from Moth; How I Came to be With You Again. 

— I remember when I touched my

sleeping mother’s hair, it sparked in

my hands and I thought she was

inhuman, but I was young, and only

years later would I understand she

was under the spell of an erotic

dream — I remember a white door

emboldened with a laurel wreath

leading into a basement where we

retreated frequently in the tornado

season — I remember how day after

day would pass while nothing

happened and how without mercy

time would gather weight, accrete a

green patina on the locket I chipped

with a long fingernail — I remember

the swaying firs made a whanging of

rusted girders I thought would

collapse — I remember sitting at my

desk before my most precious

things, sheets of graph paper,

diagrams, folders, waterlogged and

moulded charts, and then

unannounced he would come to me,

moving my hand automatically

across these pages — I remember

the gathering darkness of a thousand

incidents I never witnessed, and yet

bird by bird they separated

themselves into moments of bright

singularity — I remember that I

possess no real memory of my

mother and only know at all she even

existed by evidence of my own pale

skin and the double-helix twisted

under it into an X — I remember

blurry light, rain on an awning, and

then being lifted and placed into a red

wagon — I remember when the

earth was for me, for the last time in

its history, still elastic as cartilage,

had not fully solidified into the

obstacle of the known, the terrible,

stubborn thing called fact — I

remember it was the hibiscus winter,

because she said so — I remember

writing these words, but only barely,

but one after another stone-like in

their materiality they are undeniable

— I remember remembering a

dream, under a low ceiling of

illuminated clouds swirling in a

tarantella, I rode weeping along the

boulevard of an empty city newly in

ruins where each crumbling

museum was my hidden and

sumptuous destitution — I

remember someone informed me he

had once hanged himself from his

swing set, then the memory infected

me, became my own — I remember

a small, A-frame house, and

watching the hawthorn wasting in an

emollient sea wind —  I remember a

white door —  I remember it was the

hibiscus winter — I remember

thinking I had been comatose a

thousand years, though this is surely

false, and in my uncorroborated

absence the whole fungible world in

a moment of chemical agony had

changed in irreversible ways — I

remember how everything tasted

dark —  I remember things I’ve never

felt — a seagull feather brushing my

lips, a turquoise shell, my shoulders

festooned with flowers — I

remember thinking what was in my

mind was put there by others, by

books I read, by objects I looked at

but did not own — I remember

wondering if other memories

remained in the twilight regions of my

mind where my failed loves were

soil, and if soon someone would

enlighten me to things I had done

and then, years later, I would

remember them as real — I

remember tender hands covered in

snow — I remember the city, the

flames immanent as flowers,  patient

to burst forth — I remember my

favourite word once was —

Tanlines

Tuesday, November 20th, 2012

When I first heard the band name “Tanlines,” all I could think about was summer; nostalgia, beaches, reading in the eclipse of a hazy sun. They take me to that place when I listen to them in my headphones pretending I am on a beach. No but seriously, their new record is really amazing; great synth textures, new-wave pulses, everything you want to be listening to in order to bring summer back. Or at least to try. Can I hashtag this? #make #summer #real

Check out this insanely beautiful and uncanny music video they released as a single off Mixed Emotions. 

THE BREEZES// chit-chat

Monday, October 22nd, 2012

Montreal’s The Breezes just performed at the international music festival Pop Montreal and are about to put out their self-titled release, which I’m pretty excited about. I got to sit down with drummer James Benjamin and talk a little bit about what’s ahead for the band in the coming months.

UM: So what are you eating?

James: Just having some sushi right now. Little Sushi Dinner.

UM: Tell me what’s going on with the Breezes.

James: The Breezes have had a long history. We’ve been The Breezes for three years now. Before that, you know, it feels like forever. The real history of the band starts off from sort a story DJ night in Montreal at the now defunct Club Coda. We used to do Wildlife Wednesdays over there for- I don’t know- (pauses) maybe about a year.

UM: So how has your sound evolved since those Coda days and late night DJ sets?

James: We’ve been through a lot of incarnations with The Breezes, so we’ve been through a lot of sounds.

UM: You guys are working on a full-length release.

James: Yeah we actually finished our record; we ran this campaign to raise some money for the release. We’re looking at a release in the fall (December 2012). It’s a really cool record! It’s been in the works for three years now. There’s a song on that record that was recorded in 2008, before The Breezes were really The Breezes, and there’s other songs on the record that were really just finished 4-6 months ago, so you can hear the evolution.

UM: And you guys were touring recently, right?

James: We did a US Tour. That was exactly one year ago now, and was incredible. We went all through America, hit up most of the big cities, met tons of people. A lot of songs were performed out there…..a lot of memories were made….a lot of parties were had. It was a pretty special trip.

UM: What was it like coming home after the tour?

James: Good question. I mean; It’s like with any trip. When you come home, you miss the road but you’re happy to be home. A lot of us have girlfriends back home too and friends that we miss but once you’re home you sort of…when we were on tour we had a ’96 Chevy Diesel van and  there’s an expression when you’re driving that Diesel that it’s always blue skies because blue smoke came out of the back of the van and it covers you. You just smell like Diesel all the time doing forty hour drives. Everything’s epic; big bands, big places, big personalities, it’s really special.

UM: What’s in the future for you guys now?

James: Well I’ll tell you about our recent past. The last two shows that we’ve played have been sort of really cool moments for us. Both sold out. We did this awesome little cabaret in Toronto for North by North East. And just last night we played at Casa (in MTL) with this great band from Cali called The Growlers.

UM: So what’s going on with that sushi?

James: Some kind of combo. It’s got everything but the kitchen sink. It’s sort of suave in a mellow kind of way. Sort of a way to describe The Breezes too. Suave in a mellow kind of way. 

 

Empowering Cat Power

Sunday, September 30th, 2012

I need to defend Cat Power against a recent article in Pitchfork which resonated with me the wrong way. Granted, art criticism is an anarchic space—one where we can allow play with the text, play with meaning, sure. These are all fashionable exercises in critical theory and postmodernism whose ghosts haunt contemporary writing. We get it.

But this article is flat out alarming.

First of all, what privileges? She’s worked hard to get where she is.

Ok, so that’s’ number one.

Also, FYI, the whole image of Marshall as a “sky” is not a charming poetic conceit. It’s a way to provide cute closure to a review that is insulting, full of jealousy and hatred rather than insightful criticism.

I guess you can be associate editor at Pitchfork and get away with it, but I really want to problematize this maxim that Pitchfork can blindly publish this kind of writing, especially when the content is flat out aggressive — all under the guise of enlightenment, sophistication, acculturation, taste — and believe me, I genuinely enjoy reading Pitchfork most of the time and regard them as authorities on contemporary music! I just think it’s important that as writers, we pay attention to the fine line between highbrow crit and problematic content.

I propose that you listen to Sun tabula rasa and see for yourselves.