This is an excerpt from The Complete Works, a 41-minute film directed and animated by Justin Stephenson based on the work of the late Canadian avant-garde poet bpNichol. Here, a poet-friend of Nichol’s, Steven Ross Smith, performs a virtuosic translation of visual poetry into sound poetry. Stephenson wrote about this and another sound-poetry segment from The Complete Works in an essay published in Poetryfilm Magazine last weekend, “Seeing the Said“:
Both segments start with visual texts as the source for a sound performance. Using digital algorithms to create and modify animations based on audio, a method called audio reactive animation, I inverted the optophonetic see-and-say strategy. In both pieces, the sounds of the performances are algorithmically connected to various visual parameters to generate resemblances between the performance and the visuals.
The white noise of technological media is the focus of Nichol’s visual text, White Sound. It’s a chap-book that contains pages filled with layers of the rubber stamped words »white sound« set against the backdrop of degraded photocopies of images created by printing blank mimeo plates, stamping empty sort rails, and pressing entire ink pads against the page.
Interspersed within the pages are sheets of semi-transparent colour tissue that act as a filter through which the background text can be viewed. The artefacts and noise introduced through the photocopy process are recorded on the pages of the book.
In The Complete Works, Steven Ross Smith performs White Sound as sound poetry. The performance enacts the organic »generation loss« depicted in the text. The term generation loss is used to describe the noise introduced by duplicating content in analog media – each successive copy (generation) introduces more noise, decreasing the quality, or signal to noise ratio. In the case of White Sound, however, signal to noise is inverted so that the noise is the signal. Accordingly, the text gains quality in each successive generation.
Do read the rest, which goes into detail about the tools Stephenson used as well as his guiding philosophy. His conclusion gives some strong hints about what makes filmmaking like this so compelling, even to those of us who might otherwise remain unmoved by such experimental poetry on the page:
Nichol’s notion of notation is saying what can be seen. This seeing and the saying, though, require participation on the part of reader. They involve diving into the uncertain foggy region between representation by sign and representation by resemblance – this unstable space – and working to locate and read compressions and rarefactions, stresses, tensions that can be recreated in a different medium. In the work of the film, letting the ear lead is a choice that became the foundation for the entire film. It provided the methods and permission to see-and-say in a way that honoured the methods of the texts, but allowed them to take new forms. Visualizing bpNichol’s sound poetry provided an important entry point (which became a crevasse) to the myriad of translations of his work that make up the film.
I should add that Stephenson was kind enough to let me have a sneak peak of the complete film, and I was blown away. It’s a masterpiece. Neither a documentary nor a standard poetry film, The Complete Works focuses resolutely on the poetry, giving just enough biographical information to let viewers know where Nichol was coming from and what he was up to. The interweaving of poems and animation techniques contributes to a really propulsive energy that I sense Nichol would’ve appreciated, and using his friends and colleagues as interpreters gives the film a feeling of accessibility without dumbing down the content in the least.
You can watch other excerpts, and check out reviews and other material on the film’s excellent website, but if you’re able to get to a screening, don’t miss it. There are at least two more coming up: one at the Niagara Artists Centre in Saint Catharines, Ontario on November 23 at 8:00 p.m. (where it will be paired with the launch of Christian Bök’s The Xenotext), and another at the Close-Up Film Centre in London, UK sometime in March.
Sound poetry and concrete poetry elude most efforts at translation — except for translation into videopoetry, as in this new release from OTTARAS (Ottar Ormstad and Taras Mashtalir) and Alexander Vojjov. I’m sure knowing Norwegian would add layers of meaning but even without that, I found the visualization of names as planetary objects or one-celled organisms intriguing and delightful. Here’s the Vimeo description:
NAVN NOME NAME (2016) is based on Ottar Ormstad’s “telefonkatalogdiktet” (‘the phonebook poem’). It is his third book of concrete poetry, published in Norway by Samlaget (2006). For this language research project, Ormstad read (!) the phonebook of Oslo 2004 and selected names on a poetic basis. In the book, the names are presented visually as concrete poetry. Most of the names are strongly connected to Norwegian and describe phenomena in nature.
NAVN NOME NAME is the second work of a collection of video poems created by the Norwegian-Russian duo OTTARAS (Ottar Ormstad and Taras Mashtalir) in collaboration with Russian video artist Alexander Vojjov. In the video, Ormstad reads names selected by the Russian-American composer Mashtalir. Through this work, Norwegian language turns into international sound poetry. Ormstad’s collection of family names present in Oslo’s phonebook at the time of reading are exposed and read by the author while performing to Mashtalir’s pulsating music. Is everyone connected to each other in the sphere that is shaping before the viewer’s eyes? How do names and language relate to the atmospheric scapes Vojjov creates of numbers, geometric forms and abstract shapes?
NAVN NOME NAME exists in different versions made for screening and live performance. Raising awareness of electronic poetry and sonic ecology, attracting new audience to a potent yet to come genre is the inspiration for this collaboration.
The video is produced in HD 16:9 in color, stereo.
Duration: 06:05 mins
Animation: Alexander Vojjov
Music: Taras Mashtalir
Concrete poetry, voice & production: Ottar Ormstad
© Ottar Ormstad 2016