Visualizing Sound Poetry of bpNichol
This business of seeing what’s in front of you, of actually dealing with the reality of that surface and the marks that you place on it, is central to any notion of notation; i see it so i can say it.
bpNichol, Meanwhile (2002, p. 358)
In 2015, I completed a fifteen-year long film project based on the work of Canadian author bpNichol. The initial idea was to translate his work into film. I soon discovered that this would be a monumental task given the range of forms and genres in which he worked. It could be said that while Nichol’s work is really situated in the inter-regions between textuality and visuality, it is always anchored in sound. He often said that he let his ear lead him. When I began the film, his sound poetry work was emotionally appealing, but I really had a difficult time decoding it in order to effectively translate it to film. In the end, I propose that the methods of his sound poetry are the key to engaging with it intellectually. Not only this, but they were key to making the entire film. Following is a brief working-through of some of his methods and how they informed the making The Complete Works.* Some of this writing was developed out of scholarly research I did during my graduate studies.
In Magritte’s Treachery of Images (Ceci n’est pas une pipe), the text and the figure are separated by what Michel Foucault calls alternately a crevasse, an uncertain foggy region, »the absence of a space, the effacement of the common place between the signs of writing and the lines of the image« (1983, p. 28). The pipe and the text do not enter into any kind of stable relationship. What we do end up with though, is »the intersection within the same medium, of representation by resemblance and of representation by signs« (p. 34).
bpNichol worked with strategies that explored this space between resemblance and representation – saying what can be seen was used by Nichol to generate sound performances from visual material. Nichol would read the marks on the page almost as a tape head would read the magnetic patterns on audiotape – the various patterns would serve as a source for the generation and modulation of a sound performance.
This is, of course, not a new thing. The optophonetic reading, a term and technique developed by Raoul Hausmann, is one in which the visual text is used by the performer to generate and modulate a phonetic performance (Scholz, 2001). Nichol’s notion of notation is about creating resemblances between the visual text and the performance. Richard Cavell points out that the optophonetic translation is a critical and participatory practice. It highlights the mediation of the reader and the reading. In addition to this, I would add that technological media inform this reading strategy. The gramophone, phonograph, film optical track, magnetic tape recorder all provide models for the optophonetic reading as does digital data mapping.
There are two sound poetry compositions in The Complete Works, Interrupted Nap, performed by Nichol (Nichol, 1982)** and White Sound, an original performance by Stephen Ross Smith.*** 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.
Interrupted Nap is a recording from the 1982 collection, Ear Rational (Nichol, 1982). In it we hear snippets of a narrative, »Once upon a time…«, which are interrupted by bursts of nonsensical vocal sound. It sounds as if the narrator is having difficulty telling the story. The word »aphasia«, which describes the inability to make sense in language or of language, appears at the end of the piece. Aphasia accurately describes the experience of listening to this work. In Interrupted Nap, one has the sense that either the listener has receptive aphasia, or the narrator has expressive aphasia. The recording creates a tension between a narrative and incomprehensible vocal noise.
The source text is a series of visual panels (Nichol, Interrupted Nap, 1990) that appear to have been reproduced from pages on which someone has used a magic marker to write. The marker has bled through each page to the subsequent pages onto which new material has then been written.
Interrupted Nap (Nichol, 1990)
In a traditional sense of reading, the panels are no longer legible. Nichol reads the text as if his visual and speaking faculties operate like the head of a magnetic tape recorder, reading and speaking the information on the page including the »noise« from the marker bleed. The visual marker bleed is like »print through« on an analog audiotape that has been sitting on the shelf for a decade or more, in which the surrounding layers of a magnetic tape on a spindle »print« their magnetic patterns onto each other creating a distortion of the original recording. Here the distortion of the text on the page is reproduced in the optophonetic reading of the text.
The title of the poem suggests an interruption between napping and waking. It is the aphasiac moment in which sense and nonsense are superimposed. Fredrick Kittler (1999, p. 45) sees this as the reality of modern media technology. For Kittler, white noise is the backdrop of all technological media, which, previous to 1900, could not be recorded (ibid.). In Interrupted Nap, Nichol inscribes on the page the noise and distortion introduced by technological media. In the performance of this »text«, he merges sense and noise to create an aphasic moment.
Interrupted Nap from The Complete Works (Stephenson, 2015)
The moving image sequence of Interrupted Nap began with a frame-by-frame phonetic transcription of Nichol’s performance of the text. The idea was to listen to the sound performance and derive a phonetic text from what could be heard in the performance – reversing Nichol’s methodology of reading what he could see by notating what could be heard. Using a combination of software and programming languages the visual and material qualities of the original text were reinterpreted in the animation. I wrote a series of algorithms to animate the stanzas of the poem. The algorithms read the frame-by-frame phonetic transcript of the poem to generate the letterforms and then animate these letterforms based on a scheme that is modulated by the sound. There is no manual manipulation in this animation – it is entirely procedural (created by algorithms), and modulated by the sound of Nichol’s voice.
Each animated »stanza« of the poem explores a different way of creating an animated interruption of the reading: moving from left to right quickly, layering successive characters overtop one another, moving from bottom to top for example. Mapping the audio to the animation and visualizing the frame-by-frame phonetic transcript of the poem links what we are seeing to what has been said. Interrupted Nap uses the method of Nichol’s original source text and performance to create a unique digital moving image strategy. Procedural animation provides a way of looking at Nichol’s voice and allowing us to see what he said in a new way.
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.
JPEG images of White Sound (Nichol, 1976)
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.
White Sound from The Complete Works (Stephenson, 2015)
In White Sound, I used popular VJing software and a node based video programming language to create a real-time video performance based on Steven’s sound performance of Nichol’s visual text. I chose tools for this sequence that were akin to creating »patches« with analog modular synthesizers like the ARP 2600, or the more contemporary Doepfer. With these synthesizers, the operator connects together modules (like oscillators and filters) with patch cords and then modifies the parameters of each module to create a sound. It is an improvisational approach in which the performer creates a set of conditions that respond to a source, for example a sine wave or an audio recording, to produce a performance.
The video performance tools allow for an approach akin to an inverted optophonetic reading of a visual text for a sound performance – a phonoptic performance. A segment of the audio can be looped while modulating video parameters in real-time to choose a set of conditions that read the audio in a way that creates a visual resemblance to the performance. This mirrors the methodology of the sound poetry performance, which is an improvised translation of the marks on the page as sound.
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.
Cavell, R. (2003). McLuhan in Space: A Cultural Geography. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
Foucault, M. (1983). This Is Not a Pipe. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Kittler, F. A. (1999). Gramophone, Film, Typewriter [Grammophon, Film, Typewriter.]. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press.
Nichol, B. P. (1976). White Sound: A Variant. Toronto: Ganglia Press.
– (1982). Ear Rational. Milwaukee, WI, USA: Membrane Press.
– (1990). Art Facts: A Book of Contexts., Tucson, Ariz.: Chax Press.
– (2002). Meanwhile: The Critical Writings of bpNichol. Vancouver: Talonbooks.
Scholz, C. (2001). Relations Between Sound Poetry and Visual Poetry: The Path From the Optophonetic Poem to the Multimedia Text. Visible Language, 35(1), 92–92.
Stephenson, J. (Film Maker) (2015). The Complete Works. (Video).
bpNichol’s work appears courtesy of the Estate of bpNichol and is copyrighted by Eleanor Nichol.
|About the author|
Justin Stephenson is an award-winning filmmaker and moving image designer. His work focuses on materialities – the physical qualities of subjects and media. Developing concepts through process, Justin takes a hands-on approach with all aspects of production from the design, editing, and animation through to post production.
Justin is currently directing animation and editing the animated film, The Secret Path, created by Gord Downie based on his poems and album, and the graphic novel by Jeff Lemire. The film tells the tale of Chanie Wenjack’s 1966 escape from a Canadian residential school and his journey home.
Aside from filmmaking and film title work, Justin also directs and designs sequences for television, commercials, interactive media, and live performance. He created the video design and projections for Fujuwara Dance Inventions’ production of Christian Bök’s Eunoia, and the animation design for the 2015 remounting of Robert Lepage’s Erwartung and Bluebeard’s Castle with The Canadian Opera Company. Other notable film title works include Atom Egoyan’s Remember; Nathan Morlando’s Mean Dreams and Edwin Boyd; and David Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars, and Cosmopolis.
Justin currently lives in Toronto.