Thursday, 13 August 2009

Unspoken Word

I’m currently starting to develop a couple of small projects and to each of them, in one way or another, spoken word is central. That is to say, each will, in one way or another, be a setting of recordings of spoken words. Whether the setting consists of being placed in a context, involving simple editing or more complex manipulation, will depend in degree on the parameters of the project, much of which has yet to be decided let alone realised. Some of the outcomes will be posted here.

I have been thinking about ways in which the spoken word has been used in sound poetry and sound art as well as in pop, experimental and electronic music. I have also been trawling through some old work and remembering how I have experimented with the sound of speech in the past. I thought it might be interesting to compile four pieces I made around ten years ago into a little downloadable collection, a ‘mini-album’, if you like. They are all rather rudimentary and rough experiments with digital sound editing and collage, and it’s interesting, while perhaps not unsurprising how throughout they play within the time-honoured avant concrete conventions of the aesthetics of repetition and the logic of fragmentation. I’m not so sure that’s how the new work will proceed, but we shall see. Or rather, we shall hear.

Click the cover image above to download a zipped file (59.6Mb) of the 'mini-album' (
320kpbs mp3 files) or play below.

Track info:
1. Say Zero (5:14, 2000)

This track came out of experiments with a CD containing demos of recordings of actors’ produced by a voice-over agency. The actors’ performances conformed to the conventions for advertisements, information films, radio announcements and so on. They were by turn upbeat, sing-songy, serious, conversational, exactly what you might expect. As this was Australia, they also had that informal casual Australian chumminess. I broke the voices down to phonemes, cut, pasted and created insistent, breathy, stammers of rhythm; some sounded disturbed, quietly obsessed or climactic. This is an extended version of the one minute piece made for Colin Fallows’s Audio Research Editions CD Zero. More about that here.

2. I Was Bugging (4:10, 1998)

Going around the internet at this time was an audio file that purported to be an answering machine message relating a first person account of an episode of casual sex with a stranger, in some detail. At that time such revelations were more rare than they have now become, at a time before people felt it necessary to regale the world with their most intimate thoughts on the web. What was most interesting about the recording though, was not so much the sordid details but the excited relish of the person divulging the event, apparently breathless with gossip about themselves! A slightly slowed down (to obfuscate the gender) and channel separated version of the recording starts the piece, followed by a squelchy spanking rhythmic track made entirely from samples of the recording.

3. The Shape That Has Held Me (5:21, 2000)

Australian visual poet and super 8 filmmaker pete spence sent me a copy of a poem, which surprised me for being a sort of gently surreal existential piece. Surprising because pete’s work is usually characterised by elegant cut-up image-text visual poetry. But this is no straight forward nihilism of being that spence has penned, there is great humour in word play in lines such as "I am a notion I search always to find, like a small lantern of fur sleeping at the foot of my bed, which I carefully avoid waking when I enter the immense collapse of my room". In retrospect my reading of it is rather earnest. Like Say Zero it is mostly rhythmic fractured fragments of the sound of my voice, which has a certain squelchy vivacity, occasionally it breaks into legibility.

4. At Five in the Afternoon - with Lee Smith (13:29, 1999)

This was a collaboration with Lee Smith and it is his very distinctive voice that introduces and sets the tone for this setting of a poem by Federico García Lorca. It was made for a film by Lee that took the poem’s title and we experimented with a number of editing techniques to produce a musical cadence from his reading, and used recording techniques such as shouting from the other side of the room. There are long sections of the sound of traffic, recorded outside the front door of my house (Victoria Street in Footscray could get busy), and the voices from Say Zero make another appearance. I had started to work with Lee on a few sound/music pieces. As well as making wonderful experimental super 8 and 16mm films, Lee was also a guitarist and had a passion for all kinds of music. We were at one point working on a bizarre version of Donovan’s song Season of the Witch, which is alas destined to remain unfinished as I left Australia in 2000 and Lee sadly died this time last year. This is for him.

** Update: now available on SoundCloud


Philip Sanderson said...

Very nice mini LP - In some ways a digital update on Its Gonna Rain.

I remember Say Zero from when we messed about with it one day years ago and it almost became a Storm Bugs track (but then didn't). But haven't heard any of the other pieces before.

Steven Ball said...

Thanks. Yes there is a connection with It's Gonna Rain I guess, both as spoken word origin and variations on the idea of 'appropriated text'. Mine aren't so systematic, although most have a fairly defined structure.

I do have a file that seems to be a collage of Say Zero, the voices we used on Internal Use Only and some other messing around. I think 'The Shape...' is the only one that hasn't been 'released' (into the wild) in some capacity. Bugging was in a small show in Melbourne once - on headphones.

Anonymous said...

hi bloke! just found this while netting my ego thanks for mentioning
me!! chris knowles lives 'round the corner from me these days he mentioned
a few days back that ARF ARF are getting back together again!!
i think marcus is back from prague?
pete spence

Anonymous said...

yer know jas duke used his sounde poetry to work over his stuttering problem...other point in study of
sound/word stuff is to look at records on dudes suffering aphasic situations where the sounds of the world birds/animals/trees/then industry/ etc are more interesting to mimic than some long substatiated dialogue of diction/spiel whyche ye grows like nobodies amoebea apace!

Steven Ball said...

yes, lots of Jas Duke at Ubuweb if you haven't come across it yet:

I've been recording some of the speakers at Speakers Corners, very interesting the repetition and reiteration in the various evangelists there (mostly religious - but not necessarily christian, also muslims, jews, marxists, etc), not so much to mimic as to recontextualize, but the rhythms are interesting - of course that's also where the above-mentioned It's Gonna Rain took its cues

Steven Ball said...

which is to say, I'm not really interested in all that field recording sound ecology stuff

Anonymous said...

messian and messy!
we are on the move!
back victoria way!

Anonymous said...

coupla drinks with chris knowles on my way back home tonight and a long walk up the pacific coast under some unusually warm weather other than that
no sound is perfect/herr spence

Anonymous said...

bloke/a blog/ ken/ can get messy/
always turns to being more answers in real time than a direct objective no matter the nice pun can give
yer loco blogger
pete spence

Steven Ball said...

there are more answers than questions