Sonic Twin? A Poetics of Poetic Radio

By | 1 August 2018

One of the projects of sound poetry in the digital era has been, as McCooey notes, to ‘deconstruct semantic meaning,’ as well as to ‘strip the voice of signification’ in order to negate constricting evocations of the body; the latter phrase comes up in a conversation between Amanda Stewart and Justin Clemens on this subject (Clemens par. 2). Over this span of time, sound poetry’s battle with meaning, and with the evocation of self in voice, has often entailed a movement away from linguistic to non-linguistic sound; in more recent decades this movement has included ‘technological assaults on the word’ (McCaffery 158). Such assaults – using technology to present word, voice, and sound in previously unheard ways – occurred with frequency in German avant-garde radio art in the 1960s. For instance, Paul Pörtner’s Schallspielstudie (1965) – meaning ‘Soundplaystudy’ – was ‘… a collage of voice and sound effects taken through a series of electronic manipulations until the sound effects begin to speak, the voice to drip like water and shatter like glass’ (Cory 321).

This brief route through poetry, sound poetry, and technology returns me to radio, and to the poetic in radio. Radio carries both kinds of sound mentioned above. To add further definition to these categories of linguistic versus non-linguistic sound, and to move towards defining poetic radio, I draw on Crisell’s taxonomy of radio sound; this is a taxonomy he adapted from the semiotic theorist C.S. Peirce. Crisell uses Peirce’s terms ‘icon,’ ‘index,’ and ‘symbol’ to catalogue the various sounds of radio. Starting with visual examples, he argues that,

The icon [is] a sign which resembles the object which it represents, such as a photograph; The index [is] a sign which is directly linked to its object, usually in a causal or sequential way: smoke, for instance, is an index of fire; and the symbol [is] a sign which bears no resemblance or connection to its object, for example the Union Jack as a symbol of Great Britain. (Crisell 210)

Crisell then applies this to sound: he argues that words are often symbols, where the sound of the word does not resemble the thing it represents. Most written words are symbolic: ‘dog,’ meaning a canine quadruped, can be interchanged with ‘cur’ – both arbitrarily signal ‘canine quadruped.’ In radio, words are also voiced, and here ‘the voice in which they are heard is an index of the person or “character” who is speaking’ (211). That is, the spoken word ‘dog’ makes us think not only of the four-legged animal, but also of the person who said ‘dog.’ Radio words are therefore both symbolic and indexical. Next, Crisell argues that non-verbal radio sounds are generally indexical, because they tend always to manifest the presence of someone when we hear them (211): ‘Sounds such as the ringing of a door-bell or the grating of a key in a lock are indexical in signifying someone’s presence’ (212). Sound effects are therefore (often) indexical of the thing triggering or producing the sound.

What I want to draw attention to here is Crisell’s idea that both verbal sounds (words) and non-verbal sounds (sound effects) can be relatively precise as signifiers. Ladd’s ‘Notes Towards a Radio Poetics’ – an important precursor to the kind of analysis I am attempting – offers an account of the signifying precision of non-verbal radio sound:

Non-verbal sounds can be both more and less specific than words. For example, seeing the word ‘rain’ on the page or hearing it spoken is more definite than hearing the sound of rain on the radio, which can seem like applause, or wind, or sea, and often needs contextualisation to be understood as rain. On the other hand, the word ‘rain’ by itself is less specific than any actual sound recording of rain. You might need many words to describe what sort of rain, falling where, heard from what perspective, and yet still not entirely ‘get’ the sound in the way the ear can. (‘Notes’ 163)

Crisell finally gets to a category of symbolic sound that is less precise in its significations: music. He argues that there is ‘[a] virtual absence, or at any rate imprecision, of meaning in music’ and ‘if it does signify [usually with the aid of language – for example, through the name of a musical piece] … its mode of signification will be almost entirely symbolic’ (Crisell 215). For example, Debussy’s prelude for piano titled ‘The Submerged Cathedral’ can symbolically represent its object – but only with the aid of language. The piano notes on their own cannot signify anything outside of themselves – certainly not something as precise as an underwater cathedral – although the sound of the piano is indexical, and can put us in mind of a piano, and of the person playing the piano. (I admit that this is contested territory: some argue that music signifies emotion fairly clearly – but the counter-argument is that such interpretations, of what wordless music is ‘saying,’ are not only culturally produced but deeply subjective).

What appeals to me in Crisell’s taxonomy is the ability to discern degrees of representational precision, which informs my definition of a radio program, of sound design in certain programs, as ‘poetic.’ Using this scheme, I want to try and distinguish the ‘poetic’ from the ‘musical’ by pointing to poetry’s sonic but also precisely representational nature. It’s true that poetry revels in semantic obliqueness, but its words tend nevertheless to reach for their objects, to signify in ways that music doesn’t (this is arguably the case even in poetry that attempts to frustrate signification in radical ways: the basic tendency of words to signify remains as the point of tension for such manipulation). For the sound design of a radio program to be formally poetic it would need to replicate sonic poetic devices, which are representational. This may seem like an unnecessarily strict scheme: McCooey, for instance, argues that music is poetic because it has the capacity for metaphor, through its ability to draw links between sound and emotion (par. 39). But this scheme allows a pointed way of hearing that I am interested in exploring – if only to then deflate, so as to move on to a more fluid poetic radiophony.

Ladd gives an example of poetic radio that fits into this scheme of the poetic: a radio artwork called (his translation) ‘Five Man Humanity’ or ‘Five Man Mankind,’ produced by Mayröcker and Jandl, and broadcast on German radio in 1968:

It is a fifteen-minute journey, from birth, school, military training, to a court martial and death by firing squad, focusing on situations where people are placed in rows, such as hospital wards, schoolrooms, and marching formations. Using a percussive rhythmic pattern, words and sounds are formed into groups of five, giving the piece a five-lined stanzaic form. (‘Notes’ 166)

He says this production shook up his own creative practice as a radio maker: ‘It made me realise you could structure voices and sounds for radio in the same way you could structure a poem’ (166). The soundtrack here is not only musical – in that sounds are structured into rhythmic patterns, but also poetic, because those rhythmic sounds have representational meanings. Ladd and I share an approach to poetic radio grounded in aurality, but I am seeking to bring his definition into sharper focus, by underscoring representational precision as a necessary condition of poetic radio. His description of what he has called ‘sound rhyme’ or ‘audio rhyme’ belongs in this clarified schema: he describes this as,

… placing sounds that have similar morphology, but come from different sources, next to each other, or merging them via cross-fades. Jane Ulman, the multiple Prix Italia-winning Australian producer, calls it ‘sound assonance’ and sees it as a playful and musical way of bringing disparate elements together. In her feature produced with ABC sound engineer Russell Stapleton, Pan, panic in the Australian bush, which is about the meaning and value of forests, she puts together sounds that are alike, but which conjure radically different visual images … A didgeridoo is paired with an aeroplane, a bowerbird ‘rhymes’ with a helicopter. There is contrast here, but also conjunction. (‘Mighty Beast’ 4)

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