Monday, December 12, 2005

The Writing Experiment, Chapter 10: Tongues, talk & technologies

At last this academic book is starting to talk my language. This chapter is all about words written for performance rather than the page or screen.

I actually started reading this chapter on the 14th of November, so forgive me if this post is a tad muddled. Why on earth did my Australia trip throw me out of routine so much? Anyway...

The term "performance writing" covers a heck of a lot, from completely improvised works through to stuff that's performed exactly as it's written.

A super-brief historical overview: sonic poetry/writing was preceded by "sound poetry" in the early experiments of dadaists or futurists. It became more prominent in the sound poetry movement of the 50s, 60s and 70s. Sometimes it's known as the Text-Sound movement.

Great quote: "A sound poem coheres through sound rather than semantics." See why I just love this academic language?

The great thing about this chapter is that you don't just read about performance pieces, you get to hear some at the special website that goes with the book.

Listen to some of them, you'll hear that some of them are more about the sounds made than making sense. In non-academic circles, good examples are the poems of Spike Milligan (on the ning nang nong where the cows go bong) and John Lennon's early poems (one of them was called a Spaniard in the Works which I thought was a fantastic title).

Then there's mixed media: "Performance can form a site for intersections between the verbal, visual, sonic and gestural, which result in a mixed-media (or intermedia) event."

I like that image, that performance creates a space where all these other things can meet.

Mixed media, in this setting, contrasts with drama thusly:

In drama, character and plot are more important than language and its relationship with the visual, sonic and gestural.

In intermedia, however, "the juxtaposition of words with visual images or gestures is highly interactive and constantly changing."

Smith (the author) calls this "semiotic exchange: a continuous modification by and of the different elements."

Possibilities for intermedia include:
  • Words & letters as visual objects
  • Text & Images
  • Words & Gestures (Do the gestures reinforce or contradict the words? You can have some fun with this)
  • Text & objects
  • Music & sound

Improvising means literally "writing in performance".

Jack Kerouac wrote his novels continuously and without revision.

"Improvisation is often confused with spontaneity, but it is in fact a skill which has to be learnt. Improvisers do not revise, but they draw on methods of working which they have acquired over a long period of time."

Some improvising strategies (referent-based):
  • Word pool exercise from chapter one
  • Word association (ditto) - we have magnetic poetry to help us with this
  • Multi-track recording - do a dialogue with yourself
  • Change dynamic, accentuation and volume of your voice. Don't be too worried about meaning, just experiment.
  • Study other improvisers like David Antin or Spalding Gray.
  • Improvise with others
A good quote: "Don't be too burdened by the pressure to make sense."

Listen to yourself while you're improvising. You may find when you listen that the text is more interesting than it seemed when you were actually inventing it!

Performance scores

Not a script, but a score to give performers parameters, or as this book says "trigger & constraint"

E.g. Jackson Mac Low has this thing where performers must interact with all sounds, even atmospheric or audience sounds, to create pleasant sound pictures.

Other examples, the theatrical work of Kenneth Koch, where he writes no dialogue, only instructions.

The rest of the chapter dealt with audience interaction, and gender and ethnicity (of course!) and how technology and performance can challenge assumptions about these areas.

My thoughts

Sometimes I struggle with the academic literary world's seeming obsession with meaningless, but as I listen to some of my favourite bands (Crowded House and REM come to mind) their lyrics don't make much sense much of the time. What makes sense is the emotion, largely carried through their music and the way they sing the lyrics.

So, meaning sometimes comes out of somewhere else than the writer's intention, or carefully chosen words. And that's what I'm supposed to be learning, I guess! ;)

About improvisation - some bits that really stand out to me from films have been improvised.

Raging Bull - Jake's tirade to his neighbour who complains was completely ad-libbed. But because Scorcese takes a very improvisational approach to his films, it didn't stick out like a sore thumb, the whole film had a realness about it.

Citizen Kane, on the other hand, has a scene where Joseph Cotton's character flubs his line, says "I must have drunk too much" and carries on. It's a nice moment of realism but was in fact a real-life blooper that they had to leave in because of time constraints. It really works, but it also stands out from the theatricality of the rest of the film.

The scene with Jack Black and Tony Robbins in the elevator in Shallow Hal was brilliantly done, and I could tell that it was improvised. I don't know how I could tell, but sometimes you just can't write stuff like that. Also, Tony Robbins is not an actor, so I knew he probably wasn't going off a script.

Banana hands... hehe ... my favourite scene in the whole movie. Jack Black and Jason Alexander are also great together, improvising up the wazoo, and not competing with each other.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
was great too ... the director's style allowed the actors to inhabit the characters as much as possible, which I think is remarkable. They weren't worried about hitting certain marks etc, they could just be their character in the setting. Which means that the director and production team would have had to work extra hard. Great results, though.


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