Performed at Array Music Studios, Toronto, July 13, 2008
Presented by The Scream Literary Festival
Artists: Paul Swoger-Ruston (composer); Jordan Scott and Souvankham Thammavongsa (poets); Max Senitt (drums); Ben Miller (bass)
The attraction between composers and poets is as ancient as the Forms. Whether the art is conventional or experimental — a traditional song or the renegade compositions of Harry Partch, who invented notational systems and instruments to replicate the inflections of the spoken word — music and poetry have long been integrated. Through these integrations, musicians have explored the areas of overlap and difference between language and non-linguistic sound; ideally, the final work succeeds as its own entity while simultaneously augmenting the possibility of each component part. This has been achieved with “Throat” and “Of This,” a music/ poetry project led by Paul Swoger-Ruston, a Toronto-based composer and music theorist whose work has been performed throughout Europe, and who teaches at Ryerson University and Humber College.
“Throat” paired Swoger-Ruston with Jordan Scott, the young BC-based poet whose most recent collection, blert (Coach House Books, 2008), grapples with language and communication through the act of stuttering. Scott’s poems intentionally ram him into his stutter, forcing his body to collide with language.
My mouth drew the swallow’s panic. Chew pteryla. The spaces
between them chomp apterium; gizzard beat Broca, Broca.
Chirped electrode. Sing fuming. Sing furious. Now, open your
mouth and speak.
Words are both abstraction and materiality. They are elements in the field of semantics but they’re also shown to originate in the physical tissue of our bodies — the mouth and throat, the breath and tongue, the teeth and palate that must work in fluid exchange to form each word and sentence, each communicated thought.
You lambada glyph; cockatiel into calligraphy like your mouth-
wash swills hurricane. Puke gauze sphagnum and purr: outbreaks
will diminish against the chincherinchee festooned on bronchial,
you go on go on, urge backwash cha-cha-cha, homily into
boomshackalacka like fungi canoodle sequoia: say nosh cricket
merengue, your turn, say gnash locust meringue.
The book accepts the challenge of utterance — the act of words surging from our interior, where they (and we) are contained and known, to enter that uncertainty of communication. Within these poems, then, is the potency of language. Its inherent risks are felt in the lapse and trip of each stutter; our desire for release into rhythmic, streaming meaning is sensed in the undeniable effort to speak. In blert, language possesses both possibility and loss; it is both the longing for connection through communication and the always-coming realization that words can’t convey, complete, our being/ self.
Swoger-Ruston doesn’t engage directly — i.e., obviously — with the stutter; instead, he engages with the thematic explorations in Scott’s work through the medium of music. The composition is tight, all elements acting together in staccato precision. The piece begins with Scott’s voice:
It is part of my existence to be the parasite of metaphors, so easily
am I carried away by the first simile that comes along. Having
been carried away, I have to find my difficult way back, and
slowly return, to the fact of my mouth.
The voice is thinned out; the words feel brittle, breakable. At times, their component sounds are effaced to the level of incomprehensibility. It’s as if the voice is being erased even as it speaks. Scott’s voice, treated in this way, runs throughout the composition; although it’s been equalized — its own aural space provided — it often goes unheard beneath the other elements. Those other musical elements are drums, electric bass, and Scott’s voice (differently treated). For this second vocal element, Swoger-Ruston extracted ten short phrases from blert. Those spoken phrases are truncated but strong; the stutter isn’t contained in their resonant confidence. Scott’s voice, then, speaks without hesitation, rhythmic and repeating. This sense of command is enforced by the drums and bass which move, responsive, along the contours of each phrase: the bass follows Scott’s precise pitch; the drums carve a channel around his cadence. The effect is an assertive burst — a muscular declaration of instrument and voice. Even so, this isn’t a typical rhythm-section composition. The instruments aren’t allowed to enter a sustained groove, where each note is subsumed in the conveyance of melody or rhythmic repetition. Instead, they are contained and constrained in the rip of their execution — their brief utterance — allowed then stopped / stoppered / shut in a round burst of silence.
Within this silence, then, the brittle voice is heard, continuing, unaffected:
What is the utterance?
What a poor crawling thing you are!
Scott’s voice encounters resistance on ‘thing': the breath of th, pushed back, inside his mouth. The composition waits for him to speak.
When his words are finally given, the score returns to silence, surrounding that ‘what’ — that utterance, effaced — what a poor crawling thing you are — then back, without rhythmic expectations or melodic cues, into the instruments: the fatness of the bass, the unambiguous act of the drums, the full voice whose short phrases, repeated, possess their rap-like confidence.
These instrumental riffs are extremely difficult to execute, particularly for the drummer, who must alter his entire physical approach to the instrument in order to hit those interrupted / interrupting notes. Drummer Max Senitt executed his part masterfully. At only two points in the composition are the instruments able to improvise: Scott’s phrase “go on go on,” is repeated, the intonation rising to the mid-point then falling, symmetrical; the drum and bass ride atop, never soldered to the voice but never straying, either. As this phrase gets repeated, the words morph into elements of sound, evacuated of all linguistic meaning: go on go on go on go on. The words are eliminated, then, from the score, allowing the live instruments to overtake. This could’ve gotten showy or cock-sure: electric bassist Ben Miller could’ve broken the tightness, letting his fingers roam the instrument in a demonstration of technical prowess. Instead, he and Senitt show artistry, holding back, abutting against the constraints of the piece — blert’s uncertain rhythm, its denial of easy release.
From this improvisation, the composition returns to the extracted phrases, the brittle voice beneath. Here, Swoger-Ruson allows for the humour in blert, choosing to highlight certain absurdities:
In jugular then jujitsu, we ta-ta bazooka-woven nouns
Soaring on the joyful outbreak of humour and sound, the piece then loops around a repeated phrase, “You lambada glyph”; soon the drums and bass overtake Scott’s voice, only to be overtaken by a sequencer –that unmistakable, unsophisticated, ‘gee-whiz’ tone of early synthesizers. The live instruments cut out and the sequencer remains, its rhythm clean, clear-edged and fake. There is no slippage here — no physical creation of meaning, no risk in sound.
Sliding out from this slickness, Scott’s brittle voice again speaks:
Your hem-haw exhume Amazon’s octane aria:
armadillo harmonica logorrhea
iguana ennui hillbilly.
Now, zygote guava, each verbivore salacious.
Now, appendix escapade, your aha tsunami
Houdini in open wide:
Here a stutter is heard, the slightest quiver, a hesitation on the lip of meaning.
“Of This,” the final composition of the evening, bears no resemblance to “Throat.” This is a testament to Swoger-Ruston’s talent; he strove to work with — and from — the aesthetics of the individual poets, creating unique compositions based on their unique voices.
The small, steady voice of Souvankham Thammavongsa, the Toronto-based poet whose first collection won the 2004 ReLit Award, opens the piece by reading the initial poem from Found (Pedlar Press, 2007):
In 1978, my parents lived in building #48. Nong Khai, Thailand, a Lao refugee camp. My father kept a scrapbook filled with doodles, addresses, postage stamps, maps, measurements. He threw it out and when he did, I took it out and found this.
Thammavongsa’s actual book –the physical object that contains her words, the “this” which was found within that other book object (i.e., her father’s scrapbook) — is a beautiful entity in itself. Beth Follett of Pedlar Press, working with Winnipeg-based Zab Design, has always ensured that the aesthetics of the book object enhance the experience of the words. The cover is lush in its simplicity: it is darkly blue with thick, matte stock embossed with silver writing and a single, simple diagonal line in the upper right quadrant. The poems themselves are often spare; the font is small, the words relegated to a tiny portion of the broad, creamy pages. Irregular lines, like the one on the cover, appear in some of the poems; they are, Thammavongsa indicates in the poem “January, 1979,” reproductions of her father’s penned slashes through days on his calendar.
This is the tangible, physical object through which we experience Thammavongsa’s words:
a knife in
a human face
“My Father’s Handwriting”
and every one took
The ‘exterior’ of these poems (i.e., the words in their formation) is delicate, unassuming; the work’s reverberations, however, possess a magnitude of intensity and duration. In order to feel those reverberations — the poems’ waves of meaning — a reader must engage from a place of stillness. The book’s design guides us toward that place, subtly providing a model for our approach to the book. In our minds –our interior perceptual space — we, too, must create a dimension of active emptiness around the words.
What Zab Design has done visually, Swoger-Ruston has achieved in sound.
The final score is an immersive aural landscape. Electronic instruments, emanating from six paired speakers, follow their own streaming path; some are primarily rhythmic, others melodic. None attempt to mimic natural sounds, though the instrumentation is sometimes suggestive of bells, tinkling glass, water dropping into a pool. These suggestions are vapourous, evaporative: Swoger-Ruston doesn’t clamp links to the natural world. Instead, he teases us into our perceptual associations, which we feel more potently for our inability to grasp them.
The music, then, creates a demarcated space –a volume — within which Thammavongsa’s words can be housed, flowing around the listener who, also, is located within. This is a fundamentally different experience from that of a straightforward poetry reading, where words seem to originate from the single point — the poet and his / her mouth — extending toward the listener who hears and absorbs, experiencing the work through both cognition and affect. This experience necessitated a different encounter with the words.
The music progresses as Thammavongsa reads her entire collection. The various streams don’t develop themes that respond to each other, becoming augmented or enfolded. Rather, they accommodate each other within this space they’re creating. We feel them swirling — turning toward and bending around Thammavongsa’s voice and each other.
That voice assumes various positions in the aural landscape, sometimes foregrounded, sometimes receding. As it moves, its tone, pitch, and speed of delivery never change; that quiet consistency increases its resonance as the music develops around it and its words:
“The Bible, Notes On”
I can only
You put it
“House, A Sketch Of”
It’s the only
Its black lines
a simple plan
an open door
As Thammavongsa speaks these poems, one grinding note — low-pitched and discordant — is held, extended; it then begins to jerk, pulsing arhythmically. The atmosphere within the interior space gets thicker, moister, as if with sweat; this note doesn’t progress. It is stuck, eliciting our anxiety.
A melody then overtakes as Thammavongsa continues, her voice steady:
“My Mother, A Portrait Of”
my mother here
We relax somewhat — incompletely — unable to trust the cessation of the grinding discord. Swoger-Ruston has prepared us, then, to hear the horror of “Laos.” This horror isn’t the scream of attack but the chill of continuing — the aftermath in which extraordinary violence is incorporated, calmly, into the everyday.
During the subsequent section of the composition, the music becomes more dense and jagged, the lines intersecting, all unwilling to accommodate, none fading in the cross-currents in which we, now, are caught. Inside that interior, we must integrate these streams of sound of words — the poetry of the instruments and language. We don’t become lost inside its rhythm, nor do we transcend ourselves, carried upward by the melody. Instead, our bodies are the place where the music –the poetry of this project –happens.
Now, in seventeen consecutive poems that draw the collection toward its end, Thammavongsa poetically inscribes the passage of time. This temporal dimension, often explored in narrative and music, is not generally the focus of poetry. Here, again, Pedlar Press designed the book object to powerful effect. Ten of the seventeen poems consist solely of titles at the top of the page: “October, 1979″; November, 1979″; “December, 1979″ or titles with a single slash, as on the cover of the book. These non-linguistic marks stand alone; the pages are turned, stating nothing, the contents of days and months — that time — unsaid, the silence ominous. Swoger-Ruston grasps this gathering of fear, releasing the score into soft percussive sounds and Thammavongsa’s voice, which speaks the unspooling of time, concluding in the final poem:
My father took
its hard neck
and threw back
Marianne Apostolides is a writer and critic based in Toronto. Her current writing explores the ‘contact zone’ between genres – poetry vs. prose, fiction vs. non-fiction, creative vs. critical. Her experimental novel, Swim, is forthcoming from BookThug in 2009.