“NAMING” and “CURSING”: some live text-sound composition

Autor: Lawrence Upton

(Goldsmiths, University of London, Inglaterra)

E-mail: mus01lju@gold.ac.uk

This essay discusses questions arising from making of “visually-emphatic poetry”, from its performance in live text-sound composition, and from the author’s related research. It also discusses Poetry as solo and collaborative activity; and Poetry as an intermedia activity. Examples are taken from two series of his visual writing: “NAMING” and “CURSES”.
Keywords: experimental poetry, visual poetry, text-sound, intermedia, performance.

There follow a few observations and questions arising from my making of visually-emphatic poetry; its performance in live text-sound composition; and my recent formal research into these matters.

Along the way, I shall tell you about some of what I have been doing in this area of artistic activity; and about some of my working ideas.

Nowadays, I make the poetry on my own, as an individual; but, mostly, I perform it with others, where perform means responsive utterance and other responsive sound.

Recent exceptions include poems “Agnes”:


Fig. 1
from “Agnes”

and “Various Song” both of which I performed solo (but with prepared solo recordings) at Verb, Scarborough, in November 2008:


Fig. 2
from “Agnes”

In response to all other invitations to perform such material, I have arranged to fulfil them by collaborative performance; though I have learned a lot from solo performance.


Fig. 3
from Agnes

Since 2004, my main collaborator has been John Levack Drever; and we plan to continue working together into the foreseeable future.

Thus, there are generally solo works on paper and other media which we may call poetry or text as we wish (it is not worth arguing about words which, in this context, I use interchangeably). And there are time-based works, performances, text-sound compositions, which are generally collaborative though they may well use the solo works as their texts; and though I do perform solo where it seems appropriate.

What constitutes appropriateness of this kind might lead to an essay of its own.

I said something of this recently in an informal discussion and was asked “But what about Sound Poetry? Don’t you do that any more?”; and I replied “This is sound poetry.”.

And that, I believe, is so. I exclude thereby ad hoc and unplanned events – at the Writers Forum Workshop for instance. “Sound Poetry”, whether we call it that or not, is still an evolving discipline, as is “Visual Poetry”.

I think I prefer the term “text-sound composition” to “sound poetry”. I prefer almost anything to my own verbose though more precise “sonically-emphatic poetry”.

In the 1990s, the bulk of my visually-emphatic work was collaborative, and with Bob Cobbing (Collaborations for Peter Finch (64 images), Domestic Ambient Noise (1800 + images), etc.). I have not met his like since and so I have worked alone since his death without there being any long-term commitment to do so; working alone seemed the best course at present.

However, for some weeks, I have been working collaboratively with the artist Guy Begbie. It is early on in the project; but I think things look hopeful.

Quite where this work will lead, I am not sure. It’s different to any other collaboration I have undertaken – and there would be little point in undertaking it if there were not.

I first used the term “visually-emphatic poetry” in an essay, “Finding another word for ‘experimental’”, in the magazine Riding the Meridian in 1999, because of my worries about the vagueness of “visual poetry” and other terms.

I make as wide a variety of visually-emphatic poetry as possible; just as I try, in general, to write widely, formally and stylistically; but, for the purposes of this paper, I am going to concentrate on the two series which form the bulk of my recent output in this area: “NAMING” and “CURSES”. (I shall have the most to say of “NAMING” which has been performed the more and which engages my sympathy the most).

They are in many ways complementary series.

“NAMING” is a set of positive commentaries upon and praise songs of people I know and / or like; whereas “CURSES” is more negative, ranging from admonishment through ridicule to condemnation. The title of the latter is unambiguous, I believe.

Procedurally, they are made in quite different ways. I do not feel that now is the time to describe and analyse the various procedures I employ and their differences. That would be a separate and possibly less interesting account to which I may return on another occasion.

The same people may feature in both categories. That, unfortunately, reflects human nature; or my judgment of it.

I commenced “NAMING” during the last years of the twentieth century and “CURSES” during the first years of the twenty-first.

The difference that I see arises from and includes the different modes of procedure which I employ to place text in the poem’s field as I do.

“NAMING” poems (and this includes, for instance, “NAMELY for Peter Manson“) use the letters of the dedicatee’s name. “CURSES”, nowadays, spell out statements about the dedicatee or a statement that they have themselves made. (The procedures and processes change and evolve). In neither case are the letters preserved as separate entities as part of the work to be read conventionally.

The procedures in “CURSES” tend to be more deterministic than in “NAMING”. In “CURSES”, one follows pre-determined routes – arithmetical progression features in a range of procedures – and then, to some extent, tries to live with the outcome. In “NAMING”, all procedures, such as they are, are bent to the will of the maker, who is composing the visual in the knowledge that the intention is to perform using the visually-emphatic poem which results as a score.

However, take away the poem titles and also any knowledge you may have of my attitude to the people being responded to, and the two poem sets might well seem, superficially, to be one.

I hope to carry out an experiment, to see if people can distinguish differences and similarities. For now, though, for my purpose here, it is not a major issue.

A recent writer said “these [visual aspects of poetry] include the shape of visual or concrete poetry (where words are arranged spatially in particular patterns on the page)” (Roberts).

Note, firstly, the, to me, unfortunate division of territory into two, visual or concrete poetry, discouraging new categories, like the Pope allocating someone else’s land either to the Portuguese or the Spanish.

Note, secondly, the use of “word”. Last year, I conducted an informal and hardly rigorous survey of theorists’ opinions as to the smallest units of language from a writerly perspective. Again and again, I found the reference to “word” i.e. an implicit assumption that Poetry is always about whole words.

It’s an arguable position, perhaps, but it isn’t very helpful given that so much poetry deals with language below or apart from the level of the word.

In this context, the use of “word” as the unit of language becomes somewhat political, enforcing, intentionally or not, an ideology of how Visual(ly-Emphatic) Poetry works – presumably within either category (a) – visual – or category (b) – concrete – or category (c) – dual categories.

Note, thirdly, the spatial arrangement “in particular patterns”.

I would like to know what mode of poetry does not have spatial arrangement of its words in particular patterns. The thing about visually-emphatic poetry is that often its practitioners ignore conventions.

I worry about “particular patterns”. What does that mean? What would an imparticular pattern be? What about situations where there is no discernible pattern at all? or where one is not sure what the pattern is?

It sounds as though it’s a decorative concept as it stands, an experimental poetry approach of the lowest common denominator which seeks to reduce a poem to a prose statement, perhaps with footnotes for perceived ambiguities! and then seeks to analyse aspects of the poem as reinforcement of the supposed prose meaning. I could be wrong, of course. In this case, I am sure that is not the underlying concept.

“NAMING for Jennifer” was made in response to the call of the editors of And 13 for new visual work; and, if possible, work also marking the 90th birthday of Jennifer Pike Cobbing in July 2010.

I became absorbed by the making of “NAMING for Jennifer” and came out of my absorption with a sequence of ten image pages, which is far too many for the magazine’s capacity.

The editors were generous to me and proposed to take eight images of the ten I had submitted.

They proposed that I drop 4 or 6 and 7 or 8, on the grounds that in both cases the images are not dissimilar.


Fig. 4
“NAMING for Jennifer 4”

That is, of course, seeing the images as discrete although it was acknowledged that it would give the set a choppier character, which is to see them as a sequence although not perhaps as seeing them as scoring events or as triggers of events along a timeline.


Fig. 5
“NAMING for Jennifer 5”

I agreed with the editors that the proposal made the sequence choppier; but that there were other issues as well. I said “the point of the similarity between 4 and 6 is that the sequence goes through 5 to get from 4 to 6.”


Fig. 6
“NAMING for Jennifer 6”

I did not see the same problem with 7 & 8, and wrote: “that cut just makes it choppier without losing the . . . vector”.


Fig. 7
“NAMING for Jennifer 1”

I went on: “1 & 2 have a similarity of another kind and I suggest that we drop 1 and start at 2. Something is lost there too, of course; if it weren’t then I should drop 1 anyway; and I do like starting with inverted text / language; but I think it is preferable [to drop 1 rather than to drop either 4 or 6]”.


Fig. 8
“NAMING for Jennifer 2”

That left an 8 pp sequence: 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 9, 10.

I summed up: “I’m willing to see 1 and 8 dropped (more than I am to see 4 or 6 dropped) in order to have that sub set published.”

My proposal was accepted.

What I have brought away from that episode is a stronger awareness that the visual appeal of an image is important; that variety in visual images is important; but that there are further issues, certainly where the images are to be performed.

My counter-proposal was based on the anticipated sonic development of the sequence as a whole as the performers progress from image to image.

It should be noted that this was said before there was any clear idea what sonic processes or events may be represented by the fifth image. I had made the text but not yet experimented with its performance potential. My ideas were still quite abstract, still visual and spatial more than sonic.

In the piece as a whole, as a potential performance, the poetry (for want of a better term, say music, if you prefer) is as much in the transitions and potential transitions from image to image as it is in the images themselves. The unmarked areas of the image field, the white space on the paper, notional or otherwise, are part of the whole, as silence is part of music and utterance. I shall return, briefly, to this point in a little while.

This might be a good moment to reflect upon Sten Hanson’s “Bob Cobbing – the sound poet”. It is a short text and one that I have known well. Yet it hit me with renewed force recently on rereading it because it relates to issues that I am considering at present. Hanson says:

He avoids musical structures, and if formal musical elements emerge, they are broken up right away by the introduction of counterstructures. Of course, that does not mean that there are no musical elements in Cobbing’s pieces: they are there and they are important, but they are never allowed to divert attention away from the meaningful literary idea of the piece. (43-45)

That is astute, indicating close listening. Also, Hanson is a musician and a poet; and technically highly competent in the art and craft of the sound studio and in the making of text-sound composition.

I recall, in this context, Cobbing’s assertion:

Music and sound poetry are not the same thing at all. Going back to Shlovsky’s “ballet of the speech organs”, sound poetry is much more concerned with articulated speech than it is with melody and harmony and so on. It may sound like music sometimes but it’s much nearer to speech than it is to music. (in Cobbing and Upton)

For myself, and in this context, I am not so bothered to be known to be in the domain of Poetry. As with “visual poetry”, I do not want to be limited by ideas of what “sound poetry” is. I do not see why it cannot sometimes be nearer to music than to speech.

At a conference in 2009 (“Music Making: pedagogy and Practice”), I drew a Venn diagram overlapping music and poetry to delineate the probable working domain of myself and John Drever.


Fig. 9
Music and poetry trespass upon each other

I should have added a third circle of graphics to indicate three overlapping territories.


Fig. 10
Music, poetry and graphics trespass upon each other

That would produce four intermediate domains:

poetry / graphics
graphics / music
poetry / music
poetry / music / graphics

It is now many years since I set about trying seriously to write as if I were painting and to write as if I were a musician.

Having had no formal training in any of these areas, I may have lacked useful verbal ploys to explain and promote what I was doing.

But in the work that I made, I certainly began to use musical structures in my poetry, though I do not think that is so unusual.

It was unwitting preparation for the creative work I do now with John Levack Drever and, recently, also with Benedict Taylor. It prepared me, too, for my research project at Goldsmiths, University of London, funded by UK’s Arts and Humanities Research Council.

“NAMING for Jennifer” was performed on 10th July 2010 in a fairly brief version by Benedict Taylor (viola) and Lawrence Upton (voice). We had not rehearsed and had little time for discussion. There are pros and cons to “just doing it” but as we had never performed together before it was a little alarming!

Had we not spoken together long and warmly before the performance, I doubt that we would have taken that course of action.

We were performing before a workshop of my peers where, normally, failure would tend to be readily overlooked if the attempt were made in good faith; but we wanted to do it well because that particular workshop was dedicated to the dedicatee of the poem for her forthcoming 90th birthday.

The opening image of the sequence is an inverse or mirror image of an image which, clearly, had not been seen: the first page stands, as it were, some way into itself, in medias res.

Each image page is a visual variation of the name “Jennifer” or part of it. There are no durations indicated nor any other indication of how the poem might be sounded. The poem is a poem and not a score although in performance I treat it as a score.

It has tended, in such cases, to be my practice to give equal time to each page; but the performance, being improvisatory, all elements of it are contingent.

In my work with John Levack Drever ((There is a fairly regularly updated list at http://www.lawrenceupton.org/data/collab_JD.html.)), which includes a number of “NAMING” poems, it is our habit to display scores electronically in a slide show for the audience to look at and for us to read and follow in performance unencumbered by bits of paper.

Thus, in performance, there is a meta version of the slide show which functions as a rather basic score. In the case of “NAMING for Jennifer” we had no projector and merely used a print of the poem, communicating with and conducting each other by means of undemonstrative gesture.

We tend to set the same duration for each slide; but we have also experimented with varying it.

An equal duration for each slide has an advantage. As score writer, I have often determined the number of images making up a piece without reference to John. He has the right to object to any or all of the images I propose or any other decision I have made; but he never has felt the need to! When we can, we discuss it all beforehand and repeatedly during the process of preparation. Mutual respect in a collaboration is a serious consideration.

Thus, to some extent, the number of images we have to work with is largely a given because I have rarely thought deeply about the operational performance implications of the number of images there are to be used beyond ensuring I have sufficient to fill any pre-determined timeslot.

Another given may be the duration of the performance in its entirety which is imposed on us, however politely! by the organisers and, implicitly, by the number of events to be staged in a concert.

Sometimes one does not aim and does not need to aim for a particular over all duration; but John Drever and I like to perform for 15 or maybe 20 minutes, feeling that the way we work needs that length of time.

There is every temptation to divide the number of seconds we have available to us by the number of images we have to perform and so produce the duration of each slide by simple division. (Later, I shall give an example of a use of such a simple calculation in connection with “Close to the Literal”).

It saves thinking too deeply about the score before its first performance. That may sound odd for a composer / performer to say; but I believe in the efficacy of taking myself by surprise at the moment of performance.

It would be odd to vary the duration of display of a score page without thinking through the implications; but one can allocate the same duration of performance of each image as an arithmetical utilitarian act without that sense of oddity! Or so it may seem when one is under time pressure.

In the performance of “Hypothetical 1” ((“Hypothetical”, written by Lawrence Upton (2009), was performed as a live 8-channel piece at Goldsmiths, University of London, 14 November 2009, as part of “Lawrence Upton at 60” with Mike McInerney, shakuhachi; Lawrence Upton, voice; and John Drever, prepared sound and live treatment of voice and sound.)), I used random number generators to determine the order and duration-of-performance of images in the score.


Fig. 11
from “Hypothetical”

At the time of score-making, this process convinced me of its efficacy. I was certainly taken by surprise several times during the performance: the result cut across my own habitual rhythms.

I think, too, that deciding upon a duration may have some similarity to the process of writing down what one wishes to remember as part of the process of inscribing that datum upon the memory. A randomly-generated number, or a number which we say is randomly-generated, comes to us in a digital table which can be transferred to a slide show with little or no effort.

In retrospect, I am far from sure that random number generation was for the best in over all terms.

Let me return to what I was saying about the opening page of “NAMING for Jennifer”.

Reading from left to right, top to bottom, the first sign one encounters is an upside down and inverted letter r. What sound is that?

The letters, though they are inverted, are not just inverted letters. The inversion defamiliarises them and the performers cooperate with that in the manner of their performance.

The inversion is only one of many possible treatments which tend to remake the signs of the alphabet.

The musician encountering the signs, and one might for now include under that heading anyone who does not see the word as the basic unit or one who does not much care what the basic unit is, is likely to see the mark that is the inverted overturned r as a separate mark.

The upside down inverted r which starts the visually-emphatic poem might easily be a boot. What sound is that?

And that is a different question to What sound does that make?

My colleague Benedict offers that it could also look like handgun. Now, for some reason, the question What sound does that make? seems more insistent; while the sound “What sound is that?” might be answered by me, by association, with references to, for example, a howl of misery and the sound of coins chinking… Maybe also the sound of a fool sounding off about its right to bear arms.

The tendency to associative development which sometimes helps me in semantically-emphatic poetry is largely counter-productive in my approach to text-sound composition. A different mode of knowledge is needed.

I spoke at the ICA ((The ICA talk as been published as “Non-determinist responses”; see Bibliography.)) in 2009 of my performances with Cobbing and trying “to access images and ideas of suffering within myself” in order to motivate my utterance.

As I see it now, retrospectively, one of the things that was happening in my early performances with Cobbing was, on my part, the development of a methodology of text-reading which was not imitative.

I have learned more since those days, I like to think.

In the praise song of a “NAMING”, one would, perhaps, be tempered by knowledge of the dedicatee of the poem.

Many marks in these texts are not spatially separable from each other due to overlay; but their print shading allows one to effect a mental separation. One may know – as it were a priori, but during the performance – that what has been written is, in some modes, “Jennifer” but one does not utter that. One is in role. One is alone with the marks in a domain where, say, a dot over an i is likely to become a discrete mark of its own.

In other situations, for instance, “Perky Curse 2”, much of the lettering, particularly the white lettering, is too merged with itself to be conventionally readable; and no one remembers, again as it were a priori, what was said.


Fig. 12
“Perky Curse 2”

If that produces a spluttering utterance, that is not necessarily a bad reading, but the difficulty is in differentiating one spluttering utterance from another when the splutter is primarily a recognition that the score itself is somewhat unreadable!

There are other factors. The shape and vectors of the imagery are to be read; but there is no need to read left to right or top to bottom.

Where text is overlaid, one might as well imagine oneself to be trying to read through the layers, rather than just rejecting superimposition.

Where one is not reading alphabetical strings, but seeking for new signs, one may find them in a range of visual attributes, from the blurred / out-of-focus / watery aspect, in this case, of the image as a whole, to the edge-shapes of marks, to the shape of the underlying white beneath all of the marks. The danger of offering guidance to the reader is that it is taken as an instruction.

Nick Piombino has spoken of focussing on

how much my experience and understanding might be enhanced by more consciously utilising and coordinating all my senses and modes of paying attention. Under such circumstances ordinary boundaries (like the one imposed by my habits of obtaining information verbally about things which were right in front of my eyes) begin to decompose

and also

to recognise how much of our seeing and hearing is conditioned by language. Our minds and our memories themselves are like palimpsests which have been inscribed on and erased and inscribed on over again continually by memories, new experiences, and by the connections which are made between the past and present, or are deleted between them being forgotten or repressed. By also allowing for the possibility of our individual, continuous restructuring of the experiences of the public media we are exposed to, by means of more fully utilising our senses, perceptions and imaginations, we are better enabled to take responsibility for whatever coherent (or incoherent) interpretations we make of the world. (163-69)

There is no guidance consistently and sensibly possible as to how to handle transitions. One may make a sharp or soft and gradual transition. Once the white space between meaningful (or meaning-making) marks is seen as a mark in itself, there is no need to see the page turn as a sign-free event. It is easy enough to regard that white space as less “durational”, if one wishes to, than the ink marks and to hold that in one’s head as an uninscribed directive.

There is no need to view unmarked areas of the page as representing content-free time and space. And few sheets of paper are truly mark or blemish free. Similar comments apply to screens.

I like implicit directives. Even if one is scoring for oneself, composer as performer, it is still good to avoid saying Do this. Do that. It encourages the performer to think for herself.

The performer of a piece may be the same person as the composer; but there is a difference between what one thought during composition and what one thinks during performance.

The second image of “NAMING for Jennifer” is much clearer, but still defies those who want one word after another. (For some, because superimposition impairs the conventional-reading clarity of the originals, it is held to be self-evidently unproductive. And the writing, if it is seen as saying, in this case, “Jennifer”, is seen therefore as upside down. That is, the maker of the text has treated that text graphically only to be resisted by the reader. In the domain in which that section of the text is made, it is, temporarily, upside down. In the domain in which is read, it is not upside down – or not necessarily!).

The third image introduces a degree of close up, the text spilling off all 4 sides, just as we may read our way in to the poem from any side.

One could say that the size of the letters has increased, but that is a secondary observation. Perhaps, in a constructed environment. close up and enlargement may be approximately the same.

Is seeing the signs as enlarged different to seeing the signs as closer up?

And how might that be different to some of the marks being darker than others? Is there a hierarchy of possible visual differences between image elements and the manner in which those differences are likely to be read in performance.

Relative darkness, relative closeness, and relative size are all properties which could be read as relative loudness; but how else might they be read? Changes of tone, pitch and timbre suggest themselves.

Of course, these terms tend, in some ways and in some parts of their meaning, to become confused with each other, especially when one uses them at an intersection of the poetical and the musical.

In performance, one will make decisions along these lines; but thinking about the issues may help to ensure vitality and inventiveness.

Colour can be both useful and a problem.

Here is an example from “8 curses for Maureen Brand”:


Fig. 13
from “8 curses for Maureen Brand”

Graphically, I am somewhat pleased with that; but what difference does the colour make? The problem is not so much that there isn’t an answer as that there are tentative answers in the plural and they are somewhere between mutually contradictory and individually ambiguous.

To some extent, I am not sure that I feel much further on than when Alaric Sumner asked me and Bob Cobbing about colour in 1999:

Sumner: You usually work in black and white. Is this choice, availability of materials or does colour sound differently?
Cobbing: Well colour sounds differently but mostly we can’t afford it.
Upton: For me… well… Certainly working in colour is… is –
Cobbing: We’ve done performances of colour and definitely the colour does colour the performance.
Upton: I felt that we didn’t do justice to it. Maybe it’s just lack of experience.
Cobbing: I think you’re right. It is a matter of experience. If we did a lot more work in colour, it would enrich the performance quite a lot.
Upton: I don’t think I am yet able to really sound the differences.
Cobbing: I don’t think we have had enough experience to answer the question fully. (in Cobbing and Upton)

By the time Bob died, we had made quite a lot of collaborative colour imagery for performance; and Bob himself had made an enormous amount solo. (I have been studying much of Cobbing’s solo colour work during the last year or so of his life; and the results of that study will appear in due course).

I think it’s a matter of saying “When I don’t think about it…” that it’s ok. “Close to the Literal” is largely but not entirely in colour and I had no great interpretive problems with it. It’s when one stops, metaphorically or physically, and asks, for example, “Why is this line blue?” that the difficulties start. But that is the way with existential questions!

With the third image of “NAMING for Jennifer”, the background inverts from white to black. Is that significant? Or do we see it as an inversion of the imagery? And how do we read that?

The process of such inquiry is potentially endless. In itself it is pointless. What matters is the aesthetic utility of the manner in which we answer it. (Note that I place “aesthetic” prior to “utility”!)

I see the fifth image as indicating an extreme point, assuming an unstated timeline and making the sequence a continuum – see my earlier comments on the similarity of images 4 and 6 – if there remained any ambiguity on that point.

With the seventh image, much of the content is rather abstracted and has little to do with typescript although the “theme” literally crosses it, and image 8 closes in on that.

What does it mean for the performer when the ninth image shows letter shapes in outline. A thinning of the sound in some way, perhaps? An element of vacancy intruding?

The tenth image reaffirms solid letters but in partial and combinatorial form. What might we do with that? What might we not do with that?

It is a good question and only easy to ask after one has thought of it! But, even then, one may plan on the basis of possible answers; but often the best answer arises from the melee and stress of collaboration.

It is important to me to maintain the commitment to improvisatory performance. One does learn in general from performance; and that is only a good thing if one manages to vary what one does each time. One also learns from performance to performance of the same text; and, in my practice, I have moved on from one work to another before that piece has become predictable by repetition.

When I performed the 2005 piece, “Close to the Literal”, made with John Levack Drever, in November 2009, it had become quite unfamiliar to me. As a result, it was harder to perform than I had remembered; but I was also told by others that I had “remade” it. “NAMELY for Peter Manson” went through a number of reworkings over the space of about a year before we moved on to make “Study 19”, about the longest I have worked with any text-sound composition.

Possible interpretations of the visual variations brought into pages 9 and 10 of “NAMING for Jennifer” suggest use of the sound studio. One might develop there recorded material and / or techniques which can be taken into live performance. Yet, since the mid 1970s, I have seen it fairly important, whenever possible, that there should be a live presence in a performance.

This approach seemed to me to be something of a break with the practice of artists from whom I had learned a great deal and who seemed to me to privilege the studio-produced work.

Sten Hanson wrote:

Cobbing’s live pieces may, naturally enough, lack the artistic discipline and sophistication of structuring found in his tape-pieces

I see different kinds of discipline and sophistication of structuring rather than different levels.

I am reminded of remarks made by the late Alaric Sumner (discussed in my editorial essay included in his book Parasitic) ((Also, in that essay, I consider, very briefly, remarks in the notes of Etcetera by Bob Cobbing, where it is suggested that some visual poems cannot be “read aloud”, a position which Cobbing seems to have disavowed shortly after. I hope to return to these matters, probably separately, in my next essay on Cobbing, upon which I have just embarked, and in subsequent writing on Sumner.)) where Sumner considers “going straight from the Image to the performance”, that is, in his context, not deriving a “text-for-the-page” i.e. a semantic text from the visual, suggesting a desire to cease privileging the semantic and yet still acknowledging it. He claims that “The Image would generate structure and inform planning of the event”; but does not explain.

Thinking anew on this matter, I have compared two recordings: one the video of the first performance, improvised, of “NAMING for Jennifer” at Writers Forum Workshop on 10th July 2010 ((A video made by Jeff Hilson and made available by Openned: http://www.vimeo.com/13483141 by Steve Willey, to whom many thanks.)) and the other a professional audio recording of the 8-channel version of “NAMELY for Peter Manson” at Goldsmiths, University of London in November 2009 which was largely but not entirely a performance by playback ((You may hear this audio recording at http://epc.buffalo.edu/ezines/elp/issue-1/media/namely_web.mov as the sound track to a quicktime movie by Upton and Drever; the images are the score, taken from the performance slide show. It is published in the forthcoming first issue of the online journal Emerging Language Practices edited by Loss Glazier and published by EPC at SUNY, Buffalo. Our thanks to Loss and the other editorial staff.)).

There are differences in structure between the pieces, and I shall deal with that below, but those differences do not arise from the degree to which they were live. One might observe that there are more levels of activity in the latter piece; there is a limit to what two live performers without microphones and mixing desks can do; but complexity of structuring is not the same as sophistication of structuring; and considerable discipline is discernible in both performances.

There is no need to make allowances for the live performance.

I am pleased by the complexities obtainable in a studio but it is good, too, to risk the vulnerability of live performance.

What is easily lost with audio and video recording is the viscerality, when it is there, of live performance.

In considerable part, this may be to do with the quality of recording, how the microphones are placed and so on.

I think, too, that video, as compared to audio, can diminish the impact of a performance by misdirecting attention from the crucial sonic elements – the machine makes no aesthetic judgments. The Writers Forum video is pretty good, technically, for the product of a non-professional machine; but I know that there was more to be heard than the camera has captured.

It is my considered and long-held position that a visually-emphatic poem made for performance should be visually pleasing in itself as well as being performable. It is, after all, a visually-emphatic poem. Therefore, its visual qualities are important. (Other forms of performance score are of course valid). Of course, anything can be performed to some extent; when I say “performable” I mean “interestingly performable”.

Interesting to whom? Hopefully, it will not just be a repetition of what I or someone else has done before.

Poem / images can be single page / screen or multiples. In the latter case, the relationship of image to image can be various.

Some aspects of this matter go beyond my scope here, concerning the concepts of book pages and their relationship to each other in the particular publication context; and the idea of separate images which are nevertheless intended to face each other across a double page whilst, perhaps, being combinable in the mind’s eye as one image, possibly thereby changing aspect ratios considerably, probably from portrait to landscape.

The problem of the page edge and how it is read – do we acknowledge that something has come to end? or do we keep on as if there is continuity with the next paper side? – affects its interpretation both in mental and physiological performance. (What, for instance, is the notional duration of a page turn when it is no more than a page turn? In an electronic display, it can be finessed by a variety of transition styles to almost no time at all; but, in a physical book, there is, of necessity, a noticeable overhead, unless perhaps one employed a page turner. That could have visual and performance potential!).

“NAMING for Jennifer” is a sequence whereas “NAMELY for Peter Manson” is a set. In the latter case, for performance purposes, I have sequenced a selection; but that is not the same as its being inherently a sequence.

Questions of transition from one image to another and of the duration of performance of each image clearly remain in “NAMELY”; but they are compositional performance questions only whereas compositional questions relating to a sequence as a whole enter from the moment that composition of the first image commenced; and this applies to “NAMING for Jennifer”, though I freely admit that the order of images was altered several times as I developed the sequence.

One might ask: Do these problems and perceived problems affect the outcome?

I think they do. It is not an overt effect; but it is there; and it relates to elements of what can be a layered structure.

Usually, when I make such a text-sound composition with John Levack Drever, we prepare, beforehand, sound to be played back in real time during the performance. Typically, this will be a composition of John’s using my materials and within the scored time constraints. John treats the sound and edits it as necessary, often quite extensively. More could be said on that another time.

In performance, I can then duet with a recorded version of myself so that I am real-time composing within agreed formal constraints, one of which is John Drever’s prior composition digitally-recorded and played back as part of the performance and therefore an input to the total output. I should say that it is part of our evolving collaboration agreement that I can, in extremis, refuse his work or, more likely, ask for changes. Such demands have never been necessary. Perhaps we have obviated them by consultation and attention to each other. I prefer to think that we are in aesthetic empathy.

For his part, in performance, John composes simultaneously by modifying and treating the prepared sound and / or the live sound.

Multiple channels offer many and complex compositional possibilities while stereo, is by far the most easy to transport and distribute. Some texts are strong enough to carry a variety of aural structures.

For instance, we have produced 2-channel, 4-channel and 8-channel versions of “NAMELY for Peter Manson”, the latter two being among the “reworkings’ I referred to earlier.

This strength is a lot more than the forcefulness or striking nature of the images.

In that piece, because of the formal discretion of each image, we felt that we needed something further to unify the work.

We came up with “the drone channel” (my fairly dreadful terminology used, until now, just between the two of us!). The score of this channel is a severely cut down set of images retaining their position relative to each other. It starts before the main utterance, runs throughout the piece and slightly beyond it.

Yet, there, I am referring to the piece in terms of a notional time line in the performance. In the generative performance itself, one does not have to start in any particular place in my visual poems, especially in private reading,certainly not in “NAMING for Jennifer”. (It can, eventually, start anywhere and finish anywhere and yet remain “true”).

But when Benedict Taylor and I performed it on 10th July 2010, the performance started from a reading utterance at the top most sign of image 1.

As it happened, that sign was, as I have said, a modified version of the end most letter of the alphabetical string underlying every image of the score, the letter r.

That it was an r-ish sign suggested a memorable way of starting, a low r-like growl, immediately offset and, to some extent, countered while it persisted by Taylor’s viola. I held the sound for some time – an isolated r might well growl quite a bit surrounded but not in contact with gangs of letters – and, in that time, I acclimatised myself emotionally to being in the space of the poem and organised my compositional thoughts towards ideas of what Benedict and I might do in that space.

There is a qualitative difference between a sign in isolation and a sign discerned by differentiation from among a thicket of many signs. That difference may well lead to a different approach from one mode of sign to another. In my own performance of “NAMING for Jennifer”, I performed the r-like sign itself and with some fullness, the other signs were performed more as if they are movies, a case of transition between signs being the vocal signifier, the sounds, rather than the signs themselves.

Of course, the “actual” signs are, at one level / in one mode, unavailable visually (although in this case the performer as writer knows what the “actual” signs are – one knows they are j, e, 2 x n, I, f, e and r, a number of times over).

Here, in this context, by “actual” signs – and it will stand well as an exemplar, I believe – I mean the single string of letters that I place in each layer in the graphics files that I produce using one or more software packages.

It is, therefore, a notional sign, one whose one-time existence can be referred to but which cannot be retrieved. It is lost once a treatment (usually a software package “effect”) has been applied.

One might retain intermediate stages of the process of visual image making, a hedge against data loss; but that does not imply their availability to the performers. Formally, the intermediate stages are lost.

In most cases, one uses multiple merges and multiple effects. Sometimes, but not in “NAMING for Jennifer”, I will modify a print physically and then scan it before proceeding.

It is in the jumbling of image parts being pushed together that there is produced the visually-perceived sign. This production, relying as it does on subjective perception under pressure of performance, is, to a varying degree, indeterminate. Thus, transitions are not just from one perceived sign to another but from one formulated perception to another, the visual understanding of what one is trying to sound changing as one performs.

My inclination with alphabet-based signs is to pronounce the sign as written in so far as that is possible. What is the sound of a big lower case r? What is the sound of a bent J?

Of course, one has a lot of freedom, which can be disorienting, because, in the prosaic world in which we live our daily lives, functionally, letters in English acquire their pronunciation from their semantic context, whilst in performance the desirabilities of particular pronunciations arise in context but compositionally.

The question becomes harder to phrase usefully the more the signs become less recognisable as letters. Some examples from “NAMELY for Peter Manson” may make this clear.


Fig. 14
from “NAMELY for Peter Manson”

Fig. 15
from “NAMELY for Peter Manson”

Fig. 16
from “NAMELY for Peter Manson”

And any questions might be very difficult to answer abstractly i.e. in an answer which does not involve an exemplary performance. I would be wary of a strong attempt to answer abstractly in complex situations because it could so easily become prescriptive.

So my answers about what I am making are in the form of examples of my practice.

But, asks a sceptic, when there are a number of you performing simultaneously, can we be sure – Can you be sure – that you are all performing the same sign? (I was asked this recently though in relation to someone else’s work, by one whose tone suggested that he had uncovered a scandal).

I answer: What if we weren’t? Especially if the performance was felt to “work”.

And the fact of it is that it has been my experience that one does know where the other is.

I do not have demonstrably objective evidence; but then I do not care to prove the point to such sceptics. There is a place prepared for them to which they may depart, I am sure.

I take the evidence I have to be reliable if not verifiably objective in that my collaborators have no reason to mislead me.

I recall as an example the preparatory work for “Close to the Literal”, which I regard as associated with the “NAMING” series but not of it, in 2005. In the studio, I recorded 120 ten second images; and then we went for a cup of coffee.


Fig. 17
from “Close to the Literal”


Fig. 18
from “Close to the Literal”

After that, I went back to the studio and repeated the task.

John Drever, who was engineering the recording and directing me to some extent, remarked then and later on the consonance of many audio takes of particular images between versions and on the complementary nature of others. That is, I had been aesthetically consistent.

That is not to say that I had performed anything exactly the same, but I had performed in such a way that the two versions had what Bob Cobbing called “a family resemblance” to each other.

I do want to know how I do it, but not to the extent that I damage my ability to do it.

It is a skill I suspect that we all have, though few find they can perform visually-emphatic poetry.
The 10th July performance demonstrated that Benedict Taylor reads well my scores; or he does so at least with “NAMING for Jennifer”.

And that is interesting in that we are, in performance, each in a state I call “benign trespass” ((I convened an SVP Colloquium on the subject about ten years ago. On 23 April 2010, my paper “Benign artistic trespass as method” was read in my absence at University of Miami in Oxford, Ohio – in my absence because no planes were flying. The text is not yet published.)): we are each out of our territory to some extent and we are in the other’s.

Benedict reads the score alongside me. That seems to me to be in tune with the aspirations of text-sound composition, as I understand it and them, as framed at Fylkingen by Bodin and Johnson and others.

There is, thus, no absolute need for separate notational marks to score the musician’s input. My work with John Drever illustrates that, too, I believe.

I and my collaborators have found no need for there to be additional symbols.

My notation is of neither colloquial nor formal utterance. It relates to a different territory and there are no directions. As I wrote of reading Cobbing’s work: “There is no code here and nothing is being decoded” (“Bob Cobbing: and the book as medium…”.

Multiple performers listen to each other. It isn’t good enough just to follow the score. When is it ever?

So the score of the poem is enhanced at least and added to by the sound arising from the performance of it. Cobbing often spoke of the technical realisation of a poem in performance as “making the poem more like itself”. It’s an odd expression, perhaps suggesting a philosophical Idealism I would not be happy with. Nevertheless, there is something like that going on here. The poem becomes the score of its own performance but one draws in elements of its own performance to enhance what is being performed – a boot-strap procedure.

After the momentary and momentous process of starting, not exactly a big bang, and then in the remainder of the performance, there is a twofold score; there is what is read and what is heard.

Cobbing: We are responding not just to what’s on the page; we are responding to each other as well; also we are responding to the room and the environment, and that includes the audience, or may, and whatever. It’s a very complex business.
Upton: It’s extremely complex. I think the texts of – you look at the text as a visual and that’s its limited domain; but as soon as you start to perform it, that domain lifts off the page
Cobbing: It does indeed, yes.
Upton: – and it takes over; and it’s taking over, not only with elements that one can’t anticipate, but it’s taking over with some of those elements, a major part, as a mind of its own, for me you and for you me. So it’s always going to be a surprise. (Cobbing and Upton)

What is heard is informative as a form of one element in notation because the compositional method is improvisatory.

I call my scores indicative scores.

In performance, the sound at least of the performance itself is a major part of what we might call an expanded indicative score.

There are many possible valid interpretations of a score like “NAMING for Jennifer” yet few would retain their validity if one performer were making one interpretation and another performer were making another contradictory interpretation.

Thus, one is not just interpreting the marks of the score but interpreting those marks in the knowledge of other interpretations as one seeks to make one multivoice / multi-instrument interpretation.

As a performer, one builds up a repertoire of techniques and of sonic phrases; and I think, as I have said, it is important to avoid a repertoire to as great an extent as possible.

I do not say that the unfamiliar is necessarily better. Defamiliarisation, not necessarily the same thing as presenting the unfamiliar, has advantages; but the constant practical ongoing question is: What, at this point, is the most appropriate utterance or sound in the context of the expanded score?

That appropriateness might be taken to include an element of portraiture in a series such as “NAMING”, or what one might call more generally a literary or narrative element.

In “Study 19”, for instance, there is no such portrait element of which I am aware although the germs of the piece are recognisable audio samples: the approach is broadly abstract with some but few overt onomatopoeic references. The breaking up of improvisatory variations upon the pronunciation of the string “Chihuahua” by the playing of the pre-existing samples is amusing and expected to be funny. The some time pronunciation of “huahua” to caricature a dog’s bark reinforces the humour without developing it.

I still have many of the maquettes that I made in preparation for the performance.


Fig. 19:
Maquette for “Study 19”

It may well be that they are interesting to look at in themselves;


Fig. 20
Maquette for “Study 19”

but in making them, primarily, I am “thinking” through what I might do with my potential sonic material without worrying too much to make a finished visual score.


Fig. 21
Maquette for “Study 19”

In some quarters, it seems to me the score is a fetish.


Fig. 22
Maquette for “Study 19”

Where the musician or poet who made the score is no longer available, one does need to behave carefully so as not to distort what they achieved. When, however, the score maker is present and indeed performing, we may relax. If an acceptable performance were to be achieved by a performer who was not really doing what we thought he or she would be doing, does it matter?

Ben Watson quotes Gavin Bryars on Johhny Dyani: “I could see when I watched Johnny playing that it was guesswork – inspired guesswork – but no more than that, and I just felt, What’s the point?” (80-81).


Fig. 23
Maquette for “Study 19”

I think there’s every point.


Cobbing, Bob and Lawrence Upton. “Domestic Ambient Buoys (Bob Cobbing and Lawrence Upton in in discussion with Alaric Sumner”. Riding the Meridian Issue Two, Volume One, 1999. Web. 28 jul. 2010. <http://www.heelstone.com/meridian/interbclu.html>

Hanson, Sten. “Bob Cobbing – the sound poet”. Bob Cobbing and Writers Forum. Ed. Peter Mayer. Sunderland: Ceolfrith Press, 1974.

Piombino, Nick. “New Languages for old (on the work of Nora Ligorano & Marshall Reese”. Chain 3, Volume 1, Spring 1996.

Roberts, Andrew Michael. “Poetry Beyond Text: Vision, Text and Cognition”. 28 jul. 2010. <http://projects.beyondtext.ac.uk/poetrybeyondtext/index.php>

Sumner, Alaric. Parasitic. London: Writers Forum, 2008.

Upton, Lawrence. “Bob Cobbing: and the book as medium; designs for poetry”. Readings 4, 2009. 28 jul. 2010. Web. <http://www.bbk.ac.uk/readings/issues/issue4/upton_on_cobbing>

—. “Music Making: Pedagogy and Practice”. Conference at the Department of Music and Recording, University of Surrey, 11 November 2009. 28 jul. 2010. Web. <http://www.palatine.ac.uk/events/viewdoc/273/>

—. “Non-determinist responses”. Readings 5, 2010. 28 jul. 2010. <http://www.bbk.ac.uk/readings/issues/issue5/LawrenceUpton_Nondeterminist_responses>

Watson, Ben. Derek Bailey and the Story of Free Improvisation. London: Verso, 2004.

Fecha de recepción: 29/7/10
Fecha de aceptación: 10/9/10

Citar como: Upton, Lawrence. “”NAMING” and “CURSING”: some live text-sound composition.” Revista Laboratorio 3 (2010): n. pag. Web. <http://www.revistalaboratorio.cl/2010/12/naming-and-cursing-some-live-text-sound-composition/>