Speech disorders lord brain – Experiments in “Moom 29 May Performance 1”
Nombre: Lawrence Upton1
In this essay I shall write about the artistic processes engaged in as I prepared and then gave a solo performance at Vertebra 1, an event in the Goldsmiths Pure Gold season of 2015, on 29 May 2015 in London. The working title of the performance was Moom 29 May Performance 1. (Before describing the processes, I shall say a little about the origins of the basic text which go back many years.).
In that preparation and performance I revisited a number of ideas from my past work and also took a number of what I felt to be risks. I went into the performance not knowing if some things I shall describe would “work”
It seems to me that there are a number of points of discussion to be considered here by those who have an interest in the practice of this mode of art, quite apart from the work itself, although of course one can hardly meaningfully separate the performed work from its maker’s practice!
Moom has long been the working title of the last of an untitled series of book length poem sets which began with MUTATION (Zimmer Zimmer Press, 1977) and was followed by MORNING HUMMING (Lobby Press, 1978).
Both the two published titles were written (though partly from existing work-in-progress) after invitations from their publishers to submit a book.
MUTATION and MORNING HUMMING should have been followed by four books, SPURTS (I – IV); and, then, by the final book, initially titled MOOM, a mental earthquake, and later called just moom.
Spurts and moom were written on and in response to the energy I felt after the publication of the first two but without any offer of publication. They too may have accumulated partly from work-in-progress before cohering.
Having said that, Spurts was never quite finished before it was lost; and moom is still in an indeterminate state in 2015.
Aspects of that last is the subject and tenor of this essay.
I was fairly far advanced with what has become moom in 1978, when I was in Toronto for Eleventh International Sound Poetry Festival. I recall that I spread out the typescript in my hotel room, though quite why I am now not so sure! whereas spurts was started some time after the publication of Morning Humming, probably in 1979, but also using some pre-existing work-in-progress. I suspect that it occurred to me, perhaps slowly, that there was a progression to be found or engineered among disparate writings.
I aimed at a continuous progression of lines, for all that they might suggest, in their content, a non-linear perspective; but they were not written that way at all. Throughout the set, the writing progression was non-linear, and linearity an ideal, even a conceit, I may have wished to see demonstrated.
Thus, the ordering of the latter books of the set, and the division of spurts into four, is almost certainly an architectonic decision regarding existing verses to be revised or of verses coming into existence: a post hoc decision.
From the start, these poems move away from reference beyond themselves. I was working in an environment where “language poetry” practice was familiar; and that tendency, to move away from indicative reference, increased with each section. I shaped spurts for the purpose amongst others; increasingly the significance of the sound of words and their delivery – including volume and pausing – became more important. I have called it (I regret) sonically-emphatic poetry.
The title spurts points to a shift of emphasis from what had been done earlier in the set. Whereas Mutation had been about mutations (result rather than method) and Morning Humming likewise had been a title indicative of its subject, spurts refers to a process largely free of specificity – spurt of what? It is a physiological set of events and states, none of them particularly explicit.
The word “ejaculation” in both the sense of the now somewhat old-fashioned poetic “ejaculation and response” and the sense of sexual ejaculation comes nearest to it.
Yet none of the writing therein is a song of myself, nor of selves en masse. All are at unease. The tone of inherent disquiet and dysfunction increased from subset to subset until, in moom, disorder was approached and grappled with. on its terms. Semantic narrative is hardly to be found.
In the late 70s I had purchased building work on the house I lived in. The builders I used were somewhat careless; and, when chided for the mess they were making, they rectified matters with the same carelessness. When I tried to resume my work, it became obvious that my current set, spurts I – IV, had been thrown out as refuse by them or me: it just wasn’t there.
While I did have earlier versions, I found they were so far removed from where I had been in rewriting I was best off forgetting it all. I had made apparent progress and then lost it. I abandoned the idea of seeing any completion to the full intended set of works as unrealisable.
That left moom isolated structurally, the seventh section of a set now comprising parts 1,2 and 7! From then on, it was potentially an odd piece, starting as if without warning. The earlier books were out of print quickly, though copies of Mutation turned up, never before distributed, a quarter of a century later. Thus the project was not widely known. Other events and enthusiasms intervened.
I published a cheap short run of a “moom” text in January 1986 (In Lieu Publications) and again in November 1993 (Leper Press). Both were really samisdat
An extensive revision was made in the first half of 2001,with some tinkering over the next few years, after which I paid little attention to the text, without ever publishing that latest revision.
In the years after 2001, I commenced a catalogue of what one might call a private library: the books that had been in the possession of the late Alaric Sumner, the publisher of Mutation (http://www.masthead.net.au/issue8/contents8.html).
In his library, Sumner had one volume which read, on the spine: “Speech disorders” followed by the author’s name. The author was a neurologist, the appropriately-named Lord Brain: Walter Russell Brain, 1st Baron Brain (23 October 1895 – 29 December 1966). His book was Speech Disorders. Aphasia, Apraxia, and Agnosia. By Sir Russell Brain, Bt., D.M., F.R.C.P. (Pp. 184; illustrated) 42s.) London: Butterworths. 1961.
What I read from the desk in Alaric’s study as I scanned his shelves was: “speech disorders lord brain”, the plural noun “disorders” becoming – if I let it – a present tense verb, the honorific “lord” becoming facetious in a changed context; and, during the early years of this century, that subset of four words – “speech disorders lord brain” — lodged itself at the commencement of moom . I did not want to lose it.
The meaning of the original title
Moom, a mental earthquake was an ignorant title. I used the notion of earthquake much as people now use the notion of a tsunami. I did not really know what I was talking about.
Some of the verses in spurts treated the planet Earth as if it were a human head, in image terms only, of course, and I hoped to develop that further.
If I remember rightly, I was aware of a supposed effect of the moon on the occurrence of earthquakes; and “moom” was indicative of a malfunction or adjustment in process of utterance.
From the early 70s I had consumed much pop TV science, reinforcing my learning and prejudice by applying behavioural tics I had witnessed in others as a means of modifying my voice in performance: simulations of convulsive shaking were a frequent approach before an audience as I moved and spoke though I could have cited no reference to known ailments; it was something I had seen in a documentary.
I took what I needed, not intending it to be illustrative or instructive; I did not say in or prior to the performance what I was doing and did not name any medical condition. I used the gestures, for want of a more satisfactory term, for their results, that is, on aesthetic grounds related to the work which I was realising. I did not perform a shaking person speaking but am a person performing shaken writing.
I was aware of danger early on and changed the title to moom, dropping the direct pointing up of the earlier metaphor and leaving the audience to construct its own meaning(s)
When my thought returned to the moom text in the spring of 2015, it seemed necessary to set apart what I was doing then from the full yet incomplete earlier text; and easiest to give it the rather clumsy title of Moom 29 May.
I have numbered the performance “1” in case there is more than one text / performance to realise it in the moderately unplanned future.
Invited to perform in May 2015, my first thought was a performance with violist Benedict Taylor: our method of working is the most adaptable among my regular collaborations to ad hoc opportunities.
Benedict was already booked for that night; and no one else I might have asked was available. This happens rarely and was a shock.
I find collaborative work deeply enabling and rewarding; but I am ready to work solo and I expect always shall be, if I must. On this occasion, I must.
My problem was that I had no solo work on which I was then working; all my recent efforts going into collaboration.
I considered a number of possible scores, finding fault with each eventually.
I had no obvious and unrealised visual or multi-media score available: I have been tending of late to score with specific performers in mind.
Thus, I was looking for a semantic text.
I can’t say with any precision where or when the idea of going back to moom came. It may have been reviewing notes of an exercise I conducted, gathering texts together which I could work on with Chris Goode if the opportunity arose. It was in my mind without my having done anything much with it, beyond thinking that Mr Goode might enjoy it.
Here is the opening of the piece as it was for many years:
It fitted one criterion in that it would easily fill 15 or 20 minutes. It was much too long overall; but, because of its mode, I could easily sample from it.
It also seemed potentially amenable to expansion into an intermedial mode. (I regret to some extent that the evening was advertised as “experimental poetry” although I am sure that it could be so classified. It is, also, in the case of moom in a liminal space between the edifices of Poetry and Music as those are colloquially and sometimes critically understood.
Last summer and autumn, Benedict Taylor and I worked on my text possibles, giving two live performances, one at SuperNormal Festival in Oxfordshire (9 August 2014) and the other at 100 Years Gallery in London (26 October 2015). We are considering issuing a CD of the latter or of a studio recording.
A text that is formally related to possibles, Chavez in Deptford, is waiting for us when it is possible for us to meet to do new work. If Benedict had been available on 29th May 2015, we might have presented elements of either piece.
Clearly, I can’t stand in for two people, each doing something different, even if I could play the viola! However, there are to my mind some problems of performance which are shared by possibles and moom. It occurred to me that I could learn from experience with the one and apply it to the other.
Possibles is a long text, a speaking voice, argumentatively asserting and querying relentlessly but never quite getting anywhere much, never really finishing a sentence.
Here is the opening:
mouths greater than closed brackets backslash
put on a hat
quietly at happiness
unknown but nothing one arbitrary thing above another but nothing speeches unknown foreign money unknown one exclaims unknown foreign money unknown but nothing greater than but nothing one exclaims at unknown quietly unknown reasons?
The paragraph is the structural unit of the text.
It should be read as punctuated; in particular, pauses should not be introduced when the punctuation does not indicate them. To balance this demand and also to make it a practical proposition to perform without stultifying the performance, the performer does her best to absorb errors and failures into the performance — within reasonable limits, and the performer herself decides those. (It isn’t the end of the world if one has to stop and start again.)
The performer reads for sense but without contradicting the first directive, to read following the punctuation, but tries to introduce meaningful variation, generally by varying the length of the slight pauses between words and the strengths of emphases, which are at the discretion of the performer.
There shall be a noticeable but not lengthy pause between each paragraph.
Every so often, maybe after every page and a half or so, the performer should perform a “visual song”.
They have been introduced to the piece only in recent years. Before that, as with moom, the text was limited to typescript.
Here is an example of one visual song:
Every visual song is a treatment of the typescript, to be taken as an indicative score for sound-singing. I do not propose to discuss, here, how one might ot might not perform it. The difficulties it presents do not nowadays seem to me to be greatly problematic, although there are some other songs which are challenging.
The addition of visual songs to possibles is a relatively late development; until then, the text was, like moom, limited to semantic text.
During Vertebra 1, Writers Forum Workshop Multivoice, presented an interesting piece by Uran Apak in which each performer endeavoured to mimic the operation of a music software treatment. One might take such an approach with the visual song; or one might use a laptop with the software loaded; or one might use one’s own body to treat the sound of the human voice.
Here is an outtake from my score Breaking News, realised as a text-sound
composition realised at the concert Dark Voices at St James Hatcham, New Cross, London on Monday 21 October 2013 by me and John Levack Drever: a 4 channel work (17.5 minutes approx; live and prerecorded voice).
I mention it here because has some similarity to the “visual song” already shown. In Dark Voices, we mixed and, I hope, integrated treatment by the live vocal apparatus of my body with electronic treatment by John Levack Drever on a Mac running Pro Tools.
The greatest difficulty in both these examples may arise from the lack of any directive to assist in the interpretation of the indicative graphic score. (I choose not to make one.)
During the writing of Possibles, which was first completed in 1998, outtakes of the then entirely semantic text were read at WF Workshops, to test them.
The original Possibles was intended to be read on the page and possibly to be read aloud solo — as it was, for short bursts, at the workshop.
In 2001, an extract was published in the Canadian magazine Rampike.
Possibles (3 voice) was completed in 2001 but not published. It was a minimal scoring of the 1998 text aimed at facilitating a realisation by three voices, the voices reading as that is widely and conventionally understood. It would have been very demanding to effect; and it has not yet been attempted: the process might well involve modification of the text before it worked effectively. It seems to me obvious now that I needed to extend the semantic text with sound-singing and not by additional semantic utterance.
The entire (mono voice) text was published in a 24pp pamphlet by Call this poetry in 2004. The print run was very short; the publishing press was far from London; the booklet soon disappeared.
Early in 2008, believing that what I had written should be realisable as a performance, I developed quite detailed plans for its production as a radio “play for voices”, both as a recorded piece and as a live piece with some pre-recorded elements.
This became one of my first projects in a three year research project, funded by UK’s Arts & Humanities Research Council. The work was extremely useful to me in general; but the “possibles” project itself was soon abandoned in that context: it remained unrealised.
Benedict Taylor and I first worked together in public on 10 July 2010, with a performance of my Naming for Jennifer; and we began experimenting in working collaboratively during the second half of 2010, initially by trying out many pre-existing scores of mine. A section from Possibles featured in that (workshop) experimentation; but the performance was not then developed although it was clearly a successful partial realisation.
The instrumental presence of the viola encouraged me to vary what is, deliberately, a repetitive text in ways that from then on went beyond rhetoric.
Benedict, for his part, seemed to take my vocalisation as his score rather than using the text itself.
I returned to Possibles in July 2011 after quite a lengthy period of experimentation with multivoice writing with the poet Tina Bass, experimentation which I had absorbed into parts of my AHRC research with Tina’s agreement. A notation, actually a modified playscript, had developed from our work; and I went so far as to produce a “polyvocal” script of part of Possibles in July 2011 using a modified notation, with the intention of taking that script to a WF Workshop to try out with Tina and others; but I changed my mind at the last minute, thinking the time and personnel were better used in other pieces; and also that Benedict and I had already found a useful approach.
The invitation to perform at Supernormal, already mentioned, sent me back to the experiments of late 2010 and gave me impetus to think hard about their implications. For any number of reasons, Possibles was going to be our best choice.
In the months leading up to the Supernormal performance, I experimented with a variety of visual imagery to be made visible to the audience during the performance. I read it as a score; Benedict reads my performance as a score, I think.
In general, Benedict and I have worked from indicative graphical scores which, when we can, we project for ourselves and the audience. And on two occasions we used a digital film version by Wilton Azevedo of my still image score for Choreographed Utterance (Veer Publications, London 2009). As an experiment, we had thought that it might be worthwhile to add to the performance with indirectly-related imagery.
On this occasion, Vertebra, I considered adding film. I had a number of unshown films which could have been made ready rather quickly to accompany my live performance; but they seemed somehow superfluous in the context, appropriate but only just; so I decided to remain with vocal utterance.
Throughout, I was conscious of how long it can take to make an intermedia score. Some of that is the time it takes to negotiate with one’s collaborator, when there is one, if an equality is to be achieved; but I did not have much time.
And the idea of making additions to the score was to deal with what I had seen as an undesired incompleteness to the semantic text; film did not seem to compensate for that.
Between deciding to perform moom solo, and without projections, and I am not that sure that I committed myself fully to that until a few days before the performance, I did not have much free time; but I thought about the possibility a great deal.
The text uses the full extent of an A4 page for what I shall “spatial expression” – much of it is blank – the idea that the position on the page and the distance of one word from another is indicative of how one should pace reading.
I decided for the purpose of a performance at Vertebra 1 to close the text up, as it were to compress the text so that it might find by suggestion a different mode of expression. By abolishing the implicit slow-pace-setting of the space-filled page, one would open oneself to any measure emerging from the performance itself.
Where I completed empty space really, I often added the word improv.
It was clumsily expressed. In the event I did improvise quite a bit: but the term was being used more generally, a marker for something other than straight reading to interpose itself.
In the circumstances, by far the most effective and efficient approach would have been something along the lines of my expansion of the text of possibles already described, where I treated a rectangle of typed text, treating it as a graphic.
The drawback to that was my lack of preparation time. (I could well, earlier, have conducted myself differently and made more time! but I had not.) To me, however, the bigger drawback was that I had already used the idea in “possibles”. I needed a process that was like it; but not too like it. There is a personal danger in repeating something that has worked, like an aging rock start performing their greatest hits.
Now and then I see a news photograph, or similar, something illustrative of an article or chapter, which I feel I can use, maybe making minimal changes. My the invention of omikron due to be published by h& in September 2015 is an example.
This is not an unproblematic approach. The image is not mine. It must be entirely clear that is the case for my action to be ethical and valid – then I can claim it as an objet trouvé. Even so, I would not be happy doing it too much. I would not take a visual work of art; only news or illustration photos where there is no overt art intention.
Running up to the performance, I saw a many potential images. Some were in London Evening Standard or The Guardian. Some were in New Scientist. Perhaps unconsciously I was looking especially hard.
It struck me that I might use them for the duration of the performance; but as I could not and would not wish to show the images as if it were my original work, I might then appear to be improvising without assistance when in fact I had assistance.
I am not interested in prestidigitation. I like the audience to see the graphic scores that I use. I like each action to be clear in that regard. Nevertheless, I was quite intrigued by the idea of using found images.
My eventual decision, quite late in the day, was to imagine what the images might look like if I were to photocopy them and / or treat them in a graphics package and then perform them from memory without actually performing the treatment process.
I wanted to know if I could fulfil my plan and still produce worthwhile sonic imagery.
I went back to another verbal sequence made and performed but never published in the early 1980s. I would eat only processed food for an extended period and then perform poems written during that time which were sometimes based on the declared ingredients of the packages or the way that I felt whilst surviving on them. This exercise was in many ways a loose continuation of “moom”. It, too, remained permanently unfinished.
There are methodological variations on this process as there are varieties of food manufacturers’ declarations. The one I chose for this project is to select the lowest level statements in the contents statements so that, for instance, “tomato sauce” will not appear. Instead, it will list the ingredients of the sauce. Water may well feature highly.
Then there are till receipts. I am making a number of poems using till receipts. I decided to use the idea in moom as a one off.
For instance, “CP PKNG DCK WRP” indicates a product of Co-operative Group Limited of Manchester UK: a hoisin (word not included at all on the receipt) Peking duck wrap). Try to say what is actually printed in that string of letters and spaces, without explicating the abbreviations, and it may be quite an interesting sound.
Amongst other things, this is a way of coming up with interesting combinations of sounds without following a programmatic approach that may or may not be formally at odds with the other material. It isn’t random; and it may let in some humour if the audience catches on. (On 29th May, a colleague in the audience said later that he had noticed me avidly reading list of contents on food packets; and now he knew why!)
There’s more to moom 29th May than that; but that will do. As some amateur cooks may attest, one may be told what to do and what ingredients to use and yet still produce a mess.
I was not sure how good what I did was; but the reception was encouraging.
The other day I heard someone on the BBC Radio saying of someone that we always knew they were a good artist but no one knew just how good until it was seen how many records they sold. I do not accept that equation. Popularity may be indicative of many things.
In my case, with moom, I was pleased by just who it was praised what I did. It still isn’t enough though.
In one way, whatever happened I could take some satisfaction. Even if my experiments had failed, I would have learned from them. I was after all experimenting and not just repeating myself. I was taking some considerable risks.
Someone might easily have said: But you’re just reading the ingredients off a packet of processed food.
I am glad that they didn’t.
Then there were a number of occasions when for a considerable time I was performing without any score in front of me, just a memory of an image I had imagined, accessed by a single word hand-written prompt.
Having done it quite well, I might well be able to do it again.
I improvised about half of my half a performance with John Drever in 2013 at the Watermans Arts Centre in London when, in the middle of our performance for e-poetry 2013, my computer turned itself off!
That meant that we had no score – we were projecting the score for ourselves and the audience and my computer handled the video.
Interestingly, perhaps confusingly for the audience, some sound continued, because John’s computer did not shut down and his computer handled the audio. It was pumping out the pre-recorded basis of a response to the now invisible score, which should have formed the basis, but no more, of what the audience heard; but as for the idea that I would join in with and also counterpoint my own voice while John intervened as he saw fit in the context of the score… well, it was something of a pipe dream.
Rather than let the performance fail, I improvised and achieved something that, while not as we had hoped, was nevertheless something we were not ashamed of.
That was the first attempt to realise Breaking News.
moom was different in kind because I put myself in difficulty intentionally; and I learned a considerable amount about my own creative thought processes.
Using oneself as a lab rat does militate against objectivity as it is normally understood; but it is essential if one is to be practice-led rather than theory-led; and I think that is essential. Let theory take the lead and it cheats.
One visual element that I did not use was a label from a bottle of Pennine Vale spring water. It shows little knots of airborne water, falling or bouncing up, or both. I hesitated: was it indicating that I should evoke the sound or even the fact of water or should I perform the actual little gatherings of water the label portrayed? As I looked more, the latter even suggested notes on an indeterminate stave.
Some of the difficulty arose from the label’s being unmediated by treatment. Some workshop sessions to investigate it may be helpful
I don’t really like the word “outcome”, especially in this context. It suggests to me a belief that art and research, severally and collectively, ought to have utilitarian outcomes. Yet I feel that I have learned some things from the exercise of performing Moom 29 May. Indeed by posing this question, I see that almost unconsciously I had set myself a short practical research project.
One thing is the question of the difference between performing with a visual text in print and performing with a visual text in memory.
My approach to performing graphical scores is to forget them until just before I must commence performance. By this means I hope to bring a fresh reading to the text and to eradicate preparedness which, I fear, will lead me into clichéd utterance. Clearly, committing a text to memory is at odds with this intention.
I did not really consider this in the build up to the performance experiment with moom. On reflection, I see that there are two important differences to situations that I have considered in the past.
Firstly, I had no collaborator and that matters in ways that I am still considering.
In group utterance – and I am including instrument playing under that heading – performers can and probably should be silent some of the time. Constant desire to make a noise seems ill-advised. This opens the possibility of the writer / composer engineering denser and less dense sound fabrics, counterpoints and silences. A well-placed partial silence, brief or extended, can be the making of a piece.
In solo performance the same can be said, although some processes become that much more difficult to achieve. And certainly there can be no “emergency” silence. (Collaborators who are used to each other can cover for one in difficulty if and when it is necessary; or they can strengthen an approach which is failing to achieve its full potential.)
It is not the same when the solo performer needs to pause or stop but has left no scope for themselves to do so.
Secondly, the text is hybrid, and the intervention with graphical score is intended to encourage a variety of utterance.
In performance with Benedict Taylor, there was a continuity of sound provided by viola. As I moved from fractured semantic utterance to non-verbal utterance, the same instrument, though often not at all the same instrumental sound, helped to meld the two.
How far it may be true to Benedict’s thinking remains to be seen and I hope to discuss it with him when next we are in the same space for any length of time.
There is another problem. Perhaps it is a third, or one of another kind. This problem is the avoidance of prestidigitation.
If we have an artist performing a text which is imprinted on their memory but not actually printed or projected somewhere where it can be observed be the audience, we may soon be back to “shamanism” or the suspicion of it.
1 Poet; graphic artist; sound artist: curator. wrack (2012); Memory Fictions (2012); Unframed Pictures (2011); Pictures, Cartoon Strips (2010); a song and a film (2009); Wire Sculptures, (2003). Commentaries on Bob Cobbing (2013). Co-edited Word Score Utterance Choreography with Bob Cobbing (1998). Curated Some variations on a theme of Bob (London) and Bob Cobbing and the book (Bristol) both 2011. CDs with Benedict Taylor Singing Marram & Dark Voices, Both 2013. Numerous live text-sound compositions with John Levack Drever. Solo exhibitions 2012 “from recent projects” & 1981 “Deteriorating texts”. Visiting Research Fellow in Music, Goldsmiths, University of London.