Sound files

by craigepplin

The last couple meetings of our class on new media dealt broadly with how to navigate through the data overflow that characterizes the present. Sometimes our navigations can seem arbitrary, as if to try to make sense of the always-increasing mound of information were as foolish an errand as plowing the sea (to steal a phrase from Gabriel García Márquez’s version of Simón Bolívar).

There have been lots of responses to this scenario. One of them, for example, is modeled in Franco Moretti’s practice of “distant reading.” I’m working my way through the classic texts on this concept right now, so I don’t have tons to say at the moment (more later). For more, check out the recent symposium on the LARB‘s website.

Another response is one I just came across, in Stephen Fredman’s discussion of audio files of poetry readings, published at Feedback. The whole thing is worth reading, but even just his premise is really interesting to me:

Already by 2007, eight million files were being downloaded annually from PennSound, the audio poetry site housed at the University of Pennsylvania and curated by poet Charles Bernstein. The question arises, then, as to what people are doing with all of these files.

I’ve downloaded readings from PennSound in the past, readings by Robert Creeley and Cecilia Vicuña among those I remember. What was I doing with them? I remember listening to Creeley talk about the number four and the experience of walking while I sat at an airport and waited on my flight. I’m pretty sure the file I had downloaded contained poems too, but that little discussion of footfalls is what stayed with me. I’ve tried to rearticulate–several times over the years, often in classes I’ve taught–the ephemeral argument (if that’s the word) he was making, but I know I can’t. And, faithful to the experience of that inability, I’m not going to go back to the files right now to verify it.

That’s one way to go about it. On the one hand, I’m certain it’s worth revisiting the recording of that reading, learning I was maybe wrong about what I remembered, correcting and updating my view of what he had said. But there’s something instructive and maybe even beautiful, I think, in the experience of remaining in my forgetfulness. The beauty, to me, comes in remembering all the times I’ve tried to recall those footfalls–once, in particular, when I was reading something about dance preceding language, feet falling into pulsating, collective rhythms, unintentional percussionists using the earth as a drum. And, on a less personal note, there’s something to learn about what uses we might find for the morass of digital files that Fredman describes.

We might learn something, that is, about the ambient uses of electronic reproductions of poetry readings. As Fredman continues,

With an audio file of a poetry reading, though, there is no poet, no audience, and no possibility of locating oneself within the physical space of that reading. Listening to an audio file is an ambient activity, a steady flow of words taking place for a period of time in the presence of other files and applications on a computer desktop (or other device) and alongside ongoing events within the physical location of listening. In essence, an audio file is a form of ambient music. It creates an allover sonic environment that moves back and forth between the foreground and the background of awareness.

Ambient music is generally lyric-less, which makes it harder to recall. Words and the meanings they carry make rock melodies, for example, easier to replicate. If recordings of poetry readings work somewhat in the same way, then my little experience of forgetting somehow reflects this same ambient character. These recordings “[move] back and forth between the foreground and the background of awareness.” An airport, where our attention is drawn to the punctual events of crowds passing and announcements made, and where in between we are bored out of our minds, is perhaps the best place to have this experience. There’s a reason Brian Eno titled an album Music for Airports.

My forgetfulness of Creeley’s comments–not even forgetfulness, for actually it’s an experience of never really knowing–seems strangely worth preserving, in this way. It seems to me instructive of how we relate not only to recordings of some of the most intentional, precise uses of language, but also of how we relate to the world’s increasing pile of digital files. What do we do with all these files? We do something, anything, and then forget about it. Or we do something worth remembering, even in a falsified form. The extensive form of reading (as opposed to the intensive sort, to use Roger Chartier’s language) that we engage in so much today seems to call forth this sort of falsification. I’m not sure if it’s such a bad thing.