Voice Alpha

on reading poetry aloud for an audience


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How to create a downloadable album of poetry

“For the moment the best way to produce a multi-media presentation of your poetry might be something very familiar: the downloadable album.” Read about it here.

From Michael Myshack’s blog Poetry and other sounds, which covers the history, current usage, and techniques of recording poetry with music and other sounds.

For an interview in which Michael talks about the blog and its purpose, go here.


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‘I am a sound geek, plain and simple’

We are very pleased to feature the following guest post by K.R. Copeland, a Pushcart nominated poet, editor and freelance creative. She describes herself as a left of irreverent fan of humor, horror, snark, pop culture, art, nature and all things audible. She even adores her boyfriend’s snoring. She recently established the Facebook group Audio Files as a venue for sharing noteworthy sounds and audio projects.

I am a sound geek, plain and simple. Always have been, always will be. Ever since receiving my first Fisher-Price Child’s Phonograph, back in the 1970’s, I’ve been a hopeless audiophile.
kc1
I fondly recall listening to children’s songs and nursery rhymes for hours on end, memorizing, imitating, and wailing away, much to my parents’ chagrin. When I was about 12, I upgraded to a cabinet stereo/phonograph, not entirely unlike this one:
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Music was an integral part of my existence; an everyday escape, a panacea. I would listen to the lyrics and the voices and my imagination would run wild. Something inside me ignited. And then, I discovered poetry. At that time, there was not much in the way of spoken word recordings, or, at least not to my knowledge, but I quickly recognized the familiar cadence when reading the rhymesters aloud, and again, I was in love. Smitten with the musicality of language!

The next seemingly obvious step in my sound-driven evolution came by way of:
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Yes! Now the sophomoric poetry and lyrics I was beginning to write could be endured by all (within earshot). I mean, my parents did not have to be in the same room, or even on the same level of the house, to hear what I had to offer, thanks to the amplification of good old Mr. Microphone!

I studied poetry and literature throughout my school career, and continued writing and honing my craft. My first publication credit came by way of a local newspaper, which published a little Valentine’s ditty I’d written. I was 22. Since then I have published umpteen poems in text form, and produced a couple chapbooks to boot.

More recently I decided to delve into the great wide world of audio poetry, which the internet makes available in grandiose doses. I was incredibly excited to see/hear what people were doing with sound poetry, especially when coupled with music. Again, I branched out. Purchased a Zoom H1 handheld recorder, as recommended by an audio specialist:
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This lower-end starter microphone is compact, easy to use and allows for storage and upload of both MP3 and WAV files. The sound quality and noise reduction, in addition to simplicity of use make this a great tool for neophytes like me. Still, I needed more boost. A friend suggested Audacity, a free online, professional sound editing system.
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The Audacity program allows for upload of multiple tracks, which you can edit, amplify, mix, match and remaster, all from the comfort of your own living quarters. With the help of these two products, I have successfully created multiple musical poetry tracks. Here is an example (using free audio hosting at SoundCloud):

As I broaden my horizons, I find myself wanting to know more about the ins-and-outs of quality recording. This brings us to present day. I have created an audio group on Facebook called, Audio Files, a friendly, supportive community for others like me, to share their recorded work, the works of others, their trials and errors, and any and all information on the subject of sound. All are welcome to come hear, share and be merry, one audio file at a time.


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Getting started with recording audio

Over at The Poetry Storehouse, there are two ways to submit. You can submit your own poems, or you can submit your readings of others’ poems collected at the Storehouse.

Here are some basic resources for those who may not yet have ventured into the field of audio recording but would like to. Putting together a basic set-up is simple and doesn’t require any expenditure. All you need is:

Software

- Our top recommendation for ease of use and great FAQ support is Audacity, a free, open source software for recording and editing sounds, which works equally well for Mac and Windows.

- Mac users onlyGarageband is a powerful recording and editing tool that comes with your Mac. Getting started with Garageband is a handy quick-start guide.

Hardware

- Start with your computer’s in-built microphone, which in most cases can produce perfectly acceptable audio recordings if you set up your environment with care.

- If you want to upgrade your recording quality, there are any number of good USB microphones on the market, which you just plug straight into your computer. There is a good set of choices at this link, ranging in price from $40.00 to $100. I use the Blue Microphones Snowball model and swear by it.

Recording

- A Newbie Guide to Recording

- Basic advice on reading for a recording

- Common recording issues and fixes

- 4 Simple Tips for Recording High-Quality Audio

Editing

- Really basic audio editing

- Basic audio editing

- Audio Post-Production Techniques for Spoken Word


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Reading poetry with video: some first impressions

In early August I was able to attend my first festival devoted to videopoetry, the 2013 Filmpoem Festival in Dunbar, Scotland. One of the high points of the weekend-long event was a live reading by classicist and poet Henry Stead of London Poetry Systems, a recitation of his translation of Catullus’ long poem (#63), “Attis,” in front of a screen onto which a film was projected. It was essentially a karaoke version of a videopoem, with the soundscape included but no words. As fellow audience member Graham Barnes put it,

The compelling Galliambic metre of the poem and Henry’s (1960s) ‘beat poets’ delivery style combined with the haunting soundscapes and film images representing scenes from the poem made for a powerful and memorable, multi-modal performance.

Catullus 63 tells the story of Attis, the lover of the Phrygian goddess Cybele, who in keeping with many members of the Cybele cult castrated himself as an act of piety and then lived out his life in regret and tormented exile.

Stead’s semi-musical recitation style was fairly understated — a good choice to balance the high drama of the poem. Because he was reciting rather than reading, he could stare out into the distance, and his clean-shaven white face became part of the large screen onto which the film was projected, a startling and effective technique for this ancient text about divine possession, madness and transformation. This video, made three years earlier, doesn’t quite capture that effect (and the video behind him is inevitably hard to make out):

I’d given readings with videopoetry interludes, which had always gone over well, but Henry Stead’s “Attis” made me realize I could take things to another level. This past Wednesday, I got my opportunity with a reading in a local bookstore-cafe, the inaugural event in a monthly poetry reading series organized and emceed by Jason Crane. (Thanks to Jason for the photos that follow.) As featured reader, I had 25 minutes, and the focus was to be on my new chapbook of poems about banjos.

For the month preceding the reading, I’d been beavering away making videopoems using texts from the book. As poetry films go, they are fairly unsophisticated because I lack either the software or the know-how to make “real” films, but fortunately we are living in the golden age of remix, and there are great troves of public-domain films and videos on the web that one can steal from, as well as free and Creative Commons-licensed sound and music one can borrow. Since the poems all reference or are concerned with banjos to some degree, musical videopoems seem like the logical next step beyond the print edition, and some of the imagery I found allows me to expand on things that are only suggested in the text with additional, visual metaphors, such as the round, white dome of Monticello suggesting something more about the “jars” in a poem called “How Jefferson Heard Banjar.” The point is that I was making these videos anyway, so why not try to give a reading with karaoke versions of some of them?

video-assisted poetry reading - photo by Jason Crane

Here’s the set-up. I needed a high table large enough to hold my laptop and speakers. A set list with the poem titles and page numbers in black magic marker helped me quickly and easily find the next poem text while the present poem’s credits rolled on the screen. The projector sat on a separate table in front, projecting onto a screen off to my right:

the screen at my poetry reading - photo by Jason Crane

In a bookstore-cafe still open for business, the challenge was to compete with ambient noise and respect the needs of other customers (e.g., to browse books with the lights on). Fortunately, the store was well equipped with an excellent mike and speakers. If I’d had the means to plug my laptop directly into their amp instead of having to use my own speakers for the soundtrack, I’m sure that would’ve been better, but the volume seemed sufficient — even, I’m told, at the far end of the seating area:

video-assisted poetry reading from a distance - photo by Jason Crane

I didn’t mind not having a large screen and movie-theater darkness, because frankly, my made-for-web videos aren’t as high-resolution as they could be. As usual for me, I chose a fairly relaxed, naturalistic style of reading, except for one video where I attempt (not too successfully) to imitate a 1940s film noir narrator. Based on my own sense of things as well as the numerous positive reactions afterwards (some even from people who weren’t friends or relatives), I’d say the reading went pretty well. It was definitely a very different experience from any other reading I’ve ever given.  I felt most complimented by the fact that the three children in attendance seemed spellbound, including a toddler who’d been restive earlier and Jason’s two boys, who I’m told are regular, football-loving American kids.

Lessons

There was simply no question that I’d have to practice my ass off for a couple of days in advance, reading the poems over and over while the videos played in a VLC playlist on my laptop. With regular poetry readings, practice might seem optional (at least to poets who don’t read this site), but with audiovisual accompaniment, you have to come in on cue or the whole thing flops. I had assumed the screen would be behind me and prepared accordingly, but with it situated to my right, I didn’t have to glance exclusively at my laptop for visual cues.

Complete memorization of the poems would not have been a bad thing, much as I resist internalizing my own words to that degree. I wouldn’t have had to fumble with a book and set list, and possibly could’ve engaged more with the audience. However, with the audience focused on the screen, what really mattered was my vocal delivery, not eye contact. And with the accompanying music being generally melodic and at points down-right funky, it took off the pressure to give an absolutely flawless reading. So in a way, this approach offers a bit of a crutch to those of us (95% of poets?) who are not highly skilled performers.

There’s nothing like a live reading to improve one’s delivery, though. I had been afraid that the necessity to sync up my reading with prerecorded music and images might make for kind of a mechanical delivery, but I don’t think that happened. In fact, for some of the poems in the set, I found myself reading in a more intense, impassioned style than I used when I’d recorded myself alone in a quiet bedroom for the online versions of the videopoems. And since I had to pay close attention to the music for many of my cues, I think this approach actually improved my over-all sense of timing and rhythm.

With the laptop in front of me, it was possible to pause the videos for a few seconds when needed to make introductory remarks, though I think I only had to do that twice. In a regular reading, it’s all too easy to natter on and on about what prompted a particular poem, and forget that our job is to entertain, not to lecture. With this reading, I had to be mindful not only of the tight time constraint but also of the effect on the audience of interrupting the music and the flow. The next time I do this, I will add enough slack-time in the intros and credits of each video for all my brief contextualizing remarks.

Now, all this might seem like a huge lot of effort for a 25-minute reading in front of 30-some people, but I found it hugely energizing and reaffirming. More than that, it was useful to be reminded of the essential ephemerality of what we do. As Walter J. Ong points out in his classic study Orality and Literacy, sounded words with their inherent temporality are uniquely dynamic and close to the human lifeworld. Fans of online audiopoetry and videopoetry like to claim that we’re recovering an oral dimension and liberating poems from the prison of print. But if we’re serious about orality, it seems to me, we need to periodically test our words and images in the crucible of live performance.


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using text vs voice in videopoems

[cross-posted from Very Like A Whale because I think it's relevant to the Voice Alpha ethos]

I wrote this a few weeks ago with the first text-only videopoem I made:

I remembered that in Tom Konyves’ videopoetry manifesto, he categorized videopoems according to their usage of text, with two key distinctions drawn between sound text and visual text. (He also asserted that visual text is ‘charged with leading’ the videopoetry genre, although I’m not sure I agree with that.) I realized that what with Whale Sound and Voice Alpha and now this interest in videopoetry, I’ve been engaged with ‘sound’ text almost exclusively for months now. The idea of making a videopoem without voice and with only visual text was therefore appealing.

I’ve now put together three vpoems with text only and no voice (links at bottom of this post). This is what I have learned so far, and, very interested, continue to ponder:

- Text is not a ‘poor relation’ to voice in videopoems. Not sure why or how I had absorbed this ‘fact’, but I had. Text is a different mechanism from voice. In videopoems text can be as strong (or stronger, if the voice alternative available is relatively weak) a mechanism as voice.

- Text used in videopoems is not like text on the page – it is more a text/voice hybrid, a halfway mark between both.

- This is probably because a) text on the page is a block, all visible, all together, in front of you while b) voice is a ribbon of sound unfurling for you – each word takes the place of the previous one, which disappears in front of it.

-Text in a videopoem takes on the ‘ribbon unfurling’ aspect of voice – each word takes the place of the previous one, which disappears in front of it.

- Text can be an active, communicative character in the performance that is videopoem.

- Text-as-ribbon can very competently (or more competently, depending on the strength of the voice alternative available) convey the nuances that voice-as-ribbon conveys – font, font size, text animation, sound/sense byte, pace – all these are elements that can convey feeling, cadence, tone, emotion.

- Text-as-ribbon, like voice-as-ribbon, is not a great respecter of linebreaks and other page-centric devices – the best way to present a sound/sense byte as text on the screen is not necessarily the way it is laid out on the page.

- Videopoem makers who are tired of or don’t trust the sound of their own voice need not be limited by the ‘voicings’ available to them, by whatever means – have at it with text, people!

Text-only videopoems:

the situation on Thursday by Nic Sebastian
you never thought by Nic Sebastian
No. XLII by e. e. cummings


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poetry readings & copyright – best practices

Thanks to Dave Bonta for sharing this link. Much of interest, and this bit in particular for those who like to or are thinking of reading other people’s poems (definitely a best practice in itself!) at poetry readings:

7. LITERARY PERFORMANCE

DESCRIPTION: Live readings are a staple of the poetry scene in many communities across the United States. Frequently, readers are poets whose programs include both their own work and selections from the work of others. On occasion, poets and other readers also create programs that consist primarily of the work of poets they admire. On some occasions, these readings may constitute criticism or commentary on the works included, but that will not always be the case. Members of the poetry community strongly believe in the value of respect for poets and their work, and they generally agree that prior consent should when possible be obtained for the inclusion of particular poems in readings.

PRINCIPLE: Under fair use, a person other than the poet may read a poem to a live audience, even in circumstances where the doctrine otherwise would not apply, if the context is (1) a reading in which the reader’s own work also is included, or (2) a reading primarily intended to celebrate the poet in question.

LIMITATIONS:

Readers should present quoted passages or poems as accurately as possible, allowing for the nature of the performance event.

Readers should provide conventional attribution to source material as appropriate to the nature of the performance event.

Readers should refrain from the use of particular poems in an event if they are aware that the context would be (or would have been) objectionable to the poet, unless the use is permissible as commentary or criticism.

Subject to the same qualification, readers should not repeat uses to which the poet (or a qualified successor) has objected.

In events of type (1), readers should avoid disproportionate use of the work by one or a few poets in any particular reading; in events of type (2), readers should limit their reliance on fair use to one-time or occasional performances.

Readings that include unauthorized copyrighted poetry may be recorded for archival purposes but not be made generally available without permission from the poet (or qualified successor).

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