Tuesday, 31 March 2009

Xu Bing

Doing a bit of spring cleaning this morning, I came across a xerox of an article about the visual artist Xu Bing, whose work I followed especially in the mid-90's and need to catch up with now. The article is called "Meaninglessness and Confrontation in Xu Bing's Art", it's by Gao Minglu, but I don't know where it was published 'cause the xerox doesn't tell me.

Here's Gao Minglu's description of a project called ABC...
In San Diego in 1991 Xu exhibited a set of ceramic sculptures resembling pieces of moveable type. The words on the tops of the blocks were Chinese characters that, if read aloud, sound like the English alphabet. Used to approximate English sounds, the words are supposed to be meaningless. Chinese characters, however, bear their meaning in their forms, and the words Xu chose echo with painful or absurd semantic resonances. Often, when foreign words are transliterated in Chinese, the original meaning will be transformed in the new cultural background; one cannot but think that the work expresses the discomfort of an adult forced to learn a new language, who brings to simple linguistic facts a complicated cultural baggage.
And this is Xu Bing's own statement from his website:
The theme of this work is the awkwardness encountered in linguistic exchange between different cultures. It is comprised of thirty-eight ceramic cubes that represent a sort of transliteration from the twenty-six letters of the Roman alphabet to Chinese characters. The characters that have been chosen are such that, when pronounced, render sounds equivalent to the English letter they represent. The Chinese characters are caved on the upper face of the each ceramic block in the form of a printer's stamp and the Roman letter is printed on the side of the block. For example, the English letter 'A' is rendered by the Chinese 'ai', which means sadness. 'B' is rendered 'bi', which means land on the other side, on the other shore. Some letters need two or three Chinese characters to 'transliterate'. For example, 'W' is rendered 'da', 'bu', 'liu' which means big, cloth and six. This activity may begin with a becoming logic, but ultimately it leaves its subject, transliterated language, virtually meaningless and almost ridiculous.
I will most likely be writing a piece during the timeframe of our Archives of Exile collaboration that's a setting of poems from Ezra Pound's Cathay, the famous mistranslations of ancient Chinese poetry. My reading list for researching that project includes these two books by Yunte Huang:

Transpacific Displacement: Ethnography, Translation, and Intertextual Travel in Twentieth-Century American Literature

Shi: A Radical Reading of Chinese Poetry

My plan is to write the piece for four Chinese instruments and string quartet, and either two singers or a bi-lingual singer, not sure yet. the text will be some conflation of Pound's Cathay poems, the original poems, and various mis-translations back and forth between the languages.

If you remember, when we originally talked about the Archives of Exile project, I said that perhaps other projects I'm working on may want to be part of our AoE project. This Cathay project might be one of them... or not, depending on how the other explorations we're doing end up taking shape! I'm just putting everything I'm thinking about here in the blog, and we'll see how it wants to shape up...

if this stuff turns you on, definitely let me know!

Saturday, 28 March 2009

Fanny Howe

here is a link to an essay by the poet Fanny Howe that has some wonderful stuff in it that speaks directly to our project for me... I need to re-read it and mull it over more, so I am putting the link here for both you and me!

Thursday, 26 March 2009

tapes and time

Sorry - I'm in posting overdrive this morning but, the more I feel my way through it, the more the sense of past, present, and future seems important to me, so just a quick comment about the medium of the audio recording: I *think* that there is something very particular about the way audio material plays with our sense of time.

If you read a letter written by someone in the past, no doubt you do experience a particular kind of connection based on the fact that that person's hands touched this paper, formed these letters, etc. But there is something much more immediate about hearing a voice - if the quality of the recording is good enough, the person could actually be in the room with you, whereas the letter is a relic, something left behind rather than an index of the person's presence. (In fact, we normally write letters because we are *not* physically present in the same space at the same time.) So an audio recording seems to make the past available to us in a very direct way, as if we were allowed to be present in the past for a moment, and it is the fact that it only *seems* to do this that makes the experience of listening to tapes potentially so upsetting.

Actually, as I write this, I'm becoming less and less convinced by what I'm writing. I often keep cards that people have sent me - I had a clear-out a while ago but, even so, they still go back a few years - and going through them can be quite a fraught experience because, in each case, I imagine the sender choosing that particular card for me, looking at the others in the rack, and picking out this one and not any of the others. So maybe the cards give me the sense of being present in the past for a moment too.

In short, I'm trying to work out whether there is something distinctive about the recorded voice in terms of the way it conjures up the past, but it's eluding me for the moment...


I love that quotation about Balanchine! It reminds me a little of the opening of 'Burnt Norton', the first of T.S.Eliot's Four Quartets. It might turn out that the resemblance is superficial and that they are not saying quite the same thing. Still, I thought I'd post Eliot's lines in case they turn out to be helpful:
Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden. My words echo
Thus, in your mind.

But to what purpose
Disturbing the dust on a bowl of rose-leaves
I do not know.

Wednesday, 25 March 2009

sayings of Balanchine

from an article about Balanchine by Arlene Croce in the 26 Jan 09 New Yorker:

[Balanchine] subscribed to the Hegelian view of history as a spiral: everything recurs, but in a different form. Not only dance movement but all art, even the most novel-seeming, is a version of something that has already been said or done. For this reason, he saw no harm in appropriating; he stole and was stolen from–that was the way of art. ... With Stravinsky, he shared a firm belief in the labor of art as perpetual renovation: Stravinsky, who liked to quote Goethe– "Everything has been thought of before; the task is to think of it again."

Balanchine used to say, "We all live in the same time forever. There is no future and there is no past."

Words Against Light

I've had an email from Frances Babbage (the colleague of mine whose area is drama and who is working with Hannah Fox in the 'acts' strand of the project). She wanted to let me know about some work that the drama students are doing and that might be relevant to our thinking:

The first years (English & Drama) have been working with Terry O'Connor of Forced Entertainment as part of her Knowledge Transfer contract with us, and this Friday are presenting a performance called 'Words Against Light' in the Theatre Workshop, from 1-3. It's actually a durational performance, in that although the performers do the full two hours, spectators can drop in at any time and stay for as much or little time as they want (thankfully!).

I wanted to let you know about it because the performance is precisely a curation of voices - it is a kind of cataloguing of thoughts, feelings, experiences etc. It is improvised, but will use principles and structures that Terry has helped them to think about. There are actually two parts to this project, one of which is a live performance; the other is a film (still being edited) whose visuals consist of material filmed by the students from their mobile phones, set against a soundtrack made up (again) of each of their recorded voices, which have been edited and grouped by Terry. For the film part of the project, she got each of them into a sound booth on their own and basically encouraged them to talk for as long as they wanted (following a structure she had given them, which I won't reveal!).

I think both live performance and film are interesting (or will be, in the case of the film). I only really thought when I woke this morning how close a correspondence this work might have with the sound/composition strand of the exile project, and your own interests. So, let me know if you have any free time between 1 and 3 this Friday, and if you fancy it, do drop in!

I'll definitely go along on Friday, and, if it does seem to have connections with things that we're thinking about, I'll try to have a word with Terry O'Connor. There's information about Forced Entertainment, the company that Terry works with, here.

Sunday, 22 March 2009

"It isn't necessary to imagine the world ending in fire or ice--there are two other possibilities: one is paperwork, and the other is nostalgia."

--Frank Zappa

I am noticing that spending all this time exhuming and listening to these cassettes throws me out of a rather important balance I work hard to maintain: between past, present, and future. it somehow hadn't occurred to me that "archives of exile" as a subject is AUTOMATICALLY about engaging with the past. of COURSE it is!!! and while I love history, love finding cool old stuff and bringing it back into the present, I realize that it's an ENTIRELY different thing to be dealing with MY OWN old stuff, which is actually very difficult and makes me a little crazy.

my mother rewrote her childhood as some kind of perfect idyll from which she had been cruelly exiled by being forced into adulthood. (nostalgia is indeed the end of the world.) my father, on the other hand, dealt with the early death of his parents, and his immigration to the US at age 19, as the start of an entirely new life: a blank slate over which he hardly ever looked to see his childhood or youth. my mother was almost entirely past-directed; my father almost entirely future-directed.

what does it mean to honor the past without wallowing in nostalgia? what does it mean to embrace the future without denying the present moment and the gifts of the past? how can an archive of exile be a LIVING thing, a thing that serves the present moment?

that's what I'm grappling with on this shiny cold spring evening right before heading out to the theater with my friends on 22 Mar 09 after spending perhaps too much of this day on 14 Sep 96.

I need to BE HERE NOW.

shop talk

I have a recording my father made of a visit I made on 14 Sept 1996 to my parent's house in Westchester, about an hour north of NYC. My guess is that this visit would have been the first time I had seen them in several months, because I had been traveling all that summer. The full recording is about 90 minutes long: I tell many stories about my travels; he talks extensively about Mozart at one point; but in a way this one bit is perhaps the most interesting exchange: we are talking about HIS composition teacher...

I don't think there's anything on this tape I'm inspired to turn into music. on the other hand, it's psychologically quite amazing to me: the layers to everything are sort of scary. is that totally blatantly obvious, I wonder? I feel as if I can hear all the complexity of the three relationships embedded in the sound of our voices...

anyway, I'm hoping I can find the 60's dinner table tape before too long. god knows what THAT's going to feel like to listen to!!!

Gavin Bryars

A couple of people that I've spoken to recently about Steve Reich's work with speech melody have mentioned the work of a British composer called Gavin Bryars, in particular The Sinking of the Titanic (1969) and Jesus Blood Never Failed Me Yet (1971). Bryars has quite an extensive website.

Friday, 20 March 2009

John Somebody

After you mentioned Scott Johnson and John Somebody in your email last week, I ordered a copy from Amazon. It arrived yesterday and I haven't had an opportunity to listen to it yet but I'll probably get a chance over weekend. Looking forward to it...


I realised last night that I hadn't tagged any of my posts, which could turn into a problem if we put a lot of stuff up here. So...I've just been through and tagged all my stuff. (I've taken the liberty of putting tags on a couple of yours too.) They're all pretty basic, obvious labels, but I guess we can let our tagging develop naturally as we use the blog. The people in our media department tell me that's called 'letting a folksonomy emerge' :o) I'll tag this as 'blog' - for metaposts about the nature of the blog itself.

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

family voices

written on 11 march 09:
I've started transferring the cassettes I have of my family. it's not the easiest thing: hearing the voices of dead loved ones is strange and oddly discomfiting. instead of feeling closer to them by hearing their voices, I feel forced to face how far away they really are. so I've started with the tapes I know to be less interesting and therefore less fraught: my mother practicing recitation of various monologues. I'll keep you posted on how this goes...

a film we should probably see


[I noticed this on 20 feb, but haven't gone to see it yet, so this is a reminder ;-) ]

exiles from childhood

for the sake of completeness, here's what I wrote to you on 21 may 08 about the project:

I happened to be visiting my aunt in san francisco when the email with the proposal came, and I mentioned it to her, a research psychologist specializing in infant-parent relationships, and she said something in passing about how we are all exiles -- from childhood -- which I thought was a lovely formulation of part of the experience of adulthood.

Hand-drawn maps and transcription

On the phone last night I was talking about the idea of asking a number of people to transcribe the same recording of speech and I suggested that it would be like asking people to draw maps of their neighbourhoods. The point really is to capture their personal, individual, subjective response to a place (in the case of maps) and to a voice (in the case of transcriptions). There's a great website run by the Hand-Drawn Map Association, which offers a wide range of scanned images and gives a flavour of how amazing people's personal maps can be...

More on the great-grandparents

Just a fragment from 16 March, 2009:

I've been thinking of you listening to all those tapes again and I can imagine how difficult it must be. I hope that you're finding it bearable. I spoke to Gareth and Traci again about their tape of Traci's great-grandparents and I think listening to it affected them more than they'd thought it might. It's not really that Traci had much recollection of her great-grandparents. It's more that she thought she knew their story and then, when she listened to the tape, realised that there were all sorts of details that she hadn't remembered, or perhaps hadn't taken much notice of when she was younger. I guess it can almost be a kind of reproach to realise that the story was there all the time but that one never really listened to it.

Traci's great-grandparents

This is what I wrote on 4 March about Traci's Great-Grandparents and about my parents' recording of me as a child:

Just a quick line to tell you about an exile tape that I've located. I was talking about the project with one of the people I work with - his name is Gareth Walker - and he said that his wife, Traci, has a tape of her great-grandfather talking about his own journey from Eastern Europe to the US, I think in the early years of the 20th century. Traci's mother made the tape some years ago precisely so that the story wouldn't be lost. The evening after we talked, Gareth asked Traci if she'd be willing for us to listen to the material and perhaps use it, and she said yes, completely happy.

Gareth and Traci both work on phonetics, so they're very used to audio technology and will digitise the tape themselves and let us have a CD. (They're perfectly happy for us to use the actual tape later on, if you decided you liked it and wanted to clean up the sound quality or anything like that.)

I've also been listening to the stuff that my Mum and Dad dug up last time I went over. I have to say that I haven't really hit anything very promising yet. There's a tape of me as a child - it's a sort of monologue with real words in it but it doesn't make much sense. Actually, I think the idea was that I was pretending to 'speak French' but, of course, it's nonsense with a few English words thrown in. Maybe that *is* a kind of exile tape? There's really very little with my parents' voices. I think they utter some words of encouragement on the 'French' tape but it's difficult to hear. (Actually, as I write about that recording, it begins to sound more interesting than I thought it was when I first listened to it...)

Lost tapes!

And this is what I wrote on 9 February, 2009, about the loss of Steve's tapes:

Steve has now spoken to his mother about the cassettes and I'm afraid it's not good news. She had them all until her own mother became ill a couple of years ago and went into residential care, at which point they had to clear a lot of stuff out and the tapes were thrown away. It's strange - I keep fretting about it as if it was something of mine that had gone into the trash!

I'm not sure what I think about it really. I'm quite intrigued by the idea of a lost archive. I mean, the truth of it is that people often do look for reminders of the past only to find that they were thrown away at a time when no one thought they could possibly be of any interest. (I've thrown away letters that I now wish I'd kept!) And I've been wondering if it might be possible to involve some of the family in reflecting on the messages they sent each other and, especially on the way the tapes became the focus of family meetings - sort of create a new text by asking them to talk about old ones.

I don't know what you think about this? As I say, the *truth* of it appeals to me - moving out from ourselves and accepting what there actually is (or isn't). On the other hand, it could result in quite heterogeneous material.

I've also asked my own parents whether they have recordings of themselves and my dad has promised to have a look. I'm optimistic that there will be something, although I'm not sure what they will be like. I'm going to see them, not this weekend but the one after, so it might be possible to listen to some of it then.

Steve's tapes

In the interests of grouping our records together, this is what I wrote on 7 February, 2009, about Steve's relatives in Canada and the tapes that they used to send to one another:

I'll be in touch again very soon but, in the meantime, I just wanted to tell youwhat happened when i asked Steve the 'do you have a relative who grew up in another country' question. After a bit of thought, he said that, yes, he has relatives who emigrated to Canada in (I think) the late 60s or early 70s and their children (now in their early 40s) are quite clearly Canadian rather than English. What is a bit spooky is what he said when i asked about audiorecordings. I'd thought that might be quite a long shot but, on the contrary,he said that, when he was a child, the Canadian relatives used to record messages on audio cassettes and send them to the family in England instead of letters. The English relatives would all get together to listen to the cassettes - that struck me as very typical of Steve's family! - and make a similar recording to send back. Apparently the replies sometimes featured Steve and his cousin, Sally, playing duets on the recorder :o) Steve doesn't know if any of the cassettes survive now but he reckons that, if anyone has hung onto them, it will be his mother and he's going to ask her about it when he sees her this evening. I thought that was amazing - not only did they make recordings but it sounds as if they were the main way that the two parts of the family sent news to each other.

First post

Here's a home for Eve and Richard's thoughts about archive, exile, and voices. Now we just have to discipline ourselves to use it :o)