"The voice can develop in any direction": David Applegate on Sounds, Performance and Poetry

by on Jan.21, 2013

[This was written by frequent Montevidayo-commentator David Applegate.]

“The voice can develop in any direction”

As an undergraduate studying poetry in New York City, I once had the opportunity to see an acapella performance by Mike Patton (the vocalist of Mr. Bungle, Fantômas, and countless other projects) and Rahzel, a virtuoso beat-boxer. The venue was a large music hall, the concert attended by several hundred people. The tools of the performers were minimal, Rahzel and Patton each had a microphone and Patton also wielded what appeared to be a micro-cassette recorder. The range and expressivity of the sounds the two men were able to achieve using only their voices stunned me; their tools and the tools of the poet at a reading were startlingly similar. Yet the poetry readings I was then regularly attending lacked the electric energy (not to mention the sizable audience) of this performance. Why?

I spoke with a professor about what I had seen and heard, wondering if the performing poet might benefit from some new tactics. By abandoning performances which focused strictly on the recital of a text, couldn’t a poet expand the range of expression in her work through the distortion and manipulation of the voice? The professor was skeptical. Tampering with the poet’s voice would be tantamount to destroying the singular vision and purposeful expression supposedly inherent to the work of poetry. I thought I’d give it a try.

Of course, vocal gymnastics are nothing new in poetry. Manipulating vocal sounds was common practice for the Dadaists and more recently Dutch poet Jaap Blonk has employed an arsenal of electronic effects to aid his work in poetic performance.


I began with a simple loop pedal intended for use with guitar which would allow me to layer as many copies of my voice as I wished one on top of the other. Additionally, I would run my voice through another guitar pedal intended to imitate the sound of analog synthesizers. By recording loops of my voice through the synth pedal on various settings, I was able to achieve an all vocal “backing track” although the sounds were frequently unrecognizable as human-originated by the time I was through with them.

These experiments required a great deal of preparation at home before hitting the stage and I wanted to do something more spontaneous and less composed. I’m certain Patton and Rahzel’s concert was improvised; the spur-of-the-moment quality of improvisation adds immeasurably to the excitement of the audience as well as testing the limits of the performer. Replacing the loop pedal with a sampling sequencer did the trick; I was then able to record and manipulate many copies of my voice on the fly. After several years of presenting this kind of performance around the city, I found poetry audiences were not, for the most part, receptive to what I was doing. The divergence from the usual mode of reading was disturbing. The level of volume required to achieve the desired effect was unwelcome in many venues. No matter.

By repurposing the equipment I had originally intended for use in poetry performance, I was able to construct a rig which would allow me to improvise electronic music. I could still utilize my voice as an instrument in concert with other noise-makers but the linguistic content had mostly gone, the voice transformed from a tool to convey a poem into something much closer to a synthesizer’s oscillator.


The voice no longer had any privilege, it could only surface occasionally as part of a larger cacophony, screaming, gurgling, barking. The impersonality of the voice-as-sound has a special appeal. Freed from the responsibility of being a bringer-of-meaning (or even of poetry), the voice can develop in any direction: into something more base, refined, static, or dynamic. The versatility of the impersonal, material voice allows it to function constructively or destructively, it’s a lifting of limitations. The obscured voice has an even greater attraction. The desire to know what has been erased or buried by distortion or other sounds incites the imagination. Something like an erotics of voice. Alternately, a text might be disrupted by the voice itself, as in this example from the “Hysterical Literature” series in which we hear a reading continually altered and disrupted by sexual pleasure. The voice is interrupted and becomes something other as the body of the reader interferes:


My involvement with sound performance, both poetic and musical, has been an exploration of the possibilities of interfering with the voice, its extension, occlusion, enrichment, and mutilation. The potential of interference as an aesthetic tool, whether electronic or physical, seems increasingly important. As critic Jennifer Scappetone notes, we live in an era in which the “dampening of sociohistoric contradictions” has imposed a “climate control” on cultural production. This situation, which makes opposition untenable, leaves ample room for interference.

Poetry readings as they are traditionally conceived aren’t going anywhere. As I learned, it’s not much use to attempt to change that format from the inside out. Rather than continue to pursue giving disruptive poetry performances, I’ve turned to the wealth of recorded readings readily available for download and manipulation. What if a poetry reading were considered as frequencies instead of words? As a preliminary investigation, I took a performance of John Ashbery reading his poem “Some Trees” and transformed it via electronics into something liminal between poetry performance and electronic music. I limited myself to only sounds present in the original, all you hear is Ashbery. I’ll leave it with you:


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