Making and unmaking sound

Event Recap of Narrowcast: Poetry and Audio Research, 10/23/18

By Sariah Bunker

Julie Beth Napolin speaking at the Center's event on Oct. 23 2018
David Grubbs speaking at the Center's event on Oct. 23 2018

Narrowcast: Poetry and Audio Research, by Lytle Shaw’s (Professor of English, NYU), allows us to reconsider the act of listening and the recording technologies and techniques which make and unmake audio.  

At our event on October 23, Julie Beth Napolin (Assistant Professor of Digital Humanities, The New School), introduced the panelists and dwelt on the meaning of the book’s title, presenting the Narrowcast in contrast to the broadcast. Because background noise creates an acoustic microclimate, the Narrowcast transports the listener to the specific space where the recording was made, whereas the broadcast’s studio environment is free of unwanted sound. Napolin also spoke about Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s installations Saydnaya (the missing 19db), Saydnaya (ray traces), which utilize “forensic listening” to reconstruct the Syrian Saydnaya Prison from acoustic memories of some prisoners whom live in complete darkness while incarcerated, heightening their hearing. Napolin’s remarks prompted thought about how space and environment can affect acoustic experience and sound recording.

David Grubbs (Professor of Music, Brooklyn College) played a recording of a lecture by Jack Spicer and discussed how some of the recordings in Narrowcast were made for an explicit purpose, such as the FBI’s surveillance of Allen Ginsburg, while others were made with no clear purpose. What prompted Ginsburg to record himself creating poetry, and why didn’t he choose to sell the recordings? Recording the poems wasn’t the end goal, rather his tapes were used to create his written poems. Grubbs asserted that the contemporary interest in the acoustic aspects of poetry comes from the accessibility of recorded poetic material.

J. Martin Daughtry speaking at the Center's event on Oct. 23 2018
Lytle Shaw speaking at the Center's event on Oct. 23 2018

J. Martin Daughtry (Associate Professor of Ethnomusicology & Sound Studies, NYU) discussed the artifactual aspect of Narrowcast and the recordings it presents. Audiotape records ambient sounds, which become sound artifacts of the recording site. Daughtry claims this as a “unrecognized type of poetry.” He presented the Bootleg recording as the narrowcast’s “near other,” playing a 1966 John Coltrane recording at the event. The tape was in bad shape, altering the sound and erasing the bass player completely. Daughtry posited that the characteristics of the recording mode shape the tape in the event of the making. Furthermore, time functions to un-make some kinds recordings by damaging or altering them.

Lytle Shaw spoke about his creative process. He used case studies to build a story around the tapes, something he calls non-normative historicism. While the government agencies who recorded Ginsburg and other poets did not do so to celebrate their work, nevertheless they produced a significant amount of literary criticism when they analyzed their recorded surveillance. The panelists took questions from the audience and each other, continuing their exploration of sound, poetry, and the narrowcast.