Troubadours of Information: Aesthetic Experiments in Sonification and Sound Technology

Abstract (in English): 

When Ezra Pound exchanged his initial affinities for the fin-de-siècle decadence of pre-war London poetics for a growing interest in mediaeval troubadour traditions, he was looking beyond innovations in literary form and technique; there is ample evidence in much of his critical writing even at this early stage in his career that the poet was seeking a more philosophical relationship between representation, social ethos and cultural meaning. In the song and musical customs of the troubadour, as cultivated within the “Romance” languages and traditions of southern Europe, Pound identified a rare instance where an artwork’s material form inspired shared cultural sensibilities that transcended any and all context specific references or allusions. Exemplary of this level of aesthetic idealism in the troubadour romance, for Pound, are the songs of the 13th century Tuscan poet, Guido Cavalcanti (d.1300). Cavalcanti’s remarkably precise dedication to the structure and rhythm of the line, Pound informs us, demonstrates equally the “science of the music of words and the knowledge of their magical powers” (1912). This unique combination in Cavalcanti’s work of formal method with aesthetic poignancy, further, helped inspire almost half a millennium of active debates on the nature of love, becoming just as relevant to early 20th century thought as it was to mediaeval scholarship hundreds of years earlier. “Behind the narratives” of these songs, Pound summarizes in a later critical essay entitled “Psychology and Troubadours” (1916), there runs a surprisingly modern appreciation for verbal and semantic structure as a basis for common cultural attitudes: in his words, “behind the canzos, the ‘love code’.”

Historically speaking, Pound’s own formalism has prompted extensive critical interest in the visual dimensions of his poetry; yet we can see just as clearly in his writing a distinct pairing of form with a much more inclusive blend of multiple sensual and technical effects. The resulting aesthetic appeal is usually categorized by Pound (again, referencing Cavalcanti) in terms of musicality. As both a concept and also a mode of representation, musicality infers the merging of, not just a work’s visual and aural properties, but rather all of its tactile traits, culminating in the complete integration of form with substance. To be musical, in Pound’s view, is quite literally to realize the full material coherence of sensual experience intermixed with intellectual reflection; while sound in and of itself signifies very select levels of engagement and understanding within and throughout culture. Such import seems increasingly patent as culture comes to depend upon new media formats, becoming almost standard in much contemporary electronic literature. Speaking to the value of audio technologies in much of his best media work, artist and programmer Jim Andrews reasons that “written words and sentences do not have easy access to the primal or the harmonic/dissonant reveries of pure sound … [for example,] the meaningful repetition, variance, trance, and pattern of the drum” (“Nio & The Art of Interactive Audio for the Web,” 2001); in a similar vein, hypertext author and literary theorist Deena Larsen notes that because “sounds provide tone, rhythm, meter, and tension,” they form “an integral part of meaning in electronic literature” (“Fun da mentals: Rhetorical Devices for Electronic Literature,” 2012).

Moving from fields of literary and cultural study to the sciences, we find many parallel associations of sound with a distinct structural integrity in meaning in contemporary theories of sonification. Here, much like Pound’s concept of musicality, sonic recordings are understood to provide highly tactile and thus almost immanent tracings of various concrete processes in the world. The resulting discourses based on such information acquire a profound material weight as objective or evidentiary knowledge. One only has to consider the level of validity popularly attributed to representational technologies like sonar, Geiger counters and, of course, EKG machines when processing data for a particular discipline. In this panel, the concept as well as the procedural use of sound to analyze and represent complex data sets will be surveyed as important points of interrogation in contemporary electronic art practices.

Each of the following presentations will isolate various contemporary challenges to aesthetics regarding the instrumental use of digital sound for computational frameworks of scientific knowledge, critically analyzing how auditory technologies may promote new degrees of cultural positivism within an ever evolving aural economy. The love code Pound alludes to in his reading of Troubadour musicality on one level suggests a sonic enigma well worth decrypting; at the same time, Pound’s aesthetic appreciation of complex harmonic structures also implies a mode of interpretation–a listening, say–where engagement inherently defies rationalized, categorical understandings.

Presentation 1: Sound Interruptions
Andrew Klobucar, Ph.D.
(Associate Professor, New Jersey Institute of Technology, Newark, NJ)

Presentation 2: Gibber
Angela Rawlings (M.A., University of Iceland)

Presentation 3: Troubadours & Troublemakers
Jeff T. Johnson, MFA
(New School, NYC, NY)

Presentation 4: “The Gift: Lyricism and Texture after the Song”
Christopher Strofolino, Ph.D.
(Los Angeles, CA)

(Source: Author's abstract)

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Jeff T. Johnson