Monday, October 5, 2009

Twenty-First Century Scop: Part 1


Back in the days before printed books, when the live reading was the primary means of getting literature to the public, storytellers appreciated the connection between music and narrative. They knew that delivering a story was more than just reciting words, but today that seems to have been forgotten.

Have you attended a reading lately? Did the author bring a backup band? Keyboard? Boombox? Probably not. It’s easier to just bring a book.

I remember seeing Lawrence Ferlinghetti at a performance sponsored by the now defunct (and sorely missed) International Poetry Forum. It was April 3, 1968, and Ferlinghetti was reading from his newly released collection A Coney Island of the Mind. I was young and impressionable, studying the performance, learning from the master. For an hour it was just Ferlinghetti and his voice, but then, for his final piece, he produced a tape player, adjusted the podium microphone so that it hung midway between his face and the machine, and hit play. Then – in the tradition of the Anglo-Saxon scop – he read "Moscow in the Wilderness, Segovia in the Snow" while guitar music played beneath his words.

In the years that followed, I heard others do the same. Most notably Patti Smith, who gave spoken word performances accompanied by guitarist Lenny Kaye in the early 70s, and four-time Bram Stoker Award winner Michael A. Arnzen, who released AudioVile, a CD featuring some of his stories read to original music, in 2007. But live meldings of music and spoken word remain relatively rare, even though modern technology makes it easier than ever to bring quality sound to a reading. Indeed, full multi-media accompaniment – laptop, PA, projector, and screen – can fit easily into the backseat of a Cobalt.

Last year, as Fantasist Enterprises was preparing to debut my novel Veins at GenCon, I began working on a studio CD of music inspired by the novel. Part of the impetus for the project was a CD that Poe had produced based on Mark Z. Danielewski's novel House of Leaves. But also in the back of my mind was that long ago performance by Lawrence Ferlinghetti. If all went well, I figured the new music might enable me to score live readings from the book.

The resulting CD, Veins: the Soundtrack, was released by Fantasist earlier this year, and this summer I took music and book on the road, giving readings at the International Conference of the Fantastic in the Arts, Confluence, GenCon, and Context. Next week I will be reading at PAISTA, a gathering of educators at the Kiski School in western Pennsylvania.

Naturally, writers needn’t produce original CDs in order to score their readings. There’s a lot of music out there. More than ever before. And the technology needed to arrange and edit a playlist is probably already on the computer you are using to read this blog.

This week, I’d like to talk about bringing live readings back to their roots, how writers might consider augmenting their spoken-word performances, and how writing instructors might help train a new generation of scops by encouraging students to use the technology at their fingertips to aid in the presentation of their written works.

We'll pick up right here tomorrow.

Until then, share the vision!

1 comment:

  1. Once, sometime between 1990 and 1992, I was fortunate enough to hear Robert Bly deliver one of his readings--at which he accompanied himself with (I think) a mandolin or other stringed instrument. That was an ear-opener for me!

    I've always wondered what life would have been like among the ancient bards of Eire...when all poetry was performance poetry.

    A long time ago (well, in the 90's), one of my former English teachers allowed me to create/lead a poetry workshop at Elizabeth High School (long live the Minutemen!). I wanted the students to experience a poem, and to see how they have to bring something to a work if they really want to "taste" the power inherent in good literature.

    I used Ted Hughes' "The Lovepet." Two students, a boy and girl, assumed the role of the husband and wife; the rest of the class was to assume the "voice" of the Lovepet -- but gradually, one student at a time, joining in, accumulating voice upon voice
    -- and with the tempo/intensity increasing, to overwhelm the husband and wife...

    I'll never forget how excited one group got: not even half the class had put their voices together, when one of the students interrupted, "This is some scary #@!&*!"

    Had I had longer with them, I would have had them bring in poems of their own. My assignment would have been: "Instead of analyzing this poem for meaning, I want you to consider how it should be performed to create in your audience the same emotion(s) it elicited in you when you read it..."