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David Grubbs and Susan Howe - Souls of the Labadie Tract

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Artist: David Grubbs and Susan Howe

Album: Souls of the Labadie Tract

Label: Blue Chopsticks

Review date: Jun. 28, 2007

Since at least 1877, the date of Edison’s patent for the first phonograph, recording technology has been built from a simple principle. One operated Edison’s tin foil device by speaking into a diaphragm, which in turn vibrated a needle that made indentations on the foil, reproducing the pressure of the vocal waves. This machinewasn ’t a “magic” device, turning an invisible wave into a visible groove — it revealed a materiality always present in sound waves that simplyhadn’t been experienced before.

In the current digital age, microphones convert the pressure from waves into electronic signals, but the basic translation and transmission of physical pressure is identical. Artists working with speculative sound experimentation have explored and continue to explore this translation process and the concrete nature of instruments, sound waves themselves, even vocal tones. However, to be reminded of this underlying principle, that not just sounds but our own voices create measurable physical disturbances, is overwhelming at a primitive level.

Souls of the Labadie Tract, a recently released collaborative project between poet Susan Howe and musician David Grubbs, explores the nexus of the human vocal performance of poetry and ambient sound waves. Their project both foregrounds the inhumanness of the voice broken down into digital impulses, while recovering the vitality of the human as prophet in a recorded medium. Essentially, the duo produce a work that reminds us how all communication proves to be effectively mechanical.

This project shows evidence of a different approach than the one on their initial collaboration, Thiefth, which re-interpreted extant texts of Howe’s — “Melville’s Marginalia” and “Thorow,” both from the early 1990s. In that recording, Grubbs played the part of interpreter by manipulating Howe’s voice, chopping up phrases and superimposing line over line, as if to recreate the visual overlaps and juxtapositions of texts as Howe wrote them. The richness of that interplay is striking, especially in live performance, with the recorded Howe hollowly intoning in counterpoint to the live Howe. But that project belonged mostly toGrubbs, and the result functioned more like a critical interpretation of Howe than an artwork in and of itself.

Souls of the Labadie Tract affords Howe the chance to write with Grubbs’ concretism as a point of reference, and the new texts represent this awareness. The text is based on the historical migration of a Dutch Quietist sect that settled in Maryland in 1684 to await the upcoming turn-of-the-century. Their leader, Jean de Labadie, was a mystic who believed in communal living. Significantly, a single tree called the “Labadie poplar” is all that remains of their land in modern-day Cecil County, Maryland. The poet’s lexicon rips words from Labadie histories that speak of illumination, remembering place names and years. Howe’s performance of it is distinctly religious in tone.

Despite the prophetic qualities in her work, Howe seems a very unlikely candidate to collaborate on such a project. Her poetry more often experiments with visual elements, rearranging line and typeface to foreground the materiality of the text. Those who experiment with performance and sound poetry (David Antin, ChristianBök, etc.) often exploit the rubric of temporality, or present-ness , in performance. Their work suggests that the oracular power of poetry is in the singularity of performance, its fleeting immateriality.

What the Grubbs/Howe project demonstrates, however, is that the superficially idiosyncratic qualities of Howe’s work merely mask the materiality of her language qua language. Performance, in other words, can bepermanance. Thickening the medium, Grubbs’ musique concrète contributions allow the ear to hear shared qualities between sound sources. As pure tones evaporate into static fuzz, we hear the poet’s voice as a modulated tone as well. Further,Grubbs brightens the recording levels so that when Howe pronounces a voiced or spirant consonant, her aspiration becomes distorted. Thus, in the title poem Howe reads, “It’s not only that you’re not / It’s what wills and will not”; the stridency of the “s” in “wills” emphasizes the physicality of Howe’s very breath, creating a contrast with the voiceless “will not.”

Grubbs, interweaving computer-generated noise as well as mouth organs called “Khaen” from Laos, follows Howe’s linguistic cues, often sustaining a hymn-like accompaniment. However, Howe’s performance commands the piece’s movement. The centrality of speech extends to reclaim the “present-ness” of Howe’s performance, the fleetingness we experience when attending a live performance. Jean de Labadie has no recording to speak across the ages, but we can imagine the power of his voice in the rhapsodic channeling through Howe. She, likeLabadie before her, is a prophet. Her incantation recorded on CD is a reproduction of a human voice trapped in a machine, but not just any voice: the poet’s voice controls the machine, the prophetic mind controls the voice, and language itself controls all.

The reason visual and aural performance weren’t synced for years after the advent of motion pictures was the simple reason that images do not require sound to evoke presence. Thus, the legendary story of the on-screen moving train causing panic in early cinema crowds. Without question, the visual aspect of live performance is integral to a certain kind of shared effect on poetic interpretation; Ginsberg re-discovered the incantatory power of Whitman through performance before an audience.

But we have passed on from this model. Our own voices, infinitely reproducible across fragments of wireless web-like portals, are nothing but impressions of forced air. The digital-age prophet, a human like us, materializes in such recordings: the word itself, as aspiratedsoundwave colliding with our tympanic membranes, once again becomes flesh.

By Joel Calahan

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