Dialectical Materialities: PennSound, Early Poetry Recordings, and Disc-to-Disk Translations

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Chris Mustazza

Chris Mustazza

University of Pennsylvania
MITH Conference Room
Tuesday, April 3, 2018
12:30 pm

How can we construct a literary history of recorded poetry that recognizes media as an intrinsic dimension of the poems’ forms? Given the longtime understanding of the recorded poem as, at best, a simulacrum of a primary, written text (if not of the live performance, too—a copy of a copy), poetry recordings have not received the same kind of material and media archaeological study as their textual counterparts. Through a precis of the PennSound archive, the world’s largest archive of recorded poetry and the archival response to Charles Bernstein’s call for scholarly attention to the performed poem, this talk suggests what such a literary history of poetry audio might look like. We will examine various periods of sound recording history, starting with late nineteenth-century European work to create Stimmporträts, or portraits of voices, through American record companies’ attempts to grapple with the political-economy of sounded verse. If there is a center and a periphery of our sonic memory, attention will need to be paid to oppositional archives and their use of media to subvert systems of dominance by seizing the media of production. Examples of the various kinds of archives under consideration will include: experimental French phonetics labs of the early 20th century; Columbia University’s Speech Lab Recordings, scored to aluminum records in the 1930s and ‘40s; and so-called Soviet bone records, samizdat records cut into discarded x-ray films. We will conclude on the question of what new affordances become possible when grooves become bits and the temporality of discs gives way to the logic of disks. By looking at the newest digital humanities research in distant listening and media archaeology, we will see that the digitized forms of previously recorded poems are not just copies of copies, but generative of new possibilities.

Chris Mustazza is the Associate Director of the PennSound archive, a Ph.D. student in the English department, and director of computing for the academic departments in Penn’s School of Arts & Sciences. His dissertation explores the emergence of the poetry audio archive in the early 20th century, alongside the rise in sound recording technologies. His work includes editing never-before-heard collections of readings by poets like Gertrude Stein, Robert Frost, and James Weldon Johnson, and his writing has appeared in The Chicago Review, Oral Tradition, and will appear in Digital Humanities Quarterly. He has been awarded a creative grant from Harvard University’s Woodberry Poetry Room, a James Weldon Johnson Foundation Legacy award, and Penn’s Sweeten Prize for best essay in American literature. In addition to his media archaeological work, Mustazza works on experimental poetry audio analyses, designing applications to aid in the research and pedagogy of the performed poem. These include a series of applications for a reading-listening method he terms Machine-Aided Close Listening, which is intended to allow for reading across the text and performance(s) of a poem.

A continuously updated schedule of talks is also available on the Digital Dialogues webpage.

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All talks free and open to the public. Attendees are welcome to bring their own lunches.

Contact: MITH (mith.umd.edu, mith@umd.edu, 301.405.8927).