The Diviners: Software Abuse, Guitar Chatter and the Poetics of Fake Forecasting

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The Diviners

Software Abuse, Guitar Chatter and the Poetics of Fake Forecasting

by Kurt Newman and Michelle Detorie
photos taken by Chris Cogburn
illustration from photos by Nicole Neditch

DAPHNOMANCY: an ancient form of divination based on listening to the sound of laurel branches crackling in an open fire.

Materials: hollow-body electric guitar, FX, amplifier, ViaVoice voice-recognition software, laptop computer, projector.

Process: Voice-recognition software is fed a signal from Kurt’s guitar amplifier and thus generates text from the sounds of the guitar. Text is broken, amended, and in other ways altered by Michelle in real time. Everything is 100 percent improvised.

Kurt (guitar):
Michelle and I have been thinking of a way to collaborate on an improvised music and text performance practice for some time. We were not drawn to the most immediately obvious idea—“talking and playing.” Michelle pointed out that as a writer, her materials are keyboard, screen and text, not voice and speech, so we started thinking about ways to combine instrumental improvisation with typing improvisation. The first decision we made established the performance set-up—projecting the computer screen on a wall, so the audience could read the text that Michelle typed while I played guitar.

What next? Well, we were attracted to the idea of a collaborative practice that was both conceptually elegant and relatively simple. Undoubtedly it would be cool in its own way to have improvised music and improvised typing happening at the same time (an approach that was pioneered by John Cage and Merce Cunningham in their music and dance collaborations), but even cooler would be the discovery of some connective tissue more integral than mere simultaneity.

We were also concerned about the music simply serving as a background for the text, or worse, the text “interpreting” the music in a programmatic way. Since the way I improvise tends to be abstract—unconnected with any purposeful symbolic meaning-making—this question of an integral link between the music and the poetry was nettlesome.

The solution came from Michelle’s interest in ancient forms of divination as models for poetic experimentation. We guessed that divination might be a useful motif for structuring our collaboration. Michelle brought up the example of “daphnomancy,” a kind of divination that was conducted precisely by close listening to “meaningless” sounds (the crackling of burning laurel leaves). A few months earlier, I had marveled at the voice-recognition software that a professor used to compose papers. It occurred to me that the computer would attempt to render any sound, not just the human voice, as English text. If that was true, then the guitar noises I make while improvising would be as likely to produce random language as any other source. I thought that this computer technology might be a good intermediary between music and text, serving as Ouija board or crystal ball, attempting to read meaningful messages in the sounds of the guitar. Extending this metaphor, Michelle would be the diviner, structuring and shaping the seemingly chaotic chunks of text into coherent poetic form, and the guitar music would be the raw communication crossing over from beyond.

Thus far, Daphnomancy has been presented once in public (at an event in Austin that also featured the improvised music/poetry collaboration of percussionist Chris Cogburn and poet Joshua Beckman), and many more times in the privacy of our home. Playing with Michelle and the voice-recognition software/ computer interface is unlike any other collaboration I have pursued. Typically, I play continuous passages of music until the screen fills up with a few lines of text. Then I wait until Michelle has organized the words and symbols into lines and images. The musical result is thus a kind of minimalism, with long stretches of silence between musical events, but without the sense of hushed solemnity that often attends ultra-sparse music.

Michelle’s transformation of the text—the redaction, compression, augmentation and ornamentation of the words and symbols summoned by the guitar—provides a great deal of continuity and excitement. Words are formed and then erased, or combined with other words, to produce unexpected meanings. The text therefore comes to include all the words made by the guitar- and voice-recognition software, as well as those written and then erased, possibilities perceived by the spectator differing from those Michelle realizes. Also, the text includes the music, the process and the whole perceptual gestalt. Even the flashing cursor contributes to an enhanced perception of the passage of time and highlights the stakes inherent in making one decision rather than another. Daphnomancy foregrounds the importance of “possibility” in both music and poetry—how we hear and read not just the finished product, but also the errant and digressive lines not followed in the final text.

Michelle (poetry):
Daphnomancy undermines the Romantic conception of poetry—what Wordsworth described as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.” This subversion of the Romantic ideal is inherent in both the practice of improvisation and the art of divination. The dynamics of divination and those of experimental music/improvisation have much in common; both require that the practitioner relinquish control over the content but assume a heightened responsibility for the form.

In Daphnomancy, there is not one, but two diviners/listeners—the software and the writer. In this paradigm, the writer/listener is neither the creator nor the initial interpreter of the data. Thus it’s through the inversion of the Romantic poet/speaker model and the subordination of the listener/diviner that meaning and expression are assigned and altered.

In this context, language is unstable. As Kurt’s guitar chatter scatters words and letters over the screen, I sort and sculpt the text into lines and stanzas, a process which often involves moving, changing and deleting words and letters. It is a performance that is at once generative and destructive. In this sense, the poem that emerges is most analogous to the pile of ash left after the laurel branches burn. What’s made is what remains:

DAPHNOMANCY 6.20.06

Owl on a low howl in a cattacombed cave concocted a crawl’s clear call: cox-comb caw-cawing through an old wound committing calm amid moonlike wands. An assassin. An abandoner. She permits Mating only amid the dead. Cured keys wandering looms amid luck. An influx of the uncaught, an alliance of grammar.

DAPHNOMANCY 6.09.06

I hone our
luminous tools:
our warm rulers
and tin cocoons.

Razors wooed
our tar knuckles
of unknowable lumber—
an unbeknown nevering.

DAPHNOMANCY 6.04.06

Coda dyed in tresses
ever nearer the dress,
even nearer the accursed
looming and thickening.

Gliss unmoving
and unhurried:
an unloosed will
of luminous doing.

She cannot undo
the era ahead, nor
the unheard.

Dyed doves
hang her above
abandoned dams
where the good anglers coax

their ink into inland
channels, blooming all
along: an analogue

for caged lots.

Read more DAPHNOMANCIES at daphnomancy.blogspot.com.

Kurt (kurtnewman.blogspot.com) has been playing free improvised music since the mid-’90s. He spends most of his time trying to rethink the nature and capacity of the electric guitar. He has long been interested in collaboration with artists who work in other media—primarily, dancers and movement artists.

Michelle (mdetorie.blogspot.com) is nearing the end of her tenure as the writer-in-residence at the Katherine Anne Porter House. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in How2, Chelsea, Typo, Diagram, and elsewhere. Last year, her poem “Three Divinations” was nominated by the editors of Blackbird for a Pushcart Prize. 

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