The term testimonium, as explained by dramaturg Matthew Goulish in a curtain speech that introduced and overlapped the performance, refers to the portion of a contract where the signatories affirm that they are, in fact, themselves. He and his collaborators settled on it as the title for their performance because they thought it also sounded like a musical instrument. The source material for Testimonium, Charles Reznikoff’s Testimony: The United States (1885–1915): Recitative, covers similar ground—its title starts with the legal description of evidentiary speech, and ends with a musical term for the rhythms of ordinary talk, spanning the distance between document and aesthetic form. Testimonium enacts that span by translating the transcripts of ordinary language that Reznikoff rendered as poetry into three very different forms of media.
A member of the group of modernist poets known as the Objectivists, Reznikoff understood his poetry as repurposed fragments of objective reality, a perspective that may have stemmed from his legal training. In 1933, he established a practice of meticulously editing transcripts of criminal cases and cases of workplace negligence around the turn of last century from courts across the country. Transferred into the context of poetry, this found language offers evidence of the harsh impact of westward expansion, capitalism, and rapid industrialization, yet most of the material went unpublished for more than thirty years and remains difficult to find. Concerned with restoring neglected practices, Every house has a door has translated Reznikoff’s poetics to the necessities and expectations of performance.
Goulish and Lin Hixson, cofounders of Goat Island Performance Group, have long used performance to collect disparate found materials, which they have tasked audiences with tracing to their sources and assembling for themselves after the fact. Every house has a door, their post–Goat Island company, has tended to also integrate essayistic metacommentary offering interpretive perspectives and detailing their process. In the prefatory remarks that served this function for Testimonium, Goulish explained that the company was denied permission to use Reznikoff’s text, but that they saw this as “an unexpected gift” that provided the opportunity to “transform and unfold” the poetry and to translate Testimony into other performance registers. Former Goat Island member Bryan Saner read selections from Testimony that Goulish had systematically altered; Stephen Fiehn, of the performance duo Cupola Bobber, transposed text to movement; and the band Joan of Arc, comprised of Tim Kinsella, Bobby Burg, and Theo Katsaounis, performed compositions from a companion album, Testimonium Songs, for which they applied Reznikoff’s Objectivist approach to collecting source material. These diverse presentations of Testimony interspersed themselves in time and space at starkly contrasting sound levels—alternating, interrupting, and overlapping, but holding off fusion.
The translation of source material to the requirements and capabilities of a new medium was exemplified by Fiehn’s movement sequences, which took simple, concrete phrases, displayed on a computer screen, as prompts for deliberately literal-minded physical realizations. Enacting the ambiguous relationship between descriptive language and its corresponding actions, Fiehn attempted to exhaust the possible choreographic interpretations of the phrase “to fall between two stools” by executing a series of comically sincere pratfalls. His methodical deadpan unsettled expectations of entertainment, even as his risk-taking impressed.
Saner, reading the reedited text aloud, also represented only one possible realization of the material. Dressed in a brown suit and speaking in a measured Midwestern voice, he could have easily been one of [End Page 257]
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the figures who gave the original testimony; but his straightforward delivery also destabilized the status of the text across mediums. Reznikoff’s project was an editorial one, concerned with the “precise red marks” with which he indicated the arrangement of text on the page to his typesetters. Goulish’s text locates Reznikoff’s poetry in these...