- Exquisite Garble: Acousmatic Sound and Binocular Vision in Ronald Johnson’s ARK
From 1970 to 1979 the Berkeley radio station Pacifica KPFA ran a Radio Arts Project, directed by Erik Bauersfeld, which aimed “to bring together writers, actors, sound artists and technicians to originate and collaborate on the production of new works for radio” (Bauersfeld). The program featured Bay Area writers that included Charles Upton, David Meltzer, Michael McClure, Michael Palmer, and Ishmael Reed. Another local contributor was the poet Ronald Johnson, whose short radiophonic work “Ariel’s Songs to Prospero” was broadcast in 1979. Johnson took advantage of the technicians and sound designers who were “at hand at Pacifica KPFA and Fantasy Studios in Berkeley” and equipped with “the latest sound equipment available and the necessary technical skills for using them” (Bauersfeld). Thus, with the help of sound technician Roger Gans, Johnson “stitched together a music” comprising six short sections, constructed entirely from field recordings selected from A Field Guide to Bird Songs of Eastern and Central North America, a double LP issued by the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology in 1962 (Johnson, “An Interview” 582).
A unique audio experiment in Johnson’s work, “Ariel’s Songs to Prospero” illuminates and extends many of the concerns of his poetry of the late 1970s and early 1980s, particularly his late-modernist long poem ARK. Like Dante, Johnson modeled his poem on trinities: [End Page 133]
An architecture, ARK is fitted together with shards of language, in a kind of cement of music. Based on trinities, its cornerstones the eye, the ear, the mind, its three books consist of The Foundations, of which there are thirty-three beams, The Spires, of which there are thirty-three built on top, with thirty-three arcades of The Ramparts rounding the periphery.(Afterword 312)
Johnson envisioned “Ariel’s Songs to Prospero” as a 45rpm record that could be included in a complete edition of ARK (“An Interview” 582). Although this never transpired, Johnson included a synopsis of the recording in The Spires as “ARK 38: Ariel’s Songs to Prospero.” Johnson describes this as “the invisible Spire” (misremembering, it would seem, KPFA for KQED):
This is the invisible Spire. It consists of a tape recording made with the assistance of sound technician Roger Gans, under the auspices of Erik Bauersfeld for KQED in San Francisco. This was a project extending some six months with the end result being just over six minutes of “musics” constructed out of recordings of songs of the birds of eastern United States.
The sections are titled:
1. Of Time and Its Tree (a bolero for one white-throated sparrow)
2. The Origin of Language (homage to Harry Partch)
3. The Emptying of Hell (nocturne for loon and full orchestra)
4. Where the Fire Takes Me (a souza for daylit forest)
5. Full Fathom Five (synthesis for slowed meadowlark & chorus)
6. How Feels the Fine Mesh of Space (adagio for thrushes and woodpecker quartet)(ARK 111–12)
Johnson’s recording consists of birdcalls that have been sped up, slowed down, looped, filtered, overlaid, or otherwise manipulated. In “The Emptying of Hell”―which Johnson describes as “a [End Page 134] whirlwind of Lost Souls meant for a Dante illustration (composed of nightbirds, dove, and lakefulls of Whistling Swan, etc.)”―Johnson and Gans create a sonic whirlwind by superimposing the calls of the common loon with those of whistling swans, wild turkey, and mourning dove (Letter to Guy Davenport). The recording’s superimpositions form an otherworldly cacophony that builds into a crescendo of cackles, screeches, and shrieks. But what one might take as the most explicit example of studio manipulation in “ARK 38”―Johnson describes it as an “electronic sounding blast”―is in fact the “sound of an owl untampered with” (“Work Sheets”). The sound would not be out of place on one of the electroacoustic recordings on Tod Dockstader’s Eight Electronic Pieces (1961), but in “ARK 38” the owl’s hiss, set amid a “whirlwind of Lost Souls,” assumes supernatural proportions. As much as “ARK 38” relies on the technical possibilities of the studio for achieving its effects, it also demonstrates a similar “contextual practice,” to invoke...