News: Lucky Seven #1: Barwin

2011-04-13 18:04:PM ago by laurie.anne.fuhr

Seven Lucky Questions for Gary Barwin

I read somewhere recently that the average blog reader’s attention span is approximately seven questions. Seven feels almost as low as six, which is just one more than five, but is not as hefty as eight, a number that feels like it’s too close to ten. There are also enough superstitious people around that at least subconsciously, readers think if they deal in sevens, whether in interview questions, lottery ticket numbers, juke box selections, or the number of beers they choose to consume, luck will come to them. fS would like to share the phenomenon of internet luck with you, dear readers, by presenting a series of questions put to former, current, or upcoming fS authors called Lucky Seven. That way, we can also lift slick rockabilly imagery like dice, horse shoes, and clovers, and you’ll think we’re really cool. Question seven will recur since it could be the luckiest of all – especially if you’re someone who gets mentioned.
This blog post ties in to infos on Gary Barwin's blog, The Serif of Nottingham. Check out this video first of all:

1. How did the idea to give Derek Beaulieu’s Local Colour a treatment as a musical score come to you?
Like many ideas, it developed from the nurturing amniotic broth of discussion and mutual interest. derek and I had wanted to collaborate again, and we have had an ongoing discussion of writing and music and, particularly, in what deep ways they might relate. When I first saw Local Colour, I was struck by how much it looked like the love child of a Mondrian painting and a Morton Feldman graphic (musical) score raised by a pack of polychromatic player pianos. It seemed natural to think about it as sound. Also, reading the book, I thought of how its narrative worked musically – the recurring patterning of motifs in constantly permuting rhythmic interaction. The ‘drama’ of the story proceeds by an accumulation of rhythmic exchanges. And, of course, I wanted to appear as conceptually cool as derek…
2. Now that you’re implicated in Beaulieu’s literary subterfuge, what would you tell any who ask you about a merit for the work on its own, outside of your score?
When I fly on an airplane, I usually don’t watch the in-flight movies, or, at least, I don’t get headphones and listen to them on my own screen; but, I do like to watch the little screens that other people are watching all around me. Local Colour is a bit like that. Like watching—but not listening to—a movie, there’s a rich play of characters (the colours) and visual/rhythmic interactions which abstract the notion of narrative. You can follow the patterning, the flow, the recurrences, even if you don’t know exactly what is going on. Local Colour ‘abstracts’ narrative in the way that a painting may ‘abstract’ a landscape. We’re not used to consciously reading in this way, but this sense of the structural scaffolding, of the deep structure, of the fundamental grammar of stories certainly informs our reading. And, for me, there is a lovely playfulness to derek’s novel, a piquant and spritely minimalist delight in the art of storytelling itself. 
3. Will you score the remaining half of Derek’s book? Do you have any plans for recording your composition and releasing it more officially, perhaps touring with it?
I’m certainly going to finish the book: it was just getting exciting and I want to find out what happens. And, I’ve been planning to release a CD of my work with text and music for ages. I’d love to include this piece. Now if we can just convince Justin Bieber to appear in the video…I would also like to do a series of performances of this piece as well as a variety of other text, music, and computer pieces of mine, all exploring different ways of exploring how text and music can relate to each other.  Performing Local Colour has reminded me of the excitement of writing and presenting works like this.
4. Recently on your blog, you posted your PhD dissertation from SUNY at Buffalo in 1995. You tell us it was written for “reciter, computer system (using the MAX object oriented music programming language) and a MIDI keyboard.” Could you explain a little bit more about how this technology works (or at least how a user interfaces with it) and how what you wrote made good use of this technology? Is this a technology that anyone’s using with literary works today, or is there similar but newer technology being employed, to your knowledge?
There are two live performers in this piece: a reciter and a keyboardist. The computer tracks various elements of the performances (for example, pitch, volume, and rhythm) and then does two things: generates new music based on this data, and modifies what the performances sound like through a variety of computer processing. For instance, toward the end, the reciter’s voice is surrounded by a kaleidoscopic nimbus of sounds derived from both the performances of the keyboardist and the reciter. The performances are fed through a variety of software engines to create the end result. In an improvised interlude, the keyboardist opens and closes a number of software ‘gates’ depending on what s/he plays. The keyboardist can thus control what happens by choosing particular kinds of musical material.
The piece was written using the object-oriented musically specific language MAX.
I wrote the software to pay attention to certain features of the music. It’s as if the computer is a listener and the performance triggers particular chains of association in the computer’s brain. The exact result depends on the particular performance. Of course, the performers are also aware of what kind of listener the computer is, too, and so their performance of the score is informed by this. (I wrote more about this piece in Rampike, Vol. 13, #2, 2004.)
I composed this piece before there was much live interactive digital processing. Now it’s readily available on a laptop. Such programs as Ableton Live (which actually can integrate MAX) make it easy to explore live digital processing. And digital processing pedals allow lots of interesting play (Alexis O’Hara, for example, does lots of cool things with these pedals.) There’s plenty of work being done with digital processing but not much, at least in the literary world, with this kind of finely-controlled live processing, and particularly in a through-composed work.
It’s amazing how much digital power writers have at their fingertips though readily available desktop software for visual, audio, and video processing. I’m an advocate for the incorporation of all kinds of digital media and multimedia into creative writing education programs.
5. Your own work seems to trampoline about from surrealish in a more narrative way (thinking of books on my shelf like The Mud Game novella collab with Stuart Ross and Big Red Baby fictions, and more recently excerpts of a forthcoming novel on the Hearthside Hearing you posted on your blog) to more overtly experimental work, like your 1995 PhD dissertation, the visual poems published in filling Station Issue 47, or this score. What prompts you to write in one way or another at any particular time? What other innovative texts have informed or inspired you?
I don’t believe that writing should have cell walls. The writer should be able to flow, like some kind of protoplasmic slop from one kind of writing to the other. I’m interested in understanding how different modes can work, what they can enable me, as a writer, to explore. I don’t see this as a contradiction: to move from writing, say, a ‘surrealish’ prose poem (, a conceptual piece (eg. Servants of Dust) to a picturebook story for kids, or a visual poem or such as this.
I’m not certain what prompts me to explore one thing or another. I feel like I have a number of parallel practices going on at once. I’m led by the material. I notice something of interest and want to explore it. I read something inspiring or intriguing. I see a large chicken outfit and immediately want to try it on, to gain an understanding of the intra-feathered world, the chicken-to-universe interface, to brother with the internal egg, to become a single pseudo-avian morpheme in an imagined language of almost infinite clucks.
The notion of an ‘innovation’ is interesting to me. Innovative where or how? Studying with bpNichol was a huge influence on me. His work, his approach to writing, and the wild array of texts that he introduced me to. I’ve had an abiding interest in Beckett, Kafka, Calvino, Ron Padgett, James Tate, and David McFadden.
And more recently: Gabriel Gudding’s work is remarkable. His Rhode Island Notebook astounds and inspires me. Lots of visual poets, for instance, Satu Kaikkonnen. I was recently blown away by what Donald Antrim was able to do in his novel, The Verificationist. The later work of Charles Bernstein. Anne Carson’s Nox is another beautiful thing from her. Kevin Macpherson Eckhoff’s visual and language explorations, and his brilliant play with social convention in his performances.  Lisa Jarnot. Inger Christensens’ Alphabet. Stuart Ross
6. Colin Browne is a professor emeritus at Simon Fraser University. In 2010, he gave a presentation as part of the University of Calgary’s Free X grad students’ symposium in which he said that the only true surrealism happened when certain of those Surrealists successfully managed to write while in a sleep (or sleeplike) state, and only stayed surrealism as long as their work wasn’t shared with others or published, as was part of their assigned criteria.. When asked about other Canadians claiming to write from a surrealist tradition (I asked the question and mentioned Michael Bullock, Stuart Ross, and Don Domanski), he asserted that they should not be able to use the term since surrealism is not technically what they are doing. What do you think of this idea? If we shouldn’t be allowed to use the term ‘surrealist’, how can we describe in a term or categorize highly imaginative works that evoke the sort of ontologically confusing thought patterns of ‘surrealish’ work? Or is categorization a less necessary practice these days, when we can find what we’re looking for using keywords rather than the sections of libraries or bookstores?
Surrealism has been a useful handle for much work that isn’t ‘Surreal’ in the historical sense, or isn’t even consistent with Surrealism’s stated objectives. But it often conflates a wide array of approaches: myths, fairy tales, the diverse poesis of the world’s traditions, all sorts of non-rationalist, magic realist, fabulist, or language-based work that aims to explore something outside of deductive rationality.
In music, a ‘common-practice’ period is spoken of – this term described the classical tradition from the early Baroque to the late Romantic. There’s an expectation of some fundamental similarity in operation (mostly in terms of melody and harmony.) I like the term because it immediately relativizes and contextualizes what could be seen as a ‘master discourse’ (though historically, it was mostly seen in this way.) It’s a practice that is ‘common,’ and is not a set of absolute rules (despite what your piano teacher may have told you) but a ‘practice.’
I see mainstream ‘realist’ work in this way. It is a common practice, and we’ve learned to accept as normative (in some situations) its conventions and assumptions. But, we can easily understand and appreciate other kinds of work. We really should develop better—and more precise--terms than ‘surrealist’ (though I like your ‘surrealish’) though most people understand what is meant. It’s worth considering (and perhaps categorizing) the various non-realist approaches that writing takes, even writing that may appear to stem from these non-rationalist, non-logical processes.
There’s a great early Irish epic which includes a marvelous scene where a maiden is transformed into a puddle. This is clearly outside of ‘the common practice’ period of Western literature, though stemming from an important and perennial mode of the human imagination.
7. filling Station’s mandate is to support emerging writers through the magazine and our events. Are there any emerging Canadian writers you’d like us to know about, especially those who have not yet published a first spine book? Any info about how to find their work?
I recently came across the work of a fantastic writer, currently in grad school at Queen’s University, named Christine Miscione. She’s just had a great new story published in This Magazine (March/April ’11). I’ve also just read a fantastic poetry book-in-progress by ex-Toronto writer Carey Toane. So watch for that. Though it has a spine, Leigh Nash’s relatively recent book, Goodbye, Ukelele (Mansfield Press) is definitely something to check out. You could rip all the pages out and pretend it doesn’t have a spine. The filleted book: setting the poems free.
Gary Barwin is a writer, composer, artist, and performer. His many publications include five poetry collections, including the recent The Porcupinity of the Stars (Coach House) and, out in May, The Obvious Flap (with Gregory Betts, BookThug.). He is the author of two fiction collections, and a collaborative novel. This September, Franzlations: The Imaginary Kafka Parables, written with Hugh Thomas and illustrated by Craig Conley, will be published by New Star in Vancouver. He was the co-winner of the 2010 bpNichol Chapbook Award for Inverting the Deer (serif of nottingham) and of the 2011 Battle of the Bards at Harbourfront Centre. His textual and visual works have appeared widely both in print and online, and his music has been performed by numerous ensembles. Barwin currently lives in Hamilton with his family where he is at work on the great Canadian Jewish pirate novel. His blog is at

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