Perfect Sound Forever

The Music of Visual Poetry

by Daniel Barbiero

In the late 1990's, poet Jim Leftwich came up with the expression "asemic text" to describe a form of creative writing that employs linguistic or quasi-linguistic units--letters, symbols and characters taken from actual or invented writing systems; cursive lines and other gestures suggesting handwriting--for aesthetic or expressive purposes rather than for communicating messages with pre-given semantic content. Although asemic texts weren't called by that name before Leftwich designated them as such, works that answer to the description predate the term by some years, as Leftwich acknowledged. Perhaps best known are Cy Twombly's scribbled "blackboard" paintings of the 1960's, but an even earlier precursor may possibly be the centuries-old, enigmatic Voynich manuscript.

"Asemic" literally means "without meaning"; asemic texts (or more broadly, compositions) may mimic the formal profiles of conventional texts but they do so without containing or conveying meaning in a way that conventional texts ordinarily would. As with abstract painting or automatic drawing, which it often resembles, the asemic composition's content inheres in its formal elements and their relationships to each other, and in the associations those elements and relationships may give rise to in the reader/viewer.

When poet/visual artist Randee Silv showed me a set of visual poems she'd put together, I was intrigued. The rhythms of the lines, their thicknesses, densities and clusterings, their shapes--all of these features immediately suggested to me that these works might have a second, parallel life as maps to musical performances. What I was looking at were not only visual poems, but potentially graphic scores as well. It shouldn't have been, and really wasn't, surprising that Silv's asemic works would suggest themselves as graphic scores. Leaving aside for the moment their appearance, just at a conceptual level the affinity between her pieces--and asemic compositions generally--and graphic scores is striking.

The most fundamental and obvious affinity asemic compositions and graphic scores share has to do with the type of work they are. Both are, in essence, open form or indeterminate works. What their indeterminacies consist in is a certain lack in regard to something we would expect to find in a text or a score--semantic content in the former, and specific values for, or even direct reference to, musical parameters in the latter. What we find instead is a kind of vacancy where this content should be. With both kinds of work, the basic referential functions that ordinarily would be considered essential are instead dissolved or deferred by a certain refusal. The asemic text refuses to indicate a determinate object, event, idea, action or other extra-linguistic referent; the graphic score refuses to indicate specific values for pitch, dynamics, phrasing, and/or other musical qualities that come into play in a performance. In both cases, the kind of content we would expect to encounter is vacated in favor of a virtual void--a null space--that haunts each at its center.

But if both asemic texts and graphic scores share the common quality of referential emptiness or indeterminacy, they nevertheless differ significantly in the two specific ways they displace or even evade the referential function. The first of these concerns intention, while the second concerns form.

Asemic compositions and graphic scores originate from different attitudes toward intended meaning. The asemic composition by design lacks semantic meaning; poet Tim Gaze put it succinctly when he asserted that asemic texts carry no "writer-intended meaning." By contrast, the graphic score, for all of the indeterminacy bound up with its refusal to provide fixed values for musical variables, does carry an intended meaning. No matter what form it happens to take--whether it consists of abstract designs or of unconventionally arranged fragments of conventional notation--a deliberately created graphic score is intended to serve as a score. Its intended purpose is to provide a set of directions or instructions--to be sure, of an especially open kind that depends for its specific values on the discretion of the performer--to be realized in a musical performance. Given this difference in underlying purpose, an originary distance would seem to open up between the asemic composition and the graphic score, a distance measured in terms of intention. And to an extent, this is true. But as we will see later, it is this same measure that, ironically, ultimately provides the means to bridge that distance.

In addition to differing on the matter of referential intent, asemic compositions and graphic scores differ in how they relate their own formal features to the formal features of their more conventional counterparts. For while both disrupt and displace conventional modes of reading and comprehending, they do so using different formal strategies.

Asemic compositions as a rule mimic diverse features of writing that suggest the presence of letters, characters, sentences and other units of actual language. Asemic texts may consist of eclectic and variegated sets of marks, but with the common quality that all of them mimic, to some noticeable extent, features of conventional writing. This mimicry may consist in appropriating actual linguistic units in an alienated, non- or even anti-sensical way, or it may consist in gestural or other marks--scribbles, for example, or loops parodying the liquid continuity of cursive writing--suggesting the presence of writing when no actual writing is in fact present. The marks in an asemic composition may tease us into thinking that they are actual, functional, linguistic signs, but on closer inspection they reveal themselves to be something else, something akin to obscurely sourced ciphers signifying nothing in particular. No matter how directly or askew we look at them and attempt to read them, in the end they refuse to crystallize into recognizable, and thus conventionally decodable, linguistic patterns.

If asemic writing generally alludes to conventional writing, graphic notation, by contrast, generally does not allude to conventional notation. Think, for example, of such exemplary graphic scores as Earle Brown's "December 1952," Roman Haubenstock-Ramati's abstract designs, or Anthony Braxton's curvilinear diagrams. Graphic scores like these contain no allusions to or elements drawn from conventional notation; while some asemic compositions may push the reader into creatively engaging them by actively encouraging and then frustrating the expectation that here be language, graphic scores, at least in pure form, disorient the interpreter immediately by foregoing conventional musical marks from the start.

There are some graphic scores that integrate marks taken from conventional notation, albeit in a way that alienates them from conventional modes of reading in much the same way that asemic compositions alienate conventional modes of decoding linguistic elements. Thus while some graphic scores may include elements of conventional music notation to convey musical meaning, the meaning conveyed is only of an approximate kind. When conventional symbols and figures do appear in a graphic score, they find themselves in an alien environment that by its very nature estranges them from their ordinary functions. Recontextualized in this way, they become hollowed out, as it were, and rendered indeterminate.

Possible formal differences aside, to read an asemic composition as a graphic score just is to read an asemic text, albeit in a particular, if not to say specialized, way. Why this can be is a natural consequence of the essence of an asemic text. Lacking writer-intended meaning, it is liable to an open-ended hermeneutic process, within certain limits set by its formal constitution, in which meaning crystallizes wholly, or nearly so, through the associations it inspires in the reader/viewer. This associative meaning is the positive content that is, paradoxically, produced by the asemic text's negation of semantics and its disruption of ordinary reading through its refusal of reference. To try to read an asemic text as writing conveying a given message is to encounter an obstacle that can't be surmounted with conventional reading strategies; on the contrary, to abandon those strategies and consequently to leave oneself open to the text's ability to foster associations of projective imagination is to recognize that obstacle as the invitation it may always had been from the beginning. Such an imaginative reading doesn't represent an outright negation of the text's negation of meaning but rather a creative twisting or distortion of that negation into something positive; it engages the text's intended meaning-lessness as offering an invitation and a--perhaps limited, perhaps unlimited--license to endow the text with the imaginative reader's own meaning. When these creative associations take on a musical or sound-related direction, the asemic text opens itself up quite naturally to interpretation as a graphic score.

When we take the asemic text and recast it as a graphic score, its indeterminacy is transformed into something seemingly far removed from the given absence of semantic content with which it started out. The vacancy at its heart looks less like a void and more like an opening; its lack of intended meaning becomes the very ground of the possibility of meaning, albeit for a kind of meaning that falls along a different axis from the textual or semantic meaning its linguistic or quasi-linguistic forms originally hinted at. The asemic composition's foreclosure of specifically linguistic meaning functions as the catalyst for a creative reading that ushers us out of the field of language as such and into a different semantic field defined by musical purpose. In moving from the one field to the other we recast the asemic work and read it as a map of performance.

The asemic work's suggestion of musical meaning is just an opening move, just an invitation or a gambit. The invitation has to be taken up and the gambit accepted with a creative, interpretive reading that requires a hermeneutic process of translation and invention. The text must be engaged as the site of a continuous play of interpretation of a specifically musical kind. Through a series of imaginative associations and projections the lines on the page are converted from inert marks into signs to be realized in specific sound gestures--as pitches, phrases, rests, harmonies, types of articulation, dynamics and so on. Whatever we see in the asemic work as a map of musical performance is precisely what we see in it--what, in other words, we project onto it by virtue of the possibilities its formal features suggest to us.

In fact, the musical possibilities we can discern in the asemic text will depend on the text's formal makeup. Its formal elements must somehow suggest ways they can be associated with musical elements and gestures. This is where Silv's visual poems excelled. Hers are works that have a looser relationship to linguistic forms; her marks hint at some of the physical characteristics of writing rather than mimicking them directly. For example, her lines capture the broader rhythms of rapid handwriting, suggesting a kind of shorthand or dashed-off note; smaller knots of lines suggest pictograms or imaginary Chinese characters written in cursive; marks of differing thickness, granularity and orientation imply different ways of putting a line on the page--with the point of a pen or the side of a pencil.

Silv's visual poems, interestingly, seem to occupy a common ground between textual compositions that allude to conventional writing and drawings that do not. Her forms and gestures abstract away all but the essentials we associate with the handwritten text--its linearity and the variations in form that distinguish individual letters, for example--and leave as a remainder a hermaphroditic, writing/drawing hybrid. It's interesting to recall in this regard that Gaze has suggested that texts and images lie along a continuum rather than stand in diametrical opposition to each other; Silv's visual poems clearly bring out the formal linkages between the two modes of setting down marks, and consequently stand somewhere near the midpoint on that continuum.

The translation of Silv's hybrid marks into such musical qualities as texture, melody and timbre wasn't difficult to do. As with any successfully contrived graphic score, they suggested, without asserting, ways of drawing correspondences between marks and sounds that allowed the interpreter wide latitude--but not unlimited license--to find the appropriate gestures. For example, broad, scuffed lines suggested certain extended techniques producing unpitched sounds through friction--bowing the bridge, for example, or rubbing fingernails up and down the strings. Thin lines rising, falling or curling within themselves at one point suggested melody lines of varying compass and complexity. At another point, they seemed to map out paths to be taken across and around the fingerboard; at yet other times they suggested tightly clustered knots of pizzicato notes. Thick, crayon-like lines suggested chords of open or stopped strings; thin, coiling lines suggested slow, legato tones played with the bow; the compactness or dispersion of elements suggested a corresponding density or sparseness of sound. In short, there was much to work with.

In interpreting an asemic composition as a graphic score, there will inevitably be an element of imaginative instability to the interpretation--of reading the text in a way that discovers and rediscovers musical associations as unsettled possibilities that are always in motion. Imaginative instability just is a part of interpreting asemic works per se. Even taken on its own terms, an asemic composition is liable to induce a kind of creative vertigo. Try as one might to read a fixed meaning into it, whatever meaning emerges will remain on the periphery of understanding, will take the shape of a figure always just on the point of crystallization. Only a projection of the interpretive imagination can complete the process of crystallization, can construct the web of correspondences needed to associate the text's formal elements with a specific content. But such projections are mutable and liable to change with each instance of interpretation

A similar dynamic of imaginative projection comes into play in the interpretation and realization of a graphic score. To acknowledge this dynamic, which derives from the synthetic whole of the interpreter's inner and outer experiences, skills, aesthetic judgments and so forth, is to acknowledge possibly the central question that purely graphic scores raise: to what extent do the marks on the page constrain performance and bind it to the notation in such a way that the graphic score actually shapes the performance and keeps it from being completely arbitrary? How, in other words, does the score keep one from playing what one would ordinarily play in the absence of the score? Even granting that associations can be fluid and correspondences liable to drift, if the score is to be effective as a score, they can only be allowed to drift so far (and at the same time, they can only be constrained so far. The graphic score's indeterminacy is its virtue, after all). The forms on the page must exert a constraining influence on what in the end can be done with them--if the interpretation is to maintain the score's integrity as well as the interpreter's own.

In order to anchor my interpretation and at the same time to respect the formal constraints embedded in Silv's visual poems, I created some basic and tentative correspondences between her written signs and the musical motifs or gestures they suggested to me. But even with this effort to narrow the possibilities any given signs could license, there was nothing inevitable or final about any of the interpretations I chose. Given the essentially indeterminate nature of the compositions, any musical value or gesture associated with any of the marks could always be changed, could always be different, depending on circumstances. The association of sound to mark was a matter of circumstance, or more accurately, of a contingent situation in which aesthetic or interpretive judgments were shaped by a number of factors specific to time, place and environment as well as by the constraints set out by the visual poem. What this meant in practice was that interpretive drift could always manifest itself at any time as the performance unfolded and began to take on a (semi) independent logic of its own.

As it could with a longer passage of time. If I were to play these pieces again, months or even days after I first played them, chances are very good that they would sound different from what they were when I first played them. Given a change in mood or inspiration, simple forgetting, or even a passing fascination with a particular technique and its expressive or structural potential, I could, and most likely would, choose to interpret some of the signs in ways other than I originally had. Not only the text, but the performance itself became an object of creative interpretation and reinterpretation.

In the end, what the experience of interpreting a visual poem as a graphic score demonstrated was that no given interpretation--of the asemic text as meaningful, or of the graphic score as calling for certain specific pitches, techniques, gestures or other musical events-- will, in principle, stand as a final or even a definitive interpretation. Rather, any given interpretation will express itself as a moment within an ongoing process that doesn't arrive at a natural endpoint culminating in a final, canonical meaning or performance, but instead consists in a constant approach and withdrawal, a rolling away from the possibility of a discrete, fixed message or unequivocal set of instructions and a movement toward some unknown X--a variable the value of which any given interpretation must determine for itself. Like Zeno's Achilles, who can never catch up to the tortoise, interpretation is always nearing but never quite apprehending a definitive reading of the composition--the meaning of which is opaque even to itself. Interpretation, whether in reading an asemic text as text or as a graphic score for a musical performance, in the end entails a creative and genuine collaboration with the text's composer.

And isn't that as it should be?

You can see the author's visual poems here:
And hear his interpretations here:

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