Aural Postcard: Poetry @Rhizome cafe

March 1, 2010 Posted by Milena D

This is my first attempt at an aural postcard. The reason why I want to do this, inspired by the application “dB” is to give as full and rich idea as possible of a particular soundscape, particular aural context, what happened there for a length of time, details that other measures alone won’t be able to capture (e.g. simply taking a decibel measurement, but also, simply recording the soundscape does not give away the whole picture either).

I am ultimately going to try and make it possible for me to collect and display separate posts relating to aural postcards here, but for now, I wanted to just introduce the concept.

Annotation: As already mentioned, the measurements in dB (the program) are unweighted and therefore anywhere from 10 to 20-something decibels off (meaning, the actual dB is lower). Therefore, in the actual setting displayed above, Rhizome coffee shop, poetry reading, amplified by one mic and at least two powered speakers, with mostly silent audience, but a semi-open kitchen emitting some noise, the actual readings are around the high 50s dB, with peaks of possibly 70 dB as clicking from dishes in the kitchen, as well as plosives popping on the mic do account for sudden peaks in sound pressure.

Narrative: When I arrived, the place was lively but not loud, with people milling about, ordering last-minute food and drinks before the poetry reading begins. I joined in and squeezed in a corner on the righthand side of the speakers, in line of the mic. Because the owner helped lower the mic for the first speaker, everyone subsequently ended up using that setting, which was really too low for most and therefore resulted in a lot of gusts of air and plosives popping out the stereo system. I couldn’t help but think, as I often do at such events, why do we even need amplification? This is a poetry reading in a small-sized venue, with a respectful quiet audience. These speaker could very well use their natural voices (project a bit) and be clearly heard by all. I pondered for a while on the fact that using amplification has become “the default” for really any venue. It’s true the advantage of a mic is that one can achieve much greater sense of intimacy by whispering into it, but then again, what happened to attentive listening? If we have to strain to hear a quiet poetry passage, what is so wrong with that?

Shortly after the first speaker had begun, I became aware of the clanking, water gushing, feet shuffling sounds that came from the kitchen – from its open wall concept. I found that these sounds really clashed with the poetry. No it’s not so much that they were loud, it’s more that one, they were irregular, sudden, unpredictable, yet persistent; and two, they invoked in me a very different context, sense of atmosphere, than the words spoken by the poet – words that are meant to draw mental images, invite us to imagine places, actions, situations. Then I started to wonder whether anyone else was feeling the same way. I had a perfect seat, to the side and at the front, giving me a great, clear view of the main cluster of audience members in front of the stage. A hardcore poetry crowd, these people were poised for absorbing the poetry. Or, they feigned it really well. Or, they were slightly bored and thus – mellow, appearing focussed. It was just impossible for me to tell what was going on for each person. And then, after a little while i started to notice little signs of broken concentration – turning heads, shuffling in seats, nervous picking and rubbing with fingers anything in sight. I tried to relate these occurrences to particularly disruptive sounds coming from the kitchen – and given that they were the only source of ┬ádistraction – I felt that there was definitely a relationship. I would even say, had this audience been less disciplined, supportive and respectful of poetry, there would have been a lot more shuffling and straining in order to localize sources of aural onslaught.

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