Wednesday 18 March 2015

The Sound of Transformation in a Text

I was asked by Stavroula Kounadea to bring some texts to the AudioHearth Book Club.

The idea was to bring texts where the sonic property of the text was significant and casually read and discuss the texts.

This seemed extremely straightforward at first and I immediately thought of a range of texts I could bring. But as I reflected it seemed much more problematic. I started to question what differentiated the sonic and the musical. I started to question whether any poem could not be a sonic exploration of some sort and most poems have a relation to music,

My initial interest was to find texts that were created for their potential sound as much as their potential for reading on the page.

I picked Metamorphoses because I have been working with it and it is written with a playful joy in story telling and using words that has made it a focus for recital and performance. In addition, there is the close link between poetry and song in the Ancient World (where they are often far less distinguishable than in ours) and the fact that Metamorphoses seems to have been used in tragoedia saltata the extremely popular pantomime dance form of Ancient Rome where it may well have been used as a libretto and sung.

Publius Ovidius Naso
(Ovid  Statue Piazza XX Settembre, Sulmona, Italy)
As a comparative text I initially picked Under Milk Wood which like Metamorphoses (and arguably all poetry written before the Printing Revolution) was written for the ear more than the page because it was created as a radio play.

Dylan Thomas
I planned to compare the two texts on the following terms
  Both written to explore sound
  Both create a unique world – even though Ovid creates a makrokosmos and Dylan Thomas a microkosmos
  Both explore a range of perspectives – in Ovid the narrator often identifies with the focal character for a story and much dialogue is included. He also sets up layers of narrative with protagonists telling stories within stories. In Dylan Thomas we have a narrator and a series of memorable characters who reappear continually
  Ovid’s stated aim is to talk of transformation of things (including people). Dylan Thomas seems to be about creating stasis. Nothing transforms in Under Milk Wood. The cycle of the day shows the villagers caught in an unchanging world.
  Both poets question the standards and mores of their time. In Ovid there is a concealed cynicism and criticism of authority. The poem ends with a statement that all empires will fall and only art (especially that of Ovid) will survive. Dylan Thomas affectionately derides the Welsh village which is named Llareggub – Buggerall – but the joke evades censorship of the British establishment. This gives both works an ambiguity and playfulness in the use of language. Meaning is deliberately confused and sound takes precedence

I then decided that this was becoming a didactic rather than reading discussion and decided to focus on Ovid – mainly passages I have used and sung in performance – and focus on the way the language evokes a sense of transformation.

I was intrigued here with whether the sonic properties of words support the unfolding narrative (not necessarily in a banal onomatopoeic film score) and decided to read in Latin and ask the listeners for opinions.

I decided to use, where possible Ted Hughes' translations and take as a comparison an extract from Finnegan’s Wake where two washerwomen transform into a tree and stone respectively.

In the end I read from the opening of Metamorphoses and the transformation of Lycaon into a wolf (also from Book 1). I read Hughes translations of these passages immediately after the Latin reading.
I read the start and end of this passage from Finnegan’s Wake ( here it is as recorded by Joyce himself).

James Joyce

In the session people seemed to be struck by the power of the Latin language – despite my poor reading- and Hughes translation although admired was felt to be less sonically effective than the original Latin texts of Ovid. In reading Lycaon the preponderance of guttural or even vulpine sounds really made the Latin text an effective sound world irrespective of whether you knew the meaning.

Joyce’s playful relation to language is a different world to Ovid who does not continually create new words through reference to a range of different languages, iconic works, registers and dialects. The reading from Joyce showed how sonically and musically sensitive his writing was and, like the Ovid text, even if incomprehensible for different reasons, rhythm and sound and especially cadential ending brought to life the text. Also, Ovid like Joyce is playful within the genre limitations he operates. He is adept at changing sand exploring different styles and more than anything this has highlighted to me the need to engage more with using the text of Ovid as a starting libretto for exploration in music and dance in Avid for Ovid.

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