Subatomic poetry

Who knows?


Telecommunications Systems Design Consultant and Poet


After all these years

Test to see if this will still work after all these years.


Stretching a Point

It's stretching a point to call this a post about sound poetry. Last summer I gave a presentation at the trAce Incubation symposium on Subatomic and Particle Poetry. Bit of a spoof really, but it made some interesting points, I thought, and it did go down well. Rob Kendall, who runs WordCircuits, asked me if I'd do a web version of it, that he would host. It's taken a while, but here it is:

Subatomic and Particle Poetry

It uses Flash, takes about 20 minutes, and is well worth it!



Google has found this blog. I think it might be because I put a link to it from Low Probability of Racoons a while ago. Anyway, in the unlikely event that someone enters the search phrase subatomic poetry, Google returns this site as the second result. The first result is a page with an abstract of a presentation I gave at the trAce Incubation conference in July.

Well, there you go. No posts here for ages, and then three come along at once.

Heads Up at King's

POETS/IMPROVISORS:UPFUSSED WORDNOISE NELL'AMBIENTE ** Friday 3 September 8.00pm Keynes Hall, Kings College, Cambridge ** Keston Sutherland/Pleasure-Drenching Improvers Beck-Lunch Improvors **

I went along to this, shouldering past the "The College is Closed to Visitors" and "No Entry" signs that adorn the front of King's College, and demanding directions from a slightly stunned porter. Keynes Hall was almost empty and a friendly antipodean enjoined me to "sit wherever you like". Someone I Recognised was one of the few foolish enough to arrive before the advertised starting time, so I sat near to him. Someone Else I Recognised arrived a few minutes later.

Poetry events never start on time, but this pushed the boundaries. At a quarter past, someone started carefully unwrapping masonry on the stage. At twenty past, an impressively large contingent of Those Clearly In The Know tripped in, swelling what might have been an embarrassingly small audience to a respectable 40 or so.

Sutherland read some of his grammatically fractured, dense texts, to an accompaniment of squarks and clonks provided by Drenching, Sonic Pleasure, and the aforesaid masonry. Pleasure wore silk gloves. It was a bit difficult to see what they were doing, because they were sitting on the floor. The noises were quite nice, though they sometimes made it rather hard to hear the words. I suspect it would have worked rather better had the poetry been more driven by phonics than by semantics.

Eventually, Sutherland stopped and announced an alcohol break. This was rather optimistic of him: there was a bar, but it remained resolutely closed. Some of the more enterprising students had brought bottles with them; the rest of us remained dry and disgruntled.

In the second half, Beck encouraged noises from a bassoon that its makers had probably never dreamed of. Watson accompanied him (I think that's the right way round) with readings slightly more logically coherent than Sutherland's and declaimed from various parts of the auditorium. There were two babies in the audience, who wailed intermittently. My companions and I debated whether they were intended to provide an aleatory contribution to the performance, and decided that they probably were. Watson addressed a section of his text directly to one of the babies, who appeared to be soothed by this.

Towards the end, Beck discarded his bassoon in favour of a balloon (geddit?) which he inflated and then encouraged noises from that its makers had almost certainly dreamed of. There are only two possible ways of ending a performance that involves a balloon; Beck opted for the less explosive one.

On my way out, I mentioned to those of the performers I could reach that I had enjoyed the evening. They seemed a little nonplussed by the information.

We repaired to The Cow for a half (I was driving) of Hoegaarden, with a slice of lime. Weird, but not that weird.

J6 and No Sound

I managed to show of the Virtualizer to the rest of Joy of Six the other evening, though it was a close-run thing. They enjoyed playing with the echo effects and the Cathedral reverb. I think they might be interested in trying out something that we could weave into a performance, but there'll need to be a lot of experimentation first, I suspect.

I've been playing around with a new technique (new to me, anyway - I'm sure somebody must have done it before). I set the delay to around 0.3 seconds and then turned up the mic gain to just below the point where acoustic feedback starts to howl. Then open your mouth in front of the microphone and you can generate tones without actually making any noise yourself. Your mouth cavity acts as a Helmholtz resonator, and you can change the tone by altering the shape of your mouth. It's quite difficult to control though, and I'm not sure there's a lot of artistic point. Though I suppose there's philosophical mileage to be made out of the fact that the sound is being produced under your control but without you generating it in any of the usual ways.

The delay helps by building up the feedback slowly, so you don't get an uncontrollable screech. It seems to be better if you have a bit of electronic feedback, but not too much. Too much is when any sound produced continues for longer than you want it to.



I bought a dinky little mixer today, a Phonic MU 502. I justified it to myself on two grounds:

  • I can use it as a front end for the Virtualizer. Up to now, I've had to plug the microphone into my cassette deck, which was a bit inconvenient.
  • I can make recordings on my PC using the line input, rather than the (rather noisy) microphone input.
It seems to work fine. I'm particularly pleased with the results when connecting it to my PC - the noise reduction seems to be at least 30dB. Previously, I've reduced the noise on recordings using Cool Edit, but though that's quite effective, it does reduce the quality, of course.


I use Macromedia's Flash quite a lot, mostly for creating animated poems. I even teach a course on Animated Poetry in Flash. This means I have to keep up with the latest versions, so at present, I have Flash MX 2004 installed. This has lots of fine features, and lots of bugs.

So I was initially pleased when Macromedia announced they had a bug fix release. Less pleased when I went to their site and discovered I could download it. All 66.66 MB of it. I don't have a broadband Internet connection, so downloading it via my modem would take about 6 hours, assuming the connection were reliable for that length of time and there were no problems.

I bought the product on CD, so I ought to be offered bug fixes on CD.

I contacted Macromedia about this, but they didn't have anything useful to say:

...Furthermore, for you to be able to acquire the Flash MX 2004 7.2 updater, may we suggest that you refer with your Internet Service Provided. You may request from them, if possible, to have your download bandwidth increased for only a particular period during off-peak hours for you to be able to download the said updater. They may be able to provide you with further assistance on this matter...

That bit of boilerplate just means they've had lots of complaints from broadband users about the amount of time it takes to download the update. As I said, I don't have broadband, so the stuff about increasing my download bandwidth is totally irrelevant.

I suspect this is one of those gestures, intended to please, but done at half-cock and on the cheap, that ends up having the opposite effect. It's certainly disgruntled me!

Oh yes, and that new Blogger NavBar looks really crap, doesn't it.


Theatrical Piece

I came to the conclusion that the one-second delay effect with no feedback didn't really add much. It just sounded like two people reading in canon. And if that's the effect you want, it's probably better to get two people to read in canon. Something that sounded a bit more promising, perhaps, happened when I used a much longer delay (5 seconds) and lots of feedback (98%). And there was lots of acoustic feedback, too. The electronic feedback didn't cause changes in timbre of the echo, but the acoustic feedback did. So I got a gradually changing background sound. It seemed to set up a rather mysterious, sinister mood, so I'm writing a rather theatrical text to go with it. I'll have to try to persuade Joy of Six to try it out.


Another attempt at a sound poem

I wrote another sound poem today. The idea of is that it should be read via the FX unit set to produce a delay of one second. The words should be read at a rate of two per second, so that the the delayed word is heard at the same time as the live word two words later. For example, the live word 'hook' occurs at the same time as the delayed word 'lock'.

light show ground sheet lightning bolt blue sky hook crook lock pick pocket watch glass ware out side bar stool pigeon toed away match sticky back bone meal ticket machine head gear lever arch bishop gate fold up beat eggs act shun t ap ple over t off er g et er ik on ik kle ap ear ie t t

The other effect I'd intended to use was to increase the feedback of the FX unit so that as the text became more and more broken up, there were more repetitions of the sound. I tried this out this evening, but it was hard to read the words, concentrate on getting the rate right and fiddle with the feedback all at the same time. It seemed to be more effective to repeat sections of the poem, rather than reading it straight through, though I have a sneaking feeling that for 'more effective' one should read 'easier'.


Recording Session

I didn't get a chance to show off my Virtualizer to the rest of J6 on Sunday - we just had too much to do in the way of sorting out poems for our CD recording session, and making a start on devising a new set for the autumn.

We'd booked two evening sessions for making the recordings with Zoo Audio, an excellent small studio run by Andy Cross. I won't describe the studio in detail, as you can read about it on the site. The online article from Sound On Sound magazine is particularly informative.

The sessions went much more smoothly than any of us had expected; many of the poems were successfully recorded in just one or two takes. And the combination of Andy's editing skills and SAWStudio ensured that fluffed lines could be corrected without re-doing the whole poem.

Our multi-voice poems were a little more complicated to do, but even those didn't give a lot of trouble. I'd vaguely expected that we'd have a microphone each, but Andy used either a single stereo mic, or a pair. Reading poems in the soundproof booth was a slightly odd experience, and a hot one, especially when all five of us were in there together.

Now we just have to wait for Andy to give us the demo CD, and decide what order to put the poems on for the final version. And design a cover and playlist. And get the CDs made.

I mentioned Cool Edit the other day, but Cool Edit is no more, alas. It's been taken over by Adobe and turned into Adobe Audition. The 'alas' part is because Adobe only do the expensive ($299) 'pro' version and have dropped the cheap Cool Edit 2000 version, which contained everything most people wanted.