Acoustic Books At The Beginning And End Of The World
Leaf Mosaic of the Book of Life
by Karl Young

. . .

Part 1: A Book of Nocturns

At the beginning of 1974 I wrote a series of poems based in brief sketches of my companion's apartment/studio at night. Later, I added several others so that the poems moved back and forth between the rooms at night and the rooms in daylight. Later, I added some poems to friends, and then took both them and the day poems out of the series, making it a set of nocturnes once more. In another session, I added some poems as nocturnal mirrors of passages in Olivier Messiaen's Quator por le fin du temps, following, in part, the images in Messiaen's annotations. (In the mid 60s, I listened to Quator on a New Year's Day, partly because I had a hangover and wanted to hear something peaceful. The sense of peace in the face of time and dire circumstances [Messiaen's Quator was written in a Nazi concentration camp] seemed an appropriate way to start the year.) In addition to clarifying some of the sound qualities of the work, this brought a serene eschatology into a few of the poems. Something about the set didn't work right, so I put it aside again.

In the early 70s, I began fooling around with book forms, the first primarily made up of things found in a print shop where I worked, and then in my own basement shop. By the middle of the decade, I was making all sorts of books out of unusual materials or employing unusual techniques. I made books out of hair, out of cinder blocks, out of money, out of offset plates, out of bars of soap, out of cigar boxes, out of mirrors, etc. Not many people were working along similar lines at that time, and some who were had a different attitude toward the process. I think we all shared the same giddy enthusiasm, but I didn't see most of my books as anything but propositions, not finished works of art or tokens to bid with in arts markets.

In the process of making these propositions, I found that I could make acoustic books, books that could be played as musical interments. By 1976, I saw the potential for making true books out of propositions of this sort. One of the first that seemed successful was a book to use in performances of Jackson Mac Low's Stanzas for Iris Lezak. I made the pages for this book out of wooden two by fours that produced sounds by clapping the pages together. The performance instructions for Stanzas called for sounds of varying loudness, which could be accomplished by the force with which the pages were clapped. After the first binding, I took the book apart and bound each page into the spine with different amounts of space between the pages so I could get slightly different timbers by clapping different pairs of pages or groups of pages, and could further vary this by slipping a piece of cloth or metal between the pages during performance. The texts, written, stamped, and painted on the pages of the book came from Stanzas and from a work of my own that followed similar systematic chance procedures as those used by Jackson. The book was made during rehearsals for performances of Stanzas, and the book's acoustic properties (and to some extent the talismanic possibilities of the texts) were more important to me than the book's appearance.

Putting the pieces of cloth between pages naturally suggested covering pages with cloth and other materials to produce different volumes and different types of sound. The sound properties of the first tests I made with felt covered pages suggested the sequence of nocturnes I had started several years before. I began making models to see if I could work out a means of performing the poems with the book as accompaniment, marking the patterns of lines and stanzas in the poems. It then functioned well within poems, but not as a complete work. Although the series was meant to be sonically simple, the voice and clapping were too uniform and monotonous.

Recordings of Japanese Gagaku Dance ceremonies and Noh Plays for other projects suggested what I needed. Adding sharp, hard claps from the book I'd made for Stanzas gave the work a completely different character. The lady whose presence informed the first poems clapped the accompanying book in performance.

A Book of Nocturns

Next Page

Copyright © 1976, 1984, 2000, and 2001 by Karl Young

Karl Young Home Page
Light and Dust Poets

This is a co-operative presentation of
Kaldron On-Line and
Light and Dust Mobile Anthology of Poetry.