Joan La Barbara and Kenneth Goldsmith, 73 Poems

John Schaefer

By John Schaefer

on 01.07.13 in Reviews

Vocalist and composer Joan La Barbara’s collaboration with the poet Kenneth Goldsmith blurs the distinction between poetry, music and the amorphous catchall term “sound art.” It was inspired by (and dedicated to) the late John Cage, whose own performances of his idiosyncratic writings were similarly hard to define. Everything about 73 Poems asks you to question some pretty basic assumptions: What is a song? What is a poem? How many is 73? (There are 79 tracks here.) Even the line between abstract art and the concrete is blurry here — Goldsmith’s texts use words, but sometimes more for their sound, and often more for their appearance, than their meaning. And the sounds, while based in recognizable words (and numbers), become a kind of aural abstraction, a “wall of sound” quite different from Phil Spector’s famous use of that phrase.

Blurring the distinction between poetry, music and the amorphous catchall term “sound art”

La Barbara’s overdubbed vocals — guttural overtone effects, swooping glissandi, whispers, etc. — draw a lot of their structure from the way the poems look on the page. Black text appears with a shadowy grey text underneath — usually the grey text is an “echo” of the preceding poem. This suggests an analogy to tape or digital delay effects in music, and that is how La Barbara treats it. Towards the middle of the piece (the poems in the 40s), the text devolves into a series of O’s and 0′s — typographically close but musically represented by completely different sounds.

Each poem is brief, and many of these tracks are under 30 seconds. Given the large number, it makes sense to just download the whole album, since that is how the project is meant to be heard. But if you want to get a taste for the piece, start with tracks 44 and 45, and you can go here to see the poems and more complete notes on the piece.