Barzakh Spring 2013 Editorial

by Sarah Giragosian and Chad Lowther

Barzakh’s second issue of the year again takes up the question of the ecological critique, seeking out modalities of an ecopoetic and ecocritical praxis.  This issue, which brings together text, image, and video, models Barzakh’s dedication to the in-between or “isthmus” space of hybrid and intertextual discourses.  In this issue, we feature Jill Magi’s presentation at the 2013 SUNY-Albany English Graduate Student Conference on her forthcoming hybrid collection LABOR (published by Nightboat Books), that examines the relationship between the laboring body and the institution. We also are pleased to curate Catherine Owen’s “rhizomatic” blogs on the 2013 Conference on Ecopoetics in Berkeley.  More locally, the spirit of institutional critique in Magi’s work was embodied in a recent student protest that occurred outside of the University at Albany’s University Hall. The protest, organized by the Student Revolutionary Coalition, served as a means to urge President Robert Jones to address and to resolve, among other issues, the lack of faculty diversity. A video highlighting the events of the protest can be viewed here, and a list of the SRC’s demands can be viewed here. We have also compiled interviews with a local environmentalist and a local activist that are devoted to protecting Albany’s Pine Bush Preserve, which is the only considerably sized pine barrens dune ecosystem in the US today. Finally, we are proud to present a film recording of Clark Coolidge’s reading from his highly anticipated A Book Beginning What and Ending Away (Fence Books 2013); the film archives Coolidge’s staggering performance accompanied by bassist Michael Bisio.

These testimonials and events are set alongside a diverse range of creative and critical interventions on how we engage bodily and imaginatively with our ecosystem.  As editors, we are drawn to work that has a strong political and social conscience, that undertakes a broad and systemic investigation of the discursive and non-discursive practices that contribute to the devastation of the eco, and that seek to question the ways in which cultural categories—such as gender and labor—intersect with the current ecological crisis.  Global warming, as Jill Magi reminds us, is a deeply social crisis.  An ecopolitical practice, moreover, may interrogate the regimes of power that impose strict ontological boundaries between life forms and instead account for the interdependencies of life. In this issue, we are honored to feature the work of poets and critics who are engaged in redefining those boundaries.  Art, as a mode of relation, can help make the borders between ourselves and other life forms more permeable.

We can see this notion of art as a tool for scrutiny and subversion at work in the music and poetry of John Cage, one of the artists featured in the Spring 2013 issue of Barzakh. Cage used aleatoric procedures to eliminate the role of the ego in composition, in order to avoid habitual patterns informed by aesthetic standards that reinforce existing power structures. He looked to the use of non-intention as a model for social change. He saw political protest, for instance, as means to exacerbate one’s tribulations—like fanning a fire, therefore he advocated the adoption of a non-stance in art and in life. This is not to say that Cage was not concerned with grave social and political issues. Much of his thought was invested in the state of the environment and society, which he likened to the state of music.

At a symposium on the biological concerns related to global ecology, held in Mexico in 1969, Cage commented, to Margaret Mead, Conrad Waddington, and others on new music that was emerging at the time, and how it had grown to reshape the listener’s experience by altering their expectations. He said, “We no longer see the coming together of disparate things as requiring harmony. In fact if harmony is required or imposed by the composer, it acts in our ears now to obscure the differences of the individual sounds.” Cage was not referring to music alone, but to a number of different things, and to the idea of accepting chaos among them, in lieu of choosing concord. His comment was in response to an argument made by Waddington, that what society needs is a greater sense of “unity” or “wholeness.” Cage posited, to the contrary, that what is needed in society, art, music, etc. is “openness” to diversity, to a “multiplicity” of disparate things.

In multiplicity things may occur freely, unrestricted and unaltered. In Cage’s music, sounds occur naturally, or as he puts it, in “aperiodic” intervals. Perhaps one of his lesser-known works, “Bird Cage,” composed at SUNY Albany in 1972, introduces 8 dissonant streams of sound to a performance setting in which “people are free to move and birds to fly.” Here, sound occurs much like it does in Cage’s silence, where nonintentional audible factors—elements external to deliberate outcomes or planned conditions—are allowed to enter into the aural environment of the performance. There may be the sounds of lively discussion, a baby crying, birds passing by, etc.—whatever noise a crowd can make, however broad one’s concept of crowd or performance may be; to this Cage added 8 speakers through which passed, at random, 8 carefully engineered streams of sound created from 12 tapes that were curated using complex procedures. Such conditions prevent individual sounds from forming into congruous structures, or as Cage might have said, from being bullied by harmony.

In other works appearing in this issue, as well, we find disjointed landscapes that, like “Bird Cage,” direct the observer’s attention to individual, isolated events transpiring within. In Vernon Frazer’s, “Desire After the Elms” we find an anomalous terrain, severely fragmented by parataxis, littered with verbal noise reverberating in places where disjointed word strings are taken up again and refashioned. Dismembered “immersion/ particles/ diversify” the poem’s body in seemingly purposeless, asymmetrical patterns. There are no pronouns in the poem, and the poem itself is the only subject we encounter. It engages in a reflexive analysis of its own disjunctive structures (“a lamination/ of parataxis resumes/ reversal”). It tells us it is an “emulsion”—a mixture, the elements of which remain suspended, unable to be absorbed into the whole. Similar to the way chance undermines habitual behaviors in Cage’s work, the poem’s odd, disjointed phrases act as “amnesia throttles,” disrupting recursive patterns of thought that may have otherwise appeared in the text at the time of composition, or influenced the reader’s assumptions about the text’s inherent meaning.

Multiplicity requires collaboration among the different parts that make up the total (mind and) body … family … community … society … world. This is true in the arts, as it is in society. For instance, Cage describes how the musical scale grew to what it is because of strangers bringing new tones to the collective. Margaret Mead, likewise, hypothesizes that language developed as the result of similar collaborative acts among the earth’s earliest communities. In this way, the presence of disparate things increases the knowledge base of society by increasing its level of diversity. Rather than the participation of each contributing factor, unity and harmony require dominance to achieve homogeneity. Thus conflict arises where difference meets with the standardized parts of the unifying whole. At this juncture, the stranger’s options ultimately entail some form of forfeiture: either of diversity and autonomy; or of the power, rights, and resources rewarded for good social standing. The individual and her unique traits are lost, absorbed into the whole.

Our issue questions the tense relations between the “I” and the “We” and offers art as an in-between space in which those relations might be tested, forged, or reconstituted in a specifically political vocabulary.  It may be that art’s immanence is particularly dramatized in an ecopoetics.   Often the terms used to define Nature are exclusionary and are deployed by an imperialist project that establishes the strict boundaries between the natural and unnatural.  Art, however, may confuse these boundaries, and ecopoetic work is especially disposed to blend cultural and natural categories so as to expose their constructedness.  An ecopoetics may furnish a possible intervention in an exclusionary politics. We are excited to feature critical and creative work in this issue that is invested in one way or another in offering alternatives to hegemonic discourses that seek to impose social order at the expense of the “unnatural” other.

Faculty Advisor: Tomás Urayoán Noel

Co-Editors: Chad Lowther and Sarah Giragosian

Editorial Committee: Amanda Boyd, Jesse Newman

John Cage

Bird Cage.

Twelve Tapes To Be Distributed By a Single Performer

In a Space Where People Are Free To Move and Birds To Fly.

~~~~~~~~~By John Cage.

“Bird Cage” was composed over a span of three days in 1972 at the SUNY Albany Electronic Music Studio. During the 70s, prominent composers, such as Cage and David Tudor, visited the campus to work with composer and Professor Emeritus, Joel Chadabe, who founded the studio in 1966. Cage was also drawn to the SUNY Albany campus by the CEMS System synthesizer, which was housed in the Electronic Music Studio. The CEMS System, which was used in the making of “Bird Cage,” was designed by Chadabe and built by Robert Moog, who invented the earliest modular analog synthesizer systems. The piece was written for 12 tapes to be played, 4, 6, or 8 at a time, through 4, 6, or 8 speakers respectively. The 12 tapes were mixed from 3 types of masters that Cage brought with him to Albany: recordings of the sounds of birds in cages, recordings of himself singing pieces of his Mureau(1970), and recordings of miscellaneous sounds from his daily life. With the help of Chadabe, all of the tapes from the three groupings were passed, according to an aleatoric procedure, through an 8 in/8 out matrix mixer that Cage designed for the piece, and routed to a single reel-to-reel tape recorder. This process was repeated until 12 submasters had been created. According to a different aleatoric procedure, the submasters were later played back, one after the other, through the CEMS System’s low pass filters, ring modulators, and other processing devices, into a single tape recorder, until 12 tapes for performance had been created from each of the twelve submasters.

Using the I-Ching again, Cage wrote a Score of “distribution programs” for the performance of “Bird Cage,” describing how sound produced from the tapes was to be routed to 8 speakers dispersed in a space in which “people are free to move and birds to fly.” The Score instructs its users to play back the 12 processed tapes, either, 4, 6, or 8 at a time, into, respectively, 4, 6, or 8 monitors, which are dispersed throughout the performance setting. Per his instructions, performers may follow the Score in total or in part, they may consult the I-Ching, and they may make random choices in order to determine the number of tapes that will play and the speakers to which they are routed; for instance, 4 tapes and 1 speaker, then 2 tapes and 2 speakers, and so on. As is true of most of Cage’s work, “Bird Cage” leaves performers free to make their own intuitive decisions during performance including: what tapes should be used, and when; how sound is to be distributed throughout the performance space; and how long the performance should last (the piece is ideally performed over the course of an evening or for any length of time).

Cage, Tudor, and Chadabe delivered the first public performance of “Bird Cage” at SUNY Albany, in 1973. According to Chadabe, the three played the 12 tapes for performance through Cage’s mixer, randomly selecting when which tapes would be routed to which speakers. In 1998, William Blakeney adapted this method so that the 12 tapes were passed through only one output, leading to a single tape recorder. He also included pieces of a soundtrack that had been recorded by Hans Helm, for a film documenting the making of “Bird Cage.” The sound track includes pieces of a discussion shared between Cage, Tudor, and Chadabe at the 1973 performance of “Bird Cage.” A recording of Blakeney’s actualization of the modified piece can be found below, along with excerpts from Cage’s Score and his Realization.

-Chad Lowther

Special Thanks to Joel Chadabe and Robert Gluck for their help in assembling information for this narrative.
For more on John Cage and “Bird Cage” see the Issue 5 Editorial.

Photo of Chadabe next to CEMS Synth by Warren Bur

Photo of Chadabe next to CEMS Synth by Warren Bur

Composer Warren Burt on the history of music
at SUNY Albany during Joel Chadabe’s Tenure


Bird Cage Score
Special thanks to the John Cage Trust, The New York Public Library, and Henmar Press.

Realization of Bird Cage
Special thanks to the John Cage Trust, The New York Public Library, and Henmar Press.

William Blakeney’s actualization of Bird Cage


TwERK (Belladonna*, April 2013)

by LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs

Review by Amanda M. Boyd

Before you even arrive at the first poem LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs’ new book, TwERK, you are brought from the Book of Genesis to words from the great Melvin B. Tolson and you know you are in for a poetic journey through history and experience. What you don’t know, unless you do know, is that it will be multilingual, musical, visual, involved. Or in the words of Maria Damon, in her blurb: “idio-lingual-lectical”, inimitable, mellifluous. Through reference to Kelis, found material, homage to an array of poets, artists and tongues Diggs pulls you into a body of work that is as meticulous and superbly intricate as the lace on the book’s cover.

Gigantic Magazine (Issue #4: Gigantic Everything)

Review by Amanda M. Boyd

I walked into Greenlight Book in Fort Greene, Brooklyn looking for something entirely different when I came acrossGigantic Magazine’s 4th issue, Gigantic Everything. It was easy to overlook in a sea of loud and glossy journals on the shelf but with eco on the brain, I was drawn towards the pamphlet-sized magazine printed on newspaper-thin accordion-folded and glued-together paper held closed by a rubber band.
The issue includes a short story by Israeli writer Etgar Keret about God as a lonely midget who juggles tiny balls to make friends, an interview with Lydia Davis complete with an illustration of a smug cow, and a 5-page spread of visual art by an art collective called Boozefox. The magazine’s editors promise a cost effective, “alternative venue” of short prose and art they have tried hard to ensure is devoid of words and phrases like glimmer, shimmer, swaths and lapis lazuli.

You can check out their newest online issue here or buy a print copy here.

A Book Beginning What and Ending Away (Fence, April 2013)

by Clark Coolidge

Review by Jesse Newman

Clark Coolidge’s anthemic A Book Beginning What and Ending Away reads like the memory of a dream in which you’re someone else. In what could be a sequel in spirit to his 1998 Book of StirsA Book Beginning What and Ending Away progresses as an epic song of colors and action, dutifully organized into hierarchical categories in which a taxonomy of life – symbols, furniture, plants, machines- cascade and clamor with a constant sense of motion. This is verse meant to be read out loud (Coolidge does so in durational performances), where the ‘point perspective lyric’ melody of objects in your mouth may effect an exploration of verbal space that seems both personal in its music, and alien, like a ‘glimpse’ of a stranger’s memory.

Márton Koppány

Hungarian Passport (From Exile To Emigration) 

Hypolimnion – for Peter O’Leary

Question – for Gary Barwin

Still Life – for Carmen Racovitza

Voyage – for Eileen Tabios (and her “Sit With Moi!” series) 

Jill Magi at SUNY Albany

Jill Magi presenting at the 2013 University at Albany English Grad Student Organization Annual Conference:

Jill Magi 1

Jill Magi 2

Jill Magi 3

Jill Magi 4

By way of an introduction to Jill Magi’s work, we include here an excerpt from Sarah Giragosian’s opening remarks prior to Magi’s presentation at SUNY Albany’s 2013 Graduate Student Conference:

Jill Magi’s work has found a good home in Barzakh, SUNY-Albany’s student-run multi-genre journal.  Her work challenges the hegemony of environmentalism, with its myopic single-issue politics, and argues for a broader, systemic investigation of the ways in which labor, class, gender, race, and similar cultural categories relate to institutions of power that contribute to the devastation of the eco.   She defines an ecopolitics as a position of resistance to the institutions that perpetuate power at the expense of ethnic and racial minorities, laboring bodies, and vulnerable life forms. As she reminds us, global warming is also a social issue; it intersects with issues of oppression and the exploitation and displacement of peoples.  Art, however, can be a mode of intervention.  It is political, according to Magi, by virtue of its inherently relational cast, as the conjunction of action and reflection.

In her recently published SLOT, for example, her collection of photos, bibliographies, poetries, documentary narratives, and letters, she draws upon the potentialities of hybridity to make legible our interpolation within social systems.   Hybridity enables us to access codes of behavior and the structures of interpretation and meaning-making.  To authorize the self and to enter into dialogic relations with the reader and with the text, Magi brings together various discourses to open up a field of possibility and agency. SLOT, a term that connotes narrowness and categorization, is a critique of the monumentalizing practices of the state and a search for more meaningful, less imperializing forms of cultural memory.  An anti-monumental poetics, her poems wander through museums and exhibitions and ultimately explore the subjectivity of the tourist in pursuit of a language, an ecosystem, and a representative and mnemonic mode that is not at the service of the state.  There is no “outside,” of course; we are all hailed or recruited by the state.  And yet where there is the touch of the state—in the form of the monument or the exhibition—there is also, in Magi’s words, “the touch” of words and of the wind.   She recalls us to our mutual condition of embodiment, and the vital connection between affect and place. SLOT is a record of this engagement, even “while the world is made by debris, around a table,” and while “the cast-off grows, the cinders—“ (127).