This interview was conducted in a google doc between 25 February 2016 & 15 June 2016
kaie kellough is a word-sound systemizer. his systems originate in the inchoate swirl of vowels, consonants, misspellings, shapes, stammerings, and emerge as audio recordings, books, visual entities, volumes of letters, and performances that verse and reverse utterance.
kaie's work fuses formal experiment and social engagement. kaie is the author of 2 books of poetry and 2 sound recordings. he has performed and published internationally. kaie lives in montréal, where he works on new and old ideas.
Eric Schmaltz is a text-artist, writer, researcher, and curator who lives and works in Toronto, Ontario. His work has been featured online and in print across Canada and internationally. Recent places of publication include Lemon Hound, The Capilano Review, Rampike, CTRL+ALT+DEL, Open Letter, and Poetry is Dead. Eric also has chapbooks and print ephemera available from No Press (Calgary) and above/ground press (Ottawa). His text-art has been featured in Toronto, Vancouver, and St. Catharines where he also had his first solo exhibition, The Assembly Line of Babel, at the Niagara Artists Centre (NAC) in 2015.
A lot of your work draws from communities and practices of music and poetry––your book Maple Leaf Rag (2010) is described as a “jazz-infused riff on Canadian Culture,” you’ve released two albums in collaboration with musicians, creole continuum (2014) and vox:versus (2010), and your performances are both poetry readings and concerts. As a starting point, could you describe your involvement and collaborative work with musicians as well as your involvement with poetry and poetics over the years?
Hi Eric, thanks for the initial question, it’s nice to talk with you.
I think the most relevant thing I can say in response is that it can take a long time to grow into our formative experiences.
I started performing at almost exactly the same time I started writing, and was exposed early to dub poetry, and to a species of abstract word-based articulation that occurred amid a storm of improvised instrumental noise. I was exposed to the more restrained “poetry reading” a bit later.
In Calgary, a friend and poet named Rob Faust used to sit in with a free-jazz ensemble. He would speak, scream, declaim, whisper, and otherwise vocally unleash a surreal beat-inspired poetry into a torrent of instrumental noise, and the listener would literally have to lean into it, to listen forward into it to make out the words. But this was difficult to do, because the sound rushed at the listener, and the immediate instinct was to pull back. Sometimes the words got lost in the roar, and other times fragments were flung out, and when the instruments quieted just slightly, entire vocal phrases and passages could be heard surging within the sound. When I think back to seeing those performances (I was around 18 or 19 years old), I realize that it took me nearly 20 years to catch up to them.
I feel the same way about dub, about poets like Lillian Allen and Clifton Joseph, for instance. Around the same age, 18 or 19, I was exposed to the Toronto dub poets. Their articulations are musical, but just like the free-improv noise work, their sound is forceful, physical. It charges the listener with its confidence and by its investment in volume and its sonic conviction. This sonic conviction comes from and contributes to the political and social urgency of their words. This doesn’t mean that the work is always loud, rather that its sonic gestures are not hesitant. In performance, the work is deeply committed to its chosen register.
Sometimes when words are presented live, they race past and can’t be understood in the instant, and a strange shift or substitution occurs: their sound and delivery become their meaning. Their meaning is not just concept, but it becomes physical: it is transformed into hot breath, saliva, wet waveform. In much of my performed sound-poetry, but also in work on the page, I’ve striven to duplicate that effect, to have the sound become so present that it shapes, and often overtakes, the meaning. Those early experiences of language as sound-meaning are still with me, and they inform both my work on the page and with musicians.
I think I feel charged by your work in the same way that you describe free-improv noise work and dub poetry. I’ve seen a handful of your performances and I’ve been affected by them in ways that a “restrained” poetry reading has not affected me before––sometimes I am lulled into a trance or, at other times, sometimes the performance ends and I felt like I’ve had to pull my skin back on. How have you cultivated a practice that makes sound and language––seeming abstractions––more physical or more present in your live performance? Is there something about the (re)fusion of music and poetry that lends itself to creating a physical presence for what we usually think of as abstractions (language/sound)? What is it about a more imminent practice that seems timely to you?
I’ve performed with DJs, also in the jazz-improv context, further in more of a rock/electronic context, and also in a context that is based more in a fusion of popular musical forms from the African diaspora. What those experiences demand is, foremost, volume. You have to be loud to be heard over the instrumentation, and that can be a challenge for a poet. More interestingly, you become accustomed to performing at a volume that, due to microphones and amplifiers, exceeds the volume that your body can produce on its own. You hear yourself booming into the room, or sounding out of the monitors at a superhuman volume, and you develop a confidence and an ability to manipulate your delivery at those volumes. Another interaction that music privileges is one with effects units and other sound-sculpting devices. This further allows you to perform beyond yourself, to create sounds that your body can’t produce without added technology, to exceed yourself. And this sense of excess, this electronic overflow can be imported into the poetry reading.
To retread/retreat a bit: I don’t want to disparage readings because I have attended some superb readings, most recently a reading by Dionne Brand. I am also indebted to the poetry reading in general, because without that tradition and the space that it has provided me, I wouldn’t have a practice. I engage in and attend readings that are much more subdued, but even in a more performative mode I involve myself and the audience in the practice of reading, either by reading myself (reading myself) and/or by offering visual projections of words, phrases, and nonce letter-sequences that invite the audience to read.
I love the elasticity of the poetry reading. How far can we stretch it? When do we reach its outer-outer boundary – when the reader appears on stage without a book but with a poem memorized, or when the voice becomes louder and more dynamic and performative, or when instruments are involved, or when words or speech are abandoned altogether? One of the reading’s unique properties is that amid all of the different types of articulation it supports, its audience is silent and almost always seated. The audience offers itself, attentively, much as if it were the text waiting to be read.
The reading is a space for listening and for deep engagement with language, which can be very quiet and can become abstract and challenging. This makes a reading an ideal arena for experiments with volume and performative dynamism. Slight increases in volume and intensity can register very strongly, so when music’s relative dynamic and technological excess is imported, people begin to hear how much space a performance can take up, how much silence sprawls through the room. Populating that space/silence amplifies the experience of the word as a sonic entity, one that also inhabits and functions within a sonic environment.
The reading also bears a curious relationship to the printed page. Conceptually, it appears that the recited word exists against a backdrop of silence, just as the printed word-symbol exists against the blankness of the page. These contrasts seems very stark and pure, but they are also illusory. In the case of the recited word, it enters into a pre-existing sonic ecosystem: cars driving by outside, creaking floorboards, breathing, the ambient hum of appliances, faint music through the wall, etc. What interests me is establishing a more deliberate ecosystem of sounds (or noise) for the word to enter, for instance low-frequency drones, or radio-static, or a recording of whispered voices speaking over one-another. But also, I enjoy playing with the movement of the word within the physical space, or approaching the articulation spatially, either by using stereo microphones, or by placing amplifiers in different locations throughout the room, so that the listener hears language literally leap from one place to another, and becomes aware of it as an entity that can be moving but that can also move.
I’m also curious about the sound technology you use and how you approach your presentations, because we share some ideas, like having ambient sound present, and also a visual element.
One of the reasons I’m drawn to your work is because we do share some of the same ideas it seems–– especially that search for the “outer-outer boundary.” I’m attracted to the sound works of poets like Jordan Abel, angela rawlings, Gary Barwin, Wayde Compton, as well as others for the same reasons. They, too, seem to be exploring the limits of the voice, of technology, and the visuality of language.
I’ve started to experiment with these elements of poetry, language, and art about a year ago. I’ve done the poetry thing with my mouth and body, and was never quite satisfied. So, I’ve been expanding my collection of sound technologies––building a sonic arsenal, if you will, in search of something else. I’ve been returning to and acquiring hardware––pedals, trigger pads, microphones, voice modulators, and controllers. I’m experimenting with software used by musicians, DJs, and sound artists. I’m really just experimenting at this stage, and attempting to develop a practice of my own. The visual elements of my performances have thus far been produced by my close friend and collaborator Kasia Smuga, who I came to know while working on various projects for the Niagara Artists Centre. We don’t plan our performances in advance aside from establishing a general palette and a time limit. We have similar methods of composition––both working with publicly available, archival materials which we then we distort, layer, and play with them. It somehow works well enough each time.
I really like your idea of “establishing a more deliberate ecosystem of sounds” and I think this is very much the core of what I seek to do. I reach to technology to do this precisely because it has the capacity to amplify my voice in ways that I just can’t. I’m also attracted to rave culture and noise genres for the same reasons. I want to be overwhelmed by sound, and as part of my practice I embrace the possibility that others want that too. I’m returning to technology to rediscover a poetics that merged the audio and visual realms together or, what may be identified in Marshall McLuhan’s terms as synaesthetic. I consider myself to be a kind of retrofuturist in this way. I, with collaborators, want to create environments that can sonically and visually overwhelm an audience––to hear, feel, and see vibrations we may not otherwise encounter, to see how we can vibrate together, and ask what this means for formulating communities. Maybe, there are problems with this. What limits am I willing to push to affect an audience? I struggle with this, but I’m really only beginning to explore these things.
One thing I spend a lot of time thinking about is the inclusion of technology into these performances and the ethics of this inclusion. There are two things I’m thinking of here. First, there is the question of volume and amplification. I was recently reminded that the late Canadian poet bpNichol once experimented with the use of a megaphone in his readings, but eventually abandoned it because he felt the ability of the poet to take over the room was somehow fascist. I don’t necessarily agree. Second, some poets resist the incorporation of technologies (especially more specialized technologies) on grounds of classism––ie. some technologies cost a great deal of money so it becomes a question of who has access, perhaps. I don’t necessarily think this is grounds to reject the technospehere.
Do you ever have hesitation when it comes to include technology in your work? Do you consider issues of ethics around creative uses of technology?
I am attracted to the physicality of sound, the way it is registered by the body. A loud kick-drum can taunt acceleration from the two hundred hearts that thud in a room. A bass synthesizer might be felt before it is heard; often low frequencies churn the air and make it feel like cream. High volumes can submerge voices, and can make people lean close and speak directly into one-another’s ears. Some of my most memorable musical experiences date back to my late teens and early twenties, standing inside alternative / punk venues and feeling the sound surge and break over bodies. I still crave that experience, although not necessarily from a punk or hip hop band, but I want to feel my physical form vibrated by sound. I also want to share that sensation with others, but in a way that avoids forceful imposition. I have been to events that feature high-volume, long-duration improvisation by male virtuosos, and while that experience can be compelling, it can potentially be tedious. I do believe that sound can be used in a way that is abusive, that is domineering toward and exploitative of the audience. I try to carefully distinguish between uses of vocal and/or electronic sound that are provocative and challenging, and uses that are oppressive.
I hesitated for years, perhaps over a decade, before incorporating technology into performance. Much of that hesitation related to being unsure about which tech direction to take, which devices to use and why I would use them. I needed a justification for the use of technology beyond the fact of its existence and accessibility. Another reason for my hesitation was my interest in hearing language, and my (still held) conviction that hearing a well-projected voice doing unexpected things with language is among the most compelling performance experiences. I also hesitated because I wanted to create the “effects” with my voice, and from that point, to find a way of using technology to accompany and complement those effects, rather than foregrounding the technological aspect. I wanted language issued by a human voice to be the focus, the performer, the element that pulled ears and minds into the experience.
I do think of technology (beyond the technology of language and voice) as excess, or rather as exceeding what is biologically given, and I use it precisely for that excess that it creates: excess of effect, noise, sound, distortion, rhythmic patterning, and ambiance, beyond what my body can produce. Concerning an ethics surrounding the use of technology, I think the above outlines a kind of light ethics, in that it demands that the technology be an organic necessity, that its use must be dictated by the internal needs of the performance. With respect to a broader ethics, one that considers the intersections of race, class, sexuality, gender, ability, and their relationship to technology, I have always wanted to use sound technology to foreground those intersections, not to erase them – to attempt to multiply voices, to query their sex and to queer them, to subvert the notion of a solo hetero-male voice occupying the performative space, to multiply and include. I don’t know how successful I’ve been, but the experiments are ongoing.
I work with modular synthesizers, and they can become very expensive, and hence inaccessible to many. That expense-related inaccessibility is a concern, and it does inform my thinking, but it doesn’t stop me from entering the technosphere. One reason is that I want my identities to occupy that space. I don’t want to be locked out, or to impose a kind of solidarity-based exile. I want to see/hear my concerns articulated in that realm, and I want to create work that considers what it means for someone like me to interact with that sound technology. I guess you can say that my dominant interest is in projecting diverse identities, projecting them beyond their perceived realms and limitations, and this doesn’t just mean personal sprawl, as the personal exists in the wake of families, histories, and other narrative currents. I don’t just think of myself at the controls of my sound technology, but rather my parents, grandparents, my ancestors, and the cultures and experiences they carry with them.
I’m fascinated by this latter idea––collaborations with sonic technologies, demonstrating not an erasure of the self but an intersection between technology & a person’s multiple selves (my apologies for a rather crude reiteration). I’ve been thinking over your last response & I keep coming back to a phrase Marcus Boone used in a class I took with him on sound and community: “the politics of vibration.” The personal histories you carry in your vibrations––like all personal histories––are political. I’m thinking also of the performance you did in St Catharines at the Niagara Artists’ Centre which addressed issues connected to immigration crises. I understood that piece to be a work of protest. You’ve worked with ideas related to identity-politics in page-based works like Maple Leaf Rag (2010). How might you describe your sound work’s connection to politics––social-politics, identity-politics or, otherwise?
The work I presented in St Catharines included protest/polemic, yes, but it was also an unresolved blend of fiction, poem, essay, outcry, and direct address. I always try to create space for the direct address and the polemic. Those are viable literary modes. They can be used to provide dramatic punctuation and (ir)resolution to more abstract passages. Sometimes it is necessary to say what you think and feel in forceful, unadorned, rude language, like: fuck homophobia. People say, think, and feel in those terms in the world, and those terms will naturally appear in any literature or literary performance that is unconcerned with respectability, politeness, or simple affirmation.
Concerning identity, I want to create a sensation of being overcome. I am myself but I am also others, and I question whether I am more those others and their histories that inform me, than I am some complete projection that I would consider my self.
As a person of color, having had the experience of being othered, it becomes very difficult to speak for myself. Being othered means that I am suddenly not the complete individual I thought I was, but am instead somehow diminished and outside – even outside of myself. This makes the act of speaking or writing proceed from a point approaching non-being. Those resources that tether me to being, like family and some awareness of the historical processes that place me in a particular place at a particular moment, and my own experience (which includes and is shaped by othering), are what I draw upon in an attempt to define self. That defining is never complete or conclusive, it is rather a blind tracing of different relationships that entangle within “me,” that inform me, that proclaim that I exist. But those relationships are also confusing, sometimes misleading, sometimes unknown, sometimes diminishing, sometimes erasing, and sometimes infuriating, and they produce work that reflects their noise and inconclusiveness. They produce work that identifies self, but that simultaneously splinters into multiple selves, identities, and queries.
Concerning sound and performance, the above experiences articulate themselves in several ways: broken narratives, noise, fragmented rhythmic patterns, a multiplication of voices (some of which are deliberately submerged) and a constant oscillation between clear speech, gibberish, pieces of words, and phonemes. Some of these elements, like the multiplication of voices, or the noisy sonic backdrop, are impossible to perform without technology.
My relationship to machines (synthesizers, effects), is one that involves both control and a lack of control. I may know how to operate my instrument(s), but I am never in complete control. My engagement with them in the moment of performance is something of a negotiation, one that requires constant adjustment, but also one that explores the tension between what I want to articulate and the established and evolving sonic context. It also involves a welcome negation. The body becomes less visible because it moves behind the equipment. The gaze is focused on the dials and sliders, the flashing lights, the levels displayed on the equipment. The performance becomes less a performance of self, and much more a performance of sound and of interaction with technology. I like to think that in these moments, more than in any other, the performer becomes ghostly, hovers somewhere between being themselves and being all those who inhabit them, and that ghosting is mediated, and enabled, by the machine.
Photograph of Kaie Kellough by Pablo Riquelme.