Let’s start with the pitfalls: The first was beyond Kenzo and my control. We met twice in the first week and beginning of the second to try to start recording, but both times the Equipment Room was closed, and we fell behind. Our second came in the brainstorming stages. Both of us enjoy the artist Portishead, whose otherworldly music reflects different parts of the story well, we thought. After spending time settling on and beginning to map songs to define the five parts that we saw as the main divisions of structure, we decided that the the project needed to rely more on original sounds. We scrapped that idea and went back to the drawing board. The idea we finally decided on came only after we recorded some sounds that we picked out from the text. It became clear that most noises belonged to the T’Gatoi, a character who fascinated us, and we began to trace her action through the story.
Because we had improvised, we didn’t have time to think through the narrating voice and ended up relying too much on effects, which created problems that became evident when we played it in class—the words were muddy, and the story was flat. The nuances of each sound, along with their layering to create different densities, were lost. We also could have made the differences more extreme.
Overall, though I like the idea that we settled on, I think the project lacked in execution. I enjoy some of the sounds, but I think that they could have been employed more deliberately to create more delineated textures and story structure.
The project focuses on the character of T’Gatoi. As the story progresses, the alien creature becomes both increasingly sinister—splitting a man open with her claws, licking blood—and increasingly human, ultimately vowing to protect Gan. Sometimes, we see her body through a lens of fear and distrust; other times, the narrator talks of her lovingly. The sound piece traces descriptions of T’Gatoi’s concrete actions, capturing the dual nature of her transformation in the eyes of Gan and, with heavily processed recordings, toying with what in the creature is recognizable and what is alien.
Conceiving of the piece as a companion to an installation, we thought of a large, dark and dank room. Though the dimly lit space is mostly empty, corrugated walls change in appearance according to the shifting perspective of the viewer as she walks across the space slowly over three minutes. By the end, the lights have brightened and the view back through the space has altered and clarified, just as T’Gatoi’s character and physical presence does throughout the story.
Over the past few years, I’ve developed a serious podcast addiction. The last time I opened the app Stitcher, the podcast platform I use, it informed me that since downloading it in 2012, I have engaged in 951 hours of listening, which is equivalent to just under 40 days. In other words, I have spent more than a month of my life listening to podcasts.
Most of that time, I would guess, comes from commuting. I listen to podcasts on the subway, through an aux cable in the car, and, mostly, walking down the street. Recently, though, I’ve been thinking more about the downside this habit: Having Ira Glass narrate a story in your ear keeps you entertained and provides effective armor against undesirable New York City interactions, but it also isolates you—keeps you too self-contained in a city with a lot to offer.
“Passing Stranger (East Village Poetry Walk)” challenges this problem. While putting on headphones to listen to the piece necessitates some degree of distancing from the street, in this case it also meant plugging in to the surroundings. With the exception of a couple stops (the church across from Allen Ginsberg’s apartment that is now condos—a fitting place for the tour to mention gentrification), the correspondence between what was playing in my ear and the real-world landmarks kept me engaged with the landscape, not only seeking out the sites mentioned, but also noticing things I often overlook—murals, old architecture, even a long, ornate fake nail abandoned on the sidewalk.
In the Lethem essay, he writes about—or rather, collages—the idea that many voices that echo in the space of an artwork. The East Village Poetry Walk enacted a kind of physical manifestation of this, the way it layered the neighborhood with the voices of the past, from Whitman to Waldman. As I was walking down E 9th St., a man and woman were playing folk music on banjo and guitar across the street, emulating Bob Dylan or Woody Guthrie or any number of precursors. I thought of the essay and Kirby Ferguson’s talk, which both suggest that when new art steals from old art, it pays homage by breathing new life into it. That’s the natural progression of novels, songs, visual art, and even entire neighborhoods. As Lethem (and many before him) writes: “Any text is woven entirely with citations, references, echoes, cultural languages…the bulk, the actual and valuable material of all human utterances is plagiarism.”