Speech Songs

Speech Songs

Music by Haworth Hodgkinson

High Moss HM 003 (67:50) • Released 25 October 2015

All music composed, performed and recorded by Haworth Hodgkinson between 2007 and 2014

Texts by John Mackie, Catriona Yule and Haworth Hodgkinson

Cover from a photograph by Haworth Hodgkinson

Album © Haworth Hodgkinson 2015

Downloads: AlbumCD booklet (PDF)CD inlay (PDF)

Links: Haworth Hodgkinson John Mackie Catriona Yule

Buy album via Bandcamp (secure)

Speech Songs

The sound of the spoken word, or more specifically of poets reading their own work, provides the principal source material for all of the music on this album. Two of the pieces feature the voices of poets I have collaborated with on many projects over the years, Catriona Yule and John Mackie. In these pieces I also used a synthesiser, so in a sense they are my take on the classic form of songs with keyboard accompaniment. The remaining pieces use my own voice and poetry, and in these the voice is the sole sound source.

This Story (2007/2014)

In 2007, having recorded virtually no new music for ten years, I made my first explorations into digital recording and sound processing. Two short pieces based on recordings of readings of my own poetry were the immediate result. The first of these, This Story, takes the straight reading of the poem as a framework, applying various glitch-like transformations to short fragments of the speech. The piece was slightly revised and refined in 2014. The poem opens my collection A Weakness for Mermaids, and I often use it to open live poetry performances, so it seems appropriate that it should also open this album.

This Story

I'm telling you this story
about what happened in the pub
the other night
and as I tell the story
I'm editing details;
making minor alterations
to who said what
and in which order,
and removing the characters
who seem irrelevant
or inconvenient
to the point I'm trying to make.

After several retellings,
embellished and enhanced,
my story will be complete,
and my story
will have become
the truth.

© Haworth Hodgkinson
from A Weakness for Mermaids (Koo Press, 2007)

Nothing has Changed (2014)

The most recent piece on the album uses a slowed-down recording of John Mackie reading his poem The Forest Orchid, accompanied by a "silent" keyboard part. Many composers have used the effect of asking a pianist to press keys silently on a piano, then having a singer or wind player sing or play into the instrument so that the open strings resonate. In this piece I've tried to do something similar using electronics, with the keyboard resonating to the sound of the speaking voice.

The Forest Orchid

How deep is
the glory
the power, the grace
of her offering up
at the melding place
of languid lissom limbs

She opens to me
as a forest orchid
beaded, brimming,
running over
with the simplest of pleasures

I have learned
the long strong tensing
of her arching back
her gentle bite
the subtle contours
of her enfolding grip

She says "this changes nothing"
no, nothing has changed
at that moment
between us


© John Mackie
from Pearl Diving by Moonlight (Malfranteaux Concepts, 2012)

Six Weaknesses (2007/2010)

1. Six Rivers Distant
2. Late Night Reel
3. From One Lamp-Post to Another
4. Working Lemons
5. Rose
6. Seaside Elephant

The second piece made in 2007 based on my own poetry was Seaside Elephant. Whereas in This Story I had applied transformations to short fragments of the source, this time the transformations are applied uniformly to the whole poem. In 2010 I made five more pieces based on my own poems, in each case again applying the principle that all transformations were to be applied to the whole of the source recording. I arranged the pieces in order such that the voice becomes more distorted as the sequence progresses. In the first piece the text is fairly clearly audible, by the middle of the sequence the voice is still identifiable though the words may not be, and by the end the sound is hardly even recognisable as a human voice. This sequence results in the original 2007 piece appearing at the end.

Six Rivers Distant

She arrived late
with booming eucalyptus.

My fingers
found rhythms of skin.

She sat
legs crossed at my feet
assembling a flute.

I negotiated
an embrace far too long
for a stranger
six rivers distant
and opted
for early departure.

© Haworth Hodgkinson
from A Weakness for Mermaids (Koo Press, 2007)

Late Night Reel

Old bloke staggers along the street
avoiding such obstacles as lamp-posts.
Reaches for the pub door – misses the handle.
A kindly passer-by lends a hand.
The pub's just closing – the barmaid's cashing up
but she lets him take a bottle for the road.
Takes a swig and staggers back along the street
avoiding such obstacles as walls.
Bright lights draw him to the late-night take-away.
Staggers out, two cartons in a bag.
Pauses on a bench – begins to unwrap supper
but then, food in one hand, drink in the other,
makes a last-ditch effort – staggers on.

It's an old old story – you've heard it all before.
Perhaps he'll make it home,
and if he doesn't, maybe nobody will know.
It's an old old story – thirty years from now
it might be mine.

© Haworth Hodgkinson
from A Weakness for Mermaids (Koo Press, 2007)

From One Lamp-Post to Another

Along Buchanan Gardens
evenly spaced sentinels
hang their glowing heads,
observing all within eyelight
and noting every passer-by.

The girl stands against a lamp-post
as if to save her companion
from indiscreet collision.

The eye unmovingly stares.
Last night, she was with someone else
and he was alone.

Two dogs sing passionately to one another across the town.

He makes for the next lamp-post,
but stops and turns half way.
She catches up
and they collide.

The eye rocks gently,
chattering in the wind.

In the courtyard
she makes her farewell
and he watches her window,
waiting to see the light go out again.

A spluttering car crawls past and disappears towards the horizon.

An hour later
he is caught by the night warden
in the rose bed.

There is screeching and hooting from the woods by the mill pond.

Next morning at breakfast
she offers him
the casual truth:
I fell asleep with the light on.

In a quiet corner
a street lamp stands

© Haworth Hodgkinson
from A Weakness for Mermaids (Koo Press, 2007)

Working Lemons

I. My Contribution to the Scientific Literature

What is there to say
about lemons,
the most unselfish of fruit?
The acid in their flesh
alerts our tongues
to whatever else we may be eating.

Rather like decaying soya beans, with vitamin C for protein,
I wrote.

II. A Day in the Life of a Working Lemon

Unemployed, I wake up late.
Tonight I must eat.
I must go in search of food.

There is no time to plant seeds –
I am too hungry to wait for results.
I could go out hunting –
chasing cabbages along the beach
or turnips across the hills.
No, that is a skill my ancestors forgot.
I must go to the supermarket and obtain
food for promises on paper.

Casually avoiding the dairyman and the fleshwoman
I arrive at the display of perfected plant life.
I pretend not to notice the young assistant
picking mushrooms from the floor
and rearranging them on the shelf –
those trodden beyond recognition
are gracefully kicked beneath the cabinet.

I wonder why I never buy
lemons, lettuce, lychees,
preferring less respectful fare.
Idly, I glance over
red apples, green apples, pineapples,
this week's special reductions –
what will it be tonight?
My first cherry tomato?
What could I use to liven up
yesterday's rice
or tomorrow's inquisitive potato?
Cautiously I handle a large Hungarian onion,
looking to see if the carrots are watching.
Dare I?

I arrive home with an out-of-date cauliflower,
rain-damaged bread,
last week's newspaper,
and a lemon.

III. Another Day

Another day, quite by accident,
I caught the end of a radio feature
about how lemons work.

© Haworth Hodgkinson
from A Weakness for Mermaids (Koo Press, 2007)


Thirteen nights
I hear the single rose
riding high
on waves of polyester.

Thirteen mornings
I find petals
on the stair.

Thirteen excuses
to turn away
the postman.

Thirteen ways
to lose
your blissful smile.

© Haworth Hodgkinson
from A Weakness for Mermaids (Koo Press, 2007)

Seaside Elephant

On these shores
elephants are rare.
It must be the pebbles
they dislike.

But pictures of elephants
can be found in craft shops

I take a dozen small elephant pictures
and paste them to rocks along the tideline,
hoping their cousins will recognise
common spirit
and come to join them.

My camera is primed,
my microphone tuned
to the trumpeting frequencies.

I wait.

Perhaps I should have brought
buns as an extra lure.

Only at dusk,
as the sky fades,
am I rewarded for my patience.

Out of the dark sea
looms a large shape:
an enormous
of an elephant.

© Haworth Hodgkinson
from A Weakness for Mermaids (Koo Press, 2007)

Canvas Null (2013)

A poet might normally take a minute or so to read a poem, so most of my pieces based on spoken poetry have been, for me at least, uncharacteristically short. Canvas Null was my first attempt to produce something longer based on the spoken word. Two composers, Pete Stollery and Ross Whyte, had both recommended to me a piece of software that is able to stretch sounds to great length without lowering the pitch, and I tried using this to stretch a recording of Catriona Yule reading her poem Behind the Canvas. In the original recording she took a little over a minute to read the text – in my version it is stretched to about 15 minutes. I was fascinated by the way the slowing down reveals the melodic content of the speech patterns, and also by the way the natural pauses at the ends of lines became huge dramatic silences. I let the rhythm of the poem dictate the pacing of my piece, and decided to add some slowly shifting keyboard harmonies to support the melody of the voice and to fill those dramatic pauses.

As I worked on this piece I became aware of many layers of influence, and I like to think they can all perhaps be detected in some small part in the end result. Catriona's poem was a response to a poem by Paulina Vanderbilt, itself in response to a Pablo Picasso painting called Woman Ironing. Picasso in turn was responding to paintings of women ironing by Edgar Degas. Apparently, X-rays reveal that Picasso painted his woman over the top of a portrait of an unknown man. My keyboard harmonies are based on music I wrote to accompany Hans Arp's poem Opus Null in Warten auf Goethe, a University of Aberdeen German Drama Society production celebrating German poetry, staged to mark the Goethe anniversary in 1999. I took one word of my title from Catriona and one from Hans Arp.

In this piece I think I hear the spirit of all these women, freed – for 15 minutes, at least – from the drudgery of their ironing.

Behind the Canvas

These grey angular lines,
elbow chiselled to the core.
Who looks after these
calloused hands,
anoints the cracks?

Watch her face darken
as she strains across my gaze.
Each crease is hers to bare.
And on she grafts,
each breath of the iron

bearing her down
with the weight of
centuries on her back.
Is it the fate of woman
to never become woman?

Watch as the light flickers
on and off in those grey eyes;
how she steels herself in
the late hours, her dignity
tight in her fist.

And if a splash of water
should moisten her cheek,
roll beneath her chin,
to cling there
like an undiscovered pearl,

I would not tell a soul.

© Catriona Yule
from Shedding Skin (Koo Press, 2007)

Horizontal Gaze (2013/2014)

When I read my poem Seaside Elephant in performance, people often laugh, and to some extent it may be taken as a comic poem, but to me there's also a serious side to it. It's about the apparent absurdity of human endeavour, the patience needed to see a project through to completion, and the fact that the end result might not be quite what we anticipate. The first piece I made on this poem was the 2007 miniature study that now concludes Six Weaknesses, heard earlier on this album, but I began to feel its haunted distortions of the text beyond recognition were just a brief snapshot of something that could be much longer. Horizontal Gaze, composed in two phases in 2013 and 2014, expands the miniature onto a timescale more suited to the idea of staring out to the far sea horizon, watching the light slowly changing, and waiting patiently for a fabled sea creature to make an appearance.

At the beginning, the text of the poem is heard relatively undistorted, with the 2007 miniature as a backdrop. This fades to reveal a second section in which two extremely slowed down readings of the text in canon sound like some kind of creatures of the deep. These are accompanied by drones made by stretching fragments of the original study to enormous lengths. Layers build in the third section as the original reading returns, slowed down but still recognisable as a voice, and the 2007 miniature reappears, laid over the stretched-voice sea monster canon, the drones, and a new irrational drone. The layers suddenly fall away, leaving only the drones in the fourth section. Background has become foreground, and the drones, now isolated, are revealed to be much more complex than they first seemed, gently pulsing and breathing until they are mysteriously silenced by a second intervention of the irrational drone.

Seaside Elephant

Text as above.

Notes © Haworth Hodgkinson 2015

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