Poems on EVP website

The first two sets of poems from the residency have appeared on Electronic Voice Phenomena. This is the website for a fantastic touring project exploring new approaches to sound, voice, technology and writing – coming to an arts centre near you in May.

The first set of poems, Describing Silence (6 Distortions), draws on my experiences in UCL’s anechoic chamber.

The second set, Tip-of-the-Tongue Phenomena, channels the ‘tip-of-the-tongue’ state through a series of early-to-mid 80s chart-toppers.

More to come in a few weeks…

Chamber Music

In 1713 William Derham published Physico-Theology – a book intended as a ‘demonstration of the being and attributes of God’ but filled with experimental observations made by the author and his fellow Royal Society associates. In a footnote, Derham writes about shutting up a sparrow and a titmouse in a ‘compressing engine’ – an air pump – and watching them expire.

This is me reading that passage as I subject myself to Delayed Auditory Feedback, with my own words echoing back to me through headphones with a delay of 200ms.


I’m returning to the procedure of Delayed Auditory Feedback, a phenomenon that grabbed my attention back at the start of the residency. Right now I’m playing around with ways to integrate it into a dialogue-poem, but for now, here are the artists Richard Serra and Nancy Holt using it back in 1974, in a piece originally broadcast on public television in Amarillo, Texas:

Thanks to Jonathan Watts for bringing this to my attention. The film can also be downloaded or streamed from the incomparable Ubuweb (mp4).

Chirologia: or the naturall language of the hand

In 1644 John Bulwer published Chirologia: or the naturall language of the hand, one of the first analyses of the rhetorical power of hand gestures.

Using the ‘Alphabet of naturall expressions’ that Bulwer included in his Chirologia, I sourced a series of gestures by feeding Bulwer’s Latin names through a Youtube search. I then tried to explain in words how to perform these new gestures to Sally Davies and recorded the results. The instructional passages are intercut with reflections on these attempts recorded in a domestic setting.

This work was first performed at Mercy’s Electronic Voice Phenomena weekend at the Liverpool Biennial 2012.

Chirologia 1 by jwilkes

Chirologia 2 by jwilkes

Chirologia 3 by jwilkes

Database Poem Performance

Here’s a walkthrough of an attempt to use the MRC psycholinguistic database to produce poetry. This work activates two dimensions of the database, familiarity and concreteness, sampling each dimension at 9 points from minimum to maximum to gather sets of words for performance.

The words were then read out alternately by me (on familiarity) and Holly Pester (on concreteness). The sets are not of equal length, so when one performer runs out of words, the other carries on alone. First performed at Poetry Parnassus, Southbank Centre, 30 June 2012, for an event curated and filmed by SJ Fowler.

Database Poem 1 from James Wilkes on Vimeo.

In the Anechoic Chamber

On Friday I spent an hour in UCL’s anechoic chamber, a small room filled with noise-absorbing wedges that produce an almost noiseless environment, where no sounds echo back to the speaker but disappear into the walls.

I spent 15 minutes sitting silently and in the dark, and then Nadine Lavan, who very kindly supervised me, turned on the lights and the microphone.

First of all I tried to describe as closely as possible what I’d heard and seen, and then I spent around 20 minutes writing, followed by an improvised spoken reflection on the experience, which lasted around 17 minutes.

You can listen to my first audio description – featuring phasing sand, birdsong, silent pressure and Neil Young – on the Soundcloud clip below, and below that the piece I wrote in the chamber, lightly edited.

Anechoic Chamber Noise by jwilkes


starting with silence
which is not silence
as pressure and birdsong
emerges from a small room, imagine
being trapped
scrabble at the doorless door
feedback dampened
this, typing, still noises
my stomach still noises
gentle belch
the system wobbles in its noise
and cloth-eared hiss to myself

possible to create distractions
actually quite comfortable
was what I thought
locked away from the world
took several tries to speak
into the dark there seemed
no need almost
the lights went on it
vanished, recollected
the old chair still crunches
silence chased
by key tapping, leg shifting

it had real presence, real pressure
well let’s call it ‘silence’
seeing as it really scattered sand
dawn chorus, deep pressure, wet crackling
spatialised, a volume for living in
miner for a heart of gold
punctuated by belly creak
the voice from the speaker
shakes the metal frame of the floor
all is motion

I hadn’t expected the volume
another belly creak
that forms around me
or into which I dissolve
as to say birdsong top right
or phasing sand mid right
or pressure all across the left
is to explain how inner and outer
make little sense
in the dark, in the silence

turning L and R
proprioception gave me that
but the eyes were still deep blue of noise
and no-sound moved straight
through the skull

Playing with databases

Below is a recording of a poem-sketch made using the MRC psycholinguistics database. You can just go ahead and listen to it, or read more about the process and background below.

vox lab poem sketch 1 by jwilkes

The poem consists of sets of words produced from the database by varying the level of “imageability”, or how easy a word is to visualise. Joanette, Goulet and Iannequin illustrate this by asking us to think about the difference between the words “anger” and “antitoxin”; the former is abstract but easy to visualise, whereas the latter is concrete but hard to visualise.

I set the level of imageability to the highest level consistent with producing only one word. This was 660, on a scale which goes from 100 to 700, and it produced the word ‘BEACH’, repeated three times. I then decreased imageability in steps of 5, from 655 down to 630. With each of these seven iterations, the set of words available increased, and in this work-in-progress I simply read them out in alphabetical order.

Tip-of-the-Tongue Phenomena

“For the above example, subjects tended to guess /s/ as the initial phoneme and two as the number of syllables, and sound-related words like secant and sextet had come to mind (meaning-related words, e.g. compass, also occurred). Apparently there is much lexical-form information available in the TOT state.”
- Willem Levelt, Speaking: From Intention to Articulation (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press,1989), p.320.
Response 1:
it was a /r/
it was a /r/
it was a roastbeef butty
a rustbelt
some kind of berry
uhh… fruit sorbet
kind of pink fruit
on her head
a rose
buried beneath
a king
the kindness you find
in a strange land
Target phrase 1: Listen here
Response 2:
it’s /n/
it’s /n/
it’s numerous, a number of, of
Rhenish ballads gone bad, like
a nightly mind — reading tool
a rubberised cloud or
something about an airline?
it’s /n/ and /n/, it’s a noise anointed
rebel tune
Target phrase 2: Listen here