Howard Fredrics - The Raven's Kiss
Sunday, December 12, 2004, 06:16 PM
The Raven's Kiss, by Howard Fredrics is a relatively contemporary work of electroacoustic music, written in 1993. The piece is stunning to listen to, and the underlying concepts of the piece are strong. They are more artistically motivated than technologically motivated. The use of technology in this piece is a means to an end, and not an end in itself. We hear a variety of different processing techniques, from standard delay and reverb effects to channel vocoding, but the technical processing methods at work are not where the interest of this piece lies, and the listener is not really asked to find interest in these processes. This piece is held together by the aural environment created through intertwining the music with the text.

The Raven's Kiss is heavily driven by the text, which is a poem by Charles Bukowski entitled All I Know. With a few, small exceptions, the narration in the piece stays true to the poem. Each verse is presented in order, and there are no unique verses left out in entirety. However, there are a few words left out, and the phrase, “all I know is this” is sometimes not stated where expected, or it is stated where it is not present in the poem. Since it’s hard to decipher all of the speech in The Raven's Kiss, I’m including the Bukowski poem here so that I can refer to it throughout this analysis:

All I Know (Charles Bukowski)

All I know is this: the ravens kiss my mouth
the veins are tangled here,
the sea is made of blood.

All I know is this: the hands are reaching out,
my eyes are closed, my ears are closed,
the sky rejects my scream.

All I know is this: my nostrils drip with dreams
the hounds lap us up, the fools laugh out,
the clock ticks out the dead.

All I know is this: my feet are sorrow here,
my words are less than lilies, my words are clotted now:
the ravens kiss my mouth.

The poem is important to the piece in a number of ways. The subject matter of the poem is auralized in the music, and this subject matter sets the overall tone of the piece. To me, the poem is about death, and perhaps more specifically, Hell. In symbolic literature, the raven is frequently regarded as a bad omen, and as a messenger between the realms of the living and the dead. For instance, Edgar Allen Poe’s raven was an embodiment of the guilt and anguish that the narrator felt after the death of the his love, Lenore. We first meet with death in All I Know in the form of the raven, and the rest of the poem continues our journey through Hell: a bloody sea, tangled veins, outstretched hands, fools laughing, a scream-rejecting sky, even clotted words. The overall tone of the music reflects this hellish atmosphere.

While the text of the poem is responsible for the mood of the piece, its influence certainly doesn’t stop there. The specific text of the poem is responsible for the creation of most of the sonic pallet. This occurs chiefly in two ways. Firstly, the spoken words are frequently processed and extended beyond simple utterance into longer phrases. Secondly, the semantics of the words often influence the aural material. An example of the first condition is present in the music from 1:32 until 1:41. We hear two things happening here. There is an upward rising gestural motion present, which started at 1:15, and a very faint, heavily processed “all I know is this”. This phrase is repeated three times, and the ending sibilance is resonated and extended at the end. This text is almost unnoticeable at first because it is absorbed into the rest of the textural sounds occurring at the same time. Another example of the first condition is the extension of the T sound at the end of the word “feet” from 5:54 through 6:03, and also the prominent sibilance at 6:10, which extends off of the S’s in “my words are less than lilies”.

These examples illustrate one of the most interesting characteristics of The Raven's Kiss, the transformation of sonic objects from gestures into textures, and vice versa. From a spectro-morphological approach, the spoken word should typically be considered a gesture. Energy is transferred from our mouths into the air during speech, and this characteristic is implicitly understood when we hear a recording of speech. In order for speech to be considered textural, it must be processed in some way so as to be “concerned with internal behavior patterning, energy directed inwards or re-injected” (Smalley 82). Sometimes the words spoken in The Raven's Kiss are, in fact, purely gestural. “Clotted now”, at 6:19 is an example of this. We hear the narrator speak “clotted now” with unexpected clarity, but we don’t hear anything from that statement again. Also, the phrase, “All I know is this”, at 0:40 exhibits this characteristic. However, a great deal of the speech is sampled and “re-injected” into the musical system. Take for example, the phrase, “the sea is made of blood”, which starts at 1:13. The word “blood” is spoken at 1:18, but that word is extended all the way until 1:33 in a wavy, thickly resonant wash of sound. This wash of sound is suggestive of the sea of blood, which was just described. This particular phrase is influencing the sonic material both physically and semantically. The word “blood” could have been processed in any number of ways, many of which could have satisfied its transformation from a gesture into a texture. It could have been passed through a beat-slicer to create a stuttering effect, it could have been cut up into a granular cloud, or it could have been looped and sped up to create a Stockhausen-esque “ideal” timbre for this word. The composer’s choice, however, was to use the gesture of the spoken text to create a texture that was representational of these words.

While the sound of the bloody sea is created from, and thus, comes after the word “blood”, the composer doesn’t rely on just this one method of influencing the aural environment with the spoken word. In this instance, the sonic texture is an offshoot of the word it is meant to represent, but he also creates representational sounds from earlier phrases, which works shockingly well as a transition from one poetic phrase to the next. A particularly good example of this is the phrase, “the hounds lap us up”, at 4:00. The second portion of this phrase, “lap us up”, gets sampled and repeated, in a style that initially sounds like a typical exponentially-decaying delay, but it then develops into what seems like somewhat nonsensical re-articulation and repetition. However, once we hear the next phrase, “the fools laugh out”, we realize that we have been listening to the sound of laughing fools up until 4:22.

The section which I have marked as section C on the waveform diagram (2:17 through 6:30) contains most of the examples of this pre-referential texturing, where the sounds that we hear are referential of text that we’ve not yet heard. There are some wet, dripping sounds prior to “my nostrils drip with dreams” at 3:31, and probably the most striking occurrence is after “the fools laugh out” at 4:22, where bits of the phrase, “the fools laugh out”, become metrically rhythmic material of a ticking clock. A heavily vocoded voice at 5:22 tells us that this clock is ticking out the dead, which seams like a good enough use for a clock. However, there are still some examples of post-referential texturing in this section, where the sounds that we hear refer back to the text that just created them. This is more common in section B, but in section C, the word “scream” from “the sky rejects my scream” at 2:38 is initially scream-like, but is then layered with thick reverberation to create an uplifting, somewhat-heavenly atmospheric texture, suggestive of the sky which has just rejected our scream.

The overall form of this piece is in four main sections, which do not correspond with section-breaks in the Bukowski poem. The first section, which lasts from 0:00 until 0:40, is best understood as an exposition. It introduces us to the sorts of sounds we’ll be hearing throughout the piece, and its overall mood. The first sound heard is a high pitched texture with a downward moving internal structure. This sound is not particularly suggestive of anything at this time, but it could be seen to be representational of ravens later when it is re-introduced in a much quieter form at the end of section A, from 0:30 through 0:40. We also hear two different poetic phrases narrated in this section. The first phrase is an example of a gesture becoming a texture, and the second is an example of a texture becoming a gesture. The phrase, “all I know is this”, which is the first spoken text that we hear in the piece, is punctuated at the end by a strong plosive, which becomes a brighter, angrier version of the “raven” texture which we heard at the onset of the piece. This texture fades out as a new upward-moving texture is introduced at 0:18. This new rising texture transforms into the gestural phrase, “the ravens kiss my mouth”. We then hear some percussive gestures throughout the end of section A, which seem to be placed there mostly to punctuate this section, and to move the piece along into the next section.

While there are counter-examples in both sections, section B is the most post-referential of the two inner sections. For instance, the flock of ravens that we hear at a steadily increasing volume from 0:40 to 1:13 refer to the phrase, “the ravens kiss my mouth”, which we heard back in section A. Also, the sea of blood from 1:18 to 1:33, discussed earlier, refers back to that phrase at 1:13. This section is still a development of the idea that the sounds we hear are caused by, and refer back to the words which are spoken by the narrator. Section C is where this idea is turned on its head, and the piece really hits its stride. The textures created by the spoken word are used to create very effective transitions between internal sections, both through aural textures, and through semantic meaning.

The last section of The Raven's Kiss (section D) is purely a closing section. Starting at 6:30, we hear the title of the poem, “all I know is this” repeated a number of times, along with several gestural sounds. However, the most prominent sound heard from 6:30 until 7:19 is an increasingly dense, upward moving Shepard tone, which sets up the inevitable return back to earth at 7:19. This downward motion continues through what little is left of the piece. Here, the last phrase of the poem, “the ravens kiss my mouth”, is spoken, and the entire sonic pallet shifts from moving strongly upward to moving downward. This change in direction creates a resolution which has an effect that is strongly similar to a perfect authentic cadence in traditional tonal music. We’re left with a definite feeling that the piece has come to a close, and that there’s nothing more to say.

Overall, the poetically-generated, referential aspects of this piece are what pull it all together, and make it interesting to listen to time and time again. On first listening, it seems clear that there is something going on beneath the surface, but it takes some digging to realize just how strikingly inter-woven the text is with the musical material. It would have been possible to create a concréte sonic pallet which represented the meaning of the poem. It might even have been more referential than was possible with the method chosen by this composer. For instance, recordings of ravens could have been used along with sounds of lapping hounds and ticking clocks, but the composer instead forged ahead into new territory by working with processed speech to create many of the sounds needed for the piece. The truly incredible aspect of this piece is how the text is used to create and drive a large portion of the sonic pallet, and how well it works. Gestures become textures and textures become gestures in an ever-evolving landscape of sound.

--Tom Gersic

Smalley, Denis. (1986) “Spectro-Morphology and Structuring Processes.” 61-93. The Language of Electroacoustic Music. Edited by Simon Emmerson. New York: Harwood Academic.

Bukowski, Charles (1960). Today The Stars Avalon Anthology