~ Steven Ross Smith ~

White Sound by bpNichol

This is an excerpt from The Complete Works, a 41-minute film directed and animated by Justin Stephenson based on the work of the late Canadian avant-garde poet bpNichol. Here, a poet-friend of Nichol’s, Steven Ross Smith, performs a virtuosic translation of visual poetry into sound poetry. Stephenson wrote about this and another sound-poetry segment from The Complete Works in an essay published in Poetryfilm Magazine last weekend, “Seeing the Said“:

Both segments start with visual texts as the source for a sound performance. Using digital algorithms to create and modify animations based on audio, a method called audio reactive animation, I inverted the optophonetic see-and-say strategy. In both pieces, the sounds of the performances are algorithmically connected to various visual parameters to generate resemblances between the performance and the visuals.


The white noise of technological media is the focus of Nichol’s visual text, White Sound. It’s a chap-book that contains pages filled with layers of the rubber stamped words »white sound« set against the backdrop of degraded photocopies of images created by printing blank mimeo plates, stamping empty sort rails, and pressing entire ink pads against the page.

Interspersed within the pages are sheets of semi-transparent colour tissue that act as a filter through which the background text can be viewed. The artefacts and noise introduced through the photocopy process are recorded on the pages of the book.

In The Complete Works, Steven Ross Smith performs White Sound as sound poetry. The performance enacts the organic »generation loss« depicted in the text. The term generation loss is used to describe the noise introduced by duplicating content in analog media – each successive copy (generation) introduces more noise, decreasing the quality, or signal to noise ratio. In the case of White Sound, however, signal to noise is inverted so that the noise is the signal. Accordingly, the text gains quality in each successive generation.

Do read the rest, which goes into detail about the tools Stephenson used as well as his guiding philosophy. His conclusion gives some strong hints about what makes filmmaking like this so compelling, even to those of us who might otherwise remain unmoved by such experimental poetry on the page:

Nichol’s notion of notation is saying what can be seen. This seeing and the saying, though, require participation on the part of reader. They involve diving into the uncertain foggy region between representation by sign and representation by resemblance – this unstable space – and working to locate and read compressions and rarefactions, stresses, tensions that can be recreated in a different medium. In the work of the film, letting the ear lead is a choice that became the foundation for the entire film. It provided the methods and permission to see-and-say in a way that honoured the methods of the texts, but allowed them to take new forms. Visualizing bpNichol’s sound poetry provided an important entry point (which became a crevasse) to the myriad of translations of his work that make up the film.

I should add that Stephenson was kind enough to let me have a sneak peak of the complete film, and I was blown away. It’s a masterpiece. Neither a documentary nor a standard poetry film, The Complete Works focuses resolutely on the poetry, giving just enough biographical information to let viewers know where Nichol was coming from and what he was up to. The interweaving of poems and animation techniques contributes to a really propulsive energy that I sense Nichol would’ve appreciated, and using his friends and colleagues as interpreters gives the film a feeling of accessibility without dumbing down the content in the least.

You can watch other excerpts, and check out reviews and other material on the film’s excellent website, but if you’re able to get to a screening, don’t miss it. There are at least two more coming up: one at the Niagara Artists Centre in Saint Catharines, Ontario on November 23 at 8:00 p.m. (where it will be paired with the launch of Christian Bök’s The Xenotext), and another at the Close-Up Film Centre in London, UK sometime in March.