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research in poetry

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Automatic Writing


"I had come to recognize that I might have a mild form of Tourette's syndrome (characterized in my case only by purely involuntary speech) and I wondered, naturally, because the syndrome has to do with sound-making and because the manifestation of the syndrome seemed so much like a primitive form of composing - an urgency connected to the sound-making and the unavoidable feeling that I was trying to 'get something right,' - whether the syndrome was connected in some way to my obvious tendencies as a composer.

I have not kept up with the literature on Tourette's syndrome, but I have the notion, gathered from conversations with friends who are psychologists, that Tourette's syndrome evolved into a kind of catch-all for many kinds of involuntary behaviour. The psychologists are probably right, but for my purposes such a general definition is not useful. My understanding is that Tourette simply had the problem of wanting to leave the party for a few minutes to go into the other room and curse. That was what was happening with me, and I noticed (as a composer) that I always said the same thing: I always uttered the same phrases.

Morton Feldman said that any composer who went around with a tune in his head should be locked up. He didn't mean it in the practical sense, of course, because nobody should be locked up, considering what locked up means, but he was talking about me as I understood it, so naturally I was interested. These utterances, released in a sought privacy, were the tune that Feldman was talking about. This speech was illegal. That it was also connected to music seemed obvious. The problem of the connection is that music is mostly a deliberately 'conscious' activity, especially for a musician, and in the most extreme case, 'performed' - that is, doubly deliberate.

John Cage said in one of his books how fond he was of a composer friend who hummed unconsciously while they were walking together. Pierre Boulez said that he hated people who whistle, which I would understand to mean, '-while they work.' Boulez is famous for hating people, so if you whistle there is nothing to worry about career-wise (he would probably hate you for other reasons), but we are getting at the crux of it.

A few years after all this searching, I discovered in a book by Julian Jaynes, 'The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind,' that Jaynes had come to something of the same conclusion about the connection between music and "involuntary" behaviour, but it was too late by that time for me to put aside my muttering as aboriginal and not up to the standards of the classics and something to be covered up by a few doses of whatever, and besides the record of Automatic Writing was out and was making quite a stir in avant-garde circles...

...During the time of composing Automatic Writing I was in a deep depression, because, among other things to be depressed about, the world was not interested in the kind of music that I was interested in. I was out of work, so I decided to "perform" involnutary speech. The performances were more or less failures because the difference between involuntary speech and any other kind of allowed behaviour is too big to be overcome wilfully, so the performances were largely imitations of involuntary speech, with only a few moments here and there of 'loss of control.' These moments, triumphs for me, are documented elsewhere, in rumours and in legal briefs against my behaviour on stage.

Commonly, for instance, people think that involuntary speech is a symptom of drunkenness. (Watching people on the subway who are engaged in involuntary speech behaviour and who obviously can't afford to get drunk should be enough to teach that drunkenness and involuntary speech are different, but we can't see that logic.) This is dangerous territory for a performer. It is against the 'law' of our society to engage in invountary speech. That's why we are embarrassed to talk to ourselves. That's why Tourette had to leave the room. That's why we are embarrassed by poetry. (T.S Eliot said that in composing poetry one is either talking to one's self or to God. Jaynes says that we are talking to God. Tourette had lost God.)"

- Robert Ashley, February 1996

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