Individual Work

Joerg Piringer's Soundpoems originally consisted of a set of six interactive poems programmed in Flash from which the author selected three to include in the Electronic Literature Directory, specifically "Gravity and Reflection," "Predator vs. Prey," and "Food Chain" [1]. Piringer is an Austrian visual and sonic poet who has produced a wide variety of digital works over the past 15 years, including abstract texts, videos, apps, and audiovisual materials. Composed and published between 2002-2008, Soundpoems are multimedia, built on a synergetic interplay of multiple sensory and semiotic channels. A series of letters were chosen for each poem, with each letter assigned a sonic behavior and a motion governed by simple physics or algorithms. The poems investigate language sounds, playfulness, and ideas about the complex behavior of sound whether inspired by biology, such as "predator vs. prey," or by physics, such as "gravity and reflection."

Soundpoems engages with emerging digitally-informed creative practices which interrogate meaning-making processes, push modernist approaches toward the more contemporary objective of expanded visitor participation, and challenges the nature of the conventional artistic genres and narratives. Piringer chose the title Soundpoems to build on this notion that predictable artistic and poetic conventions need challenging.

Four features merit particular attention: (1) Interactivity: The work exploits its innovative digital affordances to engage visitors in meaning-making processes, thus falling into the realm of the more recent interactive narratives; (2) Non-linear narratives: Visitors empowered with the opportunity to interact may drive the narrative according to their own sensibilities, with Soundpoems correspondingly disrupting the classic Aristotelian notion of linear narrative; (3) Processual compositions: Soundpoems does not take the expected form of a static object, but is an ephemeral and transient event that occurs overtime and never takes on a final definitive form; (4) Non-logocentric regimes: By using letters and sounds instead of words, the work resists logocentrism. In other words, Soundpoems espouses sound as a means of reaching meaning by enveloping visitors in experiencing it rather than by representing it.

Soundpoems has spurred ongoing debates about the nature and validity of digital narratives. By equipping visitors with choice, the narrative loses its classic linear features in favour of constant re-enactment with each new visitor’s engagement. This tricky issue have been widely discussed within the field of E-lit studies. In her book Avatars of Story, Marie-Laure Ryan made a noteworthy case in favour of narratology adapting to encompass electronic narrative patterns and specificities. Similarly, N. Katherine Hayles challenges us to rethink what literature can do and be and proposes the adoption of the term “literary” to designate a broader category which can accommodate E-lit narratives.

Choice holds another implication, that of the work displaying no fixed shape but rather assuming the form of an ephemeral processual composition. Annet Dekker has termed this process “curation in progress,” signalling its ability to turn museums into places of production rather then exhibition. For works curated “in progress,” code becomes an integrative and cohesive element impossible to dismiss—or, as expressed by Hayles: “Unlike a print book, electronic text literally cannot be accessed without running the code” (35). As an algorithm-driven operation generating the text according either to a randomized scheme or to the visitor's choice, Soundpoems assumes features of generative art which, together with the aforementioned interactivity and openness to processual composition, constitutes one of the most innovative and robust categories of E-lit.

Soundpoems is remarkable in how it underpins sonic materials’ narrative potential. In fact, by associating the sound of each single letter pronounced in German to its visual shape rather than playing with words and their conventional meaning, the work ends up championing a primordial sonic sense of things above common verbal understanding. The letters’ shapes stand as a form of visualised sound rather than as a form of visual narrative. Reinforcing a primacy in the sonic is also the fact that Soundpoems allows users to explore a range of sonic textures and effects depending on the number of letters activated.

It is worth noting how Soundpoems’s specific underpinning of the sonic opens up an avenue to non-logocentric communicative regimes (Thrift; Vannini), i.e. to a rationale for thinking and researching sonically rather than verbally (Schulze) and therefore applying the sonic as an episteme (Feld; Schulze). A sonic epistemology means considering sound from the point of view of its material effects; by expressing the dynamics of an action, sound materials can provide a performative and immersive layer, fluid and transient, which becomes a different means of gaining knowledge than the static perspectives offered by logocentric regimes. C. Cox outlines a materialistic theory of sound which considers the sound-material-force predisposition to action and thus its will to "become," instead of setting fixed meanings.

In other words, Soundpoems puts an emphasis upon what sound does as a narrative material rather than what sound is. The problem, therefore, becomes determining the narrative capacity of sound as a medium of expression. Although the task of providing a comprehensive dictionary of musical and sonic meaning and narrative potential is impossible, huge and valuable endeavours have taken place to develop our analysis of sonic digital work narratives. Semiotic research has pondered a common ground for speech, music, and other sounds expressing meaning (van Leeuwen) and music as a meaningful system of sonic representation (Tagg). Future research might more accurately determine the role and significance of the sonic in challenging longstanding narratives, together with shaping innovative new works. Now that the digital is nurturing an attentiveness to the sonic as meaningful material and as a favoured medium for capturing process instead of static representation—or for an experiential rather than representational approach to curation—it is high time research on this subject develops and advances.


[1] In writing this entry, I neither stake any claim as to theoretical certainty nor am I delivering a stabilized framework for reading Soundpoems. Conversely, I wrote it upon the assumption that every work resists totalizing interpretations and so will rather concentrate on expanding the way in which this work strives to produce meaning in addition to signalling its conceptual influences and charting its respective impact.

Works Cited

Cox, Christoph. “Beyond Representation and signification: toward a sonic materialism.” Journal of Visual Culture, vol. 10, no. 2, 2011, pp.145-161.

Dekker, Annet. “Curating in Progress. Moving Between Objects and Processes.” H. Barranha & S. S. Martins (Eds.), Uncertain Spaces, Virtual Configurations in Contemporary Art and Museums, 2015.

Feld, Steven. “A Rainforest Acoustemology”. M. Bull & L. Back (Eds.), The Auditory Culture Reader. Berg, 2003.

Hayles, Katherine. Electronic Literature: New Horizons for the Literary. U of Notre Dame P, 2008.

Ryan, Marie-Laure. Avatars of Story. Minnesota UP, 2006.

Schulze, Holger. "Sonic Epistemology." J. G. Papenburg & H. Schulze (Eds.), Sound as Popular Culture, a research companion. MIT Press, 2016

Schulze, Holger. "How to Think Sonically? On the Generative of the Flesh." B. Herzogenrath (Ed.), Sonic Thinking, a Media Philosophical Approach. Bloomsbury, 2017.

Tagg, Philip. Music's Meanings, a modern musicology for non-musos. The Mass Media Music Scholars' Press, 2013

Thrift, Nigel. Non-Representational Theory, Space, Politics, Affect. Routledge, 2008.

van Leeuwen, Teo. Speech, Music, Sound. Palgrave, 1999.

Vannini, Philip. "Non-representational Research Methodologies: An Introduction." Non-Representational Methodologies: Re-Envisioning Research. Routledge, 2015.