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Starting Before the Beginning - Prosody as Proto-Language - The Art of Prosody - The Sciences of Prosody - Prosody and Performance  - Implicate Prosody  -  The Prosodic Body  -  The Medium is the Medicine  -  Vibe  -  Trans-species Prosody


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introductory note followed by a lengthy description of the first session and a few notes on each of the remaining nine sessions



How to tell a whole story of prosody. I can't present prosody as a "subject" separable from its holistic role in the fulfilling of one's life and being of benefit to others. Setting a course without this bottom line (even regardless of the last two cataclysmic years, regardless of the current necronormalcy wherein multifarious turns multifactious and the Urmerican Dream of creative individualist autarky morphs into the Chamber of Commerce and Austerity autocracy) would be out of context


99% of all species that have ever lived on earth no longer exist. Hats off to the coronavirus. With 2020's 20/20 vision we now see we can't cause a solution — or certainly not until we solve having caused the problem (almost forgot: evolution is mutation.) At least we're all now acutely aware we are a biosphere, with bodies seething symbiotically with assorted lifeforms. Free enterprise choking the earth is but an algorithm of efficiency. We’re “special” only in the sense that we would be the only species to have ever been both conscious of and complicit in (while being in denial of, un-aghast?) its end. It's said that prosody was the first cry of human being, our proto-language if you will. I’m calling on the potency of prosody as our prescience and promise, the resounding of the preservation and celebration of life, and its inquest.   


How and why bring people together? Of late, re-evaluating has felt more like re-evolving. So, chart a course for resting in the midst of any cause or condition any one of us must face (remembering that resistance is just as complicit.) Why call  it a 'course'? What is it, really? Perhaps it is a course in the sense of journeying or conduction. "Meetings" ... I like the plainness of the word. "Provisioning"? A remission? Or a convivio (too orotund)? Khanqah? Cave? Oblation? Prosody sangha ... uh, no. Anarchic kindness? Reality-check eutopia? Shared introspection? Whatever it may be named, it will be what we can only be together, what we can't do all alone. It will be what occurs. An occurring. It will be what it is for anyone who takes part. Finally, Munir Fasheh's term mujaawarah comes to mind as most befitting. Mujaawarah is a sort of neighboring. A deciding-to-be-together, a "social technology of radical hospitality." "I am because you are" (unbuntu.)


Two further quotes may serve to set the tone; the first from Bayo Akomolafe and the second, Longchen Rabjam. "No justice could be enough that is already programmatically connected to the circumstances that produce injustice." "Contemplate the fact that anything you do is useless if you have not embarked on a spiritual path, and whatever happens is that path."  And I want to stress "spiritual" as an unknown, a lost literacy or necessity at this point with regard to the preciousness of life.


The exhibition of the visual artist and poet Etel Adnan recently closed at the Guggenheim Museum. Etel was a friend. Sadly, she passed away during the run of her exhibition. She said of her work: “I like to reach a depth of meaning that has nothing to do with words even if I use words. We want to tap a source from where the words come.” She also spoke of colors as entities, meanings, emotions and agencies in themselves. In Etel’s elemental modus operandi there’s no difference between phenomena and its origin. This is the immediate experience the course would realize, with each impulse to speak.


Each session will have 4 parts, roughly divided and interspersed as ½ hour of practices, 1 hour of presentation, ½ hour of open discussion, and the instancing of current and correlative poetry throughout. 


The first ½ hour I’m calling pith/practice. This will be a mix of (1) sound, breathing, somatic, subtle, meditative, mantra and prayer practices and (2) teachings — (sādhana and upadesha, if you will.) The purpose of pith/practice is to quiet down, still, instill, open the hearing-heart, provide an often missing aspect of poetics, and emphasize that prosody and the nature of this course are necessarily experiential. The primary "teachings" will be drawn from Longchenpa’s book of poems Man ngag rin po che’i mdzod, due to its invaluable daily, practical and challenging sets of instruction.  Other South Asian texts and terms will include: the antidotes of Lojong practice, mettā meditation, Śāntideva’s bodhicitta, and so on.  


The sessions will be both in-person and online. With regard to the computer, oral Sanskrit tradition reminds us that the first virtual technology was writing; contemplative science reveals "actual" phenomena as empty and that we're a heap of disassemble-able components called skandhas; as quanta, we may be made entirely of photons; prosody posits the primacy of symbol over the literal; thus my argument with having a digital locale for the prosody course is less simulation-vs-substantiality, mediation-vs-immediacy, gold-standard embodiment-vs-fiat metaverse, spontaneity-vs-stilted interchange and more ecological — by 2050 half of our planetary power-generation will be consumed by streaming.) Transcript-versions of the presentations will also be made available, as well as pdf reading material and bibliographies for each session. The sessions will also be recorded, for asynchronous use.


A final note: the course is, in itself, a nexus. It has held together for four years, even traversing a pandemic, due to the vital interest of others. I'm awed and humbled in return, and so dig deeper. As an added facet to the course, there's also a rich interrelating with the community of phenomenal performers, musicians, researchers and teachers associated with the adjoined Prosodic Body and Commons Choir.


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1   STARTING BEFORE THE BEGINNING: The Practice of Unstruck Sound

"What is not preceded by anything else, nor by non-existence, is eternal; otherwise, it is contingent (hadith)." Nasir al-Din al-Tusi
In the beginning can’t be said if something had come before.” Augustine 


Setting out to tell the story of prosody from the beginning, I found that it actually starts before the beginning. This is instanced in the Satapatha Brahmana. The Vedic poets went to great pains to recite the world into being. 'Poet' is more a potential or impulse than a person per se. The Vedas were not written but "heard" (śruti.). Prosody is, thus, proto-phenomenal — a cosmogenic and situational vibe/form-nondifference. Analogously, Anaximander named that which preceded the beginning without a beginning the apeiron (the indefinite, undifferentiated, illimitable or infinite from which all things come.) In other words, apeiron is archê. In the aural/oral preeminence of South Asian religions, apeiron and anahata (unsounded, literally "unstruck") are correlates. Here, prosody is archê (that's the story that starts before the beginning.) How will we experience that which exists without beginning? In Upanaśadic, Tantric and Yogic cosmogony and sound-gnosis, the practice of hearing the uncreated is known as anahata-nada (unstruck sound.) Anahata practice — hearing the beginningless — has been transmitted with remarkable consistency for fifteen hundred years, from the Nādabindu and Hamsa Upaniśads through Kashmiri Saivite Tantras to Hatha Yoga Samhitas. In appreciation of Pauline Oliveros' Deep Listening, unstruck practice can be understood as a deep "unlistening" meditation, an occurrence of consciousness without content or contrivance; hearing hearing. (Prosody too is somewhat miscast as "craft" and meter. It has more to do with kairotic time than counted time; more to do with the intrinsic and measureless than surface and stress.)
Unstruck sound also illumines the nature of "struck" language. There's really no contradiction between speech as conventional, contingent and contrived, on one hand, and uncreated and self-arising on the other. Are we blocking language by placing it under our control as purely an invention of our own doing, as language supremacists? (Bhartrhari referred to grammar as dvaram apavargasya, 'the door to salvation,' the early Vedas are after all apauruṣeya (unauthored,) phonemes are cosmogenic and OM is soteriological.) A key point to be made: anahata-nada (like poetry) was never practiced without self-sacrifice, without opening the space of the heart (hrday ākāśa), without askēsis and ecstatic techniques.
Along with the unstruck, as part of breaking the bounds of the conventional understanding of words and language origination, I'll draw from the poetry-movement known as Bhakti, from the 6th to 16th centuries, from Kāraikkāl and the Alvars and Nayanars of Tamil Nadu to the Bengali avatāra Caitanya Mahāprabhu, focusing on Bhakti's utmost expression as Nama-Bhakti, the repetition of the “Name” as the pulsatile embodiment of all knowledge and crystallization of devotion. I'll propose Anahata-Bhakti as a rapturous listening to interior sound, without beginning or end, as timeless awareness. (Recitation of the Name is yet the most common prayer on the planet.)
What else? There is a certain Indo-European basis I want to establish, correlating apeiron, the undifferentiated, and the unstruck (silence without supports) as an attunement practice. This meditation on the beginningless, paradoxically, can be said to have a starting point. Simply ask "what is being heard?" So, finally I want to bring in the Avestan and Rgvedic cognates aṣ̌a/ṛtá as the foundation of western ethics. Although aṣ̌a/ṛtá are typically translated as "truth" they actually refer to statement of truth that perceives the presence and workings of nature inclusive of the cosmos and our engaged speech. Truth is existence, if you will. This is what the poets heard, on the cusp of the unstruck. And we can seriously damage life by making egoist statements that are not syntonic to this (lost) scale of ecological ethics which is at once cosmic and intimate. Moving away from the Indo-European background, I'll correlate aṣ̌a/ṛtá with the Diné way of living known as hózhóón.
All the while, underlying existence: the phonemes (which we'll focus on ontologically.)
(As preview: in a subsequent session on the Science of Prosody (see below) I'll be meshing the long-established and completely elucidated Sanskrit phonocentrism (as indicated above) with western linguistics, from the naturalism of Cratylus, Boehme's Natursprache, Spinoza's Word inscribed in the heart, Leibniz's Adamicism and his divinely illuminated "invention" of the original language, Conte's anti-metaphysical positivism, the pragmatism of Pierce, Saussure's social empiricism, to Wittgenstein's "meaning is use" and strangely full-circle to Chomsky's innate grammar and the relatively new discipline of Phonosemantics.)
For the pith/practices we'll start by building an origination repertoire: unstruck sound mediation with kumbhaka breathing; an alphabet-cosmogony (ali kali varnamala); a Tantric oṃkāra practice; Gatha mantra recitation, focus on the four stages of speech ...
(A number of the texts and practices for the first session can be found here.)

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2   Prosody As Proto-language
Steven Brown, Director of the NeuroArts Lab, posits prosody as the joint precursor of language and music, with lexicality subsequently filling out the emotional and intentional prosodic scaffold. Evolutionary linguistics. Gesture. Kinesics Emotional Interactive Prosody. Motherese as a model of speech acquisition. Phylogenic/ontogenic interface. Nativists hypothesize that language is an instinct and that we're hardwired with a Universal Grammar that explains how finite input received by limited cognitive ability results in infinite combinatorial expressivity. For empiricists, speech is an entirely learned skill, like riding a bike. Including mythopoetic accounts of language origination.

3   The Arts of Poetry
Prosody as practiced by poets: sound-patterning, page-dependent spatial design. The nature of the basic elements of composition such as pitch, stress, alliteration, loudness, syllable count, cadence, phrasing, rhyme, lineation, enjambment, duration of juncture, speech rhythm, syntactic-repetition, strophe. Heightened meaning through opacity of language. Retinal, transcriptive, typographic devices such as font-choice, scare quotes, boldface, overprinting, and word-spacing as an extra-lexical score or performance notation. Overlooked aspects of prosody: terms fallen into disuse, prospective terms carried over from other disciplines for formal experimentation. Many instances from the plethora of prosodic innovations of contemporary poets. 

4   The Sciences of Prosody
The first science was the study of pronunciation. Filling out the interdisciplinary field of prosody with a history of language philosophy, phonology, biolinguistics, sociolinguistics, phonosemantics, psychoacoustics, 4E cognitive science, articulatory phonetics. "As the tigress carries her cubs between her teeth taking care lest they should either be dropped or bitten (elided or mispronounced) so should one pronounce the speech-sounds.” (Panini, Shiksha-Vedanga.)

5   Prosody and Performance
A choreographic notation and musical score inheres in each text. We'll work on voicing, movement and conduction of our own works. With exemplary instances: performances pieces of Cecila Vicuña and Fiona Templeton; the visually prosodic performances of a Raoul Hausmann poster poem or a Glenn Ligon painting; the chironomy of Butch Morris conduction; spectactor- orientation of Augusto Boal direction; Jackson Mac Low staging instruction. The recent institutionalization of Performance Studies and the explosion of events frameable as “performance."

6   Implicate Prosody
The practice of prosody as indissociable from ecology, personal ethics and a prescient sense of ethos. Prosody as rhythmic reciprocity as constitutive of the contingent interdependency of all things — as distinct from “explicative” unfolding of events as separately existing forms and egos. We'll develop a materialist, political-economy analysis, inquiring into the ways in which poetry plays into neo-feudalist privatization and the anthropocentrism that can't be overcome without at once facing self-centricity; in search of alternative solidarities, with the help of the compassion practices of Joan Halifax, the empathic neuroeconomics of Tania Singer, the caring economics of Michael Hudson, the I-me-mine-making of Yogacara’s ahamkara, etc. 

7   The Prosodic Body
The Prosodic Body is a field of research that has been developing for 20 years. Prosodic modulation as bioregulatory. Pulsatile phonic/neurohormonal interplay. The gut feelings of the enteric nervous system as the arising of vocalization. Our ability to be intimate is tuned by the tautening or loosening of the smallest skeletal muscle in the body, the stapedius, which is innervated by the quality of our voices via the ventral vagal pathway. Polyvagal theorist Stephen Porges points out that “our culture is so functionally linked to syntax … we forget that prosody is the mediator of how we feel.” An overlaying of the Biophysical, Subtle and Energetic Bodies. Vocal and somatic exploration. 

8   The Medium is the Medicine
Building on the Prosodic Body, this session will inquire into the ways in which phonic and connotative qualities of language influence health and wellbeing. Absence of prosody (conditions such as aprosodia, dysprosody, alalia) renders meaning, emotion and intention unintelligible. 21st century medicine will be based on biophysics, cellular signaling and frequency. How will prosody contribute to this new paradigm of energy medicine? Prosody therapy is already used in treating Parkinson's disease. There are voice-practices based on both catharsis and kenosis: Freud's "talking cure," Lacan's parole pleine, Alfred Wolfsohn's voice-work, on one hand, and mantric emptying of phenomena on the other. For health's sake, we'll set aside the past (extinctual) paradigms of allopathy, coercion, chaos, colonialization, competition, dissonance and even compassion and cooperation in order to consider coherence, crystalline biophysics and vibration as key to our continuation. Including Paracelsus' spagyrics, and starting with Herbert Frölich's research into molecular arrays. Paracelsus: "Medicine should be based upon truth and not verbal sleight-of-hand." George Quasha: "Healing is a function of how we address ourselves."

9   Vibe
The physics of sound and the principle of energy as vibration. Starting with the Sonosphere of Pauline Oliveros. Waveform, auditory science, acoustic ecology, transduction and telecommunications. Composing ourselves more knowledgeably in a lived mechanical and electromagnet spatiality. The artistic use of the energetic environment: nature-signals (radio waves, brainwaves, auroras, earth currents, cell-oscillations, solar flares, etc.) and synthesized sound. Prosody considered from the perspective of a “sonic plenitude.” Sound poetry and concrete music; breaking apart of the sound signal either phonically or electronically to pay attention to the energy itself. Henri Chopin, Joyce Hinterding, Ernst Jandl, Pamela Z, Alvin Lucier, Shelly Hirsch, Tracie Morris, Velimir Khlebnikov, Francois Dufrene, Bob Cobbing, Anthony Braxton, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Charles Amirkhanian ...

10   Trans-Species Prosody
Prosody breaks through anthropocentric assumptions about "language" and para-linguistics. First, with regard to the prosody of "other' species," then, interspecies  communication. (We already know that voice modulation physiology is highly similar in humans and other tetrapods due to shared ancestry. Baby alligators and humans make similar distress vocalizations when isolated from their mothers.) Duetting plain-tail wrens synchronize their syllable-exchange as one partner's singing neuronally inhibits the singing of the other (known as 'listening') creating a frenetic, "springboard" kirtan effect. Java sparrows can discriminate various prosodic patterns in novel Japanese sentences but become confused when novel (atypical) prosody is used to construct sentences. (Social feedback is essential for vocal development in both birds and humans.) Semiochemical ecology has opened an understanding of plant and mineral prosody. Mycorrhizal networks (symbiotic in themselves) act as a forest-wide warning system. Aggregation-pheromones call cicadas together. Even viral influence on life is prosodic. An endosymbiotic coronavirus infects by means of receptor recognition (a resonance-cued binding affinity) on the surface of a host cell. Think of Thich Nhat Hanh's "interbeing" and his Love Letters to Mother Earth. It's not communication, it's consciousness. And the urgency that the interdependence of all things is mutualistic.

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