Poets Oni Buchanan and Jon Woodward to Perform at Smith

Zane Razzaq ’15
Assistant Arts Editor

In conjunction with Smith Arts Fest 2013, the Smith College Poetry Center and the Department of Music will present “Uncanny Valley.” This concert-length performance by internationally acclaimed composer John Gibson, poet Jon Woodward and pianist Oni Buchanan will feature piano, spoken text and electronics.

The multimedia sonic performance takes its name both from Woodward’s third book and from the phrase coined by Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori to describe the reaction of revulsion from human beings when encountering human replicas that look and act uncannily like human beings. Alongside spoken text and piano, both Woodward and Buchanan will trigger electronic samples throughout the performance, with the intention of “[creating] various sonic detours that parallel and conflict with the text.”

The poetry and music piece was created around the concept of “semantic satiation,” in which a single word loses apparent meaning when repeated. The performance aims to investigate whether this phenomenon applies to surrounding phrases, sentences, pairs of verse lines or musical forms. According to a press release published by Smith College, Buchanan and Woodward will attempt to accomplish this experiment by “searching through repeated poetic lines and musical forms for what is most uncanny and most human in both language and music.”

Woodward’s book Uncanny Valley, which won the 2011 Cleveland State University Poetry Center Open Competition, will serve as the text for the performance. According to poet Mary Ruefle, “these apocalyptic, pixilated poems forge a mythology of our ravaged culture.” The book has been compared to Samuel Beckett’s plays and to Charles Darwin’s voyages, which “rediscover and seek to inhabit an uncomfortably familiar natural world.” Woodward, who currently works at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology, also writes about animals in his work.

Buchanan received a Master of Fine Arts degree in poetry from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a Master of Arts degree in piano performance from the New England Conservatory of Music. Thomas Heise, an associate professor of English at McGill University, lauded Buchanan’s third poetry book Must a Violence for staging the “sacred, violent, and beautiful encounter between the human and the animal” and compared the book to “the eerie worlds of early Plath.”

“The complication of music – its simultaneous voicing of countless vectors of meaning that are so specific and yet elusive, each contributing to the whole, each affecting the other voices – is the same complication to which poetry, and perhaps all art, aspires,” said Buchanan when asked about the differences and similarities between poetry and music.

The concert will take place on Feb. 12 at 7:30 p.m. in Sweeney Concert Hall, Sage Hall and is free and open to the public. The concert will be followed by a CD and book sale and signing.

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