A little over thirteen years ago, in a sunny final week of September, I had the good fortune of travelling to Lisbon with the Danish poet/author/translator Peter Poulsen. We were tasked with tracing the footsteps of Fernando Pessoa, making field recordings in the city that was his home, and recording his poems in the places he frequented.
The recordings were made as part of the Klaus Ib Jørgensen’s extensive Moonpain project, a ‘web-universe’ created around his Moon-pain cycle for voice and ensemble, based on Pessoa’s poetry.
Peter Poulsen also contributed an extensive essay covering Pessoa’s life, heteronyms, and works, and Lene Henningsen, Morten Søndergaard, and Peter Poulsen each wrote a set of new poems, extended with sound and music, around the Moon-pain theme.
The field recordings were assembled into a cycle covering the course of a day, with a minute of sound from each hour, starting with early morning café sounds and ending with cicadas and the sounds of the street late in the evening. Along the way Peter Poulsen recounted stories about Pessoa and his relation to various locations as we wandered through the center of the city.
The ‘web-universe’ that collected all of the above was programmed in Flash, as was current at the time, and indeed the only means of achieving the interactivity the was at the core of the project’s ambition. Signe Klejs took on the role of artistic director, with Signe Rød contributing graphics and helping shape the visual design. Klaus’ Moon-pain cycle, released concurrently on CD, was not directly included on the site, although short fragments functioned as interludes in Peter Poulsen’s essay and interactive elements in the site’s navigation.
It looked (and sounded) something like this:
With Flash nearing its End Of Life, and with that the looming closure of the moonpain.nu site, I wondered how the wonderful material that had been collected there might be made accessible for the years to come. It occurred to me that much of it could effectively be presented as a podcast, and potentially hosted on poetiskpodcast.dk, the site that I started with Lene Henningsen a year ago.
Klaus was in on the idea and I set about preparing the original material for its re-release in podcast form. That turned out to be more of an undertaking than first anticipated. What originally worked on a low resolution laptop screen with lousy speakers in 2009 needed some translation to be comfortable on today’s high density screens and the relatively high quality podcast audio made possible by today’s download bandwidths.
I set about collecting the original master files with the kind help of Morten Olsen, in many cases fixing noise and distortions with the magic of modern software 1, before re-encoding them as MP3s. I also took the opportunity 2 to add chapter markers and chapter art to the files, now that many podcast players, to my delight, support these features.3 Interestingly, they were a part of GarageBand’s podcast feature-set back in 2008, only to be dropped by Apple in 2013. Looking though my hard-drives from the time I found the following screenshot of a version in which I had begun adding chapter art, only to also have abandoned it for some reason (probably lack of time, or perhaps because they weren’t supported for MP3 files) at the time.
What is clear looking back at the original site, is just how much the media landscape has changed. The idea of spending a substantial amount of time moving a mouse around a laptop screen in order to coax up some content is unthinkable nowadays, while being able to catch up with a podcast on one’s commute or while doing the dishes is more in line with our current (media) overload. It’s hard to imagine how different that landscape was before the advent of smartphones and the constant bombardment of media that we struggle with today.
The Future We Thought We Wanted
A year after the moonpain site was launched, the iPad appeared on the scene and with it hopes for a new era of (interactive) book publishing. Craig Mod traces the development of those dreams in his article The ‘Future Book’ Is Here, but It’s Not What We Expected
The Future Book was meant to be interactive, moving, alive. Its pages were supposed to be lush with whirling doodads, responsive, hands-on.
Researcher Alan Kay created a cardboard prototype of a tablet-like device in 1968. He called it the “Dynabook,” saying, “We created a new kind of medium for boosting human thought, for amplifying human intellectual endeavor.”
Moonpain.nu came about in an era in which we still believed in those dreams – also in terms of extending concert forms. Yet, a little over a decade later, even with the promise of virtual and augmented reality “just around the corner” our everyday reality turns out to be another. As Craig Mod points out:
Here’s the surprise: We were looking for the Future Book in the wrong place. It’s not the form, necessarily, that needed to evolve—I think we can agree that, in an age of infinite distraction, one of the strongest assets of a “book” as a book is its singular, sustained, distraction-free, blissfully immutable voice. Instead, technology changed everything that enables a book, fomenting a quiet revolution. Funding, printing, fulfillment, community-building—everything leading up to and supporting a book has shifted meaningfully, even if the containers haven’t.
Or as Warren Ellis once (all the way back in 2015) summed up the slow transformation of our visions with an observation on the popularity of text messages:
We once thought that it would be videophones that were the future. Who would have guessed that it would turn out to be something closer to a telegram?
Along similar lines Maciej Cegłowski takes a look at how the basic configuration of the airliner has not changed in sixty years.
The iPad is the kind of device that would have been beautifully suited to moonpain – however it famously did not support Flash4, which perhaps contributed to the site languishing in a way that it wouldn’t have, had the technology been another. Yet, as Craig Mod continues:
It turns out smartphones aren’t the best digital book reading devices (too many seductions, real-time travesties, notifications just behind the words), but they make excellent audiobook players, stowed away in pockets while commuting.
The now ubiquitous smartphone and the quality of modern-day podcast apps in many ways create the perfect platform for something like moonpain. Even though the podcast format primarily focuses on audio, chapter markers and (dynamic) chapter art provide a something of the visual universe and interactivity otherwise lost in the translation from original Flash-site. Links in the ‘show notes’ provide quick access to texts and additional information.
…For a “book” is just the endpoint of a latticework of complex infrastructure, made increasingly accessible.
The moonpain material can now be unfolded in a way that it couldn’t be originally. The podcast format has turned out to be a wonderful, open and accessible, low-cost media, and I’m enthusiastic about the way in which it can bring together sound, words, and images.
From a personal point of view, spending time with the moonpain material again while updating it for today’s technology (simpler in some aspects, richer in others), has once again brought home to me the joy of field recordings, taking me back twenty years to my beginnings in the field with A Walk with Bongi though Alex. Listening to Lisbon and re-living Pessoa’s way of being in it has changed the way I experience Copenhagen, the city whose streets I currently move through and whose cafés, before the lockdowns, I used to frequent.
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Moonpain Revisited can be found on the Poetisk Podcast website, or via Apple Podcasts.
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Craig Mod has himself undertaken a number of walks, documenting them beautifully through writing and photographs, recently with the addition of video and binaural recordings. Future books after my own heart.
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