The initial purpose of the Cleikit site was to harbour a mass version of the Syllabary where, instead of one poet writing a couple of thousand pieces, a couple of thousand poets would write and record one poem each.

The process got off to a good start, with a few dozen contributions inside a month. People enjoyed working within the phonetic or (in the case of single-word cells) semantic constraints of the form. But it became apparent that this was a project for a major institution. A national poetry centre, for example, might use the program as a visitors’ book, though even there it could take a decade to complete.

Meanwhile the sound poets of Geneva had taken an interest in the shape of the program. Jacques Demierre suggested that Olga Kokcharova might be persuaded to work on the purely phonetic version I now had in mind, where sixty different people read sixty monosyllables each. She was, and this is it.

I started the recordings in Edinburgh, with the help of Colin Fraser, who found a reasonably quiet crypt in which to record a dozen voices – most with Edinburgh accents that caused Olga some puzzlement (“It says “boat”, but the reader says “bouch”!”). A few Glaswegians were bussed in for balance.

Colin asked why I hadn’t used the phonetic alphabet as a framework; essentially because it would have left too many large areas void of sense: dozens of meaningless sounds for every significant noise. The actual grid of twenty initials, ten vowels and eighteen terminals conflates a number of sounds which I clearly hear as distinct – mostly voiced and unvoiced consonant pairs, though even there not always: initial s and z are subsumed under one sound, while terminal s and z, because of the huge semantic burden they divide, have a column each.
The conflation that could raise the most circumflectic eyebrows is my merging of “oo” and “ow” (as in “could” and “cowed”. The main reason for it, once again, was to minimize the vacant space in the grid. Many words have been pronounced with either "ow" or "oo" in different times and places. If a purist complains that they are quite simply different vowels and should be set down as such in the interests of clarity and consistency, I’d have to ask him where to stop. “oo”, after all, covers not one but two vowels: “could” and “cooed”; “rude” and “rued”. Continue with that line of reasoning and we are back to the phonetic alphabet – and I’m not convinced that that would really solve the phonetic problem. Each of us hears the same sound in a different way. We wouldn’t agree either on what constitutes a monosyllable: “fool”- yes; “foul” – yes. “Tool” – yes; “towel” – maybe; “trowel” – maybe not.

As the credits show, most of the voices are neither Scottish nor necessarily native Anglophone. The vowels have had to be carefully attributed, since latins stretch the short vowels and the "a" of California is not the "a" in Glasgow. But it's amazing how ubiquitous these simple syllables are.
15 September 2012