Sunday, January 20, 2013

The Art of Recitation


In what sense is recitation an art? Recitation is an art in the sense that it may be judged according to aesthetic criteria, such as beauty, sublimity, originality, imagination, spontaneity, eloquence, expressiveness, etc. It is also an art in the sense that it involves the practice of a craft, discipline, or skill that is artistic, as well as technical, in nature.
      Is it possible for the recitation of a text to be creative and flexible in its approach to the text, and yet remain faithful to all linguistic aspects of that text? Indeed, every act of recitation may, to some extent, involve an element of creative interpretation on the part of the performer. Faithfulness to the creativity of the text may require the recitation of the text to reflect that creativity.
      Can recitation of a text give the text new or added meaning? Oral recitation sometimes seems to bring new life to a written text, to reanimate it and make it more vital, and to bring it from the past into the present. Sometimes by hearing a text recited, we may hear that text in some way reinterpreted by the reader doing the recitation, and thus we may see how the reader's own experience of the text (as shaped by her experiences of other texts) may influence her interpretation. We may be exposed to new ways of reading, listening to, and interpreting that text, and we ourselves may subsequently read, listen to, and interpret that text differently.
      Other important questions regarding the nature and meaning of recitation include: Does the oral recitation of a written text somehow change the ontological status of that text? For example, does the recitation of a poem somehow change it from a written to an oral art form? (What about spoken word poetry? Is it an oral or written art form, or both?) Is a written text changed in its being when it is read aloud? To what extent does the ontological status of a particular text depend on the means by which that text is transmitted?
      Does the recitation of a sacred text change the ontological status of that text? Does the act of recitation change the ontological status of the truths that the text is purported to express? Or should the converse question be asked: is the ontological status of the truths that a sacred text is purported to express changed by the act of writing down or transcribing that text? For believers in God, the question is thus, "Is the spoken Word of God the same as the written Word of God?"
      The recitation of a text often seems to make us more open to listening and to being more receptive to that text. The text may become a listening as well as reading experience in which we actively participate. In some cases (as, for example, with highly abstract or technical written texts), we may find it more difficult to be good listeners than to be good readers, while in other cases (as, for example, with some auditory texts, such as unidentifiable noises or environmental sounds) we may find it more difficult to be good "readers" than to be good listeners.
     The recitation of a written text by its author may enable the listener to have a new and fuller experience of the author (as a person, speaker, or writer). The listener may gain insight into the author's verbal and thematic strategies in the text by listening to the author's recitation of the text.
      How much of ordinary language consists of the recitation of thoughts by a given speaker or writer? If a given speaker or writer simply "says what's on her mind" and unburdens herself of whatever has been occupying her attention, isn't she, in a sense, merely reciting her thoughts and voicing her feelings? Perhaps, to express one's thoughts verbally is in some way to recite them to the listener or reader.
      Recitation may be performed with varying degrees of proficiency. Technical aspects of recitation (which may depend on the vocal qualities of the performer, her proficiency in reading aloud, her literacy, her understanding of the text, and her communicative competence) may therefore affect the listener's experience of the recited text. Relevant vocal qualities of the performer may include the pitch, volume, resonance, and range of her voice, and the tempo, intonation, articulation, phrasing, and dynamics of her delivery, all of which may affect the listener's attentiveness to, and participation in, the recitation. Nonvocal qualities of the performer such as her facial expressions, posture, and gestures may also affect the listener's experience of the recitation.
      Some texts may be easier to recite than others. Some may be more interesting, resonant, meaningful, and easier to listen to than others.
      Criteria for a praiseworthy recitation of a text may include the accuracy, fluency, and effectiveness of the recitation, as determined by its faithfulness to the words of the text, its precision, its resonance, its spontaneity, its expressive poignancy, and its dramatic power.
      The importance of oral recitation (and of oral versus written narrative) may vary according to the particular aesthetic, religious, or sociocultural tradition in which it occurs. Thus, varying degrees of emphasis may also be placed on the ability to properly recite a text, depending on the aesthetic, religious, or sociocultural setting.
      Modes of recitation include speaking (reading aloud), singing, recitative (or speech-like singing), and chanting. Each of these modes may vary in the degree to which they are rote (mechanical) or improvised.
      Recitation is a kind of performance, and thus we are also confronted by the question of whether the interpretation of a spoken or written text involves a kind of performance on the part of the listener or reader. Just as the reading of a text may be performed silently or aloud, the interpretation of a text may be performed silently or aloud.
      Some machines (such as computers and telephones) may be able to read written text (including text messages) aloud, and thus their repetitive recitation of a particular text may have a uniformity that is not possible with human recitation. Unless the recitation of a particular text by a computer or mobile device is programmed to vary in some way with each recitation, each recitation may be exactly the same as those preceding it. Repetitive human recitation of a particular text, on the other hand, will inevitably exhibit some variation (even if only slight) from one recitation to another.

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