Dreams

Photo of the author taken circa 2006.
Photo of the author taken circa 2006.

Dreams are typically as tedious as daily life, sometimes more so. If we remember anything it’s a fragmented image and a lingering emotional resonance, maybe an utterance or physical sensation, seldom more. Maybe you want to hang onto it. Maybe not. Sometimes there’s a biographical connection or some other way in which it’s obviously meaningful. More often, of those remembered, dreams are random and meaningless unless you choose to elevate them.

Hearing someone recount a dream is one of the low points in our social experience, so why would I want to tell you mine? I’ll say more on this later in the post. First, I want to address the history of the project and the technical issues, as though that could be more interesting than my dreams.

Beginning 2013, I had been playing around with the idea of an interactive book of sound recordings to accompany the text, so you could read along or just listen, already having tried out an interactive PDF. My second foray was to do it as a website,  posted on the Adobe host site and discussed in Poetry and Other Sounds, 2014. This was a collection of dream narratives I’d been accumulating for over twenty years.

I wanted to give the dream narratives another try as a digital download via Bandcamp. I love that you can add quite a few extras to your album, that it need not be limited to music, such as photos, videos (I think you can include video), booklets, and posters. The album was uploaded October 2, 2016 with three bonus tracks that are dream text audio compositions from years past  (Dream House, The Horse, and The Psychedelic Baby of Death) and three versions of a 124-page PDF book. The Dreams download is name-your-price, which includes free. I think you can also stream any or all of it if you just want a glimpse.

This past August I began reworking the site, created in Adobe’s Muse, as a booklet (recreated in Adobe’s InDesign) and downloadable album. Rather than going for the original interactive concept, this time keeping sound and vision separate entities. The easy part, the booklet, was almost complete before I began to grapple with the recording. Again proofing the text, fixing numerous typos I’d missed before—it’s amazing how I keep finding them no matter how many times I go over it. I did not revise anything to make me seem a better writer nor to create a more natural flow when reading (this latter became an issue when recording).

The sequence was a bit of procrastination and the reason was my dread of rerecording all the narratives. It’s not so much that I’m getting lazy with age or unwilling to take on a large project. My aversion to rerecording is the unreliability of my voice from one day to another or even throughout a single day. Because of chronic sinus congestion (mainly triggered by low pressure systems it would seem) my vocal cords sound worn out. My voice is no longer clear, acquiring both a softness and a roughness (my father’s voice has gotten so bad from the same problem that he sounds like he’s had a tracheostomy, his voice not much more than a whisper). When it’s really bad, both because I can’t breathe through my nose and the steady post nasal drip, I can’t maintain a flow of words, my speech constantly interrupted as I gulp air. It also sounds like I’ve got a cold, affecting the timbre of my voice. In my mind at least, it also seems to interfere with the enunciation of the words because air for certain phonemes, or to simply swallow, cannot pass through my nose but is forced back into my throat—generally, the air cannot shift around in my upper respiratory passages as I flap my jaw and move my tongue while speaking.

There were several new narratives that needed to be recorded, since first publishing the collection. I didn’t want to go back to the headset mic (Audio-Technica PRO-8HEx) that I’d originally used, not really liking the sound it imparts to my voice, preferring to try out the Heil Sound PR-40 I’d gotten earlier this year, which would change the sonic continuity. On Labor Day weekend I began rerecording the whole thing, almost forty narratives (quite a few being over five minutes), with the idea that it could take me weeks or even months to finish.

Computer's view of a stupid old shit…I mean genius at work.
Computer’s view of a stupid old shit…I mean genius at work. Shock mount, pop filter, and shelf-mount boom arm were all part of a package with the Heil Sound PR-40 microphone.
Using the computer as a teleprompter. The text is large and easy to read while the new mic setup provides minimal obstruction to my line of sight. The recording program behind Word is Sonar.
Using the computer as a teleprompter. The text is large and easy to read while the new mic setup provides minimal obstruction to my line of sight. The recording program behind Word is Sonar.

 

I began late  Sunday morning. With several breaks for meals as well as family time, frequent departures from my room for water, both in and out, and to rest my voice, I felt I was on a roll and kept going until I’d finished reading everything, sometime past midnight. A typical reading required at least two takes. Quite often, especially on the longer narratives, I’d become tongue tied and have to repeat a passage numerous times to get it right (this is when you realize a word on the page is very different from a word in the mouth). If my reading bogged down too many times my frustration would come out of my lungs and there would be burst of volume at the beginning of a paragraph or phrase that wouldn’t sit right with the rest of the reading… Throughout the day, with changes in humidity (sunset always gives me grief) and as the decongestant would wear off, my sinuses would interfere with the reading. Still, I felt I’d nailed all of them. Just in case, I left my mic and preamp set up for several days in case I wanted to take another shot at reading.

The next day, on playback, they didn’t all sound as good as I had thought. Because of the impossibility of my voice matching it would not work to just drop in minor corrections, of a phrase or paragraph, I decided to try to edit everything first rather than rereading. This was a matter of cutting out the fumbled passages and the gaps within individual phrases. It doesn’t always play back smoothly, if you listen closely. But I decided to keep the trimmed recordings rather than trying again. There’s a sonic continuity to what I have that I value over a flawless take. I like the idea that it was all read in a single day. Also, it’s a life choice: there’s the issue of going on forever, letting perfectionism take control.

The first step in editing the recordings was to remove the background noise of things like computer fans (the PR-40 is very good at rejecting sounds not close and in front of it, so this was minimal compared to what I’ve had to do on previous recordings) and as many of the mouth clicks (popping of saliva bubbles?) as I could. (In my head I hear a lot more noise than the microphone picks up…fluids churning and bubbling, bones shifting and cracking, all because of congestion.) In the past I’ve used the noise reduction software in Sound Forge. It’s better than the free stuff but I’ve recently discovered that the treatments in Adobe’s Audition are better, leaving fewer sonic artifacts while more thoroughly removing the noise. A single pass with the pop and click filter removed almost all the mouth clicks without damaging articulation of phonemes (you might think a small, quick dental or fricative could be erased).

Next, again in Audition, I cut out my verbal missteps as well as trimming some of the ends of each piece. This process was time consuming, as I’d have to listen attentively to the entirety of each recording. (I later found I missed some of the flubs. I guess I’m easily distracted.)

I then went back into Sonar, which is what I used for tracking, for effects processing. I used a free version of iZotope’s Nectar that came packed with Sound Forge (I think it was) with a podcast preset on the channel effects. This pushed up the lower frequencies of my voice so I sound a bit like a radio DJ. I tweaked the upper mid frequencies with a little boost to improve audibility. There’s also a little compression in the preset (and maybe a de-esser, which I seldom need). In a separate effects bus there’s a very subtle reverb (Native Instruments’ Reflektor set in Guitar Rig), something called “kids’ room”. It has very little reflection compared to most reverb presets. Still, it was too echoey for my taste and I turned it way down until, for many listeners, it will seem too dry (I’m used to hearing things in a small, absorbent room, like in a living room or bedroom, and find highly reverberant spaces disorienting and phony). I can’t recall if I had iZotope’s Ozone in the master bus at this point or if that was on another pass. After setting all the tracks in CD Architect to hear how it flowed as a whole I found I wanted to trim the beginning and end of all tracks to have a consistent gap between each narrative, approximately four seconds at the beginning and two seconds at the end (I also trimmed some of the pauses within a recording so that they seem tighter and that the long pause is clearly indicative of a transition between tracks). And that I wanted to tweak the EQ to tone down a little of that DJ boominess. Maybe that’s when I added Ozone to the chain. On the final listen all but one of the tracks were normalized. Little by little, several passes through various compressors flattened the dynamic range to make my voice more consistently audible. This process also brings up some of the oddness of my voice: not sure if the mic is picking up reflections from my room or if it’s my mouth itself (perhaps exaggerated by the loss of several teeth) but I sound a little like I’m in a very small box. I hope no one else is listening that closely.

There was a resistance to rushing to Bandcamp to publish the results. I wanted to take a break from my voice, in more ways than one. And I wanted to hear the collection through from start to finish one more time. Good thing. I noticed some glitches in my reading that I’d missed before.

There remains a strong temptation to reread, rerecord, and remix the whole project (right after uploading to Bandcamp I bought new mixing software from iZotope, Neutron, and of course wanted to reprocess the whole thing). I’m never happy with what I do. Now that it’s online for public consumption the idea of remixing seems ridiculous yet I still want to do it. Perfectionism is the worst addiction: just say no.

The booklet is a minor variation of what I published as a website. You can either read it as a separate text document or read along with me. Originally I planned a PDF in spreads, so you’d see two pages the way you would with a physical book or magazine. At my partner’s suggestion, to make it easier to read on a small device, I also did a page version, where you only see one page on screen at a time. And on the off chance that anyone wants to print out one or more pages, I made a version with a white background that won’t totally drain your ink cartridges.…Initially, because they were meant to  be electronic publications, I put links from the table of contents to each narrative, section (such as notes), and photo, with a link on those pages back to the table of contents. The print version lacks these links. (While working on this last booklet I was exploring a user’s manual and realized how bookmarks are utilized in a PDF. So, in the white print version, instead of an active table of contents there are bookmarks performing the same function.…Just thought I’d try it out and maybe make the reader’s life a little easier.)

So far, everything I’ve said is about the technical aspect of the project.

I first documented a few dreams around the time I was briefly in college, circa 1979. A few of these dreams are from that period or slightly after (two are from early 1980) but only one or two were written down at the time, as poems.

It wasn’t until 1992-93 when I resumed writing, after buying a word processor, that I began to document the few dreams I could remember, including one from early childhood. My goal was to create literary artifacts, to make the telling beautiful and interesting—as I’ve already mentioned, hearing someone recount their dream is as boring as hearing about what they ate for lunch or their weekend with the in-laws, though usually whinier. There’s a long held truism or belief, stated by many writers, that dreams do not make good stories. I tend to agree; but I wanted to try anyway. As I said, I wanted to do something with the literary presentation. I’ve played with that enough so that very few of these narratives have the same style or feel, each one an attempt to remain true to the dream’s feel. I also wanted to stay true to the logic of the dreams. To me, part of what makes a dream telling so tiresome is that the person tries to apply waking logic to something by nature random and fluid. I find that the dreams often have biographical resonances or just inherently interesting images, which I often point out, but I really try not to explain or rationalize anything. The earlier attempts to document dreams from many years prior are more likely to have passages detailing the circumstance of my life, in part because my life was in flux. The more recent narratives focus on the dream itself and rarely venture into the details of the waking world.

As the written narratives have varied, I’ve tried to alter my reading to fit each dream. Some are brief poems. Some are frenzied tellings of a personal event. Some are soapbox sermons. Others are essays or intellectual explorations. Some are rituals or ceremonies. Some are casual chats. I suppose the most common affect is to tell a story as though it’s a film, merely describing the images flowing past, allowing the images to present and define any meaning.

My dreams are quite vivid. Most of the details in these tellings are as true to the memory of the dream as I can make them, whatever embellishment attempting to stay within the character of the whole. Usually, though, I don’t remember enough of a dream to write about it: yet those single images can stay with me for years. Since publishing this work I’ve had a couple of very intense dreams about our younger child, who’s been in Australia since last December and is working on getting a partnership visa to stay there up to five years. We’ve been coping with this (electronics slightly mitigate the sense of loss—I can’t imagine what it was like before phones or telegraph). The kid’s face or presence has been in recent dreams, but not enough of the surrounding dream has lingered into daylight to warrant a new text. Or maybe I just don’t want to write those details (several of the narratives here are just the parting image), keep them to myself for a while.

You wouldn’t know this: what I find missing here is the variety of my dreams, because there’s not enough to remember when awake. I especially like the dreams that are basically horror movies, as I’m chased through landscapes or interiors by witches, vampires and even more beautiful, glorious monsters. (An actual nightmare involves bad things happening to people I care about. There’s one that comes to mind of looking for our older child in a swamp, early spring when there’s ice with shallow water beneath—that’s all I remember of it.)  And there’s so little erotic content in these narratives compared to what I’ve experienced. But most of all is the tedium of someone, often my maternal grandmother, telling me how to do something I already know how to do. And let’s not forget work dreams—is there anything worse? A common dream situation is one in which I’m trying to read something but can’t make out the words; or I’m looking for something in a library, rummage sale, record store, et cetera, and can’t read the titles. I have many dreams of losing control, most often of vehicles, though not as often as I did forty-some years ago when I’d be riding through back roads and logging trails on a motorcycle in my waking hours then dreaming about it at night, perhaps more daringly but ultimately losing it. One attempt to capture this loss is a piece called “Dream House” which does not tell of a specific dream but of the recurrent motif of architecture. There are, though, many dreams set in the forests of northern Minnesota, as well as other forests, or involving bodies of water small or large, still or flowing. And, of course, many of these dreams have a princess or goddess. I’m always falling in love in my dreams, whether with women I know or, more often, blatant archetypes.

As in real life, my dreams are richly sensual. They are not just visual. Often there is music—nameable or novel, sometimes the work of friends or even my own. It’s rare, though, that anyone in a dream actually speaks; instead, it’s more like telepathy, things are known. Likewise, actual sounds, the stuff in film called foley, are rare except for the drone of machinery. Smell is sporadic and taste is almost never present, but touch can be more powerful than vision. I often wake with sensations on my skin or within my muscles. I feel embodied by my dreams, or within them. I think this is why I sometimes want to remain in a dream, to perpetuate it into waking life. It’s a little like being in love, feeling embraced and wanted, regardless of the content of the dream.

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