Auto-Tune by Ben Lerner

BOMB 114 Winter 2011
114 20Cover

The phase vocoder bends the pitch of
  my voice toward a norm.
Our ability to correct sung pitches was the
  unintended result of an effort to extract
  hydrocarbons from the earth:
the technology was first developed by an
  engineer at Exxon to interpret seismic
The first poet in English whose name is
  known learned the art of song
   in a dream.
Bede says: “By his verse the minds of many
  were often excited to despise the
When you resynthesize the frequency
  domain of a voice, there is audible
  “phase smearing,” a kind of vibrato,
but instead of signifying the grain of a
  particular performance, the smear
signifies the recuperation of particularity by
  the normative.

I want to sing of the seismic activity deep
  in the Earth and the destruction of the
  earth for profit
in a voice whose particularity has been
  extracted by machine.
I want the recuperation of my voice, a
  rescaling of its frequency domain, to be
  audible when I’m called upon to sing.
Caedmon didn’t know any songs, so he
  withdrew from the others in
Then he had a dream in which he was
probably by a god, and asked to sing “the
  beginning of created things.”
His withdrawing, not the hymn that he
  composed in the dream, is the founding
  moment of English poetry.
Here my tone is bending toward an
  authority I don’t claim (“founding
but the voice itself is a created thing, and
the larynx operates within socially
  determined parameters we learn to
You cannot withdraw and sing, at least not
You can only sing in a corporate voice of
  corporate things.
The voice, notable only for its
  interchangeability, describes
the brightest object in the sky after the sun,
love will be made beneath it, a voice leveled
  to the point that I can think of it as mine.
But because this voice does not modulate
  the boundaries of its intelligibility
  dynamically, it is meaningless.
I can think of it as mine, but I cannot use it
  to express anything.
The de-skilling of the singer makes the song
  transpersonal at the expense of content. In
this sense the music is popular.

Most engineers aspire to conceal the
  corrective activity of the phase vocoder.
If the process is not concealed, if it’s
  overused, an unnatural warble in the
  voice results,
and correction passes into distortion: the
  voice no longer sounds human.
But the sound of a computer’s voice is
  moving, as if our technology wanted to
  remind us of our power,
to sing “the beginning of created things.”
  This the sound of our collective
and in that sense is corporate. As if from

the phase smears as the voice describes
the diffuse reflection of the sun at night.
In a voice without portamento, a voice in
  which the human
is felt as a loss, I want to sing the permanent
  wars of profit.
I don’t know any songs, but won’t withdraw.
  I am dreaming
the pathetic dream of a pathos capable of
so that corporate personhood becomes
  more than legal fiction.
It is a dream in prose of poetry, a long
  dream of waking.

Ben Lerner’s books of poetry are The Lichtenberg Figures (2004), Angle of Yaw (2006), and Mean Free Path (2010), all published by Copper Canyon Press. His first novel, Leaving the Atocha Station, is forthcoming from Coffee House Press. He teaches in the writing program at Brooklyn College.

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Originally published in

BOMB 114, Winter 2011

Featuring interviews with Jim Nutt and Gladys Nilsson, Rochelle Feinstein, Rae Armantrout, Tristan Garcia, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, The Bug, Sarah Michelson, and Adam Pendleton.

Read the issue
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