Friday, April 25, 2014

ON THE NATURE OF THINGS by Lucretius -- new audiobook just out!

It took about a year and half of recording in my spare time, but the complete recording of a modern English verse translation of the classic poem ON THE NATURE OF THINGS by Lucretius is finally complete. The public domain recording is now available in the LibriVox catalog.

Read a synopsis and stream it here:

Download the audiobook (in iTunes-friendly M4B format) here:
Part 1 -
Part 2 -
Part 3 -

I actually started this work BEFORE I got into professional audiobook production, and the first few sections sound pretty "raw" to me. On the positive side, it shows the complete evolution of my skills as a narrator, and reading a work like this (with extremely long, convoluted sentences, in iambic pentameter, with Elizabethan-era vocabulary) was a challenge for me throughout the project!

For those of you would rather WATCH the writings of Lucretius rather than READ them, here is a brief taste: the opening lines of the work, which amount to a hymn of praise to Venus (a rather curious way to start a discourse on Epicureanism, but hey, you gotta allow a guy a little poetic license!).

Friday, April 4, 2014


This is a reposting of an entry recently appearing on the Plum Tree Books page on Facebook.

Each time I’m ready to begin recording a new chapter of an audiobook, I sit down in my recording studio and go through a ritualized sequence of technical preparations. And then, I begin to read aloud -- TO ABSOLUTELY NO ONE. Nobody is EVER there!

How weird is that? It certainly FEELS weird – especially the first few times I did it. And honestly, I still occasionally pause in wonder at the strangeness of the act of reading to people who are not there – who are instead off in some unseeable and untouchable future. This visceral experience is part of what anthropologist Michael Wesch and his students term "context collapse". In their studies of YouTube culture, they not only observed, but also experienced for themselves how strange and awkward it is to sit alone in front of a webcam and say, "I'm talking to you, but … I don't know who you are." (To get a better sense of what "context collapse" is to Wesch and his students, click here to watch a minute or two of their video.)

The fact is that I will never meet and will never know most of the people who ultimately listen to my audio and video productions. But I’m actually fine with that aspect of context collapse, perhaps due to my decades of previous experience performing and speaking before LIVE audiences.

Instead, my occasional stumbling blocks come from another major component of context collapse: my own spontaneous judgment of my own performance, as I am performing. This instant self-critique can be helpful when I catch myself accidentally deviating from the way I had originally planned to read a passage. In some of these cases, it is wholly appropriate to stop dead in my tracks and go back to re-record a section to correct an obvious mistake. But there are times when an unexpected and unplanned deviation is NOT a mistake, but is instead a moment of creative serendipity. The challenge in such cases is to allow myself to keep going, to overrule the voice in my head that might be screaming "STOP," to permit the spontaneous creation of something OTHER than what I had (sometimes rigorously) originally planned for.

The best example of "extended serendipity" that I can offer from my collected works is my recording of THE TELL-TALE HEART by Edgar Allan Poe:

I knew that this reading required a special approach, since it consists of the first-person ravings of a psychopathic murderer. While I carefully studied the narrative beforehand to intimately refamiliarize myself with the arch of the story, I determined that it would not pay to plan my performance with the same level of detail that I usually do. Most importantly, I made the complete recording in two long takes, not stopping for ANYTHING (also very unusual for me). The end result is a recording that captures one serendipitous moment after another, because very little of what you hear was planned out in advance. (Be advised that this material may not be appropriate for small children -- it is, after all, the murderous ravings of a lunatic.)


This is another posting that first appeared on the Plum Tree Books blog.

One of the most profound differentiators between audiobook narration and any other type of oration lies in the need for the lone narrator to create distinctive voicings for all of the characters that engage in dialogue within a story being recorded. While it's not always necessary to go to extreme lengths of making unique voices and personalities (i.e., the job is not to fool the listener into thinking that they are hearing multiple actors performing a work of radio theater), it is absolutely vital to provide enough voice differentiation so that the listener can tell when a particular character is speaking.

With that said -- I, for one, do indeed like to strive to give even minor characters as much unique personality and "attitude" as I can. And all aspects of prosody are at my disposal, including tempo, pitch, amplitude, volume, vocal placement (throat vs. mouth), percussiveness, and accent. But I don’t really think of these individual aspects in technical terms as I create a voice; instead I spend some time simply imagining what the character is like. Then I locate some of their dialogue in the text and just start experimenting with it, until I find a sound that "fits". I don’t agonize over this -- the entire process of establishing a voice, even for a main character, usually takes no more than a minute or two.

A standard challenge that all narrators face is the cross-gender challenge. For me, being a male with a naturally baritone to tenor speaking voice, the challenge comes in reading the dialogue of female characters. As the best vocal coaches teach, it’s not all about pitch. (Speaking in falsetto is definitely off the menu. I don’t want all of my female characters to sound like they popped right out of a Monty Python sketch.) Again, finding a voice is more about first establishing and solidifying my ideas of a character's personality. With women characters this usually then calls for potentially adding an effeminate lilt or breathiness to the voicing, as much (or little) as might be fitting given whatever persona I've conjured up for the character.

But above all, the one aspect that I love to play with is accent. However, I only stick within a narrow range of regional accents that I feel at home with. It's fortunate that I spent some formative years both in Texas and in New York City, so dialectical traces from both those places show up naturally in my everyday speech. When I have a character that needs either a full-throttle New York or Texan accent, I simply take the part of my regular voice that leans that way, and consciously crank it up!

In the case of the two O. Henry short stories that I've made recordings of, I came to think of the third person narrator (the author himself) to be a "character". And despite the New York City settings of most of his stories, O. Henry was a southerner who spent some of his formative years in Texas. So I can't imagine reading his stories with anything other than a light Texas accent -- the style of his writing simply demands it. In "The Gift of the Magi" below, you’ll note that I give the lead female character a midwestern accent and her husband, the male lead, a Manhattan/Brooklyn accent, while reading the main narrative with the best Austin (Texas) accent I could manage. Also here for your enjoyment is O. Henry’s "The Last Leaf", a more recent recording of mine that will appear on the upcoming audiobook CLASSIC TALES OF HOPE AND COURAGE.


This is another blog posting that originated on the Plum Tree Books blog.

Let me tell you the story of how I began … with nothing in my pockets but a jack-knife and a button. -- Robert Graves
It was one of my favorite times of the school day: the hour when we would sit on the carpet gathered around my second-grade teacher, as she sat in her chair and read a few chapters of a book to us, in a captivating voice that never failed to completely enchant me.

Even though I had devoured the entire book in one sitting the previous night, after my teacher had lent it to me to take home, I still passionately looked forward to hearing her read it to us. And she did not disappoint -- we were all enraptured by her reading of the opening chapters of Roald Dahl’s “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”. If I recall correctly, she was about midway through the second chapter, when a most annoying interruption came!

An emissary from the school’s office barged in, insisting that my teacher come to the office that very instant to tend to some bureaucratic humdrummery that ABSOLUTELY COULD NOT WAIT! As it became clear to my teacher that she could not ignore this edict, a thought appeared to come to her, which she then acted upon with cool certainty. As she stood up and took a step away from her chair, she pointed to it and beckoned me to take her place. She then handed me the open book, pointed to a specific spot on the page, and said simply, “Start here.” And then, she walked out.

Someone had raised the curtain on my life and said, “begin”. And so I began.

Having absolutely no time to think anything through, I knew, above all else, that I could not let my classmates down. I had already been on this fantastic ride: been there with Charlie as he miraculously stumbled upon the last golden ticket, watched in amazement as Augustus Gloop zoomed up the pipe, sailed with the Oompa Loompas up the river of chocolate and beyond! I had been there, and was now tasked with revealing this wondrous world to the others seated before me. There was nothing to do but the doing of it. So do it, I did!

It was, in a word, glorious. In a few more words -- I did not disappoint (neither myself nor my classmates). A rather animated child by nature (who was still several years away from learning the adolescent truth that it was “not cool” to be so outgoing), I let the lid come off, and made my voice do whatever was required to fully communicate the roller-coaster of urgencies, joys, horrors, and wonders that were magically contained on the pages in front of me.

When my teacher returned a few minutes later, she (being a sensible and sensitive individual) did not interrupt the proceedings, but stood at the back and respectfully allowed me to keep going for the rest of the hour. And the next day at story hour, still I kept going. To my teacher’s credit, in subsequent days she let some other volunteers in the room take their turn at the helm. But that seat of honor, the reading seat, had clearly become my place. I owned it, and it owned me. 

Since then, throughout my life, there have been countless opportunities for me to fulfill this fundamental calling -- to be a storyteller. Perhaps I’ll have appropriate chances in future blog postings to relate some of those to you. But for now, let me fast-forward to the present, to the storytelling project that is my professional focus of the moment.

I am in the midst of putting together the third installment in my “Classic Tales” series of audiobooks: CLASSIC TALES OF HOPE AND COURAGE. But I’m sure at this point you’ve had quite enough of my writing, so no more tedious text. Instead, here is a video to give you a feel for the upcoming audiobook.

You may notice that it’s not just a stand-alone video -- it’s couched within a *Kickstarter* project! I’m experimenting with using Kickstarter as a way to “pre-sell” my audiobook productions, which will allow me to ramp up production of more “Classic Tales” audiobooks. If you like what you see, hear, and feel in this video, then please click on through to the Kickstarter project  and become involved in whatever way works for you!


This is a reposting of a blog entry first published on the Plum Tree Books blog: 

What exactly is prosody? That’s a tough question to answer succinctly, but if pressed for an answer, I would say that “prosody” is roughly synonymous to what we otherwise call “expressiveness” in oral reading. Or to analogize -- prosody is to reading aloud as musicianship is to musical performance. But it might be better to break prosody down to its component aspects, which include rhythm, intonation, phrasing, stress, tempo, and volume.

These components represent some of the tools of expressiveness that are available to a storyteller to engage and entertain an audience. It is neither accident nor coincidence that the expressive tools of the storyteller are almost exactly the same as those that a musician uses. In my mind, there is NO distinction between prosody and musicality: prosodic expression in storytelling is merely a specific kind of music-making, and all of my past experiences as a classical musician directly inform and shape my work in the creation of audiobooks.

Musicians actively develop their musical expressiveness every time they pick up their instrument, and likewise, good storytellers are constantly cognizant of improving their prosody in the midst of each reading. But musicians and storytellers alike usually feel a need to take things further, to persistently work in a very focused way to develop specific aspects of their expressiveness. A pianist might choose a few pieces from Bach’s “Well-Tempered Clavier” to use as the basis of their personal expressive studies, working with them rigorously in a practice room to hone their craft. The equivalent for me over the past year has been to utilize a modern English verse translation of “On the Nature of Things” by Lucretius, the lengthy Roman-era exposition on the fundamental tenets of Epicureanism that was so influential to the predominant figures of the Enlightenment.

There are very few pages of “On the Nature of Things” that fail to provide numerous prosodic challenges -- considerably greater challenges than I generally encounter in the modern literature that constitutes the bulk of my regular work. I particularly get a workout with phrasing and stress, since I’m reading English poetry that has been translated from Latin poetry, making for some of the most awkward (yet often, strangely beautiful) phrases and sentences that I’ve ever had to utter. And I’m striving always to make it comprehensible to the listener, because I am giving all of my recordings of “On the Nature of Things” to the Librivox project, to be made part of their public domain collection of audiobooks.

To give you an idea of what it’s all about, here are the opening stanzas of Book 1 of “On the Nature of Things” by Lucretius.