Friday, April 4, 2014


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.

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