The sound and the sense of Don Juan

Jeanne-Françoise Julie Adélaïde Récamier painted 1802 by François (Baron) Gérard
Jeanne-Françoise Julie Adélaïde Récami­er paint­ed 1802 by François (Baron) Gérard

Sam. John­son famous­ly observed that only a block­head would write for no mon­ey. He might also have said that only a fool tries to self-pub­lish; a sad fool if it’s poet­ry. So, fool­ish­ly, I’ve been look­ing for a bet­ter way to dis­trib­ute my new­er record­ings of Don Juan so that they’ll be acces­si­ble for more peo­ple and, I hope, more vis­i­ble.

I used to make my record­ings avail­able to Librivox.org. But I don’t like their insis­tence on brand­ing the record­ings to them­selves and their indif­fer­ence to mar­ket­ing. I have no present inten­tion of charg­ing for these record­ings but I no longer have any inten­tion, either, of plac­ing them in the pub­lic domain. The effect of doing so is to loose all con­trol of the dis­tri­b­u­tion and qual­i­ty. For­tu­nate­ly, so far, the re-pub­lish­ers of whom I’m aware — YouTube and oth­er stream­ing sites — have not both­ered to change any­thing; only putting a ‘cov­er’ on the record­ing.

The sound and the sense

Besides, I am equal­ly inter­est­ed in both the sound and the text of the poem. The nar­ra­tion is only a per­for­mance of the poem; fleet­ing, a fig­ment. Of course it’s sup­posed to sound as Byron may have wished it to sound. He must have had some sound in mind, or why both­er with the demand­ing con­straints of ottawa rima? He cer­tain­ly chose words in part for their metre and sound and the nar­ra­tion must con­vey this music. But Byron chose among themes and expres­sions for rea­sons the nar­ra­tion can bare­ly hint at, and nev­er ful­ly cap­ture.

You need the text for that; and even com­men­tary on the text. Does that ruin it for my lis­ten­ers?

I hope the oppo­site might be true. Don Juan is great enter­tain­ment, but it is still more fun when you under­stand the jests, satir­i­cal barbs, per­son­al con­fes­sions and eva­sions and that, today, are no longer evi­dent on the sur­face that nar­ra­tion skims. For his con­tem­po­raries, the poem con­tained so many provo­ca­tions that John Mur­ray could bring him­self to pub­lish only the first five Can­tos of the great­est com­ic epic in Eng­lish and then anony­mous­ly. It is a great pity to miss out on them.

Byron brings to his great­est work a clas­si­cal edu­ca­tion and a sense of his social envi­ron­ment that is now antique, although com­bined with ele­ments that were rad­i­cal for his time. Too, he has a fas­ci­nat­ing per­son­al his­to­ry — some­what obscured by a rak­ish, roman­ti­cised rep­u­ta­tion — and a fas­ci­na­tion with his own psy­chol­o­gy as an author that is entire­ly mod­ern. Alas, only notes on the text can give every punch-line the weight it deserves or reveal where Byron pulls a punch to save him­self some pain.

Pub­lish­ing and dis­trib­ut­ing my own nar­ra­tions and texts, how­ev­er, needs an eco­nom­ic and eas­i­ly acces­si­ble chan­nel to read­ers and lis­ten­ers. One upon a time I might have con­sid­ered, for exam­ple, includ­ing a sound record­ing on CD with a print­ed book. (If you pur­chased any of those huge com­put­er-relat­ed tomes pop­u­lar in the 1990s you will remem­ber the for­mat; the plas­tic CD sleeve past­ed in the back cov­er.) But the Inter­net has made that for­mu­la expen­sive and near­ly obso­lete. The assault of music-stream­ing means few­er peo­ple both­er to own a CD play­er. Besides, only big pub­lish­ers and big stores can now pro­vide a book+CD dis­tri­b­u­tion net­work. It would still be pos­si­ble to com­bine print and audio with an on-line ‘com­pan­ion site’ for the print­ed book. I may go in that direc­tion one day. But, as of now, the mar­ket for my nar­ra­tion is too small to war­rant it and my anno­tat­ed texts are only an exper­i­ment. So dig­i­tal dis­tri­b­u­tion is like­ly to remain my choice if only for eco­nom­ic rea­sons.

Audio-enabled ePub

Which dig­i­tal for­mat, then? I’ve tried only one, so far: ePub. Specif­i­cal­ly, a form of ePub defined by the Inter­na­tion­al Dig­i­tal Pub­lish­ing Forum as ePub 3.1 that pro­vides for a stan­dard ‘audio over­lay’ for­mat for the ePub text. When I pub­lished Can­to I of Don Juan in Sep­tem­ber 2012 only Apple iBooks ful­ly imple­ment­ed this for­mat but — as is inevitable with Apple — using some pro­pri­etary exten­sions. Unless you have a Mac or iPhone, iPad (or a lat­er iPod) you will have trou­ble play­ing it.

Slow­ly, oth­er com­pa­nies are pro­duc­ing soft­ware capa­ble of play­ing the ‘page-by-page’ over­lay; more or less accu­rate­ly.

On a Mac or PC the Adobe Dig­i­tal Edi­tions soft­ware (ver­sion 4.0) or, on the iPad, IPhone and Android plat­forms the Men­estrel­lo app will play the iBook ePub while doing dif­fer­ent kinds of dam­age to the pre­sen­ta­tion.

Still bet­ter than both of these, at present, is the Rea­d­i­um plu­g­in for the Google Chrome brows­er. If you down­load the free ePub of Can­to 1 from the Apple iBook Store (use this iTunes link) and save it to your local disk, you should be able to import it into Rea­d­i­um with accept­able results.

PDF with embedded audio

What about oth­er for­mats for text + audio?

Adobe has released a sort of ‘slide pre­sen­ta­tion’ for­mat based on their Adobe Air (Shock­Wave-replace­ment) plat­form. I’ve made a short Adobe Voice pre­sen­ta­tion on the Ded­i­ca­tion to Don Juan with some verse extracts. But Voice files are huge; Adobe evi­dent­ly intends that they be brief (~1 min.) pre­sen­ta­tions streamed from Adobe’s own cloud. Not real­ly an option for Don Juan.

There is, too, a (chiefly) Adobe means of embed­ding audio in a PDF file. Now it hap­pens that PDF is prob­a­bly my favoured for­mat for dis­tri­b­u­tion of an anno­tat­ed text. As a page descrip­tion lan­guage, PDF pro­vides strong con­trol over lay­out, ensur­ing that what I devise appears in just that form on every plat­form that dis­plays PDF (there are dozens of these). Fur­ther­more, PDF is a ‘first class cit­i­zen’ in the Apple OSX equip­ment that I use. There are many edit­ing plat­forms that native­ly out­put PDF using the facil­i­ties pro­vid­ed by the Apple oper­at­ing sys­tem.

I do not how­ev­er pre­fer Apple soft­ware to pro­duce PDF. Instead, I use LaTeX (actu­al­ly the LuaLa­TeX engine) to pro­duce PDF. This gives me a more con­sis­tent out­put, typo­graph­i­cal­ly supe­ri­or to any of the WYSIWYG edi­tors on OS X that pro­duce Apple-flavoured PDF. It also allows me to use a low-lev­el library (LaTeX macro) for embed­ding audio files in the PDF in such a way that they will play auto­mat­i­cal­ly, requir­ing no user con­fig­u­ra­tion or inter­ven­tion.

As an exper­i­ment I have embed­ded an extract from my ear­li­est record­ing of Can­to I of Don Juan (the first 36 vers­es) into an anno­tat­ed text that I cre­at­ed some­time in 2010-11. Here is a link to the audio-PDF file. I have not opti­mised the images or the audio in this file so it’s 19 MB in size (a 2–3 minute down­load if you’re on a con­sumer-lev­el DSL link to the Inter­net).

Please note that you must view this file in the free Adobe Acro­bat read­er (or in Acro­bat Pro) for the audio to play. (It relies, inter­nal­ly, on Adobe javascript exten­sions to the PDF file for­mat.). Also, you may have to down­load a free Adobe Flash Play­er plug-in if you do not already have such a thing on your com­put­er. This file will dis­play on some iOS devices (iPad etc) but only one or two iOS apps that dis­play PDF will allow access to the audio (PDF Expert from Read­dle, for exam­ple) ; and then, only as an attach­ment, not embed­ded.

Please let me know whether this is a suc­cess­ful exper­i­ment in your opin­ion. I’d be grate­ful if you’d give me some feed­back — even if only thumbs-up or down — on this for­mat.

Audio options

Still, I know that some of my lis­ten­ers are not at all inter­est­ed in read­ing the poem, much less notes on the poem. For them, the audio relieves them of the need to read it to them­selves. They might like sim­ply to lis­ten, pos­si­bly to enjoy their imag­ined scenes. Or per­haps they like to have the dis­trac­tion of lis­ten­ing while they do oth­er, less imag­i­na­tive, things like wash­ing the dish­es or com­mut­ing to work.

I am still think­ing about how best to serve them.

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prospero

Byron fan (not fanatic); poetry lover (not tragic); doctor of melancholia (not gloom).

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