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.

Annotated Canto III of Don Juan

Here’s a down­load for Byron fans. An illus­trat­ed, anno­tat­ed Can­to III of Don Juan.

This project went into the freez­er for a cou­ple of years after the pub­li­ca­tion of the audio-book of Can­to One. Alas, there were only a few sales. The iBook has been free for down­load from the iBook Store for the past cou­ple of years and, still, there are only a very small num­ber of down­loads.

The Lib­rivox record­ings I made of sev­er­al Can­tos of Don Juan (here, here, and here) have been down­loaded tens of thou­sands of times. But there seems to be almost zero demand for a read-aloud book of the same mate­r­i­al, or I have failed to con­nect with the audi­ence; or both.

I have, how­ev­er, con­tin­ued the project in oth­er ways from time to time. I’ve record­ed the audio for Can­tos II and III that have not been post­ed to Lib­rivox (I don’t like their insis­tence on ‘brand­ing’ my work for them­selves). Those record­ings may appear here in due course: or I may wait until I have some more Can­tos ready and release them as a group.

I have also con­tin­ued to work on an approach to anno­ta­tion whose motive is to help 21st cen­tu­ry read­ers “get” some of the ref­er­ences — lit­er­ary, auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal — that made the satire so amus­ing for sophis­ti­cat­ed 19th cen­tu­ry read­ers. Don Juan is not a lit­er­ary puz­zle like, for exam­ple, Joyce’s Ulysses. But it is a much denser com­po­si­tion than Byron’s appar­ent­ly friv­o­lous tone and loose struc­ture make it appear, on the sur­face.

Here is the anno­tat­ed ver­sion of Can­to III. I hope you like it. Please con­tact me (there’s an email link in the PDF file) and let me know what you think.

Don-Juan Can­to III Anno­tat­ed

By the way: the image is a half-imag­i­nary por­trait of one of Byron’s would-be (de fac­to? We’ll nev­er know!) lovers: the sat­ur­nine Ali Pasha of Tepe­lenë, a brig­and, sadist, ped­erast and Ottoman tyrant of Alba­nia and West­ern Greece. For more about his con­nec­tion to Bry­on, and role in Don Juan, please read the Anno­tat­ed Can­to III.

It’s time for an illustrated audio-e-book of Don Juan

Is it real­ly time for an illus­trat­ed, audio e-book of Don Juan? You bet! Here are three good rea­sons.

1. Illus­trat­ed ver­sions are out of print

Byron’s epic com­e­dy has nev­er been out of print, but illus­trat­ed ver­sions are hard to come by. My favourites are a 1927 edi­tion illus­trat­ed in fab­u­lous Deco style by John Austen (alas, out of print, but avail­able from rare-book deal­ers), and; The Anno­tat­ed Don Juan by Isaac Asi­mov (yes that Asi­mov) illus­trat­ed by Mil­ton Glaser, one of the icon­ic U.S. illus­tra­tors of the 20th cen­tu­ry (he cre­at­ed the I-heartf-NY logo) and designed by Alex Got­fryd. This too is out of print, although I bought myself a copy in great con­di­tion (inscribed by Glaser to his boss) a year or two back.

Cover of Isaac Asimov'e Annotated Don Juan
The Cov­er of Isaac Asimov’e Anno­tat­ed Don Juan with illus­tra­tions by Mil­ton Glaser

2. E-books are the best medi­um for illus­tra­tion

There is no illus­trat­ed e-pub of Byron: that is, a dig­i­tal book meant for read­ing as a book. That’s a great pity for two rea­sons. First, because Don Juan is — here and there, between Byron­ic digres­sions and some­times inside them — a very visu­al poem. Can­to One, espe­cial­ly, as a clas­sic bed­room-farce has lots of poten­tial. Sec­ond, books these days are rel­a­tive­ly expen­sive to pro­duce and dis­trib­ute, espe­cial­ly when they con­tain high-qual­i­ty colour illus­tra­tions (which adds to the weight, if only because of the paper required). E-books offer a much low­er-cost, eas­i­ly acces­si­ble medi­um that’s almost cost­less to dis­sem­i­nate even more wide­ly than books and weighs noth­ing.

Bet­ter still, with LCD screens head­ed for print-like-res­o­lu­tion — the iPad 3 screen is almost 300 ppi and the Mac­Book lap­top also now sports a “reti­na” screen — high qual­i­ty illus­tra­tion will soon be wide­ly avail­able. The low­est-cost e-read­ers are not there yet: Barnes’ and Noble’s Nook and the Ama­zon Kin­dle Fire offer only 170 pip for the present; about twice the res­o­lu­tion of the typ­i­cal desk­top screen. But the new Google Nexus 7 tablet has a love­ly low-cost LCD at 216 ppi. That’s approach­ing a den­si­ty where screen res­o­lu­tion pix­i­lates only when you “zoom” the dig­i­tal image.

3. E-books can read to you

The com­bi­na­tion of text and it’s per­for­mance in the same pub­li­ca­tion is an intrigu­ing option avail­able only with e-books.

Poet­ry, whose sound is pos­si­bly still more impor­tant than its print­ed rep­re­sen­ta­tion, is a per­fect tar­get for audio+text pub­li­ca­tion. When read­ing poet­ry for our­selves, we want to hear a poem spo­ken — and often ‘sub-vocal­ize’ when we don’t read out loud . But when read-to, we some­times want to see the text, too, to help us fol­low more com­plex pas­sages.

Will read­ers embrace a mixed-medi­um that includes the per­for­mance? That’s hard to say for sure.

(Pure) audio books are los­ing mar­ket share, prob­a­bly because they remained trapped by the phys­i­cal (CD) medi­um for far too long (like music CDs). The more rapid growth in sales of down­loaded audio-books has not been enough to restore their for­mer promi­nence despite the poten­tial demand among e.g. com­muters.

FORMAT 2008 2009 2010 % Chge 2009-10
Audio (Phys­i­cal)
Sales $305 $248.8 $217.9 12.4%
Mar­ket Share 2.3% 1.8% 1.6%
Audio down­loads
Sales $80.8 $100.6 $124.3 23.6%
Mar­ket Share 0.6% 0.7% 0.9%

Also, the aver­age qual­i­ty of nar­ra­tion in audio-books is , appar­ent­ly, a prob­lem. When I look at what’s on offer in com­mer­cial audio-books of Don Juan, I’m inclined to agree.

But the audio-for­mat for per­for­mance art, such as poet­ry, has strong appeal. What we hear pours into our imag­i­na­tion still more direct­ly than what we read. I sus­pect that hear­ing the poem read will make it more fun for peo­ple who would not con­sid­er read­ing it for the first time but who might, on a sec­ond occa­sion, want to read it for them­selves.

The audio e-book is a new con­cept in pub­lish­ing. It became wide­ly avail­able only late last year when Apple’s iBooks first imple­ment a ver­sion of “read-aloud” books, aimed at the children’s book mar­ket. The typ­i­cal read-aloud book has an audio-track that reads the con­tent of the book as the indi­vid­ual words are high­light­ed. Prob­a­bly, the idea was to help new read­ers iden­ti­fy the words and to put words and sounds togeth­er.

Then, ear­ly in 2012, the Inter­na­tion­al Dig­i­tal Pub­lish­ing Forum (IDPF) pub­lished the third indus­try-stan­dard spec­i­fi­ca­tions for e-pub­li­ca­tions that encour­ages all pub­lish­ers and device man­u­fac­tur­ers to imple­ment audio-enabled e-books in the same way (E-Pub 3.0). Now a grow­ing list of device and soft­ware allows simul­ta­ne­ous text and audio includ­ing iBooks (Apple), Kobo (owned by Rakuten), Azar­di (Info­grid Pacif­ic) and Rea­d­i­um (an e-pub read­er cre­at­ed by the IDPF itself for Google’s Chrome web-brows­er).

In every one of these envi­ron­ments you can choose to hear the book read-aloud or choose to turn off the audio and read for your­self. I hope read­ers will try both.

Don Juan and the year of revolt

It is aston­ish­ing to us, now, that the amus­ing, clever, most­ly-light-heart­ed tales in Can­tos I and II of Don Juan were con­demned by the Eng­lish estab­lish­ment for blas­phe­my, deprav­i­ty and incit­ing mis­be­hav­iour (among the low­er class­es). Byron protest­ed, accu­rate­ly, that his poem was inno­cent when mea­sured by the stan­dards of Clas­si­cal Roman verse, or or Dante or even Mil­ton.

But Byron knew well what he was up to — whom his satire would sting and whom it would please — and clear­ly delight­ed in it.

To appre­ci­ate the dar­ing, as well as the fun, of Don Juan we must bear in mind the bit­ter­ly charged pol­i­tics and near class-war­fare that gripped Eng­land in the the year (1819) that the poem first appeared. The prop­er­tied class­es — nobil­i­ty, gen­try, the army, church and par­venu indus­tri­al­ists — feared riot, revolt or even bloody rev­o­lu­tion by work­ers and their rad­i­cal allies of the con­sti­tu­tion­al Reform move­ment.

I could not tell the sto­ry of that year bet­ter than this excerpt from David Erdman’s 1944 talk “Byron and Revolt in Eng­land”

“In Jan­u­ary the labor­ers of Man­ches­ter parad­ed with red flags sur­mount­ed by red caps of lib­er­ty. In Feb­ru­ary and March there were strikes (the word was new) of weavers and col­liers, and a month-long hub­bub in West­min­ster where a stormy bye- elec­tion was won by the pool­ing of Tory and Whig votes against a field of Rad­i­cals led by Byron’s asso­ciate Hob­house; crowds in Covent Gar­den attacked the suc­cess­ful can­di­date shout­ing “Hob­house for ever.”

In April the Quar­ter­ly [Review] came out with a tardy but copi­ous denun­ci­a­tion of Shelley’s Revolt of Islam as a pro­duc­tion of “that indus­tri­ous knot of authors” whose work “loos­ened the hold of our pro­tect­ing laws … and blas­phemed our holy reli­gion.”

The Peterloo Massacre
The Peter­loo Mas­sacre from a pam­phlet pub­lished by Richard Carlile

In June the weavers were mak­ing wage demands again, and a wave of Reform meet­ings swept the coun­ties, con­tin­u­ing in July to fill news- papers with accounts of ban­ners, plac­ards, and (at Rochdale, one of Lord Byron’s fiefs) female Reform­ers march­ing 5,000 strong. Reform was in their mouths, said Sid­mouth, “but rebel­lion and rev­o­lu­tion in their hearts.” That month the gov­ern­ment arrest­ed sev­er­al “mali­cious, sedi­tious, evil-mind­ed per­sons,” includ­ing the edi­tors of the [rad­i­cal week­ly news­pa­per] Black Dwarf and the Man­ches­ter Observ­er, as well as Major Cartwright, whose Rad­i­cal Ham­p­den Club Byron had joined in 1813.

[In July] John Mur­ray, in spite of pol­i­tics, pub­lished what anoth­er Tory called a dia­bol­ic bur­lesque poem “loose­ly writ­ten in every sense of the word called the Two First Can­tos of Don Juan.” It appeared, because of pol­i­tics, with­out the names of author or pub- lish­er, but [rad­i­cal pub­lish­er William] Hone soon “unmasked” “Don John (Mur­ray),” and every­body knew it was Byron’s.

Bank­rupt­cies and the dis­tress of the labor­ers increased. In Keswick [Poet Lau­re­ate, Tory mouth­piece and Byron’s antag­o­nist Robert] Southey heard the poor talk of “parcel­ing out” estates. And then on the 16th of August 60,000 men and women “marched” to St. Peter’s Fields, near Man­ches­ter, where, said the gov­ern­ment papers, they would have been incit­ed to trea­son by the “demo­c­ra­t­i­cal” Ora­tor [Williamn] Hunt, but for the time­ly, if bloody, action of the mag­is­trates, most­ly cler­gy­men, on whose orders Con­sta­bles and Yeo­man­ry dis­persed the crowd with sabre and pis­tol, killing 11 and wound­ing 600.

Fol­low­ing [the] Peter­loo [“Mas­sacre”] the more extreme Rad­i­cals, [rad­i­cal Lon­don pub­lish­er Richard] Cari­ile for instance in his new Repub­li­can, open­ly defied the gov­ern­ment, urg­ing huge protest meet­ings and call­ing upon the peo­ple to “arm against the com­ing evil,” boast­ing “we can beat off the com­bined Yeo­man Cav­al­ry of the whole coun­try.”

In Sep­tem­ber the gov­ern­ment was still find­ing signs of the com­ing “simul­ta­ne­ous insur­rec­tion,” espe­cial­ly in an omi­nous silence on the part of the Rad­i­cals. [Arthur Welles­ley, Lord] Welling­ton sent “troops with can­non … into Cheshire, Lan­cashire, and York­shire.” The Duke of Hamil­ton report­ed that he had seen Rad­i­cals sur­vey­ing his park. Lord Dud­ley, in a more inclu­sive view, saw “the whirlpool of democ­ra­cy” swirling near­er. Alarm swept the Emer­gency ses­sion of Par­lia­ment that opened Novem­ber 23rd, short­ly fol­low­ing a pan­ic among the mon­eyed men. The ques­tion was not whether Reform­ers were march­ing “in mil­i­tary array” but how many thou­sands? Boo­tle Wilbra­ham claimed to have seen pis­tols and pikes and the plans of the poor to divide the land “by force.”

In Octo­ber hun­dreds of pul­pits rejoiced over the defeat of “Satan and Carlile” when the lat­ter was con­vict­ed of sell­ing the “The­o­log­i­cal Works” of [the author of the “Rights of Man”] Tom Paine.

[In Novem­ber, William] Cobbett’s recent return from Amer­i­ca -“to die for Reform,” wrote one Rad­i­cal- had been fol­lowed by an omi­nous rec­on­cil­i­a­tion of the Rad­i­cal fac­tions. Alarm­ing enough to Tories and Con­ser­v­a­tive Whigs was the appear­ance, with­in Par­lia­ment itself, of two new Rad­i­cal mem­bers: Dou­glas Kin­naird and John Cam Hob­house, bosom friends of Byron [since their days as stu­dents in Cam­bridge], who was known to have joined their “Rad­i­cal Rota Club” in absen­tia.™ … [In the debate on the tri­al of the Peter­loo demon­stra­tors] Hob­house spoke so very much like an inciter to rebel­lion that the House, in mount­ing hys­te­ria, vot­ed him to a cell in New­gate jail.”