Poetry & Prose

M.P. Carver, “Laika”

Link to Transcript

Image of Laika

Black and white, landscape orientation photograph of the dog Laika in her harness-like flight suit. Laika was a 13-pound part-samoyed terrier. She is lying down in profiled view with her head turned to the left. Her ears are up and alert.

“Laika” is a mix of poetry, prose, music, and sound clips inspired by an image of the dog Laika, the first earthling launched into space. The project fits most easily into the realm of performance poetry set to music, which, in my experience, I have rarely found recorded. Like the most effective of these pieces, the music in “Laika” accents but does not supersede the voice, thus firmly situating the work in the realm of poem/prose rather than song. Also, the reading pace in this piece is more measured than natural speech with softer intonation, which is also quite common in performance poetry. However, the alternating style of prose and poetry with music as transitions is less common. This rhetorical move gives the piece a sort of charm and provides moments for the listener to carefully reflect on and digest the prose/poetry.

The subject of the piece, Laika, was a stray from Moscow, and in 1957 became the first creature to orbit the earth aboard Sputnik-2. She died, however, within hours of launch. Though she had captured minds and hearts all around the world, Laika’s full story remained shrouded in mystery (a.k.a. conflicting government reports) until 2002, when members of the project finally revealed details about how and when she died aboard the spacecraft.  With this audio project, I hoped to shed a little light on Laika’s life, and also to emotionally evaluate one of the major ethical failures of the Space Race and our modern scientific age.

My project emerged from a desire to write something about Laika. I had been thinking about it for several months after I heard her mentioned in a couple of poems. Though I had only a vague understanding of it, Laika’s story intrigued me. When my class was assigned this audio project, I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to compose something and a great format for doing so. I found my image immediately on Wikipedia—a close-up of Laika in her flight suit. My visual served mainly as inspiration rather than a tool of interpretation. It functioned as a starting point, as well as a visual I continuously returned to while composing the project.

In the beginning of my process, I had no material written, but I did have a vague sense of how I might have structured the project. I knew that I wanted some kind of alternating style of “text”—either poetry/prose, narration/address, or descriptive/emotive. For a longer piece, I think alternation can bring out different sides of the material or juxtapose themes without the need for explication; it’s also an easy way to add energy to a piece. I also knew I wanted to include guitar music to emphasize and invoke emotion as well as sound clips, such as some Russian language and the sound of dog nails on linoleum or wood.

After deciding on the structure and elements I wanted to include, I started researching Laika’s story. I looked for material I could incorporate into the project as well as moments that inspired me. I then began writing snippets of prose and poetry. From there, I identified the strongest portions of each and wove them together. Based on feedback from various people, I continued to edit the piece and play with the order and length of the sections until I felt they were fairly effective. I discovered I had an advantage knowing that I would be including music. While I still had to worry about the progression of information and the internal sense of flow in the sections, I knew the music would provide transitions between and among the sections.

Once I finished the piece, I brought it to a local musician (who prefers to remain anonymous) for his input and advice about the kinds of music that might work well. I let him know I was looking for a very deliberate and sparse single-string style sound during my own reading, and then something with more energy during the transitions. He suggested a style for those sections, which I was told is based subtly on Russian guitar styles. Next, he selected two chords, one major and one minor, and after hearing them I requested that he add an additional minor chord, as I thought the original chord choices might have been too subtle. I didn’t want the piece to be at all dirge-like, but I also didn’t want to miss the tension that minor elements could add.

We then ended up working together to create what would turn into the base recording. At the time I was thinking of it as a draft that would enable me to get a sense of timing the different elements. I thought I could create a revised version of the draft, yet technical difficulties and time constraints at the next recording session forced me to use the first version as my final project. The guitarist later recorded another layer of sound over the original, and I then began to consider what other additions I might make to the project.

While searching for audio clips, I found a short film about Laika that began with people speaking in Russian, telling her she was a good girl and wishing her farewell (Zourelidi, 2006). I stripped this small section of audio and ended up repeating it in a few places throughout the project, fading it in and out. After listening to how the audio worked, I decided this was really all I needed to contextualize the piece and didn’t attempt to add the dog nails effect. Finally I added some reverb to the base recording at the beginning and the end to give a sense of surrealism and to characterize the piece as a space-themed story. Luckily, all these elements served to strongly unify the sound despite the fact the base recording had not originally been intended as part of the final project.

While composing this project, the rhetorical consideration of the quality and types of sounds played a large roll in the creation process. Here I’ll analyze three of those choices in terms of the class readings: the tone of my voice, the addition of the extra minor chord, and the use of the Russian voice.

Among the sound qualities of voice, I took deliberate advantage of breathiness and softness. As Theo van Leeuwen (1999) discussed, softness and breathiness are both associated with intimacy (p. 133). As this piece is based on a real historical event, I wanted the listener to feel a sense of closeness with Laika and her story. I strove to increase the emotional impact along with the intellectual aspect of the narrative. Despite the fact that I had to project my voice over music, I tried to make it generally soft and smooth to convey a sense of gentleness and innocence. I then used a tense, rough voice for powerful moments, especially while reading this quotation toward the end: “We didn’t learn enough from the mission to justify the death of the dog.” Also, I used a lower voice overall for the poetry portions to try and make those words more assertive and call attention to them.

In addition to vocal qualities, my decision to add the minor chord came from an internal sense of the rhetorical function of music. Heidi McKee (2006) noted that even before her students had a technical understanding of sound or an academic language to discuss it, they were able to use it effectively in class projects (p. 336). Similarly, I don’t know much about music, but after hearing a couple of chords I was able to determine that the emotional resonance was not exactly where I wanted it, so I altered the music to meet my needs. Though poetry is my strong suit, I think music (or vocal qualities) is by far the simplest way to achieve an emotional impact, and I’m glad I was able to work with these elements to produce a piece I was happy with.

Finally, my decision to incorporate the Russian clips occurred in the editing stage. As Erin Anderson (2014) noted, when hearing a voice we work “to determine from whence and from whom it came.” I used the Russian speech to evoke a sense of the past and the location of Laika’s story. The softness of the voice clips gives them an almost dreamlike quality and has the same effect as the softness of voice, a closing of distance or intimacy. The rhetorical effect was intended to make the audience feel as if they’re not as far away from the event as they might think.

Overall, I’m happy with how the project turned out. I already have plans to revisit it, including hopefully rerecording (with the correct Russian pronunciations and an extra musician) and setting it to video. Thanks to this project, I have a strong foundation to work with for this piece and future audio work.

Audio Assets

Zourelidi, Avgousta. (2011). Laika [Video file]. YouTube. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_FZ7Pr-AHdw

Image Asset

Laika. (n.d.). B&W Photograph of the dog Laika [Photograph]. Wikipedia. Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Laika#/media/File:Laika.jpg