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The spoken word, worth recording


Driven by frustration, Will Ackerman designed an ad for his record company in 1983 that contained the words "folk," "rock" and "classical" crossed out and "Windham Hill" written at the bottom.

Mr. Ackerman now finds himself in a similar semantic quandary. This time, he's crossing out "poetry," "essay" and "storytelling" and writing in "Gang of Seven."

Since its launch this past summer, Gang of Seven has released seven spoken-word titles, including "First Words," a compilation recording of 14 diverse artists, from writer Peter Matthiessen to monologuist Spalding Gray to actor Wallace Shawn and cartoonist Lynda Barry.

Coming releases on Gang of Seven include an anthology tentatively titled "The Naturalists" with writers Diane Ackerman and Barry Lopez and Gerard Lordahl, founder of the Miracle Garden program in New York City, and others talking about environmental issues. Also in the works are collections devoted to the words of female artists, cab drivers and 100-year-olds.

And judging from the success of his first enterprise, Mr. Ackerman's entry into spoken-word recordings indicates that the genre is on the brink of a breakthrough.

Harvey Kubernik, a longtime champion of spoken word who has produced albums by artists such as Jack Kerouac and Excene Cervenka, recently has released two critically praised anthologies on the New Alliance label, "DisClosure: Voices of Women" and "Innings and Quarters."

In the works are Mr. Kubernik's productions featuring former pro basketball player Bill Walton and jazz musician Buddy Collette.

Spoken word's growing popularity is attributed to several factors, including the rise of rap music, the increase in number and popularity of radio talk shows and the growing audience for National Public Radio news shows.

Mr. Ackerman believes spoken word is a genre suited to the times.

"It purposefully bucks this incredibly segmented, schizophrenic way we have of dealing with the world these days," he said.

"It is rather determinedly an anti-short-attention-span kind of thing. This is something that is rich in metaphor. This is something that is moving away from the sound bite."

Just what is spoken word? For producers such as Mr. Ackerman and Mr. Kubernik, it's easier to explain what spoken word is by identifying what it isn't.

It isn't comedy, traditional story-telling or poetry, Mr. Ackerman said.

"Laughs aren't the point," he said. "The point is the communication of something far more complex emotionally than simple one-liners strung together."

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