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Sound Poetry: The Wages of Syntax

Statement by Other Minds Executive and Artistic Director, Charles Amirkhanian

Since 1993 Other Minds has made a practice of bringing an unpredictable cohort of independent-minded mavericks to San Francisco to convene at its annual music festival. This year our focus was the practice of sound poetry, and our composers were joined by poets and writers in the field of experimental literature. As became apparent, there is a rich variety of approaches to the intermedium between poetry and music, and the practice has been over 100 years in the making.

The activities of the Futurists and Dadaists, dating from the first two decades of the 20th Century, inspired subsequent generations to rethink the potential of poetic expression. Our thanks to special guests Enzo Minarelli from Italy and Jaap Blonk from Holland, two of the most virtuosic figures now active in contemporary sound poetry, for recreating some of those early works by Fortunato Depero, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, Hugo Ball, and Kurt Schwitters.

In 1917, Gertrude Stein wrote Capital Capitals, a mini-drama with its whimsical lines of conversation distributed among four speaking characters. Ten years later, Virgil Thomson set the piece to music “for four men and a piano,” developing a compositional system that allowed his singers to recite with utmost clarity the complex phraseology of the text against a spare and witty musical accompaniment. The resulting breakthrough enabled him later to compose two of our most significant American operas, Four Saints in Three Acts, and The Mother of Us All, also on texts of Stein. Our recent Other Minds CD release, Composer-Critics of the New York Herald Tribune, contains the historical first recording of this work with the composer at the piano, released by Columbia Records back in 1953.

After Darius Milhaud employed speech chorus and percussion effects in his 1915 orchestral stage work Les Choéphores, composers began to embrace spoken, rather than sung, language as a new musical material. In 1930, at a concert of Grammophon Musik in Vienna, Ernst Toch premiered his Gesprochene Musik (Spoken Word Suite), with singers speaking text in carefully-arranged counterpoint. The Geographical Fugue was the most memorable of the work’s three movements because the other two were lost in the rush of Jewish artists like Toch to escape the horrors of Nazism. He gave up a burgeoning career in Austria and fled to America where he languished in Los Angeles—a fish out of water—relegated to composing film scores and accepting the occasional teaching position. His famous writer grandson Lawrence Weschler has been instrumental in revising interest in his work and even has composed an “alternative” Geographical Fugue with medical terms in place of “Trinidad, Mississippi, and Yokohama.” Thanks to him the revised version of the Suite received its U.S. premiere during the Festival, along with the world premiere of Mr. Weschler’s Medical Fugue.

The New York Poets, like Frank O’Hara and James Schuyler—some of whom took inspiration from Gertrude Stein—were a powerful force in the late 1950s and spawned a Second School the following decade that included our guests Clark Coolidge, Anne Waldman, and Aram Saroyan. They reveled in the sound of language as poetic material, as did the Beat Poets, including Michael McClure, who were inspired by jazz improvisation, Buddhism and a rejection of bourgeois culture. McClure, at 85, was with us as our elder statesman during this year’s festival, reading some of his famous Ghost Tantras in beast language.

Following World War II, the introduction of the magnetic tape recorder poetry gave artists entirely new possibilities. The French writers, including Henri Chopin and Bernard Heidsieck, began to explore how flexible they could make language—speeding it up, slowing it down, and even guiding taped sounds over the playback head by hand to distort the human voice beyond recognition. Heidsieck went on to add radiophonic elements to his work—ambient sounds of his beloved Paris, for example—in La Poinçonneuse—a touching recollection of an uncomfortable encounter with a female employee of the Metro.

Digital technology emerged with the advent of mainframe computers, such as the one used by the Fylkingen composers at the Swedish Radio in the late 1960s. Although it took days to program a simple electronic arpeggio lasting three seconds, artists persisted. Sten Hanson and Åke Hodell used the facilities to produce memorable work that we heard during the Festival. Much of it turned out to be quite controversial and political, and that tendency is reinforced in the sound poems of Lily Greenham, born in Austria but later adopting Danish citizenships. None of these three are with us any longer, but their work lives on among a few cognoscenti, among which you may now count yourself.

Our Scandinavian contingent included a brilliant visual poet Ottar Ormstad, who performed with Russian-born American composer Taras Mashtalir. Their duo, OTTARAS, is a contraction their first two names, and their video projections of alphabets in motion are dazzling in their intensity. We also hosted two jazz improvisers—keyboard player Sten Sandell and vocalist Tone Åse—who brought decades of musical experience to their work in sound poetry.

By the 1970s, new sonic possibilities emerged in the form of live electronic manipulation. The ability to capture sounds of a live performance and repeat them forwards, backwards, upside down and inside out, gave life to new work by Bay Area superstars Amy X Neuburg and Pamela Z, both of whom are prodigiously talented as singers in a diversity of styles. They also incorporate irony and humor as they ply their narratives in a dizzying variety of theatrical guises.

The role of radio has been prominent in the commissioning of sound poetry. Not only was the Swedish Radio a major player, but the West German Radio in Cologne commissioned composers and dramatists to create neues hörspiel (new radio drama) from John Cage, Mauricio Kagel, and other composers. On our festival we had the work of two accomplished Bay Area writers, Susan Stone and Sheila Davies Sumner, as case in point.

Other Minds Festival 23: The Wages of Syntax was a magnificent week of untamed, transgressive art. Night after night boundaries were toppled as poets and composers jailbroke words from their meaning—chiseling them down to their most granular forms. For those of you who made it out, we thank you for helping cultivate such a spirited and communal event. If you missed it, fear not! Part of our work at Other Minds is to provide videos and pictures from our concerts free of charge so that viewers from all over the world can tune in and enjoy performances by the world’s best composers and performers.

Festival Program

This year’s Festival program came in four different cover versions, with the exact same content inside. Click on the image of your choice to download a PDF of the Other Minds Festival 23 program, with the cover of your choice. Or collect them all!

Below you will find selected video and audio from each day of Other Minds Festival 23, as well as biographical information on the composers and performers.


Festival Details

Artists: Anne Waldman, with Karen Stackpole, gongs; Clark Coolidge, with Alvin Curran keyboards and electronics; Michael McClure; Aram Saroyan; Jaap Blonk; Enzo Minarelli.

Cameo previews by Dutch legend Jaap Blonk and Italian poet/publisher Enzo Minarelli. Composer Alvin Curran visited from Rome to sound out syntax confounder Clark Coolidge in the world premiere of Just About Out Of Nowhere. The Buddhist co-founder of the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa, Anne Waldman’s readings were performances that remain indelible in the memory. Aram Saroyan’s one word poems are best exemplified by his piece crickets, here given a special treatment by the poet himself. And Michael McClure unleashed his inner beast to intone his Ghost Tantras.

Michael McClure
Ghost Tantra 49 with tape

Presentation of Ghost Tantra No. 49 on tape by poet Michael McClure. Michael recounts the story of reading his poetry to the lions at the San Francisco Zoo in the 1960s, and having them respond. The event was captured on audio and video tape and can be seen today on YouTube.

Anne Waldman
Acousmatic (dedicated to Cecil Taylor)

Performance of Acousmatic, a poem dedicated to Cecil Taylor, by Anne Waldman. Waldman is a member of the “Outrider” experimental poetry community, a culture she has helped create. Anne was accompanied in this performance by Karen Stackpole on gongs.

Enzo Minarelli
Two Sound Poems

World premiere performance of two electroacoustic poems by Italian sound poet Enzo Minarelli. The first piece, Ptyx (Tribute to Mallarmé), consists of prerecorded sound and phonetic studies on the letters “p” and “t”. The second work, With sound this poem expresses what words cannot, (Dedicated to Caspar David Friedrich), explores the relationship of wellbeing and peace to a persons environment through rhythmic and arrhythmic repetitions of the phonemes “o” and “k”.

Jaap Blonk
Two Sound Poems

Dutch sound poet Jaap Blonk performs Hugo Ball’s seminal sound poem that introduced him to sound poetry, Seepferdchen und Flugfische (Seahorses and Flying Fish). The piece is built on the phonetics particular to the German and Swiss languages. The only intelligible words in the work are “fish” (fische) and kitty (kiti). Blonk continues with his poem Obbele Boep ‘m Pam (A bebop sound poem), which he states is inspired by the sounds of early bebop in a Dutch style.

Michael McClure
Ghost Tantra 39

Michael McClure reads Ghost Tantra 39, his 1962 ode to actress Marilyn Monroe. “…today thou hast passed the dark barrier, diving in a swirl of golden hair. I hope you have entered a sacred paradise for full wan-n bodies, full lips, full hips, and laughing eyes!” Recorded at Other Minds Festival 23, Monday, April 9, 2018, at ODC Theater in San Francisco.

Clark Coolidge & Alvin Curran
Just About Out of Nowhere

Clark Coolidge decided to listen to every one of Cecil Taylor’s records, while writing a manic single-spaced 120 + pages of abstract prose. The result has been under wraps until recently. His performance of a new piece based on this text, titled Just About Out of Nowhere, is delivered in improvisational collaboration with old friend and widely traveled composer Alvin Curran.

Photos by Ebbe Roe Yovino-Smith

Artists Enzo Minarelli, and Jaap Blonk.

Enzo Minarelli, visiting from Cento (near Ferrara), Italy, is a renowned editor, publisher, and practitioner of sound poetry. He gave a two-hour comprehensive overview of the field dating from the early 20th Century, generously illustrated by rare recorded examples. Using original poetry as well as the words of others, Dutch performer Jaap Blonk clicks, blurts, and snaps his voice, creating unusual sounds and noises, mimicking nature. Nearly forty people participated in this opportunity to learn the methods of his most hair-raising techniques in an intimate master class setting.

Enzo Minarelli
From Marinetti to Sound Poetry: A Historical Survey of Sound Poetry

Enzo Minarelli’s lecture on the origins of Sound Poetry. From its origins in Italian and Russian Futurism, through the Dadaists, Lettrism, American Text-Sound and into the advent of Polypoetry, Minarelli explores the lives and works of this formative 20th century artistic movement. The workshop included examples of works by famous Futurists, Dadaists, and sound poets.

Jaap Blonk
Workshop/demonstration of sound poetry techniques.

A workshop for vocalists, performers and civilians on making sound poetry. The audience is guided by virtuoso sound poet and Festival participant Jaap Blonk of Holland. First Jaap tells the details of his personal journey from aspiring jazz musician to sound poet. Then he leads the group in activities that demonstrate the communicative power of sound poetry.

Work by: Kurt Schwitters; Filippo Marinetti; Fortunato Depero; Gertrude Stein & Virgil Thomson; Ernst Toch; Lawrence Weschler; Cathy Berberian; Bernard Heidsieck. Performed by: Jaap Blonk; Enzo Minarelli; Randall Wong; Sarah Cahill; The Other Minds Ensemble.

This was an evening of time travel, exploring the roots of what would become known as sound poetry. Radical disruption of the past’s Romantic poetry took center stage with rarely performed, controversial works from the first half of the 20th Century. This night’s performances included: works by masters of Italian Futurism Filippo Tomasso Marinetti and Fortunato Depero; Kurt Schwitters’ provocative Dada-ist Ursonate; recently rediscovered “lost works” by composer Ernst Toch for speaking chorus; the world premiere of Medical Fugue by Lawrence Weschler and Ernst Toch; seminal French sound poet Bernard Heidsieck’s poignant La Poinçonneuse; new music diva Cathy Berberian’s ode to the comics, Stripsody; Gertrude Stein and Virgil Thomson’s quadrilogue homage to Provence, Capital Capitals.

Enzo Minarelli
Subway (1939) by Fortunato Depero

Italian sound poet Enzo Minarelli performs Subway, a poem dating from 1939 by the Italian futurist painter, writer, sculptor and graphic designer, Fortunato Depero. Subway is an evocation of New York in the industrial age, rendered graphically as a poster and an essay into futurist typography. The swirling “text” depicts the sights and sounds of underground travel.

Randall Wong
Stripsody (1966) by Cathy Berberian

Vocalist Randall Wong performs Stripsody – a 1966 work and graphic score based on comic book sounds – by Cathy Berberian, an American composer, mezzo-soprano, and major exponent of contemporary vocal music of the mid 20th Century. The graphic score consists cartoonlike scribbles superimposed on three lines denoting high, middle, and low ranges.

Other Minds Ensemble
Capital Capitals (1917/1927) by Gertrude Stein & Virgil Thomson

The Other Minds Ensemble performs Capital Capitals, a text work by Gertrude Stein dating from 1917, set to music by Virgil Thomson in 1927. Like Rogers and Hammerstein or the Gershwin brothers, Thomson and Stein formed one of the great collaborative teams of the 20th century.

Jaap Blonk
Ursonate (1932) by Kurt Schwitters

The composer was a German artist who worked in several media, including sound poetry, painting, sculpture, graphic design and typography. The Ursonate, or “sonata in primordial sounds” has a four-movement structure similar to a classical sonata. Performed by Dutch sound poet, Jaap Blonk.

Enzo Minarelli
Dune (parole in libertà) (1914) by Filippo Tommaso Marinetti

Enzo Minarelli performs Dune (parole in libertà), a poem by Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, written in 1914. This poem is among the defining works of sound poetry, employing the Futurist poetic tactic of liberating words from syntax and grammatical structure. Recorded on Wednesday, April 11, 2018 at ODC Theater in San Francisco, during Other Minds Festival 23.

Bernard Heidsieck
Passe-Partout No 2 (aka La Poinçonneuse)

La poinçonneuse (The Ticket Puncher) is a sound poem with two characters and an omnipotent narrator. The scene is a man who each morning has his metro ticket punched by a female worker, who holds deep infatuation for the commuter. After many mornings the metro worker informs the man that he has dropped something. The paper “dropped” is a note written by the metro worker detailing her feelings for him.

Photos by Ebbe Roe Yovino-Smith

Works on tape: Sten Hanson; Lily Greenham; Åke Hodell. Performances: OTTARAS; Tone Åse, & Sten Sandell.

From the land of text-sound composition, the intervention of live electronic technology and improvisation adds new spark to Seventies computer music innovations from Sweden and neighboring Norway. The late Swedish “text-ljud” artists Sten Hanson and Åke Hodell and Danish vocalist poet Lily Greenham brought their plain-spoken activism to the streets of the San Francisco in a posthumous homage by Other Minds. Video artist and concrete poet Ottar Ormstad teamed up with Russian-American composer and keyboard improviser Taras Mashtalir for the first U.S. appearance of the duo OTTARAS. Female jazz vocalist Tone Åse and piano/organ virtuoso Sten Sandell, masters of the intersection of experimental language and free-improvised music, also made their San Francisco debut in world premiere performances.


Ottar Ormstad and Taras Mashtalir, performing as OTTARAS, play two pieces from their  “CONCRETE 4” series of works. NAVN NOME NAME is based on Ormstad’s work phonebookpoem which contains only family names from Oslo in 2004. KAKAOASE is based on a poem originally made as a digital print for a solo exhibition. This performance was the U.S. Premiere for  “CONCRETE 4.”

Tone Åse
Ka? (2018)

This is a text-sound composition by Norwegian singer and composer Tone Åse. Ka? means what? in Åse’s dialect. Sounds of questions, hesitations, the state of dubiousness and possible anxiety, is the wellspring for this improvisation. What is explored and played with is the music in words and utterings, through the use of voice and electronics.

Sten Sandell & Tone Åse
Voices Inside the Language (2017-18) 

Norwegian vocal artist and composer Tone Åse and Swedish pianist, vocalist and composer Sten Sandell, collaborate on this text-sound composition. This was a world premiere performance of this work.

Sten Sandell
v e r t i k a l a k u s t i k (2017)

Performance of “v e r t i k a l a k u s t i k, med horisontell prosodi” (2017) by Swedish composer, musician and text-sound artist Sten Sandell. The work is an improvisation for voice and piano.

Sten Hanson
How Are You? (1969)

Sten Hanson (1936-2013) was a Swedish composer, poet and performance artist, and was one of the pioneers of text-sound composition. “How Are You,” as the name implies, is a short work that uses only the three words of the every-day greeting. These phonemes are then electronically manipulated in order to create a piece that showcases the composer’s “linguistic/aesthetic awareness and a playful robust humor.”

Åke Hodell
Mr. Smith in Rhodesia (1970)

Mr. Smith in Rhodesia recounts Ian Smith’s brutal racial oppression in Rhodesia (now Zambia and Zimbabwe). The artist, Swedish text-sound poet Åke Hodell, employed an ancient format with a chorus of children (from an English language school in Stockholm) that repeats the choral leader’s phrases. The work caused controversy at the time, when the content of the work was discovered by the parents of the children in the chorus.

Photos by Ebbe Roe Yovino-Smith

Works on tape: Mark Applebaum. Performances: Enzo Minarelli; Amy X Neuburg; Charles Amirkhanian & Carol Law.

Activism in experimental literature is nothing new to San Francisco, but the 70s revival of sound poetry marked a further development, saluted on this night with performances by Amy X Neuburg, Charles Amirkhanian & Carol Law, and Mark Applebaum. Joining them was Italian virtuoso performer Enzo Minarelli, whose integration of movement/theater/music/literature ls a living embodiment of the depth of the poetic imagination.

The operatic vocal range of Neuburg, augmented by her quirky electronic wizardry, spelunk the tortuous rivulets of social commentary. Minarelli performed Affermarsi senza chiedere (Succeed without asking) and other poems from his new series Polypoetry 10. Composer Mark Applebaum gave the ODC’s Meyer Sound system a workout with his side splitting four-channel fixed media screed Three Unlikely Corporate Sponsorships (Nestlé, General Motors, Halliburton). Charles Amirkhanian and Carol Law revisited their 80s collaborative works of sound poetry with video projections, including the classic History of Collage, alongside a retort to Frank Zappa’s Angeleno-centric jingoism, Hypothetical Moments (in the Intellectual Life of Southern California).

Enzo Minarelli

Enzo Minarelli performs his work Poema, a micro-macro cosmos stuffed into a single unique word: poema (poem). The emotions of a lifetime are condensed into a single, simple word.

Amy X Neuburg
Life Stepped In (2004)

Performance by American musician and composer Amy X Neuburg of a work from her 2004 album Residue. Life Stepped In is from Neuburg’s earliest repertoire of songs for voice and live looping.

Charles Amirkhanian & Carol Law
History of Collage (1981)

This multimedia work for sound and visual collage was first created in 1981 by visual artist Carol Law and composer Charles Amirkhanian. The text is from the introduction to an book on collage with all of the phrases rearranged in cut-up fashion. It was originally meant as a work for tape with live projections, and was converted to high resolution video in 2018.

Charles Amirkhanian
Dutiful Ducks (1977)

Dutiful Ducks is a sound poem for solo performer in which the voice and handclapping are performed to the accompaniment of an identical pre-recorded version of the piece. The object is to give an impression of very slight imprecision, which replicates the Indonesian practice of tuning adjacent metallophones slightly out of sync with one another, producing a shimmering effect.

Enzo Minarelli
Che teme il dolore

A performance of a piece of sound poetry by Enzo Minarelli, entitled “Che teme il dolore (use la medicine della religione)” – in English: Those who fear pain (use the medicine of religion). Recorded Friday, April 13, 2018 at ODC Theater in San Francisco.

Mark Applebaum
Three Unlikely Corporate Sponsorships – Nestlé

This is an excerpt from a three-part series of sound poetry by American composer Mark Applebaum. It was originally composed for four-channel audio. This is a stereo mix. The complete work can be found on Mark’s 2017 CD release, Speed Dating.

Photos by Ebbe Roe Yovino-Smith

Works on tape: Susan Stone; Sheila Davies Sumner. Performances: Jaap Blonk; Beth Anderson, with Michael Jones, percussion; Pamela Z.

Our second evening highlighting sound poetry that emerged from the Bay Area brought the live electronic stylings of Pamela Z, the wit and wisdom of Sheila Davies and Susan Stone, and the clever clatter of former Bay Area composer Beth Anderson. Electrification is a given when Pamela Z takes the stage with her coloratura contralto and spiky wit. Ear Magazine co-founder Beth Anderson returned from NYC with some spoken word and percussion classics. Radio collage works by Sheila Davies Sumner (Static, accompanied by Fred Frith and Henry Kaiser) and Susan Stone touched on the feminine mystique. And we concluded our week, transforming ink into wave forms with the heliotropic hysteria of Dutch poet Jaap Blonk. Earthquake to follow.

Jaap Blonk
Excerpts from Onderland

Performance of Excerpts from Onderland (Underlands), a work of sound poetry by Dutch artist Jaap Blonk that utilizes an invented language that is meant to approximate the phonetics of the dutch language.

Pamela Z
Other Rooms (2018)

Other Rooms is composed with samples of the speaking voice of the writer Paul David Young from an interview Pamela Z recorded as part of the process of making her intermedia performance work Memory Trace.

Beth Anderson
I Can’t Stand It (1976)

Performance of I Can’t Stand it by Beth Anderson, accompanied by Michael Jones on percussion. The work reflects Anderson’s trouble adjusting to the level of aggression she experienced in New York after moving from California in the 1970’s.

Beth Anderson
Killdeer and Chicory (2005)

Performance of “Killdeer and Chicory,” by American poet and composer Beth Anderson, accompanied by Michael Jones on percussion. Recorded on Saturday, April 14, 2018, at the ODC Theater in San Francisco, during Other Minds Festival 23.

Sheila Davies Sumner
Static (1983)

The piece Static, produced at KPFA by Charles Amirkhanian, is a sonic commentary about the multiple aspects of Interference. Accompanying musicians are Fred Frith and Henry Kaiser, guitars.

Susan Stone
Couch (1989)

Couch is from the larger work House With a View, which Susan describes as “…a home movie constructed from the dreams, confessions, lullabies and most intimate monologues of unusual assortment of residents found throughout the house.”

Photos by Kevin Guzman

Festival Coda
Jaap Blonk and the Festival audience in a communal sound poetry encore.

OM Festival 23 Press

SF Classical Voice
SF Classical Voice
SFCV reviews OM Festival 23
April 17, 2018
Los Angeles Times
Los Angeles Times
LA Times reviews the Festival's opening night
April 12, 2018
The Rehearsal Studio
The Rehearsal Studio
Wednesday's program reviewed by Stephen Smoliar.
April 12, 2018
SF Chronicle Review
SF Chronicle Review
Joshua Kosman reviews the opening night of OM Festival 23
April 10, 2018
Dutch Culture USA
Dutch Culture USA
Dutch Culture USA highlights sound poet Jaap Blonk
April 8, 2018
SF Chronicle Preview
SF Chronicle Preview
Jesse Hamlin gives a preview of the Sound Poetry Festival
March 27, 2018
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