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Sound Poetry: The Wages of Syntax

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!

We are currently in the process of editing the photos and videos we made of the Festival performances, including some video interviews with selected Festival performers. Look for this material to appear soon on individual pages for each day of the Festival, which will be linked to the summary text for each day which you see below.

The video and audio samples on this page are material that we collected prior to the Festival to introduce the subject of sound poetry, and to give some historical context and some outstanding examples of the genre.

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MONDAY, APRIL 9, 2018 – GALA OPENING
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.

TUESDAY, APRIL 10, 2018 – NO POETS DON’T OWN WORDS
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.

WEDNESDAY, APRIL 10, 2018 – THE HISTORY CHANNEL
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.

THURSDAY, APRIL 12, 2018 – SCANDALNAVIANS
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.

FRIDAY, APRIL 13, 2018 – GOOD LUCK WITH/ON/FOR/IN/AT
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).

SATURDAY, APRIL 14, 2018 – INK CONCLUSION
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.

Media: Seminal Sound Poetry

Filippo Tommaso Marinetti
Zang Tumb Tumb

Kurt Schwitters
Ursonate

Gertrude Stein
If I Had Told Him a Completed Portrait of Picasso

Media: Selected Performers

Jaap Blonk
Ursonate

Anne Waldman
Worrying Yr Logos: Conversant You Speak to the Dead

Michael McClure
Night Words

Media: Sound Poetry Audio Clips

In this recording, taken from a broadcast in the Bay Area on KPFA in 1976, Charles Amirkhanian traces developments in 20th Century text-sound composition. He includes recorded examples by such historical figures as Kurt Schwitters, Raoul Hausmann, Ernst Toch, Gertrude Stein, Mauricio Lemaître, François Dufresne, and Henri Chopin. More modern examples of American work follows.

Lily Greenham (1924-2001)was a pioneer in the performance of concrete poetry, as well as a composer of electro-acoustic music and a visual artist. Dubbed from a tape a KPFA broadcast from 1973. From the collection of Charles Amirkhanian. Read by the poet.

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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