Teddy HULTBERG (Sweden)
Teddy Hultberg (b. 1951) –
music critic, curator and publisher. Member of the Society for New Music
and Intermedia Art Fylkingen (Stockholm). Author of numerous articles
on the issues of theory and history of sound poetry; regularly conducted thematic
programs on the radio; published articles in magazines, catalogues and anthologies.
Regularly contributes critical reviews on the experimental music and radio-art
to the daily paper Svenska Dagbladet. Curator of a number of exhibition
projects, dedicated to the history and development of experimental music in
Sweden, including such as: Ilmar Laaban 75 years (Liljevalchs Arthall,
Stockholm, 1997), Lybillider-Fylkingen (Museum of Contemporary Art, Roskilde,
1999) and others. Organized festivals of text-sound composition: Solo-interpretation
& improvisation (Stockholm, 1992), Hej tatta Gorem (Stockholm,
1993). Author of a number of poetry books, essays, thematic studies, catalogues,
including the following ones: Literally Speaking, Sound poetry & text-sound
composition (Motala: Bo Ejeby edition, 1993), Fylkingen – Ny musik &
Intermediakonst (Motala: Fylkingen forlag, 1994), Ankarkaslut
ar sangens borjan, Ilmar Laaban’s poetry & soundpoems
1944-93 (Stockholm: Fylkingen/Kalejdoskop, 1998) etc.
Taken from the original manuscript.
© 2000 Teddy Hultberg, Stockholm.
FROM “BIRDS IN SWEDEN” TO “MR. SMITH IN RHODESIA”
Glimpses of the history of text-sound composition in Sweden
”Sound poetry, text-sound composition, radiophonic poetry – whatever one likes to call it – is definitely not a specific style, uniform “ism” or movement. It is a new technique, a collection of new tools, which show themselves to be useful and effective in contexts with many different aims, for the communication of many different ideas.” This is what Bengt Emil Johnson claimed in a provincial Swedish newspaper in 1967, at a time when text-sound composition in Sweden was on the verge of a dynamic phase of its development which was to culminate during the ensuing decade.
What lay behind this development and what happened afterwards? Text-sound compositions are in a border territory between literature and music and are one of the more vital expressions of modern intermedia art. It has been claimed that this is the only field of experimental art so far in which Swedes have made an internationally recognized pioneering contribution. Yet, strangely, no proper study of the development of this art form has been undertaken in Sweden.
Sound poetry has never had a strong position in Sweden and had it not been for Ilmar Laaban , who came as an Estonian refugee to Sweden in 1943 to escape conscription into Hitler’s armies and thereafter remained in the country, it would not be represented here at all. There were also elements of sound poetry in Ake Hodell’s early poems such as “I Gevar” and “General Bussig”, but he later developed his leanings towards chanted slogans and rhymes, realizing them as radio plays.
For the surrealist Laaban who followed the auditive automatism and Tristan Tzara’s device that “the thought is born in the mouth”, the sound poem was “an attempt at, momentarily and partially, recreating the unity between poem and song that was lost with the advent of writing. And at the same time: a fontanelle opened towards the call, the vibrating flow of breath behind all codes. And so, first and last, quite simply: a continuation of poetry with other means.” For Laaban it was clear that sound poetry was not a break with tradition but was simply another tradition. He had himself written surrealistic poetry since the forties and he did not start to work with sound poems until 1967 in performances in which he often combined direct recitation with several voices recorded on tape.
But sound poetry also turns aside from the semantic highway and breaks out of the rules and conceptual system of the public use of language by introducing irrational and obscure elements, something which the practisioners themselves can describe as a segment in the process of investigating and liberating repressed “linguistic” elements. Besides continuing poetry by other means, sound poetry also points towards the crack in the convention of language/world. With resounding laughter it caused the ice to break; the naive view of language as a transparent medium for the exchange of thoughts. One can speak of an acoustic deconstruction of linguistic matters, with a wink at Derrida.
When Theodor Adorno in his negative dialectic claims that concepts maim, cut off and reduce the particularity he states that “the way out of language’s objectified and identified barbarity can only be imagined beyond language”. This is the classical cul-de-sac of philosophy and is also the starting point for avoiding the prison of language through language. But text-sound art is not philosophy and it does not seek to vanquish concepts with concepts. It distances itself into the borderlands of language, towards music in order to create possibilities of new discoveries, perhaps a more profound reception.
Carlfriedrich Claus (1930-1998) was one of the people who have been making excursions into the no-man’s land of language since the sixties. In these radical investigations of sound poetry he tried to establish a new, autonomic area in order to gain a secure footing in a world that seemed to be withdrawing from language. He wanted to expose the linguistic sounds of spoken language which transmit messages “above and below the semantic swelling” to reveal the musical deep structures of speech. The listener’s slumbering sensibility was to be reawakened and this in turn was to lead on to the creation of more organic, universal music.
In Swedish literary modernism there are few examples of people with an experimental attitude drawing inspiration from “simultanism”, futurism or Dadaism. The history of Swedish text-sound composition only started some ten years after the end of World War II. Text-sound composition took its form from the combination of concrete words and sounds and their processing via the new electro-acoustic technologies such as tape recorders and sound studios. At the same time, the genre used as its platform a temporary alliance between national radio and a radical society for new music called Fylkingen.
One of the people responsible for coining the term ‘concrete poetry’ was Oyvind Fahlstrom (1928-76). He was later to appear as one of the artistic innovators of his time but as early as 1954 he published a manifesto for concrete poetry in the periodical Odysse whose editorial committee included Ilmar Laaban, his senior by seven years. Fahlstrom writes that he wanted to “KNEAD the linguistic material; this is what justifies the label concrete. Don’t just manipulate the whole structure; begin rather with the smallest elements – letters, words”. And he formulated it as a process of liberation for the poet, ”an affirmation that all language material and all means of working on it are fair game”. Even though the ideas expressed in were current, the manifesto attracted little attention in the Sweden of 1954 and it was translated into English for the first time in Mary Ellen Solt’s anthology ”Concrete Poetry: A world view” from 1968. When Fahlstrom wrote his manifesto he was familiar with the French “Lettrism” movement and their attempt to re-link poetry to the linguistic experiments of the futurists and dadaists but a more important impulse was Pierre Schaeffer’s musique concrete. Schaeffer maintained that all types of sound could be freed from their context and could be used merely in their abstract capacity as sound and could thereby be given a value of their own as musical building blocks.
A new intermedia art was being developed in which the poet made use of principles of musical composition so that text and musical form almost became identical. This was a development in which composers such as Berio, Stockhausen, Eimert, Kagel and authors like Helms all took part. Several of the new radio stations in Europe developed into important institutions for electro-acoustic music as well as becoming platforms for audio art. In many countries, however, it was only composers who had access to these new studios. Even in Sweden there were advanced plans for building a studio for “electronic” music. Fylkingen had been lobbying for this throughout the sixties and when the composer Karl-Birger Blomdahl became head of the music department at the radio in 1963 one of his conditions was that the radio should immediately build a studio for electro-acoustic music. Later it was apparent that the studio would not employ the usual restrictions on use by non-composers and this was of great importance to future developments. But even before the new studio was ready Fahlstrom had performed his concrete poems in slightly processed form on the radio. With the article Bris in the young literary periodical Rondo 3/1961, he gave an initiated survey of the various trends in experimental literature. He also contended, as Apollinaire had done more than 40 years earlier, that books as a poetic medium had outlived their usefulness and that tape recording with its ”astounding resources” should be adopted.
Fahlstrom, who realized the potential of radio as a medium, did just that in what would prove to be a ringing finale to his poetic experiments, when he created his own dialects, the so-called monster-languages, and demonstrated their use in a one-man happening broadcast by the Swedish Broadcasting Corporation, his 30 minutes long “Birds in Sweden”, in January 1963. The composition is peculiarly structured and lacks a story-line in the traditional sense. It is a collage consisting of Fahlstrom’s concrete poems, quotations from birdbooks, records of birdsong, radio programmes, mixed up with sound effects, jazz, Puccini and pop. Never previously had a poem or audio piece of this nature been broadcast in Sweden. Fahlstrom’s composition, which is very consciously constructed and not at all improvised, really dealt with making our linguistic games visible; that it is absurd to expect similarity between language and the world and that this insight gives new artistic freedom to work with different systems. “A great deal of poetry’s future must surely lie there <…> all those fresh, strange sounds that are both recognizable and rich in musical content. And, the opportunities that tape-recording offers for the ’concrete’ kneading and processing, multiplying, layering, fragmenting, etc., of the musical sound material.”
Since then, a number of Swedish author/composers have testified to the powerful impact this composition had on them and how it opened their eyes to the potential of radio, a development that soon resulted in the emergence of a completely new genre in Sweden: text-sound composition. Fahlstrom had moved to New York in 1961 and he mixed in pop-art circles there. Roberet Rauschenberg’s dance performance “Shot Put” (1964) made use exclusively of sections from Fahlstrom’s “Birds in Sweden”.
At the beginning of the sixties concrete poetry had even reached as far as Sweden and several younger poets had published work, among them Bengt Emil Johnson, Ake Hodell, Jarl Hammarberg , Leif Nylen and Mats G. Bengtsson. Ilmar Laaban and Carl Fredrik Reutersward, who also belonged to this circle, had published work even earlier. Of the younger poets, Johnson and Hammarberg in particular were seriously influenced by Fahlstrom’s concrete poetry. Another common denominator was the fact that most of them were members of Fylkingen. That this boundary-crossing activity took place in the Fylkingen aura is not surprising given that it was Fylkingen that introduced into Sweden instrumental theatre, happenings, contemporary American dance, Cage’s indefinable music, concrete music, electronic music, Paik’s action music, etc.
Lars-Gunnar Bodin , who with Johnson, Hodell, Laaban and Sten Hanson formed the core of Swedish text-sound composition, came from the musical side and joined the experimental grouping and in 1965, with Bengt Emil Johnson, he created a series of six individual radio plays under the heading of “Semicolon”. Here it was evident that “Birds in Sweden” had been an important source of inspiration but, perhaps of greater importance, was the fact that the Swedish Broadcasting Corporation for the first time seemed to realize that it was important to radio as a medium to develop a specifically radio art form.
In 1967 Fylkingen and the Swedish Broadcasting Corporation produced the first concert with text-sound compositions by Hodell, Bodin and Johnson. The following year the first international festival was organized and guests were invited from several European countries, among them Francois Dufrene, Bob Cobbing and Bernard Heidsieck . The participants little imagined that the event would return as a traditional sign of spring and also grow in range and influence. From 1968 onwards Fylkingen and the Swedish Broadcasting Corporation annually organized a festival of text-sound compositions. From the year 1975 the festival moved to London for two years, returning to Sweden in 1977. Since the Swedish Broadcasting Corporation’s withdrawal from formal collaboration Fylkingen has organized two international text-sound festivals in Stockholm in 1984 and 1993. During the first seven years of activities, Stockholm was one of the most important centres of the new intermedia genre. What was special about the festival was that the invited participants also had the opportunity of realizing a composition, with professional technical assistance, either at the electro-acoustic music studio or in one of the Swedish Broadcasting Corporation’s studios. Through the continual access to advanced electronic equipment the Swedish works, 45 in number, were often remarkable both on account of their technical and musical excellence.
In an article published in Nutida Musik/1970, the American composer John Appleton wrote of electronic music in Sweden that “it is in the field of text-sound composition that some of the most important music has been composed”. In a preliminary conclusion on the subject he claimed that “text-sound composition may very well be Sweden’s most important contribution to world culture during the last fifteen years”. For Swedish poets and authors it was also a way of working beyond the confines that a small language like Swedish sets for written literature.
That Swedish text-sound artists helped to inspire and spread this way of working to other countries has been testified by many people but their influence was much greater in the New World than in the countries where there was an older tradition of sound poetry.
The term text-sound composition had been chosen on purpose to be a neutral description, so that it could easily encompass practically everything from sound poetry to Stockhausen’s “Gesang der Junglige”. In the printed programme for the festival of 1969 there was an attempt to define the concept: ”Text-sound composition, a term which was launched in Sweden for the purpose of stressing the possibilities in the utilization of language, the spoken word, in its entire range – from phonetic micro-structures to the semantically comprehensible but dramatically and resonantly differentiated expressions and their combination with other, electronic or concrete sound – which have come forth.”
The attempt to create as broad a term as possible makes it difficult to use as a definition of a special type of work within the general group of Ars Acustica. The multiplicity of different forms within Swedish text-sound compositions is also significant and each artist has his own identity. The attempt to set limits on something that by definition is open and crosses boundaries often requires a vice to succeed.
If we look back at the six Swedish pioneers, it is Sten Hanson, Lars-Gunnar Bodin and Jarl Hammarberg who are still active. During the sixties Sten Hanson came into contact with John Cage and his philosophy of art and this had a decisive effect on his development. His original interest in acoustic literature was now expanded into such genres as happenings and instrumental theatre at the same time that he started experimenting with text-sound composition. Hanson is also one of the pioneers of performance art in Sweden and he has appeared in his own text-sound productions in almost all quarters of the globe, preferring to use the term intermedia art to describe this aspect of his creativity. Lars-Gunnar Bodin is one of Sweden’s best known electro-acoustic composers of his generation with a strong interest in text-sound composition. He has a special sense of humor and an interest in science-fiction of which there are obvious traces in his work.
Ake Hodell, nestor of the group, as well as being the most politically radical of them, developed in the direction of music drama but he retained his love of chanted slogans and rhymes. His composition “Mr. Smith in Rhodesia” from 1969 – a direct attack on the white dictatorship in Rhodesia – gained a headline on the front of the Daily Telegraph before it had even been premiered. Hodell had persuaded some children of British diplomats to record political slogans like “Mr. Smith is a bad man” and “Mr. Smith is a murderer” in their Oxford accents. After some tactical manoeuvring the work was played as recorded at the text-sound festival of 1970 but it was not broadcast on the radio until 1985. Today it belongs to Hodell’s most admired and most frequently performed works.
Ilmar Laaban is the pure sound poet in this context and he continued to perform his poems at festivals all over the world until he suffered a stroke in 1995.
Bengt Emil Johnson has long since returned to writing poetry for the printed page and his literary work is highly regarded. For a period he was head of music at the radio but works today as a producer. Jarl Hammarberg, who is also interesting as a painter, wrote what is perhaps the finest of all Swedish concrete poetry during the sixties and he has remained true to his ideals. He continues to perform in various contexts with a fluxus-inspired theatre or with new poems, sometimes written in Esperanto, together with musicians in a tradition somewhat reminiscent of Jazz & Poetry.
In the generation after Hanson and Bodin the text-sound genre no longer has such a prominent place. We encounter names such as Rolf Enstrom who has worked as a composer of electro-acoustic music since the beginning of the seventies. He has also composed several interesting music dramas in which one can sense that he is in a line of development from the text-sound compositions of the sixties and seventies. Mats Lindstrom, who is principally a musician with a bent for live-electronic performance, is interested in text-sound and produces occasional radio plays. Christian Bock is another name with a very small production behind him but he occasionally assembles a composition in which the theme often circles round aspects of the contemporary media. Johannes Bergmark is an improvisatory musician and a surrealist who constructs his own instruments and on occasions he even makes use of sound poetry in his musical performances.
It is evident that interest in text-sound composition as a genre has diminished, partly through the lack of any institutional forum, and the young Swedish poets continue to write traditional poetry exclusively for the printed page. But there are also such phenomena as public performances of poetry in front of an audience, exemplified in Stockholm by the “Poets’ Stage” and “talking poetry festivals” which have started to turn up in city life. And one may ask whether it is not now the rappers and hip-hoppers and DJs who break down texts, sound and music into small elements and who transform the material into rhythmical loops who are the heirs of the aging text-sound composers.
Translated by William Jewson.Previous (Gerhard RUEHM), Next (Serge SEGAY)