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Jean-Yves BOSSEUR (France)

Jean-Yves Bosseur (b. 1947) – composer, critic, researcher. Studied composition at the Rheinische Musikschule (Cologne, Germany) with K. Stockhausen and H. Pousseur. He has got a doctorate degree in Philosophy of Art at University of Paris I. Author of a number of books on the issues of contemporary art and culture, including the following ones: John Cage (ed. Minerve), Musique et arts plastiques: interactions au XXe siecle (ed. Minerve), Morton Feldman (L'Harmattan), Vocabulaire des arts plastiques du XXe siecle (ed. Minerve), etc. He is intensively working in the area of music for films, television, theatre (plays by Arrabal, Ionesco, Beckett), dance (choreographies by J. Pomares, S. Buirge, A. Gebhardt), radio (for Atelier de Creation Radiophonique de France-Culture). Author of a number compact discs, including such as: Satie's Dream (Mandala/Harmonia Mundi), La Plume (Mandala/Harmonia Mundi), Works for guitars and voice (Mandala/Harmonia Mundi), Hong-Kong Variations (Agon, Auvidis), Messe  (Mandala/Harmonia Mundi), Concert (Saphir), etc. Since 1990s he has been Producer at the Radio-France (Paris). Director of Research at C.N.R.S. Teacher (musicology) at University of Paris IV. Award winner Foundation Royaumont (France), Gaudeamus Foundation (Netherlands), Golden Diapason 1998 (for CD Messe).

Taken from: Jean-Yves Bosseur. De La Poesie Sonore A La Musique: Doc(k)s Son (Ed. NePE/Akenaton, 1998). The material has been kindly granted by Ph. Castellin . © 1998 Jean-Yves Bosseur, Paris.


It is a well known fact that most basic principles of the sound poetry first emerged in the projects of futurists and dadaists in spite of the fact that at present this movement is still influenced by a great number of various trends.

The first Marinetti’s manifesto published on the February 20, 1909 in the “Figaro” comprises most of the basic terms and subjects that were later continuously developed and elaborated by the Italian futurists’ manifestos. In his “Imagination without Strings – Words-in-Freedom” (“Imagination sans fils et les mots en liberte”) written in 1913 Marinetti put forward a number of theses-commandments that allow to distinctly show the features of the linear text, to take it beyond the page borders, emphasizing the inherent graphic and sound potential. “We want the lyric mood today to no longer place the words in accordance with syntax, before starting them up according to the breathing chosen by us. Thus, today the Word is free. Besides, our lyric intoxication should freely change the form of words, either shortening them or stretching, either strengthening their middles or the endings, either increasing or reducing the number of vowels and consonants. Therefore, we will obtain a new orthography, which I call the free expression. Such instinctive modification of words comes from our natural inclination towards onomatopoeia. It’s not a problem if the modified word becomes ambiguous. It will better merge with the onomatopoeic chords or the quintessence of noises and will allow us to achieve soon the psychic sound-imitating chord – the expression of sound, but abstract and pure emotion or idea”.

Then each poet-futurist creates his own technique of freeing the world of phonemes from the logic of syntax; Giacomo Balla initiated onomatopoetry, Fortunato Depero coined in 1916 the term “onomalanguage” (“onomalangue”) to define the language of the abstract, “originating from the onomatopoeia, noises, roughness of the futuristically free words”. Often the futurist poetry makes use of musical signs, because the rhythmics of the recitation becomes inseparable from the printed sign, written into the page field. “We will give in brackets, – declares Marinetti, – the instructions, like for example: fast, faster, slow down, in two times... to manage the pace of the style. These brackets will, probably, divide into two the word or the onomatopoeic chord”. Francesco Cangiullo, who was reciting since 1914 his phonetic compositions at futurist parties, around 1922 creates poetry-pentagram, where the words are placed in accordance with the notes, determining the direction of reading both in terms of rhythm and intonation. In his tract of 1922 “Plastic parolibres» (“parolibres plastiques”) Rognoni states, that “such deformation is more intensely sensed by poets with the clear pictorial flair. They create “parolibric charts” that look like real pictures. Others, due to their musical sensitiveness, create “parolibric lyrics”, that is represented by “complete musical scores”. Asymmetry, polyrhythmics and unharmonism (use of micro-intervals) become dominating features of the futuristic music – in any case, of its creative projects. Pratella distinguishes two forms here: “orchestral symphonic poem” and “opera”. In the former case the symphonist, having decided not to obey any previously existed principles, will have to implement equilibrium in his work; in the futuristic sense it means “constant realization of utmost intense expressiveness”. As for the opera author, “he, on the contrary, will have to attract to the orbit of musical inspiration and aesthetics the gleams of all other kinds of art as secondary and derivative elements, increasing the expressive and communicative power of his work. Human voice, remaining the main expressive means – since it proceeds immediately from us, – should dissolve in the orchestra, in the sound environment, created by all the voices of nature”. According to Pratella, the composer must be the only opera creator, so that he does not have to borrow from others the rhythmics of his melodies. His dramatic poem will unavoidably be written by free verse, in order not to squeeze into the rigid forms of the academic prosody. “Thus, we will obtain the whole polyphonic ocean with all its rhythmics, lyric and voice accents – conveyers of the finally free human spirit”. Singing, in contrast with the every-day speaking, will be “natural, varied, spontaneous and changeable, without the set rhythm and measurable intervals, without any artificial limitation of expressiveness, the exaltating song, that sometimes makes us despise the assiduous utility of the speech”.

This view would spread everywhere in Europe: Michel Seuphor, closely connected with Mondrian, Arp and Sophie Tauber, would organize in Paris the exhibition, during which Russolo would present his “noiseharmonium” (“rumorharmonium”) – under the accompaniment of this instrument he would read his own phonetic poems that he calls the “verbal music” (“musique verbale”).

Richard Huelsenbeck,
Marcel Janko, Tristan Tzara.
Admiral wishes to rent a house, 1916

According to Gerhard Ruehm , the Russian futurists “made a decisive step from the non-conceptual pseudo-language to the total emancipation of verbal sounds”. In the manifesto “A Slap in the Face of Public Taste” (“Poschetchina Obschestvennomu Vkusu”), written in 1912 by Velimir Khlebnikov, Alexei Kruchonych (the author of the libretto to the “avenirist” opera “Victory Over the Sun” (“Pobeda nad solntsem”) of 1913, written in collaboration with the composer Matyushin and artist Malevich), David Burliuk, Vladimir Mayakovsky and Benedikt Livshits, one can read the following: “We no longer consider the construction of words and their pronunciation the way it is required by the grammar rules <…> We have shaken the syntax <…> We have started attaching sense to words, proceeding from their graphic and phonetic features <…> We deny orthography <…> The vowels for us is the space and time, the consonants are the colors, sounds, smells.” Some time later there would be created the language, appealing directly to the consciousness, that would be called sidereal or samovity (as such) – beyond the rational sense and language, “zaum”.

The Dada movement would, by the way, appear to be one of the main predecessors of these pluralistic expressive forms: the writing of letters and phonetic notes in the dadaists’ graphic works would very soon be taken beyond the boundaries of pure visibility, they penetrate the sphere of stage acting and initiate various vocal forms – like, for instance, in the performance “Admiral wishes to rent a house” (“L’amiral cherche a louer une maison”), presented in 1916 at the “Cabaret Voltaire” in Zurich by Richard Huelsenbeck, Tristan Tzara and Marcel Janco. Being greatly impressed by the performance, Raoul Haussmann says: “In order to understand what this poem is – in the realization of numerous characters (up to ten), one should imagine how the reciters suddenly start crying out – moving from piano to fortissimo – various rhythmically constructed phrases, and attaining the unissofortissimo, while all this is being interrupted by rattles, whistles, hissing, Negro singing and the thunder of kettledrum”.1 “Thought is made in the mouth” (“La pensee se fait dans la bouche”) – proclaims Dada. Raoul Haussmann would recite his first “sound-verses” (“Lautgedichte”) beginning in June, 1918 in the cafe “Austria” in Berlin: “If we consider various possibilities, that our voice gives us, different sounds that we can produce due to plurality of the breathing technique, positioning of the tongue on the palate, opening of the larynx or straining the vocal cords, then we will be able to comprehend what could be called the will towards the creative sound form”. The exhibitions of Dadaists in those days would often be accompanied by performances – “the paraboles of confused and absurd reality” – as they themselves called them, such as the “Anti-symphony” (“Anti-symphonie”), presented by the Russian musician and artist Jefim Golycheff in Berlin in 1919. “In contrast with the old contemplative poetry, – further declares Haussmann, – there is the new genre: the synchronous and noise poem, for the first time demonstrating the simultaneity of events and the role of noises in everything existing”. He is sure, that such kind of creative artistic activity definitely merges with life, that is absolutely similar to the “terrible rumble, to the giddy collapse”.

Hugo Bail, on his part, wanted to make the phonemes of his abstract poems sing as a kind of recitative in order “to preserve for the poetry the most sacred”. Kurt Schwitters himself got very interested in the performances at the “Cabaret Voltaire”; his concept “Merzbuhne” (“Merz-scenes”) is deeply imbued with the similar ideas (Merz is the manner of signing, the author’s sign accompanying him during the long period of his creative activities). In 1919 in the magazine “Der Sturm” he described it in the following way: “I am talking about the abstract work of art. As a rule, drama or opera develop proceeding from the written text – the text, that, independently of the stage version, is already a complete work. The stage arranging, music and acting only serve to depict this text, which is in itself the depiction of the action. In contrast to drama and opera, all the parts of the “Merzbuhne” are connected with each other and inseparable, this work can not be written, read or listened to – it can only be experimented with in the theatre. Until now for the theatre performance there have been fixed differences between the stage concept, the text and the score. Each constituent was prepared separately and could also be separately assessed. Only “ Merzbuhne ” differs from them in the blending of all these components into the total work of art”2.

Thanks to Schwitters there again emerges the ambitious idea of the complex work, but its project presupposes more than just a balanced combination of all the elements – this is rather a gigantic installation, like the one that was later demonstrated on the example of his “Merz-Haus”. “Merzbuhne ” would absorb everything possible, without claiming to be synthetic, but expressing the intention to create something like a “rich disorder”: for example, reflecting upon the musical constituent of the “Merzbuhne”, Schwitters would decide, that the material for the score would be composed from all the sounds and noises that could be obtained from the violin, drums, trombone, sewing-machine, ticking, running water etc. As for the textual material, it should originate “from all the experiences that stimulate intelligence and emotions”.

In 1921 Schwitters heard Haussmann reciting his poems in Prague. He would borrow the first line of one of the phonetic poems, fmsbwtazau, at first in order to create with its help the “Portrait of Raoul Haussmann” (“Portrait de Raoul Haussmann”), and then he would make it the main subject of what would later become the “Ursonate”. Schwitters intends to dismember the phonetic elements and give them all individual phonetic existence: “The abstract poetry has emancipated words from their links – and this is a great merit; having given a special emphasis to the sound, it contrasts word with word, and to be more exact – idea with idea”.

Concerning the “Ursonate in Urlauten ” of 1922-23 created by Schwitters, Moholy-Nagy noted that “words do not exist, or, rather, could exist in any language; there is no logic in them, there is only the perceptible context in them; they affect the hearing with their phonetic vibrations in the same way as the music does”3. This was the sound poetry, constructed in the musical way on the basis of letters. The final version ended in the 29-page score printed in Jan Tschichold’s printing house and published in the “Merz” magazine in 1932. In the introduction Schwitters gives its brief analysis, emphasizing the “explosive nature of the first theme (“Fumm bo wo taa zaa Uu”), the pure lyrics of the Cantabile Juu-kaa, the rough military rhythm of the third theme sounding quite masculine compared to the fourth theme, that is affectionate and gentle like a lamb”. Haussmann, by the way, reproached Schwitters with the manifestations of classicism when the latter, while shaping the phonetic soundings, attained various effects by crafty exploitation of repetitions and crescendo. “He created a classic sonata out of my innovation … that I considered a blasphemy”4.

The movement of lettrism represents a new attempt to interbreed music and poetry. In 1942 Isidore Isou published his manifesto, in which considerable critical views concerning the musical language, are expressed. Three years later he, in collaboration with Maurice Lemaitre, founded the lettrist movement where Francois Dufrene, Gil Wolman and Gabriel Pomerand participated; a letter is perceived by them in both of its two manifestations – sound and visual, and it becomes the common constituent of many kinds of art. Thus, the letters of the alphabet were to replace the notes, – the term “music-lettrism” (“musiquelettrie”) was used by the lettrists when the movement just emerged. Consequently, “Since the poem has become music, nothing can happen to the former without affecting the latter, and everything matters both for the former and the latter. <…> It’s necessary to establish once and forever their relationships, their mutual existence, their similar fortunes”4. To the voice-pronounced letters can be added the whole range of sound events produced both by speech and body. Being the integral whole, that Isou calls the “elementics” (“elementique”), these phenomena make up the language that has to be expressed with help of letters of Latin and Greek alphabets, and also by numbers; by the year of 1971 they would conclude, therefore, with the list comprising 171 items. The musical instruments are withdrawn exclusively in favor of voice and body – the “mechanisms” for realization of new works.

Altagor (Jean Vernier).
Métapoésie (fragment), 1948

“In order to revive, music (according to I. Isou) should give up the development through instruments, enslaving it in accordance with the more and more subtle shades. The new music is based on the human voice, unstrained (as opposed to singing), and its original matter – the letter – is mixed with the poetic matter. The lettrist poetry absorbs music, that is getting emancipated from its height, that is becoming flat, declamatory like the art of verse. Music, in the way it has been represented so far, absolutely actually dies due to the internal necessity. And something unseen before emerges – the lettria, the single heiress, the reunion of the two phenomena that originated at the dawn of human speech from the cry. In the lettria there have been united the merits of the development of horizontal, poetic, and the opposition of vertical and musical ”5.

 Among the first works created in accordance with these principles are “The war” (“La Guerre”), the first lettrist symphony by I. Isou, “The symphony in K” (“Symphonie en K”) by Gabriel Pomerand, and also “Lettrist musical works” (“Oeuvres musicales lettristes”) by Maurice Lemaitre. Gil Wolman, on his part, would offer to separate consonants from the present in them vowels – b(e), k(a)... – and elaborate the system based on the six “structural letters”, which he would call “megapneumisme” (“megapneumisme”).

Francois Dufrene – thus giving birth to the ultra-lettrism – would invent “Cryrhythm” (“Crirythme”) – “the voice automatism in which graphic image is replaced with the tape recording”6. In 1953 he would start recording his first “Cryrhythms” that would lead to the break up with the lettrism movement. “Automatism no longer correlates with either writing or concepts, that are still present in the surrealistic image, – but only with the language pronounced and unpronounced, the deepest matter of the human voice”7.

Sometimes it is not less difficult to associate some artists with the clearly defined tendencies (sound poetry, new realism, lettrism, concrete music, etc.) than to place their works into certain pre-prepared frameworks. For instance, Raymond Hains at that time made notes together with Yves Klein and Eliane Brau: “I also entertained myself with what Brion Gysin called “cut-up”, I deformed the words, starting the records back to front, changing the speed”. Further, recollecting the work of Francois Dufrene, R. Hains went on: “Perhaps, he got interested in the posters because he liked turning the words over… I suppose he was concerned about the relationship between these turned inside out posters and his poetry, when he wrote “Nude Mental Word” (“Mot Nu Mental”)... he was always looking for such connection, the relationship between words and his work”12. And in the “Cryrhythms”, that he was busy with from 1953 (some of them would be recorded in collaboration with Pierre Henry), and in the “Cantata of the dizzy words” (“Cantate des mots cames”) published by him in such a way that the pictorial equivalent of the phoneme, “the posters’ inner sides”, becomes, thus, the verges of the creative search, where the play and imagination, proceeding from the already existing or newly found elements – both in the sound and in the image – occupy the dominating position.

The development of tendencies of concrete, visual (Ferdinand Kriwet, John Furnival, Jiri Kolar and others) and sound poetry (Henri Chopin, Brion Gysin, Bernard Heidsieck, Francois Dufrene and others) shows us that the inter-exchange between various expressive methods is getting more and more effective, washing away – much more heavily than by the previous generations – the borderlines, dividing art into different constituents. According to B. Heidsieck, since the borders between disciplines have become mutually-penetrating, the sound poetry is now developing by itself bordering on music. “Sound poetry has been an attempt, for about more than twenty years of its existence, to liberate itself from the page-dependent text, it is the urge towards complete or partial replacement of a pen or a type-writer with a record player as a new instrument for work and creation, to use the magnetic band, cassette and record as bearer and object of transmission; it is also the desire to find energetic sources of breathing and cry, the aspiration for returning to “oral” cultures, forgotten or ignored, this is the search by means of voice and labor such, so that the text while being read or transmitted would realize in a certain physical manner, so that it could be sensed as a whole, for which there supposed to be the necessity of such style of “search” or reading, which of course would vary depending on the reader or the read, but would be absolutely “different”, in the sense that the sound poet should realize that he must tear the text from the page or the tape recorder band and to bring, to launch it into the space for all the temporal and spatial length of the sound, so that finally it could not only be heard, but also seen and, possibly, physically sensed”8.

B. Heidsieck would write his first “poems-scores” (“poemes-partitions”) aimed at the auditory perception in 1955 (“As soon as it is said” (“Sitot dit”); the acquisition of the tape recorder in 1959 would allow him not only to open up for himself his own voice, but also to experiment with the technique of montage (in order to speed up the effect of declamation by means of erasing inhalations and to produce the sound “cut-ups”, like W. Burroughs and B. Gysin did in the visual pieces) and mixing (bringing alien elements into the texts).

From H. Chopin’s “audio-poems” (“audio-poemes”) to Gil Wolman’s “megapneumes”, from F. Dufrene’s “Cryrhythms” (“Crirythmes”) and Jean-Louis Brau’s “Verbal instrumentations” (“Instrumentations verbales”) to Bernard Heidsieck’s “Poems-scores” (“Poemes-partitions”)... It’s quite hard to clearly define their belonging to numerous trends and branches of sound poetry that originates in the lettrist movement. B. Heidsieck, for example, distinguishes five main tendencies within it9:

– poetry of the phonetic asemantic spirit, presented, for instance, by Dufrene’s “Cryrhythms” and H. Chopin’s works, who, by the way, managed to grasp what he called the “voice micro-particles”, putting the microphone immediately to the lips and to the vocal muscles; also can be mentioned the expansion of the sound constituent in his recorded works; the phenomenon of sound spreads over the whole body – the place of merging of the language and the world, of the collision with the language autocracy. The medievist Paul Zumthor, eagerly connecting the practice of sound poetry with the art of trouveres and troubadours, and also of the great rhetoricians of the Middle Ages, coined a neologism “vosema” to define “the microphonic variational units, from which the initial and unique matter of the, undoubtedly, new art is being constructed”10. He thinks that the vosema is the entity from the area of cry, rather than word. P. Zumthor observed among the poets tendencies of returning to orality, as well as among musicians – to speaking.

– the second tendency is characterized by use of most sophisticated technologies, as we can see it in the works of Swedish artists from the studio of the radio “Fylkingen”, such as Sten Hanson, Bengt Emil Johnson, Svante Bodin. Thanks to the electronic-acoustic modifications of voice, its source becomes practically undeterminable and, as a result, these works very much resemble the music of composers, making use of electronic devices. The poetic action, having escaped from the closed book space and helping itself with the acousmatic means of transmission, becomes utmost available and can since now move freely in space and time.

– the third movement concerns the semantic aspect of working with text. Due to the use of tape recorder effects some parts of the text can be doubled, extra sound sources are added to them. B. Heidsieck belongs to this particular category; here can also be placed the “text-sound compositions” (the American title of this trend) of John Giorno, Allen Ginsberg, Jackson Mac Low and Jack Kerouac.

– the artists, dealing with what they call “oral publications”, should be placed within a different trend that is developing without use of the tape recorder. Michele Metail is one of them, her texts are full of various scenario possibilities for not reading aloud, but they nevertheless urge the author to perform her works in public. M. Metail says about her “Additions to the noun” (“Complements de nom”) as of the “exact equivalent of the musical score – not everything is marked there, since the voice and the timbre, for instance, can not be marked. I try to make use of all my voice possibilities. One can read with anger, in a very gentle tone, in a whisper or patter. These cells of reading, often chosen depending on where exactly I am reading (some ways can, for example, be connected with the meteorological situation in this particular city: the pace of reading is modulated by the speed of the wind, the key – by the temperature and so on), are placed upon the text, and quite irrespective of its meaning. <…> Thus, I can while reading single out from the text some quite unexpected parts. Usually the key is determined in accordance with the meaning. But if you have to read pianissimo, but with the intonations of anger, your voice will have to work in an absolutely different manner. The separation of these usually interconnected entities leads to the special perception of the language, – it turns into music. In some extracts of the “Additions to the noun” the sense is completely lost, the phonetic accents on certain consonants, for example, are sensed, and thus the rhythm gets established through words”11. According to M. Metail, the generally accepted systems of compulsion is something like a sieve, through which she deliberately lets her expressive symbols (dictionaries, lists, etc.) – help to find the way of expression: the visible poetry (“ABC for the blind”, “Morse alphabet”, “typewritten alphabet”), photographs (“Painted book” (“Livre peint”), created in collaboration with Louis Roquin), pen drawings (“Branches” (“Dichotomies”)), pictures (“Banners of the alphabet” (“Pavillons alphabetiques”)), public readings etc.

– and, finally, the fifth category can be mentioned, that is very close to the performance; these are such artists as Joel Hubaut and Julien Blaine, for whom the spatial movement is inseparably connected with the presentation of work in public, sometimes including the complete denial of any verbal scoring, as it happened in some actions of the Fluxus movement.

In all these cases one should distinguish between works, – those created to be heard and performed as recordings or with help of the radio transmission, and those aimed at stage acting, accompanied (or not accompanied) by the previously recorded sound elements. In this case the sound poetry requires the energetic, physical “provision” of the material read, and the understanding of importance (responsibility) of the voice and corporal demonstration of the text is a certain experience, much more serious than the one that usually takes place at readings by traditional poets of their works. Such manner of reading, by the way, affects the very process of writing the work, the telling example of which can be the work of William Burroughs, who checks every phrase by oral means and, if necessary, introduces changes into it. The apparently oral character of the works created in this way makes difficult, if not impossible, their reading by other reciters. B. Heidsieck, for example, remarks that it would be absolutely impossible to imagine the performance of Dufrene’s “cryrhythms” in the voice different from the author’s; also his own works presuppose his oral participation in them. The likeness between the sound poetry and music of the vocal nature is, apparently, such that unlike the written poetry, the language is no longer insurmountable obstacle for the comprehension of the work, – due to the musical quality of what is offered for listening on the other side of the explicit meaning.

Gabriel Pomerand.
Symphonie en K (fragment).

It’s not quite clear how some of the trends, described by B. Heidsieck , can be connected with the musical world. The first of them, of the phonetic nature, makes one assume its possible further development by the composers’ efforts. To this, in particular, testifies Marc Battier’s electro-acoustic work, created on the basis of the sound elements presented by Henri Chopin .

As concerns the second trend, oriented towards the technological experimenting, the borderlines between genres here can become even more vague. The first Steve Reich’s electro-acoustic plays – “It’s gonna rain” (1965) and “Come out” (1966), based on the principles of phrase displacement and repetition, are actually very close to certain approaches of sound poets. Sten Hanson, whose work is typical of this trend, is considered to be a composer; and, by the way, he in collaboration with H. Chopin has created two works – “Tete a tete” (1970) and “Double extension” (1972). As for working in the field of vocal, H. Chopin repeatedly mentions in the “Poesie sonore internationale” the names of composers, who make use of the electro-acoustic means, such composers as Robert Ashley, Christian Clozier, Francoise Barriere (who long time ago brought different trends of the sound poetry to the festival of electro-acoustic music in Bourges), Michel Chion, Bernard Parmegiani.

The two other trends, that have not given up the meaningful texts, seem less appropriate in terms of collaboration with composers. In spite of his keen interest to music, B. Heidsieck has never really wanted to come face to face with it – probably because of the fact that the musical element could seem extremely redundant. M. Metail, for example, added the musical element only as an exception (with the assistance of the composer Louis Roquin). Nevertheless, one could remember the collaboration between Brion Gysin and the jazz composer and saxophone player Steve Lacy. B. Gysin, like J. Giorno, had numerously performed on the stage with different rock groups, until he founded his own group in 1982 jointly with Ramuntcho Matta.

As for the last trend, oriented towards merging of voice and movement, the concrete examples of this can be found among the artists, who could simultaneously be related to several kinds of artistic practice, including music (for example, artists, connected with the Fluxus movement, such as Nam June Paik, Ben and others).

In spite of this, the examples of collaboration between the adherents of lettrism or sound poetry and composers are quite rare. It took a long time for the representatives of these arts to overcome mutual reserve and distrust. Thus, in 1969 H. Chopin published in the “OU” magazine the so-called “Open letter to aphonic musicians” (“Lettre ouverte aux musiciens aphones”), in which he reproached Pierre Henry and Luciano Berio with forgetting the fact, that it was the voice that used to be the first instrument. Such assertion in relation to L. Berio could seem strange – since voice occupies a significant position in his work. But, according to H. Chopin, these are all domesticated voices, ordered, that are used as instruments, and they suit him no more than – from the opposite side – the actors’ voices. “The poet makes the word shine, while the musician makes use of the “shining”. In the final chapter of the “Poesie sonore internationale”12 H. Chopin clearly summarizes, stating that “it is the poet who opens up from the inside the tessitures of voice. The musician, on the contrary, only uses the voices alien to him”. Further he emphasizes the individual character of the poet’s work, while the musician, in his view, often sees his work as a part of some group’s activities.

In spite of different roads, taken by the sound poets and composers, P. Henry in his “Liverpool mass” (“Messe de Liverpool”, collaborated with Jacques Spacagna) destroys the Latin multi-verses, experimenting with permutations and transformations, and he speaks in this connection about the “solo concert of sound poetry from the Latin texts”. In the “Invention for the voice” (“Invenzione su una voce”, 1960) Bruno Maderna worked with a group of phonemes, proposed by Hans G. Helms, as well as in the opera “Hyperion” (1964), where Helms performed “phonetization” on the basis of Hoelderlin’s texts. The predecessor of all these “text-sound plays” – Schwitters’s “Ursonate” – is in fact close to the overwhelming majority of vocal scores in the sense, that it is not originally connected with the presence – immediately on the stage or in the recording – of the author himself, unlike the situation that we can often see in the “sound poetry”, especially in France and the USA. And, conversely, in the German sound poetry we can often come across the vocal texts-scores with quite precise notations, and the works of Franz Mon can be the example of it.

On the other hand, in the contemporary music there are also fundamental works, connected with the sound image of their creator: such are the productions of Demetrio Stratos, and also the score “ Gio-Dong” (“Gio-Dong”, 1970) by Nguyen-Thien Dao – the real performance, constructed on the peculiarities of the Vietnamese language and requiring from the majority of the performers both the skills of the Western vocal art and the Far Eastern singing techniques. This production, composed from the moan, laughter, weeping, specially emphasized over-falls of register, brings about the ideas of revolt and war, evoked by the individual perception of the composer himself. “What fascinates us most, – writes Madeleine Gagnard, – is the amazingly compressed variations and extremely brief fragments, coming one after the other almost without stopping, as if the composer/performer restrains his fear in order to let it suddenly flash out, at the same time constantly renewing the expressive means. Here, by the way, there are absolutely no borders between the noise (throat), songs, speech and instrumental glissando; all the vocal procedures are overlapping”13. Such work, undoubtedly, bears a strong imprint of the autobiographic features – something like a vocal self-portrait, that makes quite difficult its performance by other vocalists; this is exactly what we can observe in the sound poetry. With some artists it is almost impossible to distinguish between the roles of the author and the performer; we come across this in Meredith Monk’s “Song from the Hills” of 1977 – a vocal play comprising the animals’ cries, invitations of street peddlers etc., also in Alvin Lucier’s “I am sitting in a Room”, in the works of Laurie Anderson, Llorenc Barber, Brion Gysin, John Giorno or Hugh Davies. Jaap Blonk , on his part, founded the trio “Braaxtaal”, where the voice faces the percussion instruments and synthesizers. After working at the material of Lucebert’s poems and interpretations of works of Hugo Ball and Schwitters he started creating plays based on the voice resources, where overlap the introduced by him virtuosity and expression.

Maurice Lemaître.
Lettre Rock, 1957.

John Cage still remains one of those contemporary composers who managed to cover by his experimenting all possible voice registers, from psalms to such forms, that are relatively close to the sound poetry. From the year 1942 date his first scores, connected with the literary activities of James Joyce (whom J. Cage discovered for himself in 1938), notably, “The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs” for the voice and closed grand piano – the production, created under the impression of “Finnegan’s Wake” (that, in its turn, in about thirty years would become the source of endless flow of musical and poetic productions). Voice, besides singing, was the characteristic feature of all his creative activities. For J. Cage, for example, a lecture, or more exactly, reading, is very likely to become a performance, a complete creation – since the theoretical reflections and musical practice do not have to conform the organizational principles alien to each other. In both cases we have the composing activity, whose duration is the common determinant. Actually, neither in his declamations, nor in the scores J. Cage tries to lead the listener in the one-sided manner or to impose a certain sense on him. J. Cage’s declamation or written text are never pure information, unlike most texts written by his colleagues – they are rather like a score, that is only proposed for decoding, presupposing at the same time as many ways and possibilities for interpretation, as there are listeners or readers. We can not but mention here Satie’s lectures, that allow to imagine, looking at the spatial position of the phrases on the page, the true musicalization of the oral reading. For Cage, apparently, it is important to find such manner of writing which, not at all claiming to express and interpret ideas, is itself born out of these very ideas and promotes the appearance of new ones. For example, in the “45' for a Speaker” there have been put together a great number of different kinds of texts; their reading, guided by such notes as: cough, blow the nose etc., can be superimposed over some instrumental plays. In the “Lecture on Nothing” (1949) Cage already played up the linear character of the performance, introducing the method of chance that destroyed the seeming logic; the composition of his lectures is the reflection of his musical contemplation. Thus, the work “Composition as Process” of 1958 bears the structural likeness to the “Music of Changes” for the piano. For some texts, for instance, “Where are we going? What are we doing?” (1961) Cage even presupposes superimposition of four voices. Consequently, there is no longer gap between the aesthetic process and the actual action, simply both of these phenomena, each in its area, make their contribution in this special theatre of musical life; the unavoidably coming from there theatrical spirit and its development in time were very precisely comprehended by Cage, who makes use – for example, in the “Statement on Ives” (1965) – of special signs for marking inhalations, swallowing, moments of hesitation and different noises.

Let’s look at the scores now. In the “Aria” (1958) for the voice, that is the portrait of the singer Cathy Berberian, Cage uses different colours as musical signs. They embody the selected vocal styles, whose choice is one of the performer. The text, offered to the singer, comprises phonetic symbols, as well as words in five languages (Armenian, Russian, Italian, English and French); by means of some signs the score recommends the use of voice according to certain expressive means, alien to the singing tradition. In the “Solo for voice” (“Solo pour voix 1”, 1958) the singer is given two pages; on each there are eight note notations, for complete or partial performance – depending on the performers’ choice; certain graphisms point to the micro-tonal fluctuations of sound. The score also singles out the noise phenomena that sometimes appear besides voice. The text itself is the collage of German, French and English phrases. It is specified that the singer can use a variety of vocal styles, along which he could move freely. The composition is preceded by the author’s operations on the “I Ching” (The book of Changes”) and complaints concerning the imperfection of the paper on which the score is written. For the implementation of one of the variants of the “Solo for voice II” (“Solo pour voix II”, 1960) the performer has to prepare the program of actions in accordance with the fixed time limits. The graphic symbols used are quite varied: in the same way as in the “Cartridge Music”, the superimposition of graphisms, depicted on the pieces from transparent plastic, allows to determine the line of conduct, distributing in time the sound material meant for performing.

After the “Solo for voice” and “Aria”, the “Song Books” (1970) enlarge the horizons of his vocal works. As for the “Song Books”, the first question that Cage addressed to “I Ching” concerned the total number of solos; the answer was “90”. Since then Cage again used the “I Ching” in order to determine the essence of each solo (singing, theatre, singing accompanied by electro-acoustic devices), and also the composition technique. Each “Solo” can be placed within one of the following categories: singing, singing + electronic devices, theatre, electronic means. Many performers can practice the superimposition of the “Solo”, especially as they are combined with other scores of the indefinite trend, such as “Variations”, “Cartridge Music” or “Rozart Mix”. In 1970 in the letter to Daniel Charles Cage writes: “Singers prepare their parts independently of one another and do not react to each other. The compositional elements are varied: “I Ching”, celestial maps, faults on the paper, and all this is to continue my “Aria”, my “Solo for voice I”, as well as my quite new play “Cheap Imitation”. I also often write modifying my own texts written earlier or somebody else’s texts with help of a certain technique of dispersion”.

Two volumes of the “Song Books” offer the performer the widest possibilities for his actions. Cage, for sure, did not try to benefit from the diverse possibilities of the world of vocal, as this could do Ligeti in the “Adventures” (“Aventures”) and “New adventures” (“Nouvelles Aventures”) or Stockhausen in the “Moment” (“Momente”), but the thing is that the singing labor, according to its definition, is located at the junction of different artistic disciplines. Thus, Cage a priori took into consideration all the theories in the area of voice treatment.

In his works we can see the elements, that seem to be jumping from one production to the other, while being interpreted in different communicative ways. This is, for example, a letter – an item so important in his work that it gave birth to the whole individual poetics, evolving on the basis of the rules of syntax and linear speech. Perhaps, all these different creative trends in their origin emerge, because every time Cage sort of starts from scratch again. Thus, he thinks that poetry, not being based on any principles of property or power, should not even try to convey any information, but, on the contrary, it should exist outside the attempts to say something and imply, that it has nothing to say – it was already said by him in the “Lectures on nothing” (“Lecture sur rien”) and “Lectures on something” (“Lecture sur quelque chose”)14.

Some “Mesostics” from his works are meant for inner reading, while others can contain the pretext for reading aloud. After the “36 Acrostics re and not re Marcel Duchamp” (1970) it can also refer to the “62 Mesostics re Merce Cunningham ” (1971); Cage specifies that one vocal performance should include at least five of them (the performance of the whole series can take about 3 hours), that each mezo-verse must be surrounded by the area of silence, and that the criteria of the voice production must be chosen by the performer in accordance with the differences in prints size of the letters. The set, consisting of about 700 letrasets, was exposed to a number of casual operations. Like most of his musical scores, the “Mezo-verses” are written on the basis of manipulations with the “I Ching”. For writing of the “Mesostics re Merce Cunningham” the textual material from the “Changes: Notes on Choreography” (written by M. Cunningham) and 32 more works from his library were exposed to casual operations.

As Norman O. Brown explained to him, the word “syntax” etymologically has a very strong military connotation (the Greek verb “syntassein” means arranging and ordering a group of soldiers in the battle order). “The syntax, as well as the government, can only be obeyed. Consequently, it is absolutely useless, unless there is the need for special orders... The mechanism of the “I Ching”, on the contrary, is an instrument. When applied to a letter or a set of letters, it creates a language that can be enjoyed without even understanding it”15.

Nevertheless, if his “readings” turn out to be close to some kinds of poetry, for him it happens not because of the duality of their content, but due to the introduction of the musical elements (measure, sound) into the universe of words.

“Empty Words” (1973-75) clearly shows what transitions can be made on the semantic level of the work due to the written signs. The first part is composed without phrases, the second one – without expressions, the third one – without words, and the fourth one – without syllables, and only comprises letters and silence. Cage imagined, that the “Empty Words” could be presented as a performance, reading during the whole night, making pauses between the parts. The ending should come by the morning, when people outside would start opening their windows and doors, and the surrounding sounds would mix with the declamation, as though making a gradual transition from literature to music.

Cage constantly got engaged in the open dialogue with his works – present or past – not trying, though, to directly compare them with himself. He took, for example, Thoreau’s “Journal”, those extracts from it where Thoreau speaks about the music, the silence and the sounds, and brought fragments from there into “Mureau” (“Mureau”, “Mu” refers to music, “reau” is associated with Thoreau), thus freeing the English language from syntax and originating something like “nonsense”. He in the end got a kind of mixture of letter-syllable-word-expression-phrase, encouraging to consider the time of reading, the page space, the phonetic sounds and their semantic qualities as sides of one and the same phenomenon, able to initiate infinite repeating movements. “Mureau” (1970) was initially meant for journal or book publication; consequently, it was a poetically-oriented project. The situation was quite different with the “Lecture on the Weather” (1975), that was meant for the Canadian radio. Cage comes back to the texts and drawings from Thoreau’s “Journal”, but at this time it is, in fact, the illustrated with music signs book, offered to the readers (12 in number, he specifies, and preferably Americans who became Canadian citizens), and where each voice event takes place during a breath.

Cage would reread Joyce’s “Finnegans Wake” undoubtedly because there is the direct prototype of “work in progress” leading to the development, extension and (why not) to the condensation. Everything happens in such a way, as though Cage in his work would allow the work of the characters close to him to be read; but his intervention does not look like voluntarism. The transformations introduced by him are filtered through the “I Ching” and, consequently, are quite permeable for his own style of writing. There is, certainly, a choice in the way of reading the texts-bases..., but it is secondary, allowing the material to flow in its natural course. Such intervention, compared to the original text, is like the echo floating in the silence or the whiteness of the page.

John Cage.
Writing For The Second Time
Through Finnegans Wake, 1979-80

Such interaction of the expressive gestures, that can quite often be met in Cage’s work, formed the basis of the “Roaratorio” (1979). The structure of this work, originally thought of as a radio play, is actually based on one of his “Writings through Finnegans Wake” (since Cage consecutively created five “re-writings” of the “Finnegans Wake”).

For each new journey about Joyce’s work Cage sets himself new frameworks in terms of re-writing – in the second he prohibits himself to repeat one and the same syllable beginning with the same certain letter in the noun. In order to avoid repetitions in introduced the index of the already used syllables, that resulted in the shorter text compared to the one in the first “Writing”. In the third one he follows the rules prompted by Louis Mink, professor of Philosophy at the University of Wesleyan (Middletown, Connecticut), that consisted in not placing either the first or the second letter between the two letters of the noun. The fourth one was made in the “Mureau” manner – jumping from one chapter to the other according to the lot.

“I decided to use the text, written by myself, that I could identify page by page and letter by letter with the “Finnegans Wake” of the “Viking” publishing house. I decided to use it as a meter or a time in the composed music”. On Klaus Schoening’s request he decided to make the mixing of the sounds, given in the “Finnegans Wake”, with help of Louis Mink’s work “Finnegans Wake Gazetteer”; since it was going to be huge work, Cage set the deadlines for the project realization: 1 month for recording sounds and music in Ireland, 1 month for working with the tape recorder band on the 16-track recorder at the IRCAM in August 1979. Thus, the work was originally supposed to be unfinished. But isn’t the Joyce’s project itself a breakage of the contradiction between the concept of “being finished” and “being unfinished”? One of the mezo-verses of the “Composition in Retrospect” around the word-basis “circumstances” gives, in particular, a prompt to act in accordance with the possible obstacles and even to use them in order to comprehend the going on process. “If you do not have enough time to perform what you have in your soul, then you should view the work as unfinished”.

In 1980, being still inspired by Joyce’s work, Cage wrote his “Muoyce”, as though branching from the “Mureau”; the musical “Mu” is now connected with the “oyce” from Joyce. It is the whispered variant of the “Writing for the Fifth Time Through Finnegans Wake”. With help from Andrew Culver and Jim Rosenberg Cage developed the computer program “Mesolist”, simulating the self-development of the “I Ching”, that is used by him for creation of mezo-verses on the basis of the previously existed texts (“Being a little excited, I threw up coins so that the “I Ching” opened up for me what he thinks about such programming. He was delighted and foretold new possibilities for culture”, – Cage writes in his “Journal”). It would lead in 1984 to the creation of “Eight Whiskus” on the basis of the works of the Australian poet Chris Mann , and “Selkus” and “Mirakus” based on Duchamp, where the expressions “Salt Seller” and “Word Mirage” turned out to be interspersed, and in 1985 – of the “Sonnekus” based on Genese. Here there is a kind of merging between the poetic composition of the mezo-verse and the melody work, which then must make up a vocal production, that should be performed as simply as possible. From time to time we get an impression that music is the research field, adjoining the area of the sound poetry due to the common character of the original material and the technologies used, even though the ways of their presenting in public, as a rule, differ from each other today.

1. Haussmann, Raoul, “Que veut le dadaisme en Europe”, in Catalogue du musee departemental de Rochechouart, Ed.W. Macon, 1986, p. 68

2. Schwitters, Kurt, “Konsequente Dichtung”, 1924, Editions Champ libre, Paris, 1986, p. 46

3. Moholy-Nagy, Laszlo, cite par Richard Kostelanetz, in The Theatre of Mixed Means, New-York, 1968, p. 12

4. Haussmann, Raoul, op. cit., p. 165

5. Isou, Isidore, Introduction a une nouvelle poesie et une nouvelle musique, Gallimard, Paris, 1947

6. Curtay, Jean-Paul, La poesie lettriste, Seghers, Paris, 1974, p. 44

7. Letaillieur, Francois, “musique lettriste”, in Jean-Yves Bosseur, Vocabulaire de la musique contemporaine. Ed. Minerve Paris, 1992

8. Heidsieck, Bernard, “Glasgow: Sound and Syntax”, in Canal n° 18. 1978. p. 13

9. cf. Heidsieck, Bernard, entretien avec Vincent Barras, Poesies sonores. Ed. Contrechamps, Geneve, 1992, pp. 137 a 139

10. Zumthor, Paul, “Une poesie de l'espace”, Poesies sonores. Ed. Contrechamps, Geneve, 1992, p. 12

11. Metail, Michele, Entretien avec Vincent Barras, Poesies sonores. Ed. Contrechamps, Geneve, 1992, pp. 149-150

12. Chopin, Henri, Poesie sonore internationale. Ed. Jean-Michel Place. Paris, 1979, p. 287

13. Gagnard, Madeleine, La voix dans la musique contemporaine et extra-europeenne. Ed. Van de Velde, Paris, 1987, pp. 66-67

14. Cage John, in Silence, M.I.T. Press, Cambridge, Massachussets, 1966

15. Cage, John, Journal, Ed. Denoel, Paris, 1983, p. 139

Translated by Natalia Andreeva.

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