Sound poetry is "a fascinating no man's land" between language and music, as demonstrated by this Fluxus veteran.
Woodland Patterns Bookstore
29 June 2016
It was during this, my third time seeing Jaap Blonk, that he gave a succinct summation of his discipline. Though calling the Netherlander a performance artist wouldn't be improper, the artistry he performs is sound poetry
During the first half of his fifth date in about twenty years at Milwaukee's Woodland Patterns, a state-funded small press bookshop on the city's bohemian-intensive East Side, Blonk called sound poetry "a fascinating no man's land" between language and music. People who might relate to the concept would likely be composers/performers who mix classical and pop musical sensibilities with strong visual presentation such as Laurie Anderson, "hip-hop human beat boxers" and, maybe, jazz scat singers. Were humorously-inclined, language-malleable jazzbos such as Slim Galliard and Harry "The Hipster" Gibson still among the living, they might get a jolt out of it, too.
But none of them comes close to anything like Blonk's act.
The sound poetry in which he specializes developed in the European manifestation of the interdisciplinary, absurdist arts movement of Dada. Though others to follow him may have had other rationales for making poetry out of gibberish and noise, German Dadaist Hugo Ball said language was polluted by its use in propagandizing the waging of World War I, thus making it a suitable medium for poetry. Blonk said as much as a way of explanation for his first set, a celebration of Dadaism's centennial, in which he incorporated works by those associated with the earlier 20th century Futurist movement and Fluxus, the 1960s-70s artistic thrust with which Blonk himself, as was Yoko Ono long before she married John Lennon, is most associated
But what does sound poetry sound like? Coming from Blonk, at least, it's a gesticulation-heavy, sometimes nearly athletic amalgam of among other things, what Donald Duck may sound like suffering a bout of nausea, culinarily fumbling Muppet The Swedish Chef speaking in glossalalia (or the neo-Pentecostal practice of speaking n tongues divorced from actual languages as manifested in Acts 2), a pidgin variant of an African click language, nearly inaudible whispers, the imagined oral communication of fish, outright screams, manipulations of his nose and cheeks and throat, with intervals of conversational Dutch, serene English and agitated German. The last bit came from Blonk's poeticizing a cease-and-desist letter he received from the son of a late sound poet whose Blonk he had recorded.
In the anarchic spirit of Dada and Fluxus' emphasis on the process of an art piece's creation, Blonk disposed of the records as requested, but then proceeded to rerecorded frontward and backwards, making it seem as if he hadn't recorded it at all. The exercise thus affirmed the rebellious nature of his artistry and that "backwards sound poetry can be pretty good sound poetry," as he told the nearly full bookshop back room. And indeed, Blonk proved that backwards sound poetry can be engaging as it is read as it was composed. Would it be apropos to say "written"?
In some cases, yes. As he read Fluxus polymath Dick Higgins' "Glass Lass," an exercise in arranging the combinations of the four sounds in the two titular words, Blonk scrolled with his hands down a long series of pages upon which he had the simple composition. At other points, he marched out of the room and into the bookshop portion of the building while loudly reciting his subject's text from memory, his silvery gray locks bouncing and flopping around his horn rim-bespectacled face. In the business of sound poetry, it seems, there's liberality about physically interpreting the text...
...or the mere notations. In his second set, Blonk assayed one of his latest works, Vibrant Islands, his notes for which may be seen here-http://jaapblonk.com/
He wasn't over, though. With good natured presumption, Blonk returned for an encore he said was based on African talking drum communication. It boiled down to a call-and-response antiphony somewhat resembling the genie in a box at Pee Wee Herman's playhouse, Jambi, leading those around him in his magic "Mekka Lekka Hi Mekka Hiney Ho..." incantation, only with often more complex phrases animatedly led in a European accent whose, unlike Paul Reubens' head-in-a-box friend, whole body could be seen leading the cheery onslaught of gibberish.
It's all pretty spellbinding stuff; my first time taking in a Blonk performance in the early '00s at an art gallery fairly blew my mind. My attempts to tell friends at a prayer/Psalms reading/breakfast klatch of my latest experience with him largely yielded looks that could be translated as saying "Huh?!" and laughter denoting a response between amusement and derision.
Certainly Blonk's work is an acquired taste in a niche that isn't apt to receive any commercial airplay. Although there's room for laughter in response to his work, for me, however, he tickles my funny bone is part of a greater feeling of exhilaration and awe at the breadth to which the voice-and the whole of the human vocal apparatus-can produce such a breadth of sound.
But how does Blonk's and others, like Ono's, screaming for about three minutes in various intonations at New York City's Museum of Modern Art in the 2010 conception of sound poetry square with an aesthetic that considers a Christian worldview?
Not only a scriptural view of just war theory, but the very idea that God used words to communicate His truth in the Bible run counter to the pacifistic premises for Ball and other early Dadists and Futurists to employ their sound poetry experimentation. It's probably also fair to say that the avant-garde arts movements to have arisen out of Dada's inspiration, including Fluxus, tend toward a leftism that's likelier than not to be aligned to leftist politics that it would be, at least, problematic for Christian patrons to embrace.
Yet, divorced from its origins' subtext and experienced from a mindset that can appreciate the inventiveness in what he's doing, Blonk is at least a great deal of fun. Other practicing sound poets may be as well, though he's the only one I've seen perform. If any sound believers are operating in his field, I'd like to hear them, but Blonk's explorations in the limits and obviation of language and poetry make for an art experience not easily forgotten and, for people on the proper wavelength, easy to enjoy.
-Jamie Lee rake