View from the West: Whither Text-Sound Composition?

Dean Suzuki
Photo by Ryan Suzuki

From time to time, starting as early as the mid-1960s, perhaps earlier, there have been flurries of activity in the world of text-sound composition or sound poetry among composers, but it seems that new work has dropped off in recent years, or at least there seems to be a void in the latest generation of composers who are investigating the genre.

Text-sound composition exists at the nexus between experimental music and experimental poetry, a kind of lingual music, a type of poetry that is intended to be heard, not merely read. As you might surmise, the work is often non-narrative. Text may or may not be intelligible or even central. Vocalizations, including extended vocal techniques, are often treated as compositional rather than traditionally poetical elements. Text may simply be a means to an end: the sounding of the human voice. Of course, much sound poetry is text biased, even text based, with emphasis placed on meaning, semantic content. But in all cases, text-sound composition is experienced through hearing and not simply on the page. Indeed, numerous sound poems are meaningless in their written form.

For a time, some of our most important composers and artists practiced the art of sound-text composition. The Dadaists: Kurt Schwitters, Hugo Ball, Richard Huelsenbeck, and numerous others wrote pioneering Dada or bruitist poems with nonsensical texts, laying the ground work for subsequent generations of sound poets. At least two works have become well known, if not iconic. Schwitters’s magnum opus is the famous Ursonate, which uses typical Dadaist nonsense texts, but cast in a rather conventional sonata allegro formal scheme. Ball’s “Gadji beri bimba” became an underground pop hit as the textual basis for Talking Heads‘s “I Zimbra.”

Starting in the 1950s, a new generation of European sound poets came to the fore, including Henri Chopin, Bernard Heidsieck, Sten Hanson, Lars-Gunnar Bodin, Bob Cobbing, and a host of others. International sound poetry festivals were mounted, journals were published, recordings were issued, and serious scholarly research and theorizing was taking place. The genre, while still a tiny niche in the art world, was growing and thriving.

John Cage, of course, has written many mesostics which exist not only as poems, but as “scores” for performance pieces: text-sound compositions. Composers of the generation which followed Cage wrote important, if not crucial works which were often watershed pieces which helped define a style, aesthetic, or even movement. It is impossible to imagine Steve Reich‘s oeuvre without his early minimalist tape pieces It’s Gonna Rain and Come Out. While he may not have thought of them as text-sound compositions, that is exactly what they are. And while both have significant textual components—the former has powerful cultural and even spiritual connotations and the latter has an important political overtone—they are not so much about text as they are about process. Indeed, Come Out devolves into pure, abstract sound in which the text is completely obliterated. The import of his early text-sound work has been made manifest, as Reich has returned to sampling speech and working with its melodic and rhythmic contours, starting with Different Trains and continuing on with The Cave, City Life, and other recent work.

Alvin Lucier‘s I Am Sitting in a Room, like Reich’s early sound-text compositions, is based on a gradually unfolding, minimalist process, but also embraces the composer’s speech impediment—stuttering—transforming it into abstract, musical sound. Much of Robert Ashley‘s work falls neatly in the text-sound composition category, whether it is the intense and cathartic Wolfman, the soothing, yet enigmatic She Was a Visitor, or the utterly mysterious and disturbing Automatic Writing.

Two of the most important and visible American sound poets are Charles Amirkhanian and John Giorno. Both produced essential sound poetry record anthologies and both are important artists. Amirkhanian’s bias leans towards music, while Giorno clearly comes from the literary world. While their leanings or orientation seem to be in opposition, they have both used repetitive, minimalist, and multi-tracking recording techniques in the construction of their work, though the impact is quite different, if not at polar extremes. Amirkhanian weaves strands of speech using words as abstract entities. In “Mugic,” the words “rainbow,” “chug,” “bandit” and “bomb” are repeated and layered in a way that focuses on process, counterpoint, rhythm, texture, articulation, and color. The words are chosen for their sound, rhythmic potential, and texture rather than their meaning. Word choice may have an element of whimsy and even humor, but linguistic semantics are low on the totem pole. On the other hand, Giorno’s texts are laden with powerful content and meaning. “I Don’t Need It, I Don’t Want It and You Cheated Me Out of It” is rife with angst, rage, and seething energy, not to mention a healthy dose of ironic humor. The repetition by way of close imitative counterpoint though multi-tracking and live performance adds to the potency of the work, much as the repeated imagery of an electric chair or deadly car crash intensify the Orange Disaster series by Andy Warhol.

In more recent years, the work of Paul Lansky, Anna Homler, and F’loom, a sound poetry ensemble, has emerged as significant American exploration into the possibilities of text-sound composition. Lansky often begins with the speaking voice which is recorded, processed, manipulated, and put into a music context of one sort or another. In some instances, the text is important, as in a song. Rather than using conventional singing, however, Lansky works with the inherent musicality of the spoken word, coaxing more conventionally musical elements from the speech through inventive electronic manipulation. In other instances, the text is obliterated, allowing the listener to focus on the transformed timbre and texture of the voice. In the most extreme cases, the sonority of the voice is so radically altered as to sound as if synthesized, or nearly so.

Anna Homler, on the other hand, uses much simpler means. Most frequently expressing her ideas in an invented language, both sung and spoken, her work invokes a kind of timeless, foreign, and primitive culture, suggesting traditions, rituals, and ceremonies that are at once recognizable and otherworldly. She might use sound processing, but of a much simpler, even cruder sort than that used by Lansky. Homler is more likely to use a voice changer from a toy store than some fancy, expensive gizmo found in the up-to-the-minute recording studio.

F’loom is a sound poetry performance trio which performs works created by its members. Their polypoetic work is dazzlingly virtuosic and compositionally spectacular. At times suggesting the Firesign Theatre, the Bobs, Lord Buckley, and Frank Zappa, they are not afraid to inject healthy doses of humor into their work along with extended vocal techniques, rhythmic workouts, lingual mayhem, and much more.

Still, these composer/sound poets are of the baby boomer generation and earlier. Younger American text-sound composers are conspicuous by their absence.

While there is still a significant amount of activity in the world of sound-text composition, the focus is squarely in Europe. There are still numerous sound poetry festivals, conferences, performances, recordings, and publications to be found in Europe. A sound poetry festival takes place every year in late summer in Barcelona. Every few years, sound poet, scholar, and champion Enzo Minarelli mounts a festival and conference, in addition to his work as a composer/writer/performer and record producer. He has been issuing one of the most important series of recordings of international sound poetry under the 3ViTre imprint since the 1980s. More recently, the Italian experimental record label Alga Marghen has issued records (yes, vinyl!) and CDs of mostly older sound poets (Chopin, Heidsieck, Hodell, Hanson, and many others). One of the most unlikely, but also most important publications in recent years has been Homo Sonorus: An International Anthology of Sound Poetry, an impressive tome of 437 pages, plus a 4-CD set featuring essays, histories, biographies, theoretical treatises edited and curated by Dmitry Bulatov in Russia! The books has parallel texts in Russian and English, with essays and contributions by many of the artists named above as well as a most impressive host of scholars from around the world.

As far as I know, there is nothing of a similar scale of work in the area of text-sound composition going on in the U.S. There is Voys, a scholarly audio journal on CD that often features sound poetry and is edited by the American sound poet Erik Belgum, but Voys includes all manner of contemporary and experimental literature. Belgum has been quite active in recent years, but he appears to be one of a few. As far as a new generation of American text-sound composers, it appears that none are making themselves known. It seems a shame that American composers are not engaged more in text-sound composition, or even aware of its existence. Don’t’ forget, as Hugo Ball once wrote, “E glassala tuffm i zimbra.”