Jaap Blonk

Delaina Haslam

I was dissed by a sound poet. “Dissed” isn’t quite right. He wasn’t angry but he was disappointed, which we all know to be the worst kind of admonition.

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Jaap Blonk had been sold to me as the “world’s greatest living sound poet”. Sound poetry is non-semantic; it sometimes uses sound to convey meaning, at other times there may be no ‘meaning’, just sounds. Blonk in fact deems the term ‘sound poet’ too limited for what he does: “I would rather call myself a maker of creative work in a broad sense. For instance, I compose instrumental music as well, and make visual work. And when I do vocal improv (alone or with other musicians), I definitely feel I’m a musician.” One thing’s certain: sound poetry is made to be performed, and I’d recommend checking him out on YouTube if you’re unable to catch him live.

Back to his disappointment. My interview with Jaap Blonk was published on the le cool London blog the day he was performing at the Whitechapel Gallery. He was headlining the evening celebrating 10 years of the collective Information as Material (iam). I went to see him perform and, at the end, joined the queue of audience members to buy a CD. When it was my turn, I introduced myself. Recognition dawned on him. He said hello but quickly went on to ask me would I be doing anything with the rest of the interview. What he was referring to was the fact that I’d cut a chunk of our conversation out of the published blog post. I’d mentioned I may use the interview for a piece for New Linear Perspectives and he was enquiring about this, clearly miffed that the interview had been cut. “I was quite disappointed, actually,” he told me. I continued to smile, beatifically, confident in my editing. I said I’d let him know once the piece for NLP was out, and that’s how we left it. I have to admit it affected me; that’s why I’m writing about it now. But I’ll try not to dwindle on my plight too much. This piece isn’t supposed to be about me.

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I will point out that I’m not an academic (probably not necessary to point out). I’m chiefly a blogger and I’ve been pushed down the rabbit hole of avant-garde poetry by my family conceptual artist (you know, like a GP), Simon Morris (one of the founders of iam). Simon had put me in touch with Blonk.
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I immersed myself in Blonk’s work in the week leading up to the interview. I enjoyed exploring his website. I love the story that accompanies his rendition of Kurt Schwitters’ ‘Ursonate’. The ‘Ursonate’ (translated as ‘primordial sonata’, written between 1922 and 1932) is made up of non-language vocals. It has the same composition as a formal sonata: Erster Teil; Largo; Scherzo; and Presto. It took two ‘poster poems’ by Dadaist Raoul Hausmann as its inspiration and was written by Schwitters as an antidote to the expectation of lyric poetry at literary salons. Blonk first heard the work at a poetry recitation workshop in 1979 after he’d dropped out of his physics, maths and musicology studies at Utrecht University. He was taken by the piece and began to learn it by heart and to recite it. The article on his website describes one particularly hostile audience he found himself in front of at a Stranglers gig, where he was the opening act. They shouted “fuck off” and threw beer.

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Our phone interview was not an easy one. I began by asking him about the ‘Ursonate’ that he was billed to be performing at the Whitechapel Gallery.

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“I haven’t decided yet [if I’ll perform it],” he told me. “It’ll be too long to do the whole thing but I will probably do part of it. […] I performed the whole thing at a festival for the BBC in London a few years ago – about six years ago.”

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I knew he was referring to the ‘Cut & Splice: Transmission Festival’, at which I believed he’d performed Antonin Artaud’s ‘To Have Done With the Judgement of God’.

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“I did that in 2010,” he corrected me. “It was the same festival but in 2005, I believe.”

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“How was the experience of performing the Artaud piece?” I asked, yearning to hear that Artaud’s opiate-filled psychosis had somehow infiltrated the performance.

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“Well it was good as it was a premiere and there was a full house. There were a few technical difficulties but on the whole it was received well. It was in a wonderful building — Wilton’s Music Hall, I think it’s called.”

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I asked if he’d performed it since and he told me he had twice in Canada last May — in St Catherines, Ontario and in Ottawa and that the representative of the Dutch Embassy left the room during the latter performance.

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The mutual distrust and disapproval between Blonk and the Dutch government is a subject he does not hold back on. When I asked him if he often performs in his native Netherlands he told me that he doesn’t since “it’s become really difficult to do that. For a decade already we’ve had right-wing governments (and since 2010 the worst one in history, supported by this party that could really be considered fascist), and they’re making huge cuts to the arts.”

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I’d considered Holland as more avant-garde than the UK in terms of performance arts; but Blonk said that was before. “It hasn’t really been like that for about 10 years, and it’s rapidly getting worse. With many fellow artists I feel ashamed of my country these days.”
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His performance at the Whitechapel Gallery was well received. He began by telling the audience to disregard the stated order of his work in programme, as he was not one to respect such rigidities. He opened with a “sound poem about hearing” and went on to perform the third movement of the ‘Ursonate’, followed by a piece in ‘Onderlands’, which is the language of the Underlands, a synonym for the Netherlands; work by the Dadaist Raoul Housmann; a piece inspired by Antonin Artaud and a piece on his ‘cheek synthesiser’: “Not many of us continue to play the cheek synthesizer after we are kids. It’s good because you can play it in the station” [demonstrates, shaking his cheeks from side to side then holding one while he makes a drill sound with his tongue, seguing into an extended and contorted Donald Duck].
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The queue for CDs afterwards was strong and buzzing. His rebuke of my editing was a bit like having my anxieties confirmed. “I’ll go and say hi — what’s the worst that could happen?” Well he could say that he didn’t like your interview.
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I decided I’d find out a bit more about sound poetry and its place in the current poetry scene. I turned to The Sound of Poetry/The poetry of Sound, edited by Marjorie Perloff and Craig Dworkin (The University of Chicago, 2009), a collection of essays that Marjorie Perloff explains in her introduction was inspired “by two fairly simple and self-evident propositions. The first is that poetry […] inherently involves the structuring of sound.” The second proposition “— or more properly conundrum – is that however central the sound dimension is to any and all poetry, no other poetic feature is currently as neglected.” The book is not about sound poetry per se. Rather it is about the role of sound in poetry.


What is sound poetry?

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Sound poetry is a movement that was begun principally by the Futurists and the Dadaists of the early 20th century. It was created to challenge the expectation of rational sense and meaning; and it was a political tool with which the vanguard confronted issues that it opposed, such as world war.
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The role of sound in poetry

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The contributors to ‘The Sound of Poetry…’ confront what they see as an overemphasis on what a poem means and a disregard for how it sounds. In ‘Chinese Whispers’, Yunte Huang describes the way her semiliterate grandmother would ask her how to pronounce this or that Chinese character, without asking about the meaning of what she was reading. “Now that I’m teaching poetry to university students, I’ve encountered the opposite, equally odd phenomenon: when reading Pound’s ‘Cantos’ or Stein’s ‘The Making of Americans’, they always ask what this and that means and do not want to read the words aloud.”
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The role of sound poetry

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In ‘Cacophony, Abstraction, and Potentiality: The Fate of the Dada Sound Poem’, Steve McCaffery gives a brief history of Dada sound poetry, heralded by Hugo Ball at the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich between March and June 1916. McCaffery emphasises that “Ball’s sound poem is thoroughly grounded in historical sense and awareness; it is formulated as a response not to symbolism or to any other rival avant-garde […] but to the contemporary state of discourse under early twentieth-century capitalism.” McCaffery goes on to argue that the Dada sound poem was fated because it attempted to atone for the ‘blood bath’ of war, since it is language that ‘makes us kings of our nation’ (Hugo Ball) and therefore the “poets and thinkers” are to blame.

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The future of sound poetry

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In the subsequent essay in ‘The Sound of Poetry…’, experimental literature pioneer Christian Bök discusses his work ‘The Cyborg Opera’: “a linguistic soundscape that responds to the ambient chatter of technology by arranging words, not according to their semantic meanings, but according to their phonetic valences.” Bök acknowledges the debt his opera owes Schwitters’ ‘Ursonate’: “(one of the most beautiful, but most difficult, Lautgedichten [sound poems] in the world to perform)”.

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He also mentions the ‘“sidelong interest” he’s developed in the work of beatboxers, “who use their voices to simulate the toolkit of deejays”, which is something I recalled as I watched Blonk play his cheek synthesiser.

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Bök says: “Even though avant-garde sound poets, like Dutton, have studiously avoided the use of musical mimicry in their own performance of Lautgedichten, preferring to do verbal improv based at times upon libidinal outbursts of emotion, beatboxers like Razael or Doraka have demonstrated so marvellous a technical expertise in their own vocal works that their own vocal works that their activity in popular culture … has begun to put to shame some of the achievements by more classical producers of phonic poetry.”

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Sound poetry today

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Several essayists included in ‘The Sound of Poetry…’ make reference to the impoverished state of poetry today. They point out that poetry is a dying art and that poets are unable to make any money. I would contest the first assertion as I find poetry to be enjoying a renaissance. I can only safely speak for the London scene, but it’s thriving here, with at least 15 regular monthly nights billing either poetry and spoken word, not to mention offshoots such as freestyle. NLP is testament to the fact that this phenomenon is not London-centric. And to the second assertion, I’d ask: When have poets ever been able to make money?

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Poetry does need to change with the times; and the avant-garde scene, led by the likes of Christian Bök, and the popular scene of spoken word and freestyle are good examples in this. I would argue that sound poetry had its historical moment and that the recitation of early 20th-century works – groundbreaking and avant-garde as they were at the point of their inception – does not fulfil this challenge.

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Have I just dissed a sound poet? I hope not. It’s certainly nothing personal, Jaap Blonk. Sound poetry has a role to play: for its spirit is prevalent in the work of the poetry that’s now taking us forward in the 21st century. Sound poetry is a key element in work such as The Cyborg Opera; and it is present in the work of beatboxers, as Christian Bök hints at.

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This is far as my journey into sound poetry has taken me. I hope you’ve enjoyed the trip. Have a play round Jaap Blonk’s website: it’s a joy to dabble in, storing many works in both audio and visual form. But above all, sound poetry and its derivatives are performance art forms. So get out and find it.

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