Karenina.it - Sound Poetry



By Endre Szkárosi

A Soundscape of Experimental Poetry in Hungary


With the paradigmatically complex and quite often very specific developments of 20th century’s poetic practice, poetic activity continuously rediscovered the potentiality and efficiency of the oral and vocal dimension of language and expression. Evidently, as it is usual in the history of art and mankind’s spiritual self-expression, the exploration of the huge field of vocality included experiments and experiences which not simply preceded, but even came to full bloom together with the process of articulation of the expression itself. The excitingly interesting ancestral symbiosis of perception, cognition and expression makes this discourse much more complicated, but as we have not got enough space to enter this aspect of details, for now we acclaim to the fact that for the modernization of expression is indispensable the modernization of perception, meanwhile, at the same time and evidently, the continuous articulation of the supplies of expression forms articulates the capacity and the special sensibility of perception and cognition as well.

 This heroic period of the radical modernization of poetic language is attached, as it is quite well-known, above all to Futurist and Dadaist experiences (not undervalueing other sources of renewal), but there had been an extremely important precedent produced by Symbolist poetry. It would be difficult to overestimate the significance of the recognition of the deep spiritual identity of poetic and musical experience (conceptionalized vigorously in Verlaine’s famous Art poéthique), intuition which leads to the theoretic separation of the language of poetry, on one hand, and the language of prose forms, on the other hand. It means that “literature” as an entity missing any essential link with musicality, will be separated from “poetry” which is identified more and more with music. This conception will be materialized, in a way, in the vocal practice of Futurist declamation and Dadaist Lautgedichte, and all the history of 20th centurie’s poetic experimentations will show somehow the functionalization of musical parametres inherent in language, which earlier had been negligated and taken as accidental and less than secondary factors of linguistic expression. Futurist and mainly Marinetti’s declamation harshly revitalize intonation, timbre, rhythm, volume and onomatopeism, Dada’s sound poetry eliminates the formerly almost obligatory semantic automatism in poetic communication, and focalize on the phoneme and letter as basic elements of the language of poetry. Later on, radical poetic experiments, engaged in sound experiences, tried and succeeded to penetrate the phoneme itself (see some congenial inventions of Isou) and/or funcitonalized the extralinguistic domain of speech activity (such as inspiration and expiration noises, articulation noises, groaning, sighing, whispering, howl etc.), for example see the heroic poetic efforts of Artaud. With the continuous development of the technical basis of civilization and, consequently, of artistic activity, the range of sound expression forms and possibilities and the domains to be yet explored have been incredibly widened. All the artists, poets and musicians, and all the participants and theoricians of present days’ culture are or, if not, should be well aware of what has happened in this large field outlined by poetic, musical, artistic, performative etc. activities. As a result, today often is really difficult to qualify generically (in base of traditional categories), if a sound art work should be considerated music, poetry, performance or a concept piece. (Evidently, many of them can find their real generic identification in the intermedial range based on the conceptual simbiosis of these fields.)

 That’s why sound poetry has a so large scale of identity aspects - from the relatively purist tendencies of phonetic poetry (the early Heidsieck or Garnier, Rühm or Rotella) or minimalistic vocal poetry (i.e. Spatola or Lora-Totino) through Chopin’s or Cobbing’s or Dufrene’s or The Four Horsemen’s vocal noisism or Rothenberg’s or Morrow’s chanted poetry and through Blaine’s or Minarelli’s actional sound poetry up to clearly musical sound

poetry (Amirkhanian, Stratos, Arcand, Fontana, Moss) or even to music engaged in linguistic experiences (Cage, Ashley, Bertoni-Serotti etc.), there is an abundant variety of genres and manners of expression in sound poetic activity. For this see, among others, Minarelli’s articles and papers on the concept of polipoetic genres.

 In the whole process of the above outlined development of vocal and sonoric functionalization of the language of poetry is encoded the problem of visual components and carriers. On one hand written language - even as a score of human speech activity - serves as a bidimensional starting point for the vocal reinterpretation in oral poetry or declamation which is already a three-dimensional creative action. Then in the process of this three-dimensional (re)creation, beyond vocal and musical parametres inevitably appear visual (gestual, ambiental, scenic etc.) codes as it can be clearly seen in the Futurist declamation programme (Declamazione dinamica e sinottica) or in Ball’s memoirs on the early formation of Dadaist Lautgedichte (Die Flucht aus der Zeit, Luzern, 1946). So modern sound poetry was born organically in a total space of creativity characterized by the simultaneous presence of linguistic, vocal-sonoric, gestual and actional elements.

 The subsequent and well-known question which has had a paradigmatic evolution in recent art history, is this: how to restore the link backwards from acoustic codes to visuality, how to note down a complex vocal-sonoric-actional art work with visual signs. Evidently, it is a question far beyond the problem of notation: visual scores evoking the original artistic act are more then a simple pentagram or a sort of visual description. Visual notation must be an autonomous reinterpretation of the original artistic act, exactly the way (back) declamation or sound poetry action was or could be a recreation of a written poem or of a visual work. This autonomy of the single artistic spheres which are connected by the processes of medial reinterpretation and recreation, is dialectically completed by the special creative nature of intermedial artistic mind. The verification of this reciprocal continuity of medial reinterpretation and recreation can be seen in the practice of Futurist paroliberismo where tavole parolibere as autonomous visual poems often have their acoustic parallels in declamations which are, on the other hand, often visually recoded in tavole parolibere as visual scores.

 Since the generic question and the artistic result of the solution of the problem of modern music’s notation - which produced a highly interesting domain of intermedial contacts of “pure” modern music and visual art (see, just for example, some scores of Ligeti, Stockhausen, Xenakis, Boulez or others) - is relatively well-known, at this point we remind to more radical steps in intermedial artistic concepts and in their linguistic and structural consequences: to Cage’s conceptually redefined musical or performative instructions, to Higgins’ conceptual score-works interpretable both in a visual-conceptual and a musical-actional way.

 After having outlined, even if in a summary way, the basical developments of the vocal-sonoric rearrangement of poetry and its visual consequences, let’s see what has been going on in Hungary in the last few decades. Even if Hungarian poetry was always quite sensible for the musicality inherent in poetic language, the paradigmatic reciprocal compenetration of music and poetry that could have been consolidated in a rich generic range as in the case of Futurist or Dadaist practice, didn’t happen before the new avant-garde waves of the ’60s.. And what’s more, the first strong wave of historical avantgarde signaled by the outstanding personality of Lajos Kassák, poet, writer and - as he is better known in Europe - a congenial painter, great organizer and editor of so relevant reviews such as A Tett (The Action), MA (Today), Munka (Work), Dokumentum etc., took its first decisive inspiration from German-Austrian expressionism and, on the other hand, from cubism and, a bit later, from constructivism which were relatively purist tendencies, as they influenced almost exclusively fine arts, or - as in the case of expressionism - had a quite intense influence on artistic intentions and dinamism, but didn’t upset radically the whole structure of the use of the language of poetry. Kassák and his colleagues (such as Róbert Berény, Sándor Barta, Béla Uitz, Róbert Reiter, Erzsi Újvári, or for a period László Moholy-Nagy) did a lot in forming a new artistic vision on visual field, launching a new practice in applied arts, typography, cover-design etc., but essentially didn’t pass through the Rubicon of the asintactic and asemantic use of the language of poetry. So, as for the acoustic aspect of poetic language, instead of initiating any kind of vocal-sonoric poetry, the only relevant step done by them in this field, was the interesting practice of choir-recital of poems, activity which had a progressive relevance both in cultural-sociological and in artistic sense.

 Despite of the overtly oppressive nature of the stalinist dictatorship in the ’50s, and then the more and more disguised oppression of the long Kádár-era, because of a complicated texture of various (sociological, political, cultural etc.) effects and because of the new winds of the ’60s in Europe (which were not arrestable on the frontier), a highly intensive new wave of neo-avantgarde thought developed in the last ’60s and in the first ’70s. The most progressive outcomes were reached on the field of experimental theatre (see the not only one example of Kassák Stúdió, later, in emigration, Squat in New York) and in progressive pop music (see the not only one example of Kex and János Baksa-Soós), but even in fine arts and poetic practice very important results were achieved. Still, the most important influence of this new wave was the pre-forming of the artistic mind of the then young generations, because of which from the late ’70s through the ’80s an over-all effective “parallel”, indipendant, over-underground culture and art practice were developed outside the official institutions of the regime based on monolitic power.

 Perhaps for the first time in the history of Hungarian avantgarde movements, now the dominating artistic trend was exactly this over-all view of art, the total compenetration of poetic, musical ands artistic ideas. That’s why musical field became so decisive for poetry as well as for art. The concert-theatre situation and the relative freedom offered by the means and effects of the same situation, produced a new sort of space for artistico-poetico-musical experimentations. A number of relevant groups were formed - and worked or have been working intensely - by artists, poets, musicians and all kinds of performers such as Bizottság (Committee), Konnektor, BP Service, Lois Ballast, Art Deco, Jugó Tudósok (Yugoslavian Scientists) and so on.

 It seemed to be evident that musical and visual space could have a strong influence on the use of the language of poetry, first on the level of vocality, and then on the level of sonority and conceptuality. Nevertheless, real Hungarian sound poetry was put in motion outside Hungary. In modern Hungarian poetry, between the two wars and after the second one, till the ‘60s, the only poet who occasionally transpassed the semantic border of language, and sometime from poetic musicality moved on towards the abstract phonic possibilities inherent in language, was one of the greatest poets of this century, Sándor Weöres. (It is not a mere case, that more of the most relevant Hungarian sound poets of the first generation made some sound tributes to him: Tibor Papp in his Pagan Rhythms and Katalin Ladik in her Group of phonemes or Panyigai ü, just for example.)

 Katalin Ladik, poet, performer, actress, was born in 1942 in Novi Sad, lived in her native country and was a Yugoslavian citizen till the end of the ‘80s. She published several books (both in Hungarian and in Serbian-Croatian), had innumerable performances in Europe, but  her most outstanding way of artistic expression probably is vocal art and sound poetry. Her international fame is due - among others - to her exceptional vocal capacity and voice training and, of course, to her deeply original poetic inventions in vocal expression. In her sound poetry activity an atavistic richness of body language sublimed in voice meets a folkloristically deeply coloured linguistic bakcground and a highly up-to-date modern sensibility. It is not a case at all that her sound poetry works attracted the attention of Henri Chopin already in 1979, in his relevant monography on international sound poetry (Poésie Sonore Internationale, Jean-Michel Place ed.).

 Tibor Papp was a ’56 refugee and he has been living in Paris. In the first period of his sound poetry activity he concentrated mainly to verbal rhythmics and to the alternative or simultaneous adoption of French and Hungarian language. He developed a large-scale cooperation with emigrant Hungarian avantgardists (in Paris, with Pál Nagy and Alpár Bujdosó, edited for decades the most important review of Hungarian neoavantgarde: Magyar Műhely /Atelier Hongois/), and similarly with French avantgarde artists, collaborating in Polyphonix group, with artists such as Jean-Jacques Lebel, Charles Dreyfuss etc. Since the ‘80s he has been engaged in computer poetry and worked out, beyond a number of relevant computer sound poems, even some original poetic program softwares such as Distichon Alfa which can generate an almost endless number of distichons. At the same time he became a theorician of that kind of poetic language.

 Inside Hungary, after the first strong wave of the above mentioned artistic renewal, in the ‘70s more Hungarian poets - usually working in other forms of poetic self-expression as well - started a real sound poetry practice, in which the inspirations and the influences of the avantgarde movement of the previous period can be considered quite decisive. One of them is yet more or less a foreigner: István Kántor, for decades more known in his artist name Monty Cantsin, in the mid ‘70s left the country and has been living mostly in Canada. He is

a heavy performance artist, musician, composer, but the basic issue of his other activities, too, is probably a profound sound poetic inspiration. In his songs, multimedia performances or other works vocal and verbal expression remains decisive.

 Really different is Ákos Szilágyi’s sound poetry, basicly inspired by the gap of the semantic and the phonic level of language. He makes a permutative oral poetry in which the consistent alteration of the sound form of the same words or phrases leads to the continuous modification of the semantic meaning. In this method the parallel development of the semantic and phonic modulations, inserted always in a very chasracteristic rhythmic composition, usually creates a deeply grotesque effect, which is, at the same time, full of existential anxieties.

 Outlining a survey of Hungarian sound poetry, I cannot avoid to mention, even if shortly, my sound poetry acitivity, started in the last ‘70s. Just in the first period the musical inspiration was very strong in it both in verbal/vocal and in compositional sense. I worked out for myself a sort of abstract sound poetry in which musical cues are decisive. Voice often ends up with becoming sound, and the sonor or even musical complexity of the piece is always important. It is not a case at all that I’ve been working continuosly with bands (Szkárosi&Konnektor, Spiritus Noister, or even the English group Towering Inferno) and that my poetry usually has a strong intermedial and/or performance character in which visuals and action - even if, recently, in a minimal way - become components of the whole (sound) poetic composition.

 It is in the ‘80s, too, that artists and poets of other genres begin to work in the framework of sound poetry as well. Gábor Tóth was rather known as a visual poet when he discovered for himself the language of vocality and sonority, creating a special way of verbality and gestuality in his poetry. Recently he envolved in his experience noisism as well, and makes a sort of noise-dj-poetry. As for noisism, one of the most original creation of Hungarian avantgarde in the last decades is attached to the activity of a self-made artist: since the early ‘80s Viktor Lois has been constructing mobile sculpture-instruments from oldened household machines, wastes, refuses, any kind of objects. These constructions are, on one hand, visually authentic sculptures, on the other hand they are moveable and some way soundable as wind or pluck or percussion instruments, and their sound is electrically amplified. In order to explore the exciting possibilities of composition with these self-built instruments he has formed various groups (the most known name is Lois Ballast) with which he participated in several festivals and tours in Europe. In recent years he has composed real songs combining this instrumental basis with vocal contributions.

 Evidently, the concept and even more the practice of sound poetry is quite large, and artists can get to this field from various directions, from different studies and different experiences. As we could see, among sound poets there are some who arrive from textual poetry, some others from fine arts and so on. And it is obvious that a number of musicians have continuous contact with sound poetic activity, working on both fields (which often are not really separable). It is the case of worldwide known composer László Hortobágyi, whose music has a very strong individual character, synthesizing in its language high-tech contemporary expression forms, deeply transposed ethnic instrumental and vocal traditions and new inventions based on an extemporarily large scale of musical experiences. It is the consistent

presence of archaic and hypermodern vocality forms in his compositions that makes his work highly relevant from sound poetry’s point of view as well.

 Looking on the development of Hungarian experimental culture as a whole from the mid ‘70s, the strong and decisive presence of musical expression forms is more than characteristic. A number of new formations, forums, ways of expression and a great lot of artists form their thought and practice on the basis of musical experiences, using musical expression forms or inserting them somehow in their artworks.. The analysis of this phenomenon could be the subject of a separate paper, now we must content ourselves with making a note on it. But it is worth mentioning even the fact that in the ‘90s this organic complexity of poetic experiences seems to disappear in specialization: meanwhile artistic experiences (musical, actional, multimedia or intermedia activities) are envolving more and more a kind of verbal conceptuality, the so-called poetic activity turns back mostly to linear forms. Interdisciplinary minded artists who work with text, language or with any sort of verbal expression, or poets who work in musical, visual or intermedial context, more and more consider themselves simply an artist, and they don’t lay claim to be defined as poets. Is it the sign of a conceptual separation between two concepts of artistic praxis and existence: a traditional one and an experimental one? Will Verlaine’s idea of the basic identity of poetry and music be revised?