Jaap Blonk’s Extended Voice


Jaap Blonk's unique vocal skill in his performances of sound poetry certainly by itself qualifies his voice as "extended". But there's also a history to it.

There had been several forays into sound poetry by Dadaist artists in the years before and after 1920, but the major work of the time was Ursonate, "composed", one might say, by painter and collage artist Kurt Schwitters. In 1922, Schwitters began writing a sonata for the voice based on abstract vocal sounds organized as musical phrases and motives. Between 1926 and 1932, he performed it many times and polished it into its present form. He wrote, "The sonata is in four movements, an introduction, an end, and a cadenza in the 4th movement. The first movement is a rondo with four motives, which are identified as such in the text of the sonata. The rhythm is easily felt, strong and weak, loud and soft, tight and relaxed ..." The sonata was written in script to be pronounced in German. Here's an example of the script:

Fümms bö   fümms bö wö   fümms bö wö tääää?
Fümms bö   fümms bö wö   fümms bö wö tää zää Uuuu?
Rattatata tattatata tattatata
Rinnzekete bee bee nnz krr müüüü?
Fümms bö
Fümms böwö
Fümms bö wö täää????

Schwitters also wrote: "Listening to my sonata is better than reading it. This is why I like to perform my sonata in public. But since it is not possible to give performances everywhere, I intend to make a gramophone recording of the sonata ..."

I know of three other performances of the Ursonate since Schwitters. Eberhard Blum, flutist, recorded it for Hat Hut records in the 1970s. Christian Bök performed it. And Jaap Blonk performed it with an added touch of electronics to extend his performance into a new medium called Ursonography, shown here.

Blonk's superb recitation of the Ursonate is accompanied by Golan Levin's 'intelligent subtitles'. It's an excellent example of using technology to enhance the presentation of the vocal message. In fact, as the result of Levin's timbral-sensing software, the subtitles follow Blonk's recitation in real time, locking onto the timing and timbral nuance of Blonk's voice. And the typography of the subtitles illuminates the poem's structure. Altogether it's a wonderful example of the human voice extended by electronics.

This brief post, based on an earlier article called 'Electronics and The Human Voice', published in Arts Electric, EMF's online magazine, was written to emphasize the breadth of Jaap Blonk's work.