The invention of the term text-sound art, or composition, can be located very specifically. It was coined on 3 September 1967 by Bengt Emil Johnson and Lars-Gunnar Bodin during a conversation in Hilversum, in the Netherlands. Johnson recalls: 'Lars-Gunnar Bodin and I finally arrived on the name after long discussions with radio folk and composers who had gathered together to explore the possibilities of an international collaboration in this new experimental field of art. The term was adopted by the international forum and has been remarkably long-lived'.(1)
That at least is one version of events. Another story goes that the term first came into existence at the Fylkingen studios, situated in Stockholm, within the organisation's Language Group, where Lars-Gunnar Bodin, Sten Hanson, Ake Hodell and Öyvind Fahlstrom were central figures. The occasion for this new expression was apparently a live-broadcast concert given by the group for the Stockholm Museum of Modern Art in April 1967. In Pignon's words: 'It was to become widely accepted as a canopy name for a manifold of phenomena which could not be described as either poetry or music but which embodied elements of both, and which have been given many other names – “sound poetry” (otherwise commonest in English), “phonetic poetry”, “audio-poems”, “poésie sonore”, “sound texts”, “verbosonie”, “acoustic literature”, etc.'(2) Pignon later admits that this is to simplify the story somewhat.(3) This narrative instability regarding the genesis of the term, as well as its relation to near cognates, is not unimportant to the story I want to tell about the uses to which it has been put. If text-sound composition is indeed taken to cover all the above terms then it can only be at the expense of a great deal of clarity.
Of course oral poetry, and therefore in at least one of its senses text-sound art, has roots that go back into prehistory, since the very earliest forms of poetic expression sought to explore the limits and boundaries of expression in the human voice.(4) Contemporary sound poetry, on the other hand, is at once a reaction to the hegemony of print and writing in contemporary culture, but more importantly is a way of expanding the very notion of writing itself as a process that takes place off the page as well as on it. Text-sound composition, as its name implies, deals with the possible boundaries of 'writing' in sound (or perhaps more pertinently registration or inscription onto audio tape rather than onto paper), and the fact that this activity is still seen as a form of writing, and the product a text, is extremely important to bear in mind throughout the following.
That we are still talking about writing is significant for text-sound art particularly, since it is in fact no more an expression of 'oral culture', whatever that might be,(5) than texts written or printed onto the pages of books are, and this despite its obvious affinities with attempts at 'oral' composition. In fact text-sound art only became a possibility, both theoretically and in practice, with the invention and then easy availability of tape recording equipment after the end of the Second World War;(6) 'the microphone, amplifier and loudspeaker required to complete the chain had already existed for many years'.(7) Given that more recently it has undergone fairly smooth transitions into radio and post-radio art, as well as other forms of electronic and digital expression, text-sound composition is in fact a very technologically advanced literary genre. The earliest practitioners (many of them French, such as Henri Chopin and Bernard Heidsieck who were following in the wake of Pierre Schaeffer's work at the RTF Coroportion in Paris) very quickly started producing work that was impossible to reproduce without the aid of tape players and speakers. Francois Dufrêne is perhaps an exception with his brand of Ultra-Lettrisme developed from Isidore Isou's own concepts of 'pure' a-signifying sound, itself derived from Hugo Ball and the Italian Futurists. This tradition is still alive in the work of the Chilean poets Andrés Anwandter and Martin Bakero, for example, whose work tends to comprise very pure sound responses to abstract or semi-abstract texts of their own devising, and with Phil Minton, whose work is still a variant of Lettrisme in many respects, or Lawrence Upton, erstwhile collaborator of Bob Cobbing, in the UK.(8)
Chopin and Heidsieck are interesting in that they seem to come to text-sound composition from completely opposite directions. For Chopin, 'poesie sonore' is literally a poetics of human sound, without recourse to words as such:
Both Chopin and Cobbing regularly used 'texts' as scores, as have innumerable other poets working in the medium of non- or quasi-verbal oral expression from the end of the nineteenth century. For Cobbing, the resultant text-sound compositions were highly rhythmic and, for want of a better word, textured. To take Robert Duncan's terminology to its limits, what Cobbing found in his photocopy work, etc. was 'rimed', in that it set up a series of resonances that manifested themselves in the sounds he then produced in reading, or rather interpreting perhaps, the text.(11) Chopin's greatest achievements in this regard were in his work entitled 'Les riches heures de l'alphabet', on which he collaborated with the mediaeval specialist Paul Zumthor. Chopin, commenting on this approach in his work, said:
We know from childhood experiments that rather dull records can be made either hysterically funny, or very eery indeed, simply by playing them at the wrong speed. Playing a 75" record at 16" on an old-fashioned turntable for instance consistently freaked me out as a child with its ability to make the highest female soprano sound like some demented audio phantom deeper than a Russian contra-bass. I remember hearing a recording of blackbirds that was slowed down by an extremely high factor, and what was would have been a beautiful and melodious trilling became the raucous barking of a rabid dog. Consequently, the simplest alterations to recorded material can cause a disjunction in our ordinary experience of time's local contextualisation: 'clock-time', for want of a better term.
Deleuze described time in his work on cinema in this way: 'There is becoming, change, passage. But the form of what changes does not itself change, does not pass on. This is time, time itself, 'a little time in its pure state': a direct time-image, which gives what changes the unchanging form in which the change is produced. … Time is the full, that is, the unalterable form filled by change.'(18) There doesn't appear to be a mode of time's own changing in this description, although elsewhere Deleuze writes: 'The cinema, even more directly than painting, conveys a relief in time, a perspective in time: it expresses time itself as perspective or relief. This is why time essentially takes on the power to contract or dilate as movement takes on the power to slow down or accelerate.'(19) Closely related to this sense of time's ability to 'contract' or 'dilate' as if it were a quality of space (which in the last analysis it is) is his analysis of the meaning of montage in cinema. Again, to quote Deleuze, montage is produced 'by the continuous connecting of shots, each one, or the majority of which, could perfectly well remain fixed. This method allows the achievement of a pure mobility extracted from the movements of characters, with very little camera movement … The word 'shot' can be reserved for fixed spatial determinations, slices(20) of space or distances in relation to the camera.'(21) Despite some commentators placing audio art 'ahead' of cinema,(22) this description of montage is immediately suggestive of text-sound composition and its practices. And the same ambiguous relation to industrial society and subversion can be traced in both, both media seeking to break out of capital's static space-time, whilst at the same time using an even more abstracted form of this temporality to do so.(23) This understanding of how a mechanical temporality is built into every facet of life, including the aesthetic, is a significant element of a great deal of contemporary avant-garde performance art as well text-sound composition. Thus the Viennese Actionists Günter Brus and Hermann Nitsch staged extraordinarily long performances so as to break down the artificially established 'theatre-time' of staged performance into the 'fluid' action of listening, watching, engaging, tiring and moving on. The rhythms of the quotidian, rather than the heightened occasion of 'art' performance, were thus forced to break back onto the lives of the Actionists' spectators, or perhaps better still collaborators.
So, while Kevin Concannon, as with many other commentators, has likened text-sound composition to collage, I would argue that it is a species of montage, in exactly this cinematic sense that Deleuze describes. Where cinematic montage consists of masses or slices of space in motion, text-sound composition is achieved through the putting into motion of blocks or 'slices' of sound. Collage implies a condition of stasis or immobility, whereas montage takes 'shots' that are already in motion and then animates them by connecting sequences together into a composite form. Time is in motion within the individual shots, and also outside them as the time of the whole piece (as experienced by the listener for instance), and so a number of different 'times' are brought into relationship with each other. Collage on the other hand is the superimposition of diverse materials, suggesting as it does the partial, and sometimes total, obscuration of some portions of the material employed as other sources are laid over it. To superimpose material in this way does not mean that the individual parts are incorporated into a whole, but only that they are brought into contact with one another so forming a sort of palimpsest. Montage, by connecting slices of space and/or sound, actually forms a total movement and change in time, which Deleuze calls the time-image. Time is cut up in the process of composition, or rather cuts are made in time, and both the time in the shot and outside it are incorporated into the final edit in a kind of dialectical relationship. The parts are united, but the tension between elements is actually increased and 'dramatised'.
In 1/1970; (bland) 1(24) for instance, Bengt Emil Johnson mixes what appear to be utterly alien sounds, both to themselves, and to us, into a convincing sequence, that in this case seems to evoke some kind of landscape (in that it is observed from the exterior), which then maintains an independent existence within the composition. Lars-Gunnar Bodin deliberately attempted to distort the human voice in ways that made it troubling. One means he tried on several occasions was to robotise the voice, so that its mechanical rhythms, especially in the bureaucratic or authoritarian texts he chose are accentuated. Here is an obvious example of making critical artistic statements about society by accentuating the form of that which is the subject of criticism . Such is the case for example in CYBO II, or On Speaking Terms II: Poem No. 5, 1986.(25) In Sten Hanson's work, perhaps more than any other, this sense of the deliberate employment of montage as a technique in text-sound composition is most obvious, with the use of a wide range of 'natural' audio source materials that are played together at various different speeds. The speed is then varied over the course of the composition as each discrete sound melds one into others. The several sequences in Variations on a Theme of Laaban, or Pronto, pronto (26) for example, retain their heterogeneity throughout, but nevertheless combine to form a unified (if not single) image of time, exactly by means of the differences that they manifest. As with montage in the cinema, this heterogeneity of 'images' is a pre-requisite of the movement inherent in the piece. An extreme case are the records Milan Knizak burned, cut, scratched and even smashed and re-assembled, to be played as compositions in their own right. Several competing rhythms are fused into an assemblage that then coheres as a sequence with an independent existence: fused that is, in such a way that the separate components cease to retain their own identity.(27)
In the innovative practices of the text-sound artists described above, material necessarily pre-recorded in clock-time (by means of industrial audio electronic equipment, that of necessity is linked to the 'clock-time' of work) is 'cut-up' and spliced with other sequences at different tempos and then re-run in something that seeks to approach 'its qualitative, variable, flowing nature'. Thus time takes on strange physical qualities. It is a technique that has been utilised by many other sound poets related to the Fylkingen tradition of text-sound composition, and notably in the revolutionary work done at the Westdeutscher Rundfunk (WDR), and other radical German radio stations in das neue Horspiel. The long-established German tradition of the radio play (Horspiel) was renewed in the late 1960s (the term dates to 1969, just two years after the invention of 'text-sound composition' as a concept, when Klaus Schöning published his great work on the genre Neues Horspiel. Texte, Partituren with Suhrkamp Verlag). As with the work of the artists mentioned above, practitioners of das neue Horspiel, such as Franz Mon, Peter Handke and Ferdinand Kriwet “quoted” pre-recorded audio material in the form of slogans from consumer advertisements, political propaganda, and the jargon of daily speech'(28) to create a cinematic sensuousness to their work (similar in some respects to Heidsieck's approach in some of his work). Paul Pörtner, one of the greatest exponents of the new radio, described his approach to text-sound composition in this way: 'I trade the desk of an author for the studio of the sound engineer, my new syntax is the cut, my product is recorded over microphones, mixers, and filters on magnetic tape, the principle of montage creates a playful composition out of hundreds of particles'.(29) In this way text-sound composition both contains the mechanical time of capitalist life, but also subverts it by setting it on alternative trajectories, thereby creating the image of other heterogeneous temporalities existing on the exterior of capital and the human 'subject'. These time-images in text-sound can only be viewed from another perspective, and therefore, like all other forms of radical poetics, they remain fluid, intense, and ongoing sources of dissent.
1, Bengt Emil Johnson quoted in the sleeve notes for The Pioneers: Five Text-Sound Artists. Phono Suecia, PSCD 63.