Piers Hugill

Time and Rhythm as Montage in Text-Sound Composition

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:

Mais la realite, la grande realite, c'est que la poesie sonore (qu'aucun poete officiel nous combattent n'est venu ecouter) est la decouverte de la voix humaine, qui est infiniment multipliable, car, pourquoi refuse-t-on a la voix d'avoir tous les canaux sonores possibles en lui imposant le seul verbe, ou la seul parole? Mystere … C'est l'ouverture de la voix humaine multipliables a l'infini.(9)

Chopin produced compositions written, or perhaps 'painted', entirely in the space of the human body, rethought and re-situated in time, a kind of anatomical spirituality of the voice (the utopianism of Chopin's statements about his work certainly does not preclude spirituality, even if not strictly speaking of a religious variety). In that sense he is a benchmark for purity in electronic text-sound composition (where Dufrene, arguably, is for a more essentially oral sound poetry). Bernard Heidsieck, on the other hand, never seems to be looking for any 'pure' poetic language of expression. His work is instead drawn from the most heterogeneous sources: an assembly of pre-recorded ambient sound and noise where there is a continual play on the possibility of a 'natural' human voice, situated in its own environment - out for a walk, in the car, at home, doing the shopping, wherever. To this end, he records street-sounds, elements of conversation, traffic noise and other allegedly familiar noises. He thus pushes the limits of language in another direction, back into a holistic environment, but that of the relation of voice and human expression directly outwards to the world in its social environment, or the horizon of possible activity, rather than through the effect of the world on the human voice in its interiority, as with Chopin (literally, when he places microphones directly inside his oral cavity to make recordings – again there is a literalness in this spiritual quest for the inner self). Dufrene is in the same tradition as Bob Cobbing (both of them speaking in tongues like a pair of Shouter Baptists). And if I were to push this religious simile beyond its natural limits I might say that theirs is a form of glossolalia, seeking to reach deep into the human spirit, and so bypass the fallen language of men by expressing itself directly in sound that comes from within both the body, and spirit. But I won't. Insofar as such interventions are related to Khlebnikov's zaum writing, with its roots in Russian folklore and folk life, and other similar precursors, Cobbing and Dufrene's work are both interpretable as atavistic forms with a very long history.(10) Equally, I might go looking to Christian Morgenstern, Hugo Ball, Raoul Hausmann, or Kurt Schwitters for influence, although I am fully aware that Cobbing himself eschewed the easy and largely meaningless search for sources in this way. This less than serious narrative of origins does, however, demonstrate the difficulties posed by the extremely loose definitions that can be given to text-sound composition when we aren't careful to distinguish it from other forms of oral expression. Again we encounter a form of narrative instability that in fact articulates a significant feature of text-sound composition. The use of texts as scores, or as performance sites, is a case in point. After all, haven't we already established that text-sound composition itself comprises the production or publication of a text? What then could a further text add, and how can it be related to the sound of the piece (assuming we are prepared to make that distinction)?

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:

Thus we are aerial beings, having come from water and then earth … And these aerial beings, having studied since birth … Les riches heures de l'alphabet, now discover the bone structure of the word, the alphabet, that lurks in the verbal spaces. Thus the alphabet solidifies a word that is in itself spatial. On the far side of the alphabet, no more hidden behind script, we encounter the voice, its grain, its asperities of the prosodies … Where new resonances are born … An entire landscape. As Marc Battier remarked while reconstructing my voice solely from timbres, having shed all verbal connotations. For the word is no more flesh: the vocal breath is flesh.(12)

But what of time? Not only has the usual spatial context of language been disrupted ('a voice from the whole body transformed into audible space' says Zumthor), as Chopin points out, but alternative modes of temporality also become available by means of the use of sound recording. What we have is a form of montage constituted by both temporal and spatial elements – in other words a cinema of the body.

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.

Through the subordination of man to the machine the situation arises in which men are effaced by their labour; in which the pendulum of the clock has become as accurate a measure of the relative activity of two workers as it is of the speed of two locomotives. Therefore, we should not say that one man's hour is worth another man's hour, but rather that one man during an hour is worth just as much as another man during an hour. Time is everything, man is nothing; he is at the most an incarnation of time.(13)

There is a sense in which the radicalism of text-sound composition is an attempted break from such singular clock-time. The phrasing of the poem is broken up into a multiplicity of different times, flowing out from the material of the poem and de-regularising the social rhythm of sound.(14) Lukacs continues: 'Thus time [under capitalist conditions] sheds its qualitative, variable, flowing nature; it freezes into an exactly delimited, quantifiable continuum filled with quantifiable “things” (the reified, mechanically objectified “performance” of the worker, wholly separated from his total human personality): in short it becomes space.'(15) In this understanding, clock-time, as we have called it, is in fact none other than labour-time, the value attributed to time by labour in measuring the value of it both as an abstract quantity, and in the price of products as forms of 'congealed' labour-time,(16) which have an existence only in space. Time in this sense is the time of machines, reduced to exact fragments spatialised as seconds, nanoseconds, picoseconds.(17) In the same way that time in the factory comes to be measured according to the rhythms of industrial manufacturing (consider Chaplin's brilliant account of this process in Modern Times), so later all other aspects of capitalist life are inexorably subjugated to the rules of clock-time. Such 'industrial' time is cut into slices and its movements (and movement is the principle attribute of time here) delimited to the relevant slices of social space to which it is attached. These slices of space-time are curiously analagous to Gilles Deleuze's description of the shot in his work on cinema, while the consequences of this similarity are more difficult to elucidate.

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.
2. Pignon, P (1994) “Fylkingen 60?” p.388 in Fylkingen: Ny Musik & Intermediakonst 1933-1993 ed. Teddy Hultberg. Stockholm: Fylkingen
3. Op cit. p. 389
4. Sources for the origins of poetry in sound include: Rothenberg, J (1972) Technicians of the Sacred, New York: Doubleday Anchor, 1972; Benterrak, K & S Muecke (1972) Reading the Country Freemantle: Freemantle Arts Centre Press; and, Chatwin, B (1987) The Songlines London: Jonathan Cape, among others.
5. Cf. Ong, W J (1982, 2002) Orality and Literacy. London: Routledge, for a rather one-sided discussion of this issue, in that he makes a neat distinction between the media of speech and writing on the basis of their social context, or lack of it, that doesn't acknowledge the very problematic relationship between the two.
6. MacCaffery, S & bp Nichol (1978) Sound Poetry: A Catalogue. Toronto: Underwhich Editions
7. Pignon, P. Op cit.
8. Although Upton has also made some more 'classically' text-sound compositions too while working in the Fylkingen studios.
9. Chopin, H (1983) Quoted in the sleeve notes to Poesie Sonore IGLOO - CARAMEL
10. 'Make a joyful noise unto God, all ye lands' Psalm 66:1 (Authorised Version)
11. Duncan, R (1969) The Opening of the Field London: Jonathan Cape.
12. Chopin, H (1995) 'The new media' at http://www.ubu.com/sound/chopin.html
13. Karl Marx, The Poverty of Philosophy, quoted in Lukacs, G (1971) History and Class Consciousness. London: Merlin Press. pp. 89-90
14. William Rowe notes that in the poetry of Gonzalo Rojas, the 'sense of time inside the word, and not just inside the representations, is extended in the varied speeds of Rojas's writing. … If the time of the word is the duration of syllables, then that time is not the same as time in the word, though it may coincide with it.' One might similarly talk of the disjunctions of tempo between what might be taken for syllables and a kind of background rhythmic structure in the phrasing of Chopin's work, and even more starkly in Bengt Emil Johnson and Sten Hanson's.
Rowe, W (2000) Time in the Word: The Poetry and Poetics of Gonzalo Rojas. 11th Kate Elder Lecture. Department of Hispanic Studies, Queen Mary, University of London. pp. 20-1
15. Lukacs. Op. cit. p.90
16. Marx, K (1976) Capital Vol. 1. Harmondsworth: Penguin p. 130
17. Fay Dowker in a recent article in the New Scientist, 'Real Time', 4 October, p.38, has explained how contemporary quantum physics has isolated the smallest possible space-time events, called Planck volumes (a combination of the Planck length, 10 to the -55 centimetres, and the Planck time, 10 to the -45 seconds), measurable as 10 to the -142 cubic centimetre seconds. These are therefore the 'quantised and grainy' shots from which nature is built up.
18. Deleuze, Gilles (1989) Cinema 2: the time-image London: Athlone. p.17
19. Ibid. (1986) Cinema 1: the movement image London Athlone pp. 23-4
20. Author's italics
21. Op cit. p.25
22. Rudolf Arnheim was talking about radio when he said that radio art began where cinema, theatre and narrative left off. These comments are cited in Concannon, K 'Cut and Paste: Collage and the Art of Sound' in Sound by Artists. Art Metropole and Walter Phillips Gallery.
23. Perhaps the same could be said of LANGUAGE's ambiguous relationship to abstracted 'capitalist' syntax.
24. On The Pioneers: Five Text Sound Artists Phono Suecia, PSCD 63.
25. Ibid.
26. Both pieces are on Hanson, S (2002) Text-Sound Gems & Trinkets Hagersten: Firework Edition Records.
27. A good example is 'Broken Music Composition' on the Fluxus Anthology (1995) Italy: Anthology Records.
28. Wendt, Larry 'Horspiel' in Narrative as Genealogy; Sound Sense in an Era of Hypertext. http://cotati.sjsu.edu/spoetry/nghome.html.
29. Portner, Paul, quoted in Douglas Kahn and Gregory Whitehead (1992) Wireless Imagination: Sound, Radio and the Avant-Garde Massachusetts: MIT