Tuesday 14 July 2009

The SoundEye Poetry Festival, Cork, 11 July 2009--Part 1 of 2

The first event I attended on Saturday was a show of sound poetry at St Fin Barre's Cathedral (great for the acoustics) with three performers, Christine Wertheim (Aus/US), Jerome Rothenberg (US), and Jaap Blonk (NI). Wertheim's sound poems worked through the use of different character voices, frequent sonic repetition, with pure sound (as opposed to words) only employed occasionally. The poems tended to circle back to their beginnings with little semantic content but a suggested emotional trajectory. 

Rothenberg began with sound poems by other writers, including Hugo Ball and Kurt Schwitters. In the first work, a short Dadaist piece, Rothenberg used a long piece of neon plastic tubing to create a high-pitched whirring sound when he spun it overhead. Between the device and his declamatory delivery, his performance was, for me, reminiscent of Ginsberg. 

Rothenberg's final piece was his own "translation"; here is his account of it: "In '17 Horse-Sons of Frank Mitchell'--from traditional sources in Navajo--I engaged for a number of years in what I was calling 'total translation,' going beyond the semantic level of the words to try to find equivalents for the non-lexical vocables in Navajo song & even one step further, for the music--the melodies--by which the words & sounds were carried. The resultant pieces when performed, for single voice or with multiple chanters/performers, created a new sound poetry both faithful to & totally divergent from its original source. The relation to soundings in our own time & place is also worth noting." In performance the "horse-songs" were nuanced and engaging.

Then came the pièce de résistance, Jaap Blonk, who gave an impressive selection of the range of his work. He began with a new translation of one of his Dutch sound poems into English, "Sound," a work of intelligent, jubilant play, a look of delight recurring on Blonk's expressive face. He followed this with a "phonetic etude" to the letter R, a continuous performance of its range of possible sounds or pronunciations. I couldn't help but smile and laugh in the pleasure and play of Blonk's inventiveness; he has a magisterial vocal flexibility that is impossible to imagine without hearing it for yourself.

Blonk's next three pieces were in an invented language he calls the language of the Underlands--a parallel, he says, to the language of the Netherlands, incorporating Dutch accents, dialects, and suggestions of particular social situations. Perhaps the most delightful was "The Underlands Drinking Song," during which Blonk stumbled this way and that down the centre aisle in the course of his performance; I was sorry when it came to an end. 

The sixth piece was another English translation, "Let's Go Out." As with the drinking song, the performance was not just of Blonk's face and vocal cords but his whole body. There were some lyrically inventive phrases and lines in the piece, including "ravenhorn," "thunder mole," "mist guide," and "was this quiet or was it just misquiet." The final two pieces were Hugo Ball's sound poem, "Lament for the Dead" (1916), and a "Dutch bebop tune," "Oblibumbop" (I'm guessing at the spelling!). If he hadn't ended by wandering off, making the end of the piece uncertain and thus dissipating the last of its energy, I'd have been on my feet in the applause. I can't imagine how it could have been any better: a perfect performance. 

Photo by Tony Frazer. Thanks too to Wurm im Apfel's Kit Fryatt and Dylan Harris for making the recording of Jaap Blonk's performance at their series in Dublin several days prior to Blonk's appearance in Cork.

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