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Filed under: Art
Tags: tape recorder, wire magazine, sound poetry

Letter to a Young Friend

Dear L,

Thanks for opening the pages of your thesis on the electromagnetic tape.

The history of recording devices is truly interesting. Piano wires and steel tape, one can wonder where the inventors found the ideas. The bare names Blattnerphone and Marconi-Stille-recorder evoke the images of rooms and studio’s that sink away in a past long gone since. The fact that the BBC used the Marconi-Stille recorders with their steel tape until the 1950s may explain the quality of historic voice recordings. You can clearly hear a steel resonance in Winston Churchill’s speeches; it makes me think of rust that contaminates the water supply system.

I liked the experiment with record players by Hindemith and Toch that you mentioned. It shows that musicians, or people with an ear for sound, already then, when the record player was still young, tried to integrate recording machines. In the same article that you quoted, one can read with such lines as,“Trinidad, and the big Mississippi,” and “Nagasaki! Yokohama!” Toch’s aim was to transform spoken word into rhythmic, musical sounds.
It came as a little surprise to see my quotes. I was pleased to read the thoughts of Lucas Crane and Aki Onda. I liked Aki’s I am trying to both extract and abstract the essence of memory by playing my own field recordings, so to speak my personal memories, at a location that is saturated with its own memories. This is a poetical praxis that probably only few onlookers are aware of.

When I received the text of your thesis, I had been reading two articles, that were published in a book. I found the book at a friend’s ‘home for a year.’ The couple and young kid who lived there, had moved to Taipei. Some time one morning they must have decided to leave the country and in the evening of the same day they were gone. Books, boxes with books, kids toys were littered all over the place. My friend slept in a gorgeous studio, that looked like the back room of a bookshop, where only the owner would be able to find any book you needed. Portraits of men in uniform or newly wed couples, probably made in the years between the wars, hung on the wall, or stood in line on the floor. He used the couple’s room as the guest room, a space shared with more books and a kid’s wild mural that added a sense of temporary unrest.

I wanted to find out things about sound. Every time I come across a collection of books and studies on sound, I give it a try. Normally I open the book, read twenty words, and close the book again, tired of reading already. A publication by The Wire Magazine, one of the most unreadable magazines I know of, surprised me with two essays, that I read to the very end. Hooray for The Wire. The book’s title is Undercurrents, the hidden wiring of modern music.

In the first essay Destroy all Music, The futurists’ art of noises Mark Sinker aims at establishing some kind of chronology. His chronology starts with the futurist manifesto in 1909 and ends with Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music in 1975. As you can guess, the chronological order becomes quite personal and thus arbitrary after the second world war. But that’s not the point here. I was more interested in some of the composers and musicians, that were mentioned in the essay.

Sinker writes: 1911 Balilla Pratella publishes a Manifesto of the Technics of Futurist Music. And he writes that Pratella in his Manifesto writes: “Music must represent the spirit of crowds, of great industrial complexes, of trains, of ocean liners, of battle fleets, of automobiles and aeroplanes. It must add to the great central themes of the musical poem the domain of the machine and the victorious realm of electricity.”

It is not clear what ‘the great central themes of a musical poem’ were, before Pratella came to his insight. I even don’t know what he means, when he talks about ‘a musical poem.’ But when he points at crowds, industries, trains, ocean liners and battle fleet, even at automobiles and aeroplanes, I can sense some of the excitement Pratella must have felt when walking around in a city. Maybe it was his city; it might have been Trieste. In 1911 it was still a part of the Austrian-Hungarian empire. On a more profane level, I can almost envision my collection of tapes with various recordings of crowds, industries, trains and so on.

Sinker confronts us with Edgar Varèse’s thoughts (dated 1921): ”Italian futurists, why do you merely reproduce the vibrations of our daily life only in their superficial and distressing aspects? My dream is of instruments that will obey my thought - and which, by bringing about a flowering of hitherto unsuspected timbres, will lend themselves to combinations it will please me to impose on them and bow themselves to the demands of my inner rhythm.” I would say, give the poor guy a couple of tape machines and a good Sony walkman, and his problem is solved.

Arseni Avramov, you got to love him. He stages citywide spectacles with fireworks, factory and ship sirens, flags and pistol shots, and featuring simultaneous sound and action from artillery, the navy, infantry, tanks, a machine gun division and hydrophones. If only our world leaders could rethink the use of their war machinery. When reading of Avramov I didn’t think of tapes. I started dreaming instead. It happened that days on end I stared into the landscape. I thought of sounds brought forward by cargo ships, several marching bands on winding roads and fireworks.
In the 1910s and -20s musicians started to use typewriters, revolvers, ship’s whistles, sirens, propeller mechanisms, modified aeroplane engines, broken bottles, metal sheets and probably much more. Nowadays the tape artist’s suitcase is still heavy, but not as heavy as it would be if he were to travel around with a modified aeroplane engine.

The title of the second essay is: The Limits of Language, textual apocalypse: Merz, Lettrism, sound poetry. The title looks like a room full of cardboard boxes that are left in a disorderly state, because the owner couldn’t find the book he was looking for. In fact, all of the boxes in the room show this trace of frustration. The author is Julian Cowley. Every time and art form has its heroes, and when you mention ‘word,’ ‘tape’ and ‘cut-up,’ you know that almost immediately someone will drag William Burroughs out of the cupboard, put him on his lap, and perform a short ventriloquist act. Cowley opens his essay with a quote by Burroughs. The follow-up quote is by Brion Gysin. I consider the cut-up method as a variation of Scrabble. It is a game. Push ‘Play.’ I would have put the previous consideration in italics if it had been uttered by Gysin.

The most important point in the essay is, that all the described expressions and methods are rooted in poetry, and in some cases in the very essence of language itself. It is not about music. The voice was of course an important instrument in this practice, but in many cases not the only one. Marinetti had someone beat an enormous drum during his performance. Tristan Tzara incorporated the loud ringing of an electric bell. At Cabaret Voltaire poets recited nonsense while drums were pummeled and pianos were hammered. You don’t need a tape machine if you want to re-enact these or Kurt Schwitters’ performances.

After the second world war the Lettrists used all the sounds a mouth could produce to broaden the idea of poetry. Theirs was an excursion into the possibilities of every single character of the alphabet. Their shrieks, ululations, purrs, yarrs, yaups and cluckings were used as an extension of language, and not seen as a continuation of the tradition of bel canto. There was no need for a tape recorder, yet. But experimentations with tape recorders started very soon. Henri Chopin used them: Chopin was inclined to molest the machine, applying pressure to various parts of its mechanism to alter and distort sound. His contemporaries used them: During the 1960s Bernard Heidsieck integrated the tape recorder into his “action poetry”, collaging words and phrases, including quotations from newspapers, with recordings of environmental noise.

One can wonder where all the sound poets have gone. But that leads to a different discourse. You might as well wonder where arte povera has gone, the notion of the Gesamtkünstwerk, and lots of expressions more, that made the period between the 1950s and the early 1970s appear so avant-everything. Maybe the practice has faded away as a result of the disappearance of ‘the western world’ which as a nominator could define and explain cultural expressions and movements. We don’t live in that western world anymore. And what is left of it, is occupied by populists and their army of haters.
The two essays show that the described sounds can be produced by conventional musical instruments and by anything that the composer thinks is useful. But some sounds can also become a part of a sound poem. I didn’t know of this clear distinction between the two approaches. A tape can simply record any given sound. And then, working with tapes, you mix both approaches, without realising that the outcome can be music, poetry or just a work of art.

When I read As can be seen in Burroughs and Brion Gysin's cut-ups, tape is a modernist medium: you can fragment, split up, position yourself as losing identity in a fragmentation, and the result will be the appearance of a new, albeit fragmentary, whole. I noticed that there is more to Lucas’ work than music alone. I remember Lucas Crane was very intrigued by my four-and-a- half word manifesto I don’t make music. He sensed it was true, and applicable to his way of producing sound and asked me to explain it. I and my intuitive statement were not ready yet for a longer theoretical exercise. But that was then.

Greetings from deep Poland, Rinus