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Listening to Writing: The Sonics of Language

Read Wednesday, 11 Mar 2015

We often regard language and music as separate – complementary, at best. But, as Ben Byrne explains, a literary thread runs deep through the history of sonic arts and experimental music.

Image: Writer and sound artist Amanda Stewart
Writer and sound artist Amanda Stewart
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‘All art constantly aspires to the condition of music,’ or so the line goes.

Referring to music’s perceived transcendent qualities – the way it entwines subject and form – this maxim elevates music as uniquely ineffable. Nonetheless it’s a compliment that also serves to position music as somehow incompatible with spoken and written language.

Following this same logic, experimental music and sonic art is widely thought of as abstract, esoteric and inaccessible – all weird noises and awkward silences. But this isn’t the case … at least, not always.

There is a rich vein of artistic work that explores the sonics of language and writing. Drawing in particular from poetry and linguistics, artists around the world have taken hearing words as soundful as a launching point for exploring the musicality of language and the textuality of music. These explorations are particularly vital in Australia, where many artists from a variety of disciplines – sound poetry, experimental and improvised music and performance art, to name a few – have expanded and interwoven ideas of language and music.

Words in liberty

One early example of such an approach comes from Italian Futurist F.T. Marinetti. His 1914 work of sound and concrete poetry, Zang Tumb Tumb, is an account of the Siege of Adrianople during the Balkan War of 1912, which Marinetti witnessed as a war correspondent. It’s a poem written and read using experimental typography and onomatopoeia in an attempt to represent the sound of mechanised war. He described the work as parole in libertà (words in liberty) – a form of poetry he conceived as both verbal and visual.


German artist Kurt Schwitters’ Ursonate is another notable case. Schwitters was a Dadaist who is famous for his collages, known as ‘Merz’ pictures. But he dedicated much time and energy to writing and performing his primordial sonata, which remains influential to this day.

If Marinetti could be said to have heard the future in the sounds of war machines, then Schwitter’s ear was drawn to the most basic units of language – syllables. He attempted to provoke the contemporary arts establishment of the day with performances in literary salons more accustomed to romantic poetry, gradually developing and expanding the piece as he went.

Boundaries of intelligibility

Similarly, French sound and concrete poet Henri Chopin is known for deliberately using crude sound manipulations to explore the boundaries of intelligibility. He’s also renowned for his focus on working not just with language, but with the sounds of his body – particularly the noise of his voice and breath. Significantly, he did not simply write his poems. Instead, he recorded them with tape recorders and other audio technologies, using these same machines to perform live.

Empty words

Even John Cage – famous for his ‘silent’ piece and dedication to experimental music – produced several written texts which he also performed. Perhaps the most well known is Indeterminacy: New Aspect of Form in Instrumental and Electronic Music. Released as a double LP by the Folkways label in 1959, the work combines Cage himself reading ninety one-minute stories with his frequent collaborator David Tudor performing material from Cage’s Concert for Piano and Orchestra, and recordings from Cage’s own realisation of another of his works, Fontana Mix. The recording, as well as the 1958 lecture on which it’s based, shows Cage toying with the distinction between his writings and music; indeed, between these and his own life.

Further demonstrating his interest in the interplay of language and music, Cage’s earlier Lecture on Nothing (1949) is a talk organised with a rhythmic structure akin to the kind used in his composition at that time.

His composition Empty Words (1974) is also of interest here. He has described it as a demilitarisation of language – in which he attempted to make English less understandable, because when people understand they seek to control, and poetry disappears. The first part of the work omits sentences, the second removes phrases, and the last eschews words, leaving eventually only letters and sounds.

Speaking simultaneously forward and in reverse

A neat link between the work of artists around the world – such as those I have just mentioned – and that of artists here in Australia exists in the form of Chris Mann. Mann is an Australian composer, poet, writer, linguist and performer who was championed by Cage after the two met in New York, where Mann is now based.

Mann has a particular interest in both quotidian language and the nature of language itself. This is reflected in pieces such as Snodger (the mirror), scored for voice speaking simultaneously both forward and in reverse, and realised using a computer program created in Latrobe University’s Music Department.


The edge of text and aurality

Poet, radio maker and musician Amanda Stewart began to write and perform poetry in the 1970s. She subsequently became a producer for ABC Radio, and co-founded Machine for Making Sense – a group that explored the relationships between linguistics, poetry, speech and music – with Mann and musicians Rik Rue, Jim Denley and Stevie Wishart.

Her work since – with the group, with Denley in duos and other configurations, with others and solo – has played with the edges of text and aurality.

In the liner notes to her first solo publication I/T: Selected Poems, including both a book and CD, she explains:

For the past 15 years I have had no interest in producing a book or a CD. Now I am publishing my work in both forms simultaneously. In addition to visual poems, the book contains the written forms of many of the poems on this CD. However the aural forms of the poems are not simply performances directed by the page. The two forms (written and aural) exist in parallel, integrally related but also distinct from each other. I’m interested in disjunctions between different fields of inscription (aural, written, electronic) and modes of distinction and memory.

 I/T clearly fits in the tradition established by Marinetti, Schwitters, Chopin, Cage and so many others – in which words as spoken, written and recorded, as well as the noises of the bodies from which they come, are treated as mutually constitutive. But Stewart is undeniably an innovator. When performing, she uses two or more microphones so that not only is her voice amplified greatly – making the slightest breath or tic audible – but spatialised, so that it seems no longer to be only one voice but a sonic world that surrounds and envelops.

Just one of a number of voices

Jessica L Wilkinson, meanwhile, is an example of a younger artist taking a different approach to the juncture of text and music. A lecturer in RMIT’s Creative Writing Department, she is a poet who has taken to performing her works in collaboration with composer Simon Charles and other musicians. She has published two experimental poetic biographies with Vagabond Press – Marionette: A Biography of Miss Marion Davies and Suite for Percy Grainger: A Biography – and has performed versions of both with Charles.

Suite for Percy Grainger is especially interesting. It records the life of Percy Grainger, an Australian musician and composer known for his conception of ‘free music’ and the machines he developed to perform such work. Wilkinson reads her text herself in performances of the work, becoming just one of a number of voices alongside those of the musicians – rather than taking the place of a speaker backed by accompaniment.

Although music and writing are commonly considered divergent artforms, these are just some examples of the many artists that have and continue to explore the sonics of language. Despite their different identities, interests, techniques and politics, artists such as Marinetti, Schwitters, Chopin, Cage, Mann, Stewart and Wilkinson all share a deep interest in the sound of words.

Their work demonstrates just how inseparable music and language really are, and emphasises that there is both music in language and language in music – offering a unique entry point to the sonic arts for those used to reading, but perhaps new to listening.



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