Deep Alchemy of Words

Monday, March 17th, 2014 by willm2

Marie Osmond (yes, *that* Marie Osmond) performing Hugo Ball’s “Karawane”. Poem begins at 1:33.

It was with great pleasure that I heard recitations of Hugo Ball’s poetry on UbuWeb. Simply reading the sound poems – as one would expect – did them absolutely no justice. While the poem ‘Gadji Beri Bimba‘ was composed consciously, when it was performed in 1916 by Ball, it devolved (evolved?) into an improvised dirge:

“…the dragging rhythm of the elements had permitted me a last crescendo, but how to continue to the end? I then noticed that my voice, which apparently had no other choice, was assumed an ancient cadence of sacerdotal lament in the style of the masses sung in the Catholic churches of the east and west. I do not know what this music inspired in me, but I began to sing my sequences of vowels in recitative liturgical manner. (”

This liturgical drone of glossolalia ( was not only Ball’s purview. Some of the Maori songs included under Tristan Tzara’s Dada poetry also come across as sound without meaning, or sound for sound’s sake. The typographic collages we looked at this week could also be said to be glossolalia on paper. As I read and listened to this nonsense given shape, I began to wonder about nonsense as a form of resistance not only in Dada, but in modern media. If glossolalia indeed represents a kind of ‘ur-language’ as some have suggested (novelists Paul Auster and Neal Stephenson to name a few), then does it also represent a space of expression that is unshaped by discourse? Following from Foucault, Kittler is famous for stating that technology uses us, rather than the other way around. The entire breadth of our expressive capabilities are dictated by machines and media which have circumscribed the discourse in which we exist as subjects. Dada poetry, speaking in tongues, automatic writing, can any or all of these give us an alternative to media-dictated experience?

While all three of these techniques appear to be nonsense on the surface, I would offer that what we think is nonsense only comes across that way because of its complete freedom from discourse. This leads to the question: can nonsense be commodified? Can media incorporate nonsense into something that no longer exists outside of discourse-networks? Do we see an example of this in the baffling video I embedded above? Or, perhaps, in the Talking Heads’ adaption of Ball’s ‘Gadji Beri Bimba’ for their fantastic song ‘I Zimbra’ (embedded below). Does the grafting of Ball’s sound poem onto comprehensible rhythms place it out of the realm of nonsense, or does it bring the original’s power into sharper relief?


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