At the end of World War I, Hugo Ball, founder of the Dada movement, stood on the stage of his short-lived Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich, Switzerland, and, understanding the futility of making sense of the world's tragic absurdities, began to babble and gabble. It was a jibber-jabber heard around the world and across a century.
It resonates as loud as ever, as "Sound Poetry: The Wages of Syntax" proved Monday night in the small, out-of-the-way ODC Theater here in the ever-more-gentrified Mission District. This is an art form both as out of the way and as mainstream as you can possibly get, although the sound poets who gathered from the U.S. and Europe for a week of performances at this year's Other Minds Festival are mostly old-time outliers.
In his introduction Monday, Charles Amirkhanian, a sound poetry composer who founded Other Minds, quipped that he had made a sound poetry radio documentary for the Pacifica radio station KPFA in 1976 (it can be found on radiOM.org) and not a lot has changed since.
Well, one thing has changed. Pop fans have no problem listening to loud music in which the words to songs are unintelligible — just disembodied words or vocal sounds and a strong beat. By allowing words to achieve their essence in rhythm, rap and hip-hop might be seen as yet a different offshoot of sound poetry.
This is an honorable history. Many a Beat poet has been, on some level, a sound poet. Be-bop is, of course, a source of sound poetry inspiration. Many modern composers have used extended vocal techniques in a sound poetry way.
Still the unfiltered, experimental, uncompromisingly un-commercial brand of sound poetry — something between poetry and music — goes where few songwriters dare stray, or more accurately, go astray. And yet, the sense sound poets convey is of nonsense turned into elemental emotion.
Looking like a figure out Dante, his long hair and eyes open in perpetual astonishment, the Italian Enzo Minarelli produces vocal sounds like you've never heard before. He utters words you've also never heard, but you know what he's saying, what he's feeling. The two pieces with which he began the program had their own language, one Minarelli describes as "abolishing the trinket of silence," and he does so by making you smile, even laugh out loud.
Jaap Blonk does something similar, although also entirely dissimilar, with a Dutch accent and an alien accent, accomplished by pulling at his throat with his fingers while he recites. Sorry about the "recites"; we don't have a word for the way many sound poets produce sounds.
A little more traditional, perhaps, was Michael McClure, the still-standing Beat poet, growling out his excerpts from his "Ghost Tantras." On the other hand, Anne Waldman, who was also part of the Beat world, is a wailer. Aram Saroyan was the sly one. His one-word "Crickets" had him and audience chirping in a way that transformed the room through the miracle of a small sound and larger power of suggestion.
The big piece, and masterpiece, of the evening was a rare collaboration by poet Clark Coolidge and composer-pianist Alvin Curran. They grew up together in Providence, R.I., and played music together — Coolidge having started out as a jazz drummer. Each has since become something of a legend in his own right, but they live far apart, the poet in Petaluma and the composer in Rome.
The long work they presented was called "Just About Out of Nowhere." Coolidge began the text in 1987, the year he gave up smoking. Fearing he would never be able to write again without a cigarette, he used jazz pianist Cecil Taylor's records as his nicotine patch and manically wrote 120 single-spaced pages of word salad. This was the first time he's made that public, and it happened, by mysterious coincidence, four days after Taylor died at 89.
I can't report much about Coolidge's text, which he read in a deadpan, singsong style that had a drummer's innate sense of rhythm. Words fly by literally just about out of nowhere. The "just about" is where the beauty lies.
Nothing jells, because there are no transitions. But the effect is like emptying all the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle out of the box onto the floor. That's when the pieces are most intriguing. The picture they eventually make is never worth the effort, because it is always disappointingly obvious.
Curran's contribution was integral without ever being obvious. He produced modal chords on the piano creating a liquid environment in which Coolidge's words could float. With a harmonica, Curran summoned up something more ethereal. With a synthesizer, he slipped into the driver's seat, controlling the rhythm, drowning out some words, changing the patterns.
Blowing a shofar, the animal horn that is used in the Jewish New Year celebrations, while playing the piano with his left hand, Curran ended the performance on a ritualistic note. In Coolidge's obscure ramblings, everything seems an aside until you realize that quotidian musings can take on religious significance.
The genius of sound poetry on this level is to make the worrisome question "What does it mean?" not just irrelevant but irreverent. All you need ask is: What does it do to you?