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Other Minds' sound poetry compels

by Philip Campbell

Dutch sound poet and performance artist Jaap Blonk in 2015. Photo: Etang Chen
Dutch sound poet and performance artist Jaap Blonk in 2015. Photo: Etang Chen  

Other Minds Festival 23 recently finished a week of events dedicated to new and old sound poetry at ODC Theater, San Francisco. Subtitled "The Wages of Syntax," the series covered a range of vocal expression, from language as music to performance art cum poetry slam.

It wasn't intended as a competition or comprehensive survey, but there were some breakout hits and fascinating examples. OM Executive and Artistic Director Charles Amirkhanian made good on "bringing an unpredictable cohort of independent-minded mavericks" to convene in celebration of the nexus between poetry and music.

Far from academic endeavor, even if one evening was dubbed "The History Channel," the programs offered an entertaining variety of works from the dramatic to the absurd, and sometimes, the downright funny. It was a week that could have just as easily been called "The Discovery Channel." The international blend of artists, largely American, included visitors from Scandinavia, the Netherlands and Italy. They brought attention and relevance to writers dating from early in the 20th century to the present day.

Criticizing performers or compositions was irrelevant once one settled into the groove. The most effective pieces were realized by the more extroverted personalities, but even moments captured only on archival tapes managed to impress. Hearing Gertrude Stein reciting her own "If I told him (a completed portrait of Pablo Picasso)" from 1934 was an amazing treat.


Italian sound poet Enzo Minarelli in performance. Photo: Courtesy the subject  

The ostensibly purest practitioners of sound poetry were self-taught Dutch composer, performer, and poet Jaap Blonk and Venetian Enzo Minarelli, noted sound, writing, and video artist. Minarelli appeared in several sets that showed his emotive versatility, whether working simply with a microphone, or with pre-recorded sound effects and his own Felliniesque visuals. His expressive style is powerful, but he can also be charmingly comical.

Blonk relied even more on the sheer flexibility of his own voice. Kurt Schwitters' "Ursonate" (1932) has been called "the greatest sound poem of the 20th century." With a structure like a classical sonata or symphony, Schwitters used one of his earliest Dada poems, the German alphabet read backwards as a coda. In Blonk's virtuosic interpretation, the work became the stunning centerpiece of the Festival.

On opening night, performers already in town for the Festival were introduced. Living-legend poet, playwright, novelist, and journalist Michael McClure and American poet, novelist, biographer, memoirist and playwright Aram Saroyan appeared for their one-night-stands.

McClure read "Marilyn Monroe Thou Hast Passed the Dark Barrier" and other "Ghost Tantras" (1962) with a weathered voice that evoked memories of his fabled days (and nights) as the firebrand of San Francisco's poetry scene in the mid-1950s and 60s. The revolutionary scourge of Off-Broadway and L.A.'s theatre world remains a vibrant presence with a lion's roar and a mane that has turned platinum.

Saroyan's performance was more of a cameo, but the minimalist wit of "Crickets" injected a sense of humor and a playful theme which continued throughout the Festival.

Lawrence Weschler is an author of creative nonfiction, and was for over 20 years a staff writer at The New Yorker. He is also the oldest grandson of Ernst Toch, who once called himself "the world's most forgotten composer." After a celebrated career in Weimar, Germany, Toch fled the Nazis and wound up, like many other refugee musicians, in Los Angeles.

Weschler has endeavored to return his grandfather's music to its rightful prominence, and he appeared during Festival 23 to add interesting context. He also assisted in transforming Toch's "Geographical Fugue" to "The Medical Fugue," changing all the words to diseases, for a world premiere performance.

The "Fugue" finished a Toch set that included the U.S. premiere of "Gesprochene Musik" (1930) and the droll "Valse" (1962) performed by The Other Minds Ensemble: Kevin Baum, Joel Chapman, Sidney Chen, Amy X Neuburg, Randall Wong (OM Administrative Director), and pioneer San Francisco-based composer/performer and media artist Pamela Z.

The OM Ensemble was joined later by pianist Sarah Cahill, fresh from an appearance at the recent Bard Music West celebration of Henry Cowell, in an energetic rendition of Virgil Thomson and Gertrude Stein's "Capital Capitals."

I missed Pamela Z's solo turn on the final event of the series, but I was able to hear and see composer/performer Amy X Neuburg, known for her use of live looping technology, classically trained voice, and genre-crossing style, the night before.

Neuburg mixed operatic and Broadway-inflected singing with deadpan standup comedy and percussive accompaniment in a semi-autobiographical set that had audience members comparing her to Laurie Anderson. I could see the link, but Neuburg is an original, and I was delighted to get to know her work as a uniquely talented sound poet.

Composer Mark Applebaum opened the evening with a four-channel audio performance of "Three Unlikely Corporate Sponsorships" for tape. Called "The mad scientist of music" by TED Talks, Applebaum's 2016 piece cleverly lampoons and berates Nestle, General Motors and Halliburton.

The Friday the 13th program concluded appropriately with OM's Charles Amirkhanian performing some of his own compositions for voice with tape. The lively "History of Collage" and "Maroa" included bright vintage visuals created by artist Carol Law, who also happens to be his wife.


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