The UrSonate: Listneing Guide to Performances on PennSound
Schwitters’s voice is higher pitched than I would think,
and there is an uplift to each of his articulated syllables.
The first movement, the Rondo, is almost sing-song in its tonality,
especially in the brightness of the fourth theme. The audio recording’s
hiss grows and ebbs in the background, providing an almost cyclical
white noise that cushions each phrase. His phrasing is slowed
and deliberate: each block builds upon the previous phrase in
pitch, volume, and speed. The movement never feels rushed, but
open and conversational. Measured space between each phrase.
As if he is inviting the listener to repeat or comment or think
upon what has just been uttered. The second movement, the Largo,
is cooler, machine-like, and very tonal. A soft-spoken announcer,
a foghorn, a dial tone, the movement is a machine’s impersonal,
yet insistent, cry for attention. The third movement, the Scherzo,
plays and bends pitch and frequency. Notes and sounds blend and
slide into each other. The arpeggios are delicate progressions,
both charming and plodding, like a child learning to play Beethoven.
The last movement, the Presto, includes a sedate cadenza. Though
it starts as a loud, exciting, and sprightly march, the movement
and the poem end unexpectedly on a question, an odd wavering
Bök attacks each phrase of the “UrSonate,” even
(and especially) the more lyrical phrases. His voice alternates
volumes and pitches with an extraordinary facility, and his version
is nearly twice as fast as Schwitters’s. While the differences
he brings to phrasing each theme is amazing, and while he certainly
is virtuosic in his speed and delivery, the continuous attack
of each sound paradoxically starts to flatten out the text. He
creates a sonic collage of such intensity that each sound, each
extraordinary styling and aural choice, blends together into
near indistinguishability. His scherzo is a machine gun: ooka
ooka oooka ooka. His presto a drum solo. But his cadenza is surprising
and showcases his obvious strengths and desire. On my first listen,
I was overwhelmed by Bök’s ability and skills. And
while I am still awed at his speed and his delivery, I am more
surprised at the emotional delicacy he is able to create, despite
its constant, numb intensity.
Blum’s version is a classical sonata. He himself agrees
that the poem “should not be distorted by connotation nor
loaded with literal meanings Schwitters never intended” (Blum
1). He purely voices each sound, without improvisation, and follows
most directly the dictates set out by Schwitters.
Butterfield is remarkably clean and constant. Unlike Schwitters,
his “UrSonate” is more metrical: his slower, steady
tempo never wavers. And only in his dynamics and volume, does
Butterfield begin to diverge from Schwitters. Butterfield’s
phrases are clipped more severely than even Bök, and this
imbues the poem with an almost robotic edge. This deliberate
pacing, though, differentiates his largo in interesting ways.
It is nuanced, longing, yet restrained. A wonder of emotional
Blonk has two versions, one performed in 1986 and one in
2003. His deeper-toned voice adds a darker timbre with his slow
phrasing, and his experiments in pitch and rhythm carry signal
that the line is his unit of demarcation (rather than the syllable
in Butterfield’s case or the sound in Bök’s
case). His later version is paradoxically more delicate and hoarser
in timbre, and his slow speed allows him a longer and more dramatic
speeding up in the later movements. His 1986 largo, higher-pitched
and less like a human voice than any of the others, astounds
in its utter un-human alterity. And while his 2003 version is
certainly more proficient and controlled than his 1986 version,
it is the earlier recording that more interestingly plays with
the poem’s possibilities.
McGowan’s experiment, copying the textual score directly
into a text-to-speech voice synthesizer, playfully mocks our
seeming dependence on the written word. The computer synthesizer
is not intentionally creating an artwork, nor is it making conscious
artistic choices of frequency, pitch, volume, or emotional nuance.
But McGowan’s version is surprisingly adept in its ability
to innovate the text through repetition and echoing.
With the audience’s vocal reaction constantly in the
background, this recording instantly foregrounds the “UrSonate” as
performance. This is also a group work: a symphonic plurality
of voices. We hear this group’s tuning, warming up, drawing
out of themes, and adding of background parts to complement the
rotating lead voices. The polyvocality of this version is refreshing
and seems to approach most closely Schwitters’s Merz aesthetic.
The demands of a group performance limits the improvisatory nature
of the work, and this version is most like a formal chamber music
in the interlocking of parts and the pre-rehearsed exchange of
leads. However, while a certain spontaneity is lost, the resulting “UrSonate” is
richly nuanced in its own right.
Jia’s work remixes Schwitters, Butterfield, and Blum
to create an interesting mosaic of voices. Like Linnunlaulupuu,
Jia’s version is polyvocal and polyphonic. And while the
beginning movement interestingly overlays to create nuanced juxtapositions,
the later movements begin to fall apart into gimmickry.
My Own Version (or, a Short Artistic Statement)
I am not a sound artist, nor a sound engineer. I am barely
a poet. But I was attracted to the “UrSonate” on
a basic, emotional level. After Charles Bernstein’s stories
about Kurt Schwitters’s performances in post-war Germany,
I began to really listen to the nuances in Schwitters’s
version of the poem. And so, this past summer, while on a whirlwind
tour of Central Europe, I found myself asking permission to record
in the Merzbau exhibit at the Sprengel Museum in Hannover, Germany.
The Merzbau is a precise duplicate of Schwitters’s 1923
studio: white sculptures, odd lights, kitchen utensils, and a
remarkably airless and sound-dampening space. I completed the
first two movements in three takes; and while I would like to
say my decision to begin in a whisper was an artistic decision,
it was more the nervous flickers of attention I began to attract
from German passersby and museum guards. While I am drawn to
the vocal virtuosity of, say, Christian Bök, I wanted to
create a version that was gentle and overtly emotional and fuzzy,
especially after the very masculine readings by my predecessors.
The double voicing on the largo was accidental in its origin:
a mistaken double track during “post-production.” But
I liked how two of my takes seemed to relate to each other, by
tone and pitch, so I tried overlaying the two onto each other
with a slight delay on the lower voice. All harmonies are completely