VA: Playing with Words
VA: Playing with Words - Live
Playing with Words appears in not just the two guises covered here but in three, with the comprehensive portrait provided by the two-CD audio compilation and DVD completed by the anthology Playing with Words: the Spoken Word in Artistic Practice (Cornerhouse Books). The Gruenrekorder items alone prove to be more than enlightening, however, in their documentation of the sound poetry, text sound composition, and spoken word fields. The collective genre shows itself to be an incredibly fertile zone, and one that appears to have benefited greatly from the possibilities that electronic technologies have introduced in the past few decades. The rich wellspring of creativity, playfulness, and imagination catured on the CD set in particular is remarkable. The releases are related in one direct sense, as five of the six artists featured on the DVD also appear on the CD.
Artists working in the sound poetry field are fortunate in that they're able to draw upon an immense cultural inventory, with pieces taking their inspiration from poetry, of course, but also music, philosophy, radio, performance art, linguistics, and the everyday interactions between people in urban and rural contexts. Inspirations for artists' works come from figures well-known for their sensitivity to language such as Gertude Stein, Samuel Beckett, John Cage, and James Joyce, as well as art movements such as Dada and Futurism that include a pronounced language focus.
With forty-one pieces spread across a two-hour running time, the CD set serves as a wonderful sound poetry primer. Bolstering its appeal is the fact that most pieces are vignettes (in many cases extracts from longer works), and consequently the listener is exposed to a rich overview of the vocal sound art genre. While almost all of the pieces are deserving of mention for one reason or another, a representative sampling will have to suffice. Exploring oaths of secrecy within a financial context, Mikhail Karikis's “esimorP” presents an imaginary city office worker who's promised to keep his lips sealed, and as a result the word “promise” is prevented from leaving his lips. The word is thus mangled and stifled as it fights to escape his mouth, and the mood rapidly shifts from violence to tenderness, the voice turning Gollum-like at one point when the words “Promise me” are viciously spat out. Ellen Moffat's “f_l_w_z” uses the International Phonetic Alphabet as source material in having its phoneme units pop like popcorn. “Ride” (extract) features Caroline Bergvall reading from text as it's being written, the sound of the pencil rapidly moving across the paper's surface as the writer lays bare the intimate processes involved in creative work. In Leigh Landy's “Rock's Music” extract, snippets taken from Stein's writings (Stein in German = rock in English) are heard, the voice panning from left to right channels and sometimes alternating and sometimes doubling up, in a composition inspired by Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape. In Nye Parry's “My Name is Sarah Simpson,” unsolicited bank-related phone messages are woven into a voice arrangement accompanied by ominous dial tonalities (the title appearing as an introduction in one such message). Michael Vincent's incredible “Dying Ain't Bad Y'all” features the words of an African American Pentacostal preacher (expounding on the death of a church parishioner) sliced up into repeated and re-arranged cells and accompanied by a tenor saxophone's punctuations (some kinship to Reich's It's Gonna Rain is suggested).
On the second CD, Cathy Lane's “Tweed,” a sound portrait recorded in Tweed in the Outer Hebrides, offers a woven quilt of field recordings (of machines for washing, drying, dying, and spinning of yarn) and interviews with weavers. In Paul Lansky's delightful “Now and Then” extract, Lansky's wife Hannah MacKay reads several soothing phrases from children's stories, all of which relate to time (“weeks passed,” “forever and ever,” “the hours seemed like days,”…), with percussive sounds of their children playing in the kitchen acting as musical backing. Language Removal Services' “The 60 Second Anthology of American Poetry” focuses on breaths, lip smacks, and other interstitial noises extracted from recordings of American poets reading their works. The CD also includes an extract from Sianed Jones' “Taliesin” that's presented in longer form on the DVD. Inspired by singers of Kazakhstan, her piece is a vocal and violin improvisation based around the poetry of Taliesin, a Welsh poet of the 6th century but also a mythical shamanistic figure.
Some pieces, such as Jörg Piringer's “el-sys,” which features samples of his voice transformed into musical elements and melodic pitches, resemble non-vocal musical pieces more than anything voice-related. abAna's “Alphabet of Fishes” literally includes musical instruments as accompaniment to voice, with a visual list poem by Bob Cobbing (recorded in 2000 two years before his death) joined by Paul Burwell on drums and David Toop on guitar. Lina Lapelyte's “12+2” extract includes digitally processed environmental sounds, cut-up voice recordings, and violin, with real-time processing effects triggered by a MIDI keyboard controller. Her voice heard gently floating in swirl-like formations, Iris Garrelfs's “K” offers a vocal-musical meditation upon the letter that was produced in one pass using the Kaoss-Pad.
A rather different experience is provided by the DVD presentation, and one that's not quite as satisfying as the CD, primarily because while the audio release benefits greatly from concision, the DVD suffers at times from a lack of it. It's a bare-bones production, with the focus solely on the stage performances of six performers: Joerg Piringer, Ansuman Biswas, Dirk Huelstrunk, Sianed Jones, Nye Parry, and Jaap Blonk. On an uncluttered stage, each performer appears in turn, sometimes augmented by a laptop or electronic device. With the six performers presenting, in most cases, long-form pieces, in-depth portraits are gained but at times overlong ones. The one-hundred-minute DVD might therefore appeal more to hard-core devotees of the genre.At five minutes, Parry's clever “The Two of Us” is the very model of concision, as Parry, aided by a beatbox, fills in the blank spaces left in the played-back spoken text using words, phrases, and even single letters (his “p” sound, for example, followed immediately by “ersonal”). Piringer's laptop-cued piece synchronizes percussive voice effects and falling letters (projected on a screen onstage) that accumulate along the white screen's horizontal base (the edges of the rectangular screen act as impassable borders); during the performance, his voice becomes a cacophanous battering ram and relentless industrial machine as black letterforms pile on top and then ricochet off of one another. Nothing as recognizable as language is heard during the seventeen-minute firestorm; instead, his voice acts as a sound element that's constantly subjected to mutation via the software treatments. Huelstrunk's loud breathing, sniffing, and lip smacking remind us of the vast potential for sound that the voice and body can produce; he also uses in his fourteen-minute presentation a theremin-like sampling device to duplicate his voice and add an occasional electronic noise, with his hand positions above the device modifying the pitch and volume of the produced sound. The greatest portion of the DVD is given to Blonk in a wide-ranging performance where he's seen slipping in and out of multiple languages; he gives a seeming master class in vocal techniques by at times wailing like an animal and simulating a gremlin and sputtering machine engine, his face and body elastically pulling in multiple directions as he does so. But the DVD's high point is Sianed Jones' mesmerizing twenty-minute performance. Armed with a violin, she begins with four minutes of wordless vocalizing that's reminiscent at times of folk chant—joyous and celebratory, with an undercurrent of mournful lament—before bringing the instrument's plucks into the mix and then bowing, the violin's tones a contrasting harmonic complement to her incredibly versatile vocalizing.