LAUT!Dichtung - Poésie sonore - Sound Poetry

1st part: Genesis & Tradition

Man`s first moment is a sound. Man`s last moment often is a sound, too. Between both he is plagued by language and the things which are things because of the language.

This may visualize the importance of all these sounds that we produce every day, and especially of those that we don`t produce everyday, but only sometimes - these very special speech sounds, that we produce in certain and important moments. These sounds are made by the organism itself, there is no thinking, no separation between the simple utterance and the body. It is - for instance - pure body talk.

If you try to establish this component as an art issue, you must be aware of this immediate connection between body and sound. Then, you will be able to compound a very essential kind of language, or even more: a very essential kind of poetry - sound poetry [=poésie sonore].

Usually, when we think of poetry, we think of words, we think of contents. Sound poetry doesn`t use these parts of language, but exclusively uses sound. This statement is a bit problematic, because any kind of poetry has to do with sound (when recited, and also the reader of a book re-creates the sound of words while reading ).

So, let `s make the difference between this conventional sound-based poetry using words — and PURE SOUND POETRY, which means a poetry that has to do with pure (speech) sounds, not with words - LAUT!dichtung. In my opinion, poetry that uses words or word-similar structures isn `t pure sound poetry, but another kind of poetry or song. Those are poems which you can write down in a book or transfere into a notation. Pure sound poems can`t be transposed like this, you can only hear them and there might be possibilities to illustrate them and so on.

PURE SOUND POETRY demonstrates the capacity of human speech organs, it differs from vocal music or modern classical "songs“ in showing up possibilities that every human speaker can realize - it is not the result of a special education (as a singer). If music is the organized production of sounds, related to organized patterns like melody, harmony, rhythm or any kind of serial structures, sound poetry would have to be called an anarchic manner of sound production, which might use these patterns as well, but which has dynamics or intensity as the main issues of its production. However, it `s based on „language“ and language production (in some parts what Saussure calls „langage“), that means, it consists of the basic elements of human speech production: vowels, consonants, but also undefined noise: coughs, sneezes, guttural sounds; panting, laughing, clearing one ‘ s throat - anything what you can produce with your teeth, with your tongue and lips, with your throat and nose, and with your palate.

This reveals that sound poetry following to such a definition is a kind of anti-poetry as well, and so it was in its very beginnings: it was an explicit protest against the spoiled and rotten words of journalism and the language of the governments, leading their nations into the First World War. It was an attempt of poetry to refuse meaning, in order not to confirm the ugly meaning of the language abusers.

At the beginnings of a speech-sound-based poetry was Russian Futurist Alexej Krutschonych , whose ZAUM (ZA = beyond, UM = spirit; means „trans-spiritual“, trans-mental), was the first intentional approach to an anti-word-poetics. The German poets Paul Scheerbart (1900) and Christian Morgenstern (1905) were working with nonsense-words or -sounds some years before: both presented poems built with fantasy words exclusively, but those were funny games, parodies on serious poetry, but not a severe confrontation.
The first who presented a formulated theory for his rejection of meaning, was Krutschonych. Sound poetry could only come to existence if it containend an anti-thesis to usual or conventional poetry, a theory of negation. An allusion to this he gave already in his earliest example of ZAUM in 1913:

dyr bul schtschylubeschtschurskumvy so bur l ss,-

The hand-written lines of this phonetic poem (the lay-out was made by the Russian painters Larionov and Gontscharova) were accompagned by the short description of what he was trying to do: „3 poems/ written in/ a language/ different from the others:/ its words have no/ certain meaning“. He underlined his radical position against the common language in several manifestoes: „Thoughts and dicourse don´t reach the experience of inspiration, therefore the artist is forced, not allone to express himself by the mean of the common language (terms), but also through the personal language (individual creator) and the language, that has no exact signification.“ [deklaracija saumnogo jasiga/ declaration of the za-umnic language, 1921].

You see, there is a destructive and a constructive attitude at the same time.
Some Italian futurists were next, what is quite unknown considering the much more famous "words-in-freedom“, "pictures-in-movement“ and the fascist ideology of this avantgarde movement. Italian futurists developed a theory of the acoustic properties in narrative texts: the concept of "onomatopoeia“ (F. T. Marinetti: in: "Lo Splendore geometrico  e mecanico e la sensibilità numerica“/ Le Splendeur geométrique et la sensibilité numerique, 1914 ecc.). But more than Marinetti himself, „leader“ of the italian futurists, other authors like Francesco Cangiullo (for example in his visual-acoustic poem "Piedigrotta“, 1916) or the futurist painter Giacomo Balla were working on this subject. Balla especially gave some very interesting examples (in 1914), which work with pure sounds (even more than Krutschonych `s poems that are based on "pseudo-words“), here is one of them „onomatopea rumorista Macchina Tipografica“ (noisy onomatopoea type writer):

Dodici persone ognuno ripetere per un minuto di seguito le seguenti onomatopee rumoriste [twelve people everybody repeat for one minute the following onomatopoetic sounds]

1° settesettesettesettesettesette
2° nennenennenennenennenennenenne
3° vùùùùmmùùvùùùùmmùùvùù
4° tè.tè.tè.tè.tè.tè.tè.tè.tè.tè.tè.tè.tè.
5° miaaaaaanavanò.miaaaaaanavanò
6° sta---sta---sta---sta---sta
7° lalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalala
8° ftftftftftftftftftftftftftftft
9° riòriòrièrièriòriòrièrièriòriòrièrièriòriò
10° scscscscscspsspscscscscpssps
11° vèvèvèvèvèvèvèvèvèvèvèvèvèvèvèvèvè
12° nunnònònunnònònunnònònunnònò“
(quoted after: Glauco Viazzi (ed.), I Poeti del Futurismo 1909-1944, Milano 1978, S. 315)

More than only sound poetry it ‘s even some kind of happeing, as we know of FLUXUS very much later.

But the most influential contribution was Luigi Russolo ‘s „bruitismo“, originally a musical concept: Russolo ‘s theory aimed on the visualization of urban soundscapes, to set the „bruit“ of an awakening industrial city as an art theme. To gain this effect he built huge so-called „Intonarumori“, which made an incredible noise, and they were used in several scandalous public concerts.
The idea of „bruitismo“ was very important for the theory and praxis of Zurich DADA. The members of the group were thinking how about to transfer the „bruitism“ to poetry language. The first DADAIST experiments on this subject might have been some poems of Tristan Tzara, which were inspired by African lyric that he had translated. The result of this activity was the production of own „poèmes nègres“, which were built by a fictitious African language. The guttural sound quality of these „words“ lead him to the concept of „poème des voyelles“, and there are existing some poems written between 1913 and 1916 which stress the acoustic part of the language. For example „La Panka“, a text that was unpublished at that time, but maybe Tzara recited it on the occassion of the big DADA-gala in „Zunfthaus Zur Waag“ 1917:

„De la teeee ee erre moooooonte
 des bouuuules
Lá aaa aaaaaa oû oùoù pououou
 oussent les clarinettes
De l’intééé eee eee eee riuer mo onte
 des boules ver la suuuu uuurfa
 aaa aaace
Negrigrigrigriiiillons dans les nuuuuu a aaaages
je déchiiiiiiiire la colliiiiiiiiiiii
ine le tapiiii ii iii iii is je fais
un graaaaaaaaaand panaaaaaankaa
neee ma teeechnintes et yayayayatagaaa a aaan insomnie inie
iaoai xixixi xixi cla cla clo
(T. Tzrara, Oeuvres complètes (ed. Henri Béhar), Bd. 1, Paris 1975, S. 513)

The semantic structure of the text isn’ t completely destroyed, but it is secondary; and at the end it gets lost and the whole thing turns on to a strictly acoustic representation, „bruit“ instead of words.

Probably Tzara’s experiments had an influence on Hugo Ball, who is often claimed to be the inventor of sound poetry, but, as you see, he is a quite late one in the line. His poems "Labadas Gesang an die Wolken“, also called „Karawane“ [see appendix], "Seepferdchen und Flugfische“ or "Gadji beri bimba“ [all 1916/17] are still working with word-structures, here is a draft of one of them:

„Gadji beri bimba

glandridi lauli lonni cadori
gadjama bim beri glassala
glandridi glassala tuffm i zimbrabim
blassa galassasa tuffm i zimbrabim...“

This sounds like a strange language, this does not exemplify the capacities of the voice which is the proper subject of sound poetry. However, Ball gave a very precise and explicit description of his reasons for avoiding understandable words in his diary Flucht aus der Zeit (Flight out of the time) (published 1927, but written during the Cabaret Voltaire-activities in 1916): that means a very explicit theory of sound poetry, and this is very important, too. He was the first to concentrate on the necessity to coin new words and new language, especially in this time of  war, when everybody was using language for the military propaganda.

The greatest artistic approach in this branch of poetry, still working with word-similar structures was the famous „Ursonate“ (1922-1932) from Kurt Schwitters: there is no doubt that this piece is the most advanced composition of phonetic poetry, the whole is more interesting than the parts which are quite „conventional“ in sound-poetical view. Anyway it is well known and so here, I don’t want to say more about it.

But the undisputed father of the original pure sound poetry was the Berlin dadaist Raoul Hausmann. As the famous Austrian poet Ernst Jandl stated: "Raoul Hausmann war der eigentliche Begründer des Lautgedichts, jenes Lautgedichts nämlich, das die Ähnlichkeit mit einer zur Verständigung dienenden Stimme abgelegt hat, indem es der Stimme mit all ihren Möglichkeiten totale Freiheit gewährt.“ [R.H. was the true founder of the sound poem, of that kind of sound poem, which discarded any similarity with a voice that serves communication, by giving voice with all its abilities a complete freedom.]:


As you see, here are no words at all. This example, which was conceived in 1919, turns the view on the single letter as a phonetic representation, as the innerst material of language. Hausmann ‘s phonetic poems develop the most advanced reduction, they do not only let disappear any allusion to whatever kind of signification; they are difficult, too: prefering the consonantic structure, which is an evident difference towards the other examples. They simply don ’t sound nice, and they are not easy to perform. But recordings of 1945 (produced by Henry Chopin, who became a famous sound poet himself) show how Hausmann manage to let sound these phonetic ensembles. This is also the very point, when it `s no longer possible to quote these poems , the transcription hardly makes an impression of the real appearance.

You must hear the sound poetry, and even better than acoustic documentations is to listen to it on a live act, because it is language of the body and so the best way to hear and to feel it, is the reception with the body. This is the experience that Hausmann brought to all the people who came after him. These poems (and all of the poems which are constituted in Hausmann ‘s tradition) don’t signify anything, they are of intrinsic value. They don ‘t try to be a „pimitive“ language, they are no protest against the conventional language (or at least this is secondary). What they DO is to reveal to everyone the capacity of human language production, they might allude to atavistic speech techniques, they give an idea of the physical abilities to communicate: to realize a communication without words, but with speech sounds, with a kind of gestic articulation. For instance, all these non-speech-noises are parts of our affective communication, an advanced sound poetry can realize the whole spectrum of uttering possibilities. This as a second and maybe more precise description of PURE SOUND POETRY as above. And this was the common sense (among sound poets) in the twenties, when Hausmann was working on this stuff as well as Krutschonych did in connection to Mayakovskij`s Lef organisation (up to 1928 when Stalin did not tolerate futurist experiments anymore).

2nd part: From the 50s towards the 00s

It is not necessary to underline that such an avantgarde feature lost ist weight in times of war and exile. Especially in Germany, the tradition of DADA and other avantgarde movements was completely cut by the NS-regime. And in the rest of Europe it also took some time, that people remembered of these subjects. France was an exception, as mentioned before, Henri Chopin was looking for a contact to Raoul Hausmann early, who has spent the war time incognito in a little French village. There, Chopin made this one and only recording of Hausmann’s sound poems, and later he was working on his own conception, too. Chopin, among others, first in relation to the French lettrists around Isidore Isou, used the mean of modern electronics in his sound-poetical experiments. He developped a way to use a tiny microphone in his mouth, directly under the tongue, to produce amplified sounds which could be alienated electronically. So he found an own path between poetry, „musique concrète“ and an early electronic music, but went away from pure sound poetry. Another French poet who began to work with phonetic presentations in the fifties was Bernard Heidsieck, who stuck more to the mere voice work. His poems are sounding very smooth and comfortable, and they are often using serial variations. Like many other sound poets he was working for the radio: the possibilities increased very much through the contemporary studio technics, now you could produce experimental radio plays, based on speech sounds, acoustic landscapes, since in the fifties the radio drama became an important new art subject all around the world.

One of the most innovative people in this context - working in the extreme Raoul-Hausmann-tradition was the German sound poet Carlfriedrich Claus (who died in 1996). Claus lived in a small village in former GDR, working in seclusion for decades, creating his absolute extreme examples of a reductive poetry based on nothing else than the voice:

Carlfriedrich Claus´ sound poetry usually was produced without any technical support, although he made experiments with odd GDR-tape-recorders and so on. So he was something like a radio pioneer without radio: because, certainly, in the East-Germany of Ulbricht and Honnecker there was no opportunity to get his things on the state broadcast. This changed after the crush-down of the wall, Claus could realize a lot of radio pieces with finest production conditions. So, he was working with several overlapping tracks, but any track was based on the natural voice of Claus. There is a strong meditative, Zen-buddhist-touch: for this, he called it his KARA-TE-lessons. KARA-TE in japanese means: "the way of the empty hands“ and in this context it is the way of the pure voice...

His pieces own a incredible dynamic and intensity, sometimes it is almost impossible to stand them.

In Russia, as I said before, ZAUM, transrational poetry developed a school until the height of Stalinism; since it was no longer tolerated and therefore this tradition was interrupted, too. But for example, Iliazd (Ilja Zdanevitsch), who had been in contact with Krutschonych in the early twenties, was working in Paris, his exile. He became well known, because painters like Picasso and Mirò designed his ZAUM-books. In the post-stalinistic era other people went back to the roots in Russia, too. Serge Segay and his wife Rea Nikonova are still working on the ZAUM-project - nowadays the most important sound poet is Valeri Scherstjanoi (*1950) who lives in Munich. In his recent works he is creating big pieces of 20 or 30 minutes length, real voice orchestras, constituted by lots of tracks (see discography). Maybe it `s easier to feel than to explain the mystic and transrational roots that you find in Scherstjanoi `s phonetic poetry. In these poems the extremety of the produced voice sounds is less important than their „meaning“ in a meta-psychological sense: these are inner melodies of the mind...

Melodies are a main subject in italian productions, I think, that `s no wonder as italian language is this one of the opera, and so italian sound poetry really sounds like the works of Agostino Contò (*1953) (see discography). It works with the smoothness of language and so it is possible even to use words in italian sound poetry. This is also the result of a long italian tradition, because „after so many attempts to destroy or to avoid the enemy, identified as `meaning´... one wants to clean himself from the past transgressions putting aside the research into phonetic purity, to plunge into a codified language with the purpose of reproducing it as a whole pattern.“ That`s a quotation of Enzo Minarelli, who is a most influential contemporary sound poet in Italy. His works shows how in italian phonetic poetry sound can go together with words and a critical approach towards language (see discography). For example, Minarelli uses the traditional form of the catholic prayer, i. e.: a kind of language that has LOST meaning and became empty sound - and with the insult STRONZO (asshole) he takes a critical position to these empty religious rites. The same with other empty formulas of convention like „si, signori, si, alright, everything o.k., no problem at all“ which is confronted with the crude shout „FIGLIO DI PUTTANA!“ (Son of a bitch)

You see, it can be quite funny in sound poetry to fall back upon meaning. Especially because Claus and others pushed the boundary far out and the space is little! But one of my contemporary favorites, Jaap Blonk (*1953) from Arnhem, is widening it out again pretty much. He is working with the hard phonetics of dutch language, gaining incredible dynamics (see discography). He is one the most famous sound poets today and an important interpreter of classical poets like Schwitters and Ball as well. Actually, it is preferable not only to listen to him, but to watch his performance.

What about women in sound poetry? Up to the fifties, I think, none of them was working in this field. Today there are many female artists experimenting with the abilities of voice, but mostly, they are involved in other contexts like singing, modern electronics, free jazz or similar kinds of experimental music (for example Diamanda Galas, Elke Schipper, Carola Bauckholt and the Dutch singer Greetje Bijma). And that`s not my subject now. But there are women like Shelley Hirsch, Meredith Monk or Joan La Barbara who are sometimes working on sound poetry. I just got some material from Fatima Miranda, who is a terrific experimental singer, using elements of the indian dhrupad music, but who is working out some aspects of sound poetry as well (see discography). In her piece El Principio del Fin from 1994, she uses spanish-like (I think:) non-sense-words in a rhythmic way, combined with kisses and other percussive voice elements.

Fabienne Audèmol has not published any tapes or Cds (=this might not be true anymore, because now some years have passed...), but I ‘ve seen some extraordinary performances of her, in which she mixes up the acoustic genre with the theatrical capacities of gesture and mimics.
One other female poet is the Australian Amanda Stewart, who started in the early eighties with her sound-based kind of voice art, she calls it „mouth poetry“. Her suggestive and meditative verses seem to be songs without singing...

These are only some names of this branch, spread out over the whole world - since sound poetry is an international language, you can „understand“ it everywhere, but on the other hand it is still an experimental feature and only a few people know about it. Even the poets themselves often don ‘t know of each other, and so, I certainly haven’t mentioned all of the people, I should have had to consider.

Last year the editor Dmitry Bulatov has collected a most ambitious project in Kaliningrad, Russia, an anthology of 4 Cds, including a catalogue, revealing sound poetry activities 1990-2000 worldwide.Tthis project shows the whole intensity of contemporary acoustic poetry and voice art and put the focus on this wrongly unknown discipline. Michael Lentz, German writer and sound poet, published a big history of sound poetry, two volumes which refer especially to the development after the WW II. So, it seems, that something ‘s going on now.

Discography (selection):

Boebeobi. Lautpoesie, Anthology (CD), Gertraud Scholz Verlag: D-Obermichelbach 1994
Jaap Blonk, Flux de BOUCHE, NL-Amsterdam: Stahlplaat Label 1993 (
Jaap Blonk, Vocalor, NL-Amsterdam: Stahlplaat Label 1997 (
Henri Chopin, Poesie Sonore (Brussels: IGLOO-CARMEL LP, IGL 013, 1983).
Henri Chopin, Audiopoems, (Naples: Edizioni Lotta Poetica & Studio Morra LP, Radiotaxi No. 3, n.d.)
Henri Chopin, audiopoems (London: Tangent Records LP, TGS 106, 1969) [general information f. e.:
Agostino Conto, on: Hangar 3 (MC), ed. Laszlo Csácsár, NL-Amsterdam 1987
Raoul Hausmann, Poèmes phonétiques complètes (MC), Tonband-Verlag, S-Press, D-Düsseldorf 1978 (recorded 1945 by Henry Chopin)
Bernard Heidsieck, Canal Street (Paris: SEVIM/Bernard Heidsieck 3 LPs, 1986).
Bernard Heidsieck, P Puissance B (Naples: Edizioni Lotta Poetica & Studio Morra, Radio Taxi No. 7, LP, 1983)
Bernard Heidsieck, "Trois Biopsies" + "Un Passe-Partout" (Paris: Multi-Techniques, LP c. 1970).
Bernard Heidsieck, Partition V (Paris: Le Soleil Noir, Six records and a book, 1973).
Bernard Heidsieck, Poèmes Partition D2 and D3Z (Ingatestone: Collection OU, two records and a book, 1973).
Fatima Miranda, concierto en canto (CD), Hyades Arts, E-Madrid 1994
Lautpoesie. Eine Anthologie 1+2 (MC), ed. Christian Scholz, Gertraud Scholz Verlag, D-Obermichelbach 1987
Poesia sonora hoie. Sound Poetry Today. An international Anthology (CD), ed. Philadelpho Menezes, BRAS-Sao Paulo 1998 (with examples from Carlfriedrich Claus/ V. Scherstjanoi/ Jaap Blonk/ Enzo Minarelli and many others)
Valeri Scherstjanoi, LautLand (CD), Gertraud Scholz Verlag, D-Obermichelbach 1998
Enno Stahl, Litter:A:TOUR (MC & catalogue), Ed. IL, D-Cologne 1991
Enno Stahl, Deutschland konkret (MC), Ed. Krash, D-Cologne 1992
Enno Stahl, Wasserspräche (MC), Ed. Krash, D-Cologne 1994
Enno Stahl, A Walk through Voice Garden (MC), Ed. Krash, D-Cologne 1998
Amanda Stewart, I/T, Selected Poems 1980-1996 (CD), split records, Australia 1998

Literature (only monographies):

Sound poetry and avantgarde-lit.

Cabaret Voltaire, Reprint of the DADA magazine, in: Dada Zurich Paris 1916-1922, Ed. J.-M. Place, Paris 1981 (French)
Dada-Almanach (ed. Richard Huelsenbeck), Berlin 1920 (German and other languages, incl. typoscripts)
Raoul Hausmann, Texte bis 1933, 2 vol. (ed. Michael Erlhoff), München 1982 (German, incl. typoscripts)
Alexej Krutschonych, Ausgewählte Texte (ed. V. Markov), München 1973 (Russian)
Kurt Schwitters, Das literarische Werk, 5 vol. (ed. Friedhelm Lach), Köln: Dumont 1973-1981 (German, incl. many typoscripts, „Ursonate“ et. al.)
Tristan Tzara, Oeuvres complètes, (Ed. Henri Béhar), Paris1975 (French)

About sound poetry:

Michael Lenz, Lautpoesie, 2 vol., ed. selene: Graz 1999 (German)
Christian Scholz, Untersuchungen zur Geschichte und Typologie des Lautgedichts, 3 vol., Gertraud Scholz Ed.: Obermichelbach 1989 (German)

Others (including chapters about sound poetry):

Vladimir Markov, Russian Futurism. A History, Berkeley and Los Angeles 1968 (English)
Robert Motherwell (ed.), The Dada painters and poets, New York 1951 (English)
Karl Riha, Tatü Dada, Wolke Ed.: Hofheim 1987 (German)
Agnès Sola, Le Futurisme russe, Paris1989 (French)
Enno Stahl, Anti-Kunst und Abstraktion in der literarischen Moderne, Frankfurt/M. and others, 1997 (German)
Glauco Viazzi (ed.), I Poeti del Futurismo 1909-1944, Milano 1978 (Italian, incl. many exapmples of visual poetry and also some phonetic pieces)

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