Primal sounds of the machine

Since Kurt Schwitters wrote his Ursonate in the 1920s, dozens of performers have paid their respects by interpreting and performing his highly influential sound poem. Now is the turn of a digital German speech software programme to have a go at translating it for us.

Czech-born artist Pavel Büchler fed the software programme with the score of the entire sound poem, which is currently diffused in its electronic spoken form through a wall of megaphones at the Max Wigram gallery on Regent’s Street. The result is expectedly strange and lacks the scratches and rawness of Schwitters’ own 21-minute recording of the sonata and the distinctively German intonation of his voice. It is also twice as long, the machine stuttering over the original score’s impossible syllables and amalgamation of consonants, producing an even more alien-sounding language.

In the art-as-life spirit of Dada, Schwitters created his poem with the intention to move away from the rationality of the art being produced in his lifetime, placing the accent instead on subjectivity, individuality and nonsensicality. He asserted that ‘I prefer nonsense… until now it has been so neglected in the making of art, and that’s why I love it’.

Although the poem is built on a highly-patterned structure and was written for German vowels and consonants, the score is left to the imaginative interpretation of the reader or performer. In the words of Schwitters himself ‘the letters applied are to be pronounced as in German. A single vowel sound is short… Letters, of course, give only a rather incomplete score of the spoken sonata. As with any printed music, many interpretations are possible. As with any other reading, correct reading requires the use of imagination’. Memorising the text and performing it live, the Dutch artist Jaap Blonk pronounces the poem with a clearly-identifiable Dutch accent, giving fluidity to the harsher sounds of German. His energetic delivery transforms the more severe tone of Schwitters’ recital into a jovial sonic performance. Schwitters himself varied the rhythm of his sonata to perk up his performances and insisted that each reader – and by extension, each listener – had their own capacity for making up associations of ideas, saying that ‘everyone has different experiences and remembers and associates them differently’.

Searching in its limited coding a rational sonic translation to non-sense, the digital programme reiterates the original text in a standard spoken German pronunciation, reproducing an uncannily faithful rendering of the human voice. After a short while, one detects in the phoney voice identical patterns in the pronunciation of syllables repeated over three or four phrases and an incredibly monotonous tone pervades throughout the sonata. It starts to feel as unnerving as a corporation’s telephonic pre-recorded message or an unintelligible platform announcement. While these robotic messages have a fairly innocuous effect on our social lives, one can easily imagine the extended use of such technology that aim at standardizing and codifying speech. Pavel Büchler originates from Eastern Europe and issues such as state control, censorship and propaganda are close to his heart. By associating new communication technology with old instruments of propaganda in the forms of megaphones, and juxtaposing them with Schwitters’ ideal of individual creativity and artistic freedom, Büchnel sabotages the machine of social management and control, making it look ridiculous and powerless in its rational attempt at brainwashing us. Like Schwitters, he subverts codes and rules to overthrow the power of logic and, collating sense with nonsense, allows for greater artistic expression.

Pavel Büchnel Studio Schwitters is at Max Wigram Gallery until 13 November

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~ by lavivette on October 21, 2010.

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