On sound (I)

When semantic meaning is eclipsed all sorts of other meaning come out of hiding. In our first class I wanted to get students thinking with their ears about vocables — oral sounds — apart from the meanings we like to grant certain of the shapes they take (words). It’s hard to explain but easy to experience.

I started them off with scat singing (always defined in terms of “nonsense” vocables — slanderous) by Louis Armstrong —

and Ella Fitzgerald:

Only a brute would deny there’s meaning there. Not the sort of meaning we mean when we say “I understand what that means.” Much closer to the meaning we mean when we say “you mean a lot to me.” When someone reaches out to someone and makes contact — that’s a meaning.

We moved on to Christian Bok’s performance of Hugo Ball’s Karawane (a more gravelly doing than the one I played in class):

In some spots it’s a little referential and a lot mimetic — jolifanto calling to mind swaying circus elephants. But at the core it’s what the Russian Futurists called zaum or beyonsense — expression released from reference so its sensuous and esoteric possibilities can unfold. Sometimes comically, as here, and sometimes not.

Some meaning is had. Some meaning is been. And some meaning is done. Our focus here is sound, but I can’t resist a bit of vision, how Ball’s poem steps out to the eye:

Anyway, my students did great with this weird trio, pointing out connections to the proto-articulations of infants (which mean nothing communicable but everything to mom and dad) and the science in non-Western cultures of the spiritual efficacy of sound.

And, less esoteric, the noises we make to get something immediate, embodied, across. Ahhhhhhhh. Oh! Hmmmm.

Exercise: Torn page (1)

Cooked this one up an hour before class yesterday. Pull a page out of a book. Crease it well down the centre (from top to bottom) and tear it in half. Do the same with each half. You’ll have four strips of page, and eight stripes of language, if the page was printed on both sides.

Browse through them for a language column that pleases you. No changing anything — part words are left as part words, syntax is let be scrambled.


But do transcribe the language column you’ve chosen. That’s how it becomes your poem — by travelling from eye to brain to hand. Mine is called “else *”. As you can see it’s an ode.

else.* Although he o
did not believe that
ity would come as a
was the powerful who
nment that wished to
actical precaution o
th care. If men with
they would certain
staging a “whisky
fore, was to protect
n did not actually ca
said, he did consid

See also Tristan Tzara’s directions on making a Dada poem.