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Demilitarization of Languages: Sound Poetry in Austria, France, and Sweden

As one of the paradigmatic literary genres of both the historical avant-garde and the neo-avant-garde, sound poetry should not merely be understood in terms of formal experimentation, but also as an intervention into the politics of language: to speak with John Cage, a kind of “demilitarization of language.”[1] Cage, however, understood this notion on a highly formal level, with influences from the philosophy of Zen, seeking to refrain from imposing expressions of the ego on his materials. In contrast to this abstract conception of demilitarization, the examples of sound poetry analyzed here cover a wide spectrum, ranging from a structural to a topological to a discourse-historical conception of the political and, in particular, the military. This diverse range allows us to trace the gamut of the political aesthetics of sound poetry in the neo-avant-garde through a discussion of seminal works from the 1950s and the long 1960s in Austria, France, and Sweden. Despite the differing political contexts, there are nevertheless large overlaps in sound poetry. From this it can be concluded that the aesthetic developments of the genre, as well as the political problems it addresses appear to be a transnational concern.

“Sound poetry” should here be understood as an umbrella term that encompasses the artistic products that combine words, sound, and sometimes music, and that foreground the aural over the sense-making even if they do not necessarily abandon the latter. Language or literature and music often form a continuum, where the transitions between the two art forms are fluid. The spectrum of sound poetry ranges from speech poems to body noises. However, in the neo-avant-garde period the term was used more specifically to describe works that used technological processing of acoustic phenomena, especially the tape recorder, radio or, later on, the computer. The neo-avant-garde took a marked interest in new media and the technological development that the Second World War and the Cold War had accelerated. These new media became a means of production for art and poetry. The artistic application of new media, unlike their use in the global entertainment industry and in advertising, for example, aimed to make the media themselves visible in their mode of operation and usable for critical reflection.

Sound poetry emerged at the end of the nineteenth century and experienced its first boom in the historical avant-garde movements of the 1910s. The time of appearance of the neo-avant-gardes is more diffuse, and our corpus is representative of three waves: Sound poetry emerged in France in the immediate post-war period, when the Romanian Isidore Isou organized the first Lettrist demonstrations in Paris. In the 1950s–60s, experimentation with the relationship between voice and media multiplied, as with François Dufrêne, Henri Chopin and Bernard Heidsieck, the three main protagonists of sound poetry in France. The first sound poems in Austrian literature date back to the early 1950s. Gerhard Rühm uttered his first sound poems in 1952, at the same time as the Vienna Group (Wiener Gruppe) was formed. It was especially Rühm’s encounter and collaboration with H.C. Artmann and Konrad Bayer that was important for the development of a politically oriented sound poetry. Ernst Jandl published his first sound poems in 1957. Inspired by Rühm, he developed his own form, which he called “Sprechgedichte” (speech poems). For Jandl, the technological processing of the voice and the use of technological sound production began to play a role in 1965–66 when he collaborated with the BBC. At this point, sound poetry had found its place also in the Swedish neo-avant-garde. The first festival of sound poetry was presented in April 1968 by the contemporary art music association Fylkingen and the public broadcaster Sveriges Radio. It marked the point where the genre of text-sound-composition was established in Stockholm through a series of festivals that were seminal for inscribing the local branch of sound poetry in an international context. Here, Swedish experimental poets such as Åke Hodell and Bengt Emil Johnson, as well as the Swedish electro-acoustic pioneer Lars-Gunnar Bodin presented original works, while the festivals also attracted international names such as the British sound poet Bob Cobbing, the aforementioned French sound poets Dufrêne and Heidsieck as well as the Austrian Jandl. Broadly speaking, the genre was established in Sweden in the early 1960s, gained momentum towards the end of the decade and was further developed during the 1970s. It was, however, already prepared by the experimental poet and visual artist Öyvind Fahlström’s manifesto for concrete poetry in 1954. The manifesto was inspired by acoustic experiments and referred to Lettrism as well as to Pierre Schaeffer, whom Fahlström had met in Paris in 1952. The manifesto was accompanied by the visual poem “MOA (1),” which is one example of how Fahlström produced printed scores for sound poetry during the 1950s, although his main works in the genre date from the early 1960s.

The historical situation and its development after 1945 are decisive for understanding the political significance of sound poetry. In order to differentiate this literary current from its historical predecessors—such as F. T. Marinetti, Hugo Ball, and Velimir Khlebnikov—we refer to it as neo-avant-garde sound poetry.[2] The term “sound poetry” is thus used retroactively to cover the continuum of the genre, while the designations “historical avant-garde” and “neo-avant-garde” can differentiate temporally within this tradition. In Austria, the period of reconstruction was associated with a far-reaching taboo on talking about the Nazi past and especially about Austria’s complicity in Nazi crimes. Due to the completely different historical conditions, the problem of a lack of reappraisal of the past arose differently in France. For post-war France, the dissolution of the colonial empire played an important role. The Algerian War (1954–62) was particularly formative for the French postwar period, which also led to armed conflicts at home. It should also be noted that due to the antifascist Resistance, the Communist Party held an important literary and editorial position after the war. As in other European countries, the 1960s saw the rise of political protest, particularly among young people, joined at the end of the decade by numerous social conflicts: the explosion of May 1968 opened up a few years of liberation and experimentation that the world of culture embraced and sometimes initiated. Also in Sweden, though less affected by World War II than many other countries, the traumas it entailed still lingered in the collective consciousness and were one of the factors behind a general distrust of language in 1960s—of which the most striking example is Hodell’s artist’s book CA 36715 (J) (1966) that was entirely filled with illegible handwriting, while a “J”-stamp on the cover connoted Jewish wartime passports.[3] The Vietnam war instigated protests as well as countercultural expressions along with an increased commitment to protests against global capitalism and colonialism. In his poem “On the War in Vietnam” (1965), Swedish poet Göran Sonnevi addressed the novelty of televised war, juxtaposing the tranquil snowfall in a Swedish town with broadcast news from a remote and terrible war that technology has brought into the living room. Nevertheless, the experimental aesthetics of the long 1960s, during which Swedish sound poetry evolved, also underscored playfulness as a reaction towards the seriousness of the two previous decades.

Though not necessarily political per se, the artistic expressions of sound poetry lend themselves to political intervention. Four general aspects are characteristic for the political dimensions of sound poetry aesthetics in the neo-avant-garde. First of all, sound poetry frequently denounces concrete phenomena through its dissent towards dominant politics, such as the repression of an uncomfortable past and the rearmament of society, questioning prevailing values after the war. Second, it exhibits skepticism towards established art institutions, the conventional publishing practices of the literary institution, as well as a critical stance towards media, with reflections on the power of mass media as well as on the technological conditions of postwar society. Third, sound poetry reveals a fundamental critique of society through an assault on its conventional language, and the dominant discourses or hegemonic structures that go with it. Finally, sound poetry was politically relevant insofar as it contributed to dissident groups formation and tested multi-directional relationships between artists and audience, as well as alternative forms of artistic intervention: along with other neo-avant-garde experimentations, sound poetry has re-examined the question of art’s relationship with society and life.

1. Sound Poetry as Political Dissent

Sound poetry emerged as an intermedial genre in close proximity to experimental composition, visual poetry, and performance art. Its cultural politics was generally associated with internationalism, experimentation, and collaboration—notable in the frequent usage of multilingualism, collective performances, and homages to fellow poets. In many cases, these attitudes and practices had a broader sociopolitical dimension—the openness of artistic forms being a utopian reflection of a society that would renounce the closures and limitations of borders and conventions, be it on the level of the state or the level of individual ways of life. In a broad sense, the poetic soundscape did manifest several radical positions in cultural politics through its tendencies towards inclusion, anti-hierarchical structures, and valorizations of the ordinary. In some cases, these aesthetic ideals were combined with an explicit political commitment. More generally, one can see a continuity “from the aesthetic avant-garde” to the revolutions of 1968, which has often been analyzed, Cristina De Simone reminds us, as a liberation of speech.[4]

Rühm emphasizes that sound poetry goes beyond the boundaries of national literature simply because of its prerequisites. In the early 1950s, Artmann wrote his first “dialect poems” in the Viennese idiom, while Rühm wrote his own from 1955. The alienation, re-functioning, and transformation of dialect into an instrument for experimenting with the phonetic values of spoken language can be understood as a political intervention, since dialect fulfilled an affirmative function in the so-called Heimatliteratur (“native soil” literature). After 1945, the dialect was often used as a guarantor of an unbroken sense of homeland and was thus also able to cover up the historical breaks, especially Austria’s involvement in National Socialism.

While Heimatliteratur uses dialect to distinguish the native from the foreign, the Other, and thus to achieve identification through exclusion of the Other, experimental sound poetry, to the contrary, uses dialect as a means of defamiliarization that subverts the linguistic norms and offers of meaning of the standard language by foregrounding the acoustic materiality of speech. Such a strategy is not limited to a particular national language or a specific, place-based dialect, but can be applied in similar ways in different languages.

Rühm’s sound poems oppose an ingratiating homeland poetry. In his “rede an österreich” (speech to austria, 1955), for example, he imitates the tone of a vulgar Viennese, which oscillates between aggression and moaning. The individual “words” of this poem are invented and have no conventional meaning. Detached from the semantic function of language, the articulations acquire a purely atmospheric character. The aggressive sound of the language contradicts the friendly, harmonious, and altogether lovely image of Austria that was spread by the official cultural policy. What Rühm conveys by aesthetic means is not a party-political statement, but an articulation of dissent with the prevailing affirmative Austrian self-representation. This kind of dissent operates outside the system of traditional art by not putting the dissent into words, but making it sensually evident through sound sequences. By following the logic of its acoustic material, the poem can assume a political position that has emancipated itself from the rules of the prevailing political discourse.

Jandl’s early speech poems have a threefold critical thrust: they are directed (1) against the concealment of Austria’s National Socialist past (e.g. “wien: heldenplatz,” 1962), (2) against the trivialization of war atrocities (e.g. “schtzngrmm,” 1957), and (3) against the hollowed out religious formulas and rituals (e.g. “fortschreitende räude,” 1957). In 1988, Jandl emphasized in retrospect that, like the other poets who worked on language experiments, he was concerned with drawing the boundaries of language further than they had been drawn during the National Socialist era. He argued that “about 95 percent of the German and Austrian population would [...] agree with the aesthetic principles of the National Socialists even today [...].”[5] Accordingly, Jandl understood new aesthetic procedures as a protest against the prevailing aesthetic views in postwar Austrian society. This distancing from the language of National Socialism led Jandl, similar to his neo-avant-garde allies, to a deep skepticism against the concept of a self-sufficient national literature, which could only too easily be combined with reactionary chauvinism. For Jandl, multilingualism was a means of subverting national ideologies and the language norms associated with them. This subversion of the standardized language, which is at the same time a subversion of the linguistic-political norm, takes place on the one hand through the regionalism of dialect, and on the other hand through the multilingual mixing of languages—for example of German, English, and French in the poem “chanson” from 1957. Accordingly, sound poetry was suited to question national orders of belonging and to situate poetry in a supra- and transnational context.

This anti-nationalist and internationalist impetus of Austrian sound poetry is mainly shaped by the experience of National Socialism. If National Socialism can be understood as an extreme form of imperialism, then the critique of the persistence of National Socialist (and militarist) thought could be related to the anti-imperialist and anti-colonialist tendencies of sound poetry in France and Sweden.

In France, it is on the side of those who have gone through Lettrism that we find the most explicit political positions: “Le soulèvement de la jeunesse” (Youth Uprising) is for example the generic title of a series of works by Isou from 1949 onwards, followed by a manifesto in 1950 and various magazines. The periodicals of the “Internationale Lettriste” (1952–57) and the latest “Internationale Situationniste” (1957–72) are highly politicized as well, dealing with colonialism, US imperialism, and exploitation of workers, especially through debates on architecture and city planning. The sound work of Gil J. Wolman, the cofounder of the IL with Guy Debord, lies beyond words, its political character is therefore less explicit than that of his “metagraphies” and “scotch” collages that evoke revolutions (the Russian, the Portuguese, and that of 68 in Prague or Paris) or denounce the Vietnam War (e.g. 9ik. “le citoyen us pense-t-il au vietnam” / “is the us citizen thinking about vietnam?”, 1962; [Vietnam], 1968).  But we can mention the “megapneume” (poetry of breath) “Ralentissez les cadences” (Slow down the cadences, 1972), where he seems to strangle himself. The same goes for Dufrêne: if he mistrusts organized groups and asserts that “we will never be led to believe in the ‘commitment’ of the writer or artist,” his themes and actions reflect unambiguous and courageous political positions, such as the simultaneous sound poem “Appel à la révolte” (Call to revolt, 1948) or “Paix en Algérie” (Peace in Algeria, 1958), where one hears machine guns and bombardments, which makes Chopin comment: “No spoken poetic description would have been able to render this atmosphere of war.”[6] Even if Dufrêne later departed from such an explicit position, his aim remained clearly political, as evidenced by his presentation of the Cantate des mots camés (1971-77):

With the Cantata, there is . . . the social plan through political and daily criticism. The Cantata was built up from newspaper headlines. I am a Poeta faber, a maker . . . . This way, a social dictionary was developed.[7]

If they are less explicitly committed than Dufrêne and Wolman, Chopin and Heidsieck are, often sarcastically, fine critics of their time. Chopin shows his concern in Poésie sonore internationale (a historical overview and inaugural anthology published in 1979) by always recalling the political context within which the poetic revolution emerged. His own work, from a circumstantial audio-poem such as “Sol-Air” ([1961], Ou 28–29, 1966) or the ironic sound collage “Le discours des ministres” (The Ministers’ Speech, 1961/1971), to “La Peur” (The Fear, performed at the Text-sonore festival in Stockholm in 1971), that echoes the initial experience of the “Death March” in 1944–45, use sound processing to create a timeless human experience on the basis of a historically and politically situated one. Heidsieck’s starting point is rather his reflection on the status of poetry, and the link it can have to everyday life, something that gives his work a political coloring. Nevertheless, he likes to play with political discourses, as for example in “Le Quatrième Plan” (The Fourth Plan, Poème-partition “H1 et H2,” 1963) or in “Démocratie II” (Passe-Partout 26, 1977–78) where he mixed the list of all the Presidents of the Council on a recorded soundtrack with the exchanges in the Chamber of Deputies at the time of the vote on the bill for censure in May 1968. The series of Biopsies (1965–69) are thus “samples taken not from the body, but from the social body,” as “Couper n’est pas jouer” (Biopsie 10, 1967–68) which weaves together theoretical notes and recordings from May 1968.[8] The binary structure of the montage (speech fragments, noises) and the collage (of his own voice) creates an ironic effect of critical distance. In all cases, the sound dimension, even when elaborated on the basis of ingredients extracted from the surrounding world, seems to aim at going beyond the historical inscription.

When sound poetry emerged in Sweden during the 1960s, it did so in a context marked by the introduction of happenings and open art, with important influences from the art scene in New York City and in greater proximity to the situation of sound poetry in France than in Austria, both chronologically and contextually. The Swedish branch of sound poetry was consequently connected to the horizontal structures of happenings, which valorized the ordinary and contingent as opposed to hierarchical structures and imperial ambitions, whether in society, art or artistic institutions.[9] Cases in point are Johnson’s polyphonic collage poem “Gubbdrunkning” (Old Man Drowning, 1965) with its inclusive form, Sten Hanson’s “How are you?” (1969), which subjects the everyday phrase of the title to a series of alterations, Bodin’s “Fikonsnackarna” (The Mumbo Jumbo Speakers, 1966) that juxtaposes fragments of speech in ways that retain their stylistic level but conceal their message, as well as Jarl Hammarberg and Sonja Åkesson’s “Do you want to know what we are doing?” (1968), which works with speech sounds, intonation, and rhythm as a non-linguistic language that includes children’s non-lexical speech. Similarly, Fahlström’s poem “Den svåra resan” (The Arduous Journey), written in the mid-1950s but not published until the mid-1960s, was composed as a score “for mixed speech choir,” with numbered lines of sounding letter combinations that defy conventional grammar.[10] Many works in this context emphasized play and contingency in ways that marked a break with the aesthetics of the Swedish 1940s and 1950s, with their ethically engaged existentialism and new romanticism. These works drew on a politics of form in the sense that they did manifest a non-hierarchical poetics of inclusion that challenged a view of language, and by analogy of action, as a means to an end.

Some of the Swedish sound poets did, however, combine formal experimentation with a more explicit political commitment. An example is Hodell’s Mr. Smith in Rhodesia (1968), which targets Ian Smith’s white regime in present-day Zimbabwe. The point of departure is how language is employed to regulate the individual subject: A key element in the work is a chorus of school children that repeat “Mr. Smith is a good white man” after a male voice. For Hodell, it was important that the text was performed in Oxford English, so that the imposition of a foreign language and discourse would mirror that of colonial hegemony. Another example of Hodell’s commitment to issues of racial violence is his artist’s book U.S.S. Pacific Ocean: A Story about the World Police (1968), a companion piece to the eponymous text-sound-composition, which stages a missile crisis in a global arms race by way of a multilingual montage of speech, sounds, and music. The book was not sold together with the composition, which was released separately with Dufrêne’s “Paris-Stockholm” and Cobbing’s “Chamber Music”, but with a recording of one of Stokely Carmichael’s black power speeches. The gesture is consistent with Hodell’s use of the strategy of citation, through which he redistributed and rearranged linguistic material in ways that often staged confrontations between discourses and counter-discourses, drawing attention to the performative power of language.

While most of Hanson’s poems are playful variations on words and expressions through puns and associations, some of them deal with overtly political matters. Che (1968) is simple and explicit: a speech by Che Guevara is overlaid by voices that cheer “Che! Che!” until the voices are distorted by digital processing and eventually interrupted by machine gun fire. Hanson’s anti-Vietnam war poem “The Glorious Desertion” is a collage of voices that in short utterances criticize the draft for military service in a remote war, accompanied by the chant “hell no, we won’t go.” The poem creates a strong sensation of the crossroads of individual and collective refusal. In the multilingual “Au 197,0”, Hanson creates an ironic rendition of capitalist desires through the theme of gold, where the repetition “sand, sand, sand” represents the Klondike gold rush, and the French word for gold, or, transmutes into body sounds as well as its scientific symbol Au. Here too, the sound poem becomes a means of making an artistic intervention in the domain of international politics. Traces of contemporary politics in this sense only temporarily surface in the Estonian-Swedish poet Ilmar Laaban’s works, as in the sound poem “I revolutionens snö” (In the snows of the revolution, 1969) which was inspired by news reports that participants in the Chinese cultural revolution later had been sent to the countryside near Mongolia.

For the artists of the three countries, and more widely, sound poetry thus makes it possible to construct a counter-discourse. Its subversive political power is due, more than to the political activism of this or that poet, more than to the contextual denunciation (in particular of the Vietnam War), to the state of “defamiliarization” that it provokes in the listener in relation to official history, to the media, to language or even to daily life, by the invention of new, immediately international forms, such as the happening, and by the systematic practice of irony and the incongruous. To bestow importance upon the ludic, the ephemeral, and the unexpected implied a criticism of values of efficiency, power, and utility.

2. Emancipation and Critique of Institutions

The situation in the immediate post-war period is significantly different in the three countries, due to political precedents. Everywhere, however, as official culture tries to rewrite history, traditions are crumbling. The “neo-avant-gardes” have in common the desire to distance themselves from cultural institutions as much as from the dominant artistic trends by multiplying new frameworks and modes of dissemination, creating a “counterculture.” During the 1960s, and particularly in the 1970s, the renewal of media practices and technologies also involved a reflection on the media, one of the sources for which was the work of the Canadian Marshall McLuhan, quickly translated into French, German and Swedish, as well as the development of semiology, especially, at least in German speaking countries, through the influence of Max Bense.

Austrian post-war literature was dominated by conservatism and institutionalized art was still traditional, oriented toward the classical-realistic tradition. In the 1950s, the switchboards of literary dissemination in the media, theaters, publishing houses and literary magazines were occupied mainly by conservative cultural functionaries, some of whom had already established their positions of power in 1934 and 1938. Radical modernism, which included the currents of concrete and sound poetry, had hardly any chance to assert itself in public and was excluded from the official literary scene. For this reason alone, the representatives of the neo-avant-garde had to seek forms of publicity outside the established book and magazine publishers, the state broadcasting corporations and outside the established performance venues such as the state theaters. Private clubs, cafés and cellar restaurants in Vienna, or the neo-avant-garde “forum stadtpark” in Graz (since 1959) were alternative performance venues. Newly founded magazines such as “manuskripte” (since 1960) and book series such as “surrealistische publikationen” (1950–54) offered a platform for experimental literature.

Beyond these limitations, however, the sound poetic works of Rühm and Jandl show a dynamic that tends to break up the formats given by the book or journal. Jandl, like Rühm, initially reached his audience more through his impressive performances than through publications. The usual process of authors being invited to readings after the publication of books was reversed. It was only in their vocal realization that they unfolded their full effect. Subsequently, it is mainly records and radio broadcasts that bring these poems to full effect, while the printed texts often function more as scores.

In this context, it becomes clear that institutionalization does not per se neutralize the recalcitrance of neo-avant-garde art, as Peter Bürger suggests. Rather, it is necessary to differentiate between the various institutions and their functions. For Austrian (and German) sound poetry, for example, a broadcasting institution such as the WDR (Westdeutscher Rundfunk) played an important role from 1968 onward, as it was here that the sound experiments of the “New Radio Play” found a home.

Rühm began his artistic activity as a pianist, performing his own experimental, minimalist compositions like his “one-note music,” and in the early 1950s he mounted sounds on tape similar to the contemporaneous “musique concrete” of Pierre Henry and Schaeffer. Rühm’s sound and dialect poems were based on musical parameters, his chansons and auditory poetry are located in the field of tension between text and music and are thus dependent on performance and on sound recording. For him, the differentiations of vocal sound and expression, the parameters of spoken language such as volume, timbre, pitch and tempo are musical gestures of expression that function similarly in all language cultures. “The sounds of speech form an international ‘vocabulary’ of expression that literally speaks for itself.”[11] Already from the outset, the printed text, which emphasizes the visual dimension of language in typography, thus stands in an intermedial relationship to its auditory dimension, the sound and articulation of language.

In France as in other countries, the impression of a generational break was expressed by the denunciation of the “current gerontocratic regime” and the call, from the 1950s onwards, for “Youth Uprising” and radical subversion practices (which were censored on several occasions, starting with the radio program “Pour en finir avec le jugement de Dieu” (To End God's Judgment) by Antonin Artaud in February 1948).[12] The hijacking of official discourses and media representations through forms of “remediation” is an important part of artistic exploration. Dufrêne’s Le Tombeau de Pierre Larousse (The Tomb of Pierre Larousse, or T.P.L., 1958) is exemplary: a tribute to the institution of Encyclopædia, in the tradition of musical or literary “tombs,” it is also, as Chopin points out, “the burial of this institution of the dictionary, an enormous monument to the Civilization of Paper” (Chopin, Poésie sonore internationale, 99).

Criticism of institutions is also criticism of mass media and of the “society of the spectacle” (Debord, 1967): information theory neither takes into account the content of the message, nor the context, nor the enunciation, but a strictly technological approach (already criticized in the 1950s by the Palo Alto group), which disembodies communication at the same time as it works to control it. Perhaps the most representative work is Heidsieck’s “Canal Street” (Passe-partout, 24, 1976) which thematizes the question in an obsessive leitmotiv (“communication, communication” runs throughout the work) and confronts a channeled, alienated communication, where words are “controlled,” “miradored” [miradorisés], “statisticized” [statistiqué] (sequence 16), with another, which the text makes us hear underneath: the desire for a communication that would not be “betrayed,” even if it is not sure that it ever existed.[13] Superimposition of voices and noises, repetitions, and the jamming effects made possible by direct interventions on the magnetic tape express this fragility and vacuity.

At the same time, an intensive exploration of alternative media was being developed where the point was to get out of the book. Heidsieck has several times related that he aimed to bring poetry out of the editorial cul-de-sac after the failure of his first book in 1955 and therefore embarked on the sound adventure with the “Poèmes-Partitions” series (Poems-Scores, 1955–65). Sound poetry cannot exist (only) on paper. It requires performance, new modes of recording, and incorporates all the media that allow it to expand the vocal domain, from the microphone to the computer. Chopin’s international magazine OU-Cinquième saison (1963–74) is a founding example, as it integrates records and uses all the possibilities of offset. As in other countries, French public broadcasting (RTF, then ORTF) played an important role in providing creative studios and experimental programmes: Schaeffer, who founded the Groupe de recherche musicale (GRM), was there to lead the Research Department from 1960 to 1974. The “Atelier de création radiophonique” (ACR), created by Alain Trutat in 1969 and directed by René Farabet and the remarkable sound engineer Yann Paranthoën, offers a place for reflection on sound and the media.

The development of artistic institutions around new technological facilities was an important factor in Sweden too. Here, the fact that the genre of sound poetry evolved comparatively late entailed three important consequences. First of all, the early Swedish sound poetry was simultaneously associated with concrete poetry and with the aesthetics of open art. In the early 1960s, Fahlström’s ideas for a poetry that underscored the material aspects of language belatedly found fertile ground in the emerging Swedish neo-avant-garde, almost a decade after his first manifesto. Performances of sound poetry would then take place in contexts that often were understood in terms of happening, open theater, concrete poetry, and sometimes Fluxus.

Second, an important part of the Swedish branch of sound poetry was closely linked to electro-acoustic composition, a fact that the term text-sound-composition sought to address. Comparably advanced techniques for recording and post-production were an integral part of these works that largely operate through montage, cut-up, repetition, loops, samplings, voice alteration etc. Elements of speech were often post-produced and sometimes coupled with elaborate soundscapes. New media were prominent, both as means of realization of the works and as a theme that they explored. The belief in technology as a way to artistic development was expressed in various pieces of artists’ writings, most clearly by Johnson and Bodin. When one of Heidsieck’s poèmes-partitions was featured in the short-lived Swedish avant-garde periodical Gorilla in 1966—one year after that Heidsieck had performed at the exhibition Le Merveilleux Moderne in Lund—Johnson drew attention to how Heidsieck sought to liberate poetry from its Gutenbergian framework only to encounter new limitations through the demands of technology. According to Johnson, Heidsieck “has been limited by lack of resources: he has not been able to carry out his ideas in a technologically satisfactory way, and has also lacked the privilege of being inspired by continuous and expanded contact with more advanced apparatuses.”[14] The artist, according to Johnson, needs “continuous access to his new means of expression and professional education in how to operate them.” Whether a fair description of Heidsieck or not, Johnson’s comment is characteristic for the interest in new media in the Swedish neo-avant-garde.

Third, these multidisciplinary and technological tendencies were facilitated by institutional frameworks. These included independent agents such as the fringe theater Pistolteatern and the experimental music association Fylkingen— whose “language group” was particularly dedicated to exploring the intersections of sound poetry and new media – but also public institutions such as the new museum of modern art in Stockholm (Moderna Museet), the Electronic Music Studio (EMS), and the public radio broadcaster Sveriges Radio. These contexts did not only open up a space for sound poetry but also provided means of production and created an international flux of artists, composers, and poets that blended with the local avant-garde. The cultural politics of the Swedish state thus provided funding for institutions that proved to be important venues for artistic innovation, while these were complemented by fringe theaters and small-scale ventures of independent publishing, such as Hodell’s one-man publishing house Kerberos. In addition, student unions and the Workers’ Educational Association (ABF) organized evenings of sound poetry. The Swedish neo-avant-garde could hence position itself against the literary institution understood as an abstract notion, but it was largely embraced by new and sometimes publicly funded institutions in a more concrete sense of the word.[15] As recent scholarship on the tradition of the avant-garde has suggested, the latter calls for a reassessment that does not merely understand it in negative terms, but also as a positive probing of more utopian possibilities, whether they be social, technological or aesthetic. Similarly, Bürger’s famous claim that the institutions subsume and consequently disarm the political potentials of the avant-garde artwork must be complemented with the thought that the institutions themselves, which has become evident today, often “seek to play their parts as agents in a critical project,” and to make use of their “institutional status and framework to engage with the reality of the society.”[16]

Two major transversal facts emerge from these three cases. On the one hand, the intermedial contacts: even more than the visual dimension (most of the poets practice both sound and visual poetry), the exchanges with contemporary experimental music (concrete or electro-acoustic) are a vector of exploration and extension of the sound field. On the other hand, and in connection with the above, the exploration of new media and of the very notion of media counterbalances the virulent criticism of the mass media that characterizes the period: new places, new supports that liberate from institutional constraints, but also the hijacking of official media, in particular radio, which opens up spaces for experimentation and dissemination everywhere.

3. Criticism of Norms and Hierarchic Language

Criticism of language, already the object of the historical avant-gardes, contemporary to the emergence of modern linguistics and the philosophy of language (notably Saussure, the Moscow and Prague Language Circles, Wittgenstein, Wiener Kreis), returned in force after the Second World War: the neo-avant-gardes continued to denounce the wear of language and its control for propaganda and manipulation purposes (theorized at the same time, from Klemperer demonstrating in 1947 how totalitarian ideology is achieved through the hijacking of language to Roland Barthes’s assertion in 1977 that all language is “fascist,” via Burroughs’s virus in Electronic Revolution (1970–73), or even the cybernetic movement) to which the postwar rise of the mass media reacted. Ironic use of stereotypes, deconstruction to the point of asemanticism, and valorization of noise (and particularly that of the body) seek to move away from a purely functional use and to open up to a level below that of language.

Like the other members of the Vienna Group, Rühm was looking for a new language that was as far removed as possible from the language that had been disavowed and worn out by its ideological use in National Socialism. This also included the effort to free himself from the voices of the National Socialists. Not only the ideology of National Socialism is deconstructed in Rühm's sound poetry, for example in his “gebet” (prayer), but also that of Austrofascism from 1934–38, in which the Catholic Church played a leading role and to which many in Catholic-dominated Austria of the postwar period thought they could easily link. The poem “gebet” is completely empty of semantics, but at the same time imitates the uniform sound of a prayer. It is based on a recurring sequence of vowels. While the vowel sequence at the beginning and the end of the text stands alone, it is varied in the 28 “verses” in between by combinations with different consonants. The text is not based on an intuitive, atmospheric arrangement of the material, but on a calculated one whose schemata are transparent. Rühm’s instruction for the acoustic realization reads: “the recitation is performed in a litany-like muted recitative within a major third” (Rühm, botschaft an die zukunft, 37). The reference to the Christian liturgy is thus clear not only through the title, but also through the manner of recitation. The litany is reduced to pure form and thus stripped of its religious-ideological function. Rühm's intervention is both subtle and fundamental. A gentle sensuality takes the place of the religious sense. A similar technique is used in the “Requiem Viennense,” a joint work by Artmann and Rühm from 1974. This sound poem parodically transforms a liturgical text, namely the Requiem mass, by the accompaniment of popular Viennese Schrammel music and through the use of the Viennese dialect, its intonation, timbre and its coarse language.

As for Rühm and the other members of the Vienna Group, for Jandl the Catholic Church and its hierarchical structures, manifested in the language of the liturgy, constituted a power that experimental literature, especially sound poetry, resisted. The Catholic Church was a prime example of the power of social institutions resting on the power of authoritarian language. It follows for Jandl and other neo-avant-garde authors that the critique of institutions had to start from a critique of their language. For Jandl, as for the authors of the Vienna Group, institutionalized Christianity represented a discourse of sovereignty and authority whose foundations and legitimacy had long since been undermined. The poem “fortschreitende räude” (progressing mange, 1957) demonstrates such a process of erosion. Here, the beginning of the gospel of John is increasingly distorted in five steps. “Gott” (god) thereby becomes “flott” (quick), and through aspiration “und” becomes “hund” (dog). The profanation of the text, in which God and dog are brought into immediate proximity, ends with the artificial word “flottsch.” As in Jandl’s other sound poems, the process addressed—in this case the process of decay of the Christian faith—is not narrated, but shown, acoustically demonstrated. Jandl’s blasphemous deconstruction of a key Christian text is set in the context of a rejection of authorities and the institutions supporting them, be they the family, the state or the church. Linguistic disintegration is to be understood as resistance to the integrative function of sanctioned discourses. Thus, these sound poems undermine functional discourses and hierarchical structures.

Such an undermining of authoritative discourse is also the basic motif of a poem like “ode auf N” (ode to N, 1957). Here the symbolic name “Napoleon” is broken down into its phonetic components, which are reassembled and permuted. The word and the figure of Napoleon are deconstructed by reducing them to their phonetic value. The declamatory presentation of the phonetic material obtained from the name of a man who is considered the embodiment of power and imperialist politics undermines the mechanisms of a rhetoric of power. Here, too, voice color, rhythm and pitch are not predetermined by the text version. The liberation from the constraints of an authoritarian military structure corresponds to the emancipation of the voice, which Jandl repeatedly described as an important step in his poetic work. The voice is thereby granted autonomy from semantic, lexical, and syntactic conventions.

Language criticism is also the very basis of the French Lettrist movement: From the first (and single) issue of La Dictature lettriste (The Lettrist Dictatorship, Paris, 1946) and the book Introduction à une nouvelle poésie et à une nouvelle musique (Introduction to a new poetry and a new music, 1947) initiated by “Le manifeste de la poésie lettriste” (1942), Isou denounced language (the word) as a tool of ideological manipulation, mired in stereotypes that “assassinate sensitivity.”[17] For this reason, he recommends its destruction by the letter, producing sound material “for a new communism of poetry” (Isou, Introduction, 131).

Dufrêne and Wolman developed a radical “ultra-lettrist” form based on verbal distortions and body noises, one with “crirythmes,” the other with “megapneumes.” Formally speaking, the place given to shouting (as indicated by the generic title “crirythme” which also translates the rage one can hear in Dufrêne’s performances) joins two central approaches in the work of sound poetry: a search beyond words to broaden the language and the place given to the liberation of the body: “With the crirythme, it is a pure interiority that expresses itself, a visceral one” (Dufrêne, “Entretien avec Michel Giroud,” 8).[18]  Chopin went in the same direction: starting from the fundamental refusal of the “order imposed by the Word,” Chopin, polemical and satirical, virulently denounced the link between language and historical catastrophe.[19]

The Word is no longer useful; it even becomes an enemy when a single man uses it as a divine word to speak of a problematic god or a problematic dictator . . . The mimetic sound of man, the human sound, does not explain, it transmits emotions, it suggests exchanges, affective communications; it does not specify, it is precise. [...] I defy this Word that says nothing. […] This is why a suggestive art was made that leaves the body, this resonator and receptacle, animated, blown and acting, this + and this - […] You'll like this suggestive art, or not, it doesn't matter. In spite of you, it will embrace you, it will circulate within you. It is its role, to open our affects to our own powers, biological, mental, physical, beyond any intellect, any culture [...] (Chopin, “Pourquoi suis-je,” 556–57).

Moving to asemanticism around 1957 to pursue his criticism of language, Chopin thus developed sound poetry in the double exploration of new recording techniques (which, according to him, define sound poetry in the strict sense) and of the body as a “sound factory.”[20] Numerous titles attest to this corporeal orientation: “Le Corps” (The Body, [June–July 1966], Ou, 30–31, June 1967), “Mes bronches” (My Bronchi [1968], Ou, 34–35, 1969), “Le Bruit du sang” (The Noise of Blood, Stockholm Festival, 1969), “Le Fond de la gorge” (The Back of my Throat, 1974/1977), etc. Technology becomes the medium to make all the sounds of the body audible in place of the instituted language.

Another direction which does not abandon semantism is possible. Dufrêne returns with the TPL and the Cantate des mots camés, in which the aim is to reveal the “undersides of language” (down to the most scatological value of the “underside(s)”), notably through puns (a hijacking of rhyme and spelling): a radical subversion of values through humor. Heidsieck also constructs an anti-lyric poetry using clichés (“Tu viens chéri(e),” Passe-Partout, 1975) or superimposing spoken or technical language and everyday noises as in “Le Carrefour de la Chaussée d’Antin” (The Chaussée d’Antin junction, 1972). He said of the Biopsies series that he sought to collect “the banal, the daily, the new concerns appearing in society, in the newspapers of the time . . . . Above all, it was necessary not to do poetic poetry, to go beyond the ‘poetic language,’ we all agreed on this point” (Heidsieck, “Entretien avec François Collet, 12).

Among the Swedish sound poets, Hodell most consistently dedicated himself to unveiling and undermining the oppressive power of language. His one-word poem igevär (presentarms, 1963) solely consists of the military drill command “i gevär,” which approximately translates as “present arms,” contracted into one word and drawn out in time for several minutes. In its printed version, the phrase is visually extended over the whole book: “iiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii[…]geeeeeeeeee[…]väääääääääääääää[…]r.” A speech act has thus been cited and altered almost into unrecognizability. Though Hodell’s poem is performative in itself, its presupposition is that language in general is performative and has an effect on the world—in this case the concrete effect of making a soldier shoulder his arm, as well as the corollary effect of shaping the individual into a military subject. Hodell’s poem is thus less a question of “how to do things with words,” as J. L. Austin famously phrased it, than a question of how to deconstruct the power of language.

In 1970, Chopin claimed that Hodell was not, “strictly speaking, a sound poet” but “creates a human force announcing and denouncing the murderous and criminal worlds engendered by the heads of state, imprisoned as they are within their power of their authority, in their collective notion of Order, far more criminal than any disorder of any individual man.”[21] In the same year, Hodell released the sound poem Law & Order Inc., which repeats the steadfast sound of marching boots for almost a quarter of an hour, while a harsh male voice repeatedly counts from one to four. The poem derives its efficacy from repetition, rhythm, and duration. The result is machinelike and aggressive, leaving no room for dialogue or individual deviation. Law & Order Inc. spells out the inherent threat of violence in the phrase “law and order,” which is furthermore linked to the logic of capitalism through the addition of an “Inc.” as in “incorporated,” in the title. The work has not lost its urgency as the U.S. president 40 years later tweets “LAW & ORDER” while protests against racial violence spread across the country. A critique of military language as a means of regulating the individual subject is moreover at the core of Hodell’s poem General Bussig (General Buddy Buddy), first performed in 1963. The poem evolves through the repetition of a permuted key phrase. In translation, an excerpt reads: “General Buddy Buddy, I want to obey orders . . . I want, I want, I want to obey orders, obey, obey, obey orders, orders, orders.”[22] Irony, repetition, and rhythm are thus employed to subvert the order of language with particular regard to the orders of military language.

The sapping of discourses of authority is thus a widely shared objective. The targets may differ according to national contexts, but the aim is the same: to track down regimentation even in language, in order to subvert it. The resulting “deautomatization of language” is linked to a “deautomatization of perception.”[23] The performative character is thus intended to be doubly efficient: as a tool of denunciation but also as a way of getting the public to re-examine its relationship to the arts, to language and, consequently, to politics.

4. Audience Relations: Criticism of One-Directional Language

Heirs to the historical avant-gardes who, in many ways, invented the public as a response to emerging mass culture, the neo-avant-gardes theorized performance and the happening.[24] Even if sound research explores all the new recording techniques, it is this situation of direct confrontation that defines sound poetry in the first place: it finds in it not only a possibility to get out of the book, but also the condition for a new relationship with the public likely to create a new community that revives the oral and collective practice of poetry.

The Austrian sound poems of the postwar period parodically undermine the rhetorical pathos of political speech. In the struggle against the established powers, they rely less on frontal attack than on tactics of ironic inversion. They thus promote a culture of laughter that exposes the hollowness of power-based phrases, gestures, and structures. In particular, Jandl’s poems criticize a one-way communication that characterizes authoritarian political language. Jandl’s sound poems such as “schtzngrmm” or “ode on N” are also prime examples of an attempt to reach an audience that was not initiated into the aesthetic concepts of the avant-garde and neo-avant-garde. Jandl, who was a teacher by profession for a long time, completed a dense reading program, not least in schools. He was an outstanding performance artist. The catchiness of the message of the above-mentioned poems is shown by their overwhelming effect on the audience at the “Beat Poetry Incarnation” in the Royal Albert Hall in London on 11 June 1965. The audience joined in Jandl’s recital and responded with a variety of noises. Bernhard Fetz aptly formulates: “The artistic revolution of the 1960s was an uprising of other, unconsumed, plebeian voices against the dominance of the artistically elevated word as well as against the dominance of authoritarian public voices.”[25] Jandl tried to free poetry from the confines of an aloof art community and open it up to mass culture.

A further alternative to the traditional separation between author and audience is explored by Rühm’s “action texts”. With these texts Rühm tried to establish direct physical contact with his listeners. In suggestion (1972), for example, the words “einatmen / ausatmen” (“inhale / exhale”) are spoken in a calm voice and at a steady tempo for as long as it takes for the listeners to adjust their breathing rhythm to the rhythm of speech. Then the speaker can accelerate or slow down the tempo as desired. “The title of the spoken text, which is itself ‘suggestive,’ implies as an implicit hypnotic component an interaction between speaker and audience.”[26] Such a performance can be understood as a form of artistic community building that stands at right angles to collectivization through ideological suggestions or influence.

The desire to meet a new audience is a determining factor in the book’s release. The readings took place in galleries, then progressively in festivals such as, in France, Liberté de Parole (Freedom of speech) in 1969 (Vieux Colombier, “36 hours of poetic action”); the First International Festival of Sound Poetry, in 1976, organized by Heidsieck at the Atelier Annick Le Moine; and the Polyphonix festival created in 1979 by Jean-Jacques Lebel. Performance practice does not only aim to explore new conditions for the production of unheard sound, but also to transform the reader into an audience, the relationship with that audience, and thus the audience itself. On 8 June 1967, Chopin, Dufrêne, and Wolman created a sound system for the exhibition “Light and Movement” organized by Franck Popper at the Museum of Modern Art in Paris. In his performances, Heidsieck similarly creates a sound environment by superimposing the recordings and their interaction with the amplified voice. Poetry thus aims at radical performativity: “Action poetry” (Heidsieck), “direct poetry” (Lebel), the need to replace discourse by “the act itself,” as Chopin said of Dufrêne's “Peace in Algeria” (Chopin, Poésie sonore international, 98).

Lettrism had already insisted on the necessary extension to every mode of sensitive expression and Isou had considered, with “infinitesimal art” (1956) and “supratemporal art” (1960), the question of public participation. Extreme physical performance, screaming, panting, sometimes to the point of being unbearable, reveal this body that the literature of the book has concealed and destabilizes the public, whose senses are engaged. The Swede Hanson, in his beautiful article on Chopin in 1979, underlines the powerful effect of this work of spatialization, which “penetrates the skin of the listener and becomes part of his own existence.”[27] The body revealed even in the noises of its physical interiority (the microphone in the mouth); the reader transformed into a public and caught in his body by sound violence; and the engineering that makes this possible (tape recorder, and in the 70s, electroacoustic music studio): These three dimensions that Chopin explored have a stripping power that aims to free man from norms, taboos, and manipulations of all kinds, in order to rediscover life, i.e. action.

In Sweden, Laaban who was rooted in an auditive interpretation of Surrealism, similarly sought to “use all resources of the human voice, and not just those that are structured by the vocabulary, syntax and grammar of ordinary language.”[28] His sound poems moreover replace morphological semantics with a logic of acoustic substitutions. In a different way, Åkesson elaborates the zone between body and language in her sound poem “Neeijjj” (Nooo, 1966). The author uncannily moves between pleasure and pain, desire and despair as her voice slides between different intonations, sounds and interjections: “ooooh,” “noooo,” “ooouch.” These modes of poetic performance call for new modes of listening that emphasize feeling rather than semantic decoding—instead of receiving a linguistic message we reverberate together with a semi-linguistic voice.

Apart from moving beyond conventional language, Hanson relies on multilingualism and was one of the Swedish poets who built international avant-garde networks, along with for instance Bodin and Bengt af Klintberg. One can remark, however, that the attempts at radical community building sometimes rhetorically opposed hierarchical structures while they factually recreated them. Hanson, who spent some time in Paris around 1960, and came into contact with Daniel Spoerri and Dufrêne’s sound poetry, recalls that he also encountered the lettrists by way of Maurice Lemaître. He retrospectively remarks: “their arrogance and semi-fascist sectarianism repelled me from the very beginning.”[29]

Apart from bringing the aesthetics of Fluxus to Sweden, which would contribute to a redefinition of audience relations, Klintberg made works of sound poetry such as Orangerimusik (1963). Performing at the student’s union in Gothenburg in 1964, he invited the audience to a game of linguistic alteration: “Life is full of mix-ups. Too often we’re too credulous and dupable. Language fools us. What follows could be called a concentration test.”[30] He would then stipulate a number of redefinitions that took the famous arbitrariness of the sign one step further as a series of common words temporarily took on each other’s significance. Fahlström too made a game of words and sounds with his Minneslista (till “Dr. Schweitzers sista uppdrag”) (Memory List (For Dr. Schweitzer’s Last Mission)) which Hodell published on Kerberos in 1964. The work is an interactive poem to be played as a game by its readers, who place invented close-to-nonsense words on a large map of superpowers in different colors, in ways that constantly change the sound of the played words. Language is hence simultaneously connected to play and power and explored through repetition and permutation. Hodell, who shared these concerns, wore a miner’s headlamp in his performances of “General Bussig”, sweeping a cone of light over the audience. That way, he underscored the function of language as power—the “verbal brainwash” that he staged—while articulating another relationship between poet and audience than that of an ordinary reading.

Rediscovering the power of language as a medium implies moving away from conventional language as well as from traditional modes of reception. Performance is a touchstone for the avant-garde (and at the core of the Fluxus movement, which spread throughout Europe). The aim is to create the conditions for a new relationship with the public, but also between the public and its environment. It thus implements the conditions of a “deautomatization of perception,” which is required for a work of “demilitarization.”


The forms and processes of sound poetry must not be political in an explicit, concrete sense. In the post-war period up to the 1970s, however, they could often be made productive for targeted interventions in the prevailing politics and social conditions on both a local and a global scale. The international dimension is perhaps less explicitly political than that of the historical avant-gardes (whether it was conquering for Italian futurism, or pacifist for dada). As we have seen, however, the genre also includes several works that address international issues, such as racial violence and colonialism. Moreover, we must take into account what it may have meant in the 1950s and 1970s to be able to multiply contacts for instance with poets from the Eastern bloc (Carlfriedrich Claus, Ladislav Novák, etc.) or with the American counter-culture (Burroughs, Brion Gysin, John Giorno, Fluxus, etc.)

Sound poetry represents a prime example of the (neo-)avant-garde striving for an interdisciplinary approach to art. The intermedial experiments were connected with a search for new forms of the relationship between artists and audience and with community building. But the picture is not uniform and free of contradictions: the endeavor to unite art and life and the democratization of art through low-threshold, responsive performance practices contrast with tendencies towards an elitist and exclusive circle formation, an authoritarian attitude, and a strong male dominance. Although the increasingly politicized counterculture of the 1970s distanced itself from elitist tendencies of the historical avant-garde and the neo-avant-garde, however, this may partially have been due to a misconception of advanced forms as being elitist in a political sense, resulting in a problematic opposition of political commitment to experimental cultural expressions. As we have seen, even the strong experimentalism of European sound poetry did have notable political implications.

Even if the accusation of elitism seems justified with regard to the habitus of neo-avant-garde artistic circles, an aesthetically grounded critique of political discourses forms an important corrective to a rhetoric of political agitation. This is because the latter often unreflectively adopts the patterns of authoritarian, one-directional speech of its political opponent. If the forms of language not least shape political forms of thought and action, sound poetry’s attack on the political opponent or the object of its critique, in many cases, distances itself from explicit accusatory rhetoric, in which the authoritarian structures live on only under reversed auspices. Instead, it uses forms of ironic appropriation and alienation of acoustic phenomena that index authoritarian structures of order.

Among the discussed works, two major tendencies can be discerned in view of their political implications: on the one hand a ludic and aesthetically open approach, and on the other a more explicit commitment to social issues. While both groups of works testify to a politics of form, they do so with different emphasis. Whereas the first group relies on formal analogies between aesthetic representations and society, e.g. as manifestations and valorizations of non-hierarchical and non-teleological structures, the second group of works rather intervenes in historical discourses, through a combination of formal experimentation with semantic references to political topics in texts or paratexts. One could, perhaps, describe this difference as one between a politics of form and a politics of form, or one between representation and intervention. Together, the two tendencies trace a gamut of the political aspects of sound poetry aesthetics as it ranges from formal concerns to topological commitment.

Sound poetry can moreover be understood as an alternative politics of emotions. In the sense of Julia Kristeva, it foregrounds the semiotic over the symbolic. It is the prosodic, rhythmic qualities of language through which meanings are first evoked. Instead of compact, holistic offers of meaning, with which the identity politics of various colors operate, sound poetry relies on the anarchic, the fissures, the fragile, on playful openness. The physical is thereby intertwined with the technological; voices, bodily noises, and synthetically generated sounds are treated as equal acoustic media. In the course of this exploration, technology and politics enter into a complex interrelationship in neo-avant-garde sound poetry. As technologies shift into the realm of poetry, we witness a re-functioning of technology to other ends. Particularly striking is the contrast with a certain current of the historical avant-garde, as prominently represented by Italian Futurist Marinetti: While this current had politicized technology as a subject and medium in the spirit of militarization, in neo-avant-garde sound poetry technical media are often re-purposed in the spirit of demilitarization.

These qualities made the genre apt for undermining language as political and functional discourse, while hinting at the possibilities of an unthought and yet undefined order that could be articulated in the zone where the traditional order of language fails. The playfulness of sound poetry could thus be directed against the bourgeois ‘seriousness’ and the utilitarian thinking in the post-war boom as well as against the commercialization of art. Unlike the preceding and contemporaneous existentialism, sound poetry cleared away pathos in favor of a plebeian culture of laughter.

Even if sound poetry emerges from specific historical conditions and local traditions, it creates a world language that—like music—transcends the boundaries of national languages through the voice, and through bodily and technologically produced sounds. This also indicates a general political direction. Transnational communication is combined with an anti-hierarchical conception of art. On a political level, there is an anarchic rebelliousness that counters the impositions of authoritarian forms of rule and militaristic concepts of order with subversive mockery and biting irony.


[1] John M. Cage, Writings ‘67–’72 (London: Calder and Boyars, 1973), x.

[2] Along the same lines, Claudia Benthien and Wiebke Vorrath use the term “sound poetry” to cover both prewar and postwar examples of acoustically experimental poetry, while they refer to sound poetry in the neo-avant-garde to discern the latter from the former—pointing out how “Sound poetry received new relevance within the international concrete poetry movement of the 1950s and its neo-avant-garde poetics . . . which at the same time constituted a rediscovery and elaboration of the historical avant-garde.” See Claudia Benthien and Wibke Vorrath, “German sound poetry from the neo-avant-garde to the digital age,” SoundEffects: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Sound and Sound Experience 7, no. 1 (2017): 4–26, 9–10.

[3] For the latter, see Johan Gardfors, “Åke Hodell Art and Writing in the Neo-Avant-Garde,” (PhD diss., Göteborgs Universitet, 2017); see too, Martin Glaz Serup’s chapter, “ Hot Contents in Cool Containers” in “Kulturel erindring og konceptuel vidnesbyrdlitteratur,” (PhD diss., Københavns Universitet, 2015, 131–187.) The language criticism of the Swedish 1960s has been discussed by Beata Agrell in Romanen som forskningsresa, forskningsresan som roman: Om litterära återbruk och konventionskritik i 1960-talets nya svenska prosa. (Gothenburg: Daidalos, 1993).

[4] Robert Estivals, “Des avant-gardes esthétiques à la révolution de Mai,” Communications 12, (1968): 84–107. For more on this notion, see Cristina De Simone, Proféractions! Poésie en action à Paris (1946–1969) (Dijon: Les Presses du réel, 2018), 460–466.

[5] Ernst Jandl, “ich sehr lieben den deutschen sprach. Im Gespräch mit Peter Huemer,” Wespennest. Zeitschrift für brauchbare Texte und Bilder 125 (2001): 22–30, 30. Where nothing else is noted, translations are our own.

[6] François Dufrêne, “Lettrisme et juventisme,” Soulèvement de la jeunesse (Paris) 1 (June 1952): 8, reprint: Archi-Made (Paris: Ecole nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts, 2005), 75–76, 75; Henri Chopin, Poésie sonore internationale (Paris: Jean-Michel Place, 1979), 98.

[7] Dufrêne, “Entretien avec Michel Giroud,” Canal (Paris) 3 (May 1977): rpt.: Tombeau de Pierre Larousse (Dijon: Les Presses du réel, coll. L’écart absolu, 2002), 8.

[8] Bernard Heidsieck, “Entretien avec François Collet,” C.C.P. Cahier critique de poésie 19, no. 1 (2009): 12.

[9] For a retrospective account of the notion of “open art” in the Swedish context, see Leif Nylén, Den öppna konsten: Happenings, instrumental teater, konkret poesi och andra gränsöverskridningar i det svenska 60-talet (Stockholm: Sveriges Allmänna Konstförening, 1998).

[10] On Johnson’s printed book Gubbdrunkning as a score, see Jesper Olsson, “Concrete Poetry as a Score for Performance–Bengt Emil Johnson’s Gubbdrunkning,” in A Cultural History of the Avant-Garde in the Nordic Countries 1950–1975, ed. Tania Ørum and Jesper Olsson (Leiden and Boston: Brill Rodopi, 2016), 486–92, 486. Concerning Fahlström’s poem, see Jesper Olsson, “Kneaded Language: Concrete Poetry and New Media in the Swedish 1960s,” Modernism/modernity 18, no. 2 (2011): 273–88; Teddy Hultberg, Öyvind Fahlström on the air: Manipulating the World, (Stockholm: Sveriges Radios Förlag & Fylkingen, 1999); and Eva Lilja’s “Öyvind Fahlström’s Bord: Visual Devices in Poetry,” Studia Metrica et Poetica 3, no. 2 (2016): 7–31.

[11] Gerhard Rühm, “über auditive poesie,” in botschaft an die zukunft. gesammelte sprechtexte (Reinbek bei Hamburg: Rowohlt, 1988), 9.

[12] Dufrêne, “La jeunesse ne passera pas,” Soulèvement de la Jeunesse 2 (1952): rpt., Archi-Made (Paris: Ecole nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts, 2005), 77–79, 78.

[13] Cf. Bobillot, Jean-Pierre, Bernard Heidsieck Poésie Action (Paris, Éditions Jean-Michel Place, 1996), especially 166 sq.

[14] Bengt Emil Johnson, Gorilla 1, 1966: 8.

[15] In view of the cultural politics around the electronic music studio EMS, see Sanne Krogh Groth, Politics and Aesthetics in Electronic Music: A Study of EMS–Elektronmusikstudion Stockholm, 1964–1979, trans. Juliana Hodkinson and Isabel Thomson (Berlin: Kehrer Verlag Heidelberg, 2014).

[16] Tania Ørum and Marianne Ping Huang, “En tradition av opbrud,” in En tradition af opbrud: Avantgardernes tradition og politik, ed. Marianne Ping Huang and Charlotte Engberg (Copenhagen: Forlaget Spring, 2005), 7–18, 16. Our translation.

[17] Isidore Isou, “Le manifeste de la poésie lettriste,” Introduction à une nouvelle poésie et à une nouvelle musique (Paris: Gallimard, 1947), 12.

[18] The “crirythme” is a “kind of concrete vocal music recorded directly and without any possible score creating ultra-lettrism” in 1953. François Dufrêne, “2 mots d’explication en 24x17,” catalogue Present Projects (Malmö: Galerie Leger, (1976; rpt., Tombeau de Pierre Larousse, Dijon: Les Presses du réel, 2002), 28.

[19] Henri Chopin, “Pourquoi suis-je l’auteur de la poésie sonore et libre,” Artes hispanicas / Hispanic Arts (New York) 1, nos. 3–4 Winter-Spring, (1968; rpt., Poésure et peintrie. D’un art, l’autre, Marseille: Musée de Marseille, Special Issue Concrete poetry directed by Mary Ellen Solt,1993): 556–57, 556.

[20] Henri Chopin, The Body is a sound factory & Co, Alga Margen, 2002.

[21] Henri Chopin, “Suite à ‘lettre ouverte aux musiciens aphones’” (Sequel to “Open Letter to Aphonic Musicians”) OU, no. 33 February (1968; rpt., Ou: Cinquième Saison, Milano: Alga Marghen, 2002): (42–44), 42.

[22] Åke Hodell, Verbal Brainwash and other works. (Stockholm: Fylkingen Records, 2000), compact discs.

[23] The notion of “deautomatization” is linked to that of “ostranenie” (defamiliarization, estrangement) theorized by Russian formalism, particularly Viktor Shklovski in his essay “Art as Technique” in 1917, a concept that the neo-avant-gardes reclaimed.

[24] Erika Fischer-Lichte takes a similar view in Die Entdeckung des Zuschauers. Paradigmenwechsel auf dem Theater des 20. Jahrhundert, (Tübingen: Basel, 1997).

[25] Bernhard Fetz, “Stimm-Politik. Ernst Jandl und die österreichische Literatur,” in Österreich im Reich der Mitte, ed. Liu Wei and Julian Müller (Vienna: Praesens, 2013), 125.

[26] Michael Lentz, Lautpoesie/-musik nach 1945. Eine kritische Bestandsaufnahme, vol. 2 (Vienna: Edition Selene, 2000), 772. 

[27] Sten Hanson, “Henri Chopin, poète sonore,” translated from English by Jean Chopin, Poésie sonore internationale, 122–124, 124. The English version, “Henri Chopin, the Sound Poet,” was published in Stereo Headphones, ed. Nicholas Zurbrugg, nos. 8–10, 1982, 15–16.

[28] Ilmar Laaban, ”Hur jag kom fram till ljuddikten…,” Ankarkättingens slut är sångens början: poesi & ljudpoesi 1944–1993 (Stockholm: Fylkingen Records/Kalejdoskop, 1998), compact disc.

[29] Sten Hanson, “My approach to text-sound-composition,” The Pioneers: Five Text-Sound Artists (Stockholm: Phono Suecia, 1992), 15, compact disc.

[30] Bengt af Klintberg, “Konkretisterna på studentkåren i Göteborg,” April 17, 1964, National Library of Sweden R10-0925, tape recording.