Internal Logic in a Made-up Landscape

A friend of mine, cxKLAW, posted this video link on an email list I participate in and I can’t get the performance out of my head.  You should watch it. Go ahead, I’ll wait….

Did you make it through the full piece or did you cut out early?

I found it mesmerizing, and when I did cut out early–I watched the first few minutes of it at work and needed to get back to doing actual work–I found it difficult to pull myself away.  I found myself asking, why is it so difficult to stop listening? and I’ve been turning that question over in my mind ever since.  It turns out, though, that some of the people on the email list did not share my fascination and had no trouble clicking away to something else.

So here’s my question for them and for anyone else who didn’t last through the whole piece: what would happen if you didn’t watch the video, but only listened to it as though it were a piece of music?  Would you find it engaging enough to listen to the entire piece?  Personally, I find Jaap Blonk’s face interesting–to me it almost appears that the recitation of this poem over the years has carved his face into its current form–but I could see how watching someone recite nonsense syllables for half an hour might bore some 21st Century Internet users accustomed to more visual stimulation.  I would bet, however, that without the visual signals saying “this is boring,” your ears might find the piece quite engaging.

Let me say that I know nothing of Dadaism and that until I clicked on the link I had never heard of the “Ursonate” or its creator, Kurt Schwitters, nor have I searched the Internet for other performances or writing about the poem.  I want to respond to it from my own experience, before I read about how others have experienced and analyzed it.

So, assuming I’m not the only person who finds it so, why does a thirty minute poem composed of made-up syllables hold one’s attention?  It’s the enjambment, of course!  Just kidding, I couldn’t help myself.  Enjambment is probably the only poetic device a nonsense poem can’t take advantage of.  It does, however, use many others, such as rhythm, repetition, rhyme, alliteration, assonance, and consonance.  All of these make the poem aurally interesting, but what allows it to hold our attention for such a long period of time is its consistencies.

Even though the poem is composed entirely of made-up syllables, there are rules.  The syllables have a consistent sound (with the exception of the face-pulling, neck vibrating, buzzing sounds near the end!), as though they all belong to the same, single foreign language we have yet to learn (rather than from a dozen different foreign languages), and the syllables are finite in number and most of them are repeated.  It would, in theory, be possible to spend 30 minutes performing a string of made-up sounds and syllables that do not repeat and that sound distinctly different from each other. This might be an interesting challenge for the performer, but human brains seek patterns in chaos and with no discernible patterns, listeners would quickly bore.  In the “Ursonate,” however, one senses movement and emotion, as though you are being told a graphic story in a language you do not understand.  Watching it for the first time, I felt like a toddler who hadn’t yet learned to speak, trying desperately to grasp the meaning in the animated face and voice before me.  If I truly were a toddler, I can even identify the places where I would have begun to cry in fear, where I might have been soothed, and where I would have been excited enough to “dance” to the rhythm.

Anything completely made-up that has enough internal structure to make me feel safe and keep me interested for a long period of time and that can return me to a pre-verbal state of participation is pretty spectacular.  How often do we as adults encounter something like that?

So, goody for me, I got to have this experience.  But where I think this really could get interesting is if it were to become a collaborative experience.  When I work with kids to help them get in touch with their creativity, one of the biggest challenges, and the biggest goals, is to get them to express a first response to a stimulus, without planning their response in advance or censoring themselves to express an “appropriate” response.  It’s about spontaneity here–not, necessarily, originality.  This freedom is difficult to achieve, and so really needs to be practiced.  And, here, even though no one asked for it, is a spontaneous list of how I think someone could use the “Ursonate” with people of any age to practice spontaneity and getting in touch with their creative impulses:

Synesthesia Activities: The goal here is to inspire movement in response to sound.  These activities could be done with any group of two or more.  Full body: The group “performs” (a portion) of the “Ursonate” syllable by syllable with one person speaking a single syllable or word and the others immediately moving their bodies, spontaneously and without coordination between group members, in response.  One challenge might be to come up with a novel movement for each successive repetition of the same syllable; another challenge might be to remember and repeat the same movement each time the same syllable is repeated–both of these options require “thought before movement,” however, so if your goal is to help others get in touch with their first responses, skip these.  Brush strokes: A similar activity would be to have the group draw or paint in response to each syllable. Instead of moving their entire bodies, the participants would make one stroke with the pen or paintbrush in response as each syllable was spoken.  If large canvases or pieces of paper were hung on walls for the participants to mark on, this activity could be a combination dance/painting activity as the actors would have freedom to make large movements with their bodies.

Acting/Storytelling/Dance: Two or more people could divide the poem into parts, to make it feel more like a conversation.  For a larger group, the words and sections of the “Ursonate” could be analyzed by the participants and rated in terms of “action” and emotional temperature, such as scary, soothing, questioning, answering, motivating, sluggish, sad.  The group could then divide up and assign “parts” to subgroups and perform the “Ursonate” as though it were a musical piece being performed by various instrument sections or a play with actors and a chorus.  The actors might also choose to pair movements with the lines they speak, playing up the story aspects or emphasizing the musicality through dance.

Musical Notes: Each participant could be assigned a syllable that they will speak or sing each time it appears in the poem. The trick will be keeping everyone together and getting each member to speak their syllable on time.  To increase the creativity value, the group could agree on emotional values of various sections of the poem, so that each time a member said her line, she would have to say it in a manner in keeping with that section, thereby exploring the different meanings or emotions that can be expressed by a single syllable.  This could make a fun game, and if it could be accomplished with a fairly good tempo, it might be useful in a larger discussion of poetry or music in demonstrating the internal structure and musical or poetic elements of the piece.

There, I think I’ve said all I have to say about the video, why the poem works, and how it would be fun to explore it further with a group.  Now I’m free to go exploring the Internet and see what other people have had to say on the subject.  (Oh, I should also point out that Jaap Blonk’s memory, voice, and facial expressions are all incredible!  And mention that I could see my friend Tad performing this, or better (worse?) yet, I could see him creating this…conversations he had with our roommate Jim in college could have fairly easily sparked such a piece!  There, NOW I’ve said all I have to say.)  Any broader comments on internal logic in a made-up landscape will have to wait for another post.