The engulfing machine of Henri Chopin
By Domenico Napolitano
Translated by Joseph Sannicandro
Originally published December 1, 2016 on zetaesse
TAGS: henri chopin, sound poetry, noise, sound body, sound factory, swallowing, stomach, nietzsche, artaud, burroughs
“When I put the microphone into the mouth I have simultaneously five sounds:
the air and the liquid in the mouth, the respiration in the nose, the air between each tooth and the respiration in the lungs … In 1974 I put into my stomach a very small microphone and it was a discovery – the body is always like a factory!
It never stops – there’s no silence!”
[Henri Chopin,unpublished interview, ABC Television, Sydney 1992]
In 1974, the sound poet Henri Chopin swallows a little probe and records the sounds of his stomach, producing “La Digestion,” [Digestion] the most radical work to come out of “sound poetry.”
La Digestion – Les Mirifique Tundras & Co., Alga Marghen 1997
Concretized in this work, with unequivocal evidence and expressive power, is all the artistic research of a movement that was born in the Sixties, but that is rooted in the preceding experimentation of futurism, dadaism, and lettrism, in the work of [Antonin] Artaud. “La Digestion,” in our opinion, affirms the overcoming of all these experiences.
We seek, therefore, to analyze the key points that have determined the development of “sound poetry” (in opposition to literary poetry), and the influence that a work like “La Digestion” has had on the development of avant-garde music, and for the consideration, today, of the experience of sound as such.
In the first place, sound poetry neither follows a predetermined aesthetic, nor describes a compact group of artists, but rather encompasses multiple experiences, as is clearly evident in the “manifesto” collection Poésie sonore internationale [International sound poetry], edited by Henri Chopin, a key figure in the movement. Often with the aid of electronic devices, sound poetry does not pose any canon except starting form words and arriving at sound through a spontaneous creation of transformation, overlapping, juxtaposition, acceleration or slowing down (sometimes recursively), sound poetry does not pose any canon except that of starting from words and arriving at sound.
This simple principle already allows us to capture more specific characteristics: working with the sound of words, the latter lose their presumed sense in favor of their phonic aspect, giving life to new words, created at random.
Lexicon, grammar, and syntax are at degree zero, while the quality of the relationships between the elements is acoustically controlled. The barrier between music and poetry is loosened, these categories begin to lose their meaning and break against the “corporeality of sound.” As William S. Burroughs, who was also part of the movement for a certain period, explains:
The lines separating music and poetry, writing and painting, are purely arbitrary, and sound poetry is precisely designed to break down these categories and to free poetry from the printed page without dogmatically ruling out the convenience of the printed page.²
There is no separation between music and poetry, therefore, as they each share the experience of sound, and, above all, a “liberation from the printed page”, that is, an emancipation from writing. Sound poetry has to do exclusively with the oral word because it is principally sound; it places itself in a critical relationship with the written word because the latter holds, first and foremost, thanks to its “immateriality” and repeatability, the semantic qualities, the cross-reference between signs, which places a distance between the present expressive gesture and this separate and abstract meaning.
At the end of the Sixties, Chopin began to define with high precision his explorations of “sound poetry made for and of tape recordings,” through compositions of “vocal micro-particles rather than the Word as we know it,” meaning that he turns his interest to the voice as an element of sonic rather than semantic transmission.³ In the 1967 essay entitled “Why I am the author of sound poetry and free poetry,” Chopin expresses his position towards the written word and signification in a more radical manner, arguing that the latter “means something different for each of us” and “imposes multiple points of view which never adhere to the life of a single person and which one accepts by default,” even going so far as to state that “the omnipotent Word […] has allowed life to lie.”⁴
Following a gesture that was already made by Nietzsche and Artaud, Henri Chopin refuses to subject Life to the Word because he refuses to subject Life to Being. It is for this reason that he insists upon the gap and the non-adherence that exists between “signification” and “the life of a single person,” a gap that can only be bridged through lying or blind obedience. The Word, especially the written one, is separated from life because it is universal and indefinitely repeatable, because it makes an ideal, abstract meaning persist, below the singularity and unrepeatability of the present moment, with which, instead, the “vitality of life” (“corporeal life”) coincides and finds its most authentic expression in the “sound gesture.” Contrary to Plato, Chopin doesn’t criticize the written word because it has a body, is embodied, but rather, on the contrary, because it has none; indeed, it removes the “sound body” of the oral word, its physical part, the gesture that actually happens in the moment—or: the voice—to leave only its immaterial part, its “meaningful” reference.
What is proper to the voice, “the materiality of the body that flows from the throat, where the phonic metal is forged,”⁵ is continually removed in favor of the written trace, soundless and bodiless, and therefore lifeless. Because, it must be pointed out, for Chopin there is no life without a body. This is why the word becomes a real limit, a coercion that reduces the possibilities of life: “I accused it and I still accuse it as an impediment to living,” which can only be answered by invoking a return to a living expressiveness, which “does not explain, it transmits emotions, it suggests exchanges, affective communications.”⁶
If, as Derrida says, “writing is the space itself and the possibility of repetition in general,”⁷ authors like Artaud and Chopin reclaim “the live gesture that takes place only once.” Such a gesture—in its uniqueness, in its “emergence” in the present moment, and “self-affirmation” as such and not as reference to a meaning that is indefinitely repeatable in time—this gesture is the Life that opposes “representation,” “the unrepresentability of the living present is dissimulated or dissolved, suppressed or deported within the infinite chain of representations.”⁸ This “living present” is the abysmal limit of expenditure, the unrepeatable, finite, dangerously gratuitous gesture against which the instrumental logic of civilization clashes, always devoted to the cult of utility and control, based on a linguistic and expressive system which, as a consequence, allows indefinite repeatability for a more effective exercise of power.
It is from here that the need arises for sound poetry to oppose the primacy of the Word, to find behind it the vitality of the voice, the body, the gesture, the anarchic charge of life itself which is unrepresentable and uncontrollable. Poetry is not made with the word, it is made with the body, it does not obey the senses, but sensoriality. Hence Chopin’s invocation that “for the word is no more flesh: the vocal breath is flesh.”⁹ It is made up of sensory stimuli, apparently unrelated stimuli, yet deeply connected by their “common character which is given by their own sensoriality, the only mode of existence that implies the presence of a body and invokes its living materiality.”¹⁰ The word must become body, the vocal breath must become flesh; doing so the body itself speaks but without wanting to “signify”, it is only sound and gesture.
Sound Poetry reaches a new level with “La Digestion”: articulated sound no longer has any privilege over the sonic possibilities of the whole body. The tongue merges with the mouth, the larynx merges with the lungs, the organs begin to resonate/resound, a whole new sound universe materializes: puffs, salivation, swallowing, the breath that merges with the guttural sounds, the lips become one with teeth. And the stomach, which in, in this sense, the most extreme place of this exploration of the word made body, rises to a cursed temple of poetry: the place of introjection, the root of the mouth, the dark background of the word and the breath. Here, in “La Digestion,” it is literally a matter of reversing the process of phonation, swallowing, devouring the word and with it the meaning, engulfing meanings and signifiers, only to make them re-emerge from the receptacle into which they were disposed, accompanied now by all the residues, the rubbish, the noises, that have gathered there. It is these residues that constitute meaning, what the word is not capable of bringing, but rather intentionally wants to remove as a danger. But that is where real life lies, the chaotic and therefore revolutionary charge of life, which is as such dangerous for life itself. Poetry has always been intrinsically linked to writing, even where the most avant-garde experiments (Dadaism, Futurism) have searched for the “sonority” of the word, because even in those cases the reference horizon was nothing other than the word. But where there is writing there is no voice and there is no body, there is no sound, but only the representation of it, notation.
Paradoxically, it is the tape recorder, this specific archiving tool (yet one rich in possible creative uses) which, paradoxically, that enables us to overcome this conceptual impasse, allowing the voice to no longer be only a phonic translation of the word (just as, for centuries, instruments were the phonic translation of the score), but a free voice, a voice that is more body than word: is sound precisely as body, sound material not semiotically formed, not imprisoned within the limits of meaning. The recorder is the way to transform the body into a material, which can be sculpted and shaped. “With electronic research,” wrote Chopin, “the voice has finally become concrete.”¹¹
The recorder materializes the voice and the body, the voice as body and the body as a voice, making them vehicles of a unique sound experience, in which, through amplification and specific microphone and composition techniques, the sounds of the body become the protagonists of sound work and the body itself becomes a real sound factory: the sounds of the mouth are played in extreme saturation, then accelerated and slowed down, superimposed over a set of violent noise and natural voice; the sounds of the other organs, amplified and “manipulated”, are composed in a game of recognition and unrecognization in which they change their nature, bordering on industrial clashes and hypnotic repetitions; the breaths become lashes of noise, the sounds of the stomach’s true gears that seem to move a huge human machine. Compared to this sound universe, the word is nothing but the most faded of the infinite possibilities of the voice, imposed against the expressive powers of the body and of the amplification machine. The physical experience of sound, sound as a body, voice as a body. And on the other hand, poetry as a body, biological reality in motion, a structure of electric particles; as stated by the medievalist Paul Zumthor, a friend of Chopin: “A body transformed into audible space.”
With the tape recorder, Henri Chopin carried out an unrealized intuition that was already Artaud’s, and in this way, opened the way for a transformation of both music and poetry. If Artaud sought “speech prior to words,”¹² for Chopin the word is always linked to the logic of representation, and as such is a corpse of vital energy. It is precisely through phonic technology that he manages to make poetry something that is no longer subject to the Word, not even in its extreme expression of glossolalia or primal scream, but as it is sound, body and life, viscera, and flesh. “La Digestion” inaugurated the season of sound experience as such, in which there is no longer a difference between music, poetry, and noise. This is something that electro-acoustic experimentation had already explored a decade earlier, but which with Chopin takes on the unique characteristics of the human body as an inexhaustible “sound factory” in which all the organs, words, and sounds are involved as organic gears that rotate in the machine human. Only with him did the technical means become tools to evoke an ancestral experience of existence, something basic and profound (the visceral in its most proper sense), which also goes beyond the human body to make us imagine an enormous collective organism that digests and regurgitates sounds all the time, our cities, the boundless forests, the marine abysses, all the expressions of Life. Ultimately, a radical act of liberation.
That is why a suggestive art which leaves the body, that resonator and that receptacle, animated, breathed and acted, that (+) and (—), that is why a suggestive art was made; it had to come, and nourish, and in no way affirm. You will like this art, or you will not like it, that is of no importance! In spite of yourself it will embrace you, it will circulate in you. That is its role. It must open our effectors to our own biological, physical and mental potentialities beyond all intellect; art must be valued like a vegetable, it feeds us differently, that is all. […] That way the Word is reduced to its proper role subordinate to life; it serves only to propose intelligible usages, elementary exchanges, but never will it channel the admirable powers of life…¹³
* DOMENICO “Mimmo” NAPOLITANO, b. 1985, graduate in “Philosophy, Politics and Communication” at the “L’Orientale” University of Naples, has been active as a musician and composer of electro-acoustic music for over ten years with the stage name SEC_. He has played concerts throughout Europe, the USA and the Middle East. Active for as many years as an organizer of musical events in the cities of Naples and Avellino, he is considered one of the animators of the Italian electronic music scene. He has also published short essays on the philosophy of music, including “Partiture significanti” (“Significant Scores”) for journal Trimbi.
[Translator’s Note: Where possible, I deferred to existing English language translations of texts the author has quoted from Italian or French language sources.]
1. Cf. Poésie Sonore Internationale, double cassette compilation, (Paris, Éditions Jean-Michel Place, 1979)
2.William Burroughs, “Introduction,” in Henri Chopin, Poésie sonore internationale, (Paris: J.-M. Place, 1979) 9.
The Italian in Napolitano’s essay is itself a translation of Jean Chopin’s translation into French of Burroughs English language in both of which are included in the original. As such, I defer to the original English, even if it is slightly different than the French and Italian versions.
3. Cf. Henri Chopin, “Le Ventre De Bertini”, included on a 7” vinyl record accompanying OU. Cinquième saison. Number 33, Feb. 1968.
4.Henri Chopin, “Why I Am The Author of Sound Poetry and Free Poetry,” 1967. www.ubu.com/papers/chopin.html
5. Roland Barthes, “Écoute,” L’Obvio et L’Obtus.
6. Chopin, “Why I Am The Author of Sound Poetry and Free Poetry.”
7.Jacques Derrida, “From ‘The theatre of cruelty and the closure of representation’,” in Antonin Artaud: A Critical Reader, Edward Scheer, ed. New York: Routledge, 2004. 43.
8.Jacques Derrida, “The theatre of cruelty and the closure of representation,” in Writing and Difference, Alan Bass, trans. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978. 235.
9. Henri Chopin, ‘The new media’ (1995).
10. P. Zumthor, I grafemi e i vocemi di Henri Chopin, in «La Taverna di Auerbach», n° 1, 1987 (italics the author’s)
11. Henri Chopin, La voce, in «La Taverna di Auerbach», n° 9/10, 1990.
12. Antonin Artaud, “On the Balinese Theatre,” in The Theatre and its Double, in Antonin Artaud: Collected Works, Volume 4. Victor Corti, trans. London: John Calder, 1974. 50.
13. Chopin, “Why I Am The Author of Sound Poetry and Free Poetry.”