Glossolalia and the Sound Poem

Posted: October 4, 2011 by Maree Cunnington in 2011


Cabaret Voltaire, Zurich, 1916. Wearing a cardboard costume of blue, scarlet and gold, Hugo Ball is carried to the stage in darkness. As the lights go up, the audience of Swiss bourgeoisie, artists, intellectuals, and refugees from the carnage of WWI, is silent. Ball begins a priestly incantation: ‘gadji beri bimba glandridi laula lonni cadori gadjama gramma berida bimbala glandri galassassa laulitalomini…’. The place to be, Spiegelgasse 1: simultaneous sound poems, noise music, ‘primitivist’ chants and drums, masked dancers, the absurd, the irrational, improvisation, chance, confrontation and cacophony. The lights dim. The audience responds with bewilderment and rage, and Ball disappears into the darkness. ‘It is necessary for poetry to discard language’, he writes,  ‘as painting has discarded the object’ (Scobie 1974, p. 217).

Hugo Ball in the Cabaret Voltaire Zurich 1916

In this report, I will explore the phenomenon of the sound poem through the themes of primitivism and glossolalia. Expressions of primitivism marked several avant garde movements of the early twentieth century, extending into mainstream culture in the 1920s. In that decade, a glorious fusion of jazz, dance, sexuality and artistic experimentation across all disciplines – music, theatre, visual arts, design and literature – came into being. When the first jazz bands arrived in France with the American army in 1918, they found, according to Klein and Jones (1985, p.176), ‘a terrain that had been heavily worked…Negro rhythms from the other side of the Atlantic had made, since the beginning of the century, a remarkable number of appearances’. For white avant-garde artists from countries with colonies in Africa, India, Asia, the Americas and the Pacific, so called ‘primitive’ cultures were seen to be closer to nature, with all the resources of magic at their disposal (Prevots 1985, p.6).  Both seductive and shocking, the avant garde’s embrace of primitivism was used to attack the deadening strictures of western civilisation.

While possibly the most theatrical, the Zurich Dadaists were not the first to experiment with the sound poem. Christian Morgenstern had, in 1905, created ‘Fisches Nachtgesang, based on glottal and labial distortions approximating the gulping and slurping sounds of fish’ (Noland 2005, p.10). There were Futurist precursors also: Marinetti’s concept of ‘Words in Freedom’, optophonic poems in which language was released from syntax, grammar, punctuation, or meaning, was influential. Russian Zaum, ‘the alphabet of the stars’ (Gordon 1992, p. 215) also explored similar territory, but without the proto-Fascist ravings of Marinetti and his accomplices.

Hugo Ball’s Gadji Beri Bimba appears to be not only a parody of the Latin Roman Catholic liturgy and an attempt at a primitive chant, but also a response to his experience as a German soldier in the front lines of battle in 1914. He wrote afterwards that ‘language was deeply discredited due to its use as propaganda that “justified” war. The journalistic and political abuses of language meant that “The word has been abandoned; it used to dwell among us. The word has become commodity … [and] has lost all dignity.” (Demos 2003, p.149). It is more than likely that Ball knew of the Russian Zaum poets, who, when the world was poised on the precipice of cataclysm, wrote of the power of pure sound beyond the intellect (Scobie 1974, p.220). The invention of Cubo-Futurist Alexei Kruchenykh, Zaum incorporated ‘the private languages of schizophrenics, folk incantations, baby talk, glossolalia, random onomatopoetic verse, and Futurist neologisms’ (Gordon 1992, pp.211-212).

F.T. Marinetti 'Words in Freedom' 1912

Rejecting Marinetti’s ‘Words in Freedom’ as ‘naturalistic’, and elevating his own experiments to the level of magic, Ball surrendered to ‘the innermost alchemy of the word’ (Scobie 1974, p.217). Like Zaum, whose Utopian views he shared, he sought to create a language that was beyond nationalism: Ball’s poem Karawane – ‘jolifanto bambla o falli bambla grossiga m’pfa habla horem… ’ speaks in multiple languages simultaneously: French, Spanish, Portuguese, Latin and German (Demos 2003, p. 153). However, while Karawane is an expression of hybrid speech, it is still tied to the semantic register of words and meaning. Berlin Dadaist Raoul Hausmann, the inventor of montage, distanced his work from primitivism through poems such as OFFEAHBDC of 1918, which were based on phonemes alone, letters representing speech sounds. Hausmann did not attempt to refer to anything in the world, as Marinetti had done with Zang Tuum Tumb, visually and aurally recreating the sounds of battle in the first Balkan War, for which he had been a correspondent. Hausmann’s was simply ‘a poem to be declaimed, letter by letter’ (Doherty 1997, p. 125).

In the 1920s, Kurt Schwitters, founder of MERZ (a parallel movement to Dadaism), brought the sound poem to a new level of complexity and sophistication. Like Hausmann, Schwitters concentrated on the letterform rather than the word and its semantic dimension. His performances involved a dizzying rhythmic and aural display of consonants, vowels and meaningless combinations beyond language. Schwitters’ most well known work, Die Ursonate (Sonata in Primordial Sounds) was created in 1922 in response to Hausmann’s poster poem FSMBW. Refined over ten years, Die Ursonate was eventually recorded on a 78rpm disc and performed for radio in 1932 (Holubizky 1990, p.252).

To this day, many artists and musicians (including Jaap Blonk) attempt the challenges of ‘Rinnzekete bee bee nnz krr müü? ziiuu ennze, ziiuu rinnzkrrmüü’. Schwitters approached his sound poems in a similar way to his collage works, as readymade fragments of the world, stripped of their context, beyond language. He is best known as the creator of the MERZ-bau within his house in Hanover, Germany. The MERZ-bau, a three dimensional construction spreading over several rooms, contained detritus collected from the street, snatches of conversations from trams and trains, songs, glasses, letters, and locks of hair (Biro 1999, pp. 51, 58). This was not a lifeless museum display dedicated to saving the past, but a process of allegorical accumulation that would re-write the past, making it anew, severing it from its context. Over the course of fifteen years, Schwitters worked on the MERZ-bau until forced to flee Germany in 1937. As a ‘degenerate artist’, he had become a Nazi target.

Kurt Schwitters' MERZ-bau 1930

The MERZ-bau, however, was just the first stage of his grand architectonic conception, the MERZ-bühne, or MERZ-stage, designed to galvanise the spectator on all levels.  Not fully realised within his lifetime, Schwitters’ ideas for performance have been influential within postmodernism. He toured and performed his sound poems extensively in Dada cabarets and events. In the realm between speaking and singing, as Schwitters’ recordings attest, poems such as the Die Ursonate were delivered in a rhythmic, repetitive, theatrical and musical way through his style of articulating vowels and consonants. He used his voice as an instrument, repeating, building, trilling, inventing and extending upon a new vocal form within the context of art, shattering language into phonemes, fragments salvaged and accumulated in the same way as the detritus in his MERZ-bau. And while the sound poems of Schwitters and others were radical and new as conscious experiments within Modernism, they draw upon other phenomena.

The Russian Zaum artist Khlebnikov ‘knew of tribes in the Urals who worshipped their gods in liturgies composed chiefly of vowels (Scobie 1974, pp.219-220). These voiced religious practices – Christian, Shamanic, Voodoo, Oracle – are termed ‘glossolalia’ (speaking in tongues), broken fragments of discourse that may resemble a language, but cannot be comprehended (de Certeau 1996, p.29, 35). As Carlyle May explains,

The Old Testament (Lombard 1910, p. 89) alludes to a form of ecstatic behaviour similar to glossolalia. Guillaume (1938, p. 144-45) states that in 853 BC. four hundred prophets raved in ecstasy before the gate of Samaria, and in ancient Egypt (Erman 1894, p. 352-55) necromancers uttered formulas, believed to be revelations from the gods, made up of foreign words and senseless noises. The more mysterious and incomprehensible these formulas were, the greater their power was  thought to be (1956, p. 75)

Glossolalia has other forms beyond religious observance, including infantile babbling, pathological neuroses, and literary and performative expressions. It is also part of our everyday speech, as it ‘pushes up through the cracks of ordinary conversation’ (de Certeau 1996, p. 29). In the space between muteness and speech, De Certeau imagines a reservoir ‘from which the voice pours forth’ (1996, pp.30-31). From this vocal utopia, we give ourselves permission to step over the boundaries that make us hold our tongues for fear of judgment, persecution or humiliation. Within shamanic and Christian charismatic contexts, glossolalia as spirit is perceived as a song to which we abandon ourselves (1996, p.39). The link here to sex is obvious, and while we do not search for deeper meanings in the sounds of sexual coupling, we continue to demand that language outside this mean something.

For Schwitters, the search for meaning was unimportant. He had great respect for ‘the artistic moulding of nonsense’ (Scobie 1974, p.222). While not assigning a religious motivation to his sound poems, Schwitters, as Burns Gamard states, was affected by German mysticism, which focuses on ‘the processes of creative life itself’ (2000, p.30). And nowhere is process more evident than in the unfolding of performance, which locates speech in the body and not in the text.  Schwitters was a commanding figure with a magnificent voice. His  sound poems, like those of Hausmann, are not only modernist expressions in line with Utopian Zaum and Marinetti’s ‘Words in Freedom’. They are, as Doherty (1997, pp. 124, 125, 128) explains, responses formed within German culture by the physical and psychological symptoms of traumatic shock during and following World War I.

A Dadaist is simultaneously the maker and the victim of traumatic sound, of the human voice become a weapon, or an instrument of shocking cures’ (Doherty 1997, p. 118).

Mutilated war veterans of World War I

Rather than non-sense, Schwitters’ non-language can be seen to arise from the ‘stuttered, compulsively repeated attempt to articulate the void’ (Morris 2001, p. 373), the absence of original wholeness. For de Certeau, Glossolalia in all its forms implies an imperative, a need to speak, either a cry or a confession (1996, p. 31). Montage, assemblage and sound poems were perfect analogues to a shattered world – 22 million wounded, 9 million dead –  a world beyond certainties, beyond reassurance, and to many, beyond God.  Attacking the quest for meaning at the very heart of language, the Dadaists subverted rationalism and allowed the unconscious free reign. An avant garde free of constraints gave Schwitters and others permission to speak, a space from which the voice could pour forth ‘all the excesses and overflows and wastes of language’ (de Certeau1996, p.33). In this privileged space of possession outside language, where we can move without restriction, we do not seek to find meaning. We give ourselves up to the song (1996, p.41).

More than ninety years later, we can see the consequences of these modernist experiments beyond language. To Lach (1985, p. 39), Kurt Schwitters was ‘the father of all contemporary art currents and events’, whose manifesto of 1919 contained influential theories that foreshadowed installation, multimedia, event and performance art. This may seem like an extravagant claim, given the individual and collective contributions of the Italian and Russian Futurist artists, the Zurich and Berlin Dadaists, and the works of Oskar Schlemmer and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy at the Bauhaus (not within the territory of this report). However, Lach’s assertion is valid, not just because of Schwitters’ ideas for the MERZ-stage, which even in the new millennium, sound contemporary. I believe that Schwitters’ posthumous recognition rests equally upon his embrace of recording technology, a new expressive medium in the 1920s and 1930s, which allowed the sound poem an existence beyond live performance. Concannon explains that Schwitters used sound film to edit and collage his poems after recording, before pressing them into records (1990, p. 167).

Although Schwitters was not the only avant-garde artist to explore recording technology and perform his work for the new medium of radio – Marinetti, Tzara  and Hausmann also did this – he was one of the first. Exiled from his homeland, he continued to perform Die Ursonate up until 1947, the year of his death. The recorded sound poems of all these artists are precious documents from an era of unprecedented experimentation between the wars. With the collapse of the Weimar Government in 1932-33 and the rise of Hitler, the voices of the avant garde in Germany were silenced (Cory 1994, p. 346). After publication of Robert Motherwell’s book The Dada Painters and Poets in 1951, a new generation of artists, writers and musicians in the United States, Great Britain and Europe drew inspiration from the historical avant-garde, including William S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin, whose cut-up method owed much to Hausmann and Schwitters.  Fluxus, which was Dada in spirit, was the first fully international art movement It was launched in the Dada stronghold of Berlin in 1962 (Brill 2010, p. 104). An influential figure and mentor within Fluxus, composer John Cage explored sound poetry, created, as with many of his works, through chance operations. Made for German radio, his work Muoyce from 1983 drew upon the text of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, a project he had been working on since the 1940s (Zweig 1997, p. 26). Sound poetry also enjoyed some popularity in Austria and France from the 1950s.

In the new millennium, the sound poem stutters on within an art context, but it is rarely more than a cerebral exercise that looks to the past. It is within jazz that the sound poem still lives. It has never died. And in jazz’ bastard child hip-hop, we can still hear the glossolalic cry from the reservoir, the traumatic shock of a different kind of war: marginalisation, dispossession, poverty and exile. In Hip-Hop, the word has been re-constituted, it has become spam, composed of shards of flesh, gristle, organs and viscera. Stripped of its machismo and misogyny, it is still possible to discern the shadow of Ball’s ‘innermost alchemy of the word’.


Biro, M. 1999, ‘Allegorical Modernism: Carl Einstein on Otto Dix’ in Art Criticism, Vol. 15, No. 1, Department of Art, State University of New York, Stony Brook, Long Island.

Blonk, J. ‘Some words to Kurt Schwitters’ URSONATE, by Jaap Blonk’, Kurt Schwitters in Norway

Brill, D. 2010, Shock and the Senseless in Dada and Fluxus, New England, Dartmouth College Press.

Burns-Gamard, E. 2000, Kurt Schwitters’ Merzbau: The Cathedral of Erotic Misery, Princeton Architectural Press, New York.

Carlyle May, L. 1956, ‘A Survey of Glossolalia and Related Phenomena in Non-Christian Religions’, American Anthropologist, New Series, Vol. 58, No. 1 (Feb.), pp. 75-96

Concannon, K. 1990, ‘Cut and Paste: Collage and the Art of Sound’, in Lander, D. & Lexier, M. (eds) Sound By Artists, Art Metropole, Toronto.

Cory, M.E. 1994, ‘Soundplay: The Polyphonous Tradition of German Radio Art’ in Kahn, D. & Whitehead, G. (eds) Wireless Imagination: Sound, Radio and the Avant Garde, MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

de Certeau, M. 1996, ‘Vocal Utopias: Glossolalias’, Representations, No. 56, Special Issue: The New Erudition, (Autumn), pp. 29-47.

Demos, T.J. 2003, ‘Circulations: in and Around Zurich Dada’, October, Vol. 105, Dada (Summer) pp. 147-158.

Doherty, B. 1997, “See: “We Are All Neurasthenics”!” or, the Trauma of Dada Montage, Critical Inquiry, Vol. 24, No. 1 (Autumn), pp. 82-132

Gordon, M. 1992, ‘Songs From the Museum of the Future: Russian Sound Creation (1910-1930)’, in Kahn, D. & Whitehead, G. (eds) Wireless Imagination: Sound, Radio and the Avant Garde, MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Holubizky, I. 1990, ‘Very Nice, Very Nice’, in Lander, D. & Lexier, M. (eds) Sound By Artists, Art Metropole, Toronto.

Klein, J. and Barrie Jones, J. 1985, ‘Borrowing, Syncretism, Hybridisation: The Parisian Revue of the 1920s’, Popular Music, Vol. 5, Continuity and Change, pp. 175-187.

Lach, F. 1988, ‘Schwitters’ Events’, in Foster, S.C. (ed.) “Event” Art and Art Events, UMI Research Press, Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Morris, L. 2001, ‘The Sound of Memory’, The German Quarterly, Vol. 74, No. 4, Sites of Memory (Autumn), Blackwell Publishing, Oxford, United Kingdom.

Prevots, N. 1985, ‘Zurich Dada and Dance: Formative Ferment’, Dance Research Journal, Vol. 17, No. 1, (Spring-Summer), pp. 3-8.

Scobie, S. 1974, ‘I Dreamed I saw Hugo Ball: bpNichol, Dada and Sound Poetry’, boundary 2, Vol. 3, No. 1, A Canadian Issue (Autumn), pp. 213-226.

Whitehead, G. 1992 ‘Out of the Dark: Notes on the Nobodies of Radio Art’, in Kahn, D. & Whitehead, G. (eds) Wireless Imagination: Sound, Radio and the Avant Garde, MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Zweig, J. 1997, ‘Ars Combinatoria: Mystical Systems, Procedural Art, and the Computer’, Art Journal, Vol. 56, No. 3, Digital Reflections: The Dialogue of Art and Technology, (Autumn) pp. 20-29.

  1. […] Glossolalia and the Sound Poem ( LD_AddCustomAttr("AdOpt", "1"); LD_AddCustomAttr("Origin", "other"); LD_AddCustomAttr("theme_bg", "111111"); LD_AddCustomAttr("theme_border", "515151"); LD_AddCustomAttr("theme_text", "eeeeee"); LD_AddCustomAttr("theme_link", "428ce7"); LD_AddCustomAttr("theme_url", "428ce7"); LD_AddCustomAttr("LangId", "1"); LD_AddCustomAttr("Autotag", "books"); LD_AddCustomAttr("Tag", "poetry-by-mandy-webster"); LD_AddCustomAttr("Tag", "a-poetry-handbook"); LD_AddCustomAttr("Tag", "childrens-poetry"); LD_AddCustomAttr("Tag", "mary-oliver"); LD_AddCustomAttr("Tag", "poems-by-mandy-webster"); LD_AddCustomAttr("Tag", "poetry"); LD_AddCustomAttr("Tag", "poetry-for-kids"); LD_AddCustomAttr("Tag", "writers-resources"); LD_AddSlot("LD_ROS_300-WEB"); LD_GetBids(); Share this:FacebookTwitterEmailPrintLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. […]

  2. drdadamama says:

    ‘Twick, thack, pick, ack’….I love these words together. Thank you.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s