Kurt Schwitters at Zero Gravity
It was in 1974, reading Hans Richter’s book Dada: Art and Anti-Art, that I first learned about Kurt Schwitters, his provocative statement "The basis of poetry is not the word but the letter," and the uproar he caused by whispering, whistling, whimpering, wailing the letter W. What really stuck in my memory, though, was the image of Schwitters walking down the street — any street, any time of day — picking up discarded bits of paper, lace, machine parts, can lids, whatever, for future use in a collage. His total devotion to the life of art and his appetite for every form of experience as material impressed me because I had already begun trying in many ways to push my writing beyond the boundaries of "literature" toward sound, performance and visual art.
A few months before, I had attended a performance at the University of Ottawa by Québécois sound poet Raoul Duguay. Very excited by the possibilities, I got hold of books by Duguay and bpNichol, some anthologies of concrete poetry, John Cage’s Silence, bill bissett’s book of chants, Medicine My Mouth’s on Fire, with its enclosed flimsy vinyl recording, Jerome Rothenberg’s anthology Technicians of the Sacred, and his magazine Alcheringa, which also enclosed a flimsy record of, among others, Jackson Mac Low’s "Stanzas for Iris Lezak."
All these helped to fill the gaps in my education left by years of university study of "literature." I realized that poetry originates in ritual and chant, but I only gradually found ways of bringing my own work back to that wellspring of energy. My first visual poem, "l’arrivée," was a response to meeting a newborn in early ’74, and gradually, after reading about Schwitters, I noticed it was possible to "read," that is, to chant that poem. So "l’arrivée" became my first sound poem too, and I performed it for the first time in Banff that August.
Several other attempts followed, but I was still working primarily in a publishing, not a performance, milieu. Though Richter’s book introduced me to Schwitters, I was more directly influenced to do new work at that time by Hans Arp’s and Max Ernst’s collaborations with the laws of chance and with the inherent formal principles in natural forces. I conceived of a series of new-genre explorations called "A Century of Inventions," whose first four "decades" were Signs, Sounds, Chances, and Changes. But the visual pieces ("Signs") were the only ones that readily got published; the decade of "Sounds" was ill-defined and poorly executed.
Unaccountably, although bpNichol later told me Kurt Schwitters was an early influence on him, my acquaintance with contemporary sound poetry didn’t, in the 70s, lead me back to Schwitters or any of the other pioneers of the genre. Only when I began working with the intermedia group First Draft in the 80s did I understand the importance of that early work by Schwitters. In his 1920 essay "Merz" and elsewhere, Schwitters set forth a program for gesamtkunstwerk, a fusion of all the arts, that sounds uncannily like the marriage of poetry, music, movement and visual art that First Draft was striving for and, a few times, seemed to achieve. I now think this an impractical goal but, as a goal, it has brought about interesting work from many quarters.
Not a sound-poetry group, First Draft created, among other works, what we called "wordmusic" through the collaboration of poet Susan McMaster and/or myself with composer Andrew McClure. Our compositions included musical parts for soprano, flute ’cello, chimes, even glass harmonica. At times, they incorporated visual art, costumes, movement, and stage lighting. But in their purest form they were musical works for speakers and spoken-voice choruses. Ultimately, calling our more elaborately staged performances "wordmusic theatre," we employed professional actors under theatrical direction.
In mid-1984, exactly ten years after filing away the image of Kurt Schwitters howling his way down a street of undiscovered art treasures, I took down Richter’s Dada: Art and Anti-Art again, for at least two reasons: 1) because I had often heard First Draft called a sound-poetry group, and I wanted to see what similarity, if any, there was between our work and that of Hugo Ball and his followers; and 2) I thought writing about Schwitters could give me a framework within which different kinds of writing and performance could co-exist. Sound poetry, visual work — art, poetry, performance — dramatic scenes, the kind of multi-voice pieces First Draft performed, even straight lyric and narrative poems: all could find a place in a book or a performance that spun on the axis of Kurt Schwitters.
We all create our own precursors. After performing wordmusic, what better precursor could I claim than the composer of the "Sonata for Primitive Sounds" (ur-sonate)? His life, after all, was mythic: it spanned the formative period of our world and touched the savage heart of twentieth-century history, the only myth everybody knows any more. Also, his life reflected those themes of exile and separation that, like it or not, are my themes, but with an absurdist humour and optimism. From the start, he was tearing apart newspapers, machines, language itself to make art. When history took his life and tore it apart, he made art with it. Right up to the end, he was beginning again. What novelist could resist that story? What sound poet would deprive himself of such a context for presenting his work?
While writing, I began to rehearse some of my pieces with First Draft. And of course, I read all I could find by and about Schwitters, especially John Elderfield’s book for New York’s Museum of Modern Art and Friedhelm Lach’s edition of the Literarische Werk, with its abundant appendixes in English, French and other languages. I also went to see the 1985 Schwitters retrospectives at MOMA and London's Tate Gallery and to talk to people who knew him. While in England, I visited the sound poet Bob Cobbing, who happened to be rehearsing a performance of the Ursonate and played me the entire forty-minute recording of the work. That’s when I understood that you don’t need a narrative architecture to "contextualize" sound poetry. You can simply prolong the performance beyond novelty, beyond boredom and discomfort, beyond the ridiculous, until it lifts off and enters that zero-gravity state where words like up, down, this, that, you, me, myth, history, art, life lose their attraction for signifieds and float in a capsule of latency along with all potential. Afterward, you may or may not hand out parachutes. Whether you do or don’t is called your stance, but frankly, what do you propose to stand on?
About the same time, I received a letter from filmmaker Ed Ackerman who, having heard some of First Draft’s wordmusic on CBC radio, proposed that we collaborate on a film and explained that he made animated films entirely on an old Underwood typewriter. With my fondness for old typewriters, and a bit of Schwitters’s openness toward the new, I agreed, and before long we had made a brief excerpt of the Ursonate into the film Primiti Too Taa and sent it off to the 1986 San Francisco Poetry Film Festival. Primiti Too Taa has jitterbugged its way from film festival to film festival several times around the world since then and, reanimated on 70 mm, it may have found the ultimate context for performance/sound poetry — the IMAX theatre. Jüüüü Kaaaa?
Incidentally, I ought to clear up the misconception that I believe myself to be the reincarnation of Kurt Schwitters. I’ll say this only once: it isn’t true. It is ridiculous to suppose I think I am Kurt Schwitters. Nothing of the sort. For one thing, Schwitters died in 1948, while I, on the contrary, was born that year. Furthermore, Kurt Schwitters issued his first cry into this world in 1887, exactly a hundred years before I issued The Merzbook: Kurt Schwitters Poems. Only a German-speaker would think that calling them "Schwitters Poems" mean he wrote them. I wrote them. If they were his poems, of course I would call them "Schwitters’s Poems."
Kurt Schwitters spent years as a middling art student in various colleges before discovering his style and naming it Merz. I, on the other hand, was a long-time literature student, neither distinguished nor undistinguished, and when I discovered my subject I didn’t have to name it because it already had a name — Schwitters.
Schwitters had one child, a son, who became a photographer. My own son looks like becoming a scientist; he owned a camera but took it apart and now it doesn’t work.
Schwitters, an artist, became famous for writing a book of poetry. A poet, I am best known for a film! Schwitters was tall, I am not. He was a performance artist, something I keep telling people I’m not. He made one of the first installations; I can’t even install a towel bar. He owned houses in Hanover, a provincial capital whose duke had long since departed to become King of England; I own a house in Ottawa, home in exile to the Dutch queen during the war. As Schwitters observed, the Dutch are born dadas; all Ottawa got was the tulips. Schwitters made a production number out of a sneeze; I just You see, there’s nothing to that story. I’m not Schwitters, not at all. I don’t even know the meaning of the word Merz.
- Colin Morton
(This article first appeared in Musicworks 44 in 1989.)