Some words to Kurt Schwitters' URSONATE, by Jaap Blonk
Kurt Schwitters was born in Hannover in 1887. He studied at the Applied Arts School, the Art Academy and the Institute of Technology. Refused by the Berlin Dadaists, he started a one-man Dada group in Hannover called Merz. He made paintings, collages and objects; he wrote poems, sound poems and plays, which he published in his own magazine, also called Merz.
In 1919, after gaining a national reputation with the absurd love poem An Anna Blume, he made contact with fellow Dadaists such as Hans Arp and Raoul Hausmann. In 1937 Schwitters had to flee the Nazis, via Norway to England, where he died in 1948, sixty years of age.
At the source of Schwitters Ursonate or sonate in urlauten ("primordial sonata" or sonata in primordial sounds) are two Plakatgedichte (Poster Poems) by Raoul Hausmann, which provided the sonatas opening line:
Fumms bö wö tää zää Uu, pögiff, kwii Ee.
Schwitters used phrases such as this to provoke audiences at literary salons, who expected traditional romantic poetry, by endlessly repeating them in many different voices. In the course of ten years (1922-1932) he expanded this early version into a 30-page work, which Schwitters later considered one of the two masterpieces he created (the other one being the Merzbau in his house in Hannover, destroyed in 1944). As such, the Ursonate cannot be rightly considered a Dada work any more, since Dada was inimical to the notion of masterpiece.
The Ursonate has a structure similar to that of a classical sonata or symphony. It consists of four movements: Erster Teil ("First Part"), Largo, Scherzo and Presto.
After a short introduction the first movement opens with an exposition of its four main themes (subjects), each of which is subsequently developed (in the sense of development in the classical sonata form), leading to a coda. It is noteworthy that the theme exposition returns as a reprise before each new development but the last one.
Both the Largo and the Scherzo have a centered (A-B-A) construction in which the middle part contrasts with the two identical outer parts.
The Presto has a strict rhythm broken only by a few interjections from the first movement and the Scherzo. Like the first movement, it follows the sonata form: exposition (repeated immediately in this case), development and recapitulation.
Next is the Cadenza, leaving the reciter free to choose between the written version and his own. However, in his written instructions for future performers of the piece, Schwitters says that he wrote his cadenza only for those among them who had no imagination. In my performances of the Ursonate I always create an improvised cadenza on the basis of the sonatas thematic material. Only on the recording I issued, for reasons of completeness a recording of the written cadenza is included as a separate track.
As a Coda, Schwitters uses one of his earliest Dada poems: the German alphabet read backwards, here repeated three times with different tempo and intention.
Schwitters wrote a few pages of instructions for reciters of the Ursonate, mainly dealing with the correct pronunciation of the letters; apart from that, brief prescriptions regarding tempo, pitch, dynamics and emotional content are scattered throughout the sonatas text.
My very first experience with sound poetry was in the fall of 1978, when at the age of 25 I had quit my mathematics studies at Utrecht University and was involved in poetry and music, looking for ways to express myself creatively. In a workshop of poetry recitation I took part of, a wide choice of material was offered, ranging from classic poets to experimental and even to sound poetry. I immediately took to the latter and at the final presentation of the workshop I recited one of Hugo Ball's 1916 "Laut- und Klanggedichte": "Seepferdchen und Flugfische" ("Seahorses and Flying Fishes"). Ball recited these poems himself in June 1916 in Zurich, Switzerland, at the Cabaret Voltaire, the founding place of the Dada movement.
A few months later, in February of 1979, I happened to hear Schwitters' Ursonate read by a student of the Arnhem Drama School, at a poetry event in that city. Although the reading was not a greatly inspired one, the piece was quite a revelation to me, and with no delay I looked up the piece in Schwitters' collected works at the Utrecht University Library and made photocopies of it.
At the time, however, I had no intention at all to be a voice performer. During my mathematics studies I had taken up playing the saxophone as a hobby, and now I was taking the study of the instrument more seriously and finding some opportunities to play in public. Also, I had begun composing pieces of instrumental music.
The Ursonate was on a shelf in my room and every once in a while I took it out and read sections of it aloud. This went on for about two and a half years, and by the fall of 1981 I realized that I almost knew the piece by heart. Looking back at this from a much later time, I am very much aware of the benefits of this slow process of internalising the piece. I gradually and very intuitively formed my own interpretation of it, without any pressure from outside, and without any knowledge of versions of it by other performers.
Of course I had told some friends about my fascination for the piece, and at some point it happened that I was asked to recite it at a party, This performance was an instant success with many of the people present, and as a consequence I got invitations to present the piece in other places, such as a neighbourhood bar, a private concert at the Musicology Department of Amsterdam University, etc.
The reception of these first public performances was varying widely. On many occasions I was performing at rock or punk clubs as an opening act for a band, and lots of people were not at all into it. Their preference was either to just talk with their friends or hear their habitual kind of music. So they started to scream and protest, and often throwing things at me, especially beer, which fortunately was mostly given out in plastic, not glass containers. The culminating point of this kind of experience was a performance of the Ursonate, opening for a concert of The Stranglers at Vredenburg Music Center in Utrecht in 1986, for an audience of about 2000 fans. When I was announced, even before I had opened my mouth, people started calling out: "Rot op!" ("Fuck off!"), and when I started, the atmosphere became very much that of a football match, but clearly an away game for me. With massive roaring they tried to drown out my voice, but of course the P.A. made me louder. Six stage guards were working hard to keep people from climbing the stage and hitting me, and hundreds of half-full plastic beer glasses flew about me. But in the course of the performance I managed to win over at least a few hundred people, who were roaring in my favor.
The next morning one newspaper had the headline "Jaap Blonk Shocks Punk Audience With Dada Poetry", which for me was a nice testimony to the fact that Schwitters' piece was still very much alive, in spite of its age.
I now think it was a lucky circumstance that my first years as a sound poetry performer were mostly involved with the Ursonate. The structure of the piece is so strong, its course through climaxes and quieter sections so logical, that it gives its performer a relentless momentum. Even in the most adverse circumstances I never had to stop a performance, I always made it through to the end of the piece. If I had been performing my own sound poetry, I might have given up and thought is was no good after all. But with the Ursonate I had the strong confidence that I was defending a masterpiece which deserved to be heard in many places.
It was only in 1984 that I started to improvise with the voice, and from 1985 on I created my own sound poems and started to perform them. By that time I had several years of performing experience already with the Ursonate, so that my stage presence had grown strong enough to bring it off successfully with my own first attempts.
Over the years until now I have performed the Ursonate in many different circumstances, from primary schools to classical concert halls, from exhibition openings to zoos, for prison detainees and on the street.
When in 1986 I made my first recording of the piece, for an LP to be issued by Willem Breuker's BVHaast label, I wrote to the publishers of Schwitters' work, Dumont Verlag in Cologne, to ask for permission. No answer came, and after a second letter for more than six months no answer came, and then Breuker decided to issue the record anyway. But then at last a very angry letter arrived, written by a lawyer of Dumont Verlag upon orders of Ernst, the son of Kurt Schwitters. It turned out that Ernst had been on a journey in the Pacific and had not seen my letters until much later. The letter said that the record was illegal and all the copies had to be destroyed.
After an extended legal correspondence it didn't get as far as destruction, but still the record could not be sold in shops anymore. Apparently Ernst Schwitters was convinced that the only genuine version of the Ursonate could be by his father. When the Swiss label Hat Hut Records issued a version by Eberhard Blum, they were taken to court and selling the recording was prohibited in Germany.
Although I, and many people with me, thought that this recording ban was very much against Kurt Schwitters' spirit (he had encouraged people to perform the Ursonate and even written instructions for them!), nothing could be done against it until 2002, when Schwitters' grandson Bengt helped in founding the "Kurt und Ernst Schwitters Stiftung" in Hannover (Ernst Schwitters had died in 1996). From then on the ban was lifted and permissions could be given to issue recordings.
I decided for a CD reissue of my 1986 recording in a remastered version, coupled with a 2003 live recording which gives a different flavour to the piece.
When the year 1993 saw a release of the Ursonate by the German Wergo label, stating that it was an original recording by Kurt Schwitters, I could not believe my ears. By that time I had heard the certified original recordings done by Schwitters for a 78 rpm record that was issued in 1932 in a limited edition to accompany edition 32 of his Merz magazine, in which he printed the Ursonate in its definitive version. Here Schwitters does two 3-minute sections of the piece: on the A side is the beginning of the first part, on the B side the Scherzo. The recordings are very lively and full of spirit.
Here on the Wergo CD was a version where the voice sound was similar, but the performance was utterly dull, slow and expressionless. Also, it slavishly follows the written cadenza, where Kurt Schwitters to my opinion would have presented a fresh, newly invented cadenza. I was convinced that it could not really be him, and so were many other people, as I learned in the following years. From a German radio programmer I heard that Ernst Schwitters had recorded the piece himself in 1958, for an LP which I never have seen a copy of. Then I discovered that on the Wergo CD one can hear the characteristic scratches of an LP, and I timed them with a stopwatch, and yes, they agreed with the 33 1/3 rpm of an LP. So it was very likely that this recording originated from the LP, possibly with some stations (tape) in between.
Again there were court cases in Germany against people who dared to put their doubts about the genuineness of this recording in writing, and they lost because apparently Ernst Schwitters had testified that the recording was by his father.
Only in the past few years proof has been delivered from various independent sources that the alleged original version on the Wergo CD is in fact the 1958 recording by Ernst Schwitters.
Nowadays one can hear many different versions of the Ursonate, both in live performances and on recordings, and almost all of them testify that the piece is strong enough to shine in whatever garment it is dressed: the true mark of the masterpiece. Somehow Schwitters as in many of his vsual art, managed to find the right balance between quasi-naïve freshness and strong structure. The piece is very much founded in the directness of real life, and still is great art at the same time.
Arnhem, Netherlands, June 2009
Published in a catalogue for the exhibition "Kurt Schwitters in Norway", Henie Onstad Senter, Oslo, Norway, September 2009