Explores sound poetry, its roots, and its practices in Europe and North America as a dichotomy between a text-based experience, and a performance of voice without words. Sound poetry is positioned as an artistic form bridging literary and musical composition where phonetic (sounds / acoustic properties) aspects of human speech are foregrounded rather than semantic (meaning) and /or syntactic (process of constructing sentences) values. The word "sound" acknowledges the initial presence of text, but the result is voice without words, intended primarily for performance. [1]


The roots of sound poetry can be found in the Futurist and Dada movements. Futurism rebelled against harmony and taste, dismissed themes from previous art movements, and glorified a future built upon speed, brevity, technology, youth, the triumph of humanity over nature. It was applied to many art forms, including sound. Dadaism continued the focus on phonetic sounds of speech rather than semantic meaning.

The availability of magnetic tape recording encouraged practitioners of sound poetry to explore new forms for their work, especially the use of audio collage, multiple, overlain, and often manipulated voices in order to extend the notion of a "reading." The desired result was poetry that can only exist as sound.

Examples are drawn from contemporary European and North American sound poets pushing the definition and context of their work.

We might also point to rich African-American call and response literary and musical heritages based on shared, communal experiences. Ella Fitzgerald and Dizzy Gillespie brought the sounds of ancient Scottish and Irish mouth music to their scat singing. Gil Scott-Heron's "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" (1970) and Wanda Coleman's poetry collection Mad Dog, Black Lady (Black Sparrow Press 1979) brought mainstream attention to spoken word poetry. At the same time, emerging audio recording technologies made it possible for sound artists to create new and interesting shared, communal, aural contexts in which alternative political ideologies in shared, communal spaces could be raised, discussed, and acknowledged together.

From these roots, spoken word poetry describes a range of performing arts providing outlets for frank voices and views regarding religion, politics, sex, and gender, all socially taboo subjects. These affordances (potentials for particular actions) continue the dichotomy between poetry as a book-based experience, and the performance nature of spoken word poetry and the sound poetry tradition it follows.

Roots: Futurism

The roots of sound poetry can be traced to the Italian Futurist movement. Futurism rebelled against harmony and taste, dismissed themes from previous art movements, and glorified a future built upon speed, brevity, technology, youth, the triumph of humanity over nature. It was applied to many art forms, including sound. Resources and listening experiences available.

Filippo Tommaso Marinetti (1876-1944) launched the Futurist movement in Italy with publication of his Manifeste du futurisme [Manifesto of Futurism] (5 February 1909, La gazzetta dell'Emilia; reprinted 20 February 1909 on the front page of La Figaro, Paris). Marinetti declared passionate loathing for everything old, especially politics and artistic tradition. He rebelled against harmony and taste, dismissed themes from previous art movements, and glorified a future built upon speed, brevity, technology, youth, the triumph of humanity over nature. Publishing manifestos became a feature of Futurism, and many, on topics including painting, architecture, religion, clothing, even cooking, followed.

In practice, artists applied Futurism to painting, sculpture, performance, poetry, dance, and sound works. Marinetti, for example, a poet, developed the concept of parole in liberta (roughly, words in freedom). His scope included the page on which his poetry was printed as well as the sound of a voice reciting them. He experimented with typography, scattering words of different sizes, in different typefaces, over the page, freeing them from the tyranny of the paragraph, visually representing the sounds of the words as they might be spoken by the poet. In speaking his poetry, Marinetti experimented with onomatopoeias to create the sound effects he visualize with typography. An early example is "Battaglia, Peso + Odore" (1912), performed here by Luigi Pennone and Arrigo Lora-Totino. [2]

"Dune, parole en libertà [Dune, words-in-freedom]" (1914; score available here) was another seminal work by Marinetti. Here is an interpretation by Luigi Pennone and Arrigo Lora-Totino. [3]

With "Zang Tumb Tumb. Adrianopoli, Ottobre 1912" (Milan: Edizioni Futuriste de "Poesia," 1914), an account of the sounds and noises of the battle of Adrianopolis (Turkey) in 1912 during the Italo-Turkish War (1911-1912), Marinetti provides poetic and literary impressions of mechanized warfare, artillery shelling, bombs, and explosions in a variety of typefaces.

Marinetti's recording of "La Battaglia di Adrianopoli [The Battle of Adrianople]" (1924), a sound poem recounting his experiences at the battle of Adrianopolis, is often mistakenly said to be of "Zang Tumb Tumb." Marinetti's recording "La Battaglia di Adrianopoli" was issued by the Societa Nazionale del Grammofono (La Voce del Padronne, R6915, 1924). Marinetti, recited the poem in his native Italian, creating the sounds of machine guns, canons, and explosions with his voice, exacerbates the effect of the poem. [4]

Inspired by Marinetti, Luigi Russolo (1885-1947) wrote L'Art des bruits [The Art of Noises] (Milan: Direction du mouvement futuriste, 11 March 1913).

"Although the characteristic of noise is to brutally bring us back to life, the art of noises must not be limited to a mere imitative reproduction. The art of noises will extract its main emotive power from the special acoustic pleasure that the inspired artist will obtain in combining noises."
—Luigi Russolo

Russolo also designed, constructed, and experimented with a series of acoustic noise-generating devices called Intonarumori [noise intoners] that permitted performers to control the pitch and dynamics of the sounds they generated. Russolo's work is often cited as an inspiration for Futurist and Dadaist sound poetry.

In Russia, Futurism developed around the experiments of Velemir Khlebnikov (1885-1922) and Aleksej Kruchenykh (1886-1968) to abstract language into sounds rather than meanings. They called this approach zaum. Their pioneering work formed the basis for what we now call "sound poetry." Here are two examples of zaum by Kruchenykh, performed by Valerij Voskobojnikov. First, "Kr dei macelli" (1920). [5]

And, then, "Zanzera, veleno" (1922). [6]

Roots: Dada

The focus on sound poetry, especially on phonetic sounds of speech rather than semantic meaning, inherited from the Futurists, remained strong for the Dadaists, and provides another way to explore the roots of sound poetry. Resources and listening experiences available.

On 1 February 1916, German author and poet Hugo Ball (1886-1927) and his companion Emily Hennings, founded Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich, Switzerland. The press release for the opening explained the purpose of the new nightclub.

"Cabaret Voltaire. Under this name a group of young artists and writers has been formed whose aim is to create a centre for artistic entertainment. The idea of the cabaret will be that guest artists will come and give musical performances and readings at the daily meetings. The young artists of Zurich, whatever their orientation, are invited to come along with suggestions and contributions of all kinds."
—Zurich, February 2, 1916, Dei Flucht aus der Zeit [Flight out of Time: A Dada Diary]. (Munich, 1927). Trans. Ann Raimes. The Viking Press, 1974, p. 50.

Marcel Janco, Richard Huelsenbeck, Tristan Tzara, and Jean Arp, all radically experimental artists seeking to change the face of their disciplines, answered the call with their art and energy. In addition to paintings, the cabaret featured spoken word, dance, and music, as well as new forms of performance like sound poetry and simultaneous poetry, poème simultané.

One notable example was "L'amiral Cherche Une Maison à Louer [The admiral looks for a house to rent]" performed 29 March 1916 by Richard Hulsenbeck, Marcel Janco, and Tristan Tzara, all whistling, singing, grunting, coughing, and speaking at the same time. Here is a rendition of that performance recorded by the Italian Trio Exvoco (Hanna Aurbacher, Theophil Maier, and Ewald Liska). [7]

In his diary entry for 30 March 1916, Ball described simultaneous poetry. "[The] 'poème simultanè' [simultaneous poem] . . . is a contrapuntal recitative in which three or more voices speak, sing, whistle, etc., at the same time in such a way that the elegiac, humorous, or bizarre content of the piece is brought out by these combinations. In such a simultaneous poem, the willful quality of an organic work is given powerful expression, and so is its limitation by the accompaniment. Noises (an rrrr drawn out for minutes, or crashes, or sirens, etc.) are superior to the human voice in energy."
Dei Flucht aus der Zeit [Flight out of Time: A Dada Diary]. (Munich, 1927). Trans. Ann Raimes. The Viking Press, 1974, p. 57.

This focus on sound poetry, especially on phonetic sounds of speech rather than semantic meaning, inherited from Marinetti and the Futurists, remained strong for the Dadaists.

"Marinetti sends me Parole in Liberta by himself, [Francesco] Cangiullo, [Paolo] Buzzi, and [Corrado] Govoni. They are just letters of the alphabet on a page; you can roll up such a poem like a map. The syntax has come apart. The letters are scattered and assembled again in a rough-and-ready way. There is no language any more, the literary astrologers and leaders proclaim; it has to be invented all over again. Disintegration right in the innermost process of creation."
—Hugo Ball, 9 July 1916, Dei Flucht aus der Zeit [Flight out of Time: A Dada Diary]. (Munich, 1927). Trans. Ann Raimes. The Viking Press, 1974, p. 25.

During the 14 July 1916 first public Dada evening at Cabaret Voltaire, most probably before his own performance, Ball read his manifesto, often known as "The First Dada Manifesto," which served as an introduction to his sound poems, and foregrounded his concern with the primacy of the word in language.

The First Dada Manifesto by Hugo Ball

"Dada is a new tendency in art. One can tell this from the fact that until now nobody knew anything about it, and tomorrow everyone in Zurich will be talking about it. Dada comes from the dictionary. It is terribly simple. In French it means 'hobby horse'. In German it means 'good-bye', 'Get off my back', 'Be seeing you sometime'. In Romanian: 'Yes, indeed, you are right, that's it. But of course, yes, definitely, right'. And so forth.

"An International word. Just a word, and the word a movement. Very easy to understand. Quite terribly simple. To make of it an artistic tendency must mean that one is anticipating complications. Dada psychology, dada Germany cum indigestion and fog paroxysm, dada literature, dada bourgeoisie, and yourselves, honoured poets, who are always writing with words but never writing the word itself, who are always writing around the actual point. Dada world war without end, dada revolution without beginning, dada, you friends and also-poets, esteemed sirs, manufacturers, and evangelists. Dada Tzara, dada Huelsenbeck, dada m'dada, dada m'dada dada mhm, dada dera dada, dada Hue, dada Tza.

"How does one achieve eternal bliss? By saying dada. How does one become famous? By saying dada. With a noble gesture and delicate propriety. Till one goes crazy. Till one loses consciousness. How can one get rid of everything that smacks of journalism, worms, everything nice and right, blinkered, moralistic, europeanised, enervated? By saying dada. Dada is the world soul, dada is the pawnshop. Dada is the world's best lily-milk soap. Dada Mr Rubiner, dada Mr Korrodi. Dada Mr Anastasius Lilienstein. In plain language: the hospitality of the Swiss is something to be profoundly appreciated. And in questions of aesthetics the key is quality.

"I shall be reading poems that are meant to dispense with conventional language, no less, and to have done with it. Dada Johann Fuchsgang Goethe. Dada Stendhal. Dada Dalai Lama, Buddha, Bible, and Nietzsche. Dada m'dada. Dada mhm dada da. It's a question of connections, and of loosening them up a bit to start with. I don't want words that other people have invented. All the words are other people's inventions. I want my own stuff, my own rhythm, and vowels and consonants too, matching the rhythm and all my own. If this pulsation is seven yards long, I want words for it that are seven yards long. Mr Schulz's words are only two and a half centimetres long.

"It will serve to show how articulated language comes into being. I let the vowels fool around. I let the vowels quite simply occur, as a cat meows . . . Words emerge, shoulders of words, legs, arms, hands of words. Au, oi, uh. One shouldn't let too many words out. A line of poetry is a chance to get rid of all the filth that clings to this accursed language, as if put there by stockbrokers' hands, hands worn smooth by coins. I want the word where it ends and begins. Dada is the heart of words.

"Each thing has its word, but the word has become a thing by itself. Why shouldn't I find it? Why can't a tree be called Pluplusch, and Pluplubasch when it has been raining? The word, the word, the word outside your domain, your stuffiness, this laughable impotence, your stupendous smugness, outside all the parrotry of your self-evident limitedness. The word, gentlemen, is a public concern of the first importance."

For Ball, the sounds of words were most important. They were the "innermost alchemy of the word," the "last and holiest refuge" of poetry. In this diary entry, Ball describes his own efforts to develop and deliver a sound poem entitled "Gadji-beri-bimba."

"I have invented a new genre of poems, 'Verse ohne Worte,' [poems without words] or Lautgedichte [sound poems], in which the balance of the vowels is weighed and distributed solely according to the values of the beginning sequence. I gave a reading of the first one of these poems this evening. I had made myself a special costume for it. My legs were in a cylinder of shiny blue cardboard, which came up to my hips so that I looked like an obelisk . Over it I wore a huge coat collar cut out of cardboard, scarlet inside and gold outside. It was fastened at the neck in such a way that I could give the impression of winglike movement by raising and lowering my elbows. I also wore a high, blue-and-white-striped witch doctor's hat. . . . I was carried onto the stage in the dark and began slowly and solemnly:
gadji beri bimba
glandridi lauli lonni cadori
gadjama bim beri glassala
glandridi glassala tuffm i zimbrabim
blassa galassasa tuffm i zimbrabim . . .
[At the end] I then noticed that my voice had no other choice but to take on the ancient cadence of priestly lamentation, that style of liturgical singing that wails in all the Catholic churches of the east and west. I do not know what gave me the idea of this music, but I began to sing my sequences of vowels in a church style like recitative, and tried not only to look serious but to force myself to be serious. . . . Then the lights went out, as I had ordered, and bathed in sweat, I was carried down off the stage like a a magical bishop."
—Hugo Ball, 23 June 1916, Dei Flucht aus der Zeit [Flight out of Time: A Dada Diary]. (Munich, 1927). Trans. Ann Raimes. The Viking Press, 1974, pp. 70-71.

Ball's diary entry speaks to a 22 June 1916 performance of "Gadji-beri-bimba." A program for The First Dada Evening, 14 June 1916, notes a performance (in costume) as well.

gadji beri bimba glandridi laula lonni cadori
gadjama gramma berida bimbala glandri galassassa laulitalomini
gadji beri bin blassa glassala laula lonni cadorsu sassala bim
gadjama tuffm i zimzalla binban gligla wowolimai bin beri ban
o katalominai rhinozerossola hopsamen laulitalomini hoooo
gadjama rhinozerossola hopsamen
bluku terullala blaulala loooo
zimzim urullala zimzim urullala zimzim zanzibar zimzalla zam
elifantolim brussala bulomen brussala bulomen tromtata
velo da bang band affalo purzamai affalo purzamai lengado tor
gadjama bimbalo glandridi glassala zingtata pimpalo ögrööööö
viola laxato viola zimbrabim viola uli paluji malooo
tuffm im zimbrabim negramai bumbalo negramai bumbalo tuffm i zim
gadjama bimbala oo beri gadjama gaga di gadjama affalo pinx
gaga di bumbalo bumbalo gadjamen
gaga di bling blong
gaga blung

No recordings were made of Ball's performance, but here is "Gadji-beri-bimba" performed by Trio Exvoco (Hanna Aurbacher, Theophil Maier, and Ewald Liska). [8]

The Talking Heads, an American New Wave band, used "Gadji-beri-bimba" as the basis for "I Zimbra," a song included on their 1979 record album Fear of Music.

Ball's most notable poem without words is perhaps "Karawane" (1916; score available here). Here is a recording of Ball performing "Karawane" at Cabaret Voltaire just before its closing in July-August 1916.

Here are five different interpretations of Ball's "Karawane." The first is by the Italian Trio Exvoco (Hanna Aurbacher, Theophil Maier, and Ewald Liska). [9]

Next, a performance by Canadian sound poet Christian Bök.

Jerome Rothenberg with Jean-Charles Francois, percussion, and Bertram Turetzky, bass. [10]

Anat Pick is an Isreali sound poet and performer, with a deep interest in Dada sound poetry. [11]

Marie Osmond recorded her interpretation of "Karawane" for the Ripley's Believe It or Not television program in the mid-1980s. The focus of the segment was sound poetry. Osmond was to read "Karawane" from a cue card. But, she looked directly into the camera, and recited the poem from memory, completely surprising everyone. [12]

Although not Dada, or connected to Hugo Ball or "Karawane," the Language Removal Services website provides interesting examples of what is left after removing words. Listen to this example from "The California Recall Debate," where, even without voice, you can still recognize the speaker.

Tristan Tzara

Another founder of Dada was Tristan Tzara (1896-1963), French poet and performance artist. Here is a portion of a 1948 recording of Tzara reading his sound poem "Pour compte."

Kurt Schwitters

Kurt Schwitters (1887-1948), a German painter, sculpter, designer, and writer, was another influential Dadaist. His most famous work was "Ursonate" ("primeval sonata," 1922), comprised entirely of sounds divorced from meaning. Here is a recording of Schwitters performing the scherzo from this work. [13]

Antonin Artaud

Antonin Artaud (1896-1948), French playwright, poet, actor, and theatre director, is noted for "Pour en Finir avec le Jugement de Dieu [To Have Done with the Judgment of God]," a radio play recorded in several sessions in the broadcasting studios of the Radiodiffusion française, Paris, between 22-29 November 1947. Artaud's work utilized tape recorders and radio to emphasize the more primal aspect of the human body and emotion, including the scream. It played only once before being banned from future broadcast. Here he is reading an excerpt of his work, entitled "The Dance of the Tutuguri." [14]

The Dadaists created three different categories of sound poetry . . .
Bruitist poems—invented by Richard Huelsenbeck. These phonetic poems were not so different from those pioneered by Marinetti and other Futurists.
Simultaneous poems—invented by Tristian Tzara. The same poem was read in different languages, by different persons, with different rhythms, tonalities.
Movement poems—sound poems accompanied by basic boy movements.

When the Cabaret Voltaire closed, July/August 1916, the artists disbursed and established Dada in Zurich, Berlin, Hanover, Cologne, Paris, and New York. Dada continued many Futurist concerns with visual arts, literature, poetry, art manifestos, art theory, theatre, and graphic design, seeking new forms of creativity and expression beyond the prevailing standards in art. By 1922, most Dadaists had moved on to surrealism. Dada influences can be traced there, and in avant-garde, Fluxus, downtown music, performance art, abstract art, and sound poetry. [15]

Roots: Coda

From its pioneering roots in Futurism and Dada, intended primarily for performance as voice without words, sound poetry, influenced by electronic literature, becomes words without voice, intended primarily for viewing, like little films.

In both the Futurist and Dada branches of sound poetry, note the emphasis on print or performance as these pioneering efforts preceded the wide availability of recording technology. From this background, sound poetry evolved into visual poetry and concrete poetry, both concerned primarily with visual arts issues as they might augment poetry. Visual poetry focused on the visual arrangement of text, images, and symbols thought important to conveying a poem's intended effect. Concrete poetry focused on typographical arrangement of the text to convey a poem's intended effect. This was considered as important as the meanings of the words, their rhythms, and rhyming. [16]

Evolving affordances (potentials for particular actions) of computer technology have also had an impact on the production and consumption of sound poetry. Computer speech synthesis was introduced by Bell Laboratories in 1961 when an IBM 704 "sang" a rendition of "Daisy Bell (Bicycle Built for Two)" composed in 1892 by Harry Dacre. The synthesized vocals were programmed by John L. Kelly and Carol Lockbaum.

In homage to this first performance, which he witnessed, American author Arthur C. Clarke had the HAL 9000 computer, endowed with self-awareness, artificial intelligence, and the ability to vocalize its thoughts, observations, and memories, sing this song while being deprogrammed in a pivotal scene in the 1968 movie 2001: A Space Odyssey.

But, despite these creative endeavors, sound was overshadowed by the ability to animate text on computer screens, driving a return to the Futurist and Dada focus on the appearance of a poem's text. Hyperlinking, programmed or random jumps between chunks of text, replaced the Dada technique of drawing random words from a hat and helped return the primary emphasis to the visual. Even while trying to emulate vocalizations, the use of computer technology has, arguably, effectively removed them as the primary emphasis. No longer an intermedia, something between literature and music, as practiced by electronic literature, sound poetry, becomes much more visual in its representation. Rather than voice without words, intended primarily for performance, electronic literature poetry is words without voice, made for viewing, like little films.

Tape Recording Technology: New Frontier for Sound Poetry

The availability of magnetic tape recording encouraged practitioners of sound poetry to explore new forms for their work, especially the use of audio collage, multiple, overlain, and often manipulated voices in order to extend the notion of a "reading." The desired result was poetry that can only exist as sound.

The availability of magnetic tape recording encouraged practitioners of sound poetry to explore new forms for their work, especially the use of audio collage, multiple, overlain, and often manipulated, voices in order to extend the notion of a "reading." The desired result was poetry that can only exist as sound.

François DuFrêne

For example, François DuFrêne (1930-1982), began, in 1953, a long series of experiments he called criythmes where he bypassed text completely and recorded phonetic poems based on his own vocalizations directly to tape. Listen, for example, to "Batteries vocales" crirythme (1959).

Henri Chopin

In 1957, Henri Chopin (1922-2008), following DuFrêne, began using tape recorders and studio technologies like reverberation, echoes, and speed changes to manipulate tape recordings of his voice. Such alterations, he thought, separated the voice from the words, creating an artistic expression entirely about sound. Chopin, a little known but highly influential French concrete and sound poet, created a large body of pioneering recordings in which he explored the body as a sound source. Chopin called his work "poesie sonore" (poetic sound) as distinct from sound poetry. His emphasis on the sound of vocalization is a reminder that language draws as much from oral tradition(s) as classic literature, and his work continues to inspire that of contemporary sound poets. In this recording of "Définition des Lettres Suivantes" performed by Chopin, hear the similarities between himself and DuFrêne. [17]

Brion Gysin

In March 1958, while living at the Beat Hotel in Paris, France, Brion Gysin (1916-1986), an English painter, poet, novelist, and performer, applied collage techniques first discovered by Surrealist painters to sound recording. While cutting framing mats for paintings, and slicing through a number of newspaper sheets placed underneath to protect the table top, Gysin realized the resulting bits of words could be recombined into something new.

For Gysin, audio cut-ups presented opportunities for linking words, sounds, and time through juxtaposition. The addition of spacing and voice inflection added characteristics not possible on the printed page. Gysin specifically explored permutation, a technique where words in a sentence, as well as syllables and phonemes within words, are recombined through all possible combinations.

Permutation was an avant-garde technique, previously used systematically by American writer Gertrude Stein (1874-1946). By taking a single phrase and working through all possible combinations of order, Gysin created focused, elegant sound-text poetry making new realms of implied meaning apparent.

In 1960, Gysin was commissioned to produce sound works for broadcast on the BBC radio program The Permutated Poems of Brion Gysin. "I Am That I Am" is a permutation of Biblical text, creating geometrically progressive worlds until it fades into silence. [18]

Other examples following this same principle include "No poets don't own words" (1962). [19]

"I've come to free the words." [20]

"Kick that habit man" (1959). [21]

and "Recalling all active agents" with its use of multiple voices. [22]

Beyond text, Gysin applied his cut-up technique and permutation to sounds. "Pistol Poem" (1960) permutes a series of pistol shots heard from different distances, overlain with Gysin's voice sounding like the sergeant directing the shots. Beyond the BBC broadcast, this work was included in the 1960 performance in Paris of Le Domaine Poetique, a showcase for experimental works by Gysin, DuFrêne, Chopin, and Bernard Heidsieck. [23]

"Vocal Cut-Up" uses vocalizations distorted and/or modified by manipulating the reel-to-reel tape recorder. [24]

"Sound Poem" relies heavily on the tape recorder to manipulate vocalizations. [25]

William S. Burroughs

Gysin knew that surrealist painters had recombined bits of materials on their canvases for years. Why not use these painting techniques for literary endeavors? He shared his cut-up techniques with American writer William S. Burroughs, who applied them to his novel Naked Lunch and changed the landscape of American literature. Burroughs and Gysin experimented with cut-up text into the mid-1960s. Their idea was that collage, randomness, and simultaneity, all first proposed and used by the Dadaists, destroyed conventional notions of linear narrative, and freed author and audience to detect an alternate, perhaps underlying, reality. During a 20 April 1976 lecture at the Naropa Institute Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poets in Boulder, Colorado, Burroughs went to great lengths to explain the background of tape cut-ups to his audience. In this sample from his lecture, entitled "Origin and Theory of the Cut-Ups," Burroughs' detached, unrelenting monotone delivery adds a surprising poignancy to the surreal sound poetry of cut-ups. [26]

European Sound Poets

Bernard Heidsieck

Contemporary European sound poets using tape recording include Bernard Heidsieck (1928-), from Paris, who works with recordings spoken by himself, recorded on the streets, or from the radio. His work, which he calls "poesie action" (poetic action), places the voices of television and radio news announcers, and the voice of a more intimate narrator (Hiedsieck?), against a background of miscellaneous noises. Here is a sample from "Carrefour de la Chaussee d'Antin [Crossroads of the Roadway to Antin]" (1972). [27]

Ferdinand Kriwet

Other notable contemporary European sound poets include Bob Cobbing (Great Britain), Edwin Morgan (Scotland), Paul de Vree (Belgium), Ernst Jandl (Austria), Stockholm, Sweden's Fylkingen group (Bengt Emil Johnson, Sten Hanson, and Bengt af Klintberg), and Ferdinand Kriwet (Germany). Kriwet (1942- ), a radio play author and sound poet, made several radio programs that he called "listening texts." For "Apollo America" (first broadcast 20 November 1969, WDR, Cologne, as Hörtext VI) Kriwet spent a month in a hotel in New York (11 July-11 August 1969) recording everything he could hear from radio and television reports of the Sunday, 20 July 1969 Apollo 11 moon landing. He edited these materials into this amazing 21-minute sound-text poem. [28]

Ashby McGowan

Ashby McGowan, Glasgow, Scotland, writes and performs multi-voice poetry, with a focus on blending the sounds made by multiple speakers. In some cases, this blending becomes the priority, creating subtle rhythms between speakers' words and amplifying the emotions that accompany the words.

The multivocal poem, "Many Voices," is a poem about human rights in The Commonwealth, a voluntary association of fifty-three independent and equal sovereign states. It was commissioned for performance and film by conFAB, a cross-platform arts organization, as part of 2014 Commonwealth Games. Written by McGowan, produced by Rachel Jury, artistic director for conFAB. Acting director: Iwona Glowinska. Film and audio director: Pete Hastie. Cast: Ashby McGowan, Berta Cussó, Jessica Phillippi, Miriam Sarah Doren, Robert Przekwas. Used by permission. Listen to "Many Voices." [29]

A video performance of "Many Voices" available here.

McGowan's work explores themes of humanity, equality, and human and animal rights. It is also interactive, prompting the audience to lend their voices as well. See for example Daybreak Interactive Multi-Voice Poem.

Learn more at McGowan's website.

North American Sound Poets

In North American, sound poets also fall roughly into two camps: those who embrace tape-looping, multi-tracking, and micro-editing to achieve tape recorded works with a high caliber of sophisticated sound, and those who largely avoid tape recording, except to preserve their own aural performances. Examples of the first group might include Steve Reich, Charles Amirkhanian, and John Giorno. John Cage, Jackson Mac Low, Michael McClure, and Paul Dutton and the Four Horseman are fine representatives of the second.

Steve Reich

Steve Reich (1936- ) focuses on modular variation. One phrase (module), musical or verbal, is repeated in a gradually changing way. Then, with overdubbing, two or more examples of the same module, played at different speeds (or played at the same speed relying on phasing, speed variations within the two tape recorders, to bring them in and out of synchronization) sometimes producing pulsating rhythms or melodies. Reich's masterpiece with this technique is "It's Gonna Rain" (1965). Reich recorded a young, black Pentecostal street preacher, Brother Walter, in downtown San Francisco's Union Park, and then recorded loops of the recording playing on separate machines, going in and out of phase. The result, a two-part, nearly 18-minute composition, is amazing, but can only be created through recording. Here is a sample. [30]

Charles Amirkhanian

Charles Amirkhanian (1945- ), composer, percussionist, poet, and since 1969, Music Director for Pacifica Radio KPFA FM in Berkeley, California, where he is internationally-known for his comprehensive programs on avant-garde music, poetry and art, followed Reich's lead, at least for his early work where he used speech as the major component of his compositions. "If In Is" (1971), included in a 29 May 1972 KPFA broadcast, repeats three words (inini, bullpup, and banjo) arranged in phrases on three separate tape loops played simultaneously on multiple tape recorders. Even Amirkhanian's commentary is deliberately altered and treated as a compositional element. The result are aural-verbal relationships produced by the continually colliding three-word phrases. [31]

Amirkhanian edited the 1974 record album 10+2: American Text Sound Pieces. This was the first major anthology of American sound poetry. Artists included Clark Coolidge, John Cage, John Giorno, Anthony Gnazzo, Charles Dodge, Robert Ashley, Beth Anderson, Brion Gysin, Liam O'Gallagher, Aram Saroyan, and Charles Amirkhanian whose work "Just" (1972) begins the anthology. [32]

Both looping and overlaying create Amirkhanian's masterpiece, "Seatbelt, Seatbelt" (1973) included on the record album. In this work, words are like percussion objects and Amirkhanian's overlaying of just one word spoken by multiple voices (Janice Giteck, John Duykers, Karl Goldstein, and Susan Napper) leads us to examine the musical essence of spoken language. [33]

Moving away from Reich's modular-style and toward more precise editing words or phrases and then overlaying them in the middle of their predecessors, Amirkhanian transforms a single voice into a duet or chorus of itself, a restless minimalism where figures are repeated and sustained for short periods of time before giving way to other variations. A good example of this use of polyphonic voices to create kaleidoscopic effects is "Church Car, Version 2" (1980-1981). [34]

John Giorno

American poet and performance artist John Giorno (1936- ) is noted for his use of pop art; avant garde; found art; innovative technologies; Buddhist, Asian, and Western practices and poetics; and anti-war and AIDS activism in his poetry.

In 1966, Giorno began collaborating with Robert Moog, creator of the Moog synthesizer, to create a series of psychedelic poetry installation/happenings he called "Electronic Sensory Poetry Environments." Girono organized the first (1967) Dial-A-Poem event at the Architectural League of New York, making short poems by various contemporary poets available over the telephone. The idea was immediately successful and spread across the country. Giorno formed Giorno Poetry Systems to collect and publish the recorded Dial-A-Poems.

Touring rock clubs in the 1970s with William S. Burroughs, Giorno developed an amplified confrontational poetry presentation style that strongly influenced the development of Poetry Slam. The poem "I Don't Need It, I Don't Want It, and You Cheated Me Out of It," recorded on "The Red Night Tour," May-June 1981, is a good example. [35]

Alvin Lucier

American experimental composer and sound installation artist Alvin Lucier (1931- ) continues his work at Wesleyan University. One of his most important and best known works is "I Am Sitting in a Room," the first recording of which was made at the Electronic Music Studio at Brandeis University, Waltham, Massachusetts, in 1969. The work involves two tape recorders with a microphone and speaker connected to each. Lucier records himself on one tape recorder narrating the following text . . .

"I am sitting in a room different from the one you are in now. I am recording the sound of my speaking voice and I am going to play it back into the room again and again until the resonant frequencies of the room reinforce themselves so that any semblance of my speech, with perhaps the exception of rhythm, is destroyed. What you will hear, then, are the natural resonant frequencies of the room articulated by speech. I regard this activity not so much as a demonstration of a physical fact, but more as a way to smooth out any irregularities my speech might have."

and then plays the recording back into the room through the connected speaker. This playback is recorded on a second tape recorder. The new recording is played back and recorded on the first tape recorder. This process is repeated again and again, creating many generations. These generations are spliced together in chronological order to make a composition. Length is determined by the length of original statement and the number of generations recorded. Throughout this process, certain frequencies are emphasized by the room until they eventually replace the spoken words with the pure resonant harmonies and tones of the room itself. The words become intelligible, as described in Lucier's original spoken narrative. Lucier's statement regarding this work "as a way to smooth out any irregularities my speech might have," refers to his own stuttering. Listen, in this original recording (1969), how Lucier's words disappear into sound harmonics.

Paul Dutton

Several sound poets have eschewed the use of tape recording and other technologies, preferring instead to focus on the natural range of the human voice. One example is Paul Dutton (1943- ), Canadian novelist, poet, sound artist was a member of the poetry performance group The Four Horsemen (see below) from 1970-1988 and is currently a member of CCMC (Dutton, John Oswald, and Michael Snow; 1989-present). Dutton's solo oral acoustic performances strive to extend the poetic expressive ability of the human voice without electronic or mechanical effect or processing. For example, listen to "Reverberations." [36]

Or the playful, "Beyond Doo-Wop." [37]

Today, Dutton's oral soundworks are at the forefront of sound poetry and free improvisational soundsinging, as might be evidenced by "Snare, Kick, Rack, and Floor." [38]

The Four Horseman

Dutton was a member of The Four Horsemen, a Canadian sound-poetry group comprised of himself, bpNichol, Steve McCaffery, and Rafael Barreto-Rivera. Formed in 1970, and active until 1988, when bpNichol died, The Four Horsemen (or simply, "The Horsemen" if less than four members were involved in a performance) sought to engage the room acoustics, the audience, and their voices in each performance. No sound manipulation technologies, only their voices. In this sense, The Four Horsemen represented a return to the roots of sound poetry, foregrounding the Futurist and Dada approaches to bridging literary and musical composition with the sounds / acoustics of human speech rather than meaning. "Allegro 108" is an excellent example of the results. [39]


The vocal skill and technique of Canadian poet bpNichol (Barrie P. Nichol, 1944-1988) certainly adds dimension to The Four Horsemen. But bpNichol is also noted in his own right as an experimental poet. Listen to his "A Love Poem for Gertrude Stein." [40]

Steve McCaffery

Another member of The Four Horsemen, Steve McCaffery (1947- ), Canadian poet and professor at SUNY Buffalo, has contributed to our understanding of sound poetry. See his "Sound Poetry—A Survey".

In his own work, McCaffery seeks to break language from the logic of syntax and structure to create a purely emotional response. Like Kriwet , McCaffery was inspired by the Apollo 11 moon landing on Sunday, 20 July 1969. His "One Step to the Next" (produced December 1977, Calgary, Canada) speaks to that inspiration and, although relying on manipulation of tape recordings, nicely demonstrates his focus on sound(s) of human vocalization. [41]


[1] ". . . the issue of how to resolve the linearity imposed by time on sound works with non-linear structure is a serious conundrum. Of course, I face this every time I do a "reading." I tend to think of an oral recitation of my non-linear work as something like pictures in a catalog—it isn't the real stuff, but gives an idea of what's there." (Jim Rosenberg. Email to John F. Barber, 14 February 2014).

[2] Futura, Poesia Sonora [Future, Sound Poetry] (Cramps Records 5204-001, Milan, Italy, 1978, seven vinyl LP box set; reissued as CRSCD 091-095, Milan, Italy, 1989, five-CD set).

[3] ibid.

[4] Il Futurism (La Voce Del Padrone, Milan, Italy, 3 C 065-17982, 1978) Musica Futurista: The Art of Noises (Cramps Records Collana Multhipla, 5204 002, edited by Daniele Lombardi, two vinyl LP set, 1980).
NOTE: Cramps Records discography notes Musica Futurista as catalog #5204 002 released with Cramps number and Multhipla label. Catalog #5206 308-309 is perhaps for a 100 copies box set limited edition. Learn more.

[5] Futura, Poesia Sonora [Future, Sound Poetry] (Cramps Records 5204-001, Milan, Italy, 1978, seven vinyl LP box set; reissued as CRSCD 091-095, Milan, Italy, 1989, five-CD set).

[6] ibid.

[7] ibid.

[8] Futura, Poesia Sonora [Future, Sound Poetry] (Cramps Records 5204-001, Milan, Italy, 1978, seven vinyl LP box set; reissued as CRSCD 091-095, Milan, Italy, 1989, five-CD set).

[9] ibid.

[10] Sightings, Jerome Rothenberg: Poems 1960-1983 (Contemporary Poetics Research Centre, Optik Nerve for Birkbeck College, Rockdrill CD#6, 2004).

[11] Voice: Dada Sound Poetry 2008, CD.

[12] Video of Osmond's recital.

[13] Kurt Schwitter's "Ursonate" is often cited as the greatest sound poem ever written. Begun in 1919 as "Sonata in Urläten," the work grew in size and variation, finalizing at about forty minutes in length. A full rendition of "Ursonate" performed by his brother, Ernst Schwitter can be heard at the ubuweb website. The score can also be accessed at the same website, here

[14] Futura, Poesia Sonora [Future, Sound Poetry] (Cramps Records 5204-001, Milan, Italy, 1978, seven vinyl LP box set; reissued as CRSCD 091-095, Milan, Italy, 1989, five-CD set).

[15] New York Dada poet and performer Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven (1874-1927) is well-known for her sound poem "Klink-Hratzvenga (Death-wail)" (The Little Review March 1920), written for elegiac vocalizations rather than words to express mourning over her husband's April 1919 suicide, just a year after his release from five years as a prisoner of war.

[16] Richard Kostelanetz provides an excellent overview and historical survey in his "Text Sound Art: A Survey". Kostelanetz concludes that sound art is consequential, but unavailable, except through its creating artists, or essays such as his own.

See also Steve McCaffrey's (member of the poetry performance group The Four Horsemen with bpNichol, Paul Dutton, and Rafael Barreto-Rivera) "Sound Poetry—A Survey" (from Sound Poetry: A Catalogue, Steve McCaffery and bpNichol, eds. Underwich Editions, Toronto, 1978).

Peter Finch's "Sound Poetry", is an excellent overview with links to many examples of works by various international sound poets.

Similarly, Sound Poetry, a website maintained at the University of Buffalo, provides a list of sound poets and links to examples of their sound poetry.

Kenneth Goldsmith provides a section devoted to "The Futurist Movement: Howlers, Exploders, Crumplers, Hissers, and Scrapers" as part of his much larger and very informative "Bring Da Noise: A Brief Survey of Sound Art." For connections between literature and sound art, see Goldsmith's "Sound and The Literary Connection, also part of "Bring Da Noise" noted above.

[17] Text-Sound Festivals 10 Years (Fylkingen Records, FYLP 1010, LP, Sweden, 1977).

[18] Mektoub: Recordings 1960-1981. (Perdition Plastics, PER 004, CD and LP, 1995).

[19] ibid.

[20] ibid.

[21] ibid.

[22] ibid.

[23] ibid.

[24] ibid.

[25] ibid.

[26] Breakthrough in Grey Room. (Sub Rosa, SUB 33005-8, LP, Belgium, 1986).

[27] "Le Carrefour de La Chaussee d'Antin" at the Internet Archive website.

[28] Hörtexte [Radiotexts] (Edition RZ, Ed. RZ 9003-04-05, 3 vinyl LP box set, 2007)
Listen to the complete "Apollo America" at the ubuweb website.

[29] McGowan's multivoice poetry website explains his history with the form and provides information for others wanting to get involved.
McGowan's multivoice poetry blog includes lyrics from several of his poems

[30] Steve Reich: Early Works (Nonesuch, 979169-1, LP, 1987, and Nonesuch, 979169-2, CD, 1987).

[31] Hut Harsh Mutt Marsh (Early Text-Sound Works by Charles Amirkhanian) at the Internet Archive website.

[32] 10+2: American Text Sound Pieces (1750 Arch Records, S-1752; CD rereleased by Other Minds, OM 1006-2, 2003).

[33] Lexical Music (1750 Arch Records, S-1779, San Francisco, vinyl LP, 1973).

[34] Mental Radio: Nine Text-Sound Compositions (CRI-SD 523, LP, 1985; reissued by in 2009 by New World Records NWCRL 523, CD, 2009).

[35] You're The Guy I Want To Share My Money With (Giorno Poetry Systems, GPS 020-021, 2 vinyl LP set, 1981; reissued as GPS 042, 2-CD set, 1993). With William S. Burroughs, Laurie Anderson. The fourth side featured a triple-grooved track where, depending on placement of the needle in the lead-in groove determines which artists' tracks plays.

[36] Mouth Pieces: Solo Soundsinging (OHM Editions, OHM/AVTR 021, 2000).

[37] ibid.

[38] ibid.

[39] Canadada (Griffin House, IPS 1004, vinyl LP, 1974).

[40] bpNichol (High Barnet Company, Toronto, Canada, audio cassette, 1971).

[41] Wot We Wukkers Wont / One Step to the Next (Underwhich Audiographics, 2, audio cassette, Toronto, Canada, ***; edition limited to 100 hand numbered and signed).


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