Waggish

Ursonate, Kurt Schwitters

When I first heard Ursonate, I thought it was the tedious ramblings of a mental patient. The dadaist Schwitters is better known for his paintings, but his sound poetry has had a more esoteric influence. Ursonate in particular was one of the earliest works to treat pure spoken syllables as musical form. Hugo Ball and Tristan Tzara were playing in similar areas, but Schwitters’ work has more of a pleasing, formally poetic structure. So said Schwitters:

You yourself will certainly feel the rhythm, slack or strong, high or low, taut or loose.

I heard it years later with more open ears, and felt the rhythm, but also felt the boredom. Over the course of about forty-five minutes, Schwitters’ stiff recitation of the score couldn’t sustain interest:

Fümms bö wä tää zää Uu, pögiff, kwiiee. 
Dedesnn nn rrrrr, Ii Ee, mpiff tillff toooo, tillll, Jüü-Kaa? 
Rinnzekete bee bee nnz krr müüüü, ziiuu ennze ziiuu rinnzkrrmüüüü, 
Rakete bee bee. 

And that was that, until I recently heard Eberhard Blum’s version. Blum is mostly known as a flautist who worked with Morton Feldman and recorded some of his longer endurance tests. But his version of Ursonate is revelatory. There are three other versions here: Schwitters’ original, and links to Jaap Blonk’s rather bombastic recital (I prefer him on his own work, which is more pyrotechnical and more playful) and Christian Bok’s rather overexcited version, about which he says:

[My] “Ursonate” is what I imagine the poem by Kurt Schwitters might sound like if performed at high speed by F.T. Marinetti.

Blonk and Bok’s versions benefit from being delivered at roughly twice the speed of the original, but I didn’t make it through either of them in one sitting.

Blum’s version is different, though it’s also just as fast. His voice is far more sonorous, and he works very hard to bring in traditional musical qualities to the text; he comes closer to singing it than any of the others, and there are discernable notes and even melodies that get associated with specific phrases. This makes it all easier to take, but it also vindicates Schwitters’ original text: given enough of a dynamic vocalizing, sections stick in the memory more easily and Schwitters’ structure becomes more apparent. The irony is that Blum has to bring so much traditional musical baggage in to draw out these qualities.

Unfortunately, the Blum version is out of print, a casualty of the Hat label, but I can offer an excerpt from the third movement: Scherzo (2 mb). Reissue!

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