Vibrant Spaces – Henri Chopin’s Sound Poetry

Revue OU Cinquième Saison, no. 28/29, 1967 (exc.)

William Burroughs described Henri Chopin as an inner space explorer. Being one of the leading protagonists of the avantgarde and experimental art in the second half of the 20th century, Chopin was among the first to exploit the true potential of a tape recorder. Many of his acoustic works are based on radical approaches, such as swallowing microphones. They aim to break down the walls between poetry, music, speaking, and screaming. 

Between 1964 and 1974, Chopin’s magazine Revue Ou was a forum for visual poetry. It appeared in boxes with posters and prints, but also included records with works of concrete poetry and lettrism, as well as cut-ups.

43-minute documentary with memories and expertise of poet and curator Enzo Minarelli. Quotes from Henri Chopin are read by artist Shelley Tootell.

℗ 2020 Paul Paulun for SWR/Germany, adapted to English and edited in 2022

Vibrant Spaces

Sound: 

Henri Chopin – L’Energie du Sommeil

Narrator:

During sleep, the self is simultaneously present and absent. Detached from sensual experience and evaluation, precisely such impressions are processed.

For the audio work L’Energie du SommeilSleeping Energy, Henri Chopin explored his body with microphones in 1965. They are also in his mouth and on his skin.

Sound:

Henri Chopin – L’Energie du Sommeil

Narrator:

The five-minute piece sometimes recalls the rustling of leaves, then it sounds like a gust of wind or a kind of machine. L’Energie du Sommeil is a breath poem – and exemplary of Chopin’s way of working. He himself said about it:

Henri Chopin:

Being curious, I put the microphone in my mouth, and when you put the microphone into your mouth, you have immediately four or five different sounds. (*)

Sound:

Henri Chopin – L’Energie du Sommeil

Henri Chopin:

Inside you have an echo with the liquid way in the mouth, with breathing, with a strong sound from the tongue, you have respiration with the body… altogether. The body ignores silence. (*)

Narrator:

Chopin had already had the idea of describing a terrain beyond language and conventional music. 

For his 1957 piece Pêche de Nuit, he amplified body sounds recorded with microphones, played them at different speeds on a tape recorder and arranged them. 

Sound:

Henri Chopin – Pêche de Nuit

Narrator:

With Pêche de Nuit, Chopin brings layers of distortion and feedback into a poetic dialogue. 

Decades later, the Italian sound poet and curator Enzo Minarelli – who is 30 years younger than Chopin – is still fascinated by this treatment of sounds. 

Enzo Minarelli:

It was full of noise, but at the same time it’s so full of humanity because you perceive the desperation the sorrow of our society. You perceive the weakness, the strength of the ego.

So life can come into poetry not only through normal words, but can come also through noise, through a phonetic ambiguity.

Sound:

Henri Chopin – Pêche de Nuit

Enzo Minarelli:

There is good researcher and bad researcher, but in the good researcher like Henri the noise is not ending in itself. It is always connected to a situation of life or emotion.

When you are under a strong emotion, the word breaks, and you’re unable to speak, you are using just syllables or a click: ah, oh, uh… all these kind of things. 

Sound:

Henri Chopin – Pêche de Nuit

Narrator:

The work with the sounds of his body also echoes the horrible experiences Chopin underwent as a prisoner in a German labor camp at the end of World War 2. 

After briefly escaping from the camp in Olomouc, located in what is now the Czech Republic, the Nazis sent him on one of the many death marches used to break up the camps.

Thousands died on the way. The gasps and sounds of exhaustion by his fellow marchers made their way deep into Chopin’s consciousness.

Enzo Minarelli:

He was reluctant to talk about it, very reluctant. That war experience really marked his life. He became an extremist. He was a declared communist in a period when communism was a synonym of terrorism.

He looked at the common life with its typical problems with a sense of indifference, because he had lived something very heavy and disgusting. That experience you find in his poems this sense of death, of horror, the war in a way.

Sound:

Henri Chopin – Pêche de Nuit

Narrator:

Henri Chopin was born in 1922 and grew up in the family of a Jewish accountant in Paris. 

When the Nazis occupied the city in 1940, the family fled south, was captured and deported to Olomouc. His two brothers were killed there by the Nazis; Henri himself returned to Paris in 1945.

He jobbed around but remained penniless and decided to join the army in 1948. Chopin fought in Indochina until a bout of malaria left him an invalid in 1952. 

In the mid-fifties, he joined the Lettrist circle around Isidore Isou in Paris.

Sound:

Isidore Isou – Neige

Narrator:

Isou had the idea of an artistic reboot through the destruction of words in favor of letters and phonemes. 

Enzo Minarelli:

Lettrism is not only an artistic movement, it’s also a political movement. They wanted to change, to destroy society and have a new world, and so the first part that need to get destroyed, the base of society, according to them, la letterie, which is more or less the phoneme.

Sound:

Isidore Isou – Neige

Narrator:

Chopin and Isou were also connected by their interest in orality. Chopin could not accept submitting to the laws of printed poetry after a tradition of 7,000 years of oral poetry.

Tape, which had just become available, now freed poetry from being reproduced on paper. Chopin explored the new possibilities of this medial orality in 1956 with the piece Rouge.

Sound:

Henri Chopin – Rouge

Narrator:

The inside of the mouth was at the center of the Lettrists’ work and became a means of artistic expression. But that was not enough for Chopin.

In 1957 he founded the secession of the Ultra-Lettrists. For them, the voice embodied the very energy that is necessary to enter into a relationship with the world. Ultimately, it symbolizes life itself.

Chopin, however, wanted to go even further. For him, the next step was to leave the phoneme behind and turn to noise. By 1974, he had perfected this technique – and got to the core of it with the piece Chercher.

Sound:

Henri Chopin – Chercher

Enzo Minarelli:

The poem starts and you perceive only sounds, noise. The noise comes from a phonetical noise, because actually that effect was due to the superimposition of the same word for more than 60 times, so you can imagine that the word totally collapses, is totally ruined. 

Sound:

Henri Chopin – Chercher 

Enzo Minarelli:

You have the noise, this amount of apparently nonsense, but as you go on in listening to the poem, you understand that something is happening, something is changing. There is the dawn of something… he was saying Chhherchhhher, slowly slowly at the end. 

Sound:

Henri Chopin – Chercher 

Enzo Minarelli:

The word chercher, to search, has a symbolic value, because we are searching. We are searching new sounds, new stimuli, life is a long walk where you try to search something. In existentialism, feeling, relationship, but also, if you are called an artist, you are looking for something new or experimentalism.

Sound:

Henri Chopin – Chercher

Narrator:

The restriction to tape-modified material and his use of extremely accelerated or slowed-down micro-articles make Henri Chopin a pioneer of sound poetry in the late 1950s. 

His raw material is created during spontaneous improvisations – recorded on a Revox tape machine.

Henri Chopin:

It is just by heart and using only my memory that I conceive the expressions of my body, basically through my mouth with its breathing etc., which become my only solid score. (**)

Narrator:

Flesh turned into sound is the core of poetry for Chopin. He sees in it an absolute expression of one’s own existence – and this is duly celebrated.

Sound:

Henri Chopin – Le Corps: Déchirure De L’air

Narrator:

In the sixties, the writer William Burroughs also explores the possibilities of tape – however, with the method of cutting up text. Burroughs sees Chopin as an »explorer of the inner space«. 

The two befriended artists were united in their rejection of the word. For them, it seems to be overpowering – and unsuitable for describing people or events. It is also not helpful when reflecting about whom one should vote for and whom one should obey.

Henri Chopin:

The Word has created profit, it has justified work, it has made obligatory the confusion of occupation, it has permitted life to lie. (***)

Narrator:

In his 1967 manifesto Why I Am The Author of Sound Poetry and Free Poetry, Chopin describes the word as cancer of society. The social order associated with it would be accepted far too uncritically. 

He recalls the many unfulfilled promises made to people, or complex scientific treatises on life, which cost a lot of valuable life time to understand.

Henri Chopin:

The human sound does not explain, it transmits emotions, it suggests exchanges, affective communications; it does not state precisely, it is precise.

And I would say well that the act of love of a couple is precise, is voluntary, if it does not explain! (***)

Sound:

Henri Chopin – Le Corps: Déchirure De L’air

Narrator:

As a counter-model to an order symbolized by the word, Chopin proposes the chaotic, which each one must master their own way.

He sees this as a learning process for which there is no model. And it is clear to him that this development could not be realized without further ado.

Henri Chopin:

Perhaps there would be more dead among the weak constitutions, but certainly there could be fewer than there are in that order which defends the Word, from the socialisms to the capitalisms. 

Undoubtedly there would be more alive beings and fewer dead beings, such as employees, bureaucrats, business and government executives. (***)

Sound:

Henri Chopin – Le Corps: Brisure Du Corps

Henri Chopin:

Art must be valued like a vegetable. It feeds us differently, that’s all. (***)

Sound:

Henri Chopin – Le Corps: Brisure Du Corps

Narrator:

Henri Chopin had printed his first sound poem in 1958 in the new magazine Cinquième Saison. With the second issue, Chopin became the editor of the publication. It served as a forum for traditional and experimental poetry alike.

After 19 issues, there was a realignment in 1964. Each issue now appeared in a different design, and once a year even included a 10-inch record.

The first in this series presented works by the three leading artists who were independently experimenting with tape in Paris at the time: Bernard Heidsieck, Brion Gysin, and of course: Chopin himself. From him came the piece Vibrespace. It was the birth of the Revue Ou.

Sound:

Henri Chopin – Vibrespace

Enzo Minarelli:

Henri was very, very, very rigorous in the choice of people to issue in the Revue Ou. He had a very sectary idea.

The impression is that he chose only poets who were developing the kind of work he was doing.

Narrator:

The move away from a magazine that was read, communicating content instead via posters, texts and graphic notations, also demanded a new format – the cardboard box. Depending on the content, its size varied with each issue.

Soon, such collections in boxes were seen elsewhere as well. The French fluxus artist Ben Vautier made use of the format, and also the US publisher Phyllis Johnson, when publishing the multimedia editions Aspen.

Chopin’s Revue Ou had only a small circulation of 500 copies. It was, however, also noticed internationally – as a collection and voice of a poetry that experienced its heyday in the sixties. 

Enzo Minarelli:

In a way, Henri was part of a network, he was a reference, he had the Revue Ou, he had a strong influence in the area. 

The Revue Ou was the instrument to spread this kind of work that the institutions refused, of course.

Narrator:

But then, some institutions woke up. In Sweden, text-sound had developed into a radio-play-like poetry art that was explicitly political.

Organized by the Museum of Modern Art, the Fylkingen Society, and Radio Sweden, Text-Sound festivals were held annually in Stockholm starting in 1968.

Chopin performed there as well, but avoided political statements – possibly because he had not had a good experience with them. His 1965 piece Le Discours des Ministres was boycotted by French radio. 

It was not until 1971 that it was broadcast on the radio – in West Germany, after Klaus Schöning from the WDR had it provided with a German introduction.

Sound:

Henri Chopin – Le Discours des Ministres

Narrator:

Through his work on the Revue Ou, Chopin had also developed his graphic form of expression. Almost all the covers of the boxes are in the style of visual poetry. They communicate important information about the content in a playful yet powerful way.

Then, in the seventies, with the typewriter, Chopin discovered a tool whose artistic potential was far from being tapped. 

Enzo Minarelli:

The same structure he applied to a sound poem, he applied to the visual art: accumulation, accumulation, accumulation, until you have a sort of visual distortion of the visual poem. It is not the optical art, but in a way that is the direction. 

Narrator:

Chopin referred to these graphic works as dactylo-poèmes. They are created by repeatedly reclamping a sheet in the typewriter and overwriting it –  often with the same content.

The resulting overlays reveal fascinating effects. The works are abstract, playful, precise – and full of depth. Today they can be found in museums and galleries worldwide.

Chopin achieves a similarly unreal impression in the few pieces in which he works with unedited words – such as Présence Du Soleil, written in 1971.

Sound:

Henri Chopin – Présence Du Soleil

Narrator:

In the eighties, a new generation of artists appeared on the stage. Many of them had grown up with concrete poetry and sound poems. 

In Italy, Enzo Minarelli developed poli poetry, a form of poetry that relied on new technologies, like electronic media and computers.

Even today, Minarelli speaks of Chopin as his master. He got to know Chopin when he released Chercher in 1983 – as the first release on his label 3vitre.

Enzo Minarelli:

With me, he had a great relationship, no problem, when I had to issue Chercher, he gave it to me free, I know that with other people he wanted to get paid. Probably, he had respect for my work. Or he wanted to help a young guy, because I was not yet 30.

Narrator:

It is possible that Chopin recalled an encounter from his past at Minarelli’s request. In 1956, as a young man, he had visited the Dadaist Raoul Hausmann and recorded some of his early phonetic poems. 

Hausmann belonged to the Berlin section of the movement and had experimented with sound poems and typography. 

For Chopin, he recited some pieces from that time – translations of his 1919 poster poems consisting only of letters:

Sound:

Raoul Hausmann – Poème sans Titre

Enzo Minarelli:

For him it was the same kind of reference that he had for me. 

So, when he met him, Hausmann probably was forgotten by everybody. Nobody knew who he was, and what he had done, but Henri knew this, and he published, and he tried to promote his work.

Narrator:

Chopin continued to be inquisitive and collaborated with younger artists. Even at the age of 82, he still gave workshops at the Vienna School of Poetry.

Some of his last pieces, from the winter of 2003/2004, appear on the Berlin label Tochnit Aleph, whose proprietor Daniel Löwenbrück is almost 50 years younger than Chopin.

As so often since the sixties, Chopin announces one of the pieces himself:

Sound:

Henri Chopin – La Plaine Des Respirs Vivace Comme Il Se Doit

Henri Chopin:

One of the oral aspects of this vinyl is the negation of a religion, 

from North to South, from West to East.

This aspect is because neither the lamb nor the bull pray, 

they are one as the other as life is… 

For one it bleats, for the other it moos.

But did the gods want the lamb to be a pope, the bull to be a minotaur? (****)

Narrator:

In the accompanying text on the LP, Chopin once again propagates the natural freedom of man, symbolized by his artistic work with breath.

Until shortly before his death in 2008, Chopin performs on stage. He sits in a wheelchair, lacking the strength for the enthusiastic gestures with which he once seemed to conduct imaginary orchestras. But the joy of the sound is nevertheless to be seen in him.

What remains of this artist, who has personally met with protagonists from over 100 years of experimental music history, is his multitude of sonic and graphic works. 

In them, the new territory that Chopin has consistently opened up and marked over decades, remains alive.

Sound:

Henri Chopin – La Plaine Des Respirs Vivace Comme Il Se Doit


Henri Chopin quotes:

* Andrew Norris, »Projections of the Pulseless Body: Don Van Vliet and Henri Chopin« (Chapter and Verse, 2005)

** »Les cahiers de I’ Ircam- Recherche et musique n. 6« (Centre Georges Pompidou Paris, 1994) 

*** Henri Chopin, »Why I Am The Author of Sound Poetry and Free Poetry« (1967)

**** Liner Notes »La Plaine Des Respirs« (Tochnit Aleph, 2007)

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