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Jaap Blonk (born 1953 in Woerden, Holland) is a self-taught composer, performer and poet. He went to university for mathematics and musicology but did not finish those studies. In the late 1970s he took up saxophone and started to compose music. A few years later he discovered his potential as a vocal performer, at first in reciting poetry and later on in improvisations and his own compositions. For almost two decades the voice was his main means for the discovery and development of new sounds. From around the year 2000 on Blonk started work with electronics, at first using samples of his own voice, then extending the field to include pure sound synthesis as well. He took a year off of performing in 2006. As a result, his renewed interest in mathematics made him start a research of the possibilities of algorithmic composition for the creation of music, visual animation and poetry.
Could you explain your relation to the history of sound poetry, how do you see the continuity between your work and the historical avant-garde?
I first encountered sound poems in 1977 in a workshop about reciting poetry, where next to straight poetry we also got offered some experimental poems, among which was Hugo Ball’s “Seepferdchen und Flugfische”. I instantly took a liking to this little sound poem, memorized it and performed it in the final presentation of the workshop. I felt I had found a huge ‘no man’s land’ between music and literature, where there were many new possibilities because of the freedom: there were no rules, you could make up the rules yourself. I feel indeed there is a continuity between the historical avant-garde and my work, all the way from Dada, Futurism and Contructivism through Surrealism, Lettrism, Concrete Poetry, the tape-recorded sound poetry after 1945, Fluxus, and the North American ’Text-Sound’ movement. But for me there has always, from the beginning, been another strong component: the free improvisation. In the 1970s I was also playing saxophone and much attracted to Free Jazz. In 1984 I discovered that vocal improvisation was much more natural for me than trying to do it on an instrument. So, unlike most sound poets, especially the earlier ones, I consider improvisation a vital part of my work.
How did you start to work with computer and electronics? how did you mix your voice with those new technologies? How did it change your voice practice?
Before working with the computer, in the early 1990s I started to work with some effect units and a simple hardware sampler. That way I discovered how radically you can change the voice sound, and how exactly repeatable sounds become when sampled. It was not until the late 1990s that I started using a laptop computer. The first software I used was the LiSa live sampling program by STEIM in Amsterdam. This is keyboard-based and worked very natural for me as I’m a trained (though mostly self-taught) music composer. Soon after that came MaxMSP, and then algorithmic composition environments like AC Toolbox and athenaCL. As a way of mixing my voice with digital technology, I often find it more rewarding to use samples of my voice that have been recorded in very good quality with studio microphones, than recording my voice in a live performance and then processing it. The latter often results in lower sound quality due to mediocre microphones and crosstalk. Working with recordings of my voice in a studio situation certainly had an influence on my vocal practice. I became more interested in slower and gradual changes of timbre, as you can create by slowly turning a knob or pushing a fader. Also, my background in mathematics became more important to me after a long hiatus (I quit university in 1977), even in live performance.
Could you explain how do you use the computer to transform your voice? do you write you own program or do you use some already written? what is the relation between the way you work with the voice and your score for voice?
I do not so much transform my voice, I compose with my voice sounds. Obviously they then also get transformed by that, but transformation is not the primary objective. In addition to the software mentioned above, I use SuperCollider sometimes, also Processing (sending data from visual animations to Max). Then, I have many small data-generating programs written in C++ and Mathematica. At an early stage, I started using the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) as a notation system for vocal sounds, have been adding symbols to it and am still doing that. BLIPAX (BLonk’s IPA eXtended) will always be a work in progress. Early work with the IPA includes my Phonetic Etudes as recorded on de CDs “Flux de Bouche” and “Vocalor”. An example of recent work is the suite “Vibrant Islands”. A different type of score works with graphics and instructions. Just one recent example: the “Triangle Stories”. All of these have in common that they give me a great deal of freedom when I perform them. And some pieces are written very quickly and spontaneously, others require a lot of research and contemplation.
How did you start sound poetry? what does it represent for you?
For my beginnings in sound poetry, see my answer to the first question. I have to add: my first important public performances as a vocalist were with Kurt Schwitters’ Ursonate, which I memorized in the early 1980s and presented in many different surroundings, from punk-rock clubs to classical concert halls and everything in between, including street performances. About what it represents for me: I must say, as a vocalist I do not see a clear distinction between sound poetry and its neighbours music and (semantic) literature. This is part of the great freedom I mentioned above. I work with musical principles if I want to, from such classical recipes as fugue, sonata or jazz song form to more recent ones like dodecaphony, aleatoric procedures or microtonal composition. I also work with poetic forms, from classical ones such as sonnet and alexandrian quatrain to Oulipo-inspired structures. I love to use mathematical sequences and other ideas from that field as well. This works because I am sure I can ‘blow life’ into these forms and bend them very freely, either on stage or in the recording studio.
Is there a difference, for you, between singing, shouting and the general practice of sound poetry?
To my opinion ’singing’ in a contemporary sense should include all the possible voice sounds. Every conventionally accepted form of ‘singing’ is very limited, from belcanto to jazz singing to heavy metal to beat-boxing to contemporary classical vocal practice, they each in their own way shut out at least 90% of the potential of the human voice, and therefore can never really represent the full human life, as good sound poetry can. I would not use the term ’shouting’ in my own practice. Probably some of the things I do would be called ’shouting’ by some people, but in my perception there are much finer degrees of distinction even between the very loudest sounds I can produce. It remains important that the general practice of sounds poetry includes elements related to both language and music. Playing with and manipulating semantics and syntax of languages (existing or invented) is a vital part of it, as well as the use of more abstract voice sounds, which is closer to music.
What represent shouting in your musical and sound poetry practice? What do you think about the main ideas on shout which said that it represent an emotional state or express a frustration, a fear or violence? how do you think the essence of shouting?
As said above, ‘shouting’ does not figure in my practice. In my performances, the emotion I feel is the joy of making sound. I guess that makes me more a musician than an actor. I do not feel frustration, fear, violence etcera when I perform. My concentration totally goes towards the intensification of all the different sound qualities I can produce. Only then, to my opinion, a performance can generate strong, genuine, authentic emotions and feelings in an audience. A performer who feels these emotions herself/himself while performing on stage generates just embarrassment in me as a spectator, nothing more. I then just leave as soon as I can.
Could you explain us more in details what’s, for you, the relation between voice, body and the machine? How those elements change the way you perform or create new pieces, or even interpret old ones?
At an early stage I worked with several theatre directors who made me do actions and create expressions that served to bring across a theatrical story line, and had nothing to do with sound. I quickly discovered that was not for me. Over the years I have pared down my gestures and facial expressions to those that are necessary to produce the sounds, or that come naturally with them. I feel this has purified my art and brought it to a much more naturally communicative level. Certainly machine sounds, traffic sounds and the like have inspired me, and also the working of machines. Many of my sounds I discovered by consciously exploring the ‘mechanics’ of the mouth and the body. Transitions between a machine-like functioning and a more fluent, organic way are a feature of my performances, both in presenting old repertoire and in my own work.
Phonetic Etudes and other early scores: http://www.jaapblonk.com/Pages/oldscores.html
Vocal cycle “Vibrant Islands” http://www.jaapblonk.com/Pages/vibrantislands.html
“Triangle Stories” series: http://www.jaapblonk.com/Pages/ts.html