Jaap Blonk: Sound and meaning

Preeminent Dutch sound poet brings the noise to Ottawa’s Saint Brigid Centre
The human genetic code hardly brings music to mind, but Jaap Blonk is no average musician. Actually, it is up to you to decide if he is a musician at all. The 55 year old Duch composer of sound poetry is considered one of the world’s global leaders in his craft. Primarily reliant on words for their sound quality, as opposed to their semantic meaning, a sound poetry performance of Blonk’s uses phonetics as its primary book of notes. He will even use the computer to synthesize the human genetic code to create “interesting musical sound structures.” Blonk explains this when we have the chance to speak, over the telephone, from a Toronto hotel.
“There are many different ways to translate the data into letters or phonemes. Then, I will take it beyond normal speech sounds,” demonstrates Blonk. “For example, one piece deals with the variations on the letter R. I will go from ‘urrrrrgggg’ to very extreme sounds like aiirrrrrrRRRRRGG. I just stretch it out a bit,” he adds, chuckling.
As Blonk continues through a repertoire of R pronounciations, it is immediately striking how the most mundane word could be considered a small note. Blonk then switches from a bloodcurdling Spanish rolling R to its, at first, unrecognizable Gaelic cousin. As the tone becomes clearer, Blonk adapts the consonant again, introducing a deep, throaty buzz that feels like a hive of swarming bees.
“A part of sound poetry is that it is written with invented languages or abstract speech sounds and then there is no meaning at all,” discloses Blonk. “In Ottawa, I will do some translations of my Dutch text and some new neologisms and I will use some invented languages and some pieces based on the international phonetic alphabet.”
The international phonetic alphabet?
“There is a standardized international phonetic alphabet now and, if you know that, you can see exactly how a word in a foreign language is pronounced, explains Blonk. “This alphabet has many more signs than there are in a western language, I think 200 or something like that, and I’ve invented many more signs of my own.”
Using electronics as an accompaniment to his voice, Blonk’s sound poetry performances must be experienced to be understood. But is it music or poetry, I ask?
“For me, it’s not important. It’s an academic question. Especially, in Germany, people can really talk a long time to find a definition for, well, everything. I was in some academic congresses and I played some pieces of my music and there was a long discussion – some people said it was music and some said it was poetry. But, to me, it is not so important. It is good that people listen.” he says.
Many people do listen. Blonk’s performances, which have taken place on virtually every continent, have earned him international acclaim within the genre.
“Vocal sounds have a certain urgency and directness that music instruments don’t have,” explains Blonk. “Sound poetry involves many everyday sounds that people will hear so it has quite a lot of emotional impact. Singing has that too, but in a different way. In my performances, people really get the message. Sometimes people ask ‘what were you trying to play or convey?’ and I just respond, ‘well, what you heard.’ There is no hidden message.”
Occasionally, people don’t like what they hear. During the early 80s, Blonk was booked to open for legendary punk band, The Stranglers.
“Something happened to their normal support acts and I was asked the day before to open for them at this hall filled with a couple thousand people,” reveals Blonk. “I think only a couple hundred were into what I was doing and the rest were not , so there were six big stage guards trying to block the people from climbing on stage and hitting me. They were throwing their paper beer cups at me. It was like a soccer match but, for me, it was an away game.”
Jaap Blonk
w/ Max Middle Sound Project
Presented by AB Series and Royal Netherlands Embassy
@ Saint Brigid’s Centre For The Arts And Humanities (314 Saint Patrick)
June 6, 7:30 p.m.
$15 (general), $12 (student or senior), free for members