Listen to a mix of avant-garde spoken word and sound poetry, curated by the writer and artist Kenneth Goldsmith, founder of the influential Ubuweb online archive

Secret Sound Works

 
 
 

Kenneth Goldsmith is a New York based writer, founder of the influential online archive UbuWeb, the author of 12 books of poetry and the editor of I'll Be Your Mirror: The Selected Andy Warhol Interviews which was the basis for an opera, Trans-Warhol. He teaches writing at The University of Pennsylvania, where he is a senior editor of PennSound, an online poetry archive. He was invited to read at President Obama's "A Celebration of American Poetry" at The White House, where he also held a poetry workshop with First Lady Michelle Obama. He co-edited Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing and published a book of essays, Uncreative Writing: Managing Language In The Digital Age. He was recently named as the inaugural Poet Laureate of The Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Goldsmith has put together a mix of extracts from some of the more rare and unique works hidden in the more obscure corners of Ubuweb.

01
Tracie Morris
Chain Gang
2007

Tracie Morris, an American poet, deconstructs Sam Cooke’s 1961 pop hit into an astonishing political sound poem. By taking the sound of labour heard in the original song — the “hooh ah / hooh ah” chorus — as the basis for her version, Morris asks us to imagine what the barbaric institution of the chain gang would really sound like, if all of Cooke’s syrupy pop, romantic, idealized and nostalgia were removed. What we’re left with are the harsh sounds of manual labour. At once a critique and a sensuous audio landscape, Morris virtuously performs the work live at the 2006 People’s Poetry Gathering in New York City, unaided by either electronics or overdubbing.

 

02
Ulises Carrión
Aritmética
1977

This track, a permutation poem consisting of the two words — “uno mas” — repeated for five minutes, was recorded by Carrión (1941–1989), a Mexican conceptual poet. In the tradition of 'pataphysics' (the science of imaginary solutions to imaginary problems — in this case imaginary mathematical problems), he begins by trying to imitate the precision of an adding machine, rhythmic and self-assured. But as the poem progresses, he starts to stumble and stutter. The once precise rhythms now become choppy and laboured. Similar to the ways in which Steve Reich’s early tape loop pieces (“It’s Gonna Rain” from 1965)  fell out of sync with one another, Carrión breathing and stamina humanize his mathematical schema, demonstrating to the listener that there is no language without poetic inflection;  even one number repeated ad infinitum by a human voice can’t help but contain human expression, emotion, and warmth.

 

03
Crispin Hellion Glover
Selected Readings From Rat Catching
1989

There’s something wonderful when mainstream famous people dip their toe into the avant-garde. Few are aware that this eccentric Hollywood actor, best known for his starring roles in the films Back To The Future and River’s Edge, also writes experimental poetry inspired by William S. Burroughs. He takes books that are in the public domain and remixes them — extracting bits, chopping up texts, and adding his own words — to create entirely new works. Rat Catching, published in 1999 is a remix of a 1896 non-fiction book called Studies In The Art Of Rat Catching which teaches students about vermin control. Set to a goofy 1950s-style TV soundtrack, Glover’s surrealist reading comes off as Dr. Seuss for adults. Lots of fun.

 

04
Chris Burden
Send Me Your Money (excerpt)
1979

On March 21, 1978, the conceptual artist Chris Burden (1946–2015), took to the Los Angeles airwaves on radio station KPFK for a full hour and did a fundraising marathon, not to benefit the not-for-profit radio station, but to benefit himself. Burden, famous for nailing himself to a Volkswagen or having his arm shot with a .22 caliber rifle, was as broke as any other performance artist, hence his plea for money was indeed necessary. During the same period he made a piece called Full Financial Disclosure where he displays his cancelled checks, letting us know that his income for the year in 1976 totaled $1054. This piece is a critique of the endless parade of public radio fund drives and the gazillions of Kickstarters we’re confronted with every day. Through the use of repetition — Burden repeats the same pitch over and over for nearly an hour — he both invokes and deconstructs the apparatus of public funding, not to mention how little money most artists have, even famous ones like Burden.

 

o5
M.A. Numminen Sings Wittgenstein
The Tractatus Suite: A Thought Is ...
1983

Accompanied by lush orchestration, this pioneering Finnish polymath of electronic and psychedelic music croaks out sections of Wittgenstein’s seminal philosophical treatise Tractatus (1921) in English. Famously, Wittgenstein questioned the ways language functioned when it took various forms, be it written or spoken. So when Numminen sings phrases like, “Everything that can be put into words, can be put clearly. What can be shown cannot be said,” he materialises Wittgenstein’s queries by morphing written philosophical texts into music. Self-conscious, absurd, and wildly funny, Numminen’s actualizations are material demonstrations of Wittgenstein’s complex propositions.

 

06
Benjamin Weismann
Hitler Ski Story
1994

Weismann, a Los Angeles-based novelist and art critic, wrote a fictitious short story about Hitler’s bumbling performance on the ski slopes, which he incants over a backing track that sounds like Christmas music. Similar to Numminen, Weismann can’t sing very well, and his semi-intoning of this absurd text, only makes it that much more satirical and surreal. Did Hitler ever ski? Was he any good? Did he own his own skis or rent? Weismann spills all. The story begins, “Adolf Hitler was not known for his skiing ability. To be blunt, he was not comfortable on the hill. The incline frightened him,” and continues with a string of vignettes such as “During a lunch break, Hitler drew a sloppy swastika in the snow with his urine. Then he drew an upside down heart.” The track reminds me of  Indiana Jones when he said, “Nazis. I hate these guys.” Weird and wonderful.

o7
Judy Dunaway and David Hanson
Surabaya (extract)
1999

Judy Dunaway is best known as an free-improviser whose main instrument is balloons. She blows them up, pops them as percussive instruments, drains the air from them as primitive sorts of wind instruments, and rubs spit on them to make them squeak. It’s amazing how many sounds she can extract from such simple means. For this track, she and Hanson create a veritable balloon orchestra to play  a cover version of Kurt Weill’s famous tune “Surabaya Johnny” from his 1929 musical comedy “Happy End.” Sounding like a cross between bagpipes and synthesizers, it’s an astonishing feat, a microtonal symphony — created entirely from balloons.

08
Georges Perec
Tentative de description de choses vues au carrefour Mabillon le 19 mai 1978 (A. C. R.)
1978

On May 19, 1979, the Oulipian writer Georges Perec (1936–1982) stood on a Paris street corner and simply described everything that passed before his eyes into a microphone, in real time. When it was over, he had recorded hours of tape, which were distilled into a two-and-a-half hour Hörspiel, broadcast in February 1979. Perec is a poet of the infra-ordinary, and through the accumulation of tiny details, was able to draw out the richness of everyday life by simply annunciating it in words. Perec never comments upon what he sees; he only matter-of-factly describes it. Even if your French isn’t great, you’ll immediately understand what he’s doing. Think of Perec’s piece as an audio cognate to John Smith’s iconic video Girl Chewing Gum (1976) where, with a mere voiceover, he “directs” the everyday actions of a mundane filmed street scene into a “cinematic masterpiece.”

09
Reese Williams
The Sonance Project, Part 1
1977

I love laugh tracks and the songs that are based around them such as Napoleon XIV’s 1966 novelty record, "They're Coming to Take Me Away, Ha-Haaa" or the 78 rpm disc recorded in 1920 known as The Okeh Laughing Record. Even “Bob Dylan's 115th Dream,” is based around hysterics, as a recorded false start leads to peals of laughter from the band which was included on the album Bringing It All Back Home. For this composition, Williams uses only samples of laughing, which are looped and repeated into burpy rhythms and blustery loops, proving that even the most ephemeral human wisps can be used as the basis for complex and gorgeous electroacoustic music. And like yawning, laughing is also infectious. You can’t listen to this without a broad grin on your face.

10
Robin Kahn
Robin Kahn Sings Jesus Christ Superstar (extract)
1991

From memory, the visual artist Robin Kahn sang the entire 1973 rock opera “Jesus Christ Superstar” a cappella. Like Numminen and Weismann, Kahn can’t conventionally sing well, but sings such passion that you can’t help but be drawn in by her obsession and commitment. This project has the manic quality of Gary Brolsma’s 2006 YouTube version of  “Numa Numa,” and exudes the same DYI quality. Yet Kahn is no kid in her bedroom. Instead, she’s taken a vernacular form and posed it as a work of sound art. “Jesus Christ Superstar” is one of a long series of such work that she’s done over the past two decades. Others include a cappella versions of the entire LPs of Patti Smith’s Horses and Carole King’s Tapestry.

 

BONUS: 11
Sean Landers
The Man Within (extract) 
1991

Set to the strains of heroic classical music, this is the New York based visual artist Sean Landers’s eighteen-minute rant about how he is, in fact, the greatest artist of all time. It’s full of unbelievable superlatives: “Wherever I should walk, all I ask is for you to bow your heads to acknowledge the greatness of a man, a man so in tune with his species, that his ever action is poetry,” and “Look no further for the definitive artist of your time. I submit to you that I am that man.” Perhaps the only twentieth century artist that such claims might’ve been reasonably made about is Picasso (on UbuWeb Landers has recorded a spoken word piece called “Dear Picasso” that addresses these questions directly) and clearly, in a post-modern time, to be called a “genius” is a specious claim. Self-reflexive, dramatically performed, and funny as all hell, Landers's piece is sure to make you squirm in embarrassment. How can someone be this self-deceived?

 
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