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Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The Ursonate


Kurt Hermann Eduard Karl Julius Schwitters lived from 1887 to 1948. He was a German-born artist who worked in several genres and media - including Dada, Constructivism, Surrealism, Expressionism, graphic design, typography, sculpture, and installation art.



His most famous installation piece was the Merzbau. It involved the transformation of more than six rooms of the family house in Hannover situtated at Waldhausenstrasse 5. The photo on the right is of a room in the Merzbau taken in 1933. (The Sprengel Museum in Hanover has a reconstruction of the first room of the Merzbau).

Schwitters made countless collages, but buyer beware: forgeries of his work turn up almost weekly on eBay.

Schwitters also explored poetry and music composition. His Ursonate (or: Sonate in Urlauten) roughly translates to Primeval Sonata in English. The first version of Ursonate appeared in 1922, but it evolved over a decade. He continued to make changes and improvements as he performed the sound poem himself. The work was finalized and published in 1932. A link to musical score can be found below.

The movements of the carefully constructed sound poem are as follows:
einleitung und erster teil: rondo
zweiter teil: largo
dritter Teil: scherzo
trio
scherzo
vierter teil: presto -ablösung
kadenz
schluss

There are many good renditions (and some funny MTV-like music videos) from sections of the lengthy Ursonate on YouTube, including a historic recording of Schwitters performing it himself. However, the following rendition by Jaap Blonk is among the best that I've ever heard. His performance from memory before a live audience is augmented in the video with a display of real-time computational typography by Golan Levin using software that automatically follows his voice. The performance took place at the Artefact Festival at STUK kunstencentrum, Leuven, January 2007.

Blonk performs the sonata at a convincing tempo, with great expression, vocal color, and precision. If you follow along with the score, he takes us up to the Grimm glimm gnimm bimbimm (theme #11) at the bottom of page 15 (the score is 22 pages long). If you have any young children in the house, they'll get a blast out of this performance....



View the Score:
http://www.ubu.com/historical/schwitters/ursonate.html

Schwitters provides us with the following notes about his Ursonate:
"The Sonata consists of four movements, of an overture and a finale, and seventhly, of a cadenza in the fourth movement. The first movement is a rondo with four main themes, designated as such in the text of the Sonata. You yourself will certainly feel the rhythm, slack or strong, high or low, taut or loose. To explain in detail the variations and compositions of the themes would be tiresome in the end and detrimental to the pleasure of reading and listening, and after all I'm not a professor."

"In the first movement I draw your attention to the word for word repeats of the themes before each variation, to the explosive beginning of the first movement, to the pure lyricism of the sung "Jüü-Kaa," to the military severity of the rhythm of the quite masculine third theme next to the fourth theme which is tremulous and mild as a lamb, and lastly to the accusing finale of the first movement, with the question "tää?"...

"The fourth movement, long-running and quick, comes as a good exercise for the reader's lungs, in particular because the endless repeats, if they are not to seem too uniform, require the voice to be seriously raised most of the time. In the finale I draw your attention to the deliberate return of the alphabet up to a. You feel it coming and expect the a impatiently. But twice over it stops painfully on the b..."

"I do no more than offer a possibility for a solo voice with maybe not much imagination. I myself give a different cadenza each time and, since I recite it entirely by heart, I thereby get the cadenza to produce a very lively effect, forming a sharp contrast with the rest of the Sonata which is quite rigid. There."

"The letters applied are to be pronounced as in German. A single vowel sound is short... Letters, of course, give only a rather incomplete score of the spoken sonata. As with any printed music, many interpretations are possible. As with any other reading, correct reading requires the use of imagination. The reader himself has to work seriously to becomes a genuine reader. Thus, it is work rather than questions or mindless criticism which will improve the reader's receptive capacities. The right of criticism is reserved to those who have achieved a full understanding. Listening to the sonata is better than reading it. This is why I like to perform my sonata in public."


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