ALAN HALSEY: On Juxtavoices & Playing (Hugo) Ball

In the spring of 2010 Martin Archer began to recruit some Sheffield-based musicians, artists and writers for a choir which could perform part-improvised part-scored music. An inability to sing disqualified no one. He hoped to find 25 voices to create, now and then, a 25-voice chord. This choir – or anti-choir – became Juxtavoices and we occasionally entertain an unprepared but sometimes appreciative or at least intrigued public in unlikely places such as the furnace floor of the old Magna steelworks or the Bear Pit in Sheffield’s Botanical Gardens. It looks as if we’ll be around for some time and perhaps we’ll appear one day in a cave near you.

When Geraldine Monk and I went along to the inaugural session we envisaged only contributing our noisy voices although I was curious to see how a musician would go about building verbal structures. In the early days Martin led us in quite simple vocal exercises, experimenting with mixing voices, raucously or not. I mostly remember how much breath I had to find – singing, however badly, is a free-as-air but somewhat strenuous way for a smoker to get high. After eighteen months I’ve got better with the breathing and can even surprise myself singing passably if not exactly in tune.

Martin gradually introduced us to scores he’d made using spam-derived text. When we complained that the spam wasn’t top-quality he’d drop heavy hints that maybe the poets among us could do better. The goad was bound to work sooner or later – in fact eight months later, when I saw my way to develop anagrammatically a single line of spam, ‘Strong, strange, drawn from no well’, into an extended sound-sculpture. I then set some fragments of my own, followed by a score for Gertrude Stein’s ‘Susie Asado’. The choir had by then established Martin’s arrangement of Samuel Beckett’s ‘what would I do without this world faceless incurious’ in its repertoire and the notion of interpreting master-poems in our choral or anti-choral way began to feel irresistible.

At that point I started to think, for the first time in a long time, about sound poems and in particular the six which Hugo Ball performed in Zürich in 1916 at the Cabaret Voltaire. ‘Karawane’ is the best-known and also seemed likeliest to work for Juxtavoices:

jolifanto bambla ô falli bambla

grossiga m’pfa habla horem

égiga goramen

higo bloiko russula huju

hollaka hollala

anlogo bung

blago bung

blago bung

bosso fataka

ü üü ü

schampa wulla wussa ólobo

hej tatta gôrem

eschige zunbada

wulubu ssubudu uluw ssubudu

tamba ba-umf



Since the 1960s, since Jandl and Cobbing, we’ve become accustomed to a specific notion of how sound poems ‘sound’ – full-voiced, full-bodied, expressionistic – a mode established to some extent by Kurt Schwitters’ recordings of his ‘Ur-Sonate’. Or was the mode established by Ball? How were those poems performed by their author? Google yields a fair number of ‘readings by Hugo Ball’ which are patently no such thing. I’ve found only one which has a hint of authenticity, a ‘Dada documentary’ purporting to show ‘scenes from the Cabaret Voltaire’. It seems to be compiled from animated stills spliced with some later re-enactment. Ball or ‘Ball’ appears in the costume we know from one widely reproduced photograph and his own description: ‘My legs were in a shiny blue cylinder made out of cardboard […] a huge coat collar […] a tall, cylindrical, blue-and-white-striped shaman’s hat.’ There is a faint and crackly voice-over (or voice-under) of ‘Karawane’ read in a thickish but not notably expressive accent. We do have Ball’s own account of his reading: ‘I started slowly and solemnly […] The inflections became heavier, the stresses increased as the consonants grew louder and sharper. I soon noticed that if I wanted to keep a straight face (and I wanted to do so at all costs), my means of expression would be no match for the pomp of my staging.’ I’m not entirely sure how to interpret this. There is a suggestion that Ball’s intentions were largely satirical – the audience is promised a poetry recital but the poet turns up in a bizarre costume and spouts nonsense with ‘a straight face’. This could have been achieved in a relatively plain style of delivery. But there is also a suggestion that Ball found that he had made poems in which, as he says in an earlier passage of the same account, ‘the balance of the vowels is calculated and distributed purely according to the tonal values’ so well that he felt the need to stretch his voice beyond itself, into unexplored territory.

And I go on discovering just how well he did it. In recent weeks I’ve been working with Mick Beck on arrangements of all six poems, my voice accompanied by or (as I like also to think) accompanying Mick’s tenor sax or bassoon. We constantly find new possibilities. Ball’s placement of vowels and consonants allows for repetitions and elisions which seem to generate an ever-expanding vocabulary of non-words which almost simultaneously veer towards and away from a semblance of meaning. The initial temptation is to be loud and wild – there are some angry verses here, fearsome shouts against our warlords – but sometimes the poems show their best and surprisingly tender colours at the opposite extreme, carried on the slightest whisper of the reed and a barely voiced output of breath.

Performing ‘Karawane’ with the choir is different again. We’ve tried freely improvising with varying amounts of repetition controlled only by the line-breaks, we’ve tried it as chant and as call-and-response. Our current arrangement fuses all of these. Juxtavoices is the least churchly of choirs but at some point when performing ‘Karawane’ an ecclesiastical aura – if only a single chord or sudden shift of tone – asserts itself. Ball felt it, long before us, nearly a century ago: ‘That was when I noticed that my voice, as if it had no choice, was taking on the cadence of a priestly lamentation, like the chanting of the mass in catholic churches east and west. I don’t know how the idea came to me, but I started to chant the vowel sequences like church recitatives, while I did my best not just to look but truly to be serious.’ What did the karawane encounter on its trek across the desert? Ball records that he was carried off stage at the Cabaret Voltaire ‘like a magic bishop’. Twenty-five magic bishops may be harder to manage.

[Ball’s account of his reading appears in his Flight out of Time, translated by Pierre Joris and Jerome Rothenberg in Poems for the Millennium Vol. 1, pp.292-3. His sound poems are reprinted on pp.294-7. Recordings of Juxtavoices in rehearsal can be heard at and Discus will issue a CD in 2012.]

Alan Halsey’s recent books are Even if only out of (Veer 2011), Lives of the Poets (Five Seasons 2009) & Term as in Aftermath (Ahadada 2009). In White Writing, a narrative visual poem or graphic novella, is forthcoming from Xexoxial. With Ken Edwards he edited Bill Griffiths’ Collected Earlier Poems (Reality Street 2010).

Juxtavoices in the Bearpit —


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