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'4 Contemporary Sound Poets' defies definition

ORONO - A new audio DVD produced by the University of Maine's IMRC Center titled '4 Contemporary Sound Poets' brings the work of a quartet of practitioners - Tomomi Adachi, Owen F. Smith, Duane Ingalls and Jaap Blonk - in the art of sound poetry to life.

Which begs the question - what is sound poetry?

It's a loosely-defined intermedial art form, one that brings together a variety of schools and styles avant-garde composition, experimental music, vocal improvisation, performance art and the like. Sound poetry largely emerged during the early years of the 20th century, with some of its earliest practitioners being major players in the Futurist and Dada movements.

The discipline is marked by an exploratory attitude with regards to sound, finding interesting methods to utilize, manipulate and broadcast the breadth of noise producible by the human voice.

This DVD produced by Duane Shimmel and N.B. Aldrich of the IMRC and engineered by Shimmel brings these pieces to life. Through the creative use of surround sound and other audio technologies, these poetic works are elevated, exploding onto the eardrums with a wild abandon.

Each poet's work is unique, but all push the boundaries of what sound can be.

Tomomi Adachi is a noted Japanese artist and performer. His piece is 'Ursonate 2,' inspired by the sound poem 'Ursonate' by the artist Kurt Schwitters. It is broken into four movements of varying length and style; each works independently, though all are clearly part of a greater whole.

Owen Smith is the director of the Intermedia MFA program at UMaine. He has contributed 'Sound Works' - half a dozen pieces all built around the conceit of using only vowel sounds. In addition, the heavy use of digital processing following the performance plays a major part, turning Smith's vocal efforts into something entirely new.

Duane Ingalls is an experimental musician and teacher from Machias. The four works that make up his 'Work and Play' are primarily vocally-driven as well, though there is some instrumentation in spots. The pieces are all about relationship dynamics, whether they be interpersonal or stylistic or philosophical.

Jaap Blonk has been performing sound poetry for nearly 30 years. The Dutch-born performance artist's contribution here is titled 'Inside Outcry.' Using a hybridized phonetic alphabet of his own invention called BLIPAX to create scores for his work, he is forever expanding the vocabulary of sound poetry.

The experience of listening to '4 Contemporary Sound Poets' is one that is difficult to articulate. Unless you are already an aficionado of sound poetry, it's quite likely that you have never heard anything quite like it. Phonemes are flung about with impunity, shaped and manipulated with utter abandon. At times, it can be a bit overwhelming, the proceedings threatening to devolve into sheer cacophony.

But there is order within the chaos.

There are plenty of fascinating highlights here. The buzzing, fluttering rhythms of Adachi's first movement are particularly compelling. The bouncing, exploratory journeys of Smith's pieces they're all strong, but my personal favorite is probably 'Etude for Long Vowels' are illustrative of the synergy between organic vocals and digital production. Ingalls crafts subtle soundscapes rife with evocative emotion, while Blonk's work rambles and meanders in the best possible way.

It should be noted that surround sound is the ideal manner in which to experience '4 Contemporary Sound Poets' it is designed specifically around that technology. Feeling these pieces bear down on all sides is an unquestionably engaging experience, immersive and idiosyncratic and incredibly thought-provoking. That being said, one can certainly enjoy the work in a more traditional manner; while it won't be the same, there's still plenty here for those of you sporting less involved sound systems.

Let's be clear '4 Contemporary Sound Poets' is not for everyone. This is a challenging and experimental piece of work, the sort of creation that offers new ideas with regards to what art can be. It's something that anyone with an interest in the avant-garde, experimental sound or exploring the possibilities of the human voice should welcome the chance to experience.

('4 Contemporary Sound Poets' is available for purchase at and via Amazon.)


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