Tower of Babble Power

JAAP BLONK

Tuesday, March 27 at 7:30 p.m.

Museum of Contemporary Art’s MOCA Theater,

333 N. Laura St., Jacksonville

Admission is free; seating is limited

366-6911

Where does language end and sound begin? Since the early ’80s, composer, performance artist and sound poet Jaap Blonk has been exploring the answer, both on the concert stage and in studio recordings. The 58-year-old native of The Netherlands has been featured on dozens of releases, as a composer leading the orchestra Splinks, as the vocalist for the avant-rock trio BRAAXTAAL, and in collaboration with fellow improv heavyweights, like reeds players John Tchicai, Ab Baars, Mats Gustafson and percussionist Michael Zerang. Yet Blonk (jaapblonk.com) is primarily known as a sound poet, working in a style that combines performance art with Blonk’s own vocal noises, which range from cooing hums and chattering clicks to screams and even weirdly melodious nonfluencies that can resemble lullabies from another galaxy.

Blonk is also an interpreter of avant garde vocal works, including “Ursonate,” (1922- ’32) a piece by Dadaist Kurt Schwitters that was a pioneering attempt to create auditory art from phonetics found solely in human speech. Blonk performs at the MOCA Theater on March 27 as part of the John Cage Festival: a 100th Birthday Celebration, a week-long event celebrating the creative maverick Cage (1912-’92) and his contributions to contemporary art. Blonk intends to perform two Cage pieces: “Aria” (1958), which Cage originally wrote for the innovative vocalist Cathy Berberian, and a piece from 1970’s “Song Books.”

Folio Weekly spoke to Blonk via Skype during his recent tour stop in Berkeley, Calif., and what follows is a bit of the exchange.

Folio Weekly: How would you describe what you do?

Jaap Blonk: I’m working in a way that combines poetry and music, many times in voice sounds and words that have no meaning — and even invented languages. Avant garde is usually associated with things that are difficult to understand, but actually my work is communicating very directly, as the mouth is an instrument that almost every human being has. So people can usually connect very easily to what I do.

F.W.: How much of your performance is based on composition, versus improvisation?

J.B.: In a solo performance, I would say more than half is composed, but the way they are written allows for a lot of liberty. I usually decide on the spot what the program will be, and even during the performance, I might change it up.

F.W: How did John Cage influence you?

J.B.: Cage’s writing really influenced me and his ideas, for instance, that any sound can be music. You can hardly draw a line between some of his vocal music and what we consider sound poetry.

F.W.: Did you spend any time studying other languages just for their sense of the timbre and sounds?

J.B.: I did, yes. Sometimes I would buy language courses on cassette and listen to them, with no intention of learning the meaning of the language or words, but rather just to hear new sounds.

F.W.: Have you ever had any hostile audience reactions?

J.B.: I was once asked to open for The Stranglers at a concert in The Netherlands and there was a crowd of about 2,000 people. Even when I was announced and had yet to open my mouth, people began screaming, “F*ck off!” I was doing “Ursonate,” which is about a half-hour-long piece, so they kept throwing beer at me. By the end of my set, I had six security guards onstage with me, fighting people off. But I had a good P.A. and I stood my ground. I’d say I managed to win over a few hundred people. But there was a lot of energy and I always like that, even if the crowd is against me.

F.W.: I don’t think the crowd here will be as violent.

J.B.: Actually, the first time I played in Jacksonville, I believe it was 2005, I had a great response. A fan had made a six-hour drive to get to the performance and he had five or six CDs for me to sign. It’s very rare in Europe that people would value something so much that they would even make such a long drive! [Laughs.] So I look forward to coming back!

Dan Brow

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