Literacy IMPROV-ment Plan

As consumers of art, in general, humans typically express a higher tolerance for the obscure, the subversive, or the avant-garde when taking in visual art. Though we may barely blink at, or eventually dismiss the work outright, we’ll grant at least fleeting consideration to an abstract, a minimalist, or a found-art piece. But expose the untrained ear to atypically tuned, buzz-sawing guitars of a Sonic Youth noise solo, Yoko Ono’s off-key whooping on her Double Fantasy album with husband John Lennon or — more germane to this piece — the rejiggered vowel and consonant salad that is Kurt Schwitters’ Sonata in Urlauten (“Sonata in Primitive Sounds,”)and you’re bound to see a more visceral, more negative reaction.

Still, innovative composer, sound poet and performance artist Jaap Blonk endures. Blonk’s exploration of the sonically obscure began in the 1970s when the Dutchman first encountered the sound poems once performed by the Dada artists of the early 1900s.

Over the years, Blonk has developed a repertoire of pieces that includes original acoustic vocal performances of clicks, hisses and phonetic mashups, and works from the Dada, as well as the Fluxus movements of the 20th century. He’s expanded recently to include visual installations and sonic experiments, all while continually striking a radical, avant-garde tone, inspiring and perplexing audiences, often simultaneously.

This Thursday, Nov. 17, Blonk makes his fifth visit to Northeast Florida, performing a rendition of his 2012 multimedia show Yappiscope at Sun-Ray Cinema in Five Points.

Folio Weekly caught up with the enigmatic Blonk and discussed a wide range of topics, from how he prepares for a vocal performance to his social media diet.

Folio Weekly: How does one come to work in sound poetry? Were you interested in Dada or anti-art before you started creating your compositions?
Jaap Blonk: In the ’70s, I was in university studying math and physics. I quit about three-quarters through the curriculum. I was more interested in music and poetry. I was playing saxophone at the time and drifting into free jazz, free improv. I was taking workshops in various creative fields and one of them was about reciting poetry. There they offered a variety of material including some sound poems — one of them being the 1916 Hugo Ball sound poems that he recited at the Cabaret Voltaire. That was the big eye-opener for me. I immediately felt that this field would offer me freedom and creativity — being freed from both the meaning of the words and the rules of music.

You work in a medium that is widely considered to be outside the mainstream. Do you enjoy any contemporary popular media? Are there current or popular musicians you like?
Mostly [I do not listen to] the music of the, so they say, stars that have millions of fans. Ninety-nine percent of middle-of-the-road music doesn’t interest me. I’ve been listening to the new album of Radiohead. They are one of my favorites. I like Calexico. And since the mid-’90s, I’ve been following the drum and bass musician Squarepusher. That may not be contemporary [laughs], but I like his music.

Aside from pushing your voice to the limit at times, your performances include quite a bit of improvisation. How do you prepare? Do you have a regimen you follow?
I don’t practice so much anymore. I’ve done a lot of practice in the past. When I’m on tour, performing every night, I don’t really need to practice. Now it is more the technical setup — the computer and the visuals — that needs to be well-prepared.

As consumers of art, we tend to have a higher threshold for the subversive or the unorthodox in visual arts. Why aren’t we more open-minded about sounds?
I think people have a shorter attention span than they used to. For instance: When I post a nice picture on Facebook, I get a lot of ‘likes.’ But when I post a link to a sound piece I made, even if it’s only like a minute or so, I get almost nothing. People don’t take the time today.

So you’re an avid Facebook user?
Yeah, yeah, yeah. I’ll announce shows on Facebook and Twitter and post when there are new things to hear or look at.

You’ve added visuals to your shows in recent years. Is the imagery intended to influence the audience’s interpretation of or reaction to the auditory stimuli?
I never think about influencing the audience. I choose my material on the basis of what I like to show. From the beginning of my career, I’ve never thought of audience interpretation, or strategies to influence the audience. My only criteria are what I like to present.

The performance at Sun-Ray includes visuals, sound poems, compositions as well as improvised pieces originally part of your 2012 project Yappiscope. What can the audience expect to hear and see on Nov. 17?
Yappiscope was my first show that had the addition of visuals all the way through. The one I’ll do in Jacksonville has more Dada. It will have more projections from experimental, silent films from the 1920s, which I will do live soundtracks to. So, it is more tilted toward Dada and Fluxus art. There will be some interactive stuff where I do live manipulation of the images.

Are you improv-ing while manipulating those images?
Yes. I have all the possibilities lined up in a software program and I can freely choose what to jump to.

Where do you find that the influence of Dada most pervades popular culture?
I don’t know. I see very little influence of Dadaism. Wherever I perform, I have the same reaction. People say they have never seen anything like that. So it’s still very obscure — very unknown to the general public. Of course, there are many artists like me who were influenced by Dada, or have their roots in improvised music. But for the general public, Dada and what I do are very much obscure. It’s even less prevalent than it was in the 1970s. Our culture is much more conservative now.

Is that motivating to you? Do you feel a sense of mission or purpose in your work?
Well, yeah [sighs]. I can only make and present the things that I feel I have to. I get a lot of feedback from young people, from students, who say ‘you opened my eyes to a new area.’ Even to the extent where people say, ‘this has changed my life.’ So that is very rewarding.