Jaap Blonk and Jeb Bishop
7 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 6 | Timucua White House, 2000 S. Summerlin Ave. | thecm5.com | free
Sound poetry – sounds preposterous, right? Surely it’s some micro-niche full of self-important avant-gardists braying on about the experimental intersections of language, music and theater?
If you like your entertainment neatly packaged and numbingly predictable, you might be of this mindset. But if you’re drawn to art that challenges traditional boundaries between audience and performer, dissonance and revelation, you won’t want to miss renowned Dutch composer, artist and poet Jaap Blonk, who visits Timucua White House Sunday.
Just don’t tell the 60-year-old Blonk you’re there to see the man that many critics have called the world’s greatest living sound poet. A category that narrowly defined – non-semantic sound used to convey meaning in a literary manner – can’t contain the multitudes of Blonk’s body of work: free jazz, math-inspired composition, confrontational comedy, radio plays, animation. “I do indeed feel it’s unfair to label me as just a sound poet,” he tells Orlando Weekly via email from his native Holland. “Anyone who looks at my body of published work can see that. I’m a musician, a composer, a poet, a visual artist and a performance artist. Critics apparently can’t live without pigeonholing.”
Since the late 1970s, Blonk has thrived in such a kitchen-sink manner. At Utrecht University he studied physics, mathematics and musicology, but didn’t complete his degree. He got his first taste of public performance as a saxophonist with ensembles at the Utrecht Music School, and became obsessed with nontraditional sound poetry after hearing German artist Kurt Schwitters’ “Ursonate” performed live in 1979. “It wasn’t until my first vocal performances with Dada sound poems that I really felt like this was what I wanted to do,” he says.
Blonk cites other avant-garde European artists like Antonin Artaud and Hugo Ball, along with American free-jazz improvisers like John Coltrane, Cecil Taylor, Archie Shepp and Ornette Coleman, as primary creative influences. “Artaud was important because he helped me transgress the borders of what people might call madness on stage,” he says. “It just felt like coming home when I discovered the field between music and literature.”
Of course, translating that madness to the masses wasn’t easy. In 1986, Blonk’s guttural, non-syntactic performance of “Ursonate” (translated as “primordial sonata”) while opening for U.K. punk band the Stranglers resulted in epithets and beer being hurled his way. But in 2012, when Blonk made his maiden voyage to Orlando, time had softened his abrasive edges, allowing him to come across as more of an adventurous academic, riffing on Indonesian-inspired sound poems while sporting a trim gray blazer and black-framed eyeglasses.
Perhaps that’s why Blonk is bringing free-jazz trombonist Jeb Bishop along for October’s run of U.S. dates. The two plan to perform both solo and as a duo, while Blonk intersperses his nighttime performances with daytime lectures and artist’s residencies. “Performances will indeed vary in character,” he says. “Some will be completely improvised; some will include set pieces. … Some will be closer to sound poetry, others will be just music, [and] there will be some lectures also. No visuals on this tour, I think. Humor [also] seems to be unavoidable with me.” How does one man manage such multiplicity, you ask? “I feel very comfortable and happy with the variety of contexts I get into when on tour,” Blonk says. “I think I would get bored if all the venues were of the same type!”
A quick perusal of Blonk’s résumé reveals that he must get bored working within any one genre, too. He runs a record label, writes books, embraces electronics, loves to travel, scores orchestral arrangements and relishes attacking the rightward leanings of his native country’s government. Which might explain why the average music fan could bristle at the presentation of such confident yet unhinged variety.
“Musically, these [performances] will be very intense because you always have to be on your toes in improvised duos,” Jeb Bishop says of the upcoming tour, which includes his first professional visit to Florida. “I relate to Jaap primarily as a free improviser, but … one thing I’ve found is that the live experience is crucial. If you put this music in front of people, its immediacy and the fascination of seeing it created in the moment communicates well [to] people what we’re doing.”
Still, Blonk acknowledges the challenging nature of his performances. “What’s provocative about it is that it’s a combination of utterance felt as very direct,” he says, “and at the same time not understandable in the usual sense.” Intrigued yet, Orlando? Blonk says he has high hopes for his visit to the Sunshine State. “I’m expecting nice weather and appreciative audiences,” he says. “Other than that, it’ll be hard work performing in a different place each night with long drives in the daytime. But I like to perform many days in a row. I get stronger with it.”