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Monday, March 19, 2012

Jaap Blonk @ Woodland Pattern Book Center

March 18, 2012

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"The prime minister finds such utterances utterly inappropriate." No foreign governmental officials appeared to be attending Dutch sound poet Jaap Blonk's performance Sunday at Woodland Patterns Book Center, but the above sentence, eventually broken down into verbal oblivion, figured prominently in a couple of his works. The nearly full back room of the poetry-centric shop found his recital appropriate enough to applaud heartily after each piece.

Though Blonk has collaborated with singers, musicians and bands of varying styles for several years now, solo vocal settings—at least his third such sort of appearance at Woodland Pattern over the past 15 years—allow him to manifest humor and athleticism that, upon entering his purposefully obfuscatory aesthetic, can be entrancing. Even words are often beside Blonk's point.

For the first half of the evening, Blonk interpreted works by other artists, mostly associated with the Dada and Fluxus movements where puncturing the pretense of the art world in the early and late 20th century was among their primary aims. For some of them, such as pieces by Sheldon Frank and Raoul Haussmann, Blonk accompanied himself on a device looking like a video game controller through which he produced various squelches, flanges and an occasional human voice spouting just as much apparent gibberish as the often animated Blonk. Late pioneer of "found" composition John Cage may be the most familiar name to listeners unacquainted with the absurdist avant-garde from which Blonk draws inspiration; numbers wherein he manually manipulated parts of his neck and face and spastically enacted an especially violent sneeze were visually engaging as they were sonically startling.

Following an intermission, Blonk plunged into some of his own catalog—or rather, he eased into it with whispering sibilance, as he recited an English translation of a poem about the act of listening he originally composed in his homeland's native tongue. For those who enjoy the sometimes harsh and gutteral pronunciations of Dutch but may not be conversant enough in it to translate, Blonk has invented his own nonsense language, Onderlands (from his country's Underlands), in which he performed three brief pieces, among them a drinking song for which he appropriately stumbled and gesticulated. In his etudes to the letter R and the fricative phoneme of hissing, Blonk stretched the limits of lingual sounds into explorations of the limits to which the human mouth can take those elements by which we communicate verbally. What might seem like mere wackiness that allows Blonk to slap his thighs and noggin and shake the latter back and forth can convey resonant emotion as well. Pieces inspired by a trip to Indonesia, one abetted by manipulated sounds of one of the island country's percussive gamelan orchestras fired up from his iMac (its Apple logo obstructed by black duct tape), conveyed wistfulness. And a keen sadness imbued Blonk's encore, a tribute to long gone French experimental playwright/poet Antoine Artaud.

If nihilism is a philosophical underpinning of much of what Blonk is on about, that would be sad, as there's intermittently palpable joy and playfulness in his peculiar artistry. His dismantling of the meaning of the sounds by which people make themselves understood may underscore just how precious it is to communicate our individual stories and the commonality among us. He has enough of a sense of humor about his aural offerings that he includes on his website the Blonk Organ, whereby one can "play" many of the sounds he uses. For the curious who don't want to delve into the radical theories that inform Blonk's artistry, it may be approachable by its parallels to hip-hop's human beat-boxing, scat singing and the word jazz of Ken Nordine. Those who get Blonk embrace a unique talent who trades in the spaces between nothing and the meaning that seeks to full its void.