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Kurt Schwitters' nonsensical sound poem comes to life in H-Town with the help of a Dutch rebel

Kurt Schwitters' nonsensical sound poem comes to life in H-Town with the help of a Dutch rebel

Jaap Blonk performs Kurt Schwitters
On Tuesday at Rice University, Dutch sound artist Jaap Blonk will perform Schwitter's fabled Ursonate poem.
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Jaap Blonk performs Kurt Schwitters in 2008 Photo by Ivar Pel
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Kurt Schwitters, 18871948 Courtesy of Kurt Schwitters Archive at the Sprengel Museum Hannover
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Jaap Blonk performs Kurt Schwitters in 2009 Courtesy of Jaap Blonk
Jaap Blonk performs Kurt Schwitters
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"It was the late '70s when I first heard Kurt Schwitters' Ursonate," Jaap Blonk told CultureMap in a phone interview from Chicago, where the Dutch performer is currently a visiting artist at the School of the Art Institute.

"I heard it read at a show of Dada song poems and thought it would be amazing to do it from memory. After two years of practice and memorization, I decided to do it at a friends birthday party and got, well, a mixed reception."

Here's an example of Schwitters' classic piece:

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Like most Dada sound poems, Ursonate (1922–32) is not particularly kind on the ears. But, then again, the Europe that gave rise to the Dadaists was not the kindest of places. 

The First World War wrecked havoc across the continent, leaving only scraps of culture for artists to reassemble. While figures like Marcel Duchamp looked to reappropriating found objects, Schwitters would create collages of discarded newsprint and perform sound poems using noises and made-up languages.

"They were shouting and throwing beer bottles before I even opened my mouth," Blonk laughed, remembering his chance to open for punk legends The S tranglers in Amsterdam.

In the early '80s when Blonk first performed Ursonate, grating dissonance and sound collages seemed to make sense in the age of punk and post-punk. While his early productions certainly never garnered massive applause, he remembered that there were always several intrigued listeners.

"From the beginning," he said, "I knew this was a piece worth fighting for."

Blonk's big break, so to speak, came in 1982 with a chance to open for punk legends The Stranglers in Amsterdam.

"There must have been around 2,000 people at the show that night and they were shouting and throwing beer bottles before I even opened my mouth," he laughed. "The guards had to pull people off the stage. Luckily, I had a microphone and could drown them out. I think I won maybe hundred listeners in the end."

As he developed his own career as a musician and composer, Blonk has continued to perform the piece regularly ever since.

On Tuesday at Rice University (Keith-Weiss Geology Building, Room 100), Blonk will perform Ursonate and other Dada sound pieces at 7 p.m. A brief discussion follows. Also, on Monday at Avant Garden, the artist will join  David Dove, Sandy Ewen, Damon Smith and Jack Wright for an improvised music session from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m.