Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Buried Face of an Age: Hugo Ball's Flight Out of Time (1916)

Hugo Ball
Written while sitting on my couch this morning watching TV as the Occupy protesters are being evacuated from various parks around the world.

On February 5, 1916, while a world war was raging around them, a group of artists had just landed in Zurich, Switzerland, to perform in a club called the Cabaret Voltaire. Hugo Ball was a twenty-nine-year-old German poet and Catholic mystic. With him were his lover, cabaret singer Emmy Hennings; Tristan Tzara, a poet from Romania; painter Marcel Janco, Tzara's countryman; Albanian artist Jean Arp; and a medical student named Richard Huelsenbeck, who just happened to have a thing for the drums.

Among the group, who would soon be reborn as Dadaists, Ball was devoted to Richard Wagner's concept of Gesamtkunstewerk ("total work of art") which was a radical new philosophy whereby a one-dimensional society could be regenerated through a totality that combined all the arts. "Our debates are a burning speech, more blatant every day, for the specific rhythm and the buried face of this age," Ball would write in his riveting 1916 diary Flight Out of Time, which would be published by Viking in 1974. This search for a specific rhythm took form as a totality of political theater. While the owners of the cabaret looked for pleasing poems that could be read, music that could be performed and songs that could be sung all to boost what had become a sagging clientele at the cafe Ball and his clan had other ideas. He was looking instead for something more tantalizing: a new expressive art form that could put the shock into entertainment.

"Dada is a new tendency in art," Ball would write as a means of describing the beginnings of a movement, a movement that denied the ideological shackles of becoming one. "One can tell this from the fact that until now nobody knew anything about it, and tomorrow everyone in Zurich will be talking about it." Ball also provided a loose and playful definition of Dada. "Dada comes from the dictionary. It is terribly simple. In French, it means 'hobby horse.' In German, it means 'Goodbye, 'Get off my back,' 'Be seeing you sometime.' In Romanian: 'Yes, indeed, you are right, that's it. But, of course, yes definitely right.' And so forth." Yet Dada was also designed to shake an audience's neatly held assumptions about the state of the world. Ball was witnessing a globe raging in chaos and blood, while a cabaret audience, seeking comfort from that discord, came to the club expecting a form of entertainment would help them forget it all.

As he made clear in Flight Out of Time, Ball wasn't about to contribute to this style of amusement: "How does one achieve eternal bliss? By saying dada. How does one become famous? By saying dada. With a noble gesture and delicate propriety. Till one goes crazy. Till one loses consciousness. How can one get rid of everything that smacks of journalism, worms, everything nice and right, blinkered, moralistic, Europeanized, engervated? By saying dada. Dada is the world soul, dada is the pawnshop." What Ball and his group performed nightly at the Cabaret Voltaire formed the basis of an explosive act of pure absurdity. The German painter Hans Richter described the scene quite simply: "The Cabaret Voltaire was a six-piece band. Each played his own instrument, i.e. himself." Arp went even further providing more graphic detail. "Total pandemonium. The people around us are shouting, laughing, and gesticulating. Our replies are sighs of love, volleys of hiccups, poems, moos, and miaowing of medieval Bruitists."

The audience was in complete shock as well as outraged. A piece of classical piano music could be rudely interrupted by a gunshot into the air; or by a snap of Huelsenbeck's snare drum. Unpredictability and lunacy quickly ripened before the audience's eyes. There was nowhere to hide, no way for them to discern the difference between the outside world and the swirling upheaval surrounding them. "Tzara is wiggling his behind like the belly of an Oriental dancer," Arp continued. "Janco is playing an invisible violin and bowing and scraping. Madame Hennings, with a Madonna face, is doing the splits. Huelsenbeck is banging away non-stop on the great drum, with Ball accompanying him on the piano, pale as a chalky ghost." 

Hugo Ball in costume at the Cabaret

But Ball still wasn't satisfied. He had something even more dramatic planned for the Cabaret. He'd been working on some phonetic verses that he called "Lautgedichte"; he wanted to shed the common dialect and communicate in pure vowels and syllables. "I shall be reading poems that are meant to dispense with conventional language, no less, and have done with it," Ball would write. "I don't want words that other people have invented... I want my own stuff, my own rhythm, and vowels and consonants too, matching the rhythm and all my own. If this pulsation is seven yards long, I want words that are seven yards long." To premiere his first 'sound poem,' Ball at first stood offstage, his legs covered in blue cardboard. He wore a collar that was gold on the outside and scarlet on the inside. Within a Cubist mask that covered his face was a pale, distressed expression that soon fell into a deathly calm. As the lights went down, Ball's voice took on the age-old measure of a requiem:

gadji beri bimba

glandridi lauli lonni cadori

gadjama bim beri glasssala

glandridi glassala tuffin i zimbrabim

blassa galassasa tuffin i zimbrabim...

The audience was spellbound, yet puzzled, deprived of a common reaction to this hedonistic embrace of the absurd. This wasn't a language that could yet be shared, it was merely heard, and in need to be made sense of. Ball had gone fearlessly into the very source of language, the first guttural cries at birth, and the pain of waking into a new world. But given the human cost of the war surrounding them, clearly the audience didn't wish to wake up with him – it was better to sleep, and to dream and forget.

Ball performing Gadji Beri Bimba

But disruptive moments of cultural upheaval are not so easily forgotten. While Dada went on to become a recognized art movement through Tristan Tzara, Ball abandoned the world stage within two years, retreating back into Catholicism in 1920 and died a poor, religious man in Switzerland in 1927. In his book, Ball describes a Dadaist as someone "still so convinced of the unity of all beings, of the totality of all things, that he suffers from the dissonances." While he may have suffered those dissonances, others embraced them. The Canadian sound-poetry quartet The Four Horsemen would claim Ball's spirit (along with another Canadian sound poetry group, Owen Sound, as well as other international poets and artists).

Laurie Anderson
In the pop world, you could hear Ball in 1973, in the electonica music played by the British band Cabaret Voltaire, named after the club where it all began. You could hear him literally, of course, in the Talking Heads' song "I Zimbra" from their 1979 album Fear of Music, where they took Ball's cabaret poem and set it to an African rhythm. A few years later, in 1981, you could also hear Ball more figuratively in Laurie Anderson's "O Superman (For Massenet)." In specific terms, Anderson constructed her song as a cover of the aria "Ô Souverain, ô juge, ô père" (O Sovereign, O Judge, O Father) from Jules Massenet's 1885 opera Le Cid. But the concept of creating a language unheard came directly from Ball. Using an electronic voice decoder, Anderson overlays a phonetic loop of her repeating the spoken syllable "Ha" with an Eventide Harmonizer, while she reads her text through a vocoder. Inspired by the Tao Te Ching, Anderson says, "Cause when love is gone, there's always justice/And when justice is gone, there is always force/And when force is gone, there's always Mom." Or Dada.

"It can probably be said for us that art is not an end in itself," Ball wrote in Flight Out of Time. "[I]t is an opportunity for true perception and criticism of the times we live in." But it's not just the obvious forms of protest that become so easily defined and devoured by TV news cameras. "What can a beautiful, harmonious poem say if nobody reads it because it has nothing to do with the feelings of the times?" Ball also went on to write. "And what can a novel have to say when it is read for culture but is really a long way from even touching on culture?" For a brief moment in time, a group of artists avoided the comfortably didactic and illuminated the lines of demarcation, the lines that still do divide the culture. 

– Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. With John CorcelliCourrier is currently working on another radio documentary for CBC Radio's Inside the Music called The Other Me: The Avant-Garde Music of Paul McCartney.

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