Jaap Blonk

Dada is Dead. Long live Dada!

It is 100 hundred years ago since the very first event signified the beginning of Dada, the powerful yet strangely obscure movement in recent art history. Dada will never become mainstream, but it had immense effects on many things that happened afterwards, ultimately resonating in popular culture. Rooted in fierce criticism of the political and cultural establishment, it was an intense exploration of new forms and a reshaping of old ones, mixed with a tremedous dose of absurdism and humor, naturally branching out across diverse disciplines such as poetry, prose and performing arts, theatre and fine art. To celebrate the centenary, the European culture/arts channel ARTE presents a documentary about Dada, which is available for online viewing only this week: I’ll give you the details after this story about how Dada continues to live on.

Schermafbeelding 2016-02-18 om 11.24.05

Dutch vocal performer Jaap Blonk is one of the artists with a busy schedule to celebrate Dada’s birthday. He is the performer of choice of one of they key works of the Dada movement, a poem existing of nothing but (mostly) meaningless syllables: the Ursonate. Some of us had the privilege to see Jaap Blonk perform a full version of Kurt Schwitters masterpiece, written between 1923 and 1932, in Taipei a few months back. It was a memorable event for many, since this form of radical sound poetry is relatively unknown in these quarters: many audience members were visibly impressed by Blonk’s unplugged, yet powerful and physical performance. I watched it from backstage, from where I could closely follow Blonk’s antics and the audience gazing. I could almost read the piece on their faces, which showed awe, fascination, puzzlement, laughter and many other expressions.

Blonk did the whole thing by heart. When I asked him how he managed to learn it, he explained that he didn’t learn it at all. In the early 1980s he just discovered the poem, he read it and later read it again, simply out of curiosity, without any intention to memorise or perform it. But then, since he knew it and some friends in his circle learned about it, he was asked several times to perform it. He got invitations to be the opening act of some punk or New Wave band in small local venues, with mixed results. In any case few people (if anyone) knew what this was all about, and sometimes he had to endure beer thrown at him. It was all part and parcel of the alternative music circuit at that time (and thereafter, I guess). To make a long story short: after a while he noticed he did not need the text anymore and whenever he was asked he would perform it, while at the same time he was more actively involved in playing and composing for the saxophone (which he played himself) and for the other musicians he played with.

Jaap Blonk’s true interest in the voice came to the foreground only later, and happened something like this, he told me: it was well after the time (the early 1980s) he began doing the Ursonate. So far, he did not so much perform Dada’s piéce de resistance, he rather just recited the text. But then one day he came home and played a record of Archie Shepp, the energetic free jazz sax player. He started to ‘play’ along with Shepp, using his voice, producing all kinds of noise, together with the musicians on the record. Some moments later he realised that the record had finished, while he was still going on. That moment turned out to be a revelation for him, he explained. He now discovered that he was better at trying out new techniques, sounds and noises with his voice than with his sax. Eventually Blonk lost interest in the sax. He said in October he did not play it anymore for twenty years now, and indeed, most people now know him as a vocal performer. He did many more interesting pieces from Dadists and others from before the middle of the twentieth century, as well as his own work, which shows traces of Dada but goes in many different directions.

But hey, here is a chance to go back to the source, check it out on ARTE. There is a French and a German version available (here in Taiwan, for some reason the French version says it does not play where I live; the German version works alright).
Für unse liebe Deutschsprachige Freunde empfehle ich die Deutsche Version.

Pour notre chers amis Francophones je peux récommender cette version en Français.

And I wish all those who neither speak German nor French lots of fun watching the documentary through this link here. For you the whole program will be one big feast of unintelligible proclamations!

Jaap Blonk at TIIF in Taiwan

Last night fellow Dutchman Jaap Blonk arrived in Taiwan for a couple of gigs and a workshop, as part of the first Taiwan International Improvised Music Festival. I have the honour to host him the first few days. Several local improvisers and I will share the stage with him, today in Hsinchu and Thursday in Taipei.


Jaap is a composer and vocal artist, best known for his interpretation of Kurt Schwitter’s Ursonate, one of the founding – and lasting – classics of the Dada movement which shook the art world between 1916 and 1924. I first met Jaap in 1995, when we shared the stage at the presentation of a book about Dada in The Netherlands, Holland’s Bankroet door Dada.

Last night we discussed, among many other things, the merits of being born as a Dutch-speaker. To start with, this makes it easy to understand and correctly pronounce German texts, and texts derived from the sounds of German speech, like the Ursonate. Someone from, say, an English speaking country, would have much more trouble getting the pronunciation of all the vowels and diphtongs (two vowels combined) right, not to mention the consonants (the guttural ones are particularly notorious for foreign speakers). And growing up in a small country like The Netherlands, it is almost natural for us to learn to speak the languages of the surrounding countries, so that many Dutch speak (and know the particularities of the sounds of) German, English and French. In addition, Jaap noted, we have all the varieties of the ‘r’ sound (we have a guttural r, a softer and a harder ‘velar’ r, and an r with a flapping tongue). Jaap has incorporated many of these speech elements in his sound poetry, which is sometimes based on actual spoken language, sometimes on his own imaginary language, and also on abstract procedures based on or derived from speech, extending, finally, into various musical/sonic dimensions such as breath, shrieks, groans, etcetera. Besides composing and performing with these elements and developing a sizable body of original works, Jaap’s stage presence and inimitable mimicry has brought him world fame. His current tour in Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, The Phillipines and Taiwan is the second one in Asia, after another tour he did in Japan last Summer.


He told me he had performed in Shanghai years ago at a poetry festival, where he was asked by the organisers to do something with a Chinese text. He studied the text with someone speaking Chinese, to get the sounds right. But then, when turning it into sound poetry and given the difficulties of the Chinese tone system for a speaker not used to a tonal language, the poem’s meaning came out completely different, possibly, Jaap explained, including many strange messages he was not aware of.

Besides, it is a different thing to deconstruct the elements of speech for a Westerner, whose understanding of speech sound is based on more or less phonetic writing, and for a Mandarin speaker, whose understanding of speech sound is based on Chinese character forming complete syllables – in fact, complete words. To create sound poetry à la Schwitters poses even bigger challenges for from Mandarin speakers than English speakers.


December 1, 19:30, concert of Jaap Blonk, with guest appearances of Lee Shih-Yang and Mark van Tongeren, National Chiao Tung University (Hsinchu),

December 2, 19:30-21:30. lecture/workshop with Jaap Blonk, Nanhai Gallery, No.3, Lane 19, Sec. 2, Chongcing S. Rd., Zhongzheng District, Taipei

December 3, 19:30-21:30, concert Jaap Blonk with Tung Chaoming, Lee Shih-Yang, Lin Hsiaofeng, Lin Huikuan, Liu Fangyi, Chang Yousheng, Terry, Mark van Tongeren. Nanhai Theater, No.47, Nanhai Rd., Zhongzheng Distict, Taipei

Tickets for the festival are here.

More information about the full program of the Taiwan International Improvised Music Festival is here.