Erik Belgum - Ambient fiction: somewhere between La Monte Young and Jackass, or Imagine a Carver short story scripted by Tarantino and adapted for performance by Robert Ashley

Erik Belgum, Star Fiction, Detour Press, 1996
Erik Belgum has been involved in experimental writing and speech since 1983, releasing a number of CDs in the genres of sound art, sound poetry, textsound, electroacoustics and performance.

“Among the best of the younger writers of fiction, let alone experimental fiction...” - Dictionary of the Avant-Gardes

 “With the publication of Star Fiction... Belgum takes his place as one of the most prominent practitioners of the new radical short fiction.” -  American Book Review

 “Belgum once again surprises me, with something I’ve never heard the like of. Belgum somehow does for sound poetry what Bob Dylan did for rock music when he brought hate and hostility into popular song writing…” - Sonoloco

 “A fierce brand of experimental fiction. . . More important, it's a damn funny story.” - City Pages 
 “Imagine a Raymond Carver short story scripted by Quentin Tarantino and adapted for performance by Robert Ashley and you might have an idea of what to expect.” - Paris Transatlantic

“[Star Fiction] is a wild ride throught the ragged edge of fiction. Quite fascinating if sometimes puzzling. . . actually laugh out loud funny and sometimes touching.”  - Anomalies-Books

“The fast-splicing of Belgum's libretto keep the listener's attention in a vice grip throughout.” - Paris New Music Review

Belgum injects a variety of styles into his delivery - from a smooth straightforward delivery to a broken, robotic, faltering voice on the razor-slice tightrope which hangs over insanity, suspended between normality of mind, and, maybe, enlightenment or a Nirvana-like state of being.” -     Metamorphic Journeyman   
“The work of the writer and musician Erik Belgum is, in many ways, the literary distillation of the ideas presented by Chopin, Burroughs and Oswald.” - New Media Poetics (MIT Press) 
 “[Belgum's] linear narration collapses within the blasted equations of a schizoid mathematics.” - Small Press Traffic  

“Pure Bergsonism. . .” - break/flow  

Recent Writing:

More and more I discover that for any new ideas I think I have in dealing with text, Bach was there first.
From a more general point of view, I'm using this term "ambient fiction" lately to describe my work, work that can be possibly viewed as literature just as easily as music.
I've never felt very inspired by the term "spoken word." Many people aren't familiar with the terms like "hoerspiel" or "soundtext" although those are probably my traditions. Therefore, I have begun to use the term "Ambient Fiction" to describe my work for three reasons:
1. I like ambient music... Everything from Tony Conrad to Alvin Lucier to Eno to Glenn Branca. Also, there's an open-mindedness in the ambient music/electronica crowd that I find very refreshing, an aesthetic that can easily accept Public Enemy one minute and Stockhausen the next.
2. I like fiction that is ambient... literature you can wander into and out of without losing a sense of design or purpose -- like Stein and Beckett on the one hand, and Cage and Henri Chopin on the other hand.
3. I like ambience that is fictional... I've always been amazed at the way the sound of a quiet AM radio can change the ambience of a room. It almost imposes evening or darkness on an otherwise well-lit situation. Then there's the ambient sound of a group of adults all talking at the same time.
We've all heard that as kids when parents have friends over. Or the sound of a person talking in the next room. In this sense, the ambience my work creates is the fiction
. - Erik Belgum 

"Writer Erik Belgum's works have aired internationally on ABC (Australia), BBC (Britain), CBC (Canada), West Deutscher Rundfunk (Germany), New American Radio (US and Canada), Der Concertzender (Holland), Radio LORA (Switzerland), National Radio of Argentina, and throughout the US, Canada and Australia on numerous local stations. He has been in residence at STEIM (in Amsterdam) and at the Banff Centre for the Arts. In addition to his book Star Fiction, Belgum (born in Minneapolis, 1961) has published fiction in dozens of literary journals, including Asylum Annual, Avec, Chicago Review, Central Park, Black Ice. Belgum also edits VOYS (P.O. Box 580547, Minneapolis, MN 55458-0547), a CD sound journal dedicated to all types of artistic work involving speech. VOYS, now in its fourth year, has published audio works by Gertrude Stein, Raymond Federman, Richard Grossman, Richard Kostelanetz, Brenda Hutchinson, and many others. In his notes to "Bad Marriage Mantra", from 1997, Belgum writes: "My wife and I listened through the wall to a spectacular verbal fight in the room next door to us in a Toronto hotel. The argument had a great deal in common with many musical and literary traditions: the use of intense but slightly varied repetitions coupled with sparsely chosen materials.. Play the CD as an installation piece at music and theater events, or at parties. Start it playing on the radio, then sit back and wait for the FCC to show up. Perform it as an instrumental piece with the instructions being simply, 'Use your instrument to censor the profanity.' " Philip Blackburn's Innova label has recently released Belgum's "Blodder" (imagine a Raymond Carver short story scripted by Quentin Tarantino and adapted for performance by Robert Ashley and you might have an idea of what to expect). Erik Belgum can be reached by e-mail at belgu003@tc.umn.edu, which in fact is how this interview was put together.

For the last 15 years it has become clear to me that one can write for audio tape/CD, etc. as well as for the printed page - and this venue is now my primary focus. Instead of publishing in print, my writing now mainly appears through the mediums of CD, audio installation, radio broadcast, internet radio, etc., etc. I'm currently working on a piece for New American Radio's Turbulence website called "Strange Neonatal Cry." It is really a short story or novella, and 10 years ago that's what it would have been, but in the year 2000, it is going to end up being something more like a video game.
"Blodder" is billed as "ambient fiction"? What do you mean by that? I find the term a bit misleading, with its "spaced-out" connotations..
Erik Belgum: Well, here's the deal. I absolutely hate the term "spoken word." I'd even prefer the ubiquitous "books on tape" or "audio art" to "spoken word," but those are pretty lame too. Most people in the civilian population don't know what soundpoetry or soundtext or hörspiel means, and most of these don't really fit what I do anyway. So, basically I wanted to come up with something to describe what I do. I'm serious about the term, but it's kind of a marketing gimmick too because I specifically wanted something that might catch the interest of the electronica crowd. There's a real open-mindedness in that whole arena that I find very refreshing. An aesthetic that can easily accept Public Enemy one minute and Xenakis the next; Roni Size and then LaMonte Young. I hoped "ambient fiction" would be a phrase that might catch their interest.
I got the idea after experiencing several installations of "Bad Marriage Mantra." When that piece is playing it really changes the "ambience" of the room. It's almost an architectural change, like putting in a skylight or painting white walls yellow. I've always been amazed at the way the sound of a quiet AM radio can change the ambience of a room or a car. It almost imposes evening or darkness on an otherwise well-lit situation. Then there's the ambient sound of a group of adults all talking at the same time that we've all heard as kids when parents have friends over. Or the sound of a person talking in the next room. These were all ambiance’s I played with in "Blodder." So in this sense, the "ambience" these pieces create is what is fictional - the fiction isn't ambient, the ambience is a fiction.
On the other hand, I like the sense of fiction that is ambient. Literature that you can wander into and out of without losing your sense of purpose or general focus - like the music of LaMonte Young or Alvin Lucier. Writers like Stein, Giorno, Kerouac (when he's reading on tape), Taggart, Beckett all affect me this way. (Now that I think of it, back to your earlier question, that's the side of Beckett I really love!). This interest of mine probably comes through strongest in "Dick Tracy All Over His Body," in the monologues from "Blodder" and in "Bad Marriage Mantra." The term ambient fiction seemed to capture all these interests of mine at once.
How did you start writing?
My earliest attraction to writing was through American humorists like Thurber, Perelman, Woody Allen, and especially Robert Benchley. That route ended up taking me into the experimental literary world. It was a route which, at the time, seemed strange, but now it feels like a very natural progression. Humorists experiment wildly with content. However, since I wanted to experiment with form as well, my focus shifted to the experimental world of Burroughs, Federman, Beckett, the Modernists, and eventually to the small press literary scene that was thriving in the 1980's. This included journals like Black Ice, Caliban, Central Park, and my very favorite journal of all, Lost and Found Times which is still running solely on the energy of John Bennett after, I think, almost 20 years, maybe more.
What attracted you to Beckett and Burroughs?
Burroughs was really significant for me, I think mainly because he was the first writer I came across who felt at ease in front of a tape deck. Then, of course, there is just the massively inventive side to his writing. I remember reading "Nova Express" and literally starting to shake. I mean physically my hands were trembling, like I had Parkinson's or something. I haven't run across that phenomenon in print very often. As far as Beckett, I don't really know if I am ultimately attracted to Beckett. I love what he does with language at times, especially in the short fiction, but I never "know where I am" when reading his work. I understand that that's what he's shooting for, but still I find it ultimately fairly unsatisfying. I think my initial attraction was "Krapp's Last Tape," for the same reason as Burroughs. I guess, through Beckett, I have learned that, unlike him, in a funny and unexpected way, I like to keep my feet on the ground.
Why do you think so musicians have been drawn to Beckett?
It probably has to do with exactly the sense he gives of not knowing where you are. I've never seen a Beckett piece staged (either aurally or visually) in a highly specific environment. For example at a football game or a pig roast. The settings of Beckett I've encountered, and again I'm thinking of both aural and visual settings I've come across, are always vaguely apocalyptic, and quite non-committal. The best Beckett setting I've heard was "Cascando" on Ben Boretz's Open Space series out of Bard College. On the other hand, I thought the Feldman setting of "Words and Music" totally stank. On paper, the mix of Feldman and Beckett really should have worked, but I thought that was a real dud, and I'm a huge Feldman fan.
I wanted to ask you about what you thought of--and where you saw yourself--in relation to two strands of American literary tradition, namely the short story (Carver, Tobias Wolff, early T.S. Boyle) and the supersmart avant garde (Pynchon, DeLillo)?
Really neither one. I feel much more a part of that experimental tradition that comes out of the small press world. Fiction Collective writers like Sukenick, Federman, George Chambers, and Mark Leyner. Others would include Stephen-Paul Martin, Catherine Scherer, Bob Black, and Al Ackerman. I feel a lot of kinship with poets too, like Bill Knott, Ron Silliman, Clark Coolidge, John Taggart. A lot of these people you might not have heard of if you don't follow the small press/literary journal scene. But they're the best thing going in my opinion. The only real heirs to the experimental tradition. Pynchon and David Foster Wallace usually just seem like big show-offs to me. I can hardly get through their stuff.
Do you have any formal musical education as such?
Oh sure, I studied piano for 15 years and did three years of music theory and history in college. After college I gave a recital of works by Webern, Stockhausen, Messiaen, Haubenstock-Ramati and Takemitsu. I kind of just dropped piano after that point. I suppose that the sheen of working on two measures of polyrhythms for six weeks had just dulled for me. As far as my formally acquired chops that are in daily use these days, they came from studying linguistics for a couple years after college. At the time I had hoped that linguistics could form a sort of theoretical underpinning and springboard for the kind of experimental fiction I wanted to do. I was looking for an analog to music theory, but for literature. Something more akin to Messiaen's "Techniques," than 12-tone theory, because I always found the idiosyncratic nature of Messiaen's methods more interesting as a set of techniques. Many of the things I learned from formal logic, mathematical linguistics, syntax, phonology, philosophy of language are all part of my daily routine. An example from mathematical linguistics is the idea of a finite-state diagram which is used as a way of diagramming simple syntactic structures. It looks pretty much like a flow chart. I used that structure in the solo piece "Dick Tracy All Over His Body." What ends up making a piece like that interesting is setting the recursion at the right points. I tend to shoot for points where people tend to naturally recurse, like on "thinking" words, like "um" or "so". In that piece, on the phrase "So I won't be there..." the performer has recursion at two points 1. on "So" and 2. on "I won't". The result is that they can say things like "So, so, so, so, I won't, so I won't I won't so I won't be there..." etc.
How do you apply formal logic in your writing? I'm thinking of the moment where one text cuts into another one (a simple example being the "Monologues" on "Blodder").. is that splicing determined by some system out of your control in some way, or intentional?
The "Blodder" texts were written somewhat separately and then cut together. Kind of like shooting a film out of sequence. Then I wrote through the whole thing again many times to kind of caulk up some of the loose tiles. Those cuts pretty much were, I guess you might say "through-composed." Just wherever it sounded good to cut. An example in "Blodder" of where I might use something from formal logic is in applying the idea from logical proofs of "capturing a variable" to the narrator's personality traits. In a logical proof, you might instantiate a variable "a" for X and "b" for Y. But if you instantiate "a" for both X and Y, then you've captured a variable and X and Y are now indistinguishable for the duration of the proof. In places in "Blodder", I applied, very selectively, that technique to character's names, so what was once the separate actions of two characters now becomes an indistinguishable monolithic action. Of course, I'm not doing a proof, so I'm free to extract them from each other at will, but that's one example of the kind of thinking from logic I really find useful.
Weren't you tempted to mess about with typography in "Blodder" (to "mirror" the cuts in the narrative strands)?
I was, and I did a version where the four stories of "Blodder" run in parallel columns down the page. Ultimately though, that concrete poetry type world is its own art form and I don't have much of an eye for it. So I decided against going that route. Afraid of coming off as somewhat of a dabbler I guess. Also, I hope there's a little more shock when the text comes at you as though it is a simple traditional short story. In performing the monologues, the "script" version has the two narrative strands separated typographically, but that's just for the performer's use. I played the piece for Paul Dutton in Banff a few years ago and he was looking at the script and said, "I wouldn't publish it in print with these typographical separations." That was good to hear because I felt that was the right decision for the "in-print" version. But for performing the text, those markings are a big help.
These days I'm very interested in the analogy between deep structures and jazz lead sheets and I'm working on pieces that give performers a simple deep structure to work with in creating a kind of self-renewing, improvised, but highly structured verbal performance. Similar to what I did in "Dick Tracy.." and the duet "Bad Marriage Mantra," except this time five or six people will be performing. My model here is closer to Dixieland than free jazz.
Could you elaborate on that lead sheet idea? Do the performers have a "pool" of material to work with?
I'd say it's a pool of structures with a limited choice of materials. I suppose another analog to this would be in baroque figured bass. There you have the instruction: play these pitches, the rhythms and order and accents are up to you (to a certain extent). I'd perhaps give performers these instructions (from a short portion of a piece I'm working on that incorporates live TV watching): use this basic syntactic structure, but draw your verbs from what you hear on the television; now lock in on one verb and draw your nouns from television.
In "Bad Marriage Mantra", are the performers presented just with a text or with a score (complete with instructions such as "sarcastic", "fff" etc)?
They are presented with a set of syntactic structures (empty variables) and a set of choices with which to fill out those structures. (The musical analog would be something giving a performer the instruction: play a C7 chord - but the voicing and the rhythmic presentation are up to the performer). Aside from that, I generally just want performers to explore these possibilities of simultaneous speech and see where it takes them. In the recording I asked them to range around between four different conversational possibilities: each ignoring the other; man follows the woman's lead; woman follows the man's lead; actual two-way dialogue. I felt that these possibilities kind of matched the dynamic of a real marital fight. As far as dynamic markings or emotional markings, there aren't any. It's up to the performer.
Since you asked about dynamics, I'll add that I'm noticing lately how much I am, surprisingly, influenced by Baroque musical structures and performance and composition traditions: terraced dynamics, canonic structures, lack of dynamic markings, that technique in the Bach violin Partitas where it sounds like two separate single line melodies going on simultaneously (that's where I got the idea for the monologues in "Blodder"), etc. Not to get too much into this Baroque thing, because it's far from my specialty, but I think what cued me into this was Albert Schweitzer's book about Bach where he argues that integral to understanding Bach's contrapuntal writing for organ is an understanding of the interplay of the texts that underlie the melodies Bach is throwing into the mix. In other words, you don't just have two melodies playing off each other, you have the two different texts that go with those melodies playing off of each other, even though the texts aren't present.
What's very interesting philosophically in trying to write/compose new works in this way is that in traditional works of this sort, like jazz or figured bass, there are always rules that go unstated no one seems to question, but when you create a new work, suddenly everything is in question. This goes to Wittgenstein's idea of "following a rule." I mean, in baseball there is no rule that says, "your team has to try to win" or "don't intentionally drop fly balls." Everyone just knows that. Just as in jazz or baroque figured bass, there's no compositional rule that says, make the music sound good or interesting. That's just an assumption that everyone seems to agree on. But when you're trying to compose something really new in this way, a certain, I don't want to call it "stubbornness" but, skepticism creeps into the process and people end up needing absolute formalization of rules, as if they were computers. That's not all bad either, it keeps you on your toes as an artist.
Among your available albums are two "operas" with music by Eric Lyon. How did you meet, and where did the Retirement Fund idea come from?
I met Eric around 1984 or 85 at a computer music summer school at Eastman I was attending. I hadn't talked to him for years when I saw a cassette of his music listed in ND magazine. I e-mailed him to get the cassette and he said he was considering working on an opera called "Retirement Fund" orchestrated for drum machine. That piqued my interest and I pitched him this structure I had been playing around with where the song "Jesus Loves Me" was delivered repeatedly in army drill sergeant intonation (a surprisingly easy transformation of that song - the ease of that transformation interested me also). I suggested that if I surrounded that refrain with all sorts of insulting drill sergeant talk that maybe that could be the libretto for "Retirement Fund". He liked the idea and so we started in. Eric was living in Japan at the time, so the whole thing was done by e-mail and by mailing DAT's back and forth. Eventually the final tape part was finished and then I practiced my drill sergeant part along with that. I had to practice with the tape in the car for a month driving around Minneapolis because I had to yell so loud to get in character that I couldn't do it in my apartment. I couldn't speak for three days after the premier. As far as I'm concerned, there wasn't any compromise at all throughout the process. We really think alike in terms of palpable structures, creating stuff using algorithms, and the critical importance of cheap, sophomoric humor. We decided to make "Retirement Fund" a "serial opera," and so the comedy sequel "Retirement Fund II: The Audit" was born.
If it's a serial opera, when can we expect the third episode and what will it be about?
Actually, episode three is kind of on hold right now. Eric and I have started working on a Mass. I think our collaborations needed a break from all the joking around. For me, "Retirement Fund III" was starting to feel like a little bit of a cop-out (an intentional avoidance of other ideas and approaches) and humor shouldn't feel like that. I still think "The Audit" is hilariously funny, although maybe you have to have an office job or have dealt with the IRS to appreciate it, but it was time to try something else for a while. I think we'll be back to RFIII in a couple years. For right now though, this Mass is pretty exciting. I'm taking the Latin mass and cutting into it with bits of soloed vernacular American speech. If it works right, the cuts will be where a lot of the action is,
kind of like in Pound's Cantos which are, I guess, my model for this libretto.
Bit of a stupid question I suppose, but what are your ten all-time favorite records?
I just did an interview for MusicWorks with Philip Blackburn and Warren Burt about their Kenneth Gaburo disc. I asked them almost that exact same question, including prefacing it as stupid!! The reason I asked is that I love to hear what people come up with... OK, ready? Today, it would be Stockhausen's "Hymnen" and "Kurzwellen", Robert Ashley: "In Sara, Mencken, Christ and Beethoven There were Men and Women". Miles Davis - "Live at the Fillmore", "The Quintet" (the whole box set) and "Workin' and Steamin'". Messiaen's complete organ music (played by the composer), Ezra Pound reading the Cantos, Bill Evans "Live at the Village Vanguard" and Lou Reed - "Rock 'n' Roll An - Interview by Dan Warburton



Erik BelgumBlodderInnova 527.
Voices: Inertia Ensemble: John Cullinan, Tony Lyons, Michael Weber, Rebecca Koscinski, Kate Nowicki, John van Slyke.
Director: John van Slyke. Dramaturg: Tony Lyons.
Duration: 99:17 (2 CDs)

Once in a while an odd record comes along. Once in a good while something really obscure gets put on CD. This is really obscure!
America is a land of spoken word (Speech! Speech!) and of poetry readings (“I saw the best minds of my generation, destroyed by madness, starving, naked, hysterical, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn, looking for an angry fix…”) and of commercial pollution (“I drink Doctor Pepper, and I’m proud, I used to be alone in the crowd, but when you look around these days, there seems to be a Doctor Pepper craze…”).
This somewhat mystical – or unidentified – CD, from Erik Belgum, may fit somewhere into a mixture of these American spoken word traditions, with the added oddity of sound poetry, which is a European tradition, of French and Swedish origin, but well and alive in the U.S.A. and Canada too since decades.
Erik Belgum calls this “Ambient Fiction”, and then provides an “explanation”:
Ambient Fiction changes the smell of a room.
Ambient Fiction restructures the existing architecture.
Ambient Fiction is a weather system coming in from Detroit
or maybe Dallas/Fort Worth

The second statement is what it’s about. It’s a restructure of the architecture of language. This is not at all a new idea, but I’ve never seen (heard) it utilized in such an extended work.
There are examples of the gradual restructuring of language in works by text-sound poets and sound poetry poets like Bernard Heidsieck, François Dufréne, Åke Hodell, Öyvind Fahlström and others, but… this is longer, much longer…
The idea is to tell a story that sounds coherent and a little silly, but then gradually change it around, taking lines and mixing them up, in shorter and shorter pieces, so that you after while have all the ingredients of the story, but in the “wrong” order, like you’re grinding down language to get an essence of it.
You have four pieces called “Monologues”, which they are. A male voice – a little hysterical or mannered – tells a story, some story, some soap-opera story, like reading out of a manuscript at an audition for a theatre play, a little nervously or maybe teen-age cocky, making you feel a little irritated. Then, after each Monologue, except after the last one, comes longer pieces, called, in order:
“Bounced Around”
“The Idea of Permeability”
“Sky High Lifestyle”
In these longer pieces the whole ensemble takes part, in layered speech, sometimes a fraction electronically manipulated. The main idea, though, is a classical text-sound, sound poetry method: the layering of sentences and words, where the sentences pile up on each other or spread out through the left-and-right speakers, with variations in volume as well as sound quality etcetera, but… layered.
I don’t know what to make of this record. I’m glad someone (American Composers Forum’s Recording Assistance Program) had the guts to release it, though, because this is something different, even though I’ve named a few influences above. It’s not going to be a best seller, but then again, no records in my collection are best sellers. This double-CD is a statement of sorts in the age of meaningless gibberish crowding us through commercials and self-centered egoistic utterances by murky politicians. Would I listen to this rather than Bach’s Cello Suites on a Sunday afternoon…? I don’t know, but there is a panicky statement in here somewhere that is long due… I think!
I didn’t expect this piece… That is a very good mark of distinction in itself!

"Since the early 1980s, Erik Belgum has been working in the field of sound poetry, electro-acoustic music and live performance. Released on CD in 1999 by Innova, Blodder contains seven tracks of spoken text in the cut-up tradition of William Burroughs and Brion Gysin. Some of these pieces are solo rants, others feature numerous different voices layered over each other simultaneously–which, if you ignore the actual language, could be a nice launching pad for an excursion into pure sound–and yet others include static electronics simmering in the background. The subject matter features a botched convenience store robbery, a fatal car accident, a hospital patient’s TV commercial obsession, “the eviction of a divorcing couple from a gaseous and explosive environment” and general social dysfunction delivered in a chopped-up, mixed-up manner that is at once harsh and hilarious, not to mention desolately lysergic. This is definitely a good one for fans of Burroughs, Gysin, Robert Ashley and sound poetry in general." - arcanecandy.com

"Things just weren't going very well that day." These are not the first but the last words of Blodder, an "ambient fiction" by Erik Belgum. Over 100 minutes, a story torturously unfolds in a way similar to Alain Robbe-Grillet's novels. The story line has been chopped in little pieces and is delivered bit by bit, at random (or so it seems). Basically, Blodder is the story of a robbery in a convenient store. Things go bad when a shot is fired and someone is killed. The work, in seven parts, goes back and forth between "monologues" where one voice narrates the story (although not linearly) and longer sections where multiple voices play characters in flashbacks. Segments of sentences are pasted together, voices interrupt one another, the whole text is deconstructed -- and the story with it, left for the listener to piece together, amounting to strange lines such as "Now, what they have in common is that they have both been hit by a dead person driving a police car/It was all romance going smoothly." Spatialization of the voices is interesting, interpretation is more than convincing, and the whole thing gives a sense of claustrophobia and hallucination. Hard to listen to in one sitting, Blodder is nonetheless better experienced with full concentration. Of course, this is not everyone's cup of tea and even spoken word aficionados will need encouragement in order to digest this album.- allmusic.com

"This double-disc set sounds (on the surface) like a bunch of quadra-polar/multiple personality/schizoid poetry and stories. I would say that this is one of those CDs that you would put on to freak people out and grab their attention; it’s extremely hard to listen to without letting out some kind of reaction. These CDs could possibly be used as a quick personality test on a date. If the person gets out of the car and runs, it just wasn’t meant to be. On a deeper level, I found it to be very enjoyable. Listening to this is a mental sport: like reading 3 or 4 books at once and trying to follow the stories. If you are up for the challenge, e-mail the genius himself at belgu003@gold.tc.umn.edu.
American Composer’s Forum; http://www.composersforum.orgIsaac Airbourne


Erik BelgumPHON : E : MEAlt-X Online Network.
Duration: 47:36.

PHON:E:ME by and with Erik Belgum is just what it sounds like; a phoneme CD. It starts with “on:e” which is sound poetry in its pure form, through utterings of cut up sounds, which eventually flock together like a band of black birds of dusk to form the word “phoneme”.
This is just an introduction to something broader and wider than that, because what follows is a mix of sound poetry, the reciting – in the background – of longer coherent technical texts and electroacoustics of both concrete and electronic origin, even containing glimpses of modern tonal pop music, believe it or not!
This is well in line with the thoroughly inventive stuff that rises out of Erik Belgum’s mind and studio, but I still get surprised by the many unexpected turns of his sound art. He’s welding together metal bangs that could have come out of some of Magnus Lindberg’s wildest Finnish shipyard soundings of the 1980s with vocal permutations right out of the early French studio of François Dufrene, even though Belgum uses English here.
The electroacoustics that Belgum manages are highly sophisticated, making it fully acceptable to mention him alongside heroes like François Bayle and Bernard Parmegiani. The vocalisms are almost always around; if not up front, center stage, so somewhere off backstage, in the wings or behind a curtain or a wall. Some conversation is always going on, or is it possibly a monologue? I’m in the piece “author : dysfunction” when thinking these thoughts. And the question arises: When do two simultaneous monologues evolve into a conversation? When does the “I” discover the “Thou”? We might read some Martin Buber on this!
The piece “phon:e:me:ter” brings another aspect of language into the mix; the primitive, automatic speech of involuntary expression, amply demonstrated before by Robert Ashley in his “Automatic Writing”, which in fact deals with automatic, involuntary speech, in a spooky way. No doubt Henri Chopin and his deep throat microphone exercises have inspired Belgum in this piece too!
The title piece, “phon:e:me”, is a different story still, with its rhythmic, deep, relentless forward motion, casting everything aside in a stubborn death wish. Mighty stuff! Ominous stuff! Scary stuff!
sp:ee:d” appears in the guise of a distant car race, evolving into a band of killer bees steadily approaching – or is it just the guys down by the barn working away at something with their grinding machines. Well, could be the Allied attack on Dresden in 1945 too, if it sounded anything like Gordon Mumma’s “Dresden Interleaf”, which this sounds like… Huh?
In “net:speak” we return to the chaos of voices again, adding laughter and small-talk with some difficulty, like early day space film voice reverberations… Keep ‘em coming, Belgum! I love this insane – truly and lovely insane – inventiveness! Never a boring second here!
The concluding “sl:ee:p” is the longest piece, at just over nine minutes. It starts like a fairy-tale lullaby, with wonderful, watery bell sounds, as if from an underwater cathedral, and the male voice here is heavily echoed. The meaning of the words that are uttered turns this into a somewhat awesome lullaby though…
A necessary CD from Belgum, if you’re into anything remotely connected to sound poetry and electroacoustics!

Erik BelgumBad Marriage Mantravoys editions.
Male voice: Jay Scheib. Female voice: Rebecca Lynn Myers.
Duration: 59:03.

You’re such a dumb fucking bitch! When this mouth speaks up, you listen up to me, okay? If you could relax once in a while…
Fuck you, you stupid prick! Fuck you! Shut up!
Ok! I speak, you listen up!

Well, folks, you’ll have to excuse the foul lingo! I just cite some of the contents of a CD that recently arrived in my mail slot. And, no – it wasn’t a message for me personally, no no!
Erik Belgum just puts across a stylized version of one of the worst grinding quarrels you could imagine. It feels like he’s used a language filter of sorts, in much the same way you can use filters in PhotoShop, where you can stylize pictures in innumerable ways, but here, as said, the entity being stylized is a marital quarrel, a verbal clash.
At the same time this is a series of invectives and abusive wordings in a poetical or perhaps musical structure, where the few abuses spoken are being repeated, varied – composed! Yes – composed! It’s like a sonata of curses in a completely worn down and shattered male-female relationship, and the CD constitutes an almost perverted eavesdropping situation.
The idea of using spoken word in a sonata form or other musical parameters isn’t completely unique. We can think of Kurt Schwitters’ “Ursonate – Sonate in Urlauten” from the 1930s, which has been recorded by Schwitters himself in the same 1930s, available on a Wergo CD, and by the current master of sound poetry – Jaap Blonk – on an LP on Bvhaast Records in Amsterdam (forbidden and withdrawn by Kurt Schwitters’ son Ernst in Norway for no logic reason) and finally by Eberhard Blum on Hat Art. Schwitters, however, didn’t use any recognizable words, but made-up phrases and just regular soundpoetic syllables of a pure oral-cavity-character. Belgum’s musical mold for this abusive text maybe falls back on the sonata form, and at times on the canon method, where the two voices meet and part in glittering and sparkling foulness!
Of course a work like this, that goes on for an hour, is painful too. Most of us have at one time or another in life been stuck in completely useless and unfruitful relationships, and I’m sure this CD brings back some bad memories, along with anxiety and remorse. We’ve treated each other in a stinking manner along the way…
Belgum says on the CD cover that he and his wife overhead, in a muffled way, a spectacular verbal fight through the wall of a hotel room in Toronto. The clash lasted well into the night, and inspired Belgum enough to go through with the work on this CD.
Anyhow, this is a masterwork. It’s like the atmosphere out of August Strindberg’s worst dramas or novels, or like out of a play by Lars Norén. It gets under your skin, this rancid exercise in foul language and disrespect. Belgum once again surprises me, with something I’ve never heard the like of. Belgum somehow does for sound poetry what Bob Dylan did for rock music when he brought hate and hostility into popular song writing with pieces like “Positively 4th Street” and “Ballad of a Thin Man”, and later in “Idiot Wind”, where a part goes: “You hurt the ones that I love best, and cover up the truth with lies, someday you’ll be in the ditch, flies buzzing around your eyes, blood on your saddle”. That was pure beauty when it hit the streets, and Erik Belgum’s heartening abuse in “Bad Marriage Mantra” brings on the same feeling of splendid distaste! Man, we like it so much!

 “[Bad Marriage Mantra is] horrible and funny in equal proportion.”  - Update

Erik Belgum & Eric Lyon – “Retirement fund – A Chamber Opera
Erik Belgum (text & voice), Eric Lyon (sound technology), Robert C. Constable Jr. (guitar), David Rogers (accordion), Cory Jane Holt (drums).
Duration: 42:40.

Sometimes – though too seldom for my taste… - you have to relate to hitherto completely unknown stuff, that you cannot – however much you try – put in some defined spot, and say; this is what this is! This is the bewildering and happy case with Erik Belgum’s & Eric Lyon’s “Retirement fund – A Chamber Opera”, which enters the sounding space of your listening in an other-worldly guise of an electronism, an electro-acousticism that moves you in thick layers of the colors of the rainbow to some remote inner-space factory of questionable causes. That is the overture of the opera.
However, as silence sets, an impertinent military kind of voice blurts out that you “might want some doggie treats”, and you can tell for sure that this is a guy you’d better obey, so doggie treats it is… Somewhat later the same voice tells you to “get ready for some pure fucking Disney fun”… It doesn’t sound fun, though, but more like you’re locked in somewhere in a dark basement at the mercy of some psycho…
The voice belongs to the “drill sergeant” (Belgum) of the chamber opera.
In between the scenes a little melody is inserted, sounding like… a rowdy pub event, with some metallic percussion and even an accordion! The song is very brief, nursery rhyme-like, but returns like a refrain.
A more somber voice enters, with tales about mental disorders, or the experiences within such a disorder: “Someone has control over my mind”… “Sometimes I feel as if I must injure either myself or someone else”… Man, it’s creepy…
Some electronisms bulge in, taking over the scene. Voice returns: “Children gone. Clothes gone. Plants gone”… Again, electronisms…
As a magnificent bouncing electronic event – fast! – enters, very much like the sounds in Jørgen Plaetner’s “Passerer” on a Marco Polo CD called “Electro-acoustic Music from DIEM” (1991), a completely disastrous monologue appears, uttering words like these: “I ate up my life in great big pieces, but they passed right on through me and came out unchanged in my stool”.
This CD is annoying, as it is amusing and clever. It tells things in a kind of merciless Lenny Bruce-style, in the way it comes across. There is nowhere to hide, really, as Belgum and Lyon pour it all out on you… and I believe this kind of art really is a test of your willingness to try new things, to at least check it out once – and most likely this art is at the forefront of today’s actual avant-garde, opening up new ways of thinking about our present day way of life, our “culture”, if you will. It may well be extremely painful to look at yourself – i.e. your unhidden, un-altered spiritual you – in the sort of mirror that Belgum and Lyon hold up in front of you – but it may be rewarding, cleansing… as the truth always is. Most people will probably turn away immediately upon hearing this CD, but let them take a walk, then… Anyway, people who would find this art too offending wouldn’t venture into this Internet site anyway, come to think of it…
Lately the Swedish writer and Lars Norén has put out some pretty nasty stuff about crime and punishment, good and evil and so forth, in a new lighting. The latest outrage was over his play “Personal file 7:3”, in which a some real live hardcore convicts from the highest security detentions of Sweden were allowed to act. As they were working on the play two of the convicts took the opportunity to get out and rob some banks, carrying high velocity military machine guns. As they were getting away from one of the banks they killed – in cold blood – two unsuspecting cops in a cop car in the little idyllic village of Malexander, and an incredible manhunt proceeded, eventually catching the criminals. Now, that was, all of it, a kind of down home, surreal mix of theatre play and realities of society, and “Personal file 7:3” by Lars Norén was forever associated with brutal cop killings and idyllic landscapes.
I mean to say that “Retirement fund – A Chamber Opera”, has something in common with the Norén plays and the killings in Malexander, in an almost intuitive, dream-like way. Both occurrences tell something about ourselves, it seems, like in a theatrical Mafia set-up on Broadway.
Retirement fund” winds in and out of the mind, in and out of psychiatric wards and theatre stages, in and out of dreamed realities and real dreams, in a spectacular show-off of intuitive cleverness. It’s just a matter of flowing with the events here, taking in what’s happening and digesting it, as you let the inner logic – hidden away inside the cerebral cortex of the listener, ready to flicker at you from a pop-up window of the mind – move you along through confusion and enlightenment!
Towards the end of this chamber opera of today and tomorrow an “Ant Speech” appears: “No spectacle of the tropical world is more exciting and mystifying than that of a colony of ants on the march”.
The electroacoustic treatment of sounds are always very innovative and sometimes downright surprising, even to an old boy like myself! Then whole set ends with a “Sine Wave Coda” – a beautiful sound just moving down the line till the end of ends.
The whole concept is high-class. The booklet, for example, contains the complete text of the opera, as well as an array of pictures, showing up like in some painting by Öyvind Fahlström, or in a collage by him. The issue is worked-through, artistically, from layout to content, and I regard this as a very important artwork of our day, and as with any really demanding and touching work of art, it has psychological and sociopolitical implications as well.


Strange Neonatal Cry (mp3 - 56 Meg)

“Comprising techniques of speech and sound in the spirit of Alvin Lucier and LaMonte Young, Belgum’s Strange Neonatal Cry is equally as compelling and mysterious.” - e.i. Music Magazine

“The effect [of Strange Neonatal Cry] is almost that of a drugged, stuttering rapper.  Dangerous performance art for dangerous times.” - 21st Century Music

The Claw and the C-O-P (mp3 - 7 Meg)

Dick Tracy All Over His Body
(mp3 - 5 Meg)

Cock and Bull Stigmata Story
(mpeg - 35 Meg) – a horror memoir of one skeptic’s encounter with stigmata.  (ON-THE-AIR)

My wife and I listened through the wall to a spectacular verbal fight in the room next door to us in a Toronto hotel. It lasted through the late evening and most of the night. The argument, although you could scarcely call it that for no points were ever made or countered, had a great deal in common with many musical and literary traditions: the use of intense but slightly varied repetitions coupled with sparsely chosen materials. Bad Marriage Mantra is not a reenactment of this fight, but a stylized realization of a different fight with the same deep structure. It goes like this: THE HUSBAND. THE WIFE. THE BAD MARRIAGE MANTRA.

Erik Belgum has written and produced audio literary works for ABC (Australia), BBC (England), CBC (Canada), New American Radio, Bayerischer Rundfunk, and Hessischer Rundfunk. WDR in Cologne produced a documentary on Belgum’s work for radio. He has released seven CD's of audio fiction (two on the innova label) which have aired on stations around the world from Hong Kong to Buenos Aires to Vancouver and on dozens of stations throughout the U.S. He has received commissions from the Walker Art Center, the Dale Warland Singers, and the Turbulence organization and has received grants from Jerome Foundation, McKnight Foundation, Banff Center for the Arts, STEIM (Amsterdam), Dayton-Hudson Foundation and the Minnesota State Arts Board. He has published fiction in over 30 literary journals and a book of fiction entitled Star Fiction. He has lectured at Bard College, the University of Minnesota, Banff Centre for the Arts, UC Boulder, and Loyola University on the subjects of audio literature, radio and linguistics in art. He is a clinical speech pathologist practicing in rural Wisconsin. 


No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.

Liberating the Canon - an edited anthology capturing the contemporary emergence of radically innovative and non-conforming forms of literature in the UK and US

Liberating The Canon: An Anthology of Innovative Literature , Ed. by Isabel Waidner, Dostoyevsky Wannabe, 2018. "If there were a...