Thinking Dada, Once Again

Steven Ross Smith


One hundred years ago an event took place in Zurich that would turn the art world on its head. The Cabaret Voltaire took the stage on February 5 1916, and featured artists in many genres—poets, dancers, musicians, visual artists—revolutionary in spirit and confrontational in their performances. Many of them would become famous or at least notorious, despite, or as intended, their wish to spit in the face of bourgeois, stale, and predictable art.

It was at the Cabaret that the first “verse ohne worte” were sounded. The abstract (and/or ‘nonsense / non-sense’) use of language was intoned by Hugo Ball in his poems like “Karawane” and “Gadji Beri Bimba.” Much has been written since about this movement that came to be known as Dada.

In 1988 I wrote an essay about Dada, sound poetry, and what followed. In February 2016, as if prompted mysteriously by the 100th anniversary, I stumbled upon a copy of this forgotten essay. So to honour the moment of the Cabaret Voltaire, I offer an edited and enhanced version of my essay here.


                                               POETRY: A CABARET

You are in a cabaret. The world is not a comfortable place. It is 1916. Zurich. A street called Spiegelgasse. The lights dim. In the darkness, from the stage a voice begins:
Gadji beri bimba
Glandridi lauli lonni cadori
Gadjama bim beri glassala
Glandridi glassala tuffm i zimbrabim (1)

The lights fade in. A figure in shiny blue appears on the stage. His legs are wrapped in cardboard cylinders. He looks like an obelisk. He wears a huge cardboard collar, scarlet inside and gold outside. It is fastened at the neck in such a way that he gives the impression of wing-like movement by raising and lowering his elbows. He wears a blue and white striped witchdoctor’s hat. He continues chanting. (2)
Blassa galassasa tuffm I zimbrabim …. (1)

This is Hugo Ball. This is Cabaret Voltaire. This is Dada. Hugo Ball called his incantations “Verse ohne Worte,” poems without words, for the words are syllables without meaning. He also called his pieces “Lautgedichte,” loud speaking, or as they’ve become known, sound poems.

Ball was not the absolute beginning. Earlier roots of the exploration of the ‘phonemic’ aspect of language can be found in: Aristophanes in the 4th century BC; Rabelais in the 15th century AD; the formal experiments and combinatorics of 17th century mystic and poet Quirinus Khulman; Petrus Borel, whose writing in the early 19th century foreshadowed Surrealism; Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky, published in full in Through the Looking Glass in 1871; the works of Christian Morgenstern around 1875; the poems of August Stramm, the leading poet of Der Sturm, around 1912; the works of the Russian Futurist Velimir Khlebnikov between 1908 and 1915 wherein he experimented with the Russian language, drawing upon its roots to invent neologisms, and finding significance in the shapes and sounds of individual letters, and who along with and Aleksei Kruchenykh originated beyond-sense language creations they called zaum. (3)

In 1913, three years preceding Ball’s performances, Italian Futurist F.T. Marinetti wrote a manifesto titled Destruction of Syntax—Imagination Without Strings—Words in Freedom. It is a long document. Here’s a key section:
“…we no longer want the lyric intoxication to order the words syntactically before launching them forth with the breaths we have invented … Moreover our lyric intoxication should freely deform, refresh the words, cutting them short, stretching them out, reinforcing the centre of the extremities, augmenting or diminishing the number of vowels and consonants … This instinctive deformation of words corresponds to our natural tendency towards onomatopoeia. It matters little if the deformed word becomes ambiguous. It will marry itself to the onomatopoetic harmonies, or the noise-summaries, and will permit us soon to reach the onomatopoetic psychic harmony, the sonorous but abstract expression of an emotion or a pure thought.” (4)

But it was Ball who brought these sounds to the performance stage, and into the literary language of the twentieth century.

Following the Zurich performance, in Germany, in the 1920s, an innovative visual artist, Kurt Schwitters, influenced by the Dadaists, began to experiment with poetry. His explorations took him through several modes of poetic expression, including abstraction, word collages, number poems, cut-up poems, juxtaposed banalities (Merz poems). His most famous piece, Ursonate, was begun in 1921 and reached its final form in 1932. It is written in sonata form containing four movements plus an introduction and conclusion. Poetry slips into musical form. Schwitters’ recitations of his poem were described by artist Hans Arp:
“He sang, trilled, whispered, snarled, shouted his Ursonate with overpowering élan, until the audience jumped out of their skins…he hissed, whistled, chirped, fluted, spelled letters. The sounds he made were superhuman, seductive, siren-like.” (5)

The poem went like this, but off the page and into voice:
Lanke trr gill
pe pe pe pe pe
Ook a ook a ook a ook a

Lanke trr gll
Pii pii pii pii
Züük a züük a züük a züük a (6)

Why? Why were they doing this to language, to poetry?

They wanted to shock, they wanted change. The Dadaists created these reactionary art forms that tried not to be art at all, but rather to be guerilla tactics, statements against comfortable, predictable art, against the bourgeoisie, and against war. For the Futurists it was an attempt to reflect a new industrial society. And for Schwitters it was simply another direction in his explorations of aesthetics and artistic media, of reducing and rebuilding.

The artists I’ve named here expanded the definition of poetry in ways that are still felt today. They challenged the notion of drawing room recitations. They deconstructed syntax. They fissioned the word. They thrust poetry forward into the nuclear age.

In the 1940s the painter and art theorist Wassily Kandinsky wrote in Uber das Geistige in der Kunst (Concerning the Spiritual in Art):
“The poet’s task is to manipulate his material so as to efface this outer [denotative] meaning, or at least to permit other meanings to emerge in vibrations that will affect the audience on a spiritual level. Repetition of a word can bring out unsuspected spiritual properties…and deprives the word of its external reference… We hear this pure sound…which exercises a direct impression on the soul.” (7)

Also in the 1940s the first Canadian foray into this realm occurred. Quebec artist Claude Gavreau was experimenting with “a non-semantic language of pure sound.” Yet his influence never reached outside his home province of Quebec. (8)

The next developments of sound poetry came in the 1950s, mostly out of Europe. There were the guttural and screeching Crirhythmes of French sound poet François Dufrêne who improvised without a written score. Canadian artist Steve McCaffery suggests that Dufrêne was “investigating the full range of predenotatative forms: grunts, howls, shrieks, etc.” (9) Richard Kostalanetz in Text-Sound-Texts said: “Perhaps Dufrêne’s textless art is really a species of vocal theatre…” (10)

Also in France in the mid-‘50s poets Henri Chopin and Bernard Heidsieck began to explore the technological manipulation and layering of the human voice through the use of the tape recorder.

Bernard Heidsieck created poesie-action where the human voice is mingled with found activity—city sounds. The poems can be heard on disk or tape, but the term action denotes the performative aspect when the poem is delivered live, with movement and gesture enacted against pre-taped layered backdrops in his poem-partitions. He brings tension and a conceptual component to his performances. One example is his accelerated live vocal delivery, read from a scrolling score fifteen or twenty feet long, as he moves across the stage. This performance seems to become a matter of life and death. A viewer/listener feels the race against time, the suspense, and the battle between the speaker and his words, the artist and his creation. His astounding performances cannot easily (if at all) be duplicated by others. He is spellbinding.

Also sounding in the ‘50s were: the Brit, Bob Cobbing who improvised often from visual gestetner-made scores and with musicians, and/or from no scores at all; and Arrigo Lora-Totino, the Italian who often vocalized through or with a water-horn, a bent silvery tube that he poured water into and used as a prop and instrument, a simple technology.

By the 1960s Composers Arnold Schoenberg and Karlheinz Stockhausen were exploring the word/music realm of sprechstimme (a form of speaking/singing that can be traced back to German composer Englebert Humperdinck who used it in 1897.)

And in further expansions, American composers Steve Reich, Robert Ashley and John Cage began to use the spoken voice as raw material for musical or electronic manipulation, sometimes using the tape recorder as a compositional instrument. The Fylkingen Group for Linguistic Arts in Sweden also began composing with tape. In a border blur the disciplines of music and poetry meet; a hybrid art grew, and intermedia exploration took place.

American artist and publisher Dick Higgins coined the term Intermedia in 1964 to identify the kind of art presented in Happenings, which he and many other artists—including John Cage and painter Alan Kaprow—began presenting in the ‘50s. Happenings integrated theatre, visual art, text, sound, and sometimes cinema. In a way it was the Cabaret Voltaire of its time.

Intermedia art does not merely combine two or more forms, as in multi-media. Intermedia created a new form out of the integration. Happenings often juxtaposed elements in a non-representational way, with the aim of moving the spectator on an unconscious level, rather than on a rational one. We’ve heard these intentions before—in Dada and in Futurism. The distinctions between art forms were breaking down.

And in the ‘70’s and ‘80s: Canadians began sounding—The Four Horsemen, Sean Ohuigin, Penn Kemp, Doug Barbour and Stephen Scobie; Brits too—Paula Claire, jgjgjgjg; and further afield there were more—the Hungarian Katalin Ladik, the Swede Ilmar Laaban, and American Larry Wendt, to name just a few. The ‘70s were the decade in which I began performing sound poetry.

In 1971 I approached The Four Horsemen with the idea of making a film about them. (We didn’t make the film, but I became a sound poet.) In 1972, after some sound workshops with Steve McCaffery (member of the Horsemen), the workshop group formed an ensemble and we called ourselves Cosmic Handkerchief. We explored vocal and instrumental sound, and in performance we incorporated simple on-stage theatrical elements like chanting in a crouching position in a circle.

In 1975 four writers and friends got together in a framing studio in Toronto to explore making vocal sound. We—Michael Dean, David Penhale, Richard Truhlar, and I—became Owen Sound. Between 1975 and 1984, at first as a quartet, then a trio, our performances embraced the presentation of verbal and abstract phonematic texts, and grew to include conceptuality, gesture, simultaneity, and the performance essay. To expand our theatricality we used props ranging from children’s toys to bird whistles and flashlights; we incorporated choreographed movement. At one time we were wrapped in tin foil and sat static like statues, or like chickens ready for the broiler. On another occasion we wore white masks and drenched one member in coloured paint. On another we ripped shirts off to reveal writing on our chests. We collaborated with other sound poets, and with musicians and with dancers. We staged our own Cabaret Voltaire in 1978 with sound poets and musicians at the Art Gallery of Ontario and at the Western Front in Vancouver.

Between 1983 and ’88, Richard Truhlar and I, performing as a duo, used words, word-atoms, projected image backdrops, conceptual approaches, tape backgrounds, synthesizers, electronic multi-tracking, physical contact, and a robot, as compositional and performance elements.

As a sound poetry soloist, I used my body as a machine, as a target for blows from my own hands; I performed with a bag over my head; I performed lying down.

But almost always, in group or solo configurations, there was the human voice, speaking or spewing, drooling or demanding, whispering or wailing; using verse, words, breath, or atoms from the molecules of words; using music or gesture, humour or pathos, intellect or intuition.

Still we were writers, poets, and when working in this area we still felt like poets. We were charged with the energy of the art of poetry. We were writing poetry with our bodies. If poetry is what poets do, then we were making poetry.

Poetry, after all, was an oral, performed and dramatized art before it became imprisoned on the printed page, and so I am amazed at the sometimes negative comments or side-show categorization that sound poetry attracts. What does sound poetry threaten—the lyric line, metaphor, aesthetics, tradition, formula? I hope it shakes up complacency and safe poetry. I hope it sends small tremors through ideologies of power structures, poetic and social. When I perform sound poems I hope to push meaning and syntax to the limit. To open the form.

Nowadays there are at least one hundred artists sounding worldwide (in twenty plus countries), continuing to work in sound/text-sound/performance poetry. As well, there are Inuit and Tuvan and Tibetan throat singing, the Balinese monkey chant, speaking in tongues, Navajo Horse Songs, nonsense choruses of English folk songs, scat singing, rap, dub poetry, spoken word—many vocalisms, and many people I’ve not identified.

On a recent afternoon I left my house in Saskatoon to go to the store. Two blocks along I passed under a familiar railway bridge. But this time a piece of graffiti jumped out at me and made me smile. It said: “THINK DADA.”


So, here I am in 2016 revisiting my essay on the Cabaret Voltaire and thinking again about these moments, in detail. Interestingly, late last year my spouse gave me a book—Jed Rasula’s Destruction Was My Beatrice: Dada and the Unmaking of the Twentieth Century, a prompt to ready me to revisit and celebrate the Cabaret Voltaire. It impelled me to once again include sound poetry in my performances, at least for this year, and maybe into the future to try to shake up the 21st century too.

As Raoul Hausmann wrote in Courrier Dada, in 1958:

“When language becomes petrified in the academies, its true sprit takes refuge among children and mad poets.” (11)


1. Flight Out of Time A Dada Diary by Hugo Ball. Ed., John Elderfield. Viking Press, NY. 1974. p. 70
2. Ibid. Paraphrased form p. 70
3. Sound Poetry A Catalogue, Eds. bpNichol & Steve McCaffery. Underwhich Editions. Toronto. 1978. p. 6-7
4. Futurist Manifestos. Ed. Umbro Appollonio. Viking Press. NY. 1973. p. 106
5. Kurt Schwitters. Werner Schalenback. Harry N Abrams Inc. NY. 1967. pp. 214-216
6. Ibid. p. 212
7. Flight Out of Time A Dada Diary. p. xxvi-xxvii
8. Sound Poetry A Catalogue. pp. 16-17
9. Ibid. p. 10
10. Text-Sound-Text. Richard Kostalanetz. William Morrow & Co. NY. 1980. p. 20
11. Dada Art and Anti-Art. Has Richter. Thames & Hudson Ltd. London. 1965. p.    119

General References:
i. Sound Poetry A Catalogue, Eds. bpNichol & Steve McCaffery. Underwhich Editions. Toronto. 1978.
ii. Sound Poetry. “The Capilano Review. #31.” Eds. Steven Smith & Richard Truhlar. Vancouver. 1984.
iii. A Dialectic of Centuries: Notes Towards a Theory of the New Arts. Dick Higgins. Printed Editions. NY. 1978

Other Recommended:
(a) Destruction Was My Beatrice: Dada and the Unmaking of the Twentieth Century. Jed Rasula. Basic Books/Perseus Books Group. NY. 2015
(b) The Dada Painters and Poets: An Anthology. Ed. Robert Motherwell. Wittenborn Art Books. 1979
(c) Memoirs of a Dada Drummer by Richard Huelsenbeck. Ed. H. J. Kleinschmidt. Viking Press. NY. 1974