During the fall of 1990 I began active research on a series of paintings that are a visual translation of Kurt Schwitters's Ursonate. I have a long history of this activity, however, before it was with compositions that were written in a more strictly musical language (Gregorian chants and works by Bruckner, Debussy, Stravinsky and Bach). The Ursonate is somewhere between spoken language and music.
The published version of the Ursonate is a concrete poem that was constructed by Jan Tschichold, the Swiss typographer. Although this form is entirely appropriate in the context of the Ursonate's existence as an inter-media piece, I do not think that it was meant by Kurt Schwitters to be used as a performance score. The visual placement does not give correct rhythmic information or pitch levels. Dynamic instructions are skeletal at best.
Therefore, I have had to use an actual performance for my analysis. Incredibly, I was able to work from Kurt Schwitters's own complete rendition. (I describe that adventure in the section titled " the Ur-Story." GIMIK, the computer-music research and performing organization in Cologne, made me a computer analysis providing such information as time, pitch and dynamics. Kai Schönburg, a student at the Musikhochschule of Cologne, produced an analysis of pitch levels and rhythmic groupings by ear. This "human " analysis was necessary for two reasons: Even though the original recording was generously restored by Cedar Audio Ltd., there simply were not enough signals left for the computer to work with, and so we used a recording of Ernst Schwitters's performance dating from the 1ß930s for the computer analysis. It is remarkable how close the son came to his father in rhythmic accuracy. The second reason that I needed an ear analysis of the piece is that the computer "hears" far too many pitches when the human voice is somewhere between speaking and singing. Schönburg was able to find the pitches we hear and write them down. I worked between the two scores, utilizing the computer's numbering system, length of time for events and pauses, and measurement of dynamic levels. From the ear score I took the actual pitches and also rhythmic information.
At the Phonetic Institute, University of Cologne, under Georg Heike, I made, with the patient and generous help of Angela Fuster-Duran, a complete phonetic analysis (translating Schwitters's recitation into real phonemes). all of this informationß is encoded in the painting through collage image manipulation (intonation, consonants, and syllabic construction) and glazes (vowels).The above research has led to a performance score which gives accurate directions based on Kurt Schwitters's own realization.The images I use as the vocabulary for my performance in painting come from several sources; the Merzbau, which was a living, growing environmental constructions built in Hannover, Germany (started in 1023, destroyed 1943); the Merzbarn Schwitters began to construct at "Cylinders," near Ambleside, England, in 1947; his small hut on a tiny island off the coast of Molde in Norway; and the landscapes in both Norway and England in which he spent so much time and even painted. Each theme in the Ursonate has its own image.
I superimposed a set of vertically drawn lines over these "image themes" in order to delineate each syllable. Where the image is taken from (upper or lower parts of the vertical column) is determined by the pitch level that the syllable is spoken at that particular point in the score. the amount of image used on the horizontal plane is determined by the dynamic (loudness level a a particular point. If a syllable is loud, its scale is greater, with less image filling a particular amount of space. If it is spoken relatively softly, the image is a smaller scale, therefore using more of the original theme image. However, Whenever a particular syllable is spoken, it always comes from the same image column.
All vocalic information is expressed through the glazing system that was used for harmonic movement and qualities in the musical paintings. the 16 vowel sounds from the German language are arranged in a logical chart that visually show how and where they are produced in the oral cavity. I created a color chart which corresponds to this vowel chart. Unrounded vowels come from the warm list of colors on the left side of my color chart, while rounded vowels come from the cool list on the right side. Vowels made with the tongue in a high position are warmer than vowels made with a low position. therefore, i is a greenish-yellow and eÊ is an orangish-yellow. Both of these are unrounded and therefore come from the warmer list of colors. Vowels produced in the front of the mouth are a pure hue. As the location of production moves backward, there is an ever-increasing percentage of a complimentary hue, which is glazed in a separate layer. thus, while i is a pure greenish-yellow, u is 50% yellow-green (its base hue) and 50% red-violet, and there is a 10% complimentary layer for the vowel y. Diphthongs slide between two colors as the sounds slide between two vowels. Consonants are realized through internal image manipulation. the manner of articulation (e.g. plosive, fricative, trill) can be seen in different cuts and/or separate color inserts, and the turning around of image segments. Voiced consonants are distinguished from voiceless ones by opposing directions of cuts. Each fricative has its own color insert (f = cerulean blue, z = orange, v = violet and s = yellow). the place of articulation of plosives (p, b, t, and d) can be seen through the location of the cutting point. approximates (h or j), or vowels that stand alone in a syllable have no internal cuts.
The rhythm of the Ursonate is easily discernible by an equivalence of space and time relationships. Because it consists of only one line, I felt that the pauses between spoken fragments were very important to the rhythmic feeling. Therefore, I have used solid blocks of various cadmium colors, moving from a cadmium citron yellow for the shortest breaths to a cadmium red deep for the longest breaks. One frequently sees segments of these bright colors in Schwitters's own collages, however, here they are always very precisely cut rectangles.
The first movement of the sonata is about 430 ft or 130 m wide by 12 in or 30 cm high. There are only seven images appearing in this enormous distance and so it is obvious that the same images have been painted many times. This painting would not have been possible without the large format 5080 machine from Xerox Engineering Systems. Using this machine, I was able to print the syllabic units of the image-themes in their proper image height for pitch, in different scales for dynamic changes, over and over, directly onto the mylar upon which I painted. Basically, this machine allowed me to transfer my under drawing as a score. When the same image is painted many times, the body of the painter begins to move in specific ways. Painting becomes an activity similar to playing a musical instrument, repeating passages with the kind of variations that a musician's body can give.
Leonardo Music Journal, Vol.3, pp.59-61, 1993
This essay was written before the Ursonate was finished. The entire painting is one foot high and runs for eight hundred feet.