The Pulse of Modernism

The Pulse of Modernism: Experimental Phonetics and the Invention of Free Verse and All-Sound Performance

Robert Brain

At about the same time as Karl Marx’s 1844 remark that “the forming of the five senses is a labor of the entire history of the world down to the present” many European scientists took upon themselves the task of investigating and transforming human sensory capacities. The broad project examines these sensory investigations carried under the rubric of Physiological Aesthetics, the late nineteenth-century discipline concerned with “elucidating physiologically the nature of our Aesthetic feelings” and explaining how works of art achieve their effects. It considers several modes of investigating the human sensorium in laboratories of physiology and its ancillary disciplines, with attention to the varieties of sensory interaction (synesthesia), inhibition and excitation (anaesthesia, hyperesthesia), and possible new modes of muscle sense (kinesthesia). It examines notions of the extension or exteriorization of sentience into the world of artifacts and works of art. Finally, it considers how vanguard artists—painters, poets, musicians, architects, dancers—took up these physiological ideas and techniques as resources to create new aesthetic languages and new Modernist concepts of art itself.

This episode considers sounds, voices, and aurality. The starting point will be physiological experiments in vocalization and phonation by physiologists like Ernst Brücke and E.J. Marey and by linguists and phoneticians like Michel Breal and J.P. Rousselot, which pioneered methods of graphically recording and visualizing speech in application to new domains of linguistic phenomena, especially Sanskrit phonetics, European patois, and versification. By the 1880’s European poets such as Gustave Kahn, Robert de Souza, Ezra Pound, and F.T. Marinetti began laboratory collaborations with these phoneticians, investigating classical verse forms and experimenting with poetic articulation. On the basis of these investigations the poets boldly jettisoned classical rules of prosody, promoting oral, bodily, as-spoken poetry against the classical as-read metric forms of the French alexandrine or English iambic pentameter. This “free verse” (vers libre) was calibrated to the physiological rhythms of the poet and auditors, a free movement of acoustic kinships and affinities. On the eve of the First World War a young generation of verlibriste poets extended these phonetic conceptions to their limit, smashing remaining supports of prosody in grammar and syntax, and inventing pure forms of phonic performance (Parole en Libertà) or sound art. German and Swiss Dadaists like Hugo Ball and Kurt Schwitters invoked performances of onomatopoeia as primordial communication. With Italian Futurists like F.T. Marinetti and Luigi Russolo it became an investigation of All-Sound, an exploration of the boundaries of significant noise in both vocalization and the machine-dominated soundscapes of modern cities or battlefields. These Futurist sound arts deliberately paralleled the acoustic technologies used for communication and detection in the World War, rendering the sensory and observational conditions of battle as a principle of art.