Bengt Emil Johnson (b. 1936)
From The Pioneers: Five Text-Sound Artists
(Phono Suecia, PSCD 63)
The third of September, 1967, was a memorable day, not just because that was when Sweden started to drive on the right but also because it saw the birth of the term text-sound composition in Hilversum, Holland. Lars-Gunnar Bodin and I finally arrived on the name after long discussions with radio folk and composers who had gathered together to explore the possibilities of an international collaboration in this new experimental field of art. The term was adopted by the international forum and has been remarkably long-lived - I still come across it in different contexts. Recently it was mentioned in an American article concerning the forerunners of post-modernism.
During the following years there was great activity, particularly in Sweden, in this borderland between poetry and music. We started up a workshop at the Electronic Music Studio, and Fylkingen and the Swedish Radio organized an annual festival to which international artists were invited to realize and perform new works.
Nowadays hardly any works are created that fall under the heading text-sound composition. Many of the ideas and techniques from this period have been further developed within the wide embrace of electro-acoustic music. Hybrids of different kinds crop up all over the place in the dense jungle of post-modernism. I no longer work with this type of tape composition myself. but throughout the years I have continued to develop performances of poetry with voices and instruments in the tradition of text-sound composition.
I don't regard my work from the sixties and seventies as historical documents or as some sort of rough draft or avant-garde experiment. To me the pieces that are presented here to a new audience and in a new format mean just as much as my collections of poems from the same period. I have often been told that text-sound compositions were not "proper' music - neither were they poetry - they fell between two categories. I still feel that poetry has great potential beyond (rather than instead of) its printed forms. And I don't just "acknowledge" these pieces from twenty years ago, I regard them as some of my best works - for what that is worth... When the pieces were new they were presented on the radio and I wrote a commentary in the magazine Nutida Musilk (contemporary music) no, 3 1970/71.
Landscapes in different dimensions
The title Bland (among) that I have used for a verse cycle that I have been working on this last year perhaps calls for an explanation. It can be seen as a counterpart to the title of a previous work Medan (while) - both cases are a kind of definition of the concept or an interpretation (subjective) of the meaning of these words that are in such frequent use but have so little semantic value. Both words have in common that they imply involvement in different processes, situations, in time and space. "While" has a negative connotation for me: as a passive situation forced upon one - "among" however is a positive term denoting active participation: being together rather than being shut out.
All versions of bland are based on the same original material: fifty or so assorted sounds, arranged in certain "tribes" and "families" and governed by certain rules as to how they can be combined. Most of the sounds are extracted from languages but are reduced to a kind of characteristic inarticulate utterance
devoid of semantic significance but meaningful in its form - a kind of signal, perhaps: siren calls. shouts of warning, rallying cries and so on. I don't mind if the work is described as a kind of nature lyricism - the experience I have sought has much in common with the acoustic perception of a country landscape.
Sound-landscapes, in other words. 1/1970; (bland) 1, which was performed at the 1970 text-sound composition festival organized by Fylkingen and the Swedish Radio. is literally a description of a landscape - the four-channel tape makes it possible to organize the sounds in different dimensions: certain sounds can have certain pitches or "preserves" and specific spatial behavioural patterns; the listener is literally encased and, under ideal circumstances, car wander at will in the sound-landscape. In the radio version of 311970: 1/1970; (bland) 1 have made what can best be described as a "round tour" of the landscape - the sounds appear in a more linear guise, the form is more enclosed, the whole concept is more of a "piece" than a "milieu".
Some people may regard nature poetry like these pieces as "nostalgic idylls". I would argue that considering what we know about our total dependence on the environment and how we are affecting it, these pieces also have "commitment". And if it be so that I belong to the last generation that has had the chance to be inspired by a natural landscape, then I am literally horrofyingly privileged.
While (bland) is a kind of "landscape" in a literal "outer" sense. my other composition, 4/1970; Jakter (Hunting) is associated 21 with the manuscripts that the painter Carl Fredrik Hill left behind him and which give such a fascinating insight into his illness. Hill's works of art from this period are well known -his notebook, which includes notes from his time in Paris, alternated with poems in different forms, has hardly received any attention as an independent. artistic work (though in writings on Hill it is often referred to both as an example of his spontaneous reactions to the art and the people that he came across in Paris, and as material that displays the symptoms of his illness). A few years ago, through the kind assistance of Klas Wenneberg M.A.. Brbkne-Hoby, I had the opportunity to spend some considerable time studying the original manuscript, and I would like to take this chance of expressing my gratitude for this opportunity. In the manuscript I found a literary counterpart to the pictures that he painted during his illness, and in my opinion they are just as captivating, terrifying and inexorably innovative. There isn't room here to go into a more detailed analysis - I just want to mention that many of the typical characteristics that are found in his pictures are also present in his poems: the pendulum swing from euphoric exaltation to compulsive paranoia - the uncontrollable drive towards preservation, that is, to repeat, to distort, to cover the entire surface - the description of a world where all objects, animate or inanimate, are in a state of metamorphosis which at any moment may become threatening, and so on. One thing that stands out particularly clearly in the texts is the peculiar awareness of his own predicament and at the same time his inability to help himself: the changes in Hill s world as he loses the power to master and control it, are directly reflected in his language. It falls apart, grinds on in a desperate attempt to regain its power, its ability to organize, to control the world. And when the words lose their original meaning and live a life of their own they become, like other presences in Hill's world, a threat - they are no longer without meaning but instead are filled with a secret, impenetrable meaning that it is a matter of life and death to understand. As a heading to his manuscript Hill wrote "Poems and writings in a few languages". The different identities, the different languages, are constantly hunting for each other's meanings: a hunt for wholeness, perspective, explanation. The word 'hunt' in its usual sense is also significant in Hill's fantasy world: in many of his poems he depicts almost naturalistic hunting scenes, where he himself often plays the leading part of the hunter. In the text which concludes the composition, the hunt takes place both on an outer motivistic plane and in the semantic disintegration. Each line is repeated, identical in rhythmic regularity, but semantically distorted.
In my composition I have simply tried to emphasize or bring out such elements in the original text as I have described here. Two different voices have read an identical text with as similar linguistic rhythm and melody as possible, so that the two recordings can easily be interchanged. The linguistic disintegration has its counterpart in the electro-acoustic adaption of the voices. Besides the purely verbal material I have also used certain animal sounds which I feel is legitimized by Hill's own frequent use and creation of animal symbols, both in his pictures and in his manuscript.
The voices in 4/1970; Jakter Jörgen Cederberg and Evan Storm. Christer Grewin was responsible for the technical realization and interpretation of both the above-mentioned works.
BENGT EMIL JOHNSON
Bengt Emil Johnson (1936 - ), poet, writer, composer and radio man, studied piano and composition with Knut Wiggen towards the end of the fifties. Like Wiggen Bengt Emil Johnson was an active member of Fylkingen, playing the piano and composing as well as taking part in happenings that took place in the early sixties, especially at the Modern Art Museum. Since the middle of the sixties Bengt Emil Johnson has been working with textsound compositions, most of which are based on his own texts.
Bengt Emil Johnson's output is considerable and he is a prolific writer on cultural matters. His work as head of the Fylkingen language group and as initiator and organiser of the early text-sound festivals has played an important part in the development of text-sound composition as a specific art form.
Bengt Emil Johnson has worked at the Swedish Radio since 1966, first as producer and then as programme director of the radio's programme 2.