A phoneme is the smallest sound unit by which we distinguish one word from another. There are more phonemes (upwards of 40 in English) than letters of the alphabet because some letters represent two or more sounds. One of the most famous artists to ground their work in the phoneme is the Dadaist Kurt Schwitters, whose “Ur Sonata” demilitarized language after World War I by softening and subtilizing phonemes through the performance of a score. Schwitters’ work coincides with the Russian Futurists’, whose made-up language “Zaum” used phonemics to tap language’s universal source, and thereby its glossolalic, transliterative potentials. In the 1960s artists like John Cage and Jackson Mac Low used the phoneme to “free” language from determination, arranging it through rigorous restraints and chance-based procedures.
The exploration of the phoneme continues through the practices of visual artists, dancers, musicians and poets too lengthy to enumerate here. What connects this genealogy of artists is the want for language to function differently than it typically does in everyday life, especially to the extent that everyday life is shaped by profound inequality, exploitation and violence. To take language back to its phonemic sources is to decreate language in order to prepare it to be made into something it hasn’t been before, or that it might have been had history taken different turns.
Architect and poet Robert Kocik and choreographer Daria Fain’s Phoneme Choir continues the efforts of artists before them to revolutionize experience by reconstituting language. To this end, Fain and Kocik conduct an ongoing series of workshops that explore phonemes as “awarenesses, energies, impetuses, emotions, embodiments, medicines, tuning devices and building blocks” (quoting Kocik). From this phonic research extends a performative language of gesture, gesticulation, movement and interaction. While Kocik writes phonemic scores, Fain directs the choir into fully embodied movement using the Greek chorus as her exemplary framework.
While the Phoneme Choir may have any number of effects, its most basic intention is two-fold. On the one hand, the Phoneme Choir provides a means of healing by drawing upon a confluence of ancient practices, including techniques from East and South-East Asia, the Middle East and ancient Greece. On the other, it presents a radical assault on the English language in particular, inasmuch as Kocik, and Fain recognize English as a language rooted in militaristic, mercantile and utilitarian endeavors. As Kocik polemicizes throughout much of his recent writing on the English language’s evolution in relation to American democracy: “English has never been the speech of a free people.” If the current economic, ecological and security crises are consequences of the properties and propagation of the English language, by embodying the rudiments of the language and opening it to new inherences the Phoneme Choir provides a ready toolbox to remedy empire.
Having participated in Fain and Kocik’s Phoneme Choir last spring, I think the problems Kocik identifies lie foremost in our own bodies, and the ways language determines embodiment. By attending not only what we mean when we say something (the role of any culturally relevant poetics), but the very process of articulation itself as a movement-based practice, we can perhaps begin to address and question the larger sets of forces that language shapes and that shape us through our uses of language. Fain believes that the manifestation of language starts in the body, prior to any intention or differentiation into words. By focusing on the arising of language as it initiates intention, one can “re-pattern their reactions” (ibid). Her choreography generates its language by breaking down the relationship between intention, initiation and manifestation. In the case of the Phoneme Choir, she uses this choreographic language to create transformative relationships between the performers and for the group as a whole.
How Fain and Kocik allow their participants and, by extension, their audience to explore language in such a way is fairly simple, yet high impact. Whether drawing upon the spiritual imagination of the 10th Century Kashmir, who believed the world to issue from phonemic emanation, or the breathing practices of Qi Gong, the insistence is simply to begin by making the sounds until they are beings-in-themselves. “The entire body becomes the vocal folds, the neurocentricty of language is inverted—words issue from the perineum or any organ, or from a silent flash” (ibid). Attending the whole ensemble, one hears individual phonemes overlap and cross-weave at varying degrees of volume, tempo, tone and rhythmic inflection. For the audience, this is an event of a total sensorium as verbal and motor regions of the body tune to one another, and can be felt, perceived, and intuited through this tuning in relation to other bodies.
This month Kocik and Fain are workshopping their latest choir, a choir incidentally comprised by many participants whose first language is not English. They are in the process of generating a series of “Hymns for the Hypothalamus”–specific sound permutations that signal corresponding hormonal secretions. Such a mix of different languages and bodies bodes well for the choir’s upcoming performance at Judson Memorial Church, which promises to offer a formidable challenge to ‘standard’ English as the current lingua franca.
THOM DONOVAN edits Wild Horses of Fire weblog, and co-edits ON: Contemporary Practice, a journal committed to writings about one's contemporaries. His poetry, criticism, and scholarship have been published variously.