In French, wouldn’t an abecedary in the key of G (the fifth note “sol” in the Do-Re-Mi song) have to be associated with the summer (été) and sun (soleil)? That may be the nearest to the fixed association of letters with objects you will find in this work by one of the 1950s creators of Sound Poetry (Poésie sonore).
The collage mixes uppercase and lowercase, serif and sans serif and numerous families of type.
Like beauty and a Rohrshach test, any significance to the collage of each letter is left to the eye of the beholder. Or the ear. Do the positions of the main A, B and C suggest the opening notes of the ABC song?
The confetti-like N’s and n’s look like stemless notes being drawn up and down the staves. The O in the center of the staves surrounded by a rectangle of O’s resembles the sound hole in a cigar box guitar. The P’s are dripping in three dwindling streams of p’s. The Q’s and q’s seem bottled up and rising to spout onto the staves.
The X’s make an X, or perhaps the struts of a drum with a bass drum stick tucked in. Y forms a mosaic banjo. While Z looks like a bird of prey with its wings at the peak of an upbeat, readied for a powerful downbeat and lift off, it could the horned helmet of a nineteenth-century opera soprano.
Other artists in the collection have used the musical stave in their alphabet-related works: Karl Kempton and Jim Avignon & Anja Lutz. But Heidsieck uses the stave like a musical note and the leporello structure like a musical stave itself. Across its panels, the image of the stave sometimes keeps to the same position, sometimes descends or ascends across two or more panels — like musical notes. Sometimes it supports the letters, sometimes it suspends them, sometimes it embraces them, sometimes it embeds itself among them. The letters defy any expectation of behavior of notes fixed to the stave, but they are never independent of it. Rather than asserting synesthesia as Rimbaud or Nabokov do with words, Heidsieck’s work enacts it by conflating the structures and elements of musical notation, the alphabet, the accordion book and painting.
26 Voices / January Interlude (2020) Karl Kempton Sewn booklet. H190 x W177 mm. 28 pages. Edition of 60 unnumbered. Acquired from Derek Beaulieu, 4 January 2021. Photos of the work: Books On Books Collection. Displayed with permission of the artist.
Derek Beaulieu deserves a vote of thanks for bringing this work back into print, even if for a limited edition. 26 Voices / January Interlude first appeared under the title Rune 2: 26 voices/ january interlude as number 10 in Robert Caldwell’s Typewriter series, published by Bird in the Bush Press (1980). In the Acknowledgements, Kempton writes that the series “was composed in January, 1978 in 28 days. After the letter K the flow stopped until a dream of L’s form arrived unblocking the flow”.
The series of patterns, each made from an upper case letter of the alphabet typed over and over, range in appearance — some like Amish quilts, some like Byzantine rugs, some like Celtic knots, but like snowflakes, no two alike. Given how some pairs of letters are mirror images of each other (bd, pq) or inverse (bp, dq), you would expect some close affinity in their two patterns, but no. No pairs of those patterns look at all alike. You would also be mistaken to expect a pattern to reflect the letter that constitutes it. Instead, you find one pattern resembling the letter X, but it is made of letter U’s. There are naturally some similarities between patterns at the broadest level — E and N, L and M or R and S — but these have little to do with the letters themselves, and the similarity recedes as details come to the fore or falls into the background with illusory three dimensionality. The shapes are not rune like, but individually and sequentially, they have the associative dream-like qualities of runes.
A close up
Double-page spread B&C
B close up
C close up
Center double-page spread N&O
Double-page spread X&Y
X close up
Y close up
Z close up
Actual runes appear in the following work, similarly in black and white and with similarly illusory three dimensionality. Not technically in the Books On Books Collection, playground (2013-14) can be found online. Surprisingly, it has not been in print.
playground (2013-14) karl kempton Online, 78 pages (screens). Accessed 7 August 2022. Screenshots reproduced with permission.
What an opportunity for collaborators to join with Kempton to produce playground in different editions varying in color (black and white, red and white, green and white, blue and white, etc.), in paper (handmade, watercolor, washi, high gloss, matte, etc.) and in binding (accordion, stab binding, case bound, scroll, etc.). Perhaps such an extravaganza is not in keeping with Kempton’s style and approach over the years, but this playground is such an invitation to play.
Games and sports are depicted together with letters and punctuation marks on platforms made of the musical staff or stave, all of which offer Kempton multiple means of metaphor. FIrst, inked martial arts figures break a K of karate boards. Then, a baseball player bats the dot of a lowercase i into the air. A basketball player jumps and aims at a basket formed of a half note. A golfer chips toward a half-note hole flagged with a pennant bearing the treble clef G. A boxer punches the bowl of a large P.
The images become more worked as the book proceeds. A weightlifter atop a lowercase e lifts a set of weights composed of the umlaut above the e, and the shadow of the image is cast across the stave lines behind the letter. Shadows of gymnasts appear behind an uppercase G, lowercase o and lowercase i.
Animation sequences occur, such as the platform diver leaping from the body of a lowercase i and creating an exclamation-point splash in a pool formed by a circle that widens across the stave as the diver submerges.
Around the same time of playground‘s inception, this combination of letters and musical notation found expression among other artists: for example, Jim Avignon & Anja Lutz in Neoangin: Das musikalische ABC (2014) and Bernard Heidsieck in Abécédaire n° 6 clef de sol : été 2007 (2015). Metaphorically linking textual expression, if not individual letters of the alphabet, with musical scores goes back at least as far as Stéphane Mallarmé’s Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’Abolira le Hasard (1897) and carries forward into explicit linkage by Michalis Pichler (2009) and Rainier Lericolais (2009) in their works of homage to Un Coup de Dés.
To return to Kempton’s playground, an interlude occurs to associate the alphabet with magnetism, then breaks off to return to the games motif, this time in the form of winter sports. The musical notation motif is still there, but Kempton modifies it with a piano keyboard at both ends of the stave and with manicules fingering the keyboards at both ends while articulating a variation on sign language. Musically and metaphorically, matters become more complex with the introduction of two pairs of staves, pyramids of squares and circles and one manicule using the lowercase i to bring back the magnetism interlude.
From here on, additional motifs are developed, and words and phrases appear: a physics experiment punningly labeled “period piece”, a night game lit by inverted question and exclamation marks, and juxtaposed opposites (“covered/uncovered” and “sunrise/sunset”).
All these motifs, textual and visual puns, and images seem concerned with the development of symbols for interpreting the world and communicating that interpretation. With the appearance on black background of an exclamation mark with an open book inside its point, then a pair of rectangles each suspended by the sentence “volumes lines speak / lines speak volumes”, an animated sequence begins an extended narrative drawing everything together.
After the descending hand squeezes out the yin yang symbol onto the stave from the image of an open book, Kempton joins this theme of interconnected opposite forces with the development of language, which is where the runes come in, held in an unclosed fist. Eventually the book concludes with an open pair of hands, centered on reversed-out stave/keyboards and holding a point of light radiant against the blackness.
Jim Avignon’s website describes Neoangin: Das musikalische ABC (2014) as a “synaesthetic experiment, [on] which Lutz and Avignon have worked together again after almost 15 years, [in which] music, illustration and typography mix in the most cheerful and unsparing way”. For each letter of the alphabet, Avignon has written a song, presented on a double-page spread designed by Lutz and Avignon. The book and performance were prepared and premiered at Typo Berlin 2014.
Songs A through C are “Animal Hypnotist”, “Bad Photoshop” and “City of Strangers”.
The song for Q is “Q Typology of Letters”. The tails of various Qs straddle female, male and epicene symbols and characters as well as emotional quotients and characters.
The songs for X, Y and Z are “X-Files: All Deleted Pages”, “Yeah” and “ZZZZZ”.
Synesthesia of the alphabet can be found elsewhere in the Books On Books Collection: Jean Holabird’s Vladimir Nabokov: AlphaBet in Color (2005) and Le Cadratin’s rendition of Rimbaud’s Voyelles (1871/1883/2012) under Jean-Renaud Dagon. And so can conjunctions of the alphabet and musical notation: Karl Kempton’s playground (2013-14) and Bernard Heidsieck’s Abécédaire n° 6 clef de sol : été 2007 (2015). But Avignon and Lutz have the claim to the only combination of the two and certainly when the musical performance is added.
Alphabet Music (2d ed. 1992) Jeremy Adler Loose folios. H252 x W354 mm. 7 folios. Edition of 25, of which this is #23. Acquired from Antiquariat Willi Braunert, 2 August 2022. Photos: Books On Books Collection.
Clearly the alphabet has held an especially productive place in Jeremy Adler’s imagination.
From 1972 to 1977, he issued A: an envelope magazine of visual poetry. His Alphabox (1973) was the first issue in the Writers Forum Object Series, founded by Bob Cobbing, and he named his Alphabox Press after it. Alphabox consisted of four sheets, printed on one side only, each folded six times and fixed at three edges in total, folding out concertina-style to show twenty-eight panels with one letter of the alphabet per panel. The following years brought Alphabet Music (1st ed., 1974), two alphabet-themed exhibitions (1975-77), Vowel Jubilee (1979), Alphabet (1980), Soapbox (1991) including “Alphabet Spaghetti”, and The Electric Alphabet/Elektrická Abeceda (1996) with Jiří Šindler. What makes most of these works — and particularly Alphabet Music — stand out is their synesthetic suggestion and calculated complexity.
The colophon to Alphabet Music, a separate folio accompanying seven loose folios, says, “Each sheet of Alphabet Music contains 15 letters, either whole, or split up into fragments, except the last, where the sequence breaks off… For a full reading, the sheets should be laid out in sequence… Colour denotes key.”
In Oulipo-esque fashion,that limit appears to be determined by the sum of the first five letters’ numerical position in the alphabet (1+2+3+4+5 = 15, so sheet one has 1 A, 2Bs, 3Cs, 4Ds and 5Es). Sheet two, likewise, has 6Fs, 7 Gs, and 2Hs to make 15 letters. Sheet three continues with the remaining 6 Hs for this eighth letter in the alphabet plus 9 Is for the ninth letter, adding up to 15 letters. Sheet four includes 10 Js and 5 letter Ks, and sheet five continues with the remaining 6 Ks for the eleventh letter plus only 9Ls of the twelfth letter, leaving sheet six to pick up the remaining 3 Ls and 12 Ms of the thirteenth letter. Contrary to the explanation, the seventh and last sheet doesn’t break off the sequence; its 1 M and presumably 14 fractured Ns add up to 15.
But why does the music end there? The letters tumble, leap and cascade like musical notes or expressions on the page. Why not additional sheets? Having come this far with the constraint of 15, perhaps Adler worked out that no sum from any summative series from the start of the alphabet could provide a constraint that would work out “evenly” in the end. There would always be leftover or remainder Zs. Alphabet Music has always to be unfinishable — much like the textual expressions the alphabet can yield.
The first edition of Alphabet Music was published in 1974 in an edition of 130 copies by Adler’s Alphabox Press (London) and was first performed with Paul Burwell, Bob Cobbing, and Bill Griffiths at the Poetry Festival in Münster 1979. Extracts first appeared in Kroklok 3 (December 1972), Poetry Review 63:3 (Autumn 1972), and Typewriter (NY) 3 (1973). Although online searching has not uncovered any recording of this performance, or instructions for performing Alphabet Music, perhaps an impression can be gleaned from this recording of Alphabox. Given the title of Alphabet Music, the visual impression it makes, its expressed intent and its reported performance, Alphabet Music would seem an exemplar of Dick Higgins’ definition of an intermedial work: “a conceptual fusion of scenario, visuality and, often enough, audio elements”.
“Ernest Fraenkel“. 30 October 2021. Books On Books Collection. Jeremy Adler’s uncle was Ernest Fraenkel, author of Les Dessins Trans-conscients de Stéphane Mallarmé à propos de la Typographie de Un Coup de Dés(1960), also in this collection.
Each letter of the Spanish alphabet is printed in sans serif across a full page to create a grid-like or plaid-like pattern. All letters are printed once in black on white paper and twice in white on black paper; with sheets facing one another. For the English-speaking reader, that’s a bonus of two pages for the ñ.
Held at normal reading length, the double-page spreads do have a plaid effect, but inspected closely, the effect becomes that of wire mesh from which the letters leap out from the less tightly woven spots.
Unsurprisingly the plaids are as distinct from, and similar to, one another as letter shapes are. Sometimes, as with the letter b, an illusion of three dimensionality takes hold.
The most surprising — though they should not be — are the letters i and l. With no crossbar, bowl or curve, they cannot create a plaid pattern. Rather, their black on white, white on black patterns look like barcodes.
Gubbins One of the founding members of the Foro de Escritores (www.fde.cl) Chilean version of Bob Cobbing’s Writers Forum in London, and noted figure in the avant-garde poetry scene in Latin America. Gubbins has collaborated with the American poet and artist John M. Bennett, in whose honor
Some visual artists call this kind of work a “tapuscript“. Some throw it together under the heading of language art or concrete or visual poetry. Karl Kempton prefers the term “visual text art” over any other. Conceding the term to cover the broad genre, works like Alfabeto that cover the entire alphabet in sequence — or even play with its sequence — might deserve the sub generic term “visual alphabet art”. Kempton himself, Roberto de Vicq de Cumptich, Raffaella della Olga, Sharon Werner & Sharon Forss — as well as many of the artists in Victoria Bean and Chris McCabe’s anthology and those in Philip Davenport’s — surely provide a sufficient number of examples.