Interview by Dan Warburton, September 1999
Erik Belgum's works have aired internationally
on ABC (Australia), BBC (Britain), CBC (Canada), West Deutscher Rundfunk (Germany),
New American Radio (US and Canada), Der Concertzender (Holland), Radio LORA
(Switzerland), National Radio of Argentina, and throughout the US, Canada and
Australia on numerous local stations. He has been in residence at STEIM (in
Amsterdam) and at the Banff Centre for the Arts. In addition to his book Star
Fiction, Belgum (born in Minneapolis, 1961) has published fiction in dozens
of literary journals, including Asylum Annual, Avec, Chicago Review, Central
Park, Black Ice. Belgum also edits VOYS (P.O. Box 580547, Minneapolis, MN 55458-0547),
a CD sound journal dedicated to all types of artistic work involving speech.
VOYS, now in its fourth year, has published audio works by Gertrude Stein, Raymond
Federman, Richard Grossman, Richard Kostelanetz, Brenda Hutchinson, and many
others. In his notes to "Bad Marriage Mantra", from 1997, Belgum writes:
"My wife and I listened through the wall to a spectacular verbal fight
in the room next door to us in a Toronto hotel. The argument had a great deal
in common with many musical and literary traditions: the use of intense but
slightly varied repetitions coupled with sparsely chosen materials.. Play the
CD as an installation piece at music and theater events, or at parties. Start
it playing on the radio, then sit back and wait for the FCC to show up. Perform
it as an instrumental piece with the instructions being simply, 'Use your instrument
to censor the profanity.' " Philip Blackburn's Innova label has recently
released Belgum's "Blodder" (imagine a Raymond Carver short story
scripted by Quentin Tarantino and adapted for performance by Robert Ashley and
you might have an idea of what to expect). Erik Belgum can be reached by e-mail
at firstname.lastname@example.org, which in fact is how this interview was put together.
For the last 15 years it has become clear to me that one can write for audio tape/CD, etc. as well as for the printed page - and this venue is now my primary focus. Instead of publishing in print, my writing now mainly appears through the mediums of CD, audio installation, radio broadcast, internet radio, etc., etc. I'm currently working on a piece for New American Radio's Turbulence website called "Strange Neonatal Cry." It is really a short story or novella, and 10 years ago that's what it would have been, but in the year 2000, it is going to end up being something more like a video game.
"Blodder" is billed as "ambient fiction"? What do you mean by that? I find the term a bit misleading, with its "spaced-out" connotations..
Erik Belgum: Well, here's the deal. I absolutely hate the term "spoken word." I'd even prefer the ubiquitous "books on tape" or "audio art" to "spoken word," but those are pretty lame too. Most people in the civilian population don't know what soundpoetry or soundtext or hörspiel means, and most of these don't really fit what I do anyway. So, basically I wanted to come up with something to describe what I do. I'm serious about the term, but it's kind of a marketing gimmick too because I specifically wanted something that might catch the interest of the electronica crowd. There's a real open-mindedness in that whole arena that I find very refreshing. An aesthetic that can easily accept Public Enemy one minute and Xenakis the next; Roni Size and then LaMonte Young. I hoped "ambient fiction" would be a phrase that might catch their interest.
I got the idea after experiencing several installations of "Bad Marriage Mantra." When that piece is playing it really changes the "ambience" of the room. It's almost an architectural change, like putting in a skylight or painting white walls yellow. I've always been amazed at the way the sound of a quiet AM radio can change the ambience of a room or a car. It almost imposes evening or darkness on an otherwise well-lit situation. Then there's the ambient sound of a group of adults all talking at the same time that we've all heard as kids when parents have friends over. Or the sound of a person talking in the next room. These were all ambiances I played with in "Blodder." So in this sense, the "ambience" these pieces create is what is fictional - the fiction isn't ambient, the ambience is a fiction.
On the other hand, I like the sense of fiction that is ambient. Literature that you can wander into and out of without losing your sense of purpose or general focus - like the music of LaMonte Young or Alvin Lucier. Writers like Stein, Giorno, Kerouac (when he's reading on tape), Taggart, Beckett all affect me this way. (Now that I think of it, back to your earlier question, that's the side of Beckett I really love!). This interest of mine probably comes through strongest in "Dick Tracy All Over His Body," in the monologues from "Blodder" and in "Bad Marriage Mantra." The term ambient fiction seemed to capture all these interests of mine at once.
How did you start writing?
My earliest attraction to writing was through American humorists like Thurber, Perelman, Woody Allen, and especially Robert Benchley. That route ended up taking me into the experimental literary world. It was a route which, at the time, seemed strange, but now it feels like a very natural progression. Humorists experiment wildly with content. However, since I wanted to experiment with form as well, my focus shifted to the experimental world of Burroughs, Federman, Beckett, the Modernists, and eventually to the small press literary scene that was thriving in the 1980's. This included journals like Black Ice, Caliban, Central Park, and my very favorite journal of all, Lost and Found Times which is still running solely on the energy of John Bennett after, I think, almost 20 years, maybe more.
What attracted you to Beckett and Burroughs?
Burroughs was really significant for me, I think mainly because he was the first writer I came across who felt at ease in front of a tape deck. Then, of course, there is just the massively inventive side to his writing. I remember reading "Nova Express" and literally starting to shake. I mean physically my hands were trembling, like I had Parkinson's or something. I haven't run across that phenomenon in print very often. As far as Beckett, I don't really know if I am ultimately attracted to Beckett. I love what he does with language at times, especially in the short fiction, but I never "know where I am" when reading his work. I understand that that's what he's shooting for, but still I find it ultimately fairly unsatisfying. I think my initial attraction was "Krapp's Last Tape," for the same reason as Burroughs. I guess, through Beckett, I have learned that, unlike him, in a funny and unexpected way, I like to keep my feet on the ground.
Why do you think so musicians have been drawn to Beckett?
It probably has to do with exactly the sense he gives of not knowing where you are. I've never seen a Beckett piece staged (either aurally or visually) in a highly specific environment. For example at a football game or a pig roast. The settings of Beckett I've encountered, and again I'm thinking of both aural and visual settings I've come across, are always vaguely apocalyptic, and quite non-committal. The best Beckett setting I've heard was "Cascando" on Ben Boretz's Open Space series out of Bard College. On the other hand, I thought the Feldman setting of "Words and Music" totally stank. On paper, the mix of Feldman and Beckett really should have worked, but I thought that was a real dud, and I'm a huge Feldman fan.
I wanted to ask you about what you thought of--and where you saw yourself--in relation to two strands of American literary tradition, namely the short story (Carver, Tobias Wolff, early T.S. Boyle) and the supersmart avant garde (Pynchon, DeLillo)?
Really neither one. I feel much more a part of that experimental tradition that comes out of the small press world. Fiction Collective writers like Sukenick, Federman, George Chambers, and Mark Leyner. Others would include Stephen-Paul Martin, Catherine Scherer, Bob Black, and Al Ackerman. I feel a lot of kinship with poets too, like Bill Knott, Ron Silliman, Clark Coolidge, John Taggart. A lot of these people you might not have heard of if you don't follow the small press/literary journal scene. But they're the best thing going in my opinion. The only real heirs to the experimental tradition. Pynchon and David Foster Wallace usually just seem like big show-offs to me. I can hardly get through their stuff.
Do you have any formal musical education as such?
Oh sure, I studied piano for 15 years and did three years of music theory and history in college. After college I gave a recital of works by Webern, Stockhausen, Messiaen, Haubenstock-Ramati and Takemitsu. I kind of just dropped piano after that point. I suppose that the sheen of working on two measures of polyrhythms for six weeks had just dulled for me. As far as my formally acquired chops that are in daily use these days, they came from studying linguistics for a couple years after college. At the time I had hoped that linguistics could form a sort of theoretical underpinning and springboard for the kind of experimental fiction I wanted to do. I was looking for an analog to music theory, but for literature. Something more akin to Messiaen's "Techniques," than 12-tone theory, because I always found the idiosyncratic nature of Messiaen's methods more interesting as a set of techniques. Many of the things I learned from formal logic, mathematical linguistics, syntax, phonology, philosophy of language are all part of my daily routine. An example from mathematical linguistics is the idea of a finite-state diagram which is used as a way of diagramming simple syntactic structures. It looks pretty much like a flow chart. I used that structure in the solo piece "Dick Tracy All Over His Body." What ends up making a piece like that interesting is setting the recursion at the right points. I tend to shoot for points where people tend to naturally recurse, like on "thinking" words, like "um" or "so". In that piece, on the phrase "So I won't be there..." the performer has recursion at two points 1. on "So" and 2. on "I won't". The result is that they can say things like "So, so, so, so, I won't, so I won't I won't so I won't be there..." etc.
How do you apply formal logic in your writing? I'm thinking of the moment where one text cuts into another one (a simple example being the "Monologues" on "Blodder").. is that splicing determined by some system out of your control in some way, or intentional?
The "Blodder" texts were written somewhat separately and then cut together. Kind of like shooting a film out of sequence. Then I wrote through the whole thing again many times to kind of caulk up some of the loose tiles. Those cuts pretty much were, I guess you might say "through-composed." Just wherever it sounded good to cut. An example in "Blodder" of where I might use something from formal logic is in applying the idea from logical proofs of "capturing a variable" to the narrator's personality traits. In a logical proof, you might instantiate a variable "a" for X and "b" for Y. But if you instantiate "a" for both X and Y, then you've captured a variable and X and Y are now indistinguishable for the duration of the proof. In places in "Blodder", I applied, very selectively, that technique to character's names, so what was once the separate actions of two characters now becomes an indistinguishable monolithic action. Of course, I'm not doing a proof, so I'm free to extract them from each other at will, but that's one example of the kind of thinking from logic I really find useful.
Weren't you tempted to mess about with typography in "Blodder" (to "mirror" the cuts in the narrative strands)?
I was, and I did a version where the four stories of "Blodder" run in parallel columns down the page. Ultimately though, that concrete poetry type world is its own art form and I don't have much of an eye for it. So I decided against going that route. Afraid of coming off as somewhat of a dabbler I guess. Also, I hope there's a little more shock when the text comes at you as though it is a simple traditional short story. In performing the monologues, the "script" version has the two narrative strands separated typographically, but that's just for the performer's use. I played the piece for Paul Dutton in Banff a few years ago and he was looking at the script and said, "I wouldn't publish it in print with these typographical separations." That was good to hear because I felt that was the right decision for the "in-print" version. But for performing the text, those markings are a big help.
These days I'm very interested in the analogy between deep structures and jazz lead sheets and I'm working on pieces that give performers a simple deep structure to work with in creating a kind of self-renewing, improvised, but highly structured verbal performance. Similar to what I did in "Dick Tracy.." and the duet "Bad Marriage Mantra," except this time five or six people will be performing. My model here is closer to Dixieland than free jazz.
Could you elaborate on that lead sheet idea? Do the performers have a "pool" of material to work with?
I'd say it's a pool of structures with a limited choice of materials. I suppose another analog to this would be in baroque figured bass. There you have the instruction: play these pitches, the rhythms and order and accents are up to you (to a certain extent). I'd perhaps give performers these instructions (from a short portion of a piece I'm working on that incorporates live TV watching): use this basic syntactic structure, but draw your verbs from what you hear on the television; now lock in on one verb and draw your nouns from television.
In "Bad Marriage Mantra", are the performers presented just with a text or with a score (complete with instructions such as "sarcastic", "fff" etc)?
They are presented with a set of syntactic structures (empty variables) and a set of choices with which to fill out those structures. (The musical analog would be something giving a performer the instruction: play a C7 chord - but the voicing and the rhythmic presentation are up to the performer). Aside from that, I generally just want performers to explore these possibilities of simultaneous speech and see where it takes them. In the recording I asked them to range around between four different conversational possibilities: each ignoring the other; man follows the woman's lead; woman follows the man's lead; actual two-way dialogue. I felt that these possibilities kind of matched the dynamic of a real marital fight. As far as dynamic markings or emotional markings, there aren't any. It's up to the performer.
Since you asked about dynamics, I'll add that I'm noticing lately how much I am, surprisingly, influenced by Baroque musical structures and performance and composition traditions: terraced dynamics, canonic structures, lack of dynamic markings, that technique in the Bach violin Partitas where it sounds like two separate single line melodies going on simultaneously (that's where I got the idea for the monologues in "Blodder"), etc. Not to get too much into this Baroque thing, because it's far from my specialty, but I think what cued me into this was Albert Schweitzer's book about Bach where he argues that integral to understanding Bach's contrapuntal writing for organ is an understanding of the interplay of the texts that underlie the melodies Bach is throwing into the mix. In other words, you don't just have two melodies playing off each other, you have the two different texts that go with those melodies playing off of each other, even though the texts aren't present.
What's very interesting philosophically in trying to write/compose new works in this way is that in traditional works of this sort, like jazz or figured bass, there are always rules that go unstated no one seems to question, but when you create a new work, suddenly everything is in question. This goes to Wittgenstein's idea of "following a rule." I mean, in baseball there is no rule that says, "your team has to try to win" or "don't intentionally drop fly balls." Everyone just knows that. Just as in jazz or baroque figured bass, there's no compositional rule that says, make the music sound good or interesting. That's just an assumption that everyone seems to agree on. But when you're trying to compose something really new in this way, a certain, I don't want to call it "stubbornness" but, skepticism creeps into the process and people end up needing absolute formalization of rules, as if they were computers. That's not all bad either, it keeps you on your toes as an artist.
Among your available albums are two "operas" with music by Eric Lyon. How did you meet, and where did the Retirement Fund idea come from?
I met Eric around 1984 or 85 at a computer music summer school at Eastman I was attending. I hadn't talked to him for years when I saw a cassette of his music listed in ND magazine. I e-mailed him to get the cassette and he said he was considering working on an opera called "Retirement Fund" orchestrated for drum machine. That piqued my interest and I pitched him this structure I had been playing around with where the song "Jesus Loves Me" was delivered repeatedly in army drill sergeant intonation (a surprisingly easy transformation of that song - the ease of that transformation interested me also). I suggested that if I surrounded that refrain with all sorts of insulting drill sergeant talk that maybe that could be the libretto for "Retirement Fund". He liked the idea and so we started in. Eric was living in Japan at the time, so the whole thing was done by e-mail and by mailing DAT's back and forth. Eventually the final tape part was finished and then I practiced my drill sergeant part along with that. I had to practice with the tape in the car for a month driving around Minneapolis because I had to yell so loud to get in character that I couldn't do it in my apartment. I couldn't speak for three days after the premier. As far as I'm concerned, there wasn't any compromise at all throughout the process. We really think alike in terms of palpable structures, creating stuff using algorithms, and the critical importance of cheap, sophomoric humor. We decided to make "Retirement Fund" a "serial opera," and so the comedy sequel "Retirement Fund II: The Audit" was born.
If it's a serial opera, when can we expect the third episode and what will it be about?
Actually, episode three is kind of on hold right now. Eric and I have started working on a Mass. I think our collaborations needed a break from all the joking around. For me, "Retirement Fund III" was starting to feel like a little bit of a cop-out (an intentional avoidance of other ideas and approaches) and humor shouldn't feel like that. I still think "The Audit" is hilariously funny, although maybe you have to have an office job or have dealt with the IRS to appreciate it, but it was time to try something else for a while. I think we'll be back to RFIII in a couple years. For right now though, this Mass is pretty exciting. I'm taking the Latin mass and cutting into it with bits of soloed vernacular American speech. If it works right, the cuts will be where a lot of the action is,
kind of like in Pound's Cantos which are, I guess, my model for this libretto.
Bit of a stupid question I suppose, but what are your ten all-time favorite records?
I just did an interview for MusicWorks with Philip Blackburn and Warren Burt about their Kenneth Gaburo disc. I asked them almost that exact same question, including prefacing it as stupid!! The reason I asked is that I love to hear what people come up with... OK, ready? Today, it would be Stockhausen's "Hymnen" and "Kurzwellen", Robert Ashley: "In Sara, Mencken, Christ and Beethoven There were Men and Women". Miles Davis - "Live at the Fillmore", "The Quintet" (the whole box set) and "Workin' and Steamin'". Messiaen's complete organ music (played by the composer), Ezra Pound reading the Cantos, Bill Evans "Live at the Village Vanguard" and Lou Reed - "Rock 'n' Roll Animal".
|Erik Belgum's "Star Fiction" is published on Detour Press. Available through Small Press Distribution (Berkeley, CA). The CDs "Bad Marriage Mantra" "Take It Or Leave It" "Phon:e:me" "Retirement Fund" "Retirement Fund II: The Audit" are all available through the Electronic Music Foundation - www.emf.org) ; "Blodder" is available through all major distributors on the American Composer's Forum's innova label www.composersforum.org. See interviews of related interest with Misha Mengelberg, Fred Frith and Heiner Goebbels. Belgum interview by Dan Warburton, via email, Fall 1999. Copyright Paris Transatlantic Magazine 1999. Photo courtesy of BONK.|