Henri Chopin: An Introduction
May 15, 2012 — Sara Softness
General Modern has recently acquired the library and archive of the late Henri Chopin, avant-garde artist and poet (1922-2008). Following on the heels of French lettrisme, Dada, and Surrealism, Chopin is probably best remembered for his contribution to the budding discipline of “poésie sonore” or sound poetry, wherein he might swallow a microphone and record the minute vibrations of the human instrument, often layered on top of other recorded sounds, producing such works as “Throat Power,” “Digestion,” and “Interplanetary Rocket.” He used very basic equipment and often tampered with the tape path by pasting matchsticks on the reel bed to create purposeful distortions. (He would also perform his works, which is quite fun to watch; check it out here.)
But throughout his 50+ year career, Chopin was prolific also as a painter, graphic designer, typographer, and film-maker. He published dozens of volumes of his audio-visual magazines “OU” and “Cinquième Saison,” as well as many original books, collage works, installation pieces, and writings. While he was careful to remain unaffiliated with any particular grouping–he called Lettrism “a dictatorship”–and cherished his artistic independence, he nevertheless collaborated and corresponded constantly with other leading figures of the European avant-garde. A big portion of his collection are various books, letters, and art pieces dedicated to him by the likes of Raoul Hausmann, Brion Gysin, Francois Dufrene, William Burroughs and Gianni Bertini. His connections across Europe and disciplines reveals he was a major point of contact on the international post-war art scene, and through tracking this network we can index the ever-shifting preoccupations of the avant-garde.
Underappreciated in mainstream art historical dialogue, Chopin’s work plays with and challenges conventional notions of speech, language, music, sound, and semantics. His sound poems and dactylopoemes shed previously held verbal or symbolic value, to focus instead on purely sonorous or decorative qualities. The latin alphabet, he insists, “is more geometric than calligraphic for our vision,” and “consists of constructivist forms.”
By manipulating modern-age technology, Chopin seeks to access the primal expanse of communication, the infinity beyond symbolic meaning. The tape recorder makes possible the elongation and elaboration of sound shapes, makes audible the normally inaudible. Similarly, the typewriter, in its perfect repetitious typescript, showcases the “architectural skeleton” or pure form of letters and words. In this way, Chopin simultaneously engages the mysterious archaic and the mechanical state-of-the-art.
Perhaps this interest in the intersection of modern and primal can be traced back to Chopin’s experience of the Nazi regime, with its prehistoric violent warfare and hatred in a modern technological context. After France fell under German occupation, he was captured and sent to a POW camp in the Czech Republic from which he managed to escape. After spending time with the advancing Red Army, he was recaptured by German forces and sent west on a Nazi “Death March.” It was then he discovered the power of “extra-verbal communication.” He also lost two brothers in the war, both, like him, renegade spirits who didn’t share Henri’s luck. The sounds he creates, then–from vibrating nose hairs, to farts, hisses, and labial snaps–become profound expressions of human existence, made possible, perhaps, by his very own humanity having been called into question. Beyond the obvious quirk and hilarity in his work, there lies beneath a deeply poignant creative act.
Much of his library (around 500 books) is catalogued and available for study, and his amazing archive forthcoming.
New from Yale Univeristy Press
An exciting archive came to auction in 2009: the papers and personal effects of Anna Catherine Bahlmann (1849–1916), a governess and companion to several prominent American families. Among the collection were one hundred thirty-five letters from her most famous pupil, Edith Newbold Jones, later the great American novelist Edith Wharton. Remarkably, until now, just three letters from Wharton’s childhood and early adulthood were thought to survive. Bahlmann, who would become Wharton’s literary secretary and confidante, emerges in the letters as a seminal influence, closely guiding her precocious young student’s readings, translations, and personal writing. Taken together, these letters, written over the course of forty-two years, provide a deeply affecting portrait of mutual loyalty and influence between two women from different social classes.
This correspondence reveals Wharton’s maturing sensibility and vocation, and includes details of her life that will challenge long-held assumptions about her formative years. Wharton scholar Irene Goldman-Price provides a rich introduction to My Dear Governess that restores Bahlmann to her central place in Wharton’s life.
Irene Goldman-Price has taught literature and women’s studies at Ball State University and Penn State University. She serves on the editorial board of the Edith Wharton Review and has consulted and taught at The Mount, Edith Wharton’s house museum in Massachusetts. In 2010–2011 she was a visiting fellow at Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, where the Wharton letters are held.
Related Beinecke Collections: Anna Catherine Bahlmann Rapers relating to Edith Wharton; Edith Wharton Collection; Henry James Collection
More about the Collection: Anna Catherine Bahlmann Papers Relating to Edith Wharton
New from the University of Iowa Press: The American H. D., by Annette Debo
In The American H.D., Annette Debo considers the significance of nation in the artistic vision and life of the modernist writer Hilda Doolittle. Her versatile career stretching from 1906 to 1961, H.D. was a major American writer who spent her adult life abroad; a poet and translator who also wrote experimental novels, short stories, essays, reviews, and a children’s book; a white writer with ties to the Harlem Renaissance; an intellectual who collaborated on avant-garde films and film criticism; and an upper-middle-class woman who refused to follow gender conventions. Her wide-ranging career thus embodies an expansive narrative about the relationship of modernism to the United States and the nuances of the American nation from the Gilded Age to the Cold War.
Making extensive use of material in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale—including correspondence, unpublished autobiographical writings, family papers, photographs, and Professor Norman Holmes Pearson’s notes for a planned biography of H.D.—Debo’s American H.D. reveals details about its subject never before published. Adroitly weaving together literary criticism, biography, and cultural history, The American H.D. tells a new story about the significance of this important writer.
Written with clarity and sincere affection for its subject, The American H.D. brings together a sophisticated understanding of modernism, the poetry and prose of H.D., the personalities of her era, and the historical and cultural context in which they developed: America’s emergence as a dominant economic and political power that was riven by racial and social inequities at home.
“In The American H.D., Annette Debo examines the importance of the history and identity of America—in the context of theories of nation-state and nation-building—to H.D.’s artistic vision. Debo’s opening chapters invoke the world into which H.D. was born—a mere generation after the end of the Civil War, a decade after the end of Reconstruction—as characterized by a diverse country defining itself as homogenous. Debo’s analysis of the telling influence of the Harlem Renaissance on H.D.’s work comprises a nuanced reading of H.D.’s study of whiteness itself. A final chapter addressing the fraught relationship between women of H.D.’s class and the concept of nation will take its place as a significant corrective to the field of H.D. scholarship. This magisterial study of H.D. as a quintessentially American writer will forever change how we read and teach this great twentieth-century poet.”—Cynthia Hogue, Arizona State University
“The American H.D. reminds us that the nomadic lives of expatriate modernists contain within their transnational scope a rootedness in the landscapes, literary cultures, histories, and politics of their place of national origin. Doing for H.D. what Wendy Flory’s The American Ezra Pound did for its subject, Debo charts the biographical, political, and literary traces of H.D.’s Americanness. The land- and seascapes of H.D.’s national identity constitute a kind of ‘environmental determinism’ that shapes her literary identifications and placement within an American literary canon that includes Thoreau, Melville, Whitman, Dickinson, and Moore. A valuable addition to the growing corpus of work on H.D., The American H.D. is a thoroughly researched and illuminating examination of the tensions between the exilic and the national as they played out in her life and work.”—Susan Stanford Friedman, author, Analyzing Freud: Letters of H.D., Bryher, and Their Circle