Donna Zapf: Certainly Hugo Ball and others, Kurt Schwitters’ sound poetry, Dada, early 20th century – going back to the early part of our conversation it seems to me it was a successful revolution. Once having done the Ursonata, there was no taking that back.

Christopher Butterfield: That’s a great idea! Once something’s been proposed there no way you can take it back. The only thing I would say to that is it’s very hard to talk about currents in culture at all because they’re operating at a level of complexity that we can only hazard a guess at. The Ursonata proposes a whole set of possibilities for performance, for language, for what poetry is, for what form is. Although as somebody once put it, the Ursonata is probably the most perfect example of sonata form ever written. But the crazy thing is that if it were a piece of music, we wouldn’t know about it – it would be boring because it’s so perfect. The sonata form becomes an organizing system that shapes nonsense into something that is heard, seen, felt – for me the Ursonata involves the entire sensorium.

DZ: Another way of thinking about the Ursonata is that, in its brilliant way, it demonstrates an incommensurable difference between language and music. What we call the sonata process in music is concerned with harmonic “territories” and memory. Here, even this amazing work of sound poetry can’t follow. Perhaps an instance of the untranslatable, and something entirely new.

CB: Is it possible though that the best poetry delivers an affect equivalent to music, a way of expressing the ineffable – I’ve always stayed away from setting poetry to music, thinking that the best poetry contains quite enough music on its own. Richard Strauss set dreadful poetry to music, with extraordinary results, for example the song Morgen, op. 27 no. 4, in which he takes maudlin verse by John Henry Mackay and makes something extraordinary. But it’s always been one of those ironies that the most memorable songs often have second-rate lyrics.
But back to Ursonata: a curious fact about Dada in art and poetry and writing is that what could have been a completely ephemeral entertainment and could have been a weird little blip on the radar instead becomes this very quiet bell that resonates louder and louder through the century. You could say that even though he never acknowledged himself as a member of Dada, Duchamp was the great guarantor of Dada, of that way of thinking about something which takes an absurd position and treats it very seriously. So these things that people at the time thought would simply disappear without a trace continue to resonate. You can also say that the history of the 20th century is violent enough and absurd enough and out of control enough that it needs a complementary movement in art and that Dada is the perfect match because it just gives absurdity back to absurdity. . . .

Listen to Christopher Butterfield's brilliant performance of Kurt Schwitters’

Photo: © Sprengel Museum Hannover, Kurt Schwitters Archive