Working across and among languages, media, and art forms, Caroline Bergvall’s writing takes form as published poetic works and performance, frequently of sound-driven projects. Her interests include multilingual poetics, queer feminist politics and issues of cultural belonging, commissioned and shown by such institutions as MoMA, the Tate Modern, and the Museum of Contemporary Arts in Antwerp, and won numerous awards.
Ragadawn is a multimedia performance that explores ideas of multi-lingualism, migration, lost or disappearing languages, and how language and place intersect. Ragadawn is performed with two live voices and recorded elements, outdoors, at dawn, which means the start and end times are location specific. It features song composed by Gavin Bryars, sung by Peyee Chen. Ragadawn premiered at the Festival de la Bâtie (Geneva) and at the Estuary Festival (Southend) in 2016.
You can find more work(s) by Caroline Bergvall at: http://carolinebergvall.com
Also on Soundcloud: https://soundcloud.com/carolinebergvall/ohmyohmy
and Vimeo: https://vimeo.com/carolinebergvall/videos
Her publications include:
• Éclat, Sound & Language, 1996
• Fig: Goan Atom 2, Salt, 2005
• Middling English, John Hansard Gallery, 2010
• Meddle English: New and Selected Texts, Nightboat Books, 2011
• Drift, Nightboat Books, 2014
Jigsaw of traveling languages.
[ominous music plays]
This…is…Phantom Power. Caroline Bergvall.
How does one keep one’s body as one’s own? What does this mean about the relative safety of boundaries. Could I make sure that what I called my body would remain in the transit from other languages, that it would hold this progression into English, and because I didn’t know and wasn’t sure, and since for a great number of people, for an overwhelming number of persons, for an overwhelming a large number of persons for all always growing number of persons. This is far from self evidence. This is not self evidence. This does not apply, this doesn’t even begin to figure, I never knew for sure. Some never had a body to call their own before it was taken away. Somehow the [speaks in norwegian.] Some never had a chance to feel it body as their own before it was taken away. Some never had a chance to know their body before it was taken away. [speaks in norwegian]. Some were never free to speak that body before it was taken up and taken away. [speaks in norwegian]. Some tried their body on to pleasure in it before it was taken up beaten violated taken away [speaks in norwegian] Some had their body for a time that was taken away or parts of it somehow [speaks in norwegian] Some thought they had their body safely then were asked to leave it behind the door or parts of it some little dirty trick how the [speaks in norwegian]. Some hoped they had one safely only to find it had to be left across the border or parts of it [speaks in norwegian]. Some wanted to leave their body behind and couldn’t [speaks in french]. Some could neither take it or leave it behind [speaks in norwegian]. Some are loved at, some are spat out some are dragged into the crowd [speaks in norwegian]. Some bodies are forgotten in the language compounds. Some immense pressure is applied on to the forgetting of the ecosystem some escape from. Some bodies, like languages, simply disappear. [speaks in french]. Some or many are being disappeared [speaks in norwegian]. Some or many disappear. [speaks in norwegian]. Some are many that disappeared arise and some are many of us. [speaks in norwegian]. Some arise in some of us. [speaks in norwegian]. Some arise in some of us, arise in many of us. [speaks in norwegian]. Some arise in some of us, arise in each of us. [speaks in norwegian].
It’s Phantom Power. I’m Mack Hagood here with cris cheek. Cris, that was amazing.
Unusual to hear more than one language inside a poem.
Yeah, and there was something almost liturgical about it. The repetition of certain phrases, the cadences of it reminded me of my childhood in the Catholic Church and given the subject matter really appropriately solemn. Who’s the poet?
Caroline Bergvall. That poem was called “Crop” from her book “Meddle English.” Bervall writes borderlands among languages, materials stories and creative communities into a plural lingual poetics. Translation written into it. So much about the politics of language and the kind of damage that is done to the human, particularly women, in so many different situations disappearing, silencing. We will hear her introduce a piece called “Shake” from her most recent book “Drift out from Night Boat” books. Finally and most extensively, we talk with Caroline Bergvall about an extraordinary new project “Ragadawn.”
I heard in that piece, she was kind of switching between English and another language that I just was completely not familiar with.
Norwegian, and you can claim connections between these languages.
Yeah I could tell sometimes that she was repeating the English line in that language.
She is repeating it as much as one can ever truly repeat in a different language. So you hear spat and then you hear spoot.
Some are loved at, some are spat at, some are dragged into the crowd. [speaks in norwegian].
You hear those kinds of kinships between languages. It’s like a making strange, right? You recognize it. And then what happened? What was that? Did she just make that up?
She’s using, I don’t know, I sort of distortion sound in the background.
[the sound fades in]
It’s like a wash. Which is great thinking about this business of the migration of languages from one place to another, but it’s also injecting noise and that’s very interesting and important too. That sense of signal to noise ratio that we have between and then among languages and among voices.
[the sound continues to play]
Caroline, there’s a deep kind of meditation going on here. Right?
Yeah. It’s funny because if we are not talked about us 20 years ago, I would never ever have used that, because so much of the work might have had a very strong as, you know, embodied sense about it and physicality. So much of it also had to do with sexual identity and much more singular eyes bodies, and that the idea of the wounding, it’s not something that I was talking about in relation to healing. I was much more perhaps interested in the wounding, you know, in the in the wounds that we all have to go through in order to come to an understanding and an acceptance of the way we can build ourselves in the world. Whereas now there’s especially in [inaudible] that perhaps also in the final piece in “Drift” the rise of melody at the end of “Shake.”
[music and sounds play, very peaceful]
*speaks in norwegian*
[sounds and music fade out]
I really liked her delivery.
I liked that too.
Highly performative and it doesn’t have that detached you maybe call it poet voice? I get the sense that this is a poet that might appeal to poetry novices like myself.
That would be great. She would like that a lot. It’s not an arcane world, Mack, we’ve had the Black Arts Movement, poetry and jazz. We have the spoken word scene, which is massive. I think many people are exposed to more poetry than they realize, maybe more poetry then. they would like.
Well, I certainly listen to a lot of hip hop.
All right, cris, let’s talk about Ragadon. What’s the experience that the audience has?
The audience needs to be facing the rising sun. The performance occurs the hour of dawn.
Sitting outside, not in a theater space in a conventional sense. The darkest hour is just before the dawn as Bob Dylan said. They are watching the light appear in the sky and the day beginning in that sense of dawn. At the same time as they are listening to a combination of speech and song and the places in between.
The poetry that had come from the Middle East across the sea to Spain and also Sicily and that much later on became this troubadour, this first macular love poetry and then since then, has become all these other traditions. That travel, that love poetry did is what I’m thinking about. Also, when I’m thinking about community connection, how do we speak love today? How would we want to do that? And then how do we face the day together? So, I’m using the love poetry as part of the historic ,trans historic, geographical trajectory that I want to do that, that the work is also taking. So it’s that poetic heritage of singing the poem and of playing it or being musicians and of traveling across all these different languages and cultures across all these centuries also has created the absolute logic that holds this project together.
What conditions are you looking forward to be able to stage your performance of Regadon?
Well, east facing for the audience. That’s the early absolute condition and ironically, living in cities or even elsewhere. That’s not always easy to find, because the second is not a condition that is a strong sort of claim that I like to make is the fact of the type of space that it is. So that the way this where we are when the sun rises, basically is an important aspect of the work as well. In Geneva, what happened is that we could have died on the lake, which we’ve done as a very first performance of it in 2015, because there’s a tradition of morning song and morning concerts dawn concerts they call them actually in Geneva on the lake and it’s, it’s stunning. It’s so beautiful, you know, the light is pink is just fantastic.
That beautiful cafe where it says “poet.”
Exactly, it’s exactly where that is, so what we did then is that we’re really thinking where to go, for quite a while. Then in the end, we did it at the Museum of the Red Cross, which overlooks the UN building, and then further away you’ve got the mountains and the more blind you know, and it’s the stunning aspect of Switzerland. The power is there. The still and solid power of many sites and many sounds. And at the same time, the very strong international, institutional politics that you have in Geneva. So these are the conditions that it is facing and then aside that carries a type of history that will make people also feel that they can and want to come you know that is not sort of a locked in space where the ritual takes place to just a few sort of art lovers that actually that it’s open it in the type of venue and advertise in such a way that they want to come there as part of that morning basically. [speaks in norwegian].One of the aspects when it comes to the to the morning song is also the fact of me thinking about community, the disappearance of shared rituals as we know and shared secular rituals as well. So that apart from going to music concerts or festivals or there’s a lot of sort of ancient rituals that are manifested through still these these wider, bigger festivals that I was thinking very much about something that’s more intimate and was longing for this type of temporary community that can be created out of that. I was thinking a lot about isolation and the sort of suicide hour which is at the breaking points, in the early morning. I was thinking about all that in relation to traditions of morning song and dawn rituals.
[opera singing and light breeze is heard]
I asked Caroline Bergvall if she could talk a little bit about working on this project with a composer Gavin Bryars.
Well, he accepted my invitation because all I wanted from him was vocal work. I only wanted him to write one song and he got very interested in that idea that he would be invited into this type of work and that he would literally only write a song and of course, I sent him my text and when we met the first time he showed me his schools and he’d written songs for everywhere put a question mark a song, he’d written a song. What has been amazing since then I have to say is that he has let me do with it exactly what I wanted. I’ve been very very very careful to always ask him to always seek out what do you think how is a bit actually have also come to realize that he is very happy to trust the work and I told him I don’t think I want to use that bit of song and he said oh, that’s totally fine. Then he’s saying we don’t need to sing it like that, that we can do it in that way. Then we look at that together. So he’s been the most generous I have to say, person to work with because he’s given me very beautiful work which is extremely lyrical in the sense of song, allowing me to to build my performance. Then just to play his song at the heart of it. He’s very generous collaborator and what we’re doing now is that we are planning an evening song an evening work together, and that’s wonderful.
[the evening piece is played, then fades out.]
Your description of of what this performance is like. I mean, I really am once again, getting that sense of a ritual.
She’s talking about secular ritual. I think that’s an important aspect to emphasize here. ritual in relation to the structure of the day has been a hugely important aspect of people’s lives.
Yeah, And it’s one that has been completely restructured and detached by capitalism and modernity, from our by our rhythms. We have electric light at the night and we have all kinds of sleep problems to to show for it. That sense of ritualistic connection to the world is really lacking. Even for those of us who aren’t religious, don’t want to be religious, but are maybe, particularly for those of us. So I really like this idea that she’s trying to create some kind of secular religious space. I even think about music and the way that these huge festivals have replaced seeing bands on a more regular basis. These bands aren’t even allowed to come to your local town, because they’ve played a major festival 200 miles away within the last six months. So contractually, they can’t come play the small club at your town. You have to sort of gorge yourself on music once or twice a year. Then it’s kind of not around so much depending on where you live.
When I was looking for some of the other realities of the work and it took me a long time to find it. When I finally hit on it, it just cut all the way back into this idea of setting up shared space with strangers and thinking about ancient rituals and sort of the the idea of the temporary community in relation to that. This idea of languages’ presence in our localities, but that we might not be for many different reasons that our communities or that communities are sort of always exercising or silencing and number of languages. And then of course, we know why. I mean, there’s a lot of prejudice as we know and racism towards a lot of immigrant communities for a long time, the degrading of ancient local languages, you know, Welsh and local dialects that also had been sort of slowly disappearing. So, there was also that sense then a reclaiming the sights of languages. Suddenly you have the different sides piling on your have the geographical political side you have there is going to have some kind of a direction, the time of year and a direction for the rising sun is going to have a time in the morning where people will come. There is the soil, the ground or the sounding or the non sounding of languages around wherever we are that I wanted to bring out.
[another calm piece is played. A woman softly sings then chants]
When you are standing outside and you know about the windrush.
The MV Empire Windrush arrived at Tilbury docks, in Essex, the 22nd of June 1948, bringing workers from Commonwealth countries, effectively, British colonies as a response to post war, labor shortages.
[another piece is heard with running water in the background]
You also know that it’s one of the biggest sort of sea communities in the countries are located there. And then you suddenly hear some Punjabi and the work and you have that he stays some taking place in the sort of fairly deprived areas where you have a lot of conditions that are already in place before the work has even started. Before the work is even being performed it has already set up so many different conditions that people are aware of a lot of aspects. That more people that are less expected as audiences can find their way to the work.
[another piece plays. A man’s chanting is echoing and a woman is speaking.]
Recordings are extremely different, very very different. One was sort of an open scape in Geneva. Very open with forests around and hard buildings and a glass building behind us. Quite a hard sound and then the one in England in South San which was literally on the water and along platform so very very different sound.
[people discussing something, hard to make out any words in the conversation. Chanting underneath.]
That is the nature of site specific work and it’s especially when you have so much language in there like not even my language, but the language of all these languages that I’m currently recording, that I want to find some sense that it’s not just all good. That sounds great hey you know I don’t understand a word of it. That for somebody who speaks Romaje, who speaks Punjabi. They can say there’s something to grasp as much as the way we might have handled it sonically. So absolutely it will create a weird jigsaw of iterations of language. Languages place in more dominance than in other sites perhaps, and then the size themselves.
[woman whispering words]
So a lot of what I’m telling you is embedded in the project of the word and the trajectory of the word. Honestly what makes it to the surface of its texts is not from my voice. It could be that it gets much more on earth by the voices of the conversations and the other languages because we can hear the tonalities of spoken languages, so that creates that other jigsaw of traveling languages basically. For my part, I felt that what is it that I would like to hear in the early morning and when you talked about the word healing, where there was something about this idea of self care and this idea of meeting the day. In the shape that we have, which is this physical energetic shape of body and mind etc. I was really thinking about this this very strong ritual performative language which is the language of mantras.
[a mantra is heard, repeating sounds and voices.]
There’s a lot of use inside of what I’ve heard of Ramadan breath. Closely, mic breath, breath rhythm, that sense of breathing space. The quote that I wrote down was by what degree of awareness do I appear to appear.
[a woman is heard singing, a poem is read]
Which I think is wonderful both in terms of language and in terms of sound and light.
Thank you. That is one of the few texts of the work actually and he is part of this section called Awake. The song around that, there’s a lot of breath obviously because of thinking about mantras early morning, waking up, getting the body in action and then also for me. I’ve been pursuing an interest in breathing as a connector in private practice since a few years now and there was this one piece called Together which was commissioned by the Museum of Contemporary Art in Geneva for Art’s birthday in a mid January every year. That was going to be broadcast again, in a non English context, although being an English based writer or writing in English. So I think a lot about what are the connectors in language that we have, apart from articulate sounds that might be differential? Well, of course, breathing, which marks the syntax as much as it marks the fact that we breathe all the time while we listen, while we’re speaking. The speaking is often based in slow exhalation. These together are based on that where breathing is an explicit part of the work. When I read those live, I’ve taught myself how to read it now, and I can read it for about 10 minutes. But what is extraordinary about that is that I start reading it when, I can see where the breath goes in the crowd. Now some people get very agitated. Overall, people get really like, you can see the breathing gets tight, starts to take over the listening. It’s difficult to explain, but it’s basically I can hear and feel everybody’s breathing. When I can feel it, then that’s when the rhythm of the other piece changes completely, because it really moves into that sense of a breathing that becomes this thing we all share, which is the space of breathing. So that was a very important piece for me, because I found myself for the first time speaking, I mean with no voice sound, and literally just breathing the piece with people.
So listen to where Caroline puts the breath in the shaping of this phrase and hum or sing along with her. She plays us out.
[the breathing piece is played]
One step at a time, one kiss at a time, one action at a time, one and one and one and one, doing it together, doing it together, doing it together, doing it together, doing it together, doing it together, doing it together, doing it together, doing it together, doing it together, doing it together, doing it together. doing it together doing it together, doing it together doing it together, together, together, together, doing it together, doing it together (repeats this several times).
[a low hum is heard, in time with the chanting, then fades]
[surreal music fades in]
And that’s it for another episode of Phantom Power. Thanks to Caroline Bergvall for coming on the show. This episode made use of work in progress on site recordings in Geneva and London, from the song poem: Ragadon. Concept text and performance by Caroline Bergvall. Songs by Gavin Bryars, sung by P E Chen with live sound compositions from Nick Rothwell and sound engineer Sam Grant. We also heard Up We Get created with David Scrifary for the introductory section of the solstice performance love song in 2015. We also heard Together Doing It: Breath and Voice piece in three parts, and Gio on bass clarinet commissioned by the Mamcode Museum in Geneva, and Aspouse Two: National Swiss Radio, produced by Ann Gio. We also heard AOSIS, first created for the city and the city at Wood Street Galleries Pittsburgh, to accompany a wall of broadsides from middling English, recorded at All Saints Chapel, Blackheath. We also heard Shake, texts by Caroline Bergvall, sound and live percussion by Enger Zach. You can find a link to Caroline Bergvall’s website, learn more about Phantom Power and find transcripts and previous episodes of the show all at phantompod.org. You can also subscribe to our show there or wherever you get your podcasts and we’d love it if you’d rate review us on apple podcasts. You can also find us on Facebook and Twitter @Phantompod. Thanks to our intern Gina Moravec. Phantom Power is produced with support from the Robert H and Nancy J. Blaney endowment, the Miami University Humanities Center, and the National Endowment for the Humanities.
[song fades out]