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The Phoneme Choir at St. Mark’s Poetry Project
This past Friday at St. Mark’s Church I attended choreographer Daria Fain’s and poet-designer Robert Kocik’s performance of “Re-English,” a work they have conceived and directed with their Phoneme Choir. The Phoneme Choir participants on Friday night included many from the chorus’ previous performances at Governor’s Island–for their Lower Manhattan Cultural Counsil’s “space” grant last winter/spring–and before that for performances at the LAB Gallery in mid-town, and at the Movement Research Festival hosted by Judson Church: Christina Andrew, Lorene Bouboushian, Chun-Chen Chang, Hazuzi Homma, Akira Ito, Masumi Kishimota, Dora Koimtzi, Athena Kokoronis, Marisa Michelson, Mina Nishimura, Peter Sciscioli, Kensaku Shinohara, Samita Sinha, Despina Stamos, Larissa Velez, and Kota Yamzaki.
As I have written elsewhere of the Phoneme Choir:
While the Phoneme Choir may have any number of effects, its most basic intention is two-fold. On the one hand, the Phoneme Choir provides a means of healing by drawing upon a confluence of ancient practices, including techniques from East and South East Asia, the Middle East and ancient Greece. On the other, it presents a radical assault on the English language in particular, inasmuch as Kocik and Fain recognize English as a language rooted in militaristic, mercantile and utilitarian endeavors. As Kocik polemicizes throughout much of his recent writing on the English language’s evolution in relation to American democracy: “English has never been the speech of a free people.” If the current economic, ecological and security crises are consequences of the properties and propagation of the English language, by embodying the rudiments of the language and opening it to new inherences the Phoneme Choir provides a ready toolbox to remedy empire.
Writing of his libretto for “Re-English,” in a hand-out compiled for the performance on Friday, Kocik has this to say:
English is an incredibly agile, absorptive language that can bear all the love anyone has to give —that can give all the love anyone can bear. Still, it can be argued that English has never been the speech of a free people. Is English an inherently commercial, mercenary, duplicitous tongue, or is that just human nature? Given the means and opportunity, who wouldn’t choose to rule the world? RE-ENGLISH asks, given our history, why have we not done otherwise? RE-ENGLISH posits that today’s economic, ecological, security and inequity crises are direct consequents of the sonic and connotative qualities of superpower English. By means of choreoprosodia (the fusion of movement and prosody) the [Phoneme] Choir draws upon hormone hymns, phonemic emanation, the lost optative mood, phonic garlands, movement amulets, a reparative narrative, blessings, dispellings, outright bad-english and even poetry in order to re-tune, atone, detox, and de-lude, imbuing our tongue with heretofore unheard of inherences, moods, admixtures, and admonishments.
Something which strikes me seeing the Phoneme Choir perform together for the fourth time, is to what extent the group has perfected their blend of movement/dance, song, and gestural/proto-semantic poetry (what Kocik refers to as “prosody,” “phonemics,” and “choreoprosodia”). At certain moments the work’s ‘development’ would seem entirely dependent on movement and choreography; or, on the other hand, some combination of recitation and song. Yet the whole piece culminates at a few different moments in a kind of controlled frenzy in which moving bodies, voices/sound, and word (loosely defined) would seem to become interdependent–coextensive, coeval. In the tradition of the “total work,” Fain’s and Kocik’s somatic opera–one I would argue approaches the scale and virtuosity of a Meredith Monk, Laurie Anderson, or Robert Ashley–seems something both old and new for poetry. A return to things Greek–a Dionysian atmosphere redolent with 60s theatre and intermedia performance. But also a new way to conceive of poetry through modes of collaboration and group process in the interest of mutual care, healing, and a radical re/channeling of both proprioceptive and proto-linguistic energies. For a taste of Fain’s and Kocik’s choir, I encourage you to take a look at the video footage compiled (below) from the performance at St. Mark’s Church for the Poetry Project’s Friday Night Series (currently hosted by Brett Price).