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Kurt Schwitters’ epic sound poem Ursonate is an enigma that has perplexed scholars for decades, or would have done, had its solution not long been considered a Sisyphean impossibility. ‘It is the primeval sound, at once before and beyond sense. The feeble language of common humanity is powerless to penetrate or paraphrase its depths!’ And yes: even today, this is true. But our technologies augment and extend us. The algorithms of natural language processing create lines of flight to peaks once inaccessible. We may still be too human for Ursonate, but need not be as feebly human as once we were. Thus, out of our heads, and into the machines. Let the machines read Ursonate. Imaginary solutions to imaginary problems have real means. The boulder fills with helium; we float.


01Sonate is constructed using the automatic caption/translate function of YouTube. First a performance is chosen, then the captions are transcribed verbatim. Next proceeds further close listening with reference to the original score in order to align the captions as closely as possible with the original. Finally the captions are inserted, lineated, into the frame of the original score. Linear distribution should follow the original score as closely as possible; however, a degree of creative licence is considered inevitable at this stage. The translation should include punctuation from both original score and captions, except when a lack of textual elements leads to successive punctuation marks, in which case repeated marks may be removed. Upper and lower case should remain in accordance with captions.

Among the numerous performances of Ursonate available online, Christian Bök’s was selected according to spontaneous impulse. Additionally, as one of the few complete Ursonate performances available on YouTube, it is already prepared for translation via the automatic caption/translate function native to that environment. Curiously, the software considers the native language of the performance Italian, therefore the automatic translate function was used to render the captions in English. This accounts for the high frequency of Italianate features in the final score. At this stage, it is not known whether this is an anomaly of Bök’s performance or indicative of a common trend.


The 01Sonate presented here re-scores but one performance of the original score among infinite varieties. Readers are strongly encouraged to produce alternative translations according to various performances, as it is assumed that each will offer a unique and compelling solution to the original Ursonate enigma. It will be noted that the present translation bears the initials of the performer after the title; the author suggests that this pattern is followed for any future translations so as to distinguish each from the other. Ultimately, it might be possible to produce a web-based application that allows the user to compare any number of translations against the original and/or alternative translations, accompanied by audio of the performances.


Christian Bök’s performance, from which the present translation is made, can be found here.
The original score, according to which the present translation is assembled, was retrieved from here.