Henri Chopin: Avant-garde pioneer of sound poetry
- Towards the end of the second world war, Henri Chopin, who has died
aged 85, escaped from a forced labour camp in Olomouc, in what is now
the Czech Republic, after it had been bombed. He then spent time with
the advancing Red Army, until, recaptured by the Germans, he and
inmates of concentration and extermination camps were sent west on a
Nazi "death march".
Thousands died on those journeys and it was then that he listened to
the voices of his fellow marchers, sounds which would infuse his work
for the rest of his life. In the 1950s Henri created sound poetry,
capturing breaths and cries made by his voice and body. He was, said
his friend William Burroughs, an "inner space explorer", but the
Frenchman remained a solitary figure, outside any artistic grouping,
almost the only exponent of his art, and almost certainly the only
poet to record sounds and movements by swallowing a microphone. He
then remixed the results in recording studios in France, and,
following the route of his performances, in Sweden, Germany and Australia.
Taking account of the smallest sounds - like vibrations of his nasal
hair - he turned them into the likes of Les Vibrisses, a vast musical
and poetic fresco. Henri created more than 100 audio poems, recorded
on many discs, including Pêche de Nuit (1957-59), which became the
soundtrack of the eponymous film by the Belgian artist Luc Peire in
1962, Vibrespace (1963), Throatpower (1974), Le Corpsbis (1983), Les 9
Saintes Phonies (1984-87) and the oratorio Copernic & Co (2007).
Henri's work was born in the wake of the French avant-garde movement
lettrisme, a next step after Dada and surrealism. He published his
first volume, Signes, in 1957. In 1964 he created OU, one of the most
notable reviews of the second half of the 20th century, and he ran it
until 1974. OU's contributors included Burroughs, Brion Gysin, Gil J
Wolman, François Dufrêne, Bernard Heidsieck, John Furnival, Tom
Phillips, and the Austrian sculptor, writer and Dada pioneer Raoul
Hausmann. Henri was one of the few people who went to visit Hausmann
in Limoges and he published him, establishing a historic bond to Dada.
Henri was born in Paris, one of three brothers, and the son of an
accountant. Both his siblings died during the war. One was shot by a
German soldier the day after an armistice was declared in Paris, the
other while sabotaging a train.
Henri started work, aged 12, in a hardware store in 1934. In 1940,
with the fall of France, he became one of the refugees heading out of
Paris for the south. This pattern of running and hiding carried on
Arriving back in Paris in 1945, he took many jobs, but, unable to make
a living, enlisted in the army in 1948. He was sent to fight in
Indo-China. Invalided out with malaria in 1952, he began working in
Longueil Annel, in northern France, with delinquent youngsters. It was
then that he married Jean Ratcliffe, who was working in France after
graduating in French from Manchester University. His books included Le
Dernier Roman du Monde (1971), Portrait des 9 (1975), The
Cosmographical Lobster (1976), Poésie Sonore Internationale (1979),
Les Riches Heures de l'Alphabet (1992) and Graphpoemesmachine (2006).
Henri also created many graphic works on his typewriter: the
Typewriter poems (also known as dactylopoèmes) feature in
international art collections such as those of Francesco Conz in
Verona, the Morra Foundation in Naples and Ruth and Marvin Sackner in
Miami, and have been the subject of Australian, British and French
From 1968 to 1986 Henri lived in Ingatestone, Essex, but with the
death of Jean in 1985, he moved back to France. Seven years ago, with
his health failing, he returned to England, living with his daughter
and family at Dereham, Norfolk. Henri was considered by many a new
Antonin Artaud, but head and shoulders above that French playwright,
poet, actor and director. At the time of his death, he was in his
wheelchair still performing works, which will remain great memories
for those who heard him.
He is survived by his daughter Brigitte and son Denis.
Henri Chopin, poet and artist, born June 18 1922; died January 3 2008
Frédéric Acquaviva Tuesday February 5, 2008 The Guardian