Liner Notes from Mendi + Keith Obadike present Crosstalk – Bridge Records 9285

Crosstalk: Blurred Boundaries in American Speech Music

One of the most surprising shifts in American music and literature of the last thirty years may not be the rise and fall of high level improvisation in the popular sphere, the dominance of digital tools, or the boom in self-publishing but, instead, the unlikely prevalence of recorded speech-based artworks between music and literature. Different nodes in this field of activity have been called many things over the years, including “spoken word”, “text-sound”, “rap”, and “sound poetry”. How did we arrive at this moment where a form of speech music (hip-hop) would dominate our popular radio, films, and corporate advertising campaigns, while recording studios would produce literature as influential as that produced by our major publishing houses? Some say this is what happens when griots go pop; others blame it on the avant-garde.



The centuries old practices of the griots are an obvious precursor to the best of popular hip-hop. Meanwhile, another commonly repeated history traces contemporary American avant-garde speech music to early twentieth century European Futurist experiments with sound, which were developed in search of onomatopoetic utterances that could invoke the sounds of war. Sometimes a tradition is traced to Hugo Ball's search for "verse without words". But the early part of the twentieth century also produced the musico-poetry of the Negritude movement. In the US, the poet Langston Hughes not only created poetic forms based on the moods and structures of blues and jazz, but also developed his own talking music by performing with musical groups. In Cuba, Hughes' colleague Nicolás Guillén was collaborating with composers and creating a poetic form based on the Cuban son. He was also crafting language in his poems to recall the sounds of African drums, a gesture linked both to the Negritude / negrismo movement (in which writers in the Americas were valorizing African sounds and excavating African roots of European languages) and to the Spanish jitanjáfora movement (in which writers were making up words and exploring the possibilities of poetry in the sounds of the language alone). Such overlap in the experimentation with the music of speech has always come from a variety of communities with different interests and investments in the experiments. We call this overlap crosstalk – after the term used to describe the bleeding of signals across audio channels.


The proliferation of communities experimenting with speech and music in the United States during the 1960s and 70s created an environment for more crosstalk. The Swedish collective Fylkingen founded a "text-sound" festival that generated a great deal of original work that traveled as far as to the west coast of the United States. American composers working in university-based computer music studios, such as Paul Lansky and Charles Dodge, were using speech synthesis to investigate the possibilities of spoken utterances in music. At the same time, there were popular and avant-garde poetry ensembles such as the Last Poets and Watts Prophets, and solo artists including Sonia Sanchez and Jane Cortez, who ushered in new modes of performance and reinvented the role of the griot in African-American culture. Ghanaian musician Koo Nimo, (who studied as a member of the Asantehene's court) brought his own form of speech music to the US in collaboration with the Smithsonian institute in the 1970s, while King Sunny Ade electrified and exported Nigerian talking drums to American shores. Meanwhile, Steve Reich translated his phasing concepts from his early speech loops to drums and set the stage for his later theater works. The influence of sounds that were at some points in pop music parlance called "third world" and at others called "world music" on the American music scene blossomed in the 1970s with innovative musical/literary works by dub artists Linton Kwesi Johnson and Mutabaruka, among many others. Whether the traditions were homegrown or imported, much of the interdisciplinary work in the United States during this period originated in collaborative communities, such as Chicago's Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians and the St. Louis-based Black Artists' Group.

This period also produced criticism that blurred boundaries between speech and song, or between literature and music, for a variety of reasons. For example, in an essay entitled "The Blues as Black Poetry", critic Stephen Henderson argued that in the context of contemporary black poetry, for which he found blues music to be a characteristic element, "many of the usual distinctions made between poetry and prose and poetry and song are often meaningless”. In a related move, artist one might argue that a work is "basically musical, but also poetry".

In 1975, composer / producer Charles Amirkhanian and Thomas Buckner's 1750 Arch records released a ground breaking survey of American talking music entitled 10+2:12 American Text-Sound Pieces. 10+2 emerged just before the bloom of hip-hop and was coterminous with the popularity of spoken songs by The Last Poets. (This album was later re-released in 2003 with a brief introduction by Amirkhanian that mentions related forms of speech music that had emerged since the 1975 release.) By the early 1980s, American talking music had produced a few international superstars of its own, including Laurie Anderson and Gil Scott Heron. This important work anticipated America's broad acceptance of hip-hop – speech music's most commercial mode.


One of the goals of Crosstalk is to consider how our ways of listening to American speech music across genres have changed since hip-hop brought speech music to the mainstream. We began a conversation with other artists who have worked with speech from the 1970s to the present about speech music made in this era. Their musical responses to our request varied due to their different relationships to speech music. While some of the artists on this project might describe their work as hip-hop or closely related to it, others were simultaneously working in older genres or parallel streams. Despite some differences in origin there are a few common practices in the group.

One common practice is the doubling of the voice with other instruments or mimicry of the voice. In some works (such as "Morning Blues for Yvan" and “Redemption Chant 2.0”), we hear instruments mimic human voices. Conversely, in other works, we hear the reverse situation; musicians “play” human voices in the ways they might play some other instrument.

A number of artists make use of repeated or reordered utterances to emphasize or change the contexts for the meanings of a given word, or sometimes whole narratives. In some cases, the repetition of entire narratives emphasizes a specific aspect of the narrative (such as the rhythms or melodies in the recorded speech), reveals more information about the narrative (by altering the processing or the order of presentation), or simply encourages new understandings of the original performance or text by allowing it to go by again. The repeated performance of the text makes a judgment by enacting the difference from everyday speech.

This difference is due in part to the third recurring practice: the use of extended vocal techniques. Many of the pieces presented here alter everyday rhythms and melodies of our spoken language(s) by crossing the border from speech to singing, by functioning primarily as rhythm, or by employing some other musical mode, such as yodeling. In some works, these techniques estrange the text from the everyday. When Hirsch holds on to the vowels or esses in the language of "In The Basement", for example, she emphasizes both the passion and the musicality within her spoken narrative. When the drummer and sound artist Guillermo E. Brown rhymes in an invented language in "ElectroPrayer 5.0", however, the familiar vocal runs orient listeners and the emotional information translates where semantic meanings cannot.

Perhaps the most common practice is the extrication of the meanings from the sounds of speech. Most works presented here take as a given that sounds hold musical information, and that the rhythms, textures, and melodies of speech communicate whether or not the words in a spoken language can be understood. Some works begin with obscured text that gradually becomes more legible, and some begin with legible meanings that are eventually obscured. In both directions, the practice of extricating meanings from sounds, or even reuniting them, often depends on the use of other practices mentioned here: the pairing of the voice with other instruments, the repetition or reordering of phrases, and the extended vocal techniques.

There are also practices involved in the making of these works that do not fit so neatly with other artists' processes, and the common practices are no more important than the uncommon ones. Ultimately, we hope that you let your ears guide you through the linguistic and musical intersections and tributaries presented here. It is our belief that by listening to speech music across genre and generation we can come to a better understanding of this musical practice in America.

Mendi + Keith Obadike

NYC 2008