„A seismographic mapping of the oral cavity“

Martin Lau and the overcoming of language

 By Martyn Schmidt

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Photography: Susanne Soldan

Martin Lau (Berlin / Germany, *1984) is a berlin-based vocalist, soundpoet & improviser who digs deep in the acoustics of the mouth. After having studied literature & performance studies he published a volume of  poetry in 2010, soon to focus on the  performative & sonic side of poetry. In his energetic and uncompromising live-performances he explores the variety and boundaries of human articulation and its conditions. His activities include solo and collaborative performances and recordings in the fields of soundp oetry, noise, free improv & dance.

Listen to: »I« from the album »numen« (atemwerft 2015):

„I don’t care so much if it sounds nice.“

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Would you call your work a sonic work with prelingual signs? How do you view – if applicable to this background – character, structure and attraction of your sound aesthetics?

I don’t think it’s prelingual. It’s rather postlingual. The natural language and with it all the poetic forms are the history to what I do. I like the image that my articulations stay behind a fully developed language, that they exist in between the impulse of the brain and the codification of the sound waves, that there is something very original and natural in them. But in fact they are derived from a deconstruction of a complete natural language, with a linguistic knowledge about the production of sounds and therefore about their variation possibilities, as well as the consideration of what is part of language and what is rather not. I’ve always had the impression that I had to unlearn my feeling for language and my implicit knowledge in order to use the sonic possibilities and not only to imitate known languages phonetically. Therefore it is rather a transgressing of language, an overcoming of language.

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Martin Lau 1

Photography: Susanne Soldan

In a certain way I do sense your work to be prelingual. You 
work and move primarily at a place where the sounds are produced – but language does not happen. You focus on  the mechanics of sound production, you concentrate on an equipment of sound creation. My impression is that it is preliminary to the actual language performance.

You can certainly see it like this. But I believe that it’s hard to get real access to what is actually prelingual. Since it is me who decides to leave out some aspects – and, of course, I do that from the perspective of a fully developed linguistic consciousness. I think what disturbs me is the thought of the original. Because after all it’s something highly artificial what I do. And from that perspective I would say that it’s postlingual. Because I leave out certain things, combine other things and come to new results – as a consequence of my linguistic knowledge.

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The bulk of sound poetry is based on sonority and musicality: plenty of vowels, rhythms, metrics, movements in
the vowel chart. Your approach seems to be completely different?


Photography: Susanne Soldan

Yes. I don’t care so much if it sounds nice. And I don’t make pieces in which I try to point out
phonetic or sonic ideas. Rather anything can happen in any piece. That’s what I call my seismographic mapping of the oral cavity to the point of a form of nomadic articulation, if you want. That means not taking the sound area of language and playing within that range, but scattering articulation across the whole oral cavity; to speak with the most hidden corners. In this sense I would rather distance myself from sound poetry.

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The duration of your individual tracks is significant, they last up to 9 minutes. What is it you are working on during that time? Does dramaturgy become an important factor?

Well, I’m looking for the sounds. They don’t come on purpose. The interesting sounds lie behind what you can access willingly. On the other hand I consciously work into length just to avoid dramaturgy. In the end dramaturgy is the economy of intensities. But what I’m aiming at is the free play of the sounds, the uncontrolled and unpredictable. Therefore, duration is a possibility to leave the controlled area. By the way, when I perform live I improvise up to 30 minutes.

Martin Lau live in Copenhagen, November 2013 – Video by Jesper Dalmose:

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e are lots of sounds in your performance that remind me of animal sounds (e.g. chimps, sea gulls…), the expressions of children, dying or mentally disabled people. Some sound like desperate laughter or crying. In what way is that intended or in what way are you conscious about that?


Photography: Susanne Soldan

It is my declared credo to avoid or to make invalid everything in art that is mimetic or representative. But the continuous work with the voice has made me come to the insight that these separated areas are not that
isolated, sometimes even fall into one. Although my articulations are not at all based on the mimicry of sounds, imitation is quite essential to the acquisition of a language. I am increasingly of the opinion that the mouth is the elementary connection to the world. And not only because we need it for eating. There is a sonic linking to the world. In the same way as e.g. children give vocal motor sounds to their toy cars, our voice is in the world, as you hear my voice in the cry of a sea gull.

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From time to time there is also whistling in your pieces. That’s where you work without the vocal cords, only using the airflow. An action outside of language that comes close to playing an instrument and that implicates musicality. How much music is in your sound poetry?

There is no restriction of the sound material just as I don’t make a distinction between language and music. Eventually I work exactly with the fact that both fall in one. I see neither the necessity nor the possibility to draw the parting line. Besides I actually don’t work with the vocal cords that much. I rather concentrate on the noise production in the mouth.

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Due to its dissociative character, your work will seem to be close to madness to lots of listeners. A language sound that goes lost in the wilderness – but both performer and listener follow this way. How do you experience other people’s perception of your work?


Photography: Susanne Soldan

Yes, it has elements of madness but only to the degree that madness is a state of mind accessible to anyone. At the moment I’m working on co-articulations, that is the articulation of several sounds at the same time, and that indeed has something dissociative. I also work with different modes of articulation to break up the identity-constituting quality of the voice. My body, of which my voice is trace and precondition, consequently becomes a multiple one.

Excerpt of an extensive atemwerft-interview. The conversation between Martin Lau und Martyn Schmidt took place on September 9th and October 13th, 2014.       © atemwerft  2015 / aw 005

Listen to „Numen“ (available as HiRes-Download & CD):  www.atemwerft.de.

CD comes in origami-style cardboard-folder including white canvas paper folder with liner notes, hand-sealed. Release date: 12th july 2015. Black CD in vinyl-look with haptic grooves, hand-stamped. Limited edition: First 33 copies come signed by Martin Lau.

Listen // Buy: www.atemwerft.de

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CD Artwork / Martin Lau »Numen« (Atemwerft 2015)

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