The Prose Tattoo;

Selected Performance Scores
of the Four Horsemen

(Rafael Barreto-Rivera, Paul Dutton,
Steve McCaffery, and bpNichol)







The Four Horsemen Sound Poetry Performance Group dedicated itself to live performance, sometimes to the point of limiting what could be recorded, both in audio and video media. Much of the group's best work was performed without a score; some of its most interesting scores did not chart its best performances.

As we prepared The Prose Tattoo for publication, bpNichol, in consultation with the other members of the group, and I carried on a running discussion of what would work in the book, what might falsify or otherwise get in the way of live performance, what was the relationship between each score and visual poetry, and other questions that arose from the nature of scoring. That it took bp a year to write the book's introduction suggests some of the deliberation that went not only into the introduction but also into selecting scores to publish.

While the book was in progress, we also began a series of audio tapes, intended to present solos by each member, and a fifth tape of the group in rehearsal. This final tape was meant to suggest the incomplete nature of any recording. The three tapes that were produced are still available. Paul Dutton has continued to record, a major figure among North American sound poets, both as soloist and contributor to other performance ensembles. A brief discography follows the introductions. For the recordings of The Horsemen ensemble, as well as out of print and out of press publications of all sorts by the members of the group, your best bet is probably Damian Lopes's Prose and Contexts catalogues.

Now that bp's gone, and the other Horsemen have gone their separate ways, these scores become part of an incomplete record of a poetry of seemingly boundless enthusiasm and invention. On one level, the scores supplement the group's audio and video recordings. On another, the scores may be useful for other performance artists and sound poets in scoring their own work. On yet another, they give some clues as to the working methods and orientation to performance of the group at the time of publication. Some of the scores, particularly "The Room (A Valentine) Winter's Day" and "The Oldest Voice In The World," function very well as visual poetry, though this should be seen in context of bp's insistence on authors' intention, making a clear distinction between these scores and poems conceived as visual poetry.

At the end of his introduction, bp says that performance artists must gain permission via his address or in care of me. Well, I wish I could believe in Oidja Boards or Mediums -- I'd like to be able to get in touch with bp. If you want to try performing any of these scores, you might try contacting one of the surviving members of the group.

- Karl Young




One of the first problems confronting the group when we formed, after having gone thru the orgastic preliminaries of screaming our guts out in free-form improvisation, was an issue of notation (& hence structure). We wanted to find a way to write down certain more complex pieces we had ideas for where, tho elements are improvised, other elements were fixed. In acoustic sound poetry there is no fixed tradition of notation. Vive la liberté but vive la certain limitations. We were moving into the whole area out of poetry, not out of music or theater, tho some of us had experience in these forms, and we wanted "readable" texts as an element in performance. Not exclusively but we wanted them there.

Hence the birth of the grid. We no longer remember who came up with it. Like many things in the group it probably began with one person but has been worked with & adapted so that it now belongs to the group. Going thru the earliest texts (ones we performed at our first public reading) the idea is there in everybody's handwriting. "Coffee Break," "Poem No. I," "Seasons," & the not included "A Motive for Metaphor," different graphings by different hands, all use the grid. The early graphing of "Seasons"

shows some of the problems we were up against. It looks more like a flow chart & was very hard to follow. But does that mean that "Seasons" was first? Probably not. But I think that's the version of the story I like best, because "Seasons" was the first group composition. Everybody wrote for it & the recorded version of the piece remains one of the most interesting pieces we've done. And it makes sense, this origin story, because the complexity of the piece means we would have had to come up with a workable notation system to even compose it. So let's say that's the "official" version & go on from there.

The grid has not been our sole method of notation. Like most acoustic sound poets we have used Raoul Hausmann's notion of optophoneticism-sound reading/interpretation of spatially organized text. Hence compositions like "Sixteen Part Suite" & "The Room (A Valentine) Winter's Day." But does this make the scores "visual poems"? In the strict sense no. They are meant to be read aloud &, indeed, in some cases we have deliberately worked against the "pictorial" sense of page in order to foreground the texts' compositional basis as fixed element in an interactive dialogue with the speakers. We have often taken optophonetic mini-texts & used the grid as a way of organizing them as in "The Dreams Remain." And, of course, we have used variations on the basic grid in order to achieve different effects, remembering always that both "page" & "grid" are simply conventions.

This raises another point. The movement from page to page, & the movement from rectangle to rectangle in the grid, are used to the same ends - to notate transition points. The grid does not, indeed cannot, dictate pitch, rhythm, duration or any coloration the performer may put on the text. What it does do is define who's doing what when, with whom, & what elements they have to work with. Thus a combination of optophonetic or grid notation systems, old-fashioned memory work, & extensive improvisation (in terms of both abstract sound & dialogue) have been the basic elements in all our performances. This in itself tells you what is missing from this selection, i.e. many of what we think of as our major pieces - "Mischievous Eve," "Stage Lost," "In The Middle Of A Blue Balloon," "Theme," "Tetralogue," "Mixed Metaphors," & "Paul Dutton's Dream." They are not included for the simple reason that they are not notated. Their notation exists only in our minds & in isolated text elements.' And this highlights the compositional reality of the group, which is that the four of us have composed the major pieces. These are the real flowering of our twelve year project in collaboration. The texts offered in this collection (with the exception of "Seasons" & "Schedule For Another Piece") are the ground, individually or collectively offered, from which the major work grew. Obviously then they are central to our work but they are not the center. The center is an ongoing compositional workshop in which the four of us take anywhere from days to years to compose as a group and to which we bring fragmentary fines, half-formed ideas, dreams, works in progress, et cetcra et cetera, and out of which, thru a kind of bricollage, the compositions take shape. For example "In the Middle Of A Blue Balloon" began as a solo piece by Rafael, grew into an expanded exploration of psychosis performed by the group, was then recorded & the recording has now been worked in as an element in the most recent version with Rafael, its originator, standing silently (almost invisibly) in the background as bp & Paul fight in the foreground & Steve appears to be attempting to watch the original piece on a television whose back is toward the audience. The solo version of "Blue Balloon" shows up again as an element in "Final Repetitions" (included in this collection under its earlier title, "Strongarm For Louis"). These short descriptions do not do the performed pieces justice but give you some idea of what can happen to a single text.

I repeat that the group compositions are the major compositions. Obviously they are formed by four individual voices but it is that moment of group identity that we have striven for. In an historical sense then this collection runs the risk of falsifying our history, but then print is an inadequate medium for our ultimate goal. Even phonograph recordings and tapes run this risk, as they remove the living performers from the audience's presence, and freeze what should be an ongoing process. This is part of why we insist that the texts are simply scores, simply the tracking of an oral intention, not, in their intention or most basic form, visual poems. The individual group members as improvisers are what bring the pieces alive, much more so than any "composer" we could identify. Composer is an inadequate term for sound poetry. What you do is set up an intentional framework, a scheme of opportunities. And that is why tho we have listed the authors of particular pieces in the index, this list should not be taken as measure of any one person's contribution to the group. No one is more or less important. We have been and remain four idiosyncratic presences and only the four of us make up the Four Horsemen. Our strength as individual writers can be measured by our individual writing, but our strength as a group is only measurable by what has happened when we have effectively joined our intentions compositionally, &, ultimately, in the final stage of composition - in performance.

If these scores, then, are simply scores for the use of a single performance group, why publish them? Three of the pieces, "Seasons," "Schedule For Another Piece," & "Headspace" are texts which we have developed into performance pieces. Although the performance pieces only exist in performance, the texts remain interesting & readable. A great deal of contemporary concrete poetry has been created primarily for the eye, but readers have found ways to vocalize it, converting into sound what was originally intended as image. Many of our grids & optophonetic scores can be read as secondary visual poems, visual poems that are by-products of group performance, much in the same way that many visual poems, originally intended for the eye, have generated secondary oral readings. Much of the reader's experience with visual poetry can be brought to these scores; in addition, the reading of scores as visual poems can extend the reader's ense of the possibilities of visual poetry in general: imaged sound can fertilize visual poetry in much the same way as visual conventions have stimulated recent performance art. We will be pleased if we have opened doors to further developments in visual poetry thru our performance work. Readers primarily interested or involved in performance art may find many uses for this book: we hope that they include many we have not thought of ourselves. As I said above, our aim has been to set up a scheme of possibilities. Of course, any performance artists wishing to use these scores in their own work must obtain permission from the Four Horsemen. Inquiries should be sent to bpNichol at 98 Admiral Rd./Toronto, Ontario/Canada M54 2L6, or to the Horsemen via the publisher.

January 1982,
January 1983.


Scores presented here:

The Dreams Remain (bpNichol)
Coffee Break (Paul Dutton) [1]
The Room (A Valentine) Winter's Day (Four Horsemen)
I Took You To My Dreams (Paul Dutton)
My Other Use: To Hear (bpNichol)
The Oldest Voice in the World (Paul Dutton) [2]
3 Poems (Arranged by bpNichol)

Discography for these scores:

[1] On Canadada (lp) Griffin House, Toronto, 1972.
[2] On Bootleg Underwhich Cassettes, Toronto, 1981.

Additional Discography:

Live in the West (lp) Starborne Records, Toronto, 1977


bpNichol, Ear Rational; Sound Poems 1970 - 1980 New Fire Tapes, Light and Dust, Milwaukee, 1982

Rafael Barreto-Rivera, Scrabble Babble New Fire Tapes, Light and Dust, Milwaukee, 1984.

Paul Dutton, Blues, Roots, Legends, Shouts, and Hollers [lp, Dutton on one side, P.C. Fencott on the other.] Starborne Productions, Toronto, 1981.
Paul Dutton, Fugitive Forms New Fire Tapes, Light and Dust, Milwaukee, 1986.
Paul Dutton, Decisive Moments Audio CD recording, with CCMC Group, Track & Light Recordings, Toronto, 1994.

Return to Light and Dust Poets.

Web Introduction copyright 1997 by Karl Young.
Original introduction copyright 1983 by The Four Horsemen, and used by permission of Eleanor Nichol.

Light and Dust Mobile Anthology of Poetry.