André Vernier (Altagor)
Altagor was one of the pioneers of postwar sound poetry in Europe and exterted a powerful influence over its development from the 1940s to the 1970s. Fiercely independent, the autodidact poet, musician, composer, broadcaster, and artist sharply contested Lettrist claims to precedence in postwar Paris, and he made a strong impression on leading sound poets like Henri Chopin, who recognized Altagor as perhaps “the only phonetic poet who mounted an invented language of imaginary syllables and phonemes, which he knew to record, served up by a voice in unheard-of timbres.” Ultra-Lettrist François Dufrêne likewise praised his compositions as “the most significant of phonetic poetry.” Almost forgotten today, Altagor’s contribution to the history of contemporary sound poetry remains almost entirely unexplored.
Born André Vernier on February 27, 1915, Altagor grew up in the remote province of Meurthe et Moselle in rural northeastern France, where he started working in the local mines at the age of 14. By the early 1930s, however, he was already composing novels and conventional poetry, but the decisive moment came a decade later with his discovery of “pure vocal/auditive sensations” as raw material for a new form of composition he called métapoésie in 1943. Conceived as an antidote to “utilitarian language,” Altagor’s sound poetry was born out of the trauma of the Second World War. “Do you think believe these sensations, which emanate directly from the living, are without value? Nothing is more profound than this direct language of interior dynamism, organized according to the laws of phonetics with an eye to the maximum expression.” For the next four decades Altagor continued to experiment and refine, devising elaborate systems of notation in complex scores that might easily qualify as some of the earliest and most striking examples of typewriter poetry, recording the behavior of sound frequencies on color-coded diagrams, inventing musical instruments such as the pantophone, designed to interact precisely with timbres of wordless voices in his métapoésies.
Altagor’s commitment to composing with pure accoustic sound quickly led him to explore new technologies in recording studios and radio. As early as 1946, he began preserving “permanent electronic auditions” of his métapoésies, which he broadcast at nearby Radio Lorraine for many years. After moving to Paris, Altagor collaborated with sound engineer, broadcaster, and experimental composer Pierre Schaeffer on various projects, including the 1956 of his 1956 Symphonie métapoésique on Radiodiffusion Française. This pioneering work made a particularly strong impression on Henri Chopin, who had met Altagor in 1953 and worked with his wife, Maguy Lovano, on his first studio recordings and broadcasts at Radio Lausaunne. Meanwhile Altagor participated in battles over avant-garde poetry, engaging in loud scuffles with Isidore Isou and the Lettrists, whose claims to precedence in sound poetry he sharply contested. Although unsuccessful in convincing Jean Paulhan to publish his Arguments pour un discours absolu as a counterpoint to Isou’s Introduction à une nouvelle poésie et à une nouvelle musique with Gallimard in the 1950s, Altagor participated in clashes around rival groups such as the Ultra-Lettrists and organized a public confrontation with Isou in 1958. For the rest of the decade and throughout the 1960s Altagor gave countless live performances and readio broadcasts, while working with local studios and record clubs to diffuse his work in Paris and throughout Europe. In the mid-1970s, Cramps Records included his work in an important anthology of sound poetry in Italy, but after this brief moment of notoriety Altagor disappeared from public view and died in obscurity in Paris in 1992.
Altagor was one of the pioneers of postwar sound poetry in Europe and exterted a powerful influence over its development from the 1940s to the 1970s. Fiercely independent, the autodidact poet, musician, composer, broadcaster, and artist sharply contested Lettrist claims to precedence in postwar Paris, and he made a strong impression on leading sound poets like Henri Chopin
Dating from the late 1930s to the mid-1970s, the manuscript and typescript scores for Altagor’s sound compositions are the heart of the archive. Major works such as Simonia, the Métapoésies, and the Poèmes Symphoniques are represented in a multitude of iterations, corrected, drafts, detailed stage directions, and a variety of notational systems. Long theoretical texts are also present, particularly for the poémes symphonistes, in which Altagor situates his work in relation to the controversies surrounding Postwar Surrealism in France. Also noteworthy in this regard is the extensive manuscript of Discours absolu, a book-length study Altagor lobbied Gallimard (unsuccessfully) to publish as a counterpoint to Isidore Isou’s 1947 Introduction à une Nouvelle Poésie et une Nouvelle Musique.
More than 25 notebooks filled with drafts, sketches, drafts of correspondence, and notes for Altagor’s various projects from the early 1950s through the late 1970s. Titled notebooks and entries include “Discours absolu,” “Simonia,” “Transhumanisme et création pure,” “À la recherce des mutants,” “Manifeste Oméga 131,” “Ici Altagor,” “Altagor au rythme de l’instanée,” “Variations sans fin,” and many more.
Reel-to-reel and cassette tapes, vinyl records, and CDs preserving Altagor’s “electronic editions” from at least the early 1950s onwards. Of the roughly 60 reel-to-reel tapes, only a few are dated, but labels and inserts identify recording’s ofAltagor’s major works, including Simonia and the Métapoésies, “Altagor, Anti-Symbol, extra-absolu,” “Monopistes superimpositions,” and various performances of compositions for the pantophone, plectophone, and other instruments. Also worth noting is a 5-volume LP set of experimental music by Pierre Schaeffer, with whom Altagor collaborated on radio broadcasts in the 1950s, released by RTF in 1953 as 10 ans d’essais radiophoniques.
Musical Instruments and Notation
Blueprints, manuscript drafts of designs for musical instruments, color charts showing analysis of frequency interactions, and Altagor’s working prototype of the “pantophone.”
To view a detailed listing of contents for the Altagor Papers and to request materials for consultation in the Beinecke Reading Room, visit the Online Finding Aid.
Acquired from the poet’s family in 2017, the Altagor Papers contain corrected manuscript drafts and typescripts, scores, sound recordings, printed ephemera, photographs, artwork, and a small amount of correspondence, providing surprisingly complete documentation of Altagor’s work from his early novels and conventional poetry of the 1930s through the invention of pure accoustic poetry, or métapoésie, during the Second World War to the theoretical and practical elaboration of his ideas in the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s. While correspondence is sparse, Altagor’s relations with other sound poets and avant-garde movements of postwar Paris are well documented, particularly his stormy encounters with the Lettrists, as is his work with studio recordings and radio broadcasts, aspects of his pioneering work that were particularly important for leading sound poets such as Henri Chopin and François Dufrêne. Altagor’s designs for musical instruments are represented by blueprints, scores, complex analyses of frequency interactions. One of his original instruments, the pantophone, is also included in the archive. A small library of annotated volumes is also present.
Scores and Manuscripts