new music-theatre in 3 movements for 5 performers and tape

[2] ZAUM theoretical and descriptive study


ZAUM home
This page contains both theoretical and descriptive information for the composition but also the sociocultural changes in Russia which brough it into existence.



ZAUM Summary [English]

ZAUM Samenvatting [Dutch]

ZAUM Summary [Russian]

[2] ZAUM theoretical and descriptive study

based on the work of the Russian futurist poets
for five performers and tape

composed by Zachar Laskewicz

The first complete performance of Zaum took place in November 1993 Ghent, Belgium as part of The Stekelbees Festival organized by Victoria,
a local theatre group.

Performance details are included below:

direction: Zachar Laskewicz
performers: Anouk De Clercq, Tine Hens, Linde Tilley,
Trui Vereecke & An Vercruysse
choreographic assistance: Kristina Neirynck
production assistance: Herman De Roover & Jan De Pauw
lighting & sound: Piet Depoortere

(notation examples from the full score)

Does music communicate?
Is music a language?
How is musical communication significant to performance theory?
ZAUM poetry can provide us some answers to these questions.
The paragraph below discusses ZAUM poetry and its application in
the work of Zachar Laskewicz.

ZAUM is a type of sound-poetry invented by the Russian cubo-futurists around the turn of the century. This was basically a form of poetic communication that redefined language itself, but not in terms of 'meaning' in the translatable sense: poetry was extended to include non-referential sounds that could nevertheless be e njoyed by themselves, an attitude previously confined to music. The multimedia composer Zachar Laskewicz uses the theory of the ZAUM poets to create a new type of performance language based on musical concepts: theatrical structures are presented in which the performer attempts to communicate with the audience in any array of different communication systems from sign language to Ancient Greek. He uses a combination of text, dance, music, slides, lighting effects and other stage elements to frame the alternative language forms involved n the performance, to render as artificial the communication systems we generally accept without question.



"In the theatre, a line is a sound, a movement is music and the gesture which emerges from a sound is like a key word in a sentence."
- Antonin Artaud

Zaum is the name for a music-theatre composition derived from radical language based concepts introduced during a little understood period of art history close by the turn of the century: Russian Futurism. This composition takes the futurist theory and extends it through various sources of influence that seem in their own way to find connection with the work of these artists, particularly through their interest in the East. The intention is to create a theatrical composition based on an alternative attitude to language where all theatrical and musical elements have the potential to be meaning-bearing vehicles in a type of 'music-language' that is formed within the progress of the composition. A theatrical structure is presented in which five performers move, speak and react to musical and vocal sounds coming from a prerecorded tape. Here the Russian futurist texts are used as the structural basis for the creation of this 'language', the ultimate aim being to present various levels of ambiguity that can provide other possibilities for signification in the theatre.



The complete Zaum composition is a full scale three-movement work for five performers and tape. The tape part is for electronic sounds as well as recordings of the performers themselves, reflecting a connecting series of parallel structures that unite the three movements. These structures connect in a system of sounds and movements that are linked together by musical principles. During the course of the work various ensemble pieces form and unform on stage, sometimes simultaneously, sometimes solo, in order to present different aspects of zaum communication where language is rethought as a musical system. Choreographed movement and interaction between the tape and the live performance plays an important role. The complete duration of the composition is around one hour, each of the three movements lasting about twenty minutes. The zaum texts form the structural basis for the composition, uniting both the gestural, the vocal and the musical communicative forms.

The most important thematic element underlying Zaum is the use of texts that at first glance appear to be 'meaningless' in that they can not be translated into another language system. This gives the composition freedom to explore alternative ways of looking at 'meaning' and more particularly to explore the relationship between sound, meaning and music: can music be considered a language? It also opens the discussion of extending musical discourse by relating the musical structures to movements and spoken vocal patterns. Although the texts seem to be to a large extent 'meaningless', there is actually nothing in this composition without 'meaning' or 'purpose'. The texts are used in contrasting ways to present different aspects of meaning-bearing performance in the theatre, beginning with story-telling and pantomime; through the questioning of language itself expressed by the creation of a new 'meta-language' defined completely through movement; finishing with a section based on the exploration of the semiotic possibilities of movement in musical performance. Because the Russian texts adopted have no translatable 'meaning', the opportunity has been taken to fragment the words and restructure them musically into a mathematical whole, sometimes providing or suggesting new meanings where there previously was none. This is intended to play with notions of theatrical logic by forming this 'language' from elements of performance that would not normally be combined; words, movements and musical sounds. Formed from elements that would appear at first glance to be entirely illogical, the composition creates its own 'logical' environment and becomes entirely coherent in its own context.

The composition involves the use of five characters who grow and develop within an artificial theatrical reality, only able to perform certain gestures and react to certain sounds which are 'learnt' as the work develops. Sometimes the regimented nature of the language systems presented within the composition are designed to emphasize the artificiality of our own concept of language, where our signification systems limit us to perceiving ourselves as beings within defined human environments. At the same time, however, these smaller systems are revealed to form part of a larger entirety beyond the control of the performers, one which could form a model for our own predicament: perhaps as perpetually involved actors we are also unable to perceive the presence of a larger system of significance. Could the apparently unexplainable, chaotic and intangible elements of our lives have further relevance than we are equipped to realize? Are we in fact, in turn, observed by a malevolent and impassive audience?

The composition has no 'set'; place and absence of place are simultaneously created and destroyed by the performers who move within a central performance area. The use of lighting and sound also plays a role in creating the space in which the performers move. Costume design is relatively simple: the performers are called on to wear a black costume that facilitates movement, each with a different coloured dress jacket. The performers are also required to wear the same type of hat, united both by colour and form. The purpose of this costume is to standardise the performers so that they can be used during the composition as an 'instrument' for the development. Stage decor is restricted to the use of five matching chairs, preferably painted black to emphasize their neutrality. At different times the composition calls for certain of these stage elements to be used in ways that are not necessarily related to their traditional meaning-bearing function: for example, the hats become objects of great mystical significance at the beginning of the composition when they form the boundaries for a magic pentagon. Another example is the gradual 'dressing' of the performers in the first part of the work, being symbolic of the learning of a language system and the acceptance of this system as a means of perceiving 'reality' within the composition. The multi-functionary nature of these stage objects stretches the economy of means in the theatre, standing against the tradition of realistic dramatic representation in which the mobility of the sign relationship is limited: in traditional Western theatre we generally expect the object being signified to be represented by a vehicle that has the direct characteristics of that object. This is not the case, however, in the oriental theatre where far more semantic scope is permitted to each stage item. The theatre is in fact 'stripped' of unnecessary elements that have no direct significance. Theatre worlds are created by use of lighting, interaction with the limited amount of stage props and especially the prerecorded musical compositions; all elements that in the context of this composition are given extended meaning-bearing possibilities.







                        Section 1:  Oproeping         

                        Section 2:  Bezwering                        ZAUM-3

                        Section 3:  Afbreking            Section 1:  Ensemble

                                                                             Section 2:  Chorus

                   ZAUM-2                                  Section 3:  Finale                                           

                        Section 1:  Beginning Time

                        Section 2:  Vertolk Middel

                        Section 3:  End Play


The work has been composed in a three movement form and it is possible for each of the movements to be performed separately. However, in order to demonstrate the complete 'sound-language' narrative that binds the composition into a whole it is necessary to play the three movements successively. The complete narrative concerns the creation and questioning of a meaning-based language: language is born from a state of pure meaning, becomes in the process of its artificialization estranged, resulting in the proposal of a new language system based on musical structures. Each of the movements are described below.

ZAUM - 1

Zaum-1, the first movement, begins in a state without language, only sounds. Through a developmental process a connection is made between certain movements and vocalisations that grow from within the chaotic sound pool. From these initial movements and sounds, the performers present a number of different language systems: ritual-based movement languages, story-telling languages, gesture languages and so forth. By the end of the first movement, words and sounds, initially steeped in primordial and ritual significance, are stripped of meaning and are presented as obsessive gestures. The development is from a state of no language, through various levels of signification, to a state of language without apparent meaning.



In Zaum-2, the second movement sitting comfortably in the middle of the composition, an ambiguity between language and music is demonstrated by the continual adoption of potentially 'meaningful' elements (movements and sounds) in 'meaningless' musical structures. The movement ends with a parody of Western theatrical conventions, highlighting the restrictions of this coding system.


Zaum-3, the final movement, attempts to move beyond the binds of traditional theatre language. After an exploration of the physicality of music making, presenting thus an essential coherence between sound and movement, a rhythmic 'dance' language is created that in the process of the development becomes gradually redundant, leaving finally the music and the movement to communicate alone. This divides the composition into three major divisions concerning the work of a specific cubo-futurist poet, and each of these movements is described in detail further on in this document.




As can be demonstrated in the work of the Russian futurists, the extreme avant-garde tends to link up with the archaic; as a reaction against the conventions of contemporary society artists have looked back to ancient forms of ritual and performance that surpass conventional forms of communication. Kruchenykh himself wrote poetry consisting entirely of vowels, which can compare to the Egyptian priests who chose a name composed of vowels for the gods in the most solemn of religious ceremonies. The classical tradition obliterated from language the unexplainable, mystical properties of sound as recognizable in much Eastern religion, and it can be said that it has fallen to the avant-garde to rediscover and appropriate it: "We have charged the word with forces and energies which made it possible for us to rediscover the evangelical concept of the 'word' as a magical complex of images" wrote the dadaist Hugo Ball; "we must withdraw into the deepest alchemy of words, reserving to poetry its most sacred ground." This programme would have appealed to Velimir Khlebnikov who wanted to create a mythical 'pan-slavonic' language "whose shoots must grow through the thicknesses of modern Russian." Perhaps the greatest tribute left by the Russian futurists was zaum. Zaum looked like the outer limit of poetry, where sounds can create meaning but are not subordinated to it. The two major proponents of zaum, Khlebnikov and Kruchenykh, certainly shared a vision for new ways of dealing with language, even if their methods were decidedly different. In both cases, the 'absurdity' of zaum had a purpose and was never completely anarchic: for Khlebnikov that purpose was connected with new ways of harnessing language as a means of communication, whereas Kruchenykh totally abandoned rational interpretation wanting to connect on a level that went beyond rational processes and deep into the psyche. Even Kamensky was to develop the concept of zaum through his interest in the musical nature of nonsense verse. For the Russian futurists this was "an appeal to a higher sense, one that is implicit only in the form of the work itself. The spatial temporal universe, one that is stable and pervasive." This interpretation of Russian futurism as a transcendent movement is comparable to Zen Buddhism, which treats alogical language as the key to enlightenment and a complete understanding of the world. This also connects to the 'ritual' languages used in some Eastern performances, where untranslatable vocal and gestural sign systems are adopted to communicate concepts essentially alien to language. The intention in the Zaum composition is to explore this connection between the ancient and the contemporary by adopting certain attitudes to performance and linguistic theory in the 'musical' structure: a context for the interpretation of seemingly absurd actions and sounds is created during the performance itself, and traditional theatre which is structured around the interpretation of word based texts is brought into question. By questioning the sometimes exceedingly rational nature of Western theatre through the influence of both the Russian futurists and various forms of Eastern performance, a contrasting vision for signification is presented for use in the theatre.

"It is not new objects which should be used in art, but a new and fantastic light should be thrown upon the old ones."
- Alexei Kruchenykh



May 2008 Nachtschimmen Music-Theatre-Language Night Shades, Ghent (Belgium)
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Last modified:
May 30, 2008