Experimental Composition,
Avant-garde Chamber
Music and Music-Theatre:

Documentation of studies at the Royal Ghent Conservatory

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Experimental Composition, Avant-garde Chamber Music and Music-Theatre:
Documentation of studies at the Royal Ghent Conservatory

(Koninkilijke Conservatorium Gent)



by Zachar Laskewicz


In the following document I will be detailing the current work that I have been active in completing for two of the courses that I am currently undertaking at the Royal Ghent Conservatory:  Avant-Garde Chamber Music and Music-Theatre, and Experimental Composition.  The experimental Composition class is held weekly and is a forum for discussion of contemporary musical thought, including discussion of musical aesthetics, musical discourse and semiotics, and more recently post-modern music.  Musical communication has been an area of concern, and traditional notions of "expressive" communication (left over from the romantic era) is now rejected, and contemporary thought leads us to observe new ways that music can actually communicate, or more particularly how we communicate back to music allowing it to represent what is happening in the world, hence discussion of music and politics. According to Godfried-Willem Raes, the professor of experimental composition, music is not a 'fact of nature' and is something certainly defined by certain cultural codes.  His aim through the class is to define a new system in which to place musical aesthetics:  "Aesthetics is politics and in the twentieth century it relates to developments in technology."  Previous work of his course has been involved in similar work with redefining or rethinking contemporary musical culture, including performance and analysis of the work of Mauricio Kagel (revolutionary composer of music-theatre), and work in "rediscovering rituals." These are representative of an attempt to explore musical performance as a system of rules, and of Godfried-Willem's attitude to experimental music whose purpose is to find new systems for creating these rules, which can include creating entirely new structures for music by taking them from other mediums:  In the work in "rediscovering rituals," the class were asked to define certain rituals and create a performance that would act as a ritual for that event - like for instance a ritual for cutting down a tree.  In our lives we have many rituals which are socially indoctrinated (such as marriage) or that we repeat out of necessity (brushing our teeth).  Discovering a musical expression for these rituals seems an interesting basis for contemporary music performance:   Music can no longer be defined as simply an "expressive" medium that is beyond history, timeless, being as culturally determined as every other art form.  Rediscovering or rethinking older theories, forms and rituals seems to be the direction I am taking with my Russian futurist work.


Discussion has covered much ground, concentrating especially on two main areas:  Contemporary multi-media performance art and its position as a musical discourse, and sound poetry in the twentieth century and its role in redefining musical performance contexts.  These areas are especially important because of the concert that we are currently organizing for new music week at the Logos foundation in February 1993.   The theories discussed in the Experimental Composition class and how they have found expression in my work will form the basis for this paper.


One of the first subjects discussed in the class of Godfried concerned the position of the future of the traditional forms of composing that are centred around "writing notes on paper."  Godfried sees this as becoming a less and less relevant and substantial part of contemporary music-making, which has become more group-based, improvisatory, conceptual and appliance based:  Multi media.  It is important to discuss this attitude to musical form and composition in relation to the more traditional and conservative notions; that which is being propagated in universities and conservatories around the world.  Particularly noticeable in the Western world is a quite limited definition of the concept of composition, where it is purely the activity of conceptualising, setting and putting into writing of time and space certain sonic events.  Through this the concept of composition was limited to the strictly musical.  The existence of music as an autonomous category has itself grown specifically in Western culture, and it was brought to its extreme state at the turn of the century by the serialists represented by Schoenberg who, through serial form were seeking to find the ultimate solution for the enigma of classical "musical" form as totally abstract and detached.  However, there are a lot of differing cultures where it is simply impossible to find something like "abstract" music, just as not all languages recognize the word "music."  The fact that the distinction between the art forms exists can be seen as a historical product of Western culture, where in favour of a greater productivity and efficiency, specialisation was necessary and so a greater number of individual art forms came into existence.  A class of specialists who could only work in one single medium in which they obtained a certain technique, whose quality was based on certain culturally and historically specific codes, came into existence.  Hereby this specialisation became highly value-loaded, and this is particularly apparent in music and musical form, becoming perhaps the most strictly culturally structured forms in the Western world.  This strict marginalization of music could stem from its inherently dangerous power of communicating in a way that goes beyond 'expression of reality' in the traditional sense as it could be defined in other art forms, allowing the possibility of transversing all other communicative forms. This can be demonstrated by the strict control of musical form during the period of German fascism and after the communist revolution in Russia.  In the Western musical world an abstraction has been made from everything that could allude to another medium.  The performers themselves were dressed, and still always are dressed in contemporary performances of classical music, in a strict black and white uniform, in order to make their visual presence as standardised as possible.  Within the composition itself, music was declared the highest form and composers tried to reach this extreme intrinsic level.  To make the music value free, and to present it as a "universally" human communicative mode, a music was formed in which no foundation for structure could be found except within the music itself (classical form), free from any reference to function or expression, so, free of the human in his relation to the music.  However, like anytime where man has tried to structure himself outside himself, the results have failed.  At the beginning of this century the Futurist movement in the arts had already revealed these myths as false, although this was in rejection of an extremely stifling array of theatrical and literary conventions which had for so long dominated these forms - strict representation.  This is certainly a contrasting starting point, but the impetus for change is essentially the same, but what the futurist did in rediscovering language and the word for purely its sound value, is perhaps the most revolutionary of all developments for both the musical and theatrical world.  Since Dada, more and more artists have widened their disciplines and even left their own in favour of other disciplines.  Painters began to use letter-signs, writers created sonic poetry, musicians started theatres, plastic artists did performances;  as such the concert stage and the theatre were abandoned for the street, and multi-disciplinary actions flourished.  Kurt Schwitters wrote his Ursonate, a lettristic work adopting entirely musical form.  Tzara and Arp, the essential Dadaists climbed on stage.  Satie organized "happenings," and later so did John Cage, Nam Yun Paik, Mauricio Kagel, Josef Anton Reidl, the Fluxus artistic group.


Today this multi-disciplinary work remains an important structuring element for many new composers, despite the fact that the classical traditions of music are still taught as if they are the basis for all possible ways to see musical form. Many composers are more than ever becoming aware of the fact that when they let a musician play a piece, they have to put them on stage whether they want to or not, and this attitude allows a broadening of the palette of expression possibilities.  This is especially true in the new music-theatre where the possibilities have grown simply beyond playing with the relationship between the musician, his instrument, and his position on the stage.  Through music-theatre and other multi-media performance forms many new possibilities of expression through musical form have become available to the composer.  One could of course make the remark that such simultaneous handling of diverse media already existed a long time ago in the form of opera.  Unjustly so, however, since opera is an institution in itself, and of the high society where the use of multi-media springs in no way from a resistance to the institutionalisation of the media.  Mixed media in the specific sense of the term, reflects as it were on the polyphonic use of variant expressive possibilities in which it isn't the goal to obtain the greatest homogeneity possible; as it is in opera it does not seek musical, thematic and narrative-based resolution.  Rather the tension between that that can be expressed in the different media is exploited.


In twentieth century art the use of sound poetry has been perhaps the strongest and most present element in the art world, in order to truly break down the barriers set up by years of form and tradition, first in literary traditions and later in the musical traditions.  This multi-media sensibility was first exploited completely as the basis for an artistic movement by the futurists, occurring around the same time in Italy and Russia in the first decades of the twentieth century.  The most well recognized figure of futurism was Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, who published an enormous amount of art manifestos and sound poetry that called for a complete rethinking of the literary medium;  he was a poet bent on devising a new technique of composition, an engineer of words who decomposed them to arrive at the syllable and smaller linguistic divisions  'as the nucleus joint hinge of discourse.'[1]   Officially futurism began in Italy on the twentieth of the second 1909 with the publication of the first manifesto of Marinetti in the Parisian paper 'Le Figaro.'  Although the work of Marinetti was certainly a step towards finding new ways to adopt the literary form through the rethinking of text as music, and the written form as vocal notation, his work was essentially semantic and representative of a particular 'futurist' reality.  Where  Marinetti used neologisms, they are almost always onomatopoeic or at least mimetic of the expressed reality.  His resistance against the dependence of language on the regulations of writing expressed itself in the first place in his violations against syntax, the structure of the sentence and grammar, and the use of a greater number of words that did not exist in the traditional language in favour of a greater oral and communicative directness:  The language freed from syntactic connection and punctuation are immediately stripped of logical values to the exclusive advantage of sonic quality - rhythm, tone, timbre.  Mental reading of the poem becomes absolutely inadequate, vocal execution and declamation are essential.  This rupture with semantics became even stronger with other artists that Marinetti had gathered around himself.   They were to extend art forms beyond their traditional boundaries, especially in the area of sound poetry: Umberto Boccioni, Francesco Cangiullo, Mario Carli, Giacomo Balla, Luigi Russolo.  It is the declamation (=execution) that realises the poem.  Poetry, born of song, returns to song, and the circle is completed.  But if an ancient song was ritual, what is the modern execution but modern ritual.  Thus, declamation is integrated by gesture, poetry is the theatre of words, words which are purely euphonic.[2]


The Russian culture in its avant-garde period - soon to be classified under the general name of futurism - paid particular attention right from the start to the phonic composition of its verbal creation, in direct consequence of the importance attributed to 'the word as such', which, according to the prophets of the movement, was rising from the haze of indistinct singability to which the symbolists had consigned it.  The Russian futurists demanded a radical reappraisal of language, and one of their primary poetic innovations was "Zaumnu Yazyk" (abbreviated zaum ), meaning "trans-sense language."  This is basically a form of poetic communication that was obstinately untranslatable because for the first time pure vocal sounds were used, vocal fragments totally unsubordinated to meaning, or that provided an entirely new way of looking at communication through language that consisted of deconstructing the old.  According to the futurists, poetry using language restricted by strict referential meaning and grammatical structures was no longer a valid form of artistic communication, which certainly reflects my own attitude to the word.  In Russian futurism the strongest relationship was between the graphic and written mediums.  Futurists frequently tried to add the visual element to their poetry using different typefaces, introducing offbeat illustrations, and employing the author's handwriting. For these artists, modern painting was "not only a new vision of the world in all its sensuous magnificence and staggering variety, it was also a new philosophy of art which shattered all established canons and opened breathtaking perspectives."[3]   Russian futurist poets found immediate expression for cubist principles taken from painting, where the principle of artistic distortion was grafted onto language by equating the stroke on the canvas with sounds or phonemes.  Instead of lines, planes and colours, arranged in a unexpected order to present a fuller interpretation of reality, the words were 'dislocated' and ungrammatically repositioned.  This was to see its extreme expression in zaum,  where poetry was extended to include non-referential sounds that could nevertheless by enjoyed 'by themselves', more closely associate with the condition of music. 


The preeminence accorded by the cubo-futurists to the word, no longer instrument but subject of poetic writing, cleared the way for the doctrine of 'zaum language'.  Alexei Kruchenykh and Velimir Khlebnikov became the primary spokesmen for this new poetic language, and were joint signatories of the manifesto "Slovo kak Takovoe" (The Word as Such, 1913):  "Making use of quarter words, of half words, and of their bizarre and abstract combinations.  It is in this way that one obtains the greatest expressive power, and it is precisely this that distinguishes the language of impetuous modernity which is destroying the fossilised language of the past."[4]  Much experimental work was also done using the performance medium, in fact Kruchenykh, one of the primary theoreticians of 'zaum' language, said that he saw zaum  as the only possibility for use in the new theatre and cinema, and Matyushin, a Russian futurist artist and composer commenting upon an experimental futurist 'opera', said that "through the disintegration of concepts and word, of old staging, and of musical harmony, they presented a new creation, free of old conventional experiences and complete in itself, using seemingly senseless words - picture sounds - new indications of the the future that leads into eternity and gives a joyful feeling of strength."[5]


Sometime in 1916 Kruchenykh dodged the draft by retiring to the Caucasus.  There he found work at a railway construction site, but found enough time for literature.  Tiflis (now Tbilisi), the capital of Georgia, had become a literary and artistic oasis of Russia by the time Kruchenykh had arrived there.  Futurism found fertile soil in Tiflis, in fact it could be said that the inexorable development of what is known as Russian futurism from impressionism through primitivism to abstractionism found here the final point beyond which it never went.  Kruchenykh formed a group called 41°, a group consisting entirely of zaum  poets, and it is in this group that the extreme zaum  work of Ilya Zdanevich came to fruition.  The most unmistakable achievement among the members of this group must be credited to Zdanevich:  His work was an 'extreme' formulation of zaum, more organic, more radical, but also more abstract, at the limits of absolute comprehensibility.  From the point of view of semantic decodification, the zaum  used by Zdanevich appears as an indistinct phonic chain in which, from time to time, Russian roots or words barely recognisable, often mangled in their pronunciation, in a structure designed to imitate language, often enlivened by the flavour of oriental languages.  More than that, the zaum  was intricately orchestrated, where the musical effects are absolutely preeminent and in which the characters speak simultaneously, giving rise to a subtle interplay of accords and dissonances, underlined by the superimposition in unison of vowels and syllables.[6]   This work is the height of what could be called 'Russian Dadaism.'  Zdanevich found himself as an expatriate after he was sent to Paris to organize an exhibition of modern Russian art.  It is therefore no surprise that he decided to stay in France and became an important member of the French Dada.


The Dada movement however did not begin in France, but in Switzerland.  In Zurich in 1916 the 'Cabaret Voltaire' was set up by the Dada performers, where most of the early experiments took place.  Performance at the Cabaret Voltaire included dances and skits - many employing masked performers, work with rhythm, noise music and typical dada poetry.  It was in the Cabaret Voltaire that the 'simultaneism' of Robert Delauney found its most complete expression.  Experiments in simultaneity led to multiple voices reading poems and manifestos, and the simultaneous reading of unrelated texts (often in different languages).  Dada was meant to be principally a focus for an abstract art, and it had an absurd expression.  It was in the Cabaret Voltaire that the work of sound poet Hugo Ball came into existence.  He invented sound poems in which he composed with the sonic qualities of vowels and consonants as the composer does with tones and instrumental timbres.  Some of the dada experiments with language, particularly in the work of Hugo Ball, may be looked at against a religio-mystical background.  The 'magic' in religion has often been bound up with power-words like 'abracadabra' whose meaning and linguistic provenance is obscure.  Ball ascribed two-thirds of the "wonderfully plaintive words that no human mind can resist" to "ancient magical texts."[7]   Russian futurism and Dadaism was perhaps the extreme point for linguistic deconstruction;  the work of French Surrealism although important was basically an exploration of the subconscious and this found expression through free combination of existing words that formed a relatively 'strange' context but certainly not as divorced from the ordinary linguistic conception of language as was found in the work of the Russian futurists and the dadaists.  Even Antonin Artaud, who through his controversial vocal work, was able to demonstrate extreme vocal and theoretical invention, his experiments were always based on the structure of his native French language.[8]


It is not until after the second world war that we can see another really strong adoption of multi-media into artistic form, especially musical form.  It had a strong revival, and found connection with the new available technological possibilities:  Recording equipment.  This allowed sonic poetry to develop so much further in the direction which we would call the musical:  Isolation of sounds from spoken text, speed modulations, build-up of spoken material, polyphony, space effects -all became the simple possibilities.  The first group of poets were known as the "ultralettristes", and were a group who were theoretically harking back to the work of Artaud, proclaiming the advent of prelinguistic poetry.  Prelinguism consisted of the emission of sounds produced by the throat, lips and tongue, without the intervention of words.  These "vocal" poets, as they liked to call themselves, used shouting, breathing, inarticulated trumpeting noises produced by the muscles of the mouth as part of their work, claiming that it expressed a potent charge of vitality.  Works were composed that could only be recorded by means of magnetic tape, improvisation with cries, shouts, noises made with the lips, the tongue, the uvula, the throat.[9]  


Multi-media performance again found expression in the sixties through the work and theory of John Cage, which found extreme expression in the 'Fluxus' movement. John Cage's work involving indeterminacy, chance, and simultaneous events was certainly influential forming performances where the result is a display of unassociated actions and situations, an assault on the senses of incoherent and inconsequential material which must be observed impartially and dispassionately.  The initiative of theatrical performance art and music, seem to have been refined after Futurism and Dada by the guidance of John Cage; the practice spread widely, revealing new aspects and fresh possibilities not only in music, but in painting, sculpture,literature, dance and drama.[10]  


The 'mono-structural' event became the standard activity of Cage influenced multi-media artists of the 1960s:  Fluxus performers.  Typically, these would involve mainly one performer (normally the composer), be of a short duration, be performed under normal concert traditions, involve few or no environmental factors, and would take place as part of a concert of other similar 'events.'  The most important aspect of the Fluxus movement is the radical redefinition of the elements that can be considered music, opening the medium up not only into language but also 'events' both conceptual and physical.  In the field of music-events Cage's most radical follower is probably La Monte Young.  Below is an example of one of his 'Fluxus' events:


Composition 5


Turn a butterfly (or any number of butterflies) loose in the performance area.

When the composition is over, be sure to allow the butterfly to fly away outside.

The composition may be any length, but if an unlimited amount of time is available, the doors and windows may be opened - the composition may be considered finished when the butterfly flies away.

La Monte Young, 1960


Young's works are also characterised by long, ritual music-events consisting of electronic sound with live music played over a sustained note, and light projections added:  A hypnotic, timeless flow owing much to Oriental influence.


FLUX ART - non art - amusement forgoes distinction between art and non-art forgoes artists' indispensability, exclusiveness, individuality, ambition, forgoes all pretension towards a significance, variety, inspiration, skill, complexity, profundity, greatness, institutional and commodity value.  It strives for nonstructural, nontheatrical, nonbaroque, impersonal qualities of a simple, natural event, an object, a game, a puzzle or a gag.


This extract is taken from a manifesto by George Macunias.  Macunias makes music-generated performance-pieces, like Piano Piece No. 13 in which each key of the piano is nailed down, starting with the lowest notes and finishing with the highest.  He has further defined Fluxus as 'mixed-media neo-baroque theatre'.  Fluxus concerts consisted of a number of disparate events rather than all-embracing environmental whole that relate closely to Dada and its espousal of chance.[11] 



The concert that will take place during new music week in Ghent will be performed through the Avant-Garde Chamber Music Class. The function is to explore the contemporary music theories discussed in the experimental composition class by performing compositions by the composers who take this class.  The concert has two main functions, the first is to explore new ways of performing music, essentially examining the nature of music:  Its role in contemporary art, and its success and failings as a communicative form, as well as the interface between music and other art forms.  Totally abandoning as many traditional notions of performance as possible, the concert aims to present a totally non-linear history of experimental performance art in the twentieth century, including Futurism (Russian and Italian), Dada, and the influential American arts movement in the sixties - Fluxus.  New compositions will be presented by the students, as well as performances of Futurist and Dada poetry, and Fluxus events.  According to Godfried-Willem Raes, Fluxus was the most important movement in the twentieth century in relation to musical thought and performance theory, where traditional notions of music were most dramatically brought into question.  These movements were always at positions of radical social and/or political change, and the art movements brought about changes in the way people though about and could appreciate art.  The historical perspective itself is the impetus, but not the structuring form for the concert, which will present a non-linear montage structure involved more with musical form.  As well as the performance of pieces that were actually "composed" (although the whole notion of this word is being questioned by the performance events in this concert) during the avant-garde arts movements in question, the new works that are being composed for this concert are based on new ways of integrating these theories into contemporary music.  The compositions that I have completed are based on Russian futurist performance theory, and are structured around Russian futurist poetry.  The intention is by presenting fragments of the older forms deconstructed, to create an entirely new structure.  It presents a contrast between the avant-garde movements at the turn of the century who were driven by the restricting literary traditions to explore multi-media, and movements such as Fluxus in the sixties who worked in a similar way but from the opposite direction; the restricting traditions of music forcing them  to extend the notion of music into the multi-media realm.  I am presenting an interface between these two perspectives, a text discovered as music, and music communicating through text, the ultimate aim being to present ambiguity that can provide many possible ways for 'meaning' to be rendered and to find a new form for the expression of a performance text.


One of the central concerns of the avant-garde chamber music class has been the discussion and interpretation of contemporary forms of music notation, and this has been particularly important for me because of my interest in observing new systems in which performance texts can be notated.  In contemporary music there has been  a tendency in the direction of consciously developing a multitude of internally different systems of notation, individual from composition to composition.  The notation, as a pragmatical sign system (where the signs refer to actions, not to sound objects for instance) becomes itself an expressive and meaningful piece of musical composition.This is a completely understandable reaction against the profound alienation between sound and notation, which occurred in the academic musical life of the 18th century.  The rules of music were strictly formed, which set standards and structures as to exactly how music should be listened and heard.  This way harmony, counterpoint and other forms of composition emerged, where it simply wasn't a matter of working out a notation-system in which the ideas could be expressed in a way musicians could translate them; but only a matter of a notation system which was considered the criterium for the judgment of music.  My work is certainly a reaction against these traditions, and in almost every new composition I endeavour to find a new notation system.   The same is certainly true of my new work for performance by the avant-garde chamber music class..


The complete Russian futurist composition takes its name from that particularly Russian poetic innovation zaum.  The final "zaum" composition will be a full scale three-movement work for five performers and tape, and although all the movements will adopt Russian futurist texts, the second movement is most relevant to this paper firstly because it most strongly adopts a contrasting selection of multi-media elements, and secondly because it is the only composition that will be included in the concert in January.  Although the works form a part of the zaum  super-structure, they are formed in such a way that they will be able to be performed on their own.  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 work.  The zaum  texts themselves form the structural basis for this composition, uniting both the gestural, the vocal and the musical communicative forms.  The emphasis is on creating a performance form that will produce no 'logical' expectations (as to narrative) through the adoption of musical structures, but will still allow various forms of theatrical and musical communication to be presented in forms that can flow between one another.   The intention is to create interesting and exciting contrasts through projecting these systems together, giving the performance freedom to work on a number of different levels simultaneously, presenting many possible interpretations as to the actual 'narrative' or 'narratives' at play.  As all the texts are firstly in Russian, and secondly have no direct interpretable meaning anyway, the freedom attained is through assigning my own possible meanings to these vocal sounds: The intention of course is to use this ambiguity between text, language and meaning as the vehicle to create other communicative forms.  During the course of the composition various ensemble pieces will form and unform on stage, sometimes simultaneously, sometimes solo, in order to present different aspects of  zaum  communication, but still forming a part of the musical structure.  Choreographed movement and interaction between the tape and the live performance will play an important role.  This is particularly important during certain 'interludes' in the composition where a phantom ensemble could be formed from members of the performance group, that mime a simple musical performance on tape with imaginary instruments.  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.  Lighting and sounds (other than from the performers) naturally play a role in creating the space in which the performers move.  Costume design is relatively simple:  The performers are called on to wear standard dress suits, preferably of different colours (striking) and a little too large.  The presence of some kind of similar hat is also important.  The costumes are not changed completely during the work, but at different times the composition calls for certain elements of the costume to be removed or reworked in some way - particularly the hat and the jacket.  The purpose of this costume is first to standardise the performers into a form that will allow them to be used during composition as 'instruments' for the development, but at the same time will not be alien to the audience and provide some ambiguity when these 'standard' costumes are used by performers making very 'non-standard' gestures and sounds, as well as actually 'using' these costumes for contrasting functions within the work.


The first movement presents an exploration of Khlebnikov's attitude to zaum  poetry.  Three underlying principles can be identified:  First of all verbopoiesis  (slovotvorcestvo).  Khlebnikov was a poet-philologist, an assiduous worker of verbal materials, a relentless excavator in the vocabulary:  Sounds induced him to imagine  significative potential that the common language had not developed. Working with prefixes and suffixes, sustantivizing adjectives and verbalising nouns, he created a magical linguistic overworld in which he moved with absorbed fixation.  The second principle of Khlebnikovian zaum is phonowriting  (zvukopis), which induces him to seek in words a phonic-emotive expressiveness in complete discord with the meanings, to the point of conferring on single syllables - often intuitively extracted from a series of words able to be considered homogeneous as regards some feature - independent meanings, which he meticulously linked.  Phonowriting  gives rise to a whole series of phonoimages  (zvukoobrazy) in his poetic writing.  The third principle, is the mental alphabet  (azbuka uma) which seeks to construct a language of hieroglyphs from abstract concepts, and is sometimes called the "stellar" or "universal" language.  Here the Khlebnikovian 'zaum' attains its highest point of rarefaction, and only conventionally can one speak of its possible decipherment.[12]  This movement will certainly adopt these three principles, but no attempt will be made to differentiate them, and they will be combined freely, adopting a flowing structure that will relate to the musical development.  This is certainly a characteristic common with Khlebnikov's work


Elements of verbopoiesis, phonowriting  and the mental alphabet   are united by Khlebnikov's interest in understanding of the power of the word as manifested in charms and incantations, and especially through ancient Slavic myth.Through a combination of story-telling where short mythical scenes are enacted (stories are heard on tape in combination with some live vocalisations and are simultaneously acted out centre stage by the members of the ensemble), combined with chanting (which induces the attribution of a shaman-like intonation to the conception of poetry), ritual gestures and movement, some sense of 'meaning' that goes beyond the words themselves will hopefully be discovered:  These linguistic structures are adopted as part of the musical and gestural form. The movement will at certain times also adopt Khlebnikov's interest in the relationship between sound and colour.  A clear example is the text "Bobeobi" where a phonopainting   is explicitly projected "on to the canvas," based on phonic analogies which can even be translated on the basis of his note-books; but which should above all be referred to as a  mysterious relationship between sounds and colours.[13]  Colour slides will be projected to present states of extended 'text', and during the performance some kind of picture will be formed by the performers during the course of the movement on an overhead projector, as certain elements are simultaneously explained through gestural, musical, vocal and performance orientated elements.


Mention has already been made of the important role played by Alex Kruchenykh (1886-1968) with regard to his theory and use of "transmental" language.  He saw zaum  as the leading mode of expression because he believed that trans-sense language was demanded by the confused character of contemporary life and served as an antidote to the paralysis of common language.  This was a reaction against the obsession with meaning, reason, psychology and philosophy presented by the conservative literary traditions.  He thought that they placed serious limitations on poetic imagination, invention, verbal play and spontaneous intuition.  Kruchenykh suggested that the "emptier" the poetic imagination, the more creative and fruitful the poetic result: The penetration of the mysteries beyond the rational world.[14]   These anarchic attitudes to language form the basis for the second movement, which nonetheless have elements of the super-structure (however well hidden):  The emphasis however is on the rejection of the idea of any 'sense' or 'meaning' as necessary to a work of art. 



This is presented by a constant transformation between 'theatrical' and 'musical' form, or more correctly, contrasting performance situations that allude to theatrical 'meaning' (by adopting gesture-signs that have some meaning other than as part of the performance) and totally 'meaningless' gestures/sounds:  The composition begins with performers adopting potentially 'meaningful' gestures which form into an abstract musical form, just as the composition ends after an abstract vocal composition develops into a performance that alludes to Russian 'slapstick' theatre.    The central section uses fragmented gestures adopted from the first movement, and the movements themselves become directly represented by vocal sound; sounds on tape become representative for the performer movements, dictating purely abstract gestures from the performers who become 'puppets' to the tape.   Lighting emerges on the central ensemble, who stand side-by-side central stage, staring blankly as if entirely disinterested in the performance event.  Starts first with the performers using certain gestures randomly:   Coughing, inhalation, clearing throat, audible exhalation.  This soon forms into simple musical structures, where the gestures are no longer performed randomly but form part of a simple rhythmic structure.  The tape part emerges from beneath the sound of the live performance ensemble with whispered conversational vocal sounds that appear to come from nowhere, and a sudden loud sibilant sound (Shh!) silences everyone.  The tape part is formed by the five voices on stage in their specified performance positions (surrounding the performance space) through stereo placing.  The first reaction from the performance ensemble is to be seemingly shocked, causing them to look in all directions to see exactly from where the sound emerged.  A number of whispered sounds on the tape lead to a shouted command which brings the ensemble to attention.  Then another vocal command is uttered, this sound becomes a name for one of the performers and causes him to move to a certain position and face in a certain direction.  This happens a number of times until all the performers are named and positioned in abstract positions around the performance space.  Then simple abstract vocal  sounds adopted from Kruchenykh poems lead to short movements and gestures from the performers, as if puppets to the tape. The sounds become more frequent, sometimes simultaneous, until finally all the performers are moving and performing gestures.  The tape part becomes underlined with sibilant and breathing sounds.  The names of the performers are called and one by one they move into the specified positions in the performance space.  When they arrive at the positions, they start audible breathing.  When all performers are positioned the tape part fades out:  The vocal composition develops resulting in the live slapstick theatre piece.  This slapstick theatre piece is separated by lighting effects to differentiate the small sections.  A final text from Kruchenykh is adopted: "Lets put an end to this ridiculous vaudeville"  (in multiple languages). A loud sound from the tape ('nyet') results in the performers stopping simultaneously, then performing a simultaneous gesture (a finger to the lips to indicate quietness), after which the performance space is quickly brought into darkness.


Vasily Kamensky (1884-1961) was one of the first futurist poets.  He was a major part of the early futurist activity, and soon after a brief retirement (after the failure of one of his books), he rejoined the group at a time when it definitely had switched from the impressionism of the old days to new, avant-garde techniques.  Kamensky not only welcomed the change, but wanted to proceed even further in this direction.  Following the premises of Russian cubo-futurism, he attempted to break down language and reconstruct it in a totally new form.  He became interested in the phonic instrumentation, and in particular with the possibilities offered by onomatopoeic procedures (which nonetheless led to verbopoietic  solutions, but of a very particular nature):  Here a melodic line came increasingly to prevail.  After postulating the 'musical' orientation of the word, Kamensky asserted the poet's right to his own unique understanding and vision of poetic beauty so as to discover new poetic paths.  A Russian futurist critic wrote that "perhaps none other has felt the sound as an aim in itself, as a unique joy as Vasily Kamensky."[15]   The structure of the third movement combines the structures of the poetic language and the rhythm of the words, with structures from Indonesian gamelan, uniting entirely gestural and musical elements from the first two movements into a complete 'musical' form:  Musical structures continually result in the formation of the text just as the reciting of the  text results in the creation of musical structures.


Multi-media performance, whether it is adopted through the rethinking of musical or literary form, certainly provides many possibilities for the artist, and it can be seen that in the twentieth century this has been expressed potently through the medium of sound poetry.   Many new attitudes and methods have become standard forms to express contemporary reality: The use of several languages (natural and artificial) superimposed or juxtaposed,  experimentation with language considered as "material" and no longer as means, the decomposition of syntax and grammar to arrive at relationships between the single word, emancipation of literary parameters, recomposition in artificial linguistic structures and so on. But as can be demonstrated in the work of the Russian futurists, the ultra-modern tends to link up with the archaic; an eternal contradiction of the avant-garde, where contemporary attitudes feed back to ancient and ritual forms of communication.  The adoption of harsh and dissonant vocal sounds by the futurists and the ultralettristes  certainly hark back to an ancient primeval tongue.  Kruchenykh himself also wrote poetry consisting entirely of vowels, which can compare to the Egyptian priests who chose a name composed entirely of vowels for the Gods in the most solemn religious ceremonies.[16]   The classical tradition has obliterated this type of "Asian" invention and it has fallen to the avant-garde to rediscover and appropriate it:  "Without a religious sensibility it is impossible to play the fool" writes 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 Velemir Khlebnikov who wanted to create a mythical "panslavonic" language 'whose shoots must grow through the thicknesses of modern Russian.'[17]   My intention in the zaum  composition is to explore this connection between the ancient and the contemporary by adopting certain attitudes to multi-media performance and linguistic theory in the musical structure.


I would like to thank Bart Maton for translating much of the course material from Dutch into English.  This material is taken from the complete course work presented by Godfried-Willem Raes at the Royal Ghent Conservatory, and forms the basis for much of this paper.

[1] Mauricio Dell'Arco (Futura: Poesia Sonora, Cramps Records)

[2] Futura:  Poesia Sonora , Cramps Records (Memoria Spa, 20123 Milano): Futurist Declamation.

[3] Vladimir Markov, Russian Futurism (MacGibbon and Kee Ltd, 1968):  Introduction.

[4] Futura: Poesia Sonora: Zaum, transmental language.

[5] Susan B. Compton, The World Backwards (British Museum Publications 1978).

[6] Futura: Poesia Sonora: Zaum, transmental language.

[7] Annabelle Melzer, Latest Rage the Big Drum, UMI Research Press 1980.

[8] Futura: Poesia Sonora: The Howl, Antonin Artaud.

[9]  Futura: Poesia Sonora: The howl, ultra lettristes

[10] Peter Yates, "Theatrical Performance music", Twentieth Century Music, George Allen and Unwin Ltd 1968.

[11] Adrian Henri, Environments and Happenings (Thames and Hudson London 1974):  Fluxus and the Event

[12] Sonora: Futura Poesia: Zaum, transmental language

[13] Sonora: Futura Poesia: Zaum, transmental language

[14] Vahan D. Barooshian, Russian Cubo-Futurism (Ardis Lakeland Press 1980): pg. 83.

[15] Vahan D. Barooshian, Russian Cubo-Futurism (Mouton Paris 1976): Chapter 5

[16] Sonora: Futura Poesia: What is sound poetry?

[17] Sonora: Futura Poesia: Forerunners and Dadaists in Germany.





Š May 2008 Nachtschimmen Music-Theatre-Language Night Shades, Ghent (Belgium)*
Send mail to zachar@nachtschimmen.eu with questions or comments about this website.

September 27 2013.



Major Writings