for five performers and tape

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[1] Fragment from the ZAUM-1 recording
[2] Pages from the original score
[3] Programme Notes

[1] Fragment from the ZAUM-1 recording

Play a fragment from ZAUM-1 on the flash-player below:


[2] Pages from the original score



[3] Programme Notes


The first movement presents an exploration of Khlebnikov’s attitude to zaum  poetry.  Khlebnikov had an extended attitude to language as a communicative form, believing strongly in the almost ‘magical’ power of vocal sounds both to signify and even affect the world in a way beyond signification.  This certainly connects with an ancient attitude to language where the vocal sounds were believed to have deep mythical significance.  According to Julia Kristeva the work of Khlebnikov “threaded through metaphor and metonymy a network of phonemes or phonic groups charged with instinctual drives and meaning, constituting what for the author was a numerical code, a ciphering, underlying the verbal sign.”[1]    Characteristic of Khlebnikov’s work is an attempt to construct a language of hieroglyphs from abstract concepts, 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.[2]   Antonin Artaud’s [3] concept of stage language is certainly significant here, an attitude where signification freely germinates from a variety of different sources:


“Gestures will be equivalent to signs, signs to words.  The spoken word, when psychological circumstances permit, will be performed in an incantory way.[...]  Movements, poses, bodies of characters will form or dissolve like hieroglyphs.  This language will spread from one organ to another, establishing analogies, unforeseen associations between series of objects, series of sounds, series of intonations.”



Zaum-1 is divided into three section: (i) Oproeping, (ii) Bezwering, (iii) Afbreking. 

A flowing structure is adopted between these sections in which the expression of different language systems is created through relating certain sounds to certain physical movements.  Through this connection between sound and movement a notion of ‘meaning’ is presented that goes beyond simply a literal translation of vocal sounds into cogent concepts.


Section 1: Oproeping

This section begins in silence and darkness, a state before sound or language.  A long, deep, earthy sound emerges gradually from the silence and five hats are revealed centre stage forming the shape of a pentagon.  Through the calling of ‘name fragments’ (prerecorded) the performers are one by one revealed surrounding the ring of hats, and the entrance of each performer introduces a new sound element, creating a chaotic sound pool.  From the sounds on tape emerge word fragments or ur-sounds which bring about the performance of a series of stylized movements.  These movements form the raw material for later development within the composition. 


Section 2: Bezwering

One by one the performers form a line towards the back of the stage and are facing in the direction of the audience. Here they begin to slowly chant a text taken from Zangezi (one of Khlebnikov’s most famous zaum works), and from the sound of the chanting develops a slow and cyclical movement series formed by linking together some of the movements from the first section.  In this excerpt from Zangezi a ritual-like state is evoked by the use of the “oom” sound group, translatable as ‘mind’ or ‘sense’ from Russian.  Khlebnikov formed his own vocabulary by combining this sound with various other syllable groups, assigning his own ‘state of meaning’ where the new words have a natural connection with universal concepts.  This is represented on stage by the inevitability of the movement series that evolved out of the ur-sounds beginning the composition, and the cyclical recurrence of the music as the text is chanted.


Goum.                                                                       Goum.

Oum.                                                                         Oum.

Uum.                                                                         Uum.

Paum.                                                                        Paum.

Soum of me                                                               Soum menh

And of those I don’t know                                         I tex, kogo ne zna]

Moum.                                                                       Moum.

Boum.                                                                       Boum.

Laum.                                                                        Laum.

Cheum.[4]                                                                    Ceum.[5]



The musical material used here is a gradually developing chord series that returns further developed in Zaum-3.  In both cases the way the material is treated is based on an Indonesian attitude to the structuring of music where development is presented not by constant change through the introduction of new material but by an inevitable repetition and subtle variation of the same material.


The internal rhythm uniting the performers gradually falls away as the actions of the players seem to become independent of the music and the chanted word series - escaping the cyclical recurrence. The following development in the composition uses another famous poem from Khlebnikov, whose title can be translated as “Incantation by Laughter.”  This poem is structured around the Russian word for ‘laugh’ (smyech) by using many possible variations that, through the affixing of new prefixes and the use of unusual conjugations, have essentially no meaning in official Russian.  A sense of meaning is provided, however, through the use of already existing word fragments.  Particularly interesting is the rhythmic, incantation-like adoption of sounds within this ‘vocal composition’. The words of this poem are performed as if a mysterious and magical story is being told in an ancient and lost language.  These words are accompanied by ‘magical’ gestures that seem to provide significance in relation to the untranslatable story.  It appears as if all the meaning-bearing elements of this section (the text, the gestures and the music), combine to form a significant, meaningful whole, although the ‘meaning’ itself is only significant in the context of the musical development: in Zaum-1 through the gradual formation and deconstruction of a language system, and in the complete Zaum composition through the return of movement and sound-based elements.


O, rassmŽjtes>, smexac’!

O, zasmŽjtes>, smexac’!

Cto sme«]tsh smex‡mi, cto sme«hnstvu]t sme«hl>no,

O, zasmŽjtes> usme«hl>no!

O, rassmŽwi` nadsme«hl>nyx Ñ smex usmŽjnyx smexacŽj!

O, issmŽjsh rassme«hl>no, smex nadsmŽjnyx smehcŽj!

SmŽjvo, SmŽjvo,

UsmŽj, osmŽj, smŽwiki, smŽwiki,

Sme«]nciki, sme«]nciki.

O, rassmŽjtes>, smexac’!

O, zasmŽjtes>, smexac’!


Oh, rasmeytyes’ smyexachi! 

Oh, zasmeytyes’ smyexachi!

Shto cmyeyoutsa cmyexami, shto smyeyanstvooyoot smyeyalno,

Oh, zasmeytyes’ ysmyeyalno!

Oh rasmyeshish nadsmyeyalnix Ñ smyex ysmyaynix smyexachay!

Oh ismyaysa rassmyeyalno, smyex nadsmeynix smyeyachay! 

Smyayeva, smyayeva,  

Oosmyay, osmyay, smyeshiki, smyeshiki,  

Smyeyounchiki, smyeyounchiki. 

Oh, rasmeytyes’ smyexachi!

Oh, zasmeytyes’ smyexachi![6]

Section 3: Afbreking

The last section begins when two of the performers move into the centre of the performance space, one of whom takes a chair.  This section involves the performance of five brief dramatic scenes that are each time followed by a short explanation in a sort of gesture language based on the sign language for the deaf. The sentences are spoken by prerecorded voices on tape, and are at the same time acted out by one of the two performers highlighted centre stage. It seems initially that the sign language sentences are descriptive of the actions, but the sentences and the actions become each time a little more absurd, and a little less to do with one another.  This reflects the development within the first movement - the creation of a language and its gradual alienation from meaning.  The signs adopted in this pseudo gesture language were found in a Flemish ‘sign language dictionary’, a book evidently so old that most of the ‘signs’ or gestures are no longer recognized in contemporary sign language forms.[7]   These gesture words are spoken by performers on the tape and are simultaneously performed as movements on stage.  The sentences spoken on the tape were actually deliberately ‘composed’ with the movements in mind, and are designed to sound like old Flemish ‘sayings’ which are usually moralistic metaphors with an imprinted meaning.  This collection of sayings are deliberately meaningless, and are designed to set up points of ambiguity between the gesticulations on stage, which are in turn set against the absurd motions of the performer with the chair.  The transmission of meaning is the important structural element for this division, although the notion of ‘meaning’-based exchanges is brought into question because the absurdity of the language is finally recognizable, although still ambiguous.  Below is a description of the movements and the texts involved.


Action 1: Sits behind the chair which is facing the audience and places hand through the bars as if sitting in a prison pleading for something from a passer-by.

Sign language text: De beschaamde man wil met de engel dansen.

                                           (“the ashamed man wants to dance with the angel”)


Action 2:  Puts chair on its back with the legs facing the audience.  Sits on knees on the back of the chair and appears to pull a container from between the chair legs.  Offers this imaginary object towards the heavens.

Sign language text: Voor de arme vrouw is de honing de pijnbelasting.

                                           (“for the poor woman the honey is the pain tax”)


Action 3:  Rests jacket on the back of the chair then crawls underneath so that the face of  the performer can be seen by the public.  Performs gesture with arms while smiling.

Sign language Text:  De glimlach van de tovenaar is een leeg gebaar.

                                              (“the smile of the magician is an empty gesture”)


Action 4:  Puts the chair onto its back with the legs facing the audience.  Lies next to the chair  on the left side, with legs facing in the same direction as those of the chair and knees raised as if in a seated position.

Sign language text:  Gebruik de zwarte borstel als je de duivel wil dopen.

                                             (“use the black brush if you want to bless the devil”)


Action 5:  Walks in a circle around the chair becoming gradually lower as if climbing down a spiral staircase.  Then when a position behind the chair is reached, sits and lifts the chair above head.

Sign language text: In de aardbeituin mocht niemand van chocolade dromen.

                                           (“in the strawberry garden no one was allowed to dream of chocolate”)




These sentences are repeated by the prerecorded voices, but begin to be gradually fragmented. Each repetition introduces another level of deconstruction, until all that is left is the constitutient particles of speech, totally without the structuring context of the language from which they were taken.  While this has happened the performers that introduced the sentences have moved away and the lighting is dimmed.  Two new performers under the dim lighting move across the performance space, each holding a chair.   With the sudden entrance of lighting from stage left and right, they begin to perform absurd obsessive gestures that are comparable to the deconstructed vocal sounds only through their short and fragmented nature.  The composition has moved into a phase of liminoid action, somewhere between sound and meaning, but where the generally accepted conception of language has been estranged.  The stage has been set for the second movement which grows from this ambiguity between language, sound and music.



“De beschaamde man wil met de engel dansen”

ZAUM-1: Afbreking

[1] Julia Kristeva, Desire in Language (CUP New York 1980): 1. The Ethics of Linguistics.

[2] Sonora:Poesia Sonora, Cramps Records (Memoria Spa, 20123 Milano):  Zaum, transmental language.

[3] Antonin Artaud , ÒTo AndrŽ GideÓ, Artaud and Theatre (ed.) Claude Schumacher

    (Methuen Drama London 1989): 5. The NRF Project.

[4] Khlebnikov, ÒZangezi,Ó The Ardis Anthology of Russian Futurism (Ardis Lakeland Press 1980).

[5] Khlebnikov, Tvoreniya (Sovyetski PisatelÕ  Moscow 1986): pg. 482.

[6] Khlebnikov, Tvoreniya (Sovyetski PisatelÕ  Moscow 1986): pg. 54.

[7] Woordenboek der Gebarentaal had evidently been produced independently, as no publication details    

 were included. The address of the author is as follows:  J. Van Doren, A. Kennisplein17, 2100 Deurne,  Belgium. 



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