for five performers and tape

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[1] flash player with fragment from ZAUM-2
[2] examples from the original score;
[3] theoretical description.


[1] flash player with excerpt from ZAUM-2Click the flash player below (once for IE, twice for MF) to play a fragment of reconstructed Russian Cubo-futurist ZAUM poetry from ZAUM-2... 


[2] pages from the original score

Some pages from the original score of this composition are included below :


[3] Theoretical Description



Russian futurism contrasted considerably to avant-garde art movements occurring around the same time in different parts of Europe, and was in fact a deliberate step away from Western influence.  The resulting work reflected a dichotomy:  a vision for the future, and an interest in ancient history.  This expressed itself through their highly innovative ways of rethinking language.  The Russian futurists remain to this day largely unrecognised and ignored, the dominant figure being the Italian futurists whose obsession with war, speed and the city makes them easier to classify under their chosen title.  There is no doubt that the Italian futurists changed the face of aesthetic values through their deconstruction of grammar, words and the pictorial image, reflecting their dislike for the rigid conventions of society.  This is the primary common factor between the Italian and the Russian futurists, although the Russians took these notions further, using this deconstruction to create something new, vital and constructive for the changing world.  The Russians certainly recognized this contrast, in fact they rejected the Italians and felt that they had surpassed them even before they became labelled with the name 'futurists'. These artists in fact rejected Western Europe entirely and were interested in Eastern Philosophy:  Benedict Livshits, an important Russian futurist poet and theoretician, described the West and the East as completely different systems of aesthetic vision and said that the Russians should recognise themselves as Asians.

A group of artists recognised for the extremity of their experimental work became known as the 'cubo-futurists'.  The name of this composition is taken from one of the primary theoretical innovations introduced by members of this group: Zaumni Yazyk (abbreviated zaum), meaning 'trans-sense language.'  This is basically a form of poetic communication that redefined language itself, but not in terms of 'meaning' in the translatable sense:  according to the cubo-futurists, poetry using language restricted by strict referential meaning and grammatical structures was no longer a valid form of artistic communication. Poetry was extended to include non-referential sounds that could nevertheless be enjoyed 'by themselves,' an attitude that had previously been confined to music.  These linguistic innovations certainly extended beyond merely the meaningless stringing together of Russian sounds and into areas of communication that had rarely  been seriously considered.  This included the theatre:  Alexei Kruchenykh (1886-1969), 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. According to Jindrich Honzl, a member of the Prague structuralist school "with the advent of the cubo-futurist theatre new materials appeared on the stage, and formerly undreamed of things acquired various representative functions."("Dynamics of the Sign in the Theatre", Semiotics of Art [MIT Press 1976])

Kruchenykh played a particularly significant role with regard to the theory and use of zaum language. He thought that the conservative literary traditions 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.[1]   These anarchic attitudes to language form the basis for the second movement, the emphasis being on the rejection of a Western model for theatre where signification predominantly and primarily occurs through the interpretation of a word-based vocabulary (the dramatic text): in Zaum-2 traditional meanings are stripped from already existing gestural and vocal models and new and ridiculous 'meaning systems' are presented in their place. Vocal material taken from a fragmentation of one of Kruchenykh's zaum poems sets the boundaries for the language invented for the prerecorded voices.  The names of the five characters on stage are actually formed from this sound pool, and these characters are constantly referred to by five voices on tape who are using a nonsense language based similarly on the Kruchenykh fragments.  The names become primary signifiers for the five performers involved: at various times in the composition, the characters are called upon by these names resulting in some important developmental change within the composition.  Overleaf is the poem itself in the form that it appeared  when it was published, followed by a translation into Russian letters, a phonetic transcription, and then the 'names' of the performers which were taken from the fragmentations.



ser[amelepeta senhl  ok rizum meleva alik a levamax li li l]b b]l     cerzhamelepyeta cenyal ock rizoom melyeva alik a levamax li li lyoub byoul[2]


Performer 1:  Ser[, Ser[ok   Serjh, Serzhok Performer 2:  Peta, Petax     Pjeta, Pjetax Performer 3:  Mel, Melok   Mjel, Mjelok Performer 4:  Alik, Alikom               Alik, Alikom Performer 5:  Zum, Zumok               Zoom, Zoomok[3]

    Development in this part of the composition is presented by a constant transformation between 'theatrical' and 'musical' states that is brought about by contrasting performance situations that allude to theatrical 'meaning' with totally 'meaningless' gestures/sounds:  the composition begins with performers adopting potentially 'meaningful' gestures which form into an amusing musical pattern (almost without sound), just as the composition ends after a musical vocal composition develops into a performance that alludes to Russian 'slapstick' theatre.  The purpose is to explore points of ambiguity between 'musical' and 'theatrical' communication.  The central section of Zaum-2 uses this ambiguity to create an absurd 'performance' language. A simple series of movements taken from Zaum-1 are brought to life by prerecorded vocal sounds. After a number of repetitions the movements become associated with these vocal sounds, and therefore a new 'performance' language is created before the eyes of the audience.


Characters   A performance of Zaum-2 requires the use of five actors to play the roles of five individual 'characters'.  These characters are not representative of individual human figures and have no predefined characteristics.  As such, being genderless and ageless, the actors can be freely chosen for the different roles depending on who is suited best to which role.    The characters are distinguished firstly by a number and a name.  In the score, the numbers 1 to 5 refer to the recorded voices, and the names (written in the Cyrillic alphabet) refer to the live performers on stage.  The five prerecorded voices always refer and affect (in a number of different ways) the actions of the same performer on stage, and it is therefore assumed that the voices of an actor will read/perform the corresponding vocal line to his/her chosen role.  The numbers are sometimes used to refer to the live performers on stage especially in diagrams demonstrating movement across the stage.  In any case, the numbers and the names refer always to the same performer/voice as listed below:   1         Ser[  Blue Jacket 2         Peta  Yellow Jacket 3         Mel             Grey Jacket 4         Alik   Green Jacket 5         Zum            Red Jacket   Requirements   The costume requirements for Zaum-2 are very simple.  The performers are required to wear a black costume that facilitates movement.  This can take the form of a black dress shirt and a pair of loose trousers. The clothing should in any case not be skin tight.  Each of the performers requires a different coloured dress jacket.  These jackets are relatively important because the only way the characters can be distinguished on stage is through the colour of the jacket which he/she wears.  The identity of any actor has little significance, and thus an actor could change roles during the performance simply by changing jackets.  The list above includes the colour of the jackets required by the performers.  The colours should be as striking as possible to assist in distinguishing the characters.  Five matching hats are also required during the performance and act both to recall the period of the Russian futurists as well as to perform various functions during the progress of the composition.  These hat should resemble detective hats typical for the period of the futurists and the colour is preferably black.   The only stage items necessary are matching chairs.  If a performance of this work follows a performance of Zaum-1 five chairs will be necessary, but if Zaum-2 is performed alone only three chairs are needed.  These chairs should be sturdy and made of wood, preferably painted black and not too heavy.  At the beginning of the performance the chairs should be lined up in a row facing the audience along the back of the stage and are required for use only in the third section of the composition: End Play.

Zaum-2 is divided into three sections;  (i) Beginning Time,                                                                         (ii) Vertolk Middel,                                                                         (iii) End Play.       Section 1: Beginning Time Lighting emerges on the five performers, who stand side-by-side centre stage close by the audience, staring blankly as if entirely disinterested in the performance event.  It begins first with the performers using certain gestures seemingly at random:   coughing, checking watch, clearing throat, sighing etc.  At first the pauses between the gestures are excruciatingly long, and it appears as if the performers are waiting for something to happen.  The audience is directly confronted with 'out of frame' activity, material that is both non-musical and non-theatrical, but which is obviously impossible to disattend because the performers have already been recognised as such and are standing in the centre of the stage.[4]  These gestures are soon rendered absurd when they are repeated and patterns begin to form, revealing that there is actually more at work than simply the presentation of impatient performers.  This soon forms into a musical structure when the gestures form part of a simple repeated rhythmic series, changing completely the interpretative possibilities.       Section 2: Vertolk Middel The tape part emerges around the live performance ensemble with whispered conversational vocal sounds that appear to come from nowhere. A sudden loud sibilant sound (Shh!) stills the ensemble who were previously performing the absurd rhythmic gestures.  The five voices on tape are speaking a language that seems to resemble Russian.  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 sounds emerge.  A number of whispered sounds on the tape lead to a shouted command which brings the ensemble to attention.  Then vocal commands are shouted causing individual performers to move to different positions on the stage, until all members of the ensemble are positioned in specified places around the performance space.  Simple syllabic vocal  sounds[5]  become represented on the stage by simple movements from the performers (the raising of an arm, turning of the head etc.); the voices appear to be commanding the performers to move.  The same vocal sound comes to represent the same movement for a certain performer, and a number of the vocal sounds are shared by all the performers.  In other words, a 'semiotic code' is created on the stage, where the audience is deliberately directed into recognising  an entirely  new, be it limited, 'stage language.'  Ambiguity is presented by the contrast between the symbolic nature of the language when it appears that the sounds act as movement commands, and the indexical nature of the sounds on tape which set up an intrinsic relationship between certain sounds and certain movements.  The sound in itself becomes the movement, and a sound-based movement composition is performed. This absurd presentation of  a language system is theoretically provocative, parodying theatre forms which use always the same form of preset language conventions to communicate in the theatre.


    The vocal/movement sounds on tape become more frequent until finally all the performers are moving in reaction to the cassette.  A point of development is reached where 'movement words' are formed by the syllabic Russian fragments, and each performer has a specific 'word' which he must perform.    After a climactic point where all the voices are reading these performance words simultaneously, the voices one by one stop and the ensemble on stage is still.  Then the names of the performers are called and one by one they move into specified positions surrounding the performance space.        Section 3: End Play The lighting fades out and the sound of voices in whispered conversation can be heard from the tape.  This develops into a musical structure based on the transferal of whispered words that allude to some sort of conspiratorial conversation into sibilant sounds stooped of theatrical 'meaning'.  After further development ending with the chanting of Russian syllables, the climax is reached: a loud declamation from voice three results in the lights being brought up suddenly. Two performers are spotlighted centre stage presenting a theatrical fragment almost in slow motion in which one of the two appears to punch the other in the face.   The three remaining performers surrounding the spotlight are revealed applauding wildly.  A number of short scenes are presented by the same two performers, separated by changing the colour of the lighting to differentiate the divisions. The others introduce these scenes by reading sections from the complete zaum poem by Kruchenykh that was fragmented to form the nonsense language used previously.  Performer three, evidently dissatisfied with this short performance, stands suddenly and shouts a text fragment in Russian taken from a different Kruchenykh text: "Lets quickly put an end to this worthless comic act."[6]   The entrance of this text brings about recorded animal sounds which quickly throw the performance into chaos.  The Kruchenykh text spreads from one performer to the other (in a number of different languages) as the farmyard animals become louder and louder, resulting finally in the recorded voices screaming the work 'nyet'.  The five performers are suddenly silent and shrug their shoulders slowly and simultaneously in the direction of an unseen observer beyond the stage.  The performance space is then quickly brought into darkness.

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

[2] Kruchenykh Explodity (1914):  Lithographed page of zaum writing illustrated by Kulbin.

[3] These names also form the name fragments which result in the incantation of the performers at the

     beginning of Zaum-1.

[4] Non-standard material was also readily adopted in Russian futurist performance.

[5] These vocal sounds have been taken freely from the Russian alphabet.

[6] Alexei Kruchenykh, Slovo Kak Takovoe (Moscow 1913): pg. 11



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