Paper presented at the International Summer Congresses for Structural
and Semiotic Studies, Imatra, Finland, June 10-16, 1995.
words without meaning or meaning without words?
Towards a Musical Understanding of Language...
The primary purpose of this paper is to outline the background to current research
I am involved with in exploring the communicative function of music. According
to my own experience in learning something of the ritual-based performance traditions
of other cultures, I have long realised that 'music' is much more than simply
the sound it makes:
it is a complex cultural occurrence that is involved with many different levels
of interaction. The basis for this theoretical work can be traced back to an
experimental music-theatre composition of my own creation that was completed
in 1993. This composition adopted musical sound poems from the Russian avant-garde,
the purpose being to extend traditional attitudes to the use of text in the
theatre. This was to have more theoretical implications than I at first had
realised, and in the context of this paper the social and theoretical significance
of the avant-garde for music communication theory will be explored. It will
be demonstrated that models taken from linguistics are limited in providing
an access to the communicative nature of 'music', although language itself can
perform similar functions to the 'musical experience.' This analogy is used
to extend traditional definitions of music to include all types of human cultural
behaviour. The ultimate goal will be to present suggestions for a new music
communication model that will have practical application for a larger context
than simply western 'art' music. This will involve a rethinking of the ways
the experience of 'music' can be interpreted in the context of the complete
cultural experience, and the poetry of the Russian avant-garde will be able
to help us along this path.
As a composer of experimental music-theatre interested in exploring musical
structures hidden within language, and music as a communication system within
culture, it would be helpful to define what is meant by the term 'experimental
music-theatre'. According to Mauricio Kagel, a major exponent of this relatively
new genre "New Music-Theatre is not a stylistically fixed form of theatre existing
alongside others, but rather the application of musical thought to the elements
of theatre-words, light and tone-colours and tempi", and is based on the concept
that "musical completeness can be conveyed even with the residue of a plot."1
As a consequence of this, the New Music-Theatre is involved with the dissolution
of traditionally accepted boundaries within the performance world-ballet, opera,
stage-play and concert music to name a few-and is a term that can be linked
to avant-garde art movements which have deliberately reacted against these conservative
In my case the movement towards searching for a 'musical structure' within language
was borne out of a dissatisfaction with the sort of symbolic environment I was
provided with in my education and in social life, beginning with the language
and extending to all elements of the culture. I was drawn to musical communication
as written/spoken language was for me a symbolically insufficient means of expression,
although I gradually came to realise that my alienation extended also to the
musical world that was forced upon me in the context of my education: the western
musical tradition was presented to me as if it was only system I could use to
understand musical experience. The symbolic world connected with western musical
traditions seemed insufficient and out of place, and I was led to try and create
my own 'musical' languages based on totally contrasting conceptions of musical
experience that were wantonly borrowed from other cultures; comparable to the
Russian avant-garde whose work will be discussed in this paper.
The decision to become a composer, then, was more than simply an expression
of an interest in music, it was an expression of an interest in communication
in the complete context of this concept. The only solution to my alienation
from the limitations of spoken language was a movement towards a form of musical
language which could communicate structures directly, not having to go via the
inconvenient medium of words. The practical expression of my compositions has
been accompanied by a desire to find a theoretical
language that could help me to understand and communicate to others precisely
what it is that my music-theatre is trying to communicate about the musical
experience. This resulted in a realisation that the initial negativity that
had resulted in a creative storm of 'new theatre language' forms could actually
be used in a positive way to help develop a theoretical dialogue for music in
culture, extending a more traditional western perspective that is to a large
extent only capable of encompassing western conceptions of a sound-based music.
This paper concerns my encounter with the Russian avant-garde and the implications
that the work of Russian avant-garde poetry could have on our perceptions of
language and music, as expressed in an experimental music-theatre composition
in which traditional notions of theatrical language are thrown into reverse
in order to present a contrasting vision of musical communication.
First a questioning of some long held musical myths. According to the Oxford
Dictionary music can be defined as the "art of combining sounds of voice(s)
or instrument(s) to achieve beauty of form and expression of emotion; pleasant
sound."2 The western avant-garde musical tradition has successfully turned this
definition inside out by saying that music is not necessarily about 'pleasant'
sounds, echoing in the theories of Adorno who preached for a new music which
would be used as a tool to represent social dissatisfaction.3 This may have
been a step in the right direction, although the notion of music as a strictly
aural experience remains a strong western attribute, connected to other distinctions
separating creative forms into different categories. According to Robert Kaufmann
"the Western distinction between music and dance helps but little in understanding
African music because in African musical cultures it is irrelevant. Movement
patterns transcend these two spheres."4 In many non-western cultures, including
Indian and Indonesian cultures, there is simply no distinction between music
and dance, just as in the regional languages of Indonesia there is simply no
word that defines music as a discourse on its own. John Blacking, a music theoretician
who is famous for his theoretical explorations involved with ethnomusicology,
expressed his knowledge by saying that "'musical intelligence' cannot be defined
in strictly acoustical terms, and that although its most characteristic and
effective embodiment is in music-making, it is a basic intelligence prompting
many kinds of action."5 With this definition, music is defined as a way of thinking
and experiencing reality, and can be expressed in social life in any number
of different forms. Music is, therefore, no longer restricted to any form of
aesthetic distinctions, but rather a particular way of thinking and communicating.
At this stage I would like to posit that 'musical' experience is a complex social
one involving an array of interactions between 'musical' and other levels of
cultural experience: music does not exist in a vacuum but is inextricably bonded
to cultural life in ways that we are perhaps not even aware.
So how does this relate to the Russian avant-garde? The title of the music-theatre
composition which will be discussed in this paper is ZAUM, which is a word used
by a group of extremist Russian avant-garde artists who became known as the
cubo-futurists. The term was actually 'invented' for use in poetry that had
no translatable 'meaning'; words were used that could not be found in the officially
recognised dictionary. The use of altered or enhanced language was at that time
not entirely 'new', and the cubo-futurists were certainly influenced by the
symbolist poetry that preceded them, but the surprising factor is the remarkable
amount of ways in which this type of poetry was to manifest itself during such
a brief artistic period (beginning around 1910 and ending around the time of
the Russian revolution some seven years later). Traditional conceptions of language
bound within the strict confines of grammar and the connotation of socially
indoctrinated meanings were completely 'turned inside out' as represented by
the title of one of the famous books published during this period called 'Mirskontsa'
or 'The World-Backwards.'6 The tired language left behind by the symbolists
was considered unsatisfactory for the new poetic communication, and traditional
concepts of sound and meaning were completely rethought. This led to the creation
of 'Zaumni Yazik' or 'trans-sense language' that was later to be abbreviated
to simply 'zaum.' Armed with zaum, the futurists were to change
the face of poetry by introducing non-referential sounds that could nevertheless
be enjoyed 'by themselves', an attitude previously confined to music. This was
an untranslatable language; one that would supposedly communicate directly with
the subconscious; one that would transcend all traditionally accepted kinds
of discourse; one that could only be brought about in such a time of political,
social and economic turbulence. In a manifesto presented in one of their early
books, the cubo-futurists presented a demanding programme for the deconstruction
of traditional language which was to find its complete expression in zaum.
Below is a selection from this manifesto:
- We have ceased to look at word formation and word pronunciation according
to grammar rules, beginning to see in letters only the determinants of speech.
We have shaken syntax loose.
- We have begun to attach meaning to words according to their graphic and phonic
- We have abolished punctuation, which for the first time brings the role of
the verbal mass consciously to the fore.
- We think of vowels as space and time; consonants are colour, sound and smell.7
With this manifesto the door was opened to a new dimension of poetry, one in
which the emphasis was no longer on meaning but rather on the 'sound' of the
poetry. The painter-turned-poet Alexei Kruchenykh (1886-1969), who was to become
the primary theoretician for the group, wrote that: "words are in chains, subordinated
to meaning. The futurists have invented a language which is free, transmental
The resulting texts in their total rejection of traditional language are unfortunately
inaccessible for the audience of today; they don't provide useful language-based
footholds to connect the reader with the inner meaning of the text, leading
one to suggest that the texts have reduced cultural significance. The title
of this paper poses the question: does zaum poetry use words without
meaning, or does zaum poetry create a meaning-based context (or structure)
in which the words are of little significance but the structure itself is of
paramount importance for the transferal of meaning. In my experience the second
choice aptly refers to the significance of zaum texts and is our first
connection with musical meaning. It is clear that the ZAUM texts are only 'meaningless'
from a very restricted linguistic-semantic perspective; these language creations,
like musical formations, are only meaningless in that they cannot be directly
translatable into a more logically accessible language form. In a historical
context they played a very meaningful role, acting as tools with which traditional
society was brought into question. They did this by questioning the way in which
language in the form of literature had been used to express 'meaning', reacting
against the stifling literary conventions, although this use of zaum
was to be quickly extended to other art forms, acting ultimately to question
the structure of the society itself. The symbolic load of the western avant-garde
musical tradition can also be viewed in the same context. The reaction against
conservative musical traditions resulted in the creation of cacophonous sound
happenings that were to make an important comment on the stifling rhythmic and
tonal conventions of classical music which seemed to have little significance
in the contemporary world. This level of music pragmatics in which the social
significance of musical experience is explored will quickly reveal itself to
be only one level on a multi-levelled communication structure.
The poems that were to come under the title of 'zaum' were to reveal a number
of exciting surprises that went further than simply an avant-garde reaction
to conservative literary traditions: sound in the form of words was used to
communicate totally different concepts uniting the language experience with
the musical as never before had been experienced. Probably resulting from influences
taken directly and indirectly from eastern art and philosophy where ritual symbolism
and mysticism still play an important role, a magical, even mystical, concept
of language was explored. Livshits, a member of the futurist circle
came to the conclusion that "we should recognise ourselves as Asians and rid
our European Yoke."9 This resulted in an exploration of the essence of the communicative
experience which included the musical structures embedded somewhere within the
logic of language and the 'illogicality' of music. At this point I would like
to posit that the cubo-futurist texts provide us with an entrance into new theoretical
terrain. These artists tried to do something quite extraordinary with language:
to subvert culturally defined language structures and communicate directly with
a part of the subconscious connected with 'musical' experience. Experimental
music-theatre is also involved with this deconstruction represented by the rejection
of traditional western musical thinking which states that music is restricted
to aural experience. It is also interesting to note that my own alienation from
western musical traditions led similarly to encounters with 'eastern' culture
in the form of Indonesian and Indian music and dance: these forms presented
an extended insight into the musical experience. By forming a musical composition
with as a basis these cubo-futurist texts as musical material, I was hoping
to make the first steps to extend this theoretical dialogue.
The text based nature of these apparently 'musical' creations seemed a logical
starting point for the formation of this dialogue. My approach to the Russian
texts had been largely influenced by later theoretical developments that were
to see the extension of language into the context of communication systems within
'culture'. On this level, music moves onto the same plane as language because
they can both be conceived as being 'artificial' communication systems created
within a culture to perform functions for the purpose of signification, and
music therefore is open to analysis from a similar theoretical source. This
is a strong conceptual tool in a development of cultural theory, but remains
on its own insufficient to encompass music, largely because musical experience
remains 'untranslatable' into any type of language discourse. Kristeva has already
noted that the communication models emerging from semiotics are useful only
for analysing "those social practices which subserve such social exchange: a
semiotics that records the systematic, systematising, or informational aspect
of signifying practices."10 Despite the fact that it is problematic to view
music under the same theoretical light as language, a model taken from linguistics
may be of use: as a part of 'generative' or 'universal' grammar generally attributed
to Chomsky, who suggested that language is a result of the expression of a 'biologically
endowed faculty', a model for language was presented in which universally applicable
'mathematical structures were used to understand linguistic expression. This
was a linguistics divorced from semantics that concentrated on the cognitive
realisation of language as thought processes, one in which "the formal, syntactic
mechanism of the recursive whole of language"11 is realised. According to Kristeva,
"Chomsky claims to be more of an analyst of psychological structures than a
linguist"12 which could be of interest to us in discussing a musical model:
could it be said that the differing expressions of musical traditions are only
different on a surface level, that the thought processes that affect the way
music is perceived and understood are essentially shared by all humans? Could
'music' be a basic expression of internal processes?
This possibility is explored in the context of the music-theatre composition
ZAUM which uses a selection of the cubo-futurist texts to create a 'music-language'
that only has meaning in the context of the composition itself. During the process
of the work, elements from traditional theatre discourses are 'illogically'
recombined as dictated by the musical structure; all of the events within the
work are only 'meaningful' in this musical context. Through this adoption of
a musical structure that affects the way the performers act and interact with
one another on stage, it is suggested that Blacking's 'musical intelligence'
could have a greater impact on social life than is currently recognised. Perhaps
it could be said that 'musical thinking', in its expression of naturally occurring
internal structures, affects the way we think, behave and interact with others.
The poetry of three of the primary zaum poets has been integrated: Velimir
Khlebnikov (1885-1922), Alexei Kruchenykh (1886-1969) and Vasily Kamensky (1884-1961).
Each had their own individual attitude to the use of zaum, presenting
contrasting but equally valid concepts which resulted in the production of different
poetic styles. For Khlebnikov poetry was not an end in itself or a 'realistic'
description of reality, but a means of exploration and discovery of language
and new forms. Khlebnikov dreamed of creating a universal language of pure concepts
clearly expressed by speech sounds, and his quest resulted in the exploration
of chants, spells and ritual languages. Kruchenykh was to become the primary
supporter and theoretician of zaum, which he saw as a leading mode of
expression. He believed that zaum language was "demanded by the confused
character of contemporary life and served as an antidote to the paralysis of
common language."13 This was a reaction against the obsession with meaning,
reason, psychology and philosophy presented by the conservative literary traditions.
Vasily Kamensky presented an alternative emphasis through his use of zaum:
after stating that language by its existence as sound was essentially a form
of music: he asserted that poets should have complete freedom in choosing their
own path for poetic communication. A literary critic involved with the cubo-futurists
wrote that "perhaps none has felt the sound as an aim in itself, as a unique
joy, as Vasily Kamensky."14
The zaum texts themselves are presented in the performance in a manner
that seems at first to be illogical or absurd, remaining faithful to cubo-futurist
theatre. As such, the performance acts to parody traditional forms of western
theatre that rely on restricting coding systems, and observers have likened
the composition to an expression of the restriction of life in a communist society.
On a deeper level, the more complex nature of zaum language is explored,
the seeming illogicality giving way to a broader discussion of the relationship
between language, sound and music; something that concerned all the zaum
poets, no matter how different the results were. A performance is created
in which all theatrical and musical elements have the potential to be meaning-bearing
vehicles in a language based on mathematical or 'musical' structures; theatrical
'events' are presented in which five characters move, speak and react to musical
and vocal sounds coming from a prerecorded tape. These five 'characters' are
without any sort of individual identity: beginning as empty shells, the musical
language that structures their somewhat limited existence is 'learnt' by the
performers during the composition.
The complete ZAUM work is a full scale three-movement composition, each of the
separate movements adopting the zaum poetry of one of the three poets.
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 sound-based
communicative forms. The three movements of the work are linked together by
a narrative concerning the learning of this 'music-language' by the characters.
This language, as limited as it may seem to the audience, is the only tools
that the characters have to perceive reality. Zaum-1, the first movement of
the composition, begins in a state without language, only silence followed by
noise and darkness, a complete absence of structure. As the work develops, musical
sounds become linked with vocal sounds and movements, and the performers become
totally engulfed in the process. Gradually this complete immersion is reduced,
and the music begins less and less to structure the vocal sounds and the movements.
Designed to represent the abstraction of sound from meaning in spoken language
resulting in the arbitrary nature of the sounds we now use, 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.
In Zaum-2, the sound-movement language developed in Zaum-1 is adopted by the
performers in order to represent the restriction of the symbolic load of western
theatrical conventions and on a deeper level a dissatisfaction with socially
indoctrinated communication systems, whether that be music or language based:
an expression of the avant-garde reaction against cultural enforcement. Zaum-3,
the final movement, attempts to move beyond the binds of traditional theatre
language. 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. The intended symbolic purpose of this division is a representation
of music as much more than simply an aural experience, but a force that affects
the way we think and act, one in which when provided in the context of a cultural
experience provides freedom and unity that is not attainable in any other way.
The first movement of the composition presents an exploration of Khlebnikov's
attitude to zaum poetry. Khlebnikov believed 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 vocal sound itself was believed to have deep mythical significance. According
to 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."15 Characteristic of Khlebnikov's work is an attempt to construct
a language of hieroglyphs from abstract concepts, sometimes called the 'stellar'
or 'universal' language. In the composition, a text taken from a Khlebnikov
zaum poem is used in which the poet strives for a direct connection between
sound and meaning:
Soum of me Soum menh
And of those I don't know I tex, kogo ne zna]
In this excerpt a ritual-like state is evoked by the use of the "oom" sound
group which is translatable as 'mind' or 'sense' from Russian. Khlebnikov formed
this new 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. Khlebnikov's belief in a connection between meaning,
sound, music, colour and emotion is brought to expression in the composition:
on stage chanting of the text is accompanied by an inevitably recurring musical
structure and a cyclical movement series in which the performers are totally
engulfed. It is important to note here that the quest for such a 'universal'
language was not restricted to Khlebnikov or even the cubo-futurists. A great
deal of avant-garde art in the twentieth century has been involved with a search
for this ur-sprache, this 'musical' communication which subverts the
arbitrariness of verbal languages and communicates directly with ur-structures
present in the subconscious. Innes,18 in his discussion of the connection between
ritual and the avant-garde, wrote that "beneath variations in style and theme
there appears a dominant interest in the irrational and primitive" which has
been involved with the exploration of "subconscious levels of the psyche" and
experimentation with "ritualistic patterning of performance." According to Hugo
Ball, the primary poet and theoretician of the Dada movement "the classical
tradition obliterated from language the unexplainable, mystical properties of
sound, and it has fallen to the avant-garde to rediscover and appropriate it."19
One can not help making a connection between Khlebnikov's zaum and a
form of thinking in which 'musical intelligence' is brought into action. Bateson
has suggested that "algorithms of the unconscious are coded and organised in
a manner totally different from the algorithms of language."20 It has been suggested
"that these deep and unconscious codings of culture deal not with content but
with pattern. The foundations of art-templates of symmetry and pattern, of rhythm
and harmony, the bases of poetry and music and metaphor-may lie in realms of
mind and brain that are relatively inaccessible to systematic analysis and relatively
impervious to logical dissection and formal description."21 Zaum-1, in adopting
texts by Khlebnikov, is involved with the gradual transferal within language
from such a 'musical state of meaning' that was dreamed about by artists such
as Khlebnikov, to the language of today consisting of sound symbols arbitrarily
connected to meanings.
We move now to the second movement of the composition. Alexei 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
and suggested that the 'emptier' the poetic imagination, the more creative and
fruitful the poetic result: "the penetration of the mysteries beyond the rational
world."22 Vocal material taken from a fragmentation of one of Kruchenykh's zaum
poems sets the boundaries for the language invented for use by the characters.
This poem employs Slavic vocal sounds and therefore distantly alludes to the
Russian language, even though the poem itself uses no 'words' that can be found
in a dictionary. This example also demonstrates the integration of the text
in a graphic format, where the words are almost indistinguishable from the other
alik a levamax
li li lyoub byoul23
In the context of the composition, this poem is deconstructed and an artificial
language is formed in which vocal sounds recorded on tape are arbitrarily connected
to movements on the stage. The recorded voices appear at first to be commanding
the performers to move when simple syllabic vocal sounds become represented
on the stage by simple movements such as the raising of an arm or the turning
of the head. A 'semiotic code' is created on the stage, where the audience is
deliberately directed into recognising a 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. A point of development
is reached where 'movement words' are formed by the syllabic Russian fragments,
and each performer has a specific movement 'word' which he or she must perform
as the text is spoken:
Vzzzz MY! MY! MY! MY! WI! MY! MY! MY! MY! OV
[Vzzzz Me! Me! Me! Me! Zhi! Me! Me! Me! Me! OV]
It is interesting to note here that the sound 'vz' implies an upward movement,
which in the context of the Zaum-2 forces the right hand of the performer into
the air. The performers become 'puppets' to the language, continually repeating
the simple movement series as dictated by the recorded texts. This is a direct
representation of a feeling of being 'trapped' within a language system, and
is one which unites the alienation I have experienced from my own language and
culture, and the extreme avant-gardism of the cubo-futurists: the restricting
literary conventions of the time left one without a personal voice, the 'languages'
with which the poets were provided were rejected outright and new languages
were presented in their place. My intention, however, in the second movement
of the composition was twofold. In addition to demonstrating the restrictions
of language that bring about avant-garde behaviour that resulted in the creation
of zaum language, 'music' can be seen as providing a similar level of
restriction, even when viewed in its sound-based form. By observing and listening
to the phenomenon of contemporary popular music in social action, one cannot
help noticing that the movements performed by the dancers are not simply culturally
determined manifestations, but are dictated within the structures of the music
itself; one does feel like a 'puppet' within the music. This is certainly true
of Indonesian and Indian dance music which only allows certain movement patterns
to occur within its structures. According to Kealiinohomuko dance is seen as
a "multi-dimensional cognate to music," suggesting that its performance brings
about "a variety of physiological changes" and creates "innumerable side-effects
through a complex of interaction." Since dance and performance of sound are
considered in many cultures to be a basic expression of the same experience,
one could be led to suggest that music even in our culture could have similar
physiological or psychological affects. This opens the discussion to the suggestion
of an essential connection between performance patterns and human behaviour,
and leads directly to the last section of the composition.
Vasily Kamensky played an important role as a Russian futurist, being responsible
for the development and elaboration of certain avant-garde poetic techniques.
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 phonic
instrumentation, and in particular with the possibilities offered by onomatopoeic
procedures which became represented more and more often in the form of musical
structures. The structure of the third movement, in adopting some of the attitudes
to language characteristic of Kamensky, uses the rhythms behind the text to
structure the musical development within the composition. A dance-music-language
is created by extending the following musical zaum poem by Kamensky,
which in a semantic context is entirely 'meaningless':
Sound Poem from Vasily Kamensky:
Cin-drax-tam-dzzz. Chin-drax-tam-dzzz. 24
A coherence between verbal sounds and movements within a musical structure is
clearly recognisable in forms of Indian dance. Bharatanatyam, a South-Indian
temple dance form, as with almost all Indian dance forms, uses a language known
as 'bols' which communicates information to both the dancer and the musician.
A 'bol' is commonly translated as a mnemonic syllable. It is taken to signify
a letter or group of letters roughly similar to the sounds produced by the impact
of the dancer's feet on the floor, or the drummer's varied handiwork on the
drums, functioning to dictate movements and foot stamping sequences to the performer
and at the same time drumming patterns to the musician. Here the syllabic sounds
bring about the dance performance. The following example is taken from a performance
ta lang goe ta ka ta dhin ghi nha thom
ta-tay -tay ta-tam
ki-ta-ta-ka ta-tay -tay ta- tam
ki-ta-ta-ka tam dhé tham
tay ta thay
tam dhé tham
tay ta thay
ta tay ta ha
dhi tay ta ha
dhi dhi tay
dhi dhi tay
dhi dhi tay
dhi dhi tay25
This 'language of rhythms' is used primarily to structure the parts of the performance
which involve only abstract dance and music, which are known as 'nritta'. According
to an Indian theoretician discussing nritta meaning is transmitted through
the "detail of relatedness between the bols of a pattern - perhaps mere limpid
succession, or the build-up and release of a tension, or even the projection
of a single syllable in a kind of wedge in the flow of rhythm."26 Saxena goes
on to say that this abstract 'world of dance' cannot be compared to the world
of everyday existence; "but there is nothing to prevent our taking it as
yet a world in its own right." During a performance of 'nritta' a dance-music
world is created in which abstract musical structures suggesting tension and
release are played out; in which the dancer always returns to a central position
of balance. One could suggest that this 'abstract' dramatic expression is more
than simply a beautiful and athletic display of physical prowess and musical
virtuosity, but an important musical experience in which basic structures within
the mind are brought into cultural form. Here the musical experience is a complex
one involved with the simultaneous occurrence of language, movement and instrumental
music, in addition to that level provided by its entirety both to the performer
and the audience.
In Zaum-3, the text by Kamensky is extended into such a dance language in which
the movements of the performers become dictated by the rhythmic sounds of the
text, just as musical lines develop beneath the sounds of the voices. The composition
reaches its most complex when all five performers are involved in the music-dance
performance, bringing to life the 'dance texts' recited at different speeds
but combining to form a symmetrical whole. All the characters perform together
in an entirety that allows for simultaneous performance of different rhythmic
levels, which despite their differences are bonded together by the larger repeating
musical structures. In performance of Indonesian music and dance, this binding
of different levels of complexity into a whole allows for a kind of unity which
is not immediately perceivable in performances of western classical music, reflecting
in a unique way an 'unspoken' cultural unity, one that is expressed through
the structures within the music and the the nature of the instruments which
allow for the inclusion of different levels of musical proficiency: everyone
can, and is expected to participate in some form.
The analogy presented by the last movement of this composition is intimately
involved with a concept of musical meaning whereby a close bond is presented
between musical structures and a feeling of complete involvement in a given
social structure; a realisation that one is involved in a system that is shared
by others. From my own experience in performing Bharatanatyam, the dancer becomes
completely engulfed by the text, music and movement which he or she performs,
both physically and mentally and this acts as an analogy for this cultural enclosure.
On a symbolic level, the use of sound elements to control the actors like puppets
during the performance functions not only to demonstrate the restrictions of
these cultural 'languages', but to suggest that 'musical' structures hidden
in the subconscious underlie human 'cultural' behaviour and affect the way we
think about and experience reality. In the context of this paper I would like
to suggest that music is an essential part of social existence, being a cultural
expression that has symbolic value both to the individual because it is an expression
of internal structures, and to the culture because it can be used creatively
in a cultural context to provide unity.
I would like to conclude by returning to the Russian zaum texts. As demonstrated
in this paper, these musical texts are 'meaningful' on many different levels
and have provided us with some new theoretical possibilities from a musical
context. On a personal level, I have realised that there is a strong relationship
between the cubo-futurists' avant-gardistic rejection of traditional language
forms which resulted in the adoption of zaum with my own theatre work
which reacted against that division within culture that inform us that 'music'
fits into a certain mould. As demonstrated to me by the physical experiencing
of music and dance forms from other cultures, I am aware that the way music
is actually experienced is merely a cultural creation, and my move towards a
new type of music-language was a natural step to take in a clear dissatisfaction
with my own culture. As a consequence of this we can see that musical experience
need not only be viewed from the perspective of aural sound, that music can,
in fact, be extended to include many different types of cultural experience.
Music as the expression of culturally accepted sound structures may be the most
common way that a musical understanding is produced for general consumption
in society, but it can not be considered the only way to experience music. Using
this as a given it is possible to try and lay the groundwork for an extended
At the end of the journey that makes up the music-theatre composition Zaum we
are left with a number of different levels within which musical meaning can
be viewed, spanning from the ways in which music affects our everyday social
existence to a deeper level in which music is considered as the expression of
structures within the subconscious that affect our thought processes. It is
possible to grade these levels on four planes, beginning with the surface level
and moving on each descending level further into the realm of 'musical' thinking:
(1) On a surface level, music interacts with social life affecting our everyday
existence in many different ways. This spans from uniting us with a certain
cultural group or simply demonstrating that we belong to a certain social class.
(2) Music provides a structural bed in which other social and ritual functions
can take place. This stresses the importance of viewing music within a wider
cultural context. On this level, interaction between music and other discourses
could be examined. This would include the role of musical experience in dance
and ritual, as well as the ways language is used in combination with music to
help make the musical experience accessible to those involved.
(3) The musical environment provided by our culture surrounds us and influences
our behaviour. Careful cultural crafting designs it in such a way that it can
be used both to restrict behaviour, as well as helping to provide one with tools
in which these cultural expressions help one to encompass reality.
(4) Musical experience can be said to be a direct cultural expression of structures
within the subconscious of every individual, forming an important tool for both
self-understanding and for the understanding of ourselves within culture.
Encompassing these levels of music experience into a usable theoretical model
is the primary goal of my new research project which is involved in exploring
the role of music in the life of the Balinese. By examining the complex role
that music plays in other cultures, the intention is to develop a theory that
will have significance also to the complex role of music-in all its possible
appearances- in western society. At this point it is impossible to present any
definitive statements regarding such a music-communication model, although I
would like to add at this point that new streams of thought influencing the
music of today can help point us in the right direction. It can be sensed that
contemporary 'classical' music is being influenced in two major areas:
(1) a move towards the influence of popular music (exploration of cultural
(2) a move to express different types of structure in music-such as DNA or quantum
theory-that are not created within the context of cultural experience (exploration
of natural structures).
These observations help me to form two major divisions in which music can be
(1) The importance of music in relationship to other cultural structures.
This involves an exploration of the importance of music in ritual, dance
and theatre. This theoretical standpoint begins with the assumption that ritual
theatrical events act largely as symbolic expressions of cultural needs; complicated
meaning-based structures in which music can be seen as only playing a role in
combination with other communication systems.
(2) The importance of music as a biologically structured way of thinking.
This area of exploration is involved with how we 'think' musically, and is concerned
with musical structures that exist in our subconscious. It is more concerned
with music as a direct expression of biological structures than as an expression
of cultural systems. In this way, it is involved with the type of structures
that music communicates.
Kristeva has also encountered these two dimensions in her studies of semiotics.
She suggested that a possible way for semiotic theory to develop would open
itself to influences both from the conscious and the unconscious world, in which
'meaning' is considered in terms of the signifying process itself rather
than the more traditional sign-system analogy, resulting in influences provided
by "on the one hand bio-physiological processes" and on the other hand "social
constraints."27 The collision between these two levels as viewed from the perspective
of musical experience will certainly be an important dimension of my research,
representing a general level of controversy in contemporary cultural/anthropological
research. To what extent is our musical knowledge culturally based and to what
extent is it inherent and biological? To what extent is musical experience an
expression of cultural values and to what extend it it a deeper expression of
'musical' thinking? How can we compare these two contrasting levels of human-cultural
experience? Where does culture end and music begin?
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