Art &Technology
- Russian Futurism

Confining oneself to a summary account of the Khlebnikovian zaum, one can identify three underlying principles. First of all verbopoesis (slovotvorcestvo). Khlebnikov was an assidious worker of verbal materials, a relentless excavator in the vocabulary: the sound of a root induced him to imagine in it a significative potential that the common language had not developed. Working with prefixes and suffixes, substantivizing adjectives and verbalizing nouns, he created a magical linguistic overworld in which he moved with absorbed mien: "verbal formation by way of the morphological mutation of words is transformed in Khlebnikov from a linguistic experiment into an aesthetic fact" (Stepanov).

1. Esorcismo col riso (1908) (0:35)

Performed by Valerij Voskobojnikov
Recorded February 1977 in Milan
from the LP Futura Poesia Sonora (Cramps Records, Milan)

In "Exorcism with rice" (1906-8) we find the archetype of verbopoiesis. The rituality of exorcism (which induces the attribution of a shaman-like intonation to the conception of poetry) contributes to the transformation of the work on the root of smech (= rice) into a sort of linguistic initiation ceremony. Clearly, this is onl one of the man possible variants of Khlebnikovian verbopoiesis, and one of the more elementary; but, perhaps for that very reason, it is also one of the most efficacious.

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 series of words able to be considered homogeneous as regards some feature - independent meanings, which he meticulously listed. Here again the laboratory is transformed into aesthetic hypothesis, and phonowriting gives rise to a whole series of phonoimages (zvukoobrazy) of his poetic writing. The third principle, finally, is the mental alphabet (azbuka uma), which seeks to construct a language for hieroglyphs of abstract concepts, rendered by absolutely arbitrary lemmas, 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.

2. Excerpt from "Zangezi" Il Linguaggio degli dei (1922)

Performed by Valerij Voskobojnikov
Recorded February 1977 in Milan
from the LP Futura Poesia Sonora (Cramps Records, Milan)

The exerpt from "Zangezi" (1922; it is however a re-elaboration of the poem ."A scratch on the shy", 1920) illustrates the "Language of the Gods" and the "Stellar language". The piece is an example of what we call the mental alphabet: an attempt at pure sound, devoid of any objective referent, only some phonic connections very distantly imitate linguistic realities out de the text (thus, the piling up of consonants in the speech of the African god Unkulunkulu), and only a few syllables can be traced back - as can be deduced from scene XV of "Zangezi" - to the grammar of phonowriting ("Mam-emai is the, Sky/ Puc e capi a black jackdaw ...).

Khlebnikov often combined a number of different "transmental" forms. It should be said, furthermore, that his inexhaustible inventiveness - reflected in his far from systematic research - tended to see systems in what never got beyond beyond an intuitive project: in the notes on 'Zangezi', for example, one reads that he would have liked to have used no fewer than seven types of language in that theatrical text: 1) Language of the birds, 2) Language of the Gods, 3) Stellar language, 4) Transmental Ianguage 5) Decomposition of words, 6) Phonolanguage, 7) Language of madness. Since it is clearly impossible to illustrate ail the forms of Khlebnikovian language, we have confined ourselves to giving four pieces which are adequately exemplary (of theree models indicated above.

Velemir Khlebnikov was born in 1885 at Toula and died of septicaemia in a remote village in the Governorate of Novgorod. His life was an eternal vagabondage. Many of his works, especially from the 191 -18 period, have been lost. The edition of the complete works is in five volumes: "Sobranie Proizvedendijj-" edited by Jurij Tinianov and Nikolāj Stepanov (Leningrad, 1928-33). He was the most complete poet of the first period of Russian futurism. According to the poet Mandelstam,"he dug the underground tunnels towards the future for an entire epoch". Viktor Sklovskij affirms that "Majakovskij, Aseev, Pasternak, are derived from Khlebnikov... he is a writers' writer."