Velemir Chhlebnikov (1885-1922)



1. Bobeobi (c. 1908) (0:53)

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

3. from "Zangezi" Il Linguaggio degli dei (1922)

4. from "Zangezi" - Il Linguaggio delle stelle (1922)

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



Velemir Chlebnikov (1885-1922) requires lengthy consideration, for sound poetry on the one hand accounted for a large art of his poetic work and, on the other, was the object of much of his "theoretical" and programmatic elaboration.

Confining oneself to a Summary account of the Chlebnikovian zaum, as the result of his creative inheritance, one can identify three underlying principles. First of all verbopoesis (slovotvorcestvo). Chlebnikov 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 Chlebnikov from a linguistic experiment into an aesthetic fact" (Stepanov).

The second principle of Chlebnikovian 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 Chlebnikovian "zaum"' attains its highest point of rarefaction, and only conventionally can one speak of its possible decipherment.

Chlebnikov's creativity was naturally far more complex than might appear from this account, and in fact he 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 Chlebnikovian language, we have confined ourselves to giving four pieces which are adequately exemplary (of theree models indicated above.

The first text, "Bobeobi" (1908) is perhaps one of Chlebnikov's best known compositions, a phonopainting (the face is explicity protected "on to the canvas") based on phonic analogies which can even be translated, on the basis of his note-books (b = red, m = pale blue, p = black, and so on); but which should above all be referred to a in serious relationship between sounds and colours, already proclaimed by Rimbaud in his famous "Voyelles"(1871). According to Chlebnikov this was the dawn of phonowriting.

In "Exorcism with rice" (1906-8), another emblematic text, 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 Chlebnikovian verbopoiesis, and one of the more elementary; but, perhaps for that very reason, it is also one of the most efficacious.

The two exerpts from "Zangezi" (1922; but the first of them comes from the play "The gods", 1919, and the second is a re-elaboration of the poem ."A scratch on the shy", 1920) illustrate respectively the "Language of the Gods" and the "Stellar language". The first piece, the speeches of gods of different and incongruous mythologies, is a limpid 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 ...). The second piece, proclaimed by the protagonist himself to be in "stellar language", is a by now polished model of phonowriting, where with terse pedantry the sonic resonances become the interpretation of being.

Velemir Chlebnikov 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 bJurij Tinianov and Nikolàj 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 Chlebnikov... he is a writers' writer."