Serge SEGAY (Russia)
Serge Segay (b. 1947) – poet, artist, essay writer, publisher. Author of a number of
poetry books and an active participant of international exhibitions of visual
and experimental poetry in many countries. He has been
carrying out experimental-poetic research with help of the tape recording since
1985. He is the organizer of the 1st International Exhibition of
Mail Art in the USSR (Yeisk, 1989), and of the 1st International
Exhibition of Visual Poetry in the USSR (Yeisk, 1990). Wrote a great number of articles on visual and experimental
poetry for the magazine Transponance (Yeisk),
also published articles on the history of the Russian poetic avant-garde in
literary magazines in Holland, Switzerland, Italy, Russia. For more
information see the bio-bibliography of the
participant. Taken from the poet’s manuscript.
© 2000 Serge Segay, Kiel.
THE CORRECT WAY TO SLAM A DOOR
The idea of sound poetry, a contagion no less infectious than Marxism, possesses in Russia three sources, three components and even three histories: the imagined, the desired and the real… Its sources are: 1. The attempts at formulating a theory of sound poetry in 1914-16 (Malevich and others); 2. The attempts to record the sound of noise by Guro and Ender and the “sound chronicle” of Terentev and Kashnitsky; 3. Ilya Zdanevich’s phonograph (the myth of 1917). The components bear little correlation to the sources and instead look like the following: 1. The author’s sound (the throat of the author); 2. The new instruments of poetic work; 3. The sound of the recording apparatus. Before we explain this arithmetic and expound three distinct histories, let us remember the necessity of an epigraph:
Firstly Yoko Ono walks,
(sound of heels), then
she slams the door and
only then does she sing
her tra la la.1
Let us now turn to the histories, in so far as the first of them has already itself become history and has been sealed in the most authoritative anthology of sound poetry yet – the 1978 “Futura.”2 This history must be labelled ‘fantastic’, or, more precisely, ‘imaginary’, and it begins with Mayakovsky’s verses “Shumi, Shumiki, Shumishcha”, which opens the Russian section of the first CD. These verses, as well as the other products of the Russian futurists, are not given in their authorial execution. The original recordings are ignored by the anthology, although the very phonographic cylinders with the voices of various poets of the 1910-20’s are particularly of interest due to the noise of the recording equipment. This noise, equivalent to the thickness of time, was an important impulse to the poets of the mid-80’s mastery of the field of sound. Moreover, they actually employed these ‘ancient’ sound recordings in their own audio-compositions.3 Another comparable influence was the muffling of the radio stations “Freedom” and “Voice of America”: the human voice was heard in Russia only via the modular rhythmic accumulation of noise. Thus, not stirs of noises (“shumiki”), but natural sound fully realised by the influence of poetry could be heard in the “Futura” anthology, which follows Mayakovsky by presenting the poetry of Velimir Khlebnikov, despite it being well known that that he was completely incapable of declaiming his own verse: “Khlebnikov moved his lips, but forget to let the breath from inside out through them, and so the declamation was soundless.”4 Similar descriptions of Khlebnikov’s public performances can be acknowledged today to be idiosyncratic predecessors to “vacuum poetry”, whose beginnings in Russia date to the public performances of the transfurist-poets between 1983-85. The actual recordings of the voice of Alexei Kruchonykh, also ignored by the “Futura” anthology (of course, in 1978, they could have known only little about the Russian underground scene) are interesting for the history of Russian sound poetry in their clumsy handling of the microphone, whereby curious sound-effects arise, independent of the will of the performer. The mutual relationship of performer and microphone was important for the sonorists, but Kruchonykh in the sixties could hardly have had this in mind. Only Ilya Zdanevich is correctly presented in the “Futura” anthology. In the performance of an extract from his play “Dunkee for rent ” (“Asyol na prakat”) a definite perfection is attained: the reconstruction turned out so successfully that it was reproduced in the “Futurists” cassette as a performance by Ilya Zdanevich himself! 5
The “desired history” of Russian sound poetry is very close to its imagined history and naturally full of the same mistakes: the declamation of sound poetry is seen as the main thing and so the fact is forgotten that that the history of declamation is not at all the history of sound poetry. The most sparkling creator of the “desired history” of Russian sonorism is Valeri Sherstjanoi. His recent book 6 very correctly presents the poetry of the Russian futurists, whose main achievement was, without doubt, “zaum” (trans-sense, a transmental poetic language), and tied in with this the abstract phonetic experiments of not only Khlebnikov and Kruchonykh, but also Vasilij Kamensky, Olga Rozanova, Vasilisk Gnedov, Igor Terentev, Alexander Tufanov, Alexei Chicherin and Ilya Zdanevich. But all this poetry, beautiful in itself, was first and foremost written work and never aspired to the combination of space and time in real sound.
Many Russian futurist poets were outstanding exponents of their own creations and were by no means inferior to professional actors and reciters. Igor Severyanin even sang his ‘poetry’, and much later Alexander Tufanov sang his ‘phonic music’ (his performances visibly demonstrated the reduplication of vowels via the duplication of performers – bivocals), Vasilij Kamensky read accompanied by dancing ballerinas, as did Alexei Chicherin. But it is impossible to see anything of sonoric value in any of the above, and so with complete certainty we must declare that that the history of Russian futurism or of the Russian avant-garde in general does not coincide with the real history of Russian sound poetry (although the latter does begin in the era of the futurists).
The attempt to create a theory of sound poetry was undertaken by Kazimir Malevich in counterpoise to zaum poetry, which he viewed not only as completely innovative but also as “the grumbling meat of old poetry” 7 Malevich wrote that, “new poets must definitely come out on the side of sound, not music” and continued, “having come to the idea of sound, they received ‘musical note-letters’ which reflected sound masses. Maybe in the composition of these sound masses (former words) a new path will be found.” 8 In all probability, these pronouncements were inspired by conversations with Roman Jakobson, who disagreed with Khlebnikov and Kruchonykh: “When after The Self-sufficient Word came The Self-sufficient Letter – in my view that should have been The Self-sufficient Sound.” 9
In a much later article “On Poetry” (“O Poezii”, 1919), Malevich, as it might seem today, literally describes the sound performance of the poet: “The poet’s speech, its rhythm and tempo, is divided up by pauses, pauses that divide the sound mass, and into the exhausting clarity are introduced actual bodily gestures. When the poet’s flame ignites, he stands, raises his arms, bends his body, transforming it into what will be alive for the spectators, a new, real church.” 10
If Malevich talked of sound masses and sound, then his successors in the GINKhUK under his direction uncovered a passion for noise. In the Phonology department (Otdel Fonologii Ginkhuka), the colleagues of the zaum-poet Igor Terentev suggested differentiating sounds “by the material and form of the object that produces the sound.” 11 The composer M. Druskin in his tract “The Sounding Matter” (“Zvuchaschee veschestvo”) forwarded a thesis full of the most fantastic foresights for the most important principles of sound poetry as far back as 1924: “The furniture and walls of rooms can respond to any human speech” and “the throat is like a projection of all powerful noises.”12
In the Phonology department also worked Boris Ender, who knew of the still as yet unpublished experiments of Elena Guro, linked to the attempts to record the sounds of nature by conventional signs.13
All these theoretical developments produced by the poets, were virtually never corroborated by practise. The reason for this is fully understandable: the tape-recorder had not come into existence yet. But it is beyond doubt that the Phonology Department knew of the experiments of Ilya Zdanevich, witnessed by Terentev. In a paper on the new schools of poetry in Russia read in February 1922 at the Paris Academy of Medicine, Zdanevich spoke of his experiments in the field of simultaneity: “orches forced us to reject traditional written language, just as in its own time zaum forced us to reject the traditional foundations of spelling. The Phonograph was the only suitable and therefore essential means toward our new goals. In 1917 we even recorded orchestras phonographically…” 14 The Tbilisi experiments of the “41°” group could hardly have not occupied a central place in the history of sound poetry, but in the Paris archive of Ilya Zdanevich there are no phonographic cylinders, gramophone records nor even any of his later tape-recorded works 15: the polemic between the Iliazd and the lettrists has remained a silent one.
With the exception of the ideas of Malevich and the article by Vladimir Kashnitsky about the sound chronicle 16 in the “New LEF” journal (“Novij LEF”) (whose ideas later found a passionate exponent in George Maciunas, the leader of Fluxus), this whole theoretical history of sound remained completely hidden to the new generation of Russian avantgardists, published as it was only very recently.
Far more significant was the influence of western experiments, although this was again only theoretical (audio-cassettes of sound poets ended up being more or less readily available to the 80’s underground, when information about western innovations in this field was already reworked and transformed by the Russians in their own practical experiments.)
In the mid-70’s in modern day St. Petersburg, the poet and artist Yuri Galetsky, in recording his texts on a tape-recorder used a glass jar to transform his voice with very impressive results, but this solitary experiment did not usher in the start of sound poetry in Russia and remains unpublished to this day, just like the majority of the audio works of the group of transpoets. Their first public performance in 1983 in Petersburg opened with Rea Nikonova’s poem “Four Points” (“Chetire Tochki”): four bangs of a fist on a table defined the main sound setting and designated the instruments for sound extraction – the hand and the writing desk. Consequently instruments for sound extraction diversified into typewriters, hammers, saws, axes, shoe soles, small bells, crystal, knives and forks, slamming doors, neighbours’ dogs, loud-hailers, motorbikes outside the window, old gramophone records, a grand piano used as a drum, a fridge, a woman, a bicycle bell, and blowing one’s nose.17
As soon as the idea of a sound chronicle became too limited, new instruments were invented: polyethylene bags full of stones, plastic boxes containing pigs’ bones, paper flutes and paper harps.18 All these instruments not only accompanied the author’s voice, they created sound masses of their own, fully able to substitute any and every poetic word.
Of course it would be utterly deceptive to declare the avantgardists of the 10-20’s as the inventors of sounding poetic instruments, but the sole of Ilya Zdanevich’s shoe in 1913 did not sound in unison with his reading: it was an instrument of sound extraction in the pioneering concrete music Arthur Lourie, but this in a musical work, not a poetic one. 19 Similarly, Erik Satie introduced typewriters into a ballet score, but this was not sound poetry. And the poet Igor Terentev thought up enormous sounding hair combs, alas not for performances of poetry, but for a theatrical orchestra.20
The slamming door deserves a special mention. In 1979 Vladimir Erl, living then in a very old Petersburg building on Gorokhovaya Street, demonstrated to his most important guests an especially, improbably sonorous attic door. This left a strong impression on all transpoets and each of them consequently reworked it into their own sound compositions.21 The apotheosis of the slamming door was demonstrated much later by none other than Valeri Sherstjanoi .22 This stands to reason, in as much as the centre for poetic experiments in Russia since the start of 1980 was Eisk, a small town on the shores of the Sea of Azov. The poets of Moscow and Petersburg came here to collaborate on joint projects with the transfurist-poets (or transpoets): names such as Vladimir Erl, Genrikh Sapgir, Dmitry Prigov , Boris Kudrjakov, Boris Konstriktor, Anna Alchuk, and Alexandr Gornon . However, the most important events in the field of Russian sound poetry occurred here between 1990 and 1991, when two jam sessions took place here, sharply delineating the problems of declamation, improvisation, the self-sufficient sound and the ability to utilise the sound of even the most primitive sound-recording equipment. The transpoets and Valeri Sherstjanoi, newly arrived from Berlin participated in the first session.23 And in the second, the transpoets and Alexandr Gornon, who has consequently turned his attention to transforming sounds and voices by computer to produce “poem-operas.”24 Declamation and sound chronicling, the sound of poetic instruments and simultaneous recital, improvisation and the following of one’s own score alternate and mutually interact in both jams, giving rise to no small number of questions. After all, can any poet not strike the pose once proscribed by Kazimir Malevich and end up a sound poet? Or all the same can only an experimentalist poet, to whom are equally important both experiments in space and sound masses in time (zaum and the phonograph, a visual score and a tape-recorder) fulfil this role?
The history of poetic sound in Russia is not entirely occupied, of course, with the practices of the transpoets. There existed other groupings not indifferent to sound poetry and the territory of sound in general: hence we see the important practice of sound performance in the work of Andrey Monastirsky and his performance of his own verses 25 ; Konstantin Zvezdochetov at the time of the ‘Mukhomor’ group recited poetry accompanied by Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto; a distinct place in such a history is occupied by the “Tajik Concert” of Grebenschikov and Kuryokhin with the soloist Valentina Ponomareva.
But what are the building blocks of the structure of sound poetry (the vocal gifts of the author, the modulation of one phoneme into another, as in the era of phonetic poetry; new instruments, mixer dials and the computer soundscape)? And what to do with the very rich sound library of world sound poetry? Answers are suggested by the new generation of Russian sound poets – Dmitry Bulatov 26 and Sergei Provorov 27.
Maybe the simplest answer lies in fullness of form. Not the old formula of mastery “hearing another, writing one’s own”, but a new variant: “Hearing another, writing another and one’s own” (a formula of appropriation.)
That is essentially the correct way to slam a door. Now slam it!
1. John Lennon and Yoko Ono: Double Fantasy, LP, Los Angeles: Warner Bros. Records Inc., 1980.
2. Futura, Poesia Sonora, Antologia storico critico della poesia Sonora a cura di Arrigo Lora-Totino, Milano: Cramps Records, 1978.
3. Such is the final part of the audiocassette “Listen, eat!”, in which Rea Nikonova, Boris Konstriktor and Serge Segay use the voices of Akhmatova, Tolstoy and Mayakovsky in their own sound compositions – Pate de Voix: Ricettario di Poesia Internazionale, issue 6, Torino, 1991.
4. D. Burliuk: Fragments from memoirs of the futurists, Petersburg, Pushkin foundation, 1994, p. 48.
5. The Hylaea Futurists: poets’ voices and recorded memoirs, Moscow: Hylaea, 1995.
6. Valeri Scherstjanoi: Tango mit Kuehen, Anthologie der russischen Lautpoesie zu Beginn des 20 Jahrhunderts, Wien: Edition Selene, 1998.
7. K.S. Malevich: Letters to M.V. Matyushin, published by E. Kovtun, annual of the manuscript department of the Pushkin House for 1974, Leningrad: Nauka, 1976, p. 191.
9. The words of R. Jakobson are taken from B. Yangfeld’s article: Roman Jakobson, zaum and dada in the book “Trans-sense Futurism and dadaism in Russian Culture,” eds. L. Magarotto, M. Marzaduri, D. Rizzi, Bern: Peter Lang, 1991, p. 251
10. K.S. Malevich: Complete Works in 5 volumes, Vol. 1, Moscow: Hylaea, 1995, p. 149 (I correct the misprint in the first publication in “Fine Art”, 1919, No 1, repeated in the above work.)
11. From the materials of the Phonological Department of GINKhUK, pub. G. Demosfenova in Terentev album No. 1, Moscow, Hylaea, 1996, p. 125.
12. Ibid, pp 123 and 126 respectively.
13. Zoya Ender: The experiments of Boris Ender in the field of nonsense poetry: in the book “Nonsense Futurism and Dadaism”…, p. 262.
14. In the book: L’avanguardia a Tiflis, a cura di L. Margarotto, M. Marzaduri, G.P. Cesa, Venezia, 1982, p.306.
15. For these accounts received on request from Mrs. Regis Gayraud, I am much indebted to S. Kudryatsev director of the Hylaea publishing house.
16. V. Kashnitsky: Mental Music, in: Igor Terentev: Complete Works a cura di M. Marzaduri e dt Nikolskaja, Bologna: s. Francesco, 1988, p.p. 460-2.
17. See (3) and also Rea Nikonova and Serge Segay: Axe Work, 90’, 1985.
18. Rea Nikonova: Paper Flute and Paper Harp in : Instrumain Handstrument, Stamp Axe, vol 6, No.1, ed. Pier Lefebvre, Montreal: La Matrice du Dragon, 1990.
19. Arthur Lourie: Upmann: a smoker’s joke, Petersburg, 1919.
20. Igor Terentev, complete works, p. 41.
21. Boris Konstriktor in one of the plays on the cassette “Listen, eat!”; Serge Segay in “Sound work for Grand Theatre du Pere Lachaise” by Gianni Broi (1991, used as a phonogram for the 1994 “Bobeobi” festival in Berlin); Rea Nikonova in the 1991 audio composition “Without words.”
22. Valeri Scherstjanoi: Waldberta, Symphonia; Muenchen, 1998, CD.
23. Serge Segay, Rea Nikonova, Valeri Scherstjanoi: Soundworks, in: Pate de Voix: interpretazioni sonore di poesia, No.7, Torino, 1992.
24. Rea Nikonova, Boris Konstriktor, Alexandr Gornon, Serge Segay: Europa-minus, 90’.
25. Kulturpalast: Neue Moskauer Poesie und Aktionkunst, Herausgegeben von G. Hirt und S. Wonders, Wuppertal: S-Press, 1984.
26. Word Theatre Soundpoetry: Audio appendix to visual poetry exhibition, Kaliningrad/Konigsberg, 1994.
27. Galina Myznikova / Sergei Provorov: Line structure, Wien: Kultur Kontakt, 1998.
Translated by Subhi Sherwell.Previous (Teddy HULTBERG), Next (Jean-Pierre BOBILLOT)