Sergei BIRJUKOW (Russia)
Sergei Birjukow (b. 1950) –
poet, literary critic, avant-garde
historian and theorist. Author of numerous publications in different literary
and artistic magazines, collections, catalogues as well as in the international
anthological editions. He has got a doctorate degree in Philology. From 1991 to
1998 S. Birjukow delivered courses of Linguistics and General Poetics at the
Tambow State University. Being a literary theorist and historian he tackles the
issues of theory and history of the Russian avant-garde, he was the first to
describe the Russian musical and poetic theories of the 1910s-20s. He is a
member of the Russian Writers’ Union, of the Russian Union of professional
literary and theatre men. For
more information see the bio-bibliography of the
. Taken from the poet’s
© 2000 Sergei Birjukow, Halle.
The three sources and three components of Russian sound poetry
Naturally, the number of sources and components is significantly greater than this, as I have had to write more on this subject in my various articles and books. However, for the time being, let us settle upon three of them, in brief and summary fashion.
1. An exclusively scientific source. The discovery of the successes in experimental phonetics and phonemes of I.A. Baudouin de Courtenay in Russia is linked with the name of his student, L.V. Shcherba. New trails were blazed in the hitherto unknown worlds of the internal structure of words. “Phonemes are not separate notes, but chords comprised of several distinct elements,” wrote Baudouin de Courtenay.1 It was no great leap from this postulate to the sound letters of Khlebnikov and Kruchonykh. Now there exists every foundation for the co-positioning of the achievements of Russian linguists with the experiments carried out by the futurists on the redeconstruction of words, their breakthrough into “zaum” (trans-sense, a transmental poetic language) and their most far-flung phonetic experiments. Velimir Khlebnikov, for a short time a student of the philological faculty of Petersburg University, had time to attend the lectures of L.V. Shcherba, who had already published a book in 1912 called “The qualitative and quantitative aspects of Russian vowels” (“Russkie glasnie v kachestvennom i kolichestvennom otnoshenii”). Kruchonykh, Burliuk, Mayakovsky, Kamensky and Yelena Guro were at that time also working hard on sound and reading. And even if the contacts between the young futurists and Professor Baudouin de Courtenay were inimical 2, they were nonetheless important as clashes of theories and practices that always create sparks. For example, during one such confrontation between Kruchonykh and the art critic Shemshurin the idea of “displacementology” (“sdvigologija”) was born. A full ten years later Aleksandr Tufanov gathered the sparks in the bundle of his ‘sound book’, “Towards zaum” (“K zaumi”). Writes Tufanov, “The materials of my art are the units of hearing and pronunciation of language, phonemes, comprising psychic and lived moments called ‘cinem’ and ‘acusm.’ The sound of speech is in itself the movement of cinems and acusms, which runs parallel to the movement of acoustic sensation…”3 Using the ‘scientific letter’, i.e. transcription, Tufanov created works of phonic music. At one time, the experience of Tufanov was interpreted in close relation to that of Daniil Kharms, in as far as both poets were victims of repression, their names condemned to oblivion for a long time.4
It is of interest here to note parallels and points of intersection. Ilya Zdanevich’s movement toward the phonetic letter came as early as the 1910’s, and his ideas later intersected with those of Kruchonykh and Igor Terentev in the Tiflis “41°” group, but Terentev and Tufanov had already crossed paths in Petersburg in Malevich’s Phonological department of GINKhUK (Otdel Fonologii Ginkhuka). Futurists, much inspired by scientific quests, wished to place their work on a scientific footing.5
In parallel, quests were being made in 1920’s Moscow; these were undertaken by A.N. Chicherin, A. Kvyatkovsky, and I. Selvinsky (in particular the former two). Chicherin in his 1926 “Kan-Foon” forwarded the idea of the deconstruction of sounds into “component soundings” and developed signs to signify “shortness and lengthiness, timbres, tempos, tonations and intonations”, all of which he employed in practice in his own sound construemes.6 Kvyatkovsky in his 1929 appendix to his “Tachtometer” project published a special “Study on phonemes” (“Etjud o fonemakh”) in which he developed ideas close to Chicherin’s, while at the same time relying on the abovementioned work of Shcherba. Kvyatkovsky stated that “the phonemic interpretation of verse speech is very important: it gives the maximal effect of acoustic and aesthetic impression,” also here suggesting an accompanying system of notation.7 Underlining the paired nature of sounds, he arrived at the following comparison: “The consonant always goes in front, always followed by a vowel. Just like male and female elements. Sounds are bisexual. Moreover, the man is always in the forefront.”8
2. This directly points to the second source – Erotica. I. Annensky wrote about “the proximity of the centres of speech and erogenous zones” as an established physiognomical fact as early as 1909. The theologian and philosopher P. A. Florensky in his 1920 “The magic word” (“Magichnost’ slova”) stressed, “Thus, the word is comparable to semen, literature to sex, speaking to the male sexual action and hearing to the female one, acting on a person in the manner of fertilisation,” and further, “the urino-genital system of organs and functions of the lower pole corresponds exactly to the respiratory-vocal system of organs and functions of the upper pole.”9
According to witnesses, girls at the poetry recitals of Igor Severyanin lost consciousness, as if in a state of orgasm; nothing akin to this occurred at the recitals of Mayakovsky and Kruchonykh. The latter, theorising about zaum, constantly turned to various forms of erotica. That is, he was well informed in this field (including a knowledge of the work of Freud), and deliberately constructed his trans-sensual phonetic compositions from coarse material, stressing a masculine impulse. He turned the women who accompanied him in the 1910’s and ‘20’s into trans-sensists (“zaumnic”), clearly finding a special joy in feminine zaum. (O. Rozanova, T. Vechorka, N. Khabias, N. Sakonskaya and others.) His famous five verse “Dyr Bul Shchyl”, already interpreted by G. Janecek from this point of view in the light of the semantics of the given composition of phonemes,10 can thus be seen as a description of the coital process.
If we consider that this corporeal foundation was brought to the surface in avant-garde aesthetics (the man-author himself performed the part of the poetic text – this applies not only to V. Goldschmidt, the ‘futurist of life’ who exposed his own body in performance, but equally to Mayakovsky, Burliuk, Kamensky, Kruchonykh and even Khlebnikov and Guro, though in a different way)11, then it becomes clear that sound poetry was yet one more step towards the revelation of the innate.
The Imaginists translated eroticism onto the theoretical plane, although the sonoric and gesticular demonstration of sexual energy was also vital to them! Ilya Selvinsky fled the Constructivists in favour of this type of demonstration, while conserving his eroticism to his declining years. Chicherin is the most obvious successor to the Constructivists, transforming eroticism into complex construemes, both visual and aural.
This topic demands much further detailed analysis, and it is moreover of great importance to pin down the reaction of the public (here the author departs from personal experience). Not just the voice, but the whole body functions as a musical instrument. And so we come to the third source.
3. This is musical and poetic theory. Having reached maturity at the turn of the century under the symbolists and been incarnated both in the plastically constructed “Symphonies” (“Simfonii”) of Andrei Bely and in the malleable sounds of Vyacheslav Ivanov, they developed beyond the naive, but nonetheless interesting observations of futurist-oriented authors (B. Kushner, F. Platov, Bozidar), moreover the practical experiments of the latter two are still of interest today. And finally in the 1920’s came the abandonment of all large-scale musical and poetic prospective constructions.
In 1923, there appeared the music critic and composer Leonid Sabaneev’s book “The Music of Speech” (“Muzika rechi”), in 1925, the poet and critic Mikhail Malishevsky’s “Metrotonics: a short account of the foundations of metrotonic interlingual prosody studies” (“Metrotonika. Kratkoe izlozenie osnov metrotonicheskoj mezdujazikovoj stikhologii”), and in 1929 was printed in the Constructivist collection “Business” (“Biznes”) the “Tachtometer” work of the poet and theoretician Aleksandr Kvyatkovsky. The 1920’s are remarkable for the large quantity of works on the study of prosody and theories of declamation. And if the latter have been discussed quite intensively, then the musical and poetic theories have elicited minimal comment. L. Sabaneev soon emigrated, and his work was soundly forgotten. Kvyatkovsky’s ideas functioned mainly in Constructivist circles, but the author himself was subsequently a victim of repression and was only able to revive his active creative experiments at the end of the 1950’s, managing to publish his unique “Poetic Dictionary” (“Poeticheskij slovar”, 1966) two years prior to his death. Malishevsky, in sum, did not have the possibility for further development or propagation of his ideas.
Meanwhile, all these authors, each in their own way, arrived at a single detailed development of the elements of the art of poetry. Thus, Sabaneev virtually noted the full path of development of phonetic poetry. He insisted on the sonic nature of poetry, separating out such coordinates as the strength, length, pitch and timbre of sounds, while considering the ‘noise elements of speech’ not linked to sound, such as the ‘soundings’ of pauses, developing the ‘respiratory temperature’, separating out consonances and dissonaces and dividing the latter into types (doubling, hoarse and squeezed). As for rhythm, he comes out against ‘simple periodism’ and suggests the creation of detailed polymetric compositions, paying particular attention to problems of intonation and counting time. His proposed ‘metrodynamic counting groups’ afford the possibility of taking into account of the most varied lengths. He examines the possibilities of applying sequentiality to poetry - sequences of three types: rising, static and falling. (It is noteworthy that beyond the pale of his dependence on Sabaneev’s theories on sequentiality he often directed his attention to a Russian poetess resident in Vienna – Yelizaveta Mnatzakanova – who possessed a sound classical musical education and sense of sequentiality coming from jazz, which one can note in modern Western sound-poets like Paul Dutton .)
Malishevsky set out his theory not only in his 1925 book, but also in his dissertation “The Material of poetry as Art” (“Material poezii kak iskusstva”), defended by him in GAKhN on June 25th 1929. In defence, in his “Word of Introduction” he expressed a whole series of radical ideas: “Poetry in its most essential features is neither literature nor linguistic creation, poetry comes close to pure vocal art” and “the text need only be a list of notes.” In his book he expounds laws of syllable length and strength and proposes a whole new terminological system, allowing one to fix the slightest movement in verse. Malishevsky worked precisely with verse, but despite this his system goes far beyond the boundaries of literary material. His metric clefs, system of stress and pauses are equally applicable to sound poetry.
A. P. Kvyatkovsky, having read the books of Sabaneev and Malishevsky, positioned himself on the side of musical measures. Directly naming the poet a composer, Kvyatkovsky determinedly proclaims, “a poet with out a musical ear and a sense of rhythm is no poet.” He writes about the stretching of vowel and consonant phonemes, invents a new set of musical time measures to describe his own and Selvinsky’s verses, and expounds the supposition that poetry for one voice can be transformed into “instrumental poetry for many voices.” He broaches even the plastic arts, as essential in relation to the performed text. In this he foretells the appearance of sound and action poetry. In his publications of the 1960’s Kvyatkovsky had to distance himself from the radical postulates of “Tachtometer”, yet in his as yet unpublished work “The Rhythmics of Russian Verse” (“Ritmologija russkogo stiha”) he writes, “at the heart of these rhythmic processes (verse, musical, dance) lie the same equally dynamuc laws of movement.”12
Post Scriptum. The Repressive measures of the soviet authorities toward avant-garde art from the 1930’s –‘50’s (and to a lesser extent right up to the second half of the 1980’s) did not allow the continuation of research into the field of sound poetry. Sound poetry is a public art form, moreover linked to the application of techniques, and so its underground existence is quite problematic. True, in the USSR of the ‘60’s arose the bard movement (singing poets and actors) and poets with their own idiosyncratic styles of reading (B. Akhmadulina, A. Mezhirov, A. Voznesensky, Y. Yevtushenko, R Rozhdestvensky), and later bard-rock. All these manifestations are interesting in themselves but did not lessen the necessity of further experimentation in the field of sound poetry. However, such experiments by necessity had to be carried out by Russian poets abroad: Yelizaveta Mnatzakanova in Austria with her detailed expansive, musico-poetical compositions and a unique form of declamation; Valeri Scherstjanoi in Germany creating virtuosic phonetic works leaning on Russian and western experiments in sound poetry; liturgical singing is used to accompany the performances of the creations of Igor Burikhin also in Germany. Only at the end of the 1980’s did Alexander Gornon attain the possibility of performing his phonosemantic verses in Russia; interesting possibilities of the unifying of the voice of the poet with that of the violin are demonstrated by B. Konstriktor and B. Kipnis; and Rea Nikonova and Serge Segay , at work on various techniques, too part in the 1994 sound festivals in Berlin and Budapest, but otherwise appear very rarely in public. Igor Loschilov and Sergei Provorov have given a whole series of phonopoetic recitals in the ‘90’s. The most active developer of the techniques of sound poetry is Dmitry Bulatov , who works in tandem with musicians (acoustic and electronic), of particular interest with regard to the composition of musical and voice studies is one of his latest works, “Fisches Nachtgesang II” (“Night Song of Fish II”) dating back to Christian Morgenstern.
1. Baudouin de Courtenay, I.A. Selected studies for general knowledge of language in 2 vols. Moscow, 1963, Vol.2, P. 203.
2. For more see Birjukow, S.E, The theory and practise of Russian avant-garde poetry. Tambov University Press, 1998, pp18-19, 34-35.
3. For more see pp.20, 35-36 ibid and also Birjukowa, S.S. A. Tufanov – theoretician of ‘phonic music’//Poetics of the Russian avant-garde. Tambov: “Credo”, 1993, Nos.3-4, and by the same author: On musical and poetic theories of the 1910’s and 1920’s//Experimental poetry: selected articles. Koenigsberg-Malbork, 1996. On phonemes as entire musical creations wrote P.A. Florensky in his “Pillar and Statement of Truth”//Complete works Moscow, 1990, P. 839.
4. On the influence of Tufanov’s experiments on Kharms see Jacquard J-F: Daniil Kharms and the Russian avant-garde. Petersburg, 1995.
5. See The Collected Terentev Moscow: Hylaea, 1996
6. Chicherin, A.N, Kan-Foon, Moscow, 1926 and Birjukow, S.E. The theory and practise of Russian avant-garde poetry, p.37.
7. Quoted from Kuzminsky, K. Janecek, G. and Ocheretyansky A: The forgotten avant-garde in Russia in the first third of the twentieth century. A Collection of information and theoretical materials. WSA Sond 21 Wien, 1988, p. 320
8. Ibid p. 317
9. Florensky, P.A: The Magic Word//Collected works, Moscow, 1990, Vol. 2, pp. 271-272.
10. Janecek G. Zaum: The Transrational Poetry of Russian Futurism. San Diego University Press, 1996.
11. On this see Cymborska-Leboda M. “The mount of Eros”: the erotica and eroethics of Yelena Guro// Studia Slavica Finlandensia. Vol XVI/1. pp.101-123.
12. For more detail on musical and poetic theories see Birjukow S.E: The theory and Practise of Russian avant-garde poetry, pp.44-88.
Translated by Subhi Sherwell.Previous (Larry WENDT), Next (Jean-Yves BOSSEUR)