Today is the long-awaited “premiere” (Corona-style – that is, online premiere) of a project that has been brewing for more than a year. Here is the video performance and the notes below. Many thanks to the Frauenkulturbüro, NRW for their generous support, and to the Altefeuerwache Cologne, who could have closed their doors on me but did not.
Project Gesang | Gesicht
Helen Bledsoe, Concept, Music, Flutes, Electronics
Carla Jordão, Choreography, Costume, Dance
Timm Roller, Sound Design
Lea Letzel, Stage Installation and Light
Browbeat – for flute and electronics
Gesang | Gesicht – for dancer, flute and electronics
Project Gesang | Gesicht: an overview of the music, staging and sources of inspiration by Helen Bledsoe
At the beginning of the 20th century there was a fascinating Futurist movement in Russia. Scientific discoveries from the 19th century, cultural encounters with the Far-East and the rise of parliamentary democracy acted as catalysts for artistic ideas, culminating in the polemic, anti-elitist Futurist Manifesto of 1912*. This movement was brought to a halt in 1917 during the Russian Revolution. The Futurist movement, although short-lived, produced a huge body of work by progressive artists whose ideals of universal brotherhood and trans-cultural understanding have relevance today. The wish to keep these ideals alive was my inspiration for the project.
Our abstract, minimalist stage design was inspired by the concepts of Rayonism, which was an outgrowth of Russian Futurism founded by Mikhail Larionov and Natalia Goncharova. These artists were inspired by metaphysical developments and discoveries such as radioactivity and higher-dimensional mathematics, which lead them to adopt concepts of transparency and fractured objects: their world was no longer purely solid and concrete. Our stage begins as a black box. As the music develops, strands of light are slowly lifted, creating rays of light that suggest transparent and permeable layers.
The music and dance were inspired by another leading light of the Russian Futurist movement, the poet and visual artist Velimir Khlebnikov (1885-1922). He was extremely prolific and enjoyed a rock-star type of fame during his relatively brief career. I have chosen one of his early poems from 1908, Bobeobi, as the musical basis for this project. The words of the poem provide phonetic material; the spoken text (in the original Russian) was sampled and processed for the electronics. Browbeat for flute and electronics is based on the third stanza of the poem, “Pi-eh-eh-o sang the brows”. Gesang | Gesicht for dance, flute and electronics uses the first five stanzas as a structure:
|Бобэоби пелись губы,|
Вээоми пелись взоры,
Пиээо пелись брови,
Лиэээй — пелся облик,
Гзи-гзи-гзэо пелась цепь.
Так на холсте каких-то соответствий
Вне протяжения жило Лицо.
Bo-beh-o-bi, sang the lips,
Veh-eh-o-mi, sang the glances,
Pi-eh-eh-o, sang the brows,
Li-eh-eh-ey, sang the visage,
Gzi-gzi-gzeh-o, sang the chain.
Thus on a canvas of such correspondences
Beyond dimension lived a Face.**
This poem, though early, embodies three important concepts of Khlebnikov’s mature works.
1) The idea of a universal language
The use of “Zaum”, the trans-rational language used by the Russian Futurists where derived, imagined words or individual phonemes are used as a meta-language. Klebnikov was convinced that all sounds found in language have a deep, universal meaning that is shared by all cultures. Thus understanding can be made immediate, transcending or bypassing rational thought. Contemporary musical language uses this concept to a certain extent. By deriving its own rules for melody and harmony (like “Zaum” derives or imagines words), it idealizes originality while assuming (falsely) that all humans have a common frame of musical reference. This contradictory idealism is something I attempt to musically explore.
2) Higher dimensions
Space and time are over-arching aspects of the poem. We assume a living face behind a painted portrait, are their dimensions parallel or will they intersect? To me it seems they exist in a state of quantum indeterminacy, yet perhaps they can hear one another, hence the songs. Klebnikov expresses this indeterminacy – and/and as opposed to either/or – by the ambiguous use of reflexive verbs, untranslatable into English or German. Our choreography is based around this concept. Most of the time, there is one body on stage, yet there is another lurking presence that manifests itself visibly and audibly at times. Their paths do not cross, yet at times they act together.
3) Khlebnikov’s concept of sound-painting.
As a synaesthete, Khlebnikov experienced consonant sounds as colors. In his notes and writings he made detailed correspondences between sounds and colors. I also imagine Klebnikov associating the physical act of painting a living thing (such as a portrait) with sounds. Thus the facial features, one by one, are not merely painted but brought forth by sound. He was an artist himself, although we don’t know for sure which or whose portrait the poem refers to. The initial letters of the first five stanzas (the “songs”) in Bobeobi are associated in the following way:
|Stanza||Initial Letter||Color||Object / Facial association|
|2||V||Dark Blue||Gaze / Glance|
|4||L||White||Visage. The sound L also indicates the diminution of the distance between the knowing mind and the knowable.|
|5||Gz||Yellow / Gold||Chain (Necklace)|
In both pieces, Browbeat and Gesang | Gesicht, the concept of sound-painting plays a formal rather than a visual role. As mentioned above, the sampled sounds used to compose Browbeat include the stanza, “Pieeo sang the brows“, spoken in the original Russian, and a few flute sounds. The corresponding color of the “browsong” is black. Black in this sense is deep, as the brows provide a deep socket for the eyes. In the dark, unperceived events take place, erupt, dissipate and make way for dreams.
Gesang | Gesicht is divided into three major sections based on phonetic material (not always recognizable) from the first three lines of the poem, corresponding to the consonants B (Red), P (Black again, the extended flute sounds from Browbeat reappear), and V (Dark Blue). The remaining sound elements of L (White) and GZ (Yellow) were chosen as bridges because L (White) has associations with changing distance, and GZ (Yellow) is paired with the chain (necklace). However, they also interject themselves briefly into the main sections.
* Read my translation of this manifesto here: https://helenbledsoe.com/?p=238
** My translation. There are many possibilities, and I am aware that I have cut corners by choosing the simplest. For recitation purposes I have chosen to keep the active instead of the passive voice, its rhythm fits the music and direct correspondences I am trying to underline. For further reading: https://winterings.net/2017/01/29/bobeobi-by-khlebnikov-part-one/