Interview with Vladimir Tarasov (2018)

From Unearthing The Music

Vladimir Tarasov playing at OUT.FEST 2018 in Barreiro, Portugal. Photo by Andreia Carvalho

The following interview was conducted by the UNEARTHING THE MUSIC team before Vladimir Tarasov's presentation of his "Thinking of Khlebnikov" performance at OUT.FEST 2018.

You were reportedly expelled from the St. Petersburg Conservatory – why was that? What was the atmosphere like there?

Well, it was kind of the pre-conservatory to be honest, the Rinksy-Korsakov Musical College at the Leningrad Conservatory and at the time it was not allowed to study or teach jazz there. I went through all of the classical parts of the musical education there, and eventually I was told I had to play xylophone. I told my teacher I didn’t want to play xylophone and he asked me what I wanted to play, but when I said “jazz” he told me “No, we don’t teach jazz here, we don’t like that music, it is not allowed, just get out of here”. It was a great conservatory, great for a classical education, but for jazz music I had no chance.

You were part of the Ganelin Trio, who were active in the Soviet Union. What was the jazz scene like in the Soviet Union?

Well, I was born in Archangelsk, and I started playing jazz early - when I was 14 years old I was already playing in the Big Band Orchestra of the International Seamen’s Club, it was a big band that played the standards, we did arrangements of music by Count Basie and Duke Ellington and such. Archangelsk had a huge port, there were a lot of sailors who brought American record catalogs with them and ordered the records they wanted, all traditional stuff but also music from Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane, and it got there in about a week by the way, it was really nice. There was this huge circle of people who liked to play jazz, all this 60s stuff, you know, there were so many musicians and each had something to say… So this influence of the 60s was not only present in the US, it was everywhere. Eventually the orchestra of the Lithuanian State Philarmony came to town, their house big band (which was really good), and since their drummer was ill they started looking for someone to replace him. They found me, I was already back from St.Petersburg (Leningrad as they called it at the time), and I knew all these records, I already had done the music course, so I played the concert and the next morning the conductor of the orchestra Jonas Cijūnėlis came to my house and said “Ok, come with us to Vilnius” and so I moved there in 67. I played in the orchestra for two years, and then after those two years they removed us from the Philarmony because we only played jazz, not any of the Soviet, patriotic songs made for the sake of the party. So then I moved to the Radio Orchestra with that conductor and that was where I met the great pianist Ganelin Slava, and I started playing jazz with him. For two years we played as a duo, and then eventually we went to Ekaterinburg on a tour and we found Chekasin, and that’s how we became a trio.

But to come back to your question, I can tell you that the problem with the jazz scene in the Russia and other countries at the time, as it was in Europe by the way, was America. I say this as a joke which is partly true but fact is that everyone wanted to copy that 50’s American jazz in the Soviet Union. I remember that I was in these twelve concerts of Duke Ellington orchestra in 71 in Kiev, Minsk, Moscow, St. Petersburg…The first concert they played in Moscow, the audience was made up of just jazz musicians, because of Duke Ellington, he was a hero, a guru for everyone, like a jazz god, and when the break came everybody got out of the room and said “Wow, I also want to play like that.” But they don’t understand the main thing: He already exists, he’s on the stage, you can’t play like that, you can only copy him…so most jazz musicians in Eastern Europe were copying the music of the 50s, even American music today still copies the music of the 50s – it’s a copy of the copy! And that just wasn’t interesting for me or for Ganelin Slava or Vladimir Checkasin, so we tried to find our own way… and it looks like we found it!

Did you find Lithuania to be more liberal than other parts of the Soviet Union?

Of course, of course! Because Lithuania was incorporated only in 1940, it was much later than most parts of the Soviet Union, and they still remembered what freedom meant, and the Moscow government at the time thought “ok, they’re a small country, they can do what they want”…or maybe they were afraid to try to impose themselves more like they did with Georgia, Azerbaijan or Armenia, you know, that period…so we had a little bit more freedom. I’m sure that if we tried to make this trio in Leningrad or Moscow they wouldn’t allow us, and we saw it wasn’t allowed: we had so many invitations to play abroad, we had one in 72 to play in the Jazztage in Berlin with the Philarmony, actually the same concert was with Miles Davis, when I got the invitation from Joachim Berendt I was in shock, you know… but the answer from Soviet Union Cultural Ministry was that they did not exist… Still, Lithuania was the best place to be. But it still took 5/6 years to break down those barriers, little by little. We finally got out by 76, and then we started to play everywhere.

The Ganelin Trio published “Con Anima” (1977) on the state’s record label (Melodiya). How did the label function? Did you face any pressures to produce any specific kind of music or music with a patriotic tinge at all?

Well, the Melodiya that published “Con Anima” was actually the Lithuanian branch of the main Melodiya office in Moscow. Some really nice people worked there, and they didn’t ask us to play anything in particular, we just played our music. I’m still curious as to how our music was released there though - maybe because of the people in the Lithuanian office, maybe because Melodiya was such a huge company at the time, it was the official state music label…perhaps they just trusted the Lithuanian office. “Con Anima” wasn’t our first record though, our first record was published in Poland several months before on the Pronit label. This was 1976, when we first played the Jazz Jamboree festival, which was a very successful concert for the trio. And when the people in Melodiya understood that we had already put out one record outside the USSR (okay, Poland was kind of an eastern country, but still), they said “ok, we need to record them”.

The Trio was actually allowed to perform outside the Soviet Union at a certain point, correct? Why you think this was? Did the authorities take any special precautions before “letting you go”, so to speak? How receptive were “Western audiences” to your music?

Well, it wasn’t very easy. First we played in Poland, where we got our record out, then Con Anima came out, and step by step we started playing in Czechoslovakia and Bulgaria, all socialist countries, until around 80. In 80 we got an invitation from West Berlin, from the Haus der Kunst Academy for Free Music Production and the Jazztage festival. But there was kind of a rule that when you went to a western country you had to go to through the east, so they would have some kind of guarantee you wouldn’t jump out from the country. So they sent us to countries who were friendly towards the Soviet Union, such as Helsinki in Finland, and afterwards they sent us to West Berlin to play a concert…we really liked it, but none of the bureaucrats working for the Soviet Ministry of Culture or the KGB or whatever understood anything about our music, for them the way we played was totally nonsense, we were seen as ‘Martians’, they didn’t understand our language, and thus they didn’t say we had to play this or that. Of course, we couldn’t play any music with texts, especially of authors like Solzhenitsyn or Boris Pasternak and other dissidents, so we played purely instrumentals.

There was also something quite important and exciting for us going on at the time, which was that they played quite a bit of our music in the West, in radio broadcasts like The Voice of America “Time for Jazz” and the BBC, we were on the radio everywhere – they started printing our records in London and it came out in other countries, so the authorities used this situation to show the western world that we also had avant garde music at the time. So, in general, they didn’t create many problems – sure, the people coming with us on tour were from the KGB, but it was that way for everyone who went out of the USSR at the time…we played for free (they only gave us a per diem), but the truth was we were just happy to play.

At a certain point the Trio became interested in multimedia performances, famously Household Music-Making in Nine Rooms, presented first at the Vilnius Philharmonic in 1979 and later also in Moscow, where you slept on a bed for the entire first act! Can you tell us more about that performance? Beyond it, how did you strive to incorporate other artistic media with music in your work?

The story there is really simple: the Soviet Union had some delegations that went to Africa, to Ghana and Benin, and the soviet delegation from Lithuania thought everyone in Africa played drums, so they had to take a drummer, which ended up being me! So there was one priest, one photographer, and me as a drummer. So I go to Africa and at that moment the Trio got an invitation to play in St. Petersburg, so Chekasin and Ganelin went as a duo without me, and after I returned we took it to Vilnius because the program was very nice, the Household Music-Making in Nine Rooms. So we expanded that, and in the first part (where they played without me) I would sleep on the sofa. Of course we had a concept, I had an upside-down Soviet newspaper called “Truth” (which of course wasn’t true at all) and then I wake up and enter the first part, and then on the second part we all played together. It was very conceptual, we had microphones everywhere, you could hear the sounds of the spoons and plates and all these dishes. Eventually I read in one of the Encyclopaedias of Conceptual art, that it was the beginning of conceptual art in the Soviet Union, that program.

When did you start creating sound and visual art installations and why? How were they received?

For me it was a very important moment because I made a strong movement in 89 towards sound and visual art. In 84 I started making solo records, one after another, all called actions or ‘Atto’, action nº1, nº2… and Atto nº3 was called “Drumtheatre” – it was dedicated to the people who passed away in the Gulag, the people who disappeared, those who believed that song made by a Soviet composer about how beautiful the country was, about the love for your country…

I got an invitation from Jürgen Harten (who was the director of Kunsthalle in Düsseldorf) to make a cultural programme for the exhibition of conceptual, ‘unofficial’ Soviet art, and when I went there I met with Dimitri Prigov, a poet and a good friend of mine, and also with Ilya Kabakov, another good friend of time, who brought his new work at the time, which was called Red Wagon. This was in 90, 91. So I gave Kabakov my latest LP at the time, and he liked the music so much he thought we should bring it and Red Wagon together. We did it and it totally changed his installation, it just worked great together because the Red Wagon was like a club for prisoners during the war, when they had a break they could just go listen to political propaganda and what not… Now you can see this installation in the Hermitage in St. Petersburg.

After that we had an idea together and we created “Incident at the Museum or Water music” in 92 at the Ronald Feldman Gallery in New York, and in some other places, like the Gulbenkian Foundation in Lisbon in 95…You know, it’s interesting: when we saw the show the first time in the Ronald Feldman gallery in New York, people thought “oh, this is recorded sound” and if someone asked Ronald Feldman – I love him by the way, he’s a great guy, great gallery manager, he has a great sense of humour – “ok, how are you playing the sounds” he’d answer: “Alright, look at that pot” and if they went there they would get water dripping on them, it was all real! So I made many things by myself, with Ilya Kabakov and with different kind of artists, and it really helped me, when I worked with the visual aspect it totally helped me – when I went back to the stage I could see the sound, and I saw myself totally differently. And when I go back to the installations I see the visuals, even when I make these exhibitions I call them sound games… I just like engaging with sound, like a mystery game…plus drums are a really nice instrument, I love them. The music side and the visual side are both very important and now equal in my view.

Vladimir Tarasov Playing at OUT.FEST 2018. Photo by: Andreia Carvalho

The Neringa Café in Vilnius was reportedly a big part of the development of the Ganelin Trio and of Lithuanian counterculture in general. Can you tell us about the atmosphere and the kind of people who gathered there?

Yes, the Neringa Cafe was great, it was a place where all intellectuals, writers, painters, poets and musicians gathered in the 60s and the beginning of the 70s. We had the chance to play Jazz there for four or five hours every evening, as long as we wanted. Joseph Brodsky wrote a poem about the café, he went there all the time and he came to Vilnius with a nice company, Tomas Venclova, a great poet… he would sit there drinking Cognac, and sit there all evening listening to jazz…So I think that at that time the Neringa Café was very important, even for the KGB - I think they listened to everything that happened at the time and at the same time they had control of the situation, you know, we had a joke where if they brought a car and arrested everyone in the café every evening, there wouldn’t be an intellectual circle in Lithuania anymore, because everybody was there. And for us it was a very nice practice.

Do you think the café was bugged by the KGB?

Yeah of course! I even saw it, because I went there every day to practice the drums, we had a small room behind the stage and the café opened at like 12:00/1:00, and one time I went there before it opened, at 10:00, and I saw how they checked the microphones, they had them in places like boxes on the left side near the wall…I saw a lot of microphones there, and they were really shocked when they saw me but they didn’t say anything. So I went to my room to start practicing and after five minutes one of them knocks on the door asks me, “do you have matches?” I say “yes, of course” and then he asks me “What’s your name?” I was a bit worried about what might happened, to be honest…And this was sort of commonplace, all this George Orwell stuff happened in the Soviet Union at the time.

Why do you think they didn’t round up the whole counter culture at the time then…?

Well, it wasn’t Stalin’s time anymore…if I knew somebody would kill me or that I would go to prison I would jump out of the café in a second! No, we had to know the game with them. Because they came to us (the Ganelin Trio) every time we left the country in a tour, people who would introduce themselves as instructors from the Culture Ministry or the Philarmony (when they likely were from the KGB) would come to us with instructions and tell us “don’t see porno movies, don’t go to prostitutes, don’t buy this this and that”… it just was part of the job. For them it was just a typical job, and they all asked us to bring something, they’d ask for a special brand of cigarettes or a video cassette they wanted from the other country …we were just musicians, we didn’t really frighten them, and the period for that kind of suppression had already passed, it was end of the 60s beginning of the 70s, not 37 or the 40s or the 50s.