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In 2001, The Wire magazine published an extensive article by Anton Nikkilä in which he analysed late soviet and post-perestroika experimental musicians' relationships with totalitarianism, from Sergei Kuryokhin's legacy to acts live AVIA or ZGA.
This is a revised version of the original article with a foreword written in 2006.
Russian industrial noise: Pioneers, youth league and party members
by Anton Nikkilä, 2001–2006 Originally published on The Wire #213, November 2001)
Artist and musician Alexander Lebedev-Frontov is one of the central figures of the extremist noise scene in St. Petersburg. There is an aura of almost dostoyevskian underground around Lebedev-Frontov; he says that he has “quite a negative attitude towards information about our releases, because it is always a reduction.” He started doing his noise collages in 1979 at the age of 19, but didn’t release anything or perform live until the early 90’s. He mentions in passing that he had lead “quite a monastic way of life” until then, and if seen in the St. Petersburg street crowd, you would probably guess that he is, with his non-subcultural beard and ultra-normal couture, a volunteer in some restoration project of an Orthodox church on the outskirts of the city.
Lebedev-Frontov has a label called Ultra, which has since 1995 put out about 50 releases by many of St. Peterburg’s noise/industrial/power electronics artists, such as ZGA, Vetrophonia, Monument strakha and Bardoseneticcube. They are mostly cassettes and cd-r’s, but this year Ultra has finally graduated into “factory-made” cd’s. Like many artists in Russia’s explosive and politicized cultural climate, Lebedev-Frontov has chosen his side in the power struggle. In the mid-90’s he was a member of the National Bolshevik Party, but left it, when he felt that the activities of the extremist political groups had become “completely marginal and meaningless”. This can can be understood in different ways; one explanation is that since the late 90’s the racist and ultra-patriotic rhetoric of the fringe groups has become mainstream in the society in general, and starting from president Vladimir Putin politicians have openly adapted it too.
“I have been labeled a fascist in St. Petersburg’s press, but that’s just good publicity for me. Actually I am not a racist at all. I was probably the most anti-racist person in National Bolshevik Party, which caused some fuss in the Party. In the West, people like Boyd Rice don’t fit into any parties, they are too anarchic and free-thinking for them, but here it’s possible up to a certain point. You know, something similar happened to Italian futurists like Marinetti and Russolo, whose thinking is closest to me. They didn’t stay too long in Mussolini’s camp, because when Mussolini really started to set up his new state, the artists and their wild fantasies were no more needed. And it was a bit like that in the Soviet Union in the 1920’s: the Soviet power didn’t need the avantgarde artists for too long after the Revolution. But I think the artists themselves also got tired of their experiments after they had completed them.”
Lebedev-Frontov’s solo project is called Linija mass, whose Western debut lp Proletkult was recently released by the German label Membrum Debile Propaganda. Linija mass has used Soviet documentary material like newspaper clippings from the 1930’s industrialization campaign on their cover art and sound samples on the same theme, but Proletkult is the most accomplished and disturbing of the results so far. Judging by track titles (Total Mobilization, Mechanization, Gastev, Lenin on the Labour Discipline) the historical timeframe of this “theme lp” seems clearly delineated: the 1920’s. The sound is oppressive even on noise standards: lengthy (7 to 11 minutes) tracks with monotonous clanging sounds of a primitive, decisively ugly 20’s factory; no aestheticizing or heroism, pure slave labour. On most of the tracks there are also less regular sounds like the sound of shovels or some other horrible non-automatized tools. In the distance collective masses scream bleak hoorays, but not a single individual voice can be discerned. Except Lenin’s speech on “labour discipline” on track 1.
“I work only with analog tapes, without any samplers or computers. Some of the sounds on Proletkult I recorded already in the 80’s, when a friend of mine worked in a factory on the outskirts of Leningrad, and I went there to record the sound of the machinery. I think the most productive way of working for us would be to stay away from computers, and instead try to recreate the way in which Luigi Russolo worked. I have always loved machine aesthetics and have always thought that Nick [Nick Sudnick, the leader of ZGA] and I are direct descendants of the Russian aesthetics of the 1920’s. There’s a psychological connection.”
There is now a new generation of musicians – projects like Reutoff, Cisfinitum and Cyclotimia – whose music is potentially more easily embraceable into the Western noise/industrial subcultures. And that is the problem with it: in a way similar to Western industrial music since the 80’s, much of this music sounds like a product of a self-replicating subculture tightly sealed off from the rest of the world. Paradoxically those people of Lebedev-Frontov’s generation, who grew up in the USSR and started to perform during perestroika, actually enjoyed considerable real-world exposure, playing to arena-sized audiences around the USSR. The success which bands like AVIA , Notchnoi prospekt or Pop Mechanics enjoyed among student audiences in the perestroika years, can be partially attributed to the enormous curiosity of “the general audience” about the newly legalized rock music. It was the context where these bands operated, and there they were seen as an intellectual alternative. In the early 80’s the state tactic with rock music had been to allow it in closely monitored (by KGB and other authorities) circumstances, but the monitoring system eroded rapidly starting from 1986, and massive rock concerts had their day.
AVIA’s live performances were particularly impressive: the band, which consisted of five to seven musicians, always performed with a group of young girls doing “bio-mechanic” gymnastics and forming human pyramids in the totalitarian style of the 1920’s and 1930’s. All wore similar factory-worker overalls and the stage was decorated with red-black-and-white quasi-constructivist symbols. The music could be descibed as a cross between Soviet “industrial marches” of the 30’s and Devo: mindless choruses, fast, driving rhythms and simple, fanfare-like melodies. Their concept was quite similar to Laibach, but arguably more accessible and fascinating both visually and musically. (At that point the USSR was still information-isolated, and AVIA’s musicians claimed that they only heard about Laibach when they were able to tour abroad after 1987). The goal of their satire was obvious for many viewers: Soviet propaganda, such as “mass songs”, politically correct, optimistic and patriotic, still played incessantly on radio, even though production of mass songs had almost ended by the 80’s. The usage of avantgarde imagery, of the totalitarian variety though, was a more unexpected and ambiguous move.
AVIA’s leader Nikolai Gusev lives now with his family in St. Petersburg in a solid Stalin era housing block, whose totalitarian neo-classic architecture fits his personality perfectly. His Soviet-style home is decorated tastefully with a few items of antique furniture, and in the hallway a portrait of Alyaksandr Lukashenka – the president of Belorus, the ex-Soviet state usually considered Europe’s last old-style dictatorship – greets the guests.
AVIA released their first lp on a small London-based Hannibal label in 1990, then two more in Russia, before they practically broke up in mid-90’s. While they do still play live occasionally, Gusev is now more preoccupied with his solo work. His first solo cd, called Ispravlennomu – verit! (Believe the Corrections – the words that are used in official documents, if something in them has been corrected in hand-writing ), was a clearly Laibach-inspired collection of awkward sovietized cover versions of Western music from his youth as a rock fan, such as Johnny B. Goode and Uriah Heep’s July Morning. The versions were devoid of any kind of funk or other concepts of black American rhythmical thinking, and in his vocals Gusev emphasized his Russian English accent. This happened at the time, when young Russian rock bands had abandoned the “Soviet rock” tradition of the 80’s, with its coded anti-establishment Russian lyrics, trying instead to imitate Western MTV-ready alternative rock. The cover blurb said in its semi-retarded mock-patriotic language: “Foreign authors often write good songs, but they are usually performed incorrectly, with all kinds of unnecessary Negro exaggerations. Thus it is time to show how they ought to be performed. There is no need to ape Negroes and their rhythms, instead you must stick to your real roots – marches and sing-along drinking songs.” Now Gusev is preparing a follow-up, which will consist of his renditions of Soviet marches of the 1930’s.
“Balancing between irony and genuine fascination is what has always interested me most. I want to avoid the situation, where my stuff could be interpreted ‘straight’, unambigiously. The same goes for that solo cd. In AVIA there was the same kind of very fine balance. We never wanted to parody anything, even though many saw us as anti-Soviet satire. I have always been very interested in the avantgarde of the 1920’s, which is for me on a par with punk rock of the more serious and fine varieties designed to tear down the walls. The Soviet avantgarde of the 20’s, Constructivism, El Lissitzky and so on were a huge breakthrough, a heavy blow on a hammer. I am a totalitarist, and I have always liked the march-like elements in music… In addition to that I am a monarchist. I don’t think totalitarism or monarchy could be installed in Russia soon, but I think the country should move steadily towards authoritarian rule. So you could say I am a moderate right-wing supporter”, Gusev says in his characteristic measured and, yes, totalitarian tone, while a natural-born prankster’s merry twinkle flashes intermittently behind his pilot specs.
Alexei Borisov was the frontman of another exotic fruit of perestroika, Notchnoi Prospekt from Moscow. Like many Soviet bands of the late 80’s, they didn’t care much about stylistic incongruities of their music, which makes it difficult to define their genre. In any case, often they sounded a lot like Western “industrial rock” (Controlled Bleeding of the same period, Clock DVA of the early 80’s…), or vice versa. On recordings their songs suddenly collapsed into strange arhythmic breakdowns, and into lengthy, repetitive and noisy improvisations on stage. What made the band exceptional were Borisov’s lyrics and vocals. Somewhat in the spirit of the the Russian 1930’s novelist Andrei Platonov, who has been called among other things the Soviet Kafka, they describe mundane situations and objects in absurd detail, while somewhere in the background looms an apocalyptic vision such as an environmental catastrophy or mindless, totalitarian masses taking onto streets. This was sung with an unexplicable deadpan tone that bordered sometimes on somnambulism and sometimes romantic crooning. That’s the way Borisov is in person: at the same time a cool observer and analyst (no doubt his career in the 80’s, as a young scholar specializing in Western foreign policy at a research institute in Moscow, left a trace) and a slyly surrealistic showman. Eventually he too abandoned Russian lyrics and switched into a “speaking in tongues” language, with occasional English-sounding phrases or Danish-football-reporter-played-backwards-on-half-speed-sounding diatribes thrown in. After one domestic lp release, Asbastos, and one lp, Sugar, released in Sweden, Notchnoi prospekt gradually folded by the mid-90’s when Borisov had shifted his interest into mostly electronic music.
“In the 80’s we were familiar with the music of Psychic TV, Laibach and others, but we weren’t really aware of the whole ideological or conceptual apparatus of industrial music. It was only a bit later, in the early 90’s, when I got hold of more cd’s and various literature that I got interested in that part of it for a while”, Borisov reports me via e-mail. “In those days we often played on stadiums, and sometimes the effect of our music on big crowds was scary. We were quite interested in the psycho-physical effects of music and used heavy industrial noise as an important component of our music. The crowds got really restless, started panicking and breaking things. Lately I’ve begun to think that this kind of experiments in mass manipulation are simply dangerous and unethical. It’s still very common in noise concerts in Russia, that some audience members go wild and behave in a completely uninhibited when they hear this kind of music for the first time, especially if they’re drunk of course: guys take all their clothes off, start twitching epileptically on the floor and so forth. Music is like a gas that enters your organism fast and unnoticeably. I think it’s a much more effective to way influence people than politics or even ideologies. But musicians are mostly a very egoistic, cynical and pragmatic bunch. We don’t give a heck about the fate of the world, as Christ said when he was young. For me politics is like sports or theatre – it’s simply a way of masking the real decision-making processes from the majority of people.”
In Russia, F.R.U.I.T.S. is the best known of Borisov’s later projects. The creative peak of this duo with Pavel Jagun was possibly the cd Elektrostatik released by the Exotica label in 1997. The record sounds at first much like Pan sonic, but a closer listening reveals a strange combination of musique concrete samples and stiff, funkless, unsyncopated, even “constructivist” rhythms – the rhythmic principle, which has been characteristic for much of Russian underground music at least since drum machines and MIDI drums were introduced in the 80’s, is taken here to an extreme.
Borisov’s latest project are his solo performances, in which he combines his usual love for the absurd and the everyday (typical found sound sources are sports reports from the radio and his daughter reciting a children’s poem) with crude, minimal noise. The first recording in this vein, Pa köket (“In the Kitchen” in Swedish) on Moscow-based cd-r label Insofar Vapour Bulk, was preceded by countless cd’s, cassettes and cd-r’s by a large number of collaborative projects playing in wildly differing styles from ambient industrial to improvised electro.
“Style is, after all, the thing that kills musical ideas and forces musicians to oblige to strict norms. I think that the original industrialists of the late 70’s haven’t been trying to break established stereotypes since the 80’s, preferring instead to consciously interact with them. And as a result their music gradually became rather popular. There’s not a trace of a breakthrough into something unknown in any of that. It’s often said that Russian experimental electronic music doesn’t interest people outside of this country, because it doesn’t have a recognizable ‘Russian sound’. Maybe so, but I don’t think that’s a big problem. The real problem for us is the lack of musical infrastructures in Russia. If our recordings could be bought at least in some other cities except Moscow, not to mention in huge areas like Siberia, we wouldn’t have to bother ourselves that much about trying to get our music heard in the West.”
For a few years after perestroika it was still possible to organize festivals of experimental-minded musics, release records and have media exposure through old structures, which were in one way or another sponsored by state money. Quite soon, however, both the audiences and the new sponsors – advertisers – began to lose their interest in this culture. On a larger scale it looked like the much-awaited free market benefited only the very few, and democracy post-Soviet style seemed just as pointless, especially after the spectacular and bloody artillery bombardment of Russia’s parliament by Boris Yeltsin in 1993. In any case, at the same time as a more “capitalist” pop/media/advertising industry began to emerge in Russia, many avantgarde musicians among other cultural workers started to sympathize with the criticists of the status quo, of which the most attractive ones turned out to be extreme radicals like the National Bolshevik Party, who call themselves “Naz-Bol’s”. Alexander Verkhovsky, a Moscow specialist in the extremist fringe groups, has summarized the situation bluntly: “Starting approximately from the early 90’s, extreme right-wing and New Right ideas started to dominate in that part of the rock world, which could still be called ‘the underground'”.
The first signs of the direction later chosen by a large portion of the bohemian underground appeared when two of its most consistent taboo-breakers, Yegor Letov and Sergei Zharikov became active in the extremist circles. Letov was the leader of the extremely popular punk band Grazhdanskaya oborona, whose awe-inspiringly hysterical low-tech punk can only be compared with the shock effect of SPK or Sex Pistols. Especially Letov talked in his interviews in a romantic and vaguely Nietzschean tone about “existential underground”, which meant for him among other things a relentless hatred of the regime, whether it be Soviet or post-Soviet. Zharikov was the leader of DK, a controversial low-fi Soviet version of Frank Zappa. In 1992 Zharikov was appointed Minister of Culture in the “shadow cabinet” of Vladimir Zhirinovsky (remember him? He’s the one who scared the West by promising to invade half the Europe and Central Asia if he gets to power), but he left Zhirinovsky’s party before it had its huge and surprising parliamentary election victory two years later. Meanwhile Letov joined the National Bolshevik Party, started by former Zhirinovsky supporters.
National Bolshevik Party was led by the scandalous novelist and troublemaker Eduard Limonov and the self-styled philosopher and occasional rock writer Alexander Dugin. From the start the party called for terrorist acts and violent insurrection, and Limonov even participated in the siege of Sarayevo on the Serb side, posing for media with a machine-gun. Their main activity was, however, publishing their newspaper Limonka (“Hand Grenade”) and magazine Elementy (“Elements”), which seemed even according to Moscow’s Anti-Fascist Center to be on a much higher intellectual level than any other extremist group’s publications. When the internationally acclaimed composer and musician Sergei Kuryokhin joined the National Bolshevik Party in 1995, a year before his death at the age of 42, it caused a much bigger scandal and had wider repercussions than with previous recruitments.
Five years after his death Kuryokhin remains a towering figure of Russian avantgarde music. Though his music shared many things with such post-modernists as John Zorn and he played with people like Henry Kaiser and David Moss, his work connects in equal measure to the uniquely Russian history. This was evident in the style of his virtuosic piano improvisations, but also in the project which he was best known for: Pop Mechanics. Pop Mechanics was probably perestroika’s most exotic fruit, a big band melding all the typical clichés from dozens of musical styles – industrial music, free jazz, hard rock, operettas, contemporary music, King Crimson, Glenn Branca’s massed guitars and so on and on – into a sometimes sloppy, sometimes feverishly driving pileup. The “pre-Leningrad Cowboys” visuals were an inseparable ingredient part of the concept. They included live goats, pigs, tigers, chicken, dogs, donkeys, monkeys, snakes and ponies onstage, surrealist dresses, and when Pop Mechanics was on its peak in the late 80’s Kuryokhin managed to have a folk ensemble, a KGB employees’ choir, a classic chamber orchestra and an army truck performing simultaneously in addition to the big band itself. By then Pop Mechanics was playing in sports arenas and the ever jocular and witty Kuryokhin was often seen on Soviet TV. There he executed one of his most celebrated escapades in a prime-time talk show. At that point, in May 1991, Lenin was still enough of a sacred cow in order to inspire Kuryokhin stage a long discussion (including illustrative diagrams and a real scientist from some research institute), in which it was explained fully seriously that Lenin was not human, but a mushroom.
Kuryokhin rapidly became one of the folk heroes on the pantheon of the nation’s youth, alongside the furiously anti-Soviet punk singer Yegor Letov and a handful of other underground rockers like Boris Grebenshikov and Viktor Tsoi. Their status among the population under 30 years old in the late Soviet society could only be compared to the biggest Western 60’s rock stars like Dylan or Lennon, or perhaps more accurately to the status that truth-speaking and dissident classic writers have always enjoyed in Russia, from Pushkin and Tolstoy all the way to Solzhenitsyn – read by millions and seen as true spiritual leaders and mouthpieces of anti-regime distress, so to speak.
Kuryokhin’s particular brand of absurdism clearly harked back to the early 1900’s Russia: to the “shocking the bourgeoisie” provocation and humour of Russian futurism of Mayakovsky and company on one hand, and on the other hand to the massive scope and pathos of the mass theatralized rallies and gatherings organized by the authorities in the first years of Soviet rule. And like the avantgardists of the 20’s, who were among the designers of mass street theatre, Kuryokhin wanted to get rid of the confines that separated art from its surroundings. “We must ascend into power and turn the whole country into Pop Mechanics”, was something he kept repeating in the early 90’s to his close friend and sometime manager Alexander Kan, who now works as a BBC journalist in London. “His mentality was much like National Bolshevik leader Eduard Limonov’s: he wanted to shock people and not let them lull themselves into the bourgeois state of peaceful well-being. He was absolutely serious about these things, even if he always served his views with humour. He was a provocateur for all his life, but things changed when he started to conduct his provocations in the sphere of politics.”
It was the political philosopher Alexander Dugin who lured Kuryokhin into the Naz-Bol camp. They organized together another Pop Mechanics extravaganza in support of Naz-Bol election campaign when Dugin was running for St. Petersburg’s city council (without success, except in the percentage he scored among young voters). This turned off many of Kuryokhin’s old friends from the totalitarian days, but also attracted scores of younger people to sympathize with the National Bolsheviks’ revolutionary spirit and the party’s causes. Talk of Russian national pride on one hand and anti-capitalism on the other hand sounded understandably cool for the citizens of a humiliated empire in which a particularly corrupted form of wild capitalism was running rampant. The Bolshevik Party constantly called in its manifestoes for punks, skinheads, anarchists and other fringe radicals, “mysticists” and “fanatic idealists” to join its ranks, but the active membership always remained quite small. “I think Kuryokhin was just making a fool of the Naz-Bols, but those donkeys took his words literally”, dismisses Serguei Letov, a premiere Russian free improviser (on sax) for the past 15 years and one of Kuryokhin’s closest musical collaborators from 1983 until 1993, in a recent interview with Moscow ‘zine KontrKultUra. “For Kuryokhin National Bolshevism was another ‘Lenin as mushroom’ thing.”
The friendship of Dugin and Kuryokhin had begun with the realization that they had similar musical tastes. Both were extremely interested in English post-industrialism, and especially in neo-pagan dark folk. Industrial music – metal sheets and junk iron instruments – had been one of the elements of Pop Mechanics almost from its start in 1985. “The industrial section” of the big band was first formed by Sergei “Afrika” Bugaev and Timur Novikov, who later became two of the best internationally known Russian visual artists. In the early days of Pop Mechanics Bugaev and Novikov were equally enthusiastic about John Cage’s ideas and the Soviet avantgarde of the 20’s. “Until the late 80’s all information coming from the West was so fragmentary… We hadn’t even properly heard the music, only read about it. For us Western industrial music, Einstürzende Neubauten and all the rest were like a myth, just the same way that it was a truly mythical event when John Cage came to meet us in Leningrad in 1988. Cage’s thinking had influenced very much the concept of Pop Mechanics, especially his idea of all sounds having equal right to exist. Thus we always wanted to have both human and animal sounds in the live show”, Bugaev says now.
Here the story unfortunately starts to resemble a conspiracy theorists’ wet dream: Bugaev tells me that besides doing installations for various art museums around the world he is now working in the Russian Parliament as an aide to the vice-chairman of the Committee for Security Policy. And have I heard that National Bolshevik Party’s leader Eduard Limonov has been jailed just a few days ago for allegedly stocking machine-guns in order to form a National Bolshevik Army?
Later I begin to notice that both Russian newspapers and Western newspapers like Financial Times and The New York Times are reporting ever more puzzling things on Dugin the ex-National Bolshevik philosopher/occasional rock writer. He now heads a new small party called Eurasia, whose agenda is practically the same as President Putin’s, just less diplomatic in tone. The rest of the reports may or may not be another mystification in the tradition of Lenin as mushroom – but more credible. Dugin is said to have become one of the top unofficial consultants for Putin and according to the same sources Dugin is the man who drew up the plans for Russia’s new “security doctrine”, that is, the foreign policy that aims at restoring the Soviet empire.
The sound of ZGA’s improv noise is like a metaphor of the late Soviet or post-Soviet everyday life: rusty, broken-down, unpleasantly dominated by cold metal, functioning to seemingly inpenetrable, absurd logic. ZGA is the first still active Russian noise group, started in 1984. Nick Sudnick, its sole remaining member from the original line-up, is another of those dozens of St. Petersburg musicians who at some point played also in Pop Mechanics. I meet him in his workshop in the center of St. Petersburg. The workshop is, naturally enough, filled with beautiful primitive Soviet electronics and junk iron objects. Throughout the interview, Sudnick keeps soldiering together parts of his junk-iron instruments, “zgamoniums”. The day before ZGA has performed at the fourth annual memorial festival of Sergei Kuryokhin, in front of an extremely warm and welcoming audience. Kraut-rockers Faust also performed, and they are coming to visit and have a jam session at Sudnick’s workshop on the next day.
ZGA’s music has developed on a trajectory of its own. While the sound of their first mid-80’s recordings was a lot like any home-made distort-o-industria, their roots in the 70’s prog were discernible post factum from riffs and rhythms they used. The Western industrial/noise influences – Nurse with Wound, Factrix, Mnemonists – reached them only somewhat later, during perestroika, when Sudnick started to build his zgamoniums. The zgamoniums, which ZGA uses both on stage and in studio, are contact-miked springs hammered with mallets, metal sheets gently stroked with medieval-looking miniature whips, strings attached to brutally constructed iron grids, and much more. “We realized we could never play as well and skillfully as the Western people we admired. At that point it became clear that we had to find something of our own, a language of our own. So in late -87 I started to build my own instruments.”
After three cd’s released in the first half of the 90’s on Chris Cutler’s ReR Megacorp label, ZGA has released only cassettes on Alexander Lebedev-Frontov’s Ultra imprint. Like it happened with many other Russian underground musicians, their Western concert trips all but ended at about the same time, when the interest in Russia, born during the Gorby years, had run its course. After that Sudnick has put his efforts on several side projects in to his old band, but now interest in ZGA may be on the rise again. Their first cd release in six years, The Flight of Infection, due out soon on the small US label Tariff.
“Basically I like what has happened in Russia after the collapse of the USSR, that the society has become more open, even though they are now trying to strangle the media again. On the other hand, many people, including me, didn’t guess that everyday life would get this difficult. Artists and musicians are unable to earn any money, because their products just don’t interest anyone in the situation where the average income of the population keeps on falling all the time. But I don’t have any clear-cut political opinions. I think Dugin [this interview was done before Dugin became influential in state politics] is an interesting author, and I see the work of Alexander [Lebedev-Frontov’s, with whom Sudnick plays as a duo under the project name Vetrophonia] work as good-natured, healthy humour. I don’t take it as seriously as those blockheads in the National Bolshevik Party.”
In recent years ZGA has discarded the remnants of their silly prog wackiness, and at the same time melodic motifs have become more noticeable in their music in the form of Sudnick’s simple electric organ sounds, making it sound like nothing else. “I studied accordeon when I was a teenager. I learned the standard Soviet accordeon repertoire: a bit of classical, a bit of folk stuff. It was boring, but I dreamed that with my accordeon skills I could one day get a chance to play on an Ionika, the Soviet electric organ of the late 60’s.” The best moments of ZGA’s current live set are difficult to place into any exact time and place. With Ekaterina Fiodorova on metal percussion, Ramil Shamsutdinov on trombone and Sudnick playing zgamoniums, tapes and accordion, the band looks and sounds like a science fiction band led by Tom Waits from a film that Tarkovsky never made. Or almost like an imaginary factory orchestra in the late 1920’s, equally interested in noise music of the time and the melodicism of Shostakovich.
Austrian journalist René Fülöp-Miller was a rare foreign witness of the original version of this music in the early 1920’s. His account from 1926 is particularly valuable, because unlike Italian Futurists’ noise music – the Delta blues of contemporary industrial music, as I think somebody has called it – the Russian Engineerists were afterwards almost wiped out of Soviet history: “The Bolshevists very soon proceeded to construct special noise instruments, to form noise orchestras, to give the public a ‘real new music’, instead of the usual old bourgeois individualistic ‘patchwork’, and in this way to prepare the collective soul for the revelation of the holiest. They imitated all conceivable sounds from industry and technology and united them in peculiar fugues, in which a whole world of noise deafened the ear. […] A particularly fanatical sect of ‘machine worshippers’, the so-called ‘engineerists’, held in the festive hall of the Moscow Trade Union Palace noise orgies which show better than anything else the absurdity of all these attempts. The first public divine service of these ‘machine worshippers’ began with a noise orchestra composed of a crowd of motors, turbines, hooters and similar instruments of din. […] This was a passion play which represented the sacrifice of the lower individual man on the altar of the mechanized and desouled collectivity.”
This article was originally written in the spring of 2001 and has previously been published in February 2002 on the website of the Czech-American organization Tamizdat. A longer version of the article was published in the November 2001 issue of The Wire magazine, with various elaborations added both by the magazine’s editor and the author himself.
In April 2006, five years after making the interviews above at Sergei Kuryokhin International Festivals in St. Petersburg in 2000 and 2001, I’m back at the same festival, again performing with Alexei Borisov like in 2000. The festival hasn’t changed very much – its programme is still an eclectic mix of genres that remain marginalized in Russia: free improv, noise, experimental rock, ethnic musics, and more. And it’s still as chaotically organized as before, which the organizers turned into a trademark already years ago, claiming publically that the chaos, like the programme’s eclecticism, is all in the tradition of Sergei Kuryokhin’s massed surrealist stage shows from the Perestroika years.
Everything is in stark contrast with the festival’s contemporary surroundings. The Marxist writer Boris Kagarlitsky has summarized the paradigm shift that took place in these surroundings soon after Putin came to power in 2000: “In the early 1990s, when government property was being seized and distributed, the nation’s elite needed an overarching ideology. It was easier to grab factories and oil industries if it was being loudly announced that all these factories – and the economy as a whole – cost nothing. But now that the pie has been carved up, radicalism has been replaced by conservatism. Now they’re saying that what was seized must be protected, that society must be taught respect for authority, power, order. All that was conservative and authoritarian in Soviet culture is back in vogue.”
The Russian version of Music Television in April 2006 is an indication: in one short watching session I see two clips apparently financed by the Ministry of Defense, which glorify the Russian army in a way reminding of the 1970’s Soviet propaganda. Only the aesthetics and physical postures have changed; now Russian hiphoppers are posing as “the army posse” in a strange version of US rappers posing with their Kalashnikov machine guns.
When I ask AVIA’s Nikolai Gusev to comment on the views he expressed to me in April 2000, he says: “I think you’re right that the everyday life has become more and more grey and militarized since then. But I am still a monarchist and a believer in authoritarian rule. Just not in the kind we have now. We are living in a country ruled by a colonel, and obviously all these para-military people around him can’t solve any of the problems with any creativity – all they know is how to grab the power and keep it.”
During the past years Gusev has concentrated on playing in a trio called NOM, formed already in the 1980’s and resembling AVIA more and more both musically and in its explicit interest in the culture of the 1920’s – this time not with the industrial heroism, but the absurd humour of the literary OBERIU group, whose best known figure was Daniil Kharms. Kharms’ uniqueness among the world literature of the absurd has been explained by his ”poetics of extremism” and the subject matter of his short prose stories (which are often only or two sentences long) with their recurrent depiction of mindless violence.
Alexander Lebedev-Frontov is the most history-obsessed of my interviewees. He now has a duo project called Stalnoy Pakt, which makes “soundtracks to historical events” – to no less than the likes of First World War, German occupation of the Soviet Union and Mussolini’s last attempt to fight the Allied! These collages combine historical recordings with “dark ambient” soundscapes in a more hi-tech way than in his solo project Linija mass. He has put further releases of Linija mass on hold after releasing four remarkable vinyl records of all sizes between 2000 and 2004. “I’m not interested in repeating the same thing over and over.”
During the Perestroika (”Reconstruction”) of the late 1980’s, the previous decade was often called the epoch of Zastoi (“Stagnation”). In the new millennium the same word has been used ever more often to describe the current situation in Russian society. It may be too early to say, but it looks like the past few years have been quite stagnant in Russian musical life as well, at least in the field discussed here. When asked about new interesting names or perspectives, none of my interviewees exactly bursts into praise. “In Russian industrial music this is a time of fine-tuning the details and small nuances. It’s as if everything has already been invented”, Alexander Lebedev-Frontov says calmly. ”My main project for the past years has been my duo Vetrophonia with Nick Sudnick. It’s mostly improvised, which keeps it interesting.”
Both of these trends – the re-interpretation of history as practiced by Gusev and Lebedev-Frontov and the importance of improvisation – have their parallels in the West as well. Especially the primacy of improvisation over composition/concept has become almost a dogma in Western experimental music, though the reasons for it are quite different. One of them is the strong counter-reaction by a younger generation towards the late 90’s futurism, which was most evident in so-called “digital musics”. In Russia, by contrast, there was practically no laptop music until well into the new millennium.
Alexei Borisov’s projects have always featured improvisatory elements, but now probably more than ever. He has been using a laptop for a few years alongside his low tech tools such as dictaphones and homemade effects pedals. “I use the laptop mostly ‘blind-folded’, not knowing or understanding what I do. It’s again a bit like the Surrealists’ automatic writing. In practice it means that I process randomly chosen pieces of sound through hundreds of various effects without any advance idea what I want, just to see where it leads.”
None of Borisov’s music since the 1980’s can really be called industrial – instead he has been warmly welcomed by the international “noise” scene (for the lack of a better word), most notably via collaborations with people like KK. Null and The New Blockaders and live appearances at Western experimental music festivals. “Five years ago I was lamenting the lack of infrastructures around music in Russia. They still haven’t emerged. Except for the internet, which of course is an ever more important source of information here just as everywhere. But the scenes are quite local like they used to be, and people don’t know too well what’s going on outside their own cities. Instead there has been some integration with the world outside Russia. Not on a large scale, as Russia is still a closed state physically, but now there are maybe ten artists or projects in my field, or in the wider field of electronic music, who are being invited to play in Europe and their music is being released there, people like the Nexsound artists (from Ukraine actually, though some of them are Russian-speaking), the artists promoted by Laton, IDM acts like SCSI-9, Solar X, Lazyfish, Fizzarum, EU or Novel 23, dark ambient projects like Cisfinitum and Reutoff, eccentrics like Messerchups and Oleg Kostrov, and so on.”
Somewhat surprisingly ZGA is not a sought after name in the West. “I’m asking a big fee”, says Nick Sudnick – which may indeed be a partial explanation. It’s the same eternal problem: when Russians play abroad, they are still often offered much smaller fees than their Western peers of equal stature (and there is no end to this in sight until the musicians adopt a tighter stand towards us Westerners). At the 10th Sergei Kuryokhin International Festival, SKIF-10 for short, Sudnick performs with another mainstay of ZGA, percussionist Ekaterina Fiodorova, and two more conventional drummers, Alexei Ivanov and Marcus Godwyn, as a group called Figs. They play a tight and virtuosic industrial jazz show, which warms the St. Petersburg crowd and becomes one of the highlights of the festival.
The late Sergei Kuryokhin’s connections with the National Bolsheviks are not discussed much anymore nowadays. Instead he is remembered even by St. Petersburg’s mayor as a great composer, and the city authorities have donated the festival organization an old Soviet cinema theatre, where SKIF has already been held twice.
Meanwhile a small National Bolshevik organization called Kultfront has organized three much smaller, strictly noise/post-industrial festivals called Thalamus in St. Petersburg and released a few compilation CD’s. It is estimated that the National Bolshevik Party has 15 000 members in the whole country (most of them probably having no idea what “industrial music” is) and their activity seems to be centred around anti-Putin stunts such as temporary occupations of government buildings and cake-throwing. The Party leader Eduard Limonov was released from jail prematurely after two years in 2003, but the whole Naz-Bol movement has since then spun out of any centralized control. The political orientation of current Naz-Bols is hard to pinpoint, but it appears to be more Bolshevik than National, more anarcho-communist, anti-globalist and situationist than fascist. After Ukraine’s Orange Revolution in late 2004 they started to get a lot of attention both from the media and the authorities, who have jailed dozens of young activists involved in the protests for sentences as long as four years.
Apocalyptic moods are never too deep under the surface in Russia. Probably there is good reason for them: not only are musical infrastructures missing, freedom of expression strictly controlled and the military increasing its presence, but also the basic social and industrial infrastructures are on the verge of collapse after decades of decay. “Like many people, I would emigrate if I could, but I for example have my old folks to take care of here”, Alexei Borisov says. ”It seems this is a damned place. There are so much of perversions and deformity here. And the horrible communist experiment is still with us – no other normal country has gone through something like that. There is such a big potential in Russia, but somehow everything is always done so unpleasantly and awfully, that you finally come to the conclusion that the Antichrist must have settled here. Maybe in the Kremlin.”