The sonic explorations of Valentina Goncharova
From Unearthing The Music
Valentina Goncharova's (b. Kyiv 1953) musical career spans several decades, regimes, countries, and professions. A trained violinist, she began her studies in Leningrad in the late 1960's, and while playing gigs in the city's underground rock clubs, she crossed paths with a host of experimentally-minded musicians, including Sergey Kuryokhin of Pop-Mekhanika. It was at the Leningrad conservatory where she encountered the works of Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Iannis Xenakis, Krzysztof Penderecki, and John Cage, as well as the then fledgling protagonists of Krautrock and Kosmische Musik, Klaus Schulze and Tangerine Dream, as part of the unofficial communal curriculum. In the mid-80s, she relocated to Estonia and embarked on an exploration of home-studio recording techniques together with her husband Igor Zubkov. Besides music creation, she's also worked as a music journalist and teacher. This interview was born on the occasion of her upcoming release on the archival imprint Shukai, simply entitled ‘Recordings Vol. 1’, created between 1987 and 1991 in Tallinn and London: a mesmerising collection of minimalist, hypnotic compositions that transgress into the cosmos, but also allude to radiophonic experimentation, meditative sonicism in the vein of Pauline Oliveros and musique concrète. But essentially, hers is an idiosyncratic music legacy that has been propelled by the search for innovation.
You were born in Kyiv during the Soviet times and studied classical music both in your home town and later in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg). What led you to music?
Music was always present in our family. We had a beautiful old Blüthner piano, which my grandmother used for rehearsals. She worked as an accompanist at the Opera House. I started to learn the piano from an early age. Grandma was my first teacher. But when I entered school, I didn't get accepted to the piano class, but to the violin one! The reasons were: my absolute pitch, and incredibly small hands.
I had a wonderful teacher - Lazar Fedorovich Bendersky. Meeting him was crucial for my life because he revealed to me - a seven-year-old child! - the essence of creativity, love and inspiration. I studied with him for nine years. Then, to continue my studies, I left for Leningrad.
In Leningrad, I studied intermittently for a total of ten years. From 1969 to 1976 - two years at a special school, five years at the Leningrad Conservatory – under professor Vaiman. And then, from 1980 to 1983, three years in graduate school under professor Gutnicov.
The years of my studies coincided with the period when in our vocation there was little chance to find professional fulfilment. And I began to search for myself.
I remember that one of the most important discussions was with my coursemate, the composer Svetlana Golybina. That evening, we discussed the question: "Where is music heading?" I still have no answer to it. But, it was this question that gave meaning to my whole subsequent life and determined my ideas, actions and creativity for many years to come. My circle of intellectual interests in conservatory gradually took shape, and my musical and general horizons expanded. About ten years later, I began to improvise and to create my own music. By then, I had acquired a sense of responsibility toward my ideas, including musical ones.
While studying in Leningrad, you became involved in the thriving experimental rock scene of the city, performing alongside the future members of the renowned group Pop-Mekhanika. How do you recollect this period?
The musicians with whom I played were such bright personalities and idiosyncratic characters, that they could not operate under any collective control. All of them were free artists. They periodically collaborated with each other: sometimes they played together, sometimes they performed at joint concerts: each with one's own individual programme, or group.
Svetlana Golybina (composer and pianist) and I - Valentina Goncharova – (violin) used to have an established duo for many years called “Accents”, for contemporary music. We performed the music of 20th-century European and American composers: at the Buryat Philharmonic (Ulan-Ude) and on a tour in Eastern Siberia and the Far East, for instance. The only Buddhist temple in the Soviet Union was in Ulan-Ude. It made a strong impression on us. We were lucky to communicate with lamas.
I remember one of the most interesting concerts, which took place in April 1983 (or 84?), in Leningrad, at the House of Architects. There were eight of us: Svetlana Golybina on the piano and me on the violin, then there was Sergey Letov (saxophones soprano, alt, baritone) and Mikhail Zhukov (ethnic percussion). Both of them were already known in Moscow as free jazz musicians and had professions unrelated to music. They honed their improvisation skills at the jazz school "Moskvorechye". The four of us arrived from Moscow, just for the concert. In Leningrad, we were met by Boris Grebenshchikov - guitar, Captain Africa (Sergey Bugaev) - percussion, Victor Tsoi - guitar and Sergey Kuryokhin – piano, synthesizer. We had known each other from recordings and concerts, but we had never played together before. Everything was as it should be in the life of real avant-garde artists: not a single musician acted in their usual role this evening. Each musician had with them their main instrument and many additional ones. We decided not to rehearse. The task was set: free improvisation - NON-STOP, during the entire concert. We went on stage and began to play.
For many years, I kept a recording of this concert. Over time, my impressions of it did not diminish, quite the contrary. The music turned out incredibly rich, contrasting, voluminous. The audience was absorbed in our performance from the beginning to the end.
You moved to Estonia in 1984. In the late 80s, you recorded ‘Recordings Vol. 1’ which are now being released by the Ukrainian / Estonian label Shukai (an archival project focused on 60–80s Soviet music for films and TV). These recordings were created with you experimenting in your home studio with various techniques, using a modified Olimp reel-to-reel recorder. Can you describe how you created these recordings? As a classically educated musician, what led you to experiment with sound and music creation techniques?
I was too cramped within the boundaries of the classics. I wanted to energise the music not with the volume, but by changing the music itself. I was looking for new structural possibilities, new colours and new rhythmic combinations. In the past, I didn't have the opportunity to write or perform music for violin and orchestra. Therefore I sought to create a new artistic language in which the role of the orchestra would be played by electronics. Not as trivially as it can be done on a keyboard synthesizer. But in order to open up fundamentally new possibilities in music.
In 1984, I got married and moved to Tallinn. My husband, Igor Zubkov, an electronic engineer, built the first electric violin for me. Thus, I got the opportunity to greatly expand the expressive means of my improvisations. In those days, my new violin with a magnetic pickup was unique. Even nowadays, it has many advantages compared to many others on the market.
We lived in Tallinn, close to the sea, in a wooden house with a small garden. One of the rooms was turned into a studio. A handmade tube amplifier and two-meter loudspeakers produced a clean and balanced sound. The “Corvette” - a Soviet vinyl disc player - was connected to them (at that time, “Super!”). We could listen to vinyl records at maximum volume without disturbing our neighbours.
I remember one New Year we were sitting on boar skins under large speakers with a large company of intellectual hippies. We listened to Yoko Ono's album “Fly”. This music made a lasting impression on me and, in many ways, paved the way for my creative explorations. Around the same time, Robert Fripp and Brian Eno's records: “Evening Star” and “No Pussyfooting”, also deeply penetrated into my soul.
Adapting to solve technical limitations.
Soon, we got a stereo reel-to-reel tape recorder - prefix “Olimp-004", which at that time was considered to be the best among semi-professional ones. Nevertheless, with all its advantages, it remained a household tape recorder working with a narrow tape. It was impossible to switch the mixing console and record each track separately. Overdubbing was the only way to make “multi-track recording”. Though this was at least some kind of a starting point.
Over time, Igor came up with a fundamentally different way to record overdubs on the "Olympus", using self-made wires, adapters and plugs. Now, in volume, there was no loss of sound between the tracks, and the quality didn't deteriorate. But this recording method had one feature that sharply limited the possibilities of its application: the tracks were all affected by delay.
If I don’t participate in a jam session, I'm left alone: Without a rhythmic pulse, without chords that support tonality, without other instruments that create dramaturgy. This is not enough to create meaningful music. A composer always needs any kind of ensemble or orchestra for violin. Instead of violin and orchestra, I write an electric violin overdub.
My records were most often made without a microphone: a special wire directly connected a violin with a magnetic pickup to a tape recorder input. Later, Igor made one more electric violin for me, this time with a piezo pickup. Both violins had different roles. Additionally, expanding his experience with piezo pickups, Igor amplified many household items: a windowsill, pencils, metal pans and a cauldron, glass vases, a table and even cardboard folders.
And one more important device was used during those recording sessions: the Soviet-made Lel RC Digital Reverb with a delay loop of up to three seconds.
At last, in 1987, I began to make proper records using the techniques and the materials described above.
You were influenced by Stockhausen, Xenakis, Ganelin Trio, Pierre Boulez. There's also an element of New Age, mediation, tranquility in the music - were you aware at the time of such styles as Kosmische and bands like Tangerine Dream, Can, Klaus Schulze?
I must say that the Leningrad Conservatory played a crucial role in supporting and studying contemporary art.
Surprisingly, it was at this academic institution that the tradition of training, educating, and encouraging musicians (who were exploring new ways in music), was pursued. This tradition was never interrupted. Our professors were the followers and the living bearers of this tradition.
A library, a music library, an archive - all this stretched the thread of historical continuity from the achievements of the early 20th century Russian avant-garde to the contemporary art of the last third of the 20th century.
It was not at a rock club, but at the conservatory, that I first heard the music of Krzysztof Penderecki, Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Iannis Xenakis, and John Cage. All of them were included in the mandatory curriculum. I also discovered the music of Tangerine Dream, Can, and Klaus Schulze while studying at the graduate school of the conservatory. We gathered in a student dormitory and listened to all of the interesting music that some of our friends had the opportunity to get their hands on.
The conservatory hosted a large educational work by the Student Scientific Society. This society held seminars in which students introduced their research work that was not related to the curriculum. All of the students could get acquainted with phenomena of 20th century culture, particularly music and art.
The Composer's Club, a student organisation, made it possible for composers to showcase their works to a narrow circle of experts and discuss them with their colleagues.
The Composer's Club eventually expanded its activities: it organised festivals of student chamber and symphonic music, invited student composers from many conservatories of the Union Republics to perform their music, introduced new works and also invited composers from Europe and America. At that time (the 70s - 80s) these kinds of activities were not encouraged – but in fact, prohibited - in the Soviet Union. This was only possible in Leningrad, where a rich cultural tradition had still been preserved in the minds and hearts of people, despite the Blockade (during The Second World War) and the Stalinist repression. An integral element of this tradition was creative innovation. According to one legend: When Peter the Great laid the first stone at the start of the construction of St. Petersburg, he proclaimed that he thus "opens a window to Europe!”. Perhaps it was the first manifestation of the spirit of the Russian avant-garde born at this very moment. In art, this spirit was most clearly manifested in the late 19th - early 20th centuries during the Silver Age era. It also appeared in the late 20th century during the perestroika period.
Contemporary music festivals, organised by The Composer's Club, were a place at which composers, performers, conductors, a choir and an orchestra joined forces. Also, I remember the scandalous meeting with the Italian avant-garde composer Luigi Nono at the Composer's Club. The official attitude towards the music and political activities of Luigi Nono, who besides music was a prominent member of the Communist Party (though not the one based on Marxism-Leninism) was ambiguous, rather negative. Music was not the purpose of his trip to the Soviet Union. He came on some business related to his social activities. One of the students accidentally heard about his arrival and eventually they invited him to a meeting of the Composer's Club, to which he agreed. Our party organisation of the conservatory, and then the rectorate and administration, banned this event. The Composer's Club, the Student Scientific Society, the Komsomol Committee of the Conservatory wrote letters and went to an appointment with the City and Regional Party Committee, urging everyone to allow this meeting, to no avail. Suddenly, the Human Resources Department came to the rescue. The meeting with Luigi Nono was eventually allowed, but on condition that a KGB representative would be present. We had to agree. The main thing was that the meeting could take place. The two-hour talk with students and professors of the conservatory was unforgettable. He introduced fragments from his opera dedicated to Ernesto "Che" Guevara. He talked about contemporary music in Italy, about his colleagues. He answered numerous questions. He was interested in how young composers work in the Soviet Union.
Luigi Nono also talked about his political activities. He talked about the New Left and the Red Brigades, about their confrontation. He talked about the educational work carried out by the supporters of the Italian Communist Party, and about their activities in connection with the expansion of music education. He talked about how the Communists supported contemporary art and experimental music. About how he himself worked in an electronic studio.
All this was possible only at our conservatory, despite the fact that this was ten years before perestroika.
In the early 80s, when I was in graduate school, cultural life in big cities changed markedly. There was no “perestroika” yet, but many phenomena appeared in art and public life, which were completely new, both for the Soviet Union and for the Western countries.
People suddenly realised that the difference between Western and Socialist countries was not so huge, and that people shared one global history, no matter what territory they lived in. What is important is the level of your historical development, your values, the information that you prefer, your field of activity.
These recordings were created during a turbulent time in Eastern Europe - around perestroika and the collapse of the Soviet Union. How did you perceive this era and did your music reflect it in any way?
My music reflected a general energy rather than a protest against the authorities. The changes themselves I perceived as the deepest transformation, taking place within people at all levels on a global scale, and not in one single country. For me, the most impressive event was the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Of course, thanks to perestroika, artists had the opportunity to voice their thoughts publicly. Cultural life became much more intense. Another important thing: the lexicon had changed. It became possible to bring up any question for discussion in order to get closer to understanding the essence of concepts and things, and not in order to exercise and establish oneself, in terms of Marxism-Leninism, in front of opponents.
Travelling abroad was not an issue any more. Writers were no longer punished for foreign publications. One could openly engage in traditional Eastern and Western esoteric teachings. There was a boom in book publishing. The tedious monotone life suddenly shone with all its colours.
People breathed a sigh of relief: it seemed that life was getting better. But, very soon, internal contradictions resurfaced. At the late stage of perestroika, permissiveness, moral cynicism, and aggressive protest moods prevailed. The life and work of the thinking part of society quite quickly ceased to play an important role in the development of the society itself, despite the establishment of democratic powers in the new Russia.
I moved to Tallinn a year before perestroika. Perhaps if I had lived in Moscow or St. Petersburg during the perestroika period, I would have been much more involved in the cultural life. For a while, I regretted having left for Tallinn too early. But now, 35 years later, I sometimes ask myself: “Had I stayed in Moscow or St. Petersburg, would it be good for my music?” Most likely, there would be no music.
Only in Tallinn, thanks to the support of my husband, did I have the conditions for a normal creative process. But, unfortunately, there were no conditions in Tallinn that allowed for normal social or professional activities: I mean concerts, teaching at the Academy, the opportunity to collaborate. There was no official recognition, and there was no normal income. I had to travel to Moscow and St. Petersburg for concert performances, participation in cultural events, meeting my colleagues and receiving information of all kinds. There was even a music commission from Mosfilm (note - a large Russian film studio) at the Debut studio. The film was called: "Someone Was Here".
I observed perestroika from two different points simultaneously, from two angles, with seemingly different facets of the same events: from Estonia and from Russia. In Russia, I had an incentive to compose music and people who wanted to listen to it. Living in Estonia, I got a business passport without any obstacles, I received visas and travelled to Finland, Sweden, and England several times. Also, I attended foreign seminars in psychology, astrology, philosophy, and esotericism.
In England, Leo Records released my album "Ocean", in an abridged version in 1989. Findhorn Music released another album of mine, called "Atlantis Rising", in 1991.
Has politics ever influenced your work as an artist?
It has, but not the music itself, but in terms of the audience rapport: In the 70s, experimental music concerts were not allowed, but in the 80s, this changed. In the late 80s and early 90s, one could live in Tallinn, but actively participate in the cultural life of Russian cities. In the 90s, when borders began to close, I made a few trips, but they were unproductive. My intense participation in Russian cultural life gradually ceased.
In Estonia, everything was developing, generally, safely, but the vanguard, represented by the local musicians, was not in demand here. At the same time, we had the largest music festivals at which the best musicians from all over the world performed: the NYYD New Music Festival, the JAZZ-KAAR Jazz Festival, and the ORIENT Oriental Music Festival. Estonia was represented minimally at all of these festivals though.
In the mid-90s, the equipment in our home studio began to deteriorate and malfunction. At the same time, digital recording became increasingly popular around the world. A complete refurbishment of the studio equipment and a transformation of experimental music concepts took many years. In addition, I experienced a state of mind that is familiar to every composer: After creating a number of significant works over a short period of time, it takes a while to replenish the energy reserve, accumulate new experiences and impressions.
I performed at concerts with a classical repertoire, taught at a music school, and was involved in music journalism: on the radio, in newspapers and magazines. I covered music festivals, opera and ballet premieres, anthropological cinema, and taught the history of culture and anthropology at universities. Life was interesting. Gradually, new ideas appeared.
Over the past few decades you have taught at the Tallinn Music College, expanded and updated the post-Soviet popular music repertoire, collaborated with the Russian Philharmonic Society of Estonia and performed at concerts and charity events alongside the Catholic Church. Music has remained your main activity until today - it seems?
Of course, music is my main activity. We can say that I am a happy person. Throughout my life, I served, more than anything else, the music. Even in the worst of times. Music has never been a profession for me only in the economic sense of the word. She is a way of life, a spiritual practice, a socio-cultural identification. Therefore, I can’t separate the different hypostases in myself: a classical violinist, improviser, composer, teacher, journalist. It’s probably right to call it all with one word - a musician.
Interview by Lucia Udvardyova
The author of the article would like to thank: Valentina Goncharova, Dmytro Nikolaienko, Michael Jeffrey Lee