report from russia

I just got back from a week long trip to Russia to give two performances, one at the Experimental Sound Gallery in St. Petersburg and one at the DOM Cultural Center in Moscow (venues pictured above). All was organized by Dmitry of the fine label and distribution service Monochrome Vision and partly sponsored by the Estonian CCA (one of my biggest surprises in Russia was to find that there currently is a market for smaller independent labels, even in the face of rampant piracy). Both performances went well with an attendance of about 30-40 people for each show. In DOM there was also a performance by Nikita Golyshev, aka CD-R, a young architect and musician who is one of the people behind the Musica Excentrica net label. Afterwards at each venue there were a number of people who came up to me to give comments and ask questions. This is a good sign considering the environment for performances in the former eastern block where 5 or more years ago it was normal for there to be no response at all after a show (sometimes not even applause).

On Friday evening I gave a talk about my work at the Theremin Center in Moscow which is a small department in the conservatory of music devoted to electronic music. Afterwards there were also a number of questions about my various recording and composing techniques as well as a discussion about quality vs convenience in the current trends of digital production and distribution of music (some were asking why I don’t use best recording equipment possible indicating that people are not entirely aware of the idea of the independent scene). Pictured below are some of the true gems of electronic instruments from Russian history, which were sitting in the same room I gave my lecture! The first is an original Theremin presumably from the 1920s. The second is the one and only ANS Synthesizer made by the engineer Evgeny Murzin in the late 1930s. This is the very instrument used by Alfred Schnittke and Edward Artemiev (whose work with the synthesizer can be heard on various Tarkovsky soundtracks). It has been restored and is in working conditions and it is even possible to take classes in how to compose for the ANS (although someone said they will move it soon to the Museum of Musical Instruments in Moscow).

The last photo is from a place known as “space city” about 40km north of Moscow. We took a trip to a place that was supposedly someone’s dacha and ended up sneaking into a soviet cosmonaut training base (supposedly still in use) to check some ruins. Our guide called the place the “Stalker pools” because nobody knew what they were used for and the place felt like a lost “zone”. Unfortunately it was raining and it was illegal for us to be inside so it was not optimal for further exploration. Sadly once you leave the outskirts of Moscow the conditions of living decay rapidly (and they are not always so great within the city). I noticed many block house areas simply being overgrown with trees and strewn with trash illustrating the growing poverty and prosperity gap in Russia. Nonetheless the trip provided me with a number of enlightening views into understanding whats happening across the border from Estonia.

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2 thoughts on “report from russia

  • Tim

    Is there any way you could explain further what it’s like within Estonia today? In some ways, to outsiders, especially within the United States, it’s perhaps becoming something almost mythical/mystical.

    There is not only your work as well as M. Northam’s work, but also the legendary composer Arvo Part. etc.

    How much does Orthodox Christianity permeate Estonia?

    You might wholly disagree with my assessment, but I imagine I can hear the rudiments of Orthodox faith in your own work. The principles of the faith, especiallly chorally in the vocal drone, are especially well augmented in the yearning towards the other present in the best “synthetic” & natural drone based sounds. As both passion & sanctuary, ecstasy & despair.

    Am I way, way off target in this hearing?

  • jgrzinich

    Estonia is actually one of the least religious countries in Europe. It was one of the last territories to be converted from old pagan tribes into Christianity and the results were less effective than in many places. When Estonia became re-independent and some felt to make an official state religion many argued it should be a “land religion” meaning it would reflect the animistic beliefs of many people (who live in the countryside). I think they officially chose lutheran, which comes from the long influence of Baltic/German heritage, but just to look good for Europe. The orthodox influence is mainly from the various periods of Russian occupation (pre-soviet) and also includes some “old believers” which are a form of pre-reform from 1666. Overall it is said that about 12% are of orthodox faith.

    How this all affects my music is somewhat minimal. I’m not religious although I feel there is some “spiritual” aspects to my work (long-form compositions for extended listening). I do connect more with animism in the way I like to “animate” objects and spaces with sound. I think listeners here understand this more naturally than many westerners who might make more religious associations.

    As for Arvo Pärt, he is of course a well known Estonian (living in Berlin), but I don’t think his work is seen as being directly related to the national ethos. There are other composers like Veljo Tormis who embody the more mythic traditional singing based music here. But without knowing some of this it may be harder to understand.