Saint Petersburg's legendary rock band Akvarium continues to celebrate its "4,000th" anniversary with the sudden appearance of a new album. Two things needed to be stated from the outset: that substantial numeral is actually an enthusiastic exaggeration of "40" and this purportedly new recording consists of old, yet rare compositions. The LP is the first half of a double retrospective, bringing into public view various archival recordings known only to the most demanding collectors. In English its title might be translated as "Aeronautics in the Company of Sphinxes."
An element of enduring fantasy is clearly at work, and not only in the realm of inflated figures.
"Aeronautics" and the forthcoming sister-album both include some unpublished or rarely performed songs. They have all been collected and remastered according to a philosophical, rather than chronological rationale. "Over the years a number of works have endured on the periphery of Akvarium's canonical discography. They've been completely inaccessible to most of the band's fans, in fact. The fundamental aim of this album was to gather under one roof all those tracks that'd 'gone missing.' [Now that work is complete, some] forgotten material is now being returned to the people."
Forgotten music is now being returned to the people
That same philosophy emerged in a recent interview given by Akvarium frontman Boris Grebenshchikov to the Moscow newspaper Kommersant. Not surprisingly, one of the primary issues of the conversation was the band's longevity. Given that various aspects of the ensemble's history can be traced back to 1972, parallels were even drawn with the endless career of Iosif Kobzon, who for decades was the performer of civic song on the Soviet stage. Grebenschchikov had kind words for his long-lasting colleague: "I have great respect for Kobzon, just as I would for any performer who's able to work so hard." Endurance was more important than any fixed goal. Some idea was being praised over and above ideology: it would slowly be revealed during the interview.
Boris Grebenshchikov (Summer, 2012)
A related matter first transpired, namely Akvarium's avoidance of their own tribute album. As we've reported on several occasions this summer, increasing numbers of Russian, Ukrainian, and Belarusian bands have gathered forces in order to re-record some classic Akvarium tracks. Mr. Grebenschchikov himself has kept a noticeable distance from the (flattering) proceedings, being less than keen to amplify any public praise of his own achievements.
The upshot of his comments in Kommersant is that one should work hard, focus upon longevity (in a fickle culture), and maintain a tricky balance between uniqueness and respect for the past (rather than epigonism). In fact, on the subject of how some younger artists have covered songs by Vladimir Vysotskii for easy profit or lazy caché, Grebenschchikov has called those unimaginative reinterpretations borderline "pornography." A need to foster individuality and humility transpires, i.e., the moral obligation to further one's own art, whilst respecting (not aping!) the achievements of others.
The past is deserving of praise, not plagiarism, and - as a result - the very act of novelty becomes increasingly difficult. The room left for novel expression is reduced each and every time self-expression exercises its own "freedoms." Such is Grebenschchikov's contention.
A [political] state cannot be honest and fair
Political arrogance is avoided in the same manner. Regeneration of the same, unoriginal, and selfish notions is a profoundly dehumanizing process. "A [political] state cannot be honest and fair: it is interested in nothing more than preserving its own power. That's especially true of the Russian state." Grebenschchikov then goes on to make a pointed remark about the widespread ignorance of Biblical texts in his homeland. "If you live in a Christian country, it's probably worth knowing - at least! - the fundamental book of that faith."
The elemental, perhaps eternal logic of meekness is constantly ignored.
By then turning to other rigid and self-perpetuating social systems, such as the church and police, Grebenschchikov draws a fundamental distinction between lofty, humane values and ideologically colored "structures." "Those [inflexible] structures always operate against people. For purely mathematical reasons, they're concerned wholly with their own survival." The same critique, in closing, is extended by Akvarium's lead singer to the current accusations leveled against Moscow performance artists Pussy Riot. "The church isn't interested in public opinion [in that court case]. The institution [or 'structure'] of the church has its own aims. Contact with the Russian public is not one of them..."
Similar arrogance and self-approval are to be avoided at all costs.
A closely related sense of what we might call valiant humility - i.e., major minorism! - has certainly been echoed by other lo-fi or acoustic ensembles today. We could suggest, by way of illustration, the appealingly shambolic recordings by Moscow's Vorevokuk. Only after some effort - in the total absence of any self-promotion - does it become clear, or at least logical, that these recordings belong to a certain Evgenii Kukoverov, who has simply inverted his surname in order to create an on-stage moniker.
A few friends on Live Journal have tagged these wantonly amateurish composition as "melodic, domestic ditties about fantasy and nature." They're small sounds made in the shadow of bigger metamorphoses.
Stuck between actuality and the stars, these twee texts and tunes refuse to adopt anything resembling self-importance or insolence. They proudly assert their smallness or insignificance, even. In fact, one of Vorevokuk's other DIY recordings, made with friend Il'ia Borodin, is titled "This Could Have Been an Album." A step back from self-assertion is itself made confidently. One's gaze is actively lowered.
Evgenii Kukoverov (Vorevokuk, Moscow)
A fuller context for that kind of deliberate downsizing or understatement appears this week with regard to a new EP from Nikita Prokop'ev (Chelyabinsk) and Sergei Cherepikho (St. Petersburg). The launch party in Moscow spoke of "quiet, touching, yet ultimately impressive songs that belong to no specific genre. Since these men aren't busy screaming about themselves on every street corner, you'd think they'd be destined for anonymity..." And yet, we're informed, the same two gentleman might - despite their generic infidelities - be Russia's answer to nicecore. In some places, understatement and simplicity have a special resonance.
These men aren't busy screaming about themselves on every street corner
Both men admit that their roots, at least textually speaking, lie in childhood verse or prose, scribbled at home and shown only to one's closest friends. These lyrics have not traveled the world in a pioneering spirit. Interviewed this summer by Prokop'ev himself, Cherepikho said: "I still haven't published any of that material - even now. Everything's simply in the form of DIY books... My next [professional] step will be movie making. Something in the style of David Lynch - but about tortoises. In terms of style, it'll be a mystical melodrama." Talk of career advancement and grand, internationally consequential plans is immediately mocked and/or deflated.
Cherepikho evens turns that same demureness or lack of pretension into a historical principle. He maintains that "If some musical fashion seems completely outrageous yesterday, then in ten years' time it'll absolutely sound like the ramblings of a child."
Maximalism is not a long-term strategy. And so these songs come from a quieter corner.
For the same reason, we again discover a wariness with regard to over-zealous politics and inflexible dictates. Cherepikho says that: "It's hard to formulate those things [such as my political outlook]. I'm probably a libertarian, but sometimes I feel that I'm [briefly] an anarchist, communist, or monarchist. I don't feel close to any modern political movements. I'm against any kind of ruling power, but I find today's notions of 'oppositionary' politics just as unattractive..."
In the face of loud corporate activity and grandiose politics - not to mention the homogenizing workings of worldwide technology - Cherepikho holds that two qualities will endure in future music: "Sincerity and originality." Neither make a lot of noise.
Sincerity and originality
Lest that seem a wholly Russian viewpoint, some new songs from the impressive Latvian ensemble Gaujarts appear to scribe a related trajectory. The band's most recent work - "Vibrācijas" - has been promoted "through a series of small, underground clubs" in Riga. These acoustic, understated numbers are offered to northern listeners as "something totally different to whatever you'll find on the shelves of Baltic music stores." Corporate activity is likely to be clamorous, driven by profit margins, and self-assured. And so Gaujarts step shyly forth with some "unbelievably heartfelt and touching music. These texts express a very adult sense of wisdom, while the arrangements are done simply. That same simplicity, however, won't stop these compositions tugging at your heartstrings."
Acoustic understatement moves nimbly forth to the accompaniment of a guitar, bass, and accordion. "Together with some vocals, of course... and a dash of quietness."
It's well worth mentioning that one of Gaujart's newest songs is called "Preobrazhensky's Dream," harking back to the 1925 tale by Mikhail Bulgakov. That world-famous story concerns the "humanization" of a dog after a bold transplant operation - and the question of whether an overtly bestial figure could play a role in the grand plans of Soviet culture. Needless to say, the answer is not a jolly one.
Stressing an opposing support for minor social forms and fashions, Gaujart speak in endearing terms of how they made the "Vibrācijas" LP against various odds. Among "snowdrifts up to our eyes - and despite severe cold in the studio" - work began with the feeble support of a portable heater. Nonetheless, the "sounds of life and reality transpired... as our fingers trembled, we began to justify the creation of unexpected moments."
We began to justify the creation of unexpected moments
From this point onwards we hear the importance of what our Latvian musicians call "arbitrariness" as a form of "alternative" creativity. In contradistinction to the unwieldy, lurid posturing of primetime enterprise, an element of chance is ushered in. Anything might happen. In other words, one's sense of textual and tonal control is not complete. The gap between assurance and truth is emphasized: the latter belongs to nobody.
All four of these recordings from Akvarium, Vorevokuk, Nikita Prokop'ev, Sergei Cherepikho, and Gaujart admit a certain modesty in the face of greater forces. They may be spiritual, political, corporate, or meteorological, but various factors always threaten to prove proud and pushy citizens wrong. As a result, we find a general leaning in all of these projects towards understated, restrained, and acoustic performance.
Humility has a certain sound - one that outlasts the "ramblings of a [once-outrageous] child." Small, insistent lights seem to burn the longest - away from public scrutiny.