Either Faith or Good Works: Ales Tsurko, AY, Equinox Flower, and Chitoon

AY (Aleksandr Udutyi, Moscow): "Forest" (Лес, 2016)

One of the more dramatic career changes within Russia's independent music of late arguably belongs to Moscow's AY. Those two letters refer to Aleksandr Udutyi, whose early discography was tied to his colleague Sergei Nakurennyi. Those two gentleman have been known in the capital's rap scene since the late 1990s, but––relatively recently––have faded away, primarily in order to embrace a very different genre. They're seemingly most active within the Nenormzvuk label, whose name might be translated as "OddSound." As for Udutyi, he has now developed a solo project, known simply as "AY"––and usually tagged as idm, psychill, downtempo... or something equally unflustered.

We invite you to take a walk in the woods... (AY)

The last AY recording considered on FFM was called "Museum"; it celebrated an individual's escape from society's selfishly goal-driven enterprise into the welcoming, ahistorical corridors of a museum. Much as in Alexander Sokurov's 2002 feature film, "Russian Ark," a museum cares for the past, yet invites visitors to wander where they will. Going nowhere in particular becomes a pleasing alternative to linear progression––especially if that snaking movement allows for the comfort of retrospection. Memories hold more appeal than soothsaying.

And so, with a marked diversion from rap's bold posturing into tales of radical modesty (as turntablist psychedelia, even), AY foregrounded various themes of transience in "Museum." Considerations of time's humbling passage predominated. Composite nouns, neologisms, and wordplay gave us titles such as "Rivermovement," "Om Da Place," and "Invisible." A museum allowed Udutyi to transcend a faltering present; yesterday's values were both cherished and mourned. Tomorrow's needed new names. 

AY's occasional nods towards a range of Eastern markers––in some imaginary, archival "Om Da Place"––have become even more important in 2016. The distance between confrontational rap battles and downtempo chill-out only increases. Udutyi's brand-new album is called "Les" (tr. "Forest"); it comes with a brief, though important text in Russian. We should ignore any immediate impressions of PR boilerplate; there's more here than first meets the eye:

"We invite you to take a walk in the woods, together with a dreamlike album. It comes to us from AY, an established figure in Moscow's underground scene. His newest creation, however, operates outside of any one genre. Instead there's a dovetailing of elements taken from hip-hop, dub, and downtempo. They crisscross harmoniously––you'll feel as if you've watched an entire movie." A wide range of Soviet samples, both musical and textual, helps to establish that retrospective, cinematic atmosphere––as does the overall symbolism of the recording. Russian film and literature, irrespective of any political context, have both drawn endlessly upon the otherworldly importance of Russia's boundless forests. AY embraces and extends some of those traditional motifs or concerns.

Alexander Bolovintsev aka Chitoon (Moscow)

Those leafy Russian territories, which today constitute twenty percent of the Earth's woodlands, are frequently used to represent some ineffable, yet profoundly national value. A country defines itself in terms of something––or somewhere––that defies description. A realm with no apparent limits remains incommunicable; nothing has no name. These popular themes have long since lapsed into flattering cultural stereotypes, perhaps, but here they do play a contextually significant role.

Both the tape hiss and scratched vinyl throughout "Forest" speak of fondly played, yet fading recordings––of some precious narrative that's increasingly lost. A domain conceived as boundless, nameless––and therefore of enormous spiritual worth––is lost to modernity. That same topic of heavenly "slippage" is key to the raison d'être of AY's current label, "Mudra"––whose own moniker is tied to the etymology of various words meaning "wise" or "wisdom" in Russian. Here the superficially Eastern or mantric motifs of AY's earlier trip-hop releases find fuller expression. 

The limits of what we can see are universally assumed to be the limits of the world (Schopenhauer)

The founding members of Mudra pepper their networking accounts with lots of phrases and proverbs advocating the importance of silence or solitude. The writings of popular American anthropologist Carlos Castaneda are also invoked, specifically on the issue of solitude's "profundity," versus the "comfort and convenience" of noisy human existence. The qualities attributed to AY's unpeopled forest are those found in some mythical loneliness. Wisdom benefits from walking away; genuine insight comes from only a process of negation. Excess baggage needs to be jettisoned. 

Various experiences or choices in the material world are thus given an almost sublime bearing; what we do as individuals matters in some grand cosmic scheme. For example, the staff at Mudra endorse the following views on vegetarianism from Leo Tolstoy: "A man can live and be healthy without killing animals for food; therefore, if he eats meat, he participates in taking animal life merely for the sake of his appetite. And to act so is immoral." Something resides beyond human reasoning or everyday perception––and so we're offered some equally famous words from Schopenhauer: "The limits of what we can see are universally assumed to be the limits of the world."

Then––should spiritual insight or epiphany still prove elusive––we can always turn to modern drugs and the (alleged) advice of pioneering psychiatrist Humphry Osmond: "To fall in hell or soar angelic you'll need a pinch of psychedelic." In all these cases, quiet self-awareness will allow one to throw off the shackles of received wisdom.

A second and virtually simultaneous Mudra release comes from Alexander Bolovintsev, aka Chitoon and also based in the capital. The label frames Chitoon's 2016 mini-LP––tellingly entitled "Infinite Loop"––as follows: "These are five hi-tech tracks of pulsating analog bass. Using a range  of unconventional compositional tools, Chitoon is able to experiment more freely with textures, noises, effects, and melodies..." Whatever the conventions of such phrasing, the theme of liberty is again significant, just as with AY. Cramped modernity offers very little––and is more likely to engender a process of snowballing loss.

Greater freedom develops within a range of Eastern motifs, beginning with Chitoon's invocation (or sampling) of some "peaceful Indian voices." They are heard somewhere amid "Infinite Loop's" "dense noise and the sounds of anxiety and anticipation––both of which are slowly increasing."

Chitoon: Increasing anxiety within an "Infinite Loop" (2016)

A movement beyond Carlos Castaneda's maligned "comfort or convenience" leads to another juxtaposition by Mudra of bodily experience and the anguished anticipation of something beyond it. "Let your mind fly high while your feet remain firmly rooted to the dance floor." The generic phrasing or packaging, even, of commercial dance music becomes instead a knowing wink towards revelatory psychedelia. Similarly, several major cliches of Russian cultural self-definition are reworked by AY in order to describe––in self-deprecating forms—another equally elusive or ineffable state.

Solitude, silence, introspection, psychedelia, and spiritual epiphany: they all coincide, yet are enjoyed with painful infrequency.

The sounds of anxiety and anticipation––both of which are slowly increasing (Chitoon)

The staff at Mudra declare, specifically regarding Chitoon's "Infinite Loop" that: "You won't be able to get this out of your head for a long time." That again may sound like lazy rhetoric, more suited to the vanilla label of an equally anemic 12", it acquires, however, a more inventive resonance against the backdrop of various social failings and looping desires within modern Russian life. Hope persists, come what may, that revelation lies beyond the limits of material collapse––in which case, the chillout register of AY's newest compositions is maybe not so far from antagonistic, socially concerned rap, in terms of a central message. After all, both speak of some long-desired change or amelioration that sadly fades away with each and every decade. Instead of self– (or civic) improvement, an "infinite loop" is established of both faith and failure, each cancelling the other out, year after year. They both coexist and frustrate one another to no apparent end. 

For those same sobering reasons, one can easily understand the swift movement towards "dark, ambient, industrial" and generally harsh noise from projects like Equinox Flower from Togliatti. This industrial center, maybe 900 km inland from Moscow, is traditionally associated with the Soviet car industry. Just like Detroit, it has also struggled for relevance in an increasingly digital world. Little promise or aspiration seems to lie beyond material decline. The deafening thunder of car factories has slowly fallen quiet; the meaning of a growing silence remains uncertain. The future has no evident direction.  

On that note, it's worth quickly mentioning that Equinox Flower surely takes its name from the similarly titled 1958 Japanese film by Yasujirō Ozu. The movie is grounded in dramatic tensions between two Asian generations; neither can make sense of the other. And, in the same philosophical vein, when Ozu died his gravestone was embossed with a single character meaning "nothingness." There's zero ontological security––and plenty of nothing. 

Even though Equinox Flower's founder and only member––Evgeny Barsukov––has almost no textual materials or observations on his networking platforms, a few choice words do nonetheless emerge. Perhaps the most telling of them concern a recent audio recording by the Danish noise artist Frederike Hoffmeier, otherwise known as Puce Mary. Barsukov quotes a long and awkwardly pretentious review of a Hoffmeier release––and then adds the following vitriolic response: 

Evgeny Barsukov of both Equinox Flower and Higanbana (Togliatti)

"I'm so sick of these cr*ppy, supposedly 'poetic' descriptions of the music. It all sounds like some freshman has vomited his dumbest [textual] comparisons and metaphors onto the page. He's just trying to show how 'eloquent' he is... Trouble is, these people ignore the simplest thing of all. They just don't see how incredibly subjective and f***ing useless this all is. Yet again I find myself thinking that silence is golden." In a world of physical crudity and pointlessly verbose rhetoric, the most most treasured values are tied to whatever remains frustratingly unseen or unspoken.  

Evgeny Barsukov has previously operated under the stage-name Higanbana, called another "noise musical project" in the same city. Both of those endeavors, paradoxically, are designed to celebrate an absent, frustrating noiselessness. By way of quick illustration, some Equinox Flower instrumentals at the start of 2016 appeared together with a strange quatrain, reading as follows in (rather odd) English. Everything is printed in lower case characters: "winter scenerys, / wadding and glass./ solitude and silence. / past in endless dreams." Only the incessant snowstorms of a Central Russian winter, it appears, will allow one to hide away behind tightly sealed windows––and think of something better that's "endlessly in the past."

The future, according to that same logic, only gets worse. Aleksandr Udutyi would rather take refuge in a museum; Evgeny Barsukov nails the windows shut and finds solace in some hermetic hush. 

Yet again I find myself thinking that silence is golden (Equinox Flower)

And so, in closing, we come to Aliaksandr (or Ales) Tsurko, who was born in Minsk in 1987. He is often busy with the Belarus Modern Orchestra, a collective designed to erase the boundaries between contemporary academic and electronic modes at home. Tsurko's earlier material, however, emerged more as a solo endeavor and was well showcased in an album entitled "Kasha-Malasha." That semi-serious or childish phrase is conceivably translatable as "Mishmash" or "Hodgepodge." In the simplest terms, Tsurko played with a voluntarily involvement of everything and anything. The album was structured to escape any one, fixed meaning. 

A brief investigation of Ales Tsurko's online platforms revealed an accompanying text in Russian for "Kasha-Malasha." The composer offered a tongue-in-cheek challenge to audiences to play with the track listing––and therefore with narrative cohesion. "This is my newest album. In essence, these materials developed over the course of two or three years. It's fundamentally 'static' music, in the sense you could probably drift off while listening to it... The result is a kind of compilation, by which I mean you could change the running order... although it would be nice if you did preserve my track-listing! It's just that whenever the order is changed, you get a totally different mood and sense of time's passage, too." Listeners were now even more aware of how and why linear time could be manipulated.

The newest Tsurko release––"Transliaciya"––is declared "a mix of algorithmic composition, contemporary composition, electroacoustic, minimalism, and the neo-romantic aesthetic of shoegaze, ambient and post-rock." Equally important are the combined and openly stated influences of Sergei Rachmaninov, Valentin Silvestrov, Morton Subotnick, François Bayle, and Iannis Xenakis.

Ales Tsurko: "Transliaciya" (2016)

"Transliaciya" comes with a printed text in English; it is also spoken aloud at the album's closing and designed to address some of the common issues in "Forest," "Infinite Loop," and "Winter Scenerys." What exactly––to paraphrase Schopenhauer above––lies beyond our narrow purview? What connects individual trees, people, or freely chosen acts? Tsurko draws parallels with the causal reactions of some primordial explosion; put differently, he confidently declares: "We are [all] transmitters of the Big Bang." We are all part of a chain reaction, passing the effects of some ancient force from one generation to another. Beyond one (supposedly alienated) lifespan lies another––and so forth.

Tsurko begins by sketching an imaginary youngster who is rolling a ball down a street. Where is that ball going, when will it stop––and what's the point of choosing movement in any direction?  "Even if that boy spent his entire life rolling a ball through an infinity of whiteness, the ball's movement would stop with the end of life." What comes next? Ales Tsurko develops his metaphor a little further:

Every event is a result of some previous event (Ales Tsurko)

"Everyone transmits force in their own way. A mother gives birth to a child––who in turn becomes a new [human] 'transmitter.' A politician transmits force via words––a force is sparked in our hearts and minds. But the purest transmission of all comes into being through an artist." Creativity, in other words, constantly reminds us that we unavoidably––already––embody two meanings. We are both a consequence of the past and bear a moral responsibility for the future. Meaning is both received and made, willy-nilly. "Every event is a result of some previous event," says Tsurko; it also shapes the next occurrence––and so forth.

Our Belarusian composer thus discerns a moral significance in human experience, rather than some absent, ineffable promise. Life is shaped by those individuals who choose actively to cultivate values above roughly hewn actuality; they work hard in order to improve the status quo. Our common future, as a result, will not be fashioned by some long-awaited, vaguely understood entity––as in the Russian recordings above.

Faith is placed back in the hands of the living. Hope is not an activity, in and of itself; it is a challenge to act. Thus "Transliaciya" concerns itself with the "translation" or transmission of noiseless, inherently social, and immediately relevant values between individuals. Tsurko admits that the slow improvement of society, from one kindly soul to another, might be explained historically "in some complex causal relationship... There may even be some algorithm at its core." Whatever the case, civic hope can be set in motion today. It is better invested in selfless agency or good deeds,  all designed to raise the moral bar for a subsequent generation.

Ultimately, what links these four recordings is a couple of overarching or overriding concerns. The present day gives undoubted cause for concern––and improvement is surely attainable... Whether one opts for silent introspection or selfless charity is arguably irrelevant. Both are currently––woefully––lacking in a faltering realm of brutish noise and self-centeredness. Both are already an improvement.

Ales Tsurko (Minsk, Belarus)

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