Alina Orlova’s “Mutabor”: The Allure of Smallness and Silence

Two days ago in Lithuania, singer-songwriter Alina Orlova released her second album, "Mutabor." Supposedly the recording is scheduled for a September launch in Russia, which makes yesterday's speedy reaction from Moscow magazine "Afisha" especially praiseworthy. Once step ahead of the Vilnius PR machine, which appears to be broken, "Afisha" has already declared its positive reaction to the new CD.

In the absence of any promotional blurb from Lithuania, we learn instead via Moscow that Orlova committed these songs to tape with nothing more than a couple of additional musicians. As a result, the "aestheticized cabaret" style of earlier recordings, full of accordions and other mobile tools, has become markedly simpler. This week's CD in its stripped-down format "was very carefully constructed. Each and every note has been hung in the air; each note is in its correct place."

This orderly essentialism of "Mutabor," though, has not been mapped out at the expense of fun and games. One could even argue the opposite, that by avoiding any hamfisted pomp, frivolity and impishness actually come to the fore.

Moscow agrees: "The music, precisely as a result [of its novel minimalism], sounds totally uncontrived.  It has a playfulness that's employed not for the sake of showcasing Orlova's craftsmanship; instead that playful spirit embodies... well, to be honest, a kind of magic."

The music, precisely as a result [of its novel minimalism], sounds totally uncontrived. It has a playfulness that's employed not for the sake of showcasing Orlova's craftsmanship; instead that playful spirit embodies... well, to be honest, a kind of magic.

With grand foundations and weighty concepts placed to one side, ornament and filigree remain.

Looking for phrases to encapsulate that same, delicate magic, our Moscow-based author suggests that the songs even have a "visionary, divinely gothic" structure. Or, on other occasions, they become a kind of "cafe/chamber pop." Most of these fragile offerings are performed in Orlova's native Lithuanian, with an occasional detour into Russian or English. On the issue of whether such choices might limit audience appeal, "Afisha" replied: "The matter of language is hardly likely to concern anyone. After all, we don't need to know the language in which birds sing."

In a recent interview, Orlova offered something of a broader context in which to place these journalistic observations. It's informative to look back at this and other chats with Russian or Baltic publications, since - as mentioned - "Mutabor" has appeared with no evident press release.

In speaking to various periodicals since the start of 2010, Orlova reminds us that she last appeared in Moscow not long ago - in fact after the closeted, homebound work on the album came to a close.  In the time between "Mutabor'"s studio phase and its publication, several magazines began asking for a sneak preview of the new material. Remaining polite and yet avoiding coyness, the singer admitted that the forthcoming compositions would sound both different and smaller in scale: "Everything has changed to some degree. Only the piano and violin have kept their old places."

Unencumbered by a large entourage, a lyrical spirit could roam free.

She claimed, despite these alterations that "I, myself, am not looking to discover anything innovative. It goes without saying that the songs themselves will include a great deal that's new, but that novelty comes about of its own accord. I don't spend a lot of time thinking things over. Everything just happens by itself..."

Nonetheless, in order to make space for these self-generating, natural changes, Orlova had to make some conscious decisions. "I had to turn down all kinds of private performances, so that the album could be made. Of course, that was a pretty painful decision to make, [financially speaking,] but I'm glad that it's all behind me now. It can be rather scary, when a benchmark has been established [by previous recordings], and then you have to match it. People are waiting for new songs - and you have to produce them! Of course, the whole thing can really get you down: you've not only got to do something - you also have to make sure it's better than the first time around!"

Minimalism and contemplation thus developed side by side.

Those benchmarks have turned out not only to be creative, in terms of her management of a "difficult second album," they've also been geographical. Put differently, Orlova has been touring further and further from home. News travels - and the singer must journey greater distances in order to satisfy the curiosity of an international audience. The speed with which these overseas obligations multiply can be daunting.

"It seems that I'll soon forget what's happening to me" - since the number of venues is snowballing. "We've played in England, Ireland, France [pic. below], and some places here and there around Russia, too. All the same, I wouldn't call that a 'world tour' yet... Wherever I perform, I like to do so in front of locals. But, of course, it often turns out that the gigs include lots of people from Russia and Lithuania! The European concerts have been small club-based affairs..."

In these comments there appear several reasons why "Mutabor" is such an understated recording. First and foremost is our assumption that Orlova's concern about surpassing the standards of her earlier recordings has led her to avoid any possible synonymy between size and quality. In other words, following the increased renown and media interest after her first CD, it would have been logical of the performer - if not incumbent upon her - to augment newer work with more musicians, a bigger budget, and grander production values. When, however, we hear her stress the constant need to "play before locals," it is clear that as her fame grows, Orlova holds on tighter to the small-scale, intimate shows that she values so highly.

The unappealing dimensions and volume of "show business" inspire her to move in the opposite direction. What results is an inverse relationship between celebrity and musical scale.

World tour = bicycle + cell phone.

For these reasons, she remains unfazed by media attention. "If we're talking about the international press, then the biggest event so far was when London's 'Time Out' gave us a good write-up. The thing is, though, that loads of musical stuff happens in the UK, and I don't think people there are especially interested in what I do..."

If we're talking about the international press, then the biggest event so far was when London's 'Time Out' gave us a good write-up. The thing is, though, that loads of musical stuff happens in the UK, and I don't think people there are especially interested in what I do...

Later she continues in the same self-effacing spirit: "I've haven't been playing music for that long, but each time I play live I'm surprised by the fact that people even turn up! I cannot really see what interests them in my songs. When you consider that playing live involves lots of people, the general public, and so on, that's not a situation I'm very fond of, either! It's great, of course, that people have come to an event, and it goes without saying that their presence [in the hall] is wonderful. I don't know how other performers feel about these things, but personally I just don't feel right calling myself an artist or singer. I can't even get my mouth around those terms!"

While Orlova visits a speech therapist, we have before us a beautiful collection of fourteen very poignant songs. They do indeed float somewhere between cafes and chamber orchestras, as the Moscow press suggested. In both cases, the main criterion is smallness. With support from the Lithuanian Embassy in London and a ringing endorsement from Scotland's Travis, the backdrop to her career can grow imposing. Somehow Orlova maintains a diminutive aesthetic.

Walking around on one's knees helps.

The artwork to "Mutabor," shown above, gives equally quiet and striking voice to this love affair with miniaturism. We're shown a social space that is now empty; lane markers have long since been pulled out of the water. All the sounds of competition and summer fun have fallen away. Given the apparent age and location of the pool, there seems a reasonable likelihood that it's of Soviet origin. Even if that's not the case, we can still notice a single, sad-looking lion's head above the shallow end, working as an open-mouthed fountain. All things imperial have been reduced to a meager footnote of some erstwhile majesty. Grandeur has shrunk to almost risible dimensions.

And, then, once everything is hushed, a lone piano sounds forth - in ways that Orlova's small, dedicated public consider both "divine" and "visionary." Grand ideas, we're told, need not sound so.

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