One might argue that certain names in popular music have become too storied: McCartney, Joplin, Jagger, Streisand... and so forth. Any poor soul with the same surname needs first to detach their fledgling career from another's achievements. Those same unfortunate beginners need, at the very least, a different identity. A real name is erased and another is then imagined. Something is built upon nothing in particular.
This problem undoubtedly faces anybody in Russia called Grebenshchikov, given the connection of that surname with the nation's most celebrated rock band: Akvarium. In more specific terms, the widespread love and admiration for Akvarium's frontman Boris Grebenshchikov would, sooner or later, cause trouble for young Vitaly Grebenshchikov, living in the same city of Saint Petersburg. And so he shortened his name; he lessened it.
Jettisoning a final syllable, after realizing he could never write songs with his real surname, he decided to call himself simply "Grebenshchik." That truncated moniker showed both Vitaly's respect for his namesake ("B.G.") and the impossibility of self-assertion in the limelight. He could not say who he was––twice over.
Vitaly's sparse style is, arguably, deliberately different to that of his predecessor. Rather than the pastoral, often Celtic hues of Akvarium's Slavic prog, Grebenshchik is instead a solo singer-songwriter. He is also professionally linked in Saint Petersburg with the two-man project OGNIVO (ОГНИВО), where he operates with a mysterious colleague known only as "Aleksandr K."
Interweaving their acoustic and electronic skill-sets, the two men build OGNIVO's songs upon what they call "poetic puzzles and choral conundrums." And here, perhaps, the trajectories of Boris and Vitaly Grebenshchikov do overlap briefly, for both men attribute their love of myth to the literary and literal landscapes of Saint Petersburg. Perched on the edge of the Baltic Sea and often swathed in fog or snow, Petersburg has for centuries conjured narratives of the illogical or irrational. Fantasy makes more sense in places that cannot be seen. And so the first OGNIVO EP, called "Prizrak" (Ghost), was directly "inspired by the city's bookish anti-utopias, its philosophical lectures, and our own private experiences in modernity." A better sense of today comes from ideas of yesterday, barely discernible in opaque and windswept realms.
Reflecting on Petersburg's physical incompleteness, these northern two musicians have admitted to writing OGNIVO's debut recordings "emotionally [rather than rationally]. We composed everything with instruments on our knees, working all over the city." A senseless location could not be captured in any unidirectional, sensible manner. A couple of wandering minstrels took time to consider their relative insignificance in the middle of a booming city––in the sense of both smokey industry and cacophony.
Grebenshchik is originally from distant Magadan. Far away on Russia's north-eastern coastline, Magadan still bears the unenviable weight of a major cultural assumption. To this day, the city is––for many people––associated with imprisonment. During Stalin's rule, the entire region was a transit camp for political prisoners en route to some of the Soviet Union's worst labor camps. This combination of irrational history and Saint Petersburg's famed ethereal outlines leads to a severe, sometimes unrelenting lyricism––a positioning of oneself in the middle of nowhere. Characters "interweave with rainstorms and notice the sky in mirrors." Faces and fog complete for prominence.
It's so very hard to wake up/ And so very easy to disappear (Grebenshchik)
Grebenshchik writes on the subject of self-worth: "I can basically tell you / Of the wind and rain alone./ And only then in urban settings/ In adapted, redacted forms./ I can basically tell you/ Of a road's straight line––alone/ While you move in circles/ That never intersect./ I can basically tell you/ Of a search for common, mapped paths./ 'What are you doin' this evening?'/ 'Oh, basically nothing...'" Self-deprecation stands between Grebenshchik and any lasting grasp on whatever resides in mists, wind, rain, or vertiginous loops. "My eyes gaze into the darkest abyss of all./ It's so very hard to wake up/ And so very easy to disappear..." Either in Magadan or along the grey, misty canals of Saint Petersburg, individual biographies slip out of sight. There's no clear sense of belonging in the world. Experience is liminal; life is neither here nor there.
Also resident in Saint Petersburg is Anton Malinen, who very often performs to the slightest acoustic accompaniment. Looking for ways to describe his Western singer-songwriter aesthetic to an Eastern audience, journalists have run the gamut from Scandinavian pop of the 2000s to Crosby, Stills, and Nash––not to mention Paul Simon or (the inevitable) Nick Drake. Malinen has simultaneously, thanks to domestic colleagues such as Ilya Lagutenko, been called "the most avant-garde member of Russia's indie-folk today."
His newest album is entitled "Contact Print." In a brief introduction for the magazine Colta.Ru, Malinen asks his Russian-speaking audiences to interpret the title as "pure metaphor. The tracks should be understood as frames in a single strip of film. In some ways they're similar, while in others they differ. To some degree, I actually consider myself a fan of concept albums, even on those occasions when I don't actually understand the concept! When that happens, different modes of perception will always kick in. 'Contact Print' is a little different to my previous recordings. I used to write all my material at home, but this new LP was made in professional studios. The result––it seems to me!––has a more focused, minimalist tone."
Self-awareness comes from a reduction in self-importance. Less size and less sound augur a growing wisdom. It's hard not to see these expressions of radical modesty from Malinen and Grebenshchik in spiritual terms. Both men feel themselves increasingly to be members of some greater network, system, or congregation.
"Initially I wanted to work with a gospel choir that sings in one of Moscow's Lutheran churches. I was only able to ponder the inclusion of some backing vocals from France and Sweden; it all proved too hard to organize, however, and I decided to record all the voices myself." Once again, a necessary reduction in scale leads to a clearer subjectivity. Grebenshchik positions his lyricism against a time-honored backdrop of maritime mystery; Malinen, for different reasons, travels a hushed passage away from grandeur. Both men are, in many ways, quiet.
In a related and equally reserved manner, Malinen has spoken to the press in Kaliningrad, declaring the importance of spontaneity and intuition over intellect. Subjective experience is key. "When I sing, I only see abstractions before me––nothing concrete. I mean emotions and memories. I obviously pass through a range of [unique] feelings when I compose a track––and each of those sentiments finds expression, either in my heart or soul." Privacy is inaudible––and all the more precious as a result.
Our sweetest songs are those of saddest thought (Shelley)
In an almost Nabokovian moment, Malinen then divorces beauty from pragmatism altogether. Songs aren't supposed to mean anything in particular. They're not intended to be useful––in which case they're unsuitable for loud, purposeful declaration. "I wouldn't say that my creative work has a goal. I'm simply incapable of not working on music; it pulls me in... [Similarly] I don't think anybody ever says: 'I want to hear music so I can engage with an idea.' I've never met anybody like that. I reckon that folks listen to music in two basic states. They either feel good––or they feel bad."
Song structures offer a consoling and non-verbal assurance that everything could––and should––be well. To borrow a famous word or two from Shelley: “Our sweetest songs are those of saddest thought.” The worse actuality is, the better a song of possibility will sound. The smaller one feels, the more fantasy will compensate. Humility engenders the greatest hope.
Chord progressions and poetry plot vague trajectories, often bypassing standard grammar, syntax, and other irksome regulations. A young female singer-songwriter from Kaliningrad, Gaya Marina (Garbaruk) said to the Moscow media recently: "Songwriting is like learning a new language"––with its imprecise, intuitive strategies. It's the tentative sound of privacy. She speaks of a time-consuming skill that needs to be acquired, since Gaya Marina is already the manager of Mana Island in the Russian capital. Like Grebenshchik, she can find no clear register for self-expression. Affect has no singular import; it generates a sense of networked identity––not a singular, confident name. Gaya admits: "I don't yet know who I want to be." Both a folk and R&B format make equal and competing sense(s) to her.
Anton Malinen's band in 2016; peace, love, and pastoralism
Like Malinen she speaks of both equivalence and difference between her compositions. "I've noted that the same chords travel from song to song." Neither of these binary opposites, however, is equivalent to the multifaceted individual singing the song. Hence Gaya Marina's tendency to skip back and forth between reference points like Ilya Lagutenko, Ed Sheeran, Minnie Riperton, Emeli Sandé, and Alanis Morissette. She is multiple.
In 2014, Gaya Marina co-produced, together with Moscow's Fancy Music, a lengthy compilation album dedicated to the 200th anniversary of Mikhail Lermontov's birth. Lermontov was––and remains––a classic figure of Russian romantic poetry. The victim of his own private and public passions, he died at the age of 26 in a sudden duel, far from home. Although his poetry has been dulled somewhat by its endless inclusion in both Soviet and post-Soviet high school curricula, we should not forget that Lermontov's subversive, lyrical stanzas managed to genuinely frighten the highest strata of Russian society––including the royal family.
Songs about the things that make life tolerable (Gaya Marina)
In the view of Russia's ruling class, Lermontov undoubtedly embodied the famous words once applied to fellow romantic, Lord Byron. He was "mad, bad, and dangerous to know." Impassioned individuals might cause much trouble––and so Lermontov's status today as a political figure remains potentially significant. In a world of hackers, lone terrorists, and so forth, the cultural resonance of an angry outsider could be even stronger in 2016. Prior to any potential trouble-making, however, is that minor and peripheral status. Even when drawing upon Romantic, canonical poets of the past, Gaya Marina and her many colleagues saw the importance of solitude or isolation as a relevant theme.
Hence the tendency of Gaya Marina to speak of herself thus (in the third person): "She sings about her love for the cosmos in sincere, gentle, and mature ways... She sings about each of us––about things that make life tolerable. By that, of course, we mean love. She also sings about friendships and kisses––about relationships with people we meet on life's way. Those same people may light our path in dark times but, ultimately, they choose their own direction and leave us alone." Love and loneliness are equally probable. Gaya's small catalog is referred to as "tales of victory and defeat in this [lifelong] game with no referee. These are songs about a priceless time in our lives; it grants us an even more important resource [than love?]––experience."
Some effort is required to find benefit in breakdown(s). Wisdom comes, perhaps again, from an understanding of one's nothingness––within faith.
These major emotions from a minor source structure the equally fresh material from Ukraine's "Bo i Bro: Olga Borodkina, Milosh Korda, Sergey Sergeev, and Aleksandr Makarenko. A recent good-natured post on their VK account, championing a suitably humble worldview, gave voice to "a grand love for everything––and everybody." It went on to express an equally youthful gratitude for "our mothers. They help us bake cakes––before the sun comes up! Our mothers sew our clothes, carry our musical instruments... and lots of other things." The language of a child––lovingly reproduced––embodies something that's missing in contemporary life: empathy and charity. Only by imagining oneself as a fundamentally hopeless child does anything resembling verity come to the surface. Empathy with society's least important members allows for the greatest idealism to take shape––in simple songs of two people. Lyrical verse presupposes what civic texts cannot do. Love stories harbor the most revolutionary notions of all––a call to abandon individuality and embrace endless, nameless diversity.
They consumed one another and slept together (Zemfira)
Borodkina appeared last August on Ukraine's version of the X-Factor talent show and again referred to herself as a schoolgirl at heart––despite being gainfully employed as a computer programmer. By chance, she was filmed mawkishly by the show's crew––looking wistfully up to the night sky, caught somewhere between the worlds of physics and lyrics, to use a famous Soviet juxtaposition. She informed the X-Factor's host that she wanted nothing less than a "miracle" to transpire from the broadcasts––in the sense of fairies and fantasy, not fame.
She offered the judges an opportunity to hear "a song about dragons––or a song about the subway." The former, curious TV viewers would later learn, comes from the Skyrim computer came. A stylized bard's song, it tells of epic heroism: "Our hero, our hero/ Claims a warrior's heart/ I tell you, I tell you/ The Dragonborn comes.../ It's an end to the evil/ Of all Skyrim's foes/ Beware, beware/ The Dragonborn comes..." Ultimately, she opts for a 2007 song by Zemfira. And here the tone is radically different. Two lovers hide, wordlessly, from the world.
An English version of the first two stanzas might read: "They saw the heavens, saw them together/ They fell in the water; tuned on Xmas lights./ They spent all their money and hid their tears./ They consumed one another and slept together/ They rolled down the line for a couple of years/ Showing no interest in conventional poses/ We'll live a long time on our feelings alone/ And together explode in the subway."
The opening third-person pronouns are only personalized rather late, when "we" make the decision to live according to love, not logic. The result, nonetheless, is likened to self-destruction. Self-realization is only possible if one dismisses "conventional poses." The choice to become an outsider, to be a minor voice of diversity and/or difference, is profoundly romantic and no guarantee of longevity whatsoever. It's an opportunity to burn brightly––again in the spirit of Shelley.
One of Bo i Bro's founding members, Milosh Korda, has used a few literary quotes to frame these issues of self-realization––amid a wealth of claustrophobic norms. One such pearl of wisdom comes from Michel Houellebecq on the elusive nature of happiness, a topic he has tackled in greater detail elsewhere.
For example: "Life sometimes offers you a chance, he thought, but when you are too cowardly or too indecisive to seize it life takes the cards away; there is a moment for doing things and entering a possible happiness, and this moment lasts a few days, sometimes a few weeks or even a few months, but it happens once and one time only, and if you want to return to it later it's quite simply impossible. There's no more place for enthusiasm, belief, and faith, and there remains just gentle resignation, a sad and reciprocal pity, the useless but correct sensation that something could have happened, that you just simply showed yourself unworthy of this gift you had been offered."
I want my room to have many paintings / I want my room to have no clocks––at all (Bo i Bro)
And so, in conclusion, there's an ongoing validation of smallness, minorism, or peripherality this week from Bo i Bro, Gaya Marina, Grebenshchik, and Anton Malinen. From all four performers, there's a sense that pathos and unflagging self-importance are best invested in civic realms of logic and/or pragmatism. Politics and poetry, for example, are designed for very different people. Romantics, as implied by Lermontov's own vertiginous lifeline, need solitude in order to foster an alternative value system. That same solitude is, however, no guarantor of peace or security. Bo i Bro sing: "The stars shine before us/ Our own sun is among them/ That's where we live, you and I." Reverie tries to keep reality at bay; it hides and becomes reclusive. It also, therefore, becomes "useless."
Two people, hiding from crude convention, form a better––albeit less recognized––social organism than two million. Another Bo i Bro track begins: "I want my room to have many paintings / I want my room to have no clocks––at all/ I want the ceiling in my room to go higher and higher..." Self-expression, hidden from the world, attempts to ignore the linear passage of time.
Irrationality as a kind of liberty from dull habit is clear elsewhere. Grebenshchik performs with the Lusores Theater in Saint Petersburg, who take their name from the Latin noun meaning "players" or "court jesters." The aim of Lusores in 2016 is to "show the present day as postmodern praxis. All of us overcome [typical] cynicism and we respect all styles or cultural periods equally. We have liberated ourselves from all tendentiousness and judgment. We actualize texts on stage without a trace of condescension or obsequiousness."
And therein lie a couple of key concepts, explaining why these songs are so "small." They deliberately reject a commonsensical or cynical approach to life; they embrace introspection over self-promotion. Diversity, difference, and inclusion slowly come to the fore––in bold, often democratic, and even divine tones. Any inclusion of oneself within "all styles," voices, or value systems is a reduction of one's importance. Parity cannot be loudly promoted by any one voice. And so these performers fall increasingly quiet, listening as they do so.