Improvisation: Artemiev, A. Toymintseva, M. Kutskova, and A. Rostotskaya

Pavel Artemiev (Moscow. Born in Olomouc, Czech Republic)

Moscow's Pavel Artemiev has been well known to Russian audiences for approximately fifteen years, both within a popular male ensemble and now as a solo artist. He has performed under his surname since 2010. One disadvantage of working independently is the loss of any support system offered to mainstream collectives by major labels. Working alone––especially during an economic downturn––has meant that Artemiev is obliged to rely wholly on himself, developing a dual career both as a musician and actor. Despite these burgeoning obligations, songwriting remains at the forefront. "There's no way you'd call the band a hobby! That's something you do in your free time––and I don't have any..."

There's always somewhere to go––beyond your problems (Pavel Artemiev)

Another challenge has been the need to start again, almost from scratch. Such is the price of legal and fiscal freedom. Artemiev has said that today's performances "aren't conducted in stadia––yet!––but we're certainly not playing in anybody's basement, either. We're slowly moving on. The thing is that music television [in 2016] doesn't actually exist any more (it's merely a digital service). I still get invited onto all kinds of TV broadcasts––cooking shows, for example. I really dislike that, however; in fact, I've always hated it. Our videos might get adopted by some media stations, but not the national ones... As for radio, the material we play as Artemiev doesn't fit into their current formats. We've no real niche position on today's radio at all." This lack of easy, familiar placement within various norms will remain crucial. 

Speaking more recently about the difficulties of flying solo, Artemiev has compared his professional status in 2016 to earlier times, when he was under the care of a major producer: "Unfortunately, not everybody's solo career is a success. Many people give up––prematurely. I completely understand those performers who choose instead to play 'by the rules' [of the music industry]. As for me, those industry norms have become unbearable––almost in the physical sense of the word. There are some things I simply refuse to do, probably due to my stubborn nature."

He then adds a little context: "I've always known that I want to make music that's somewhat 'different' to the tastes of our [initial] producer [back then, in the past]. But I was always turned down on the basis of supposedly improper 'formats.' Eventually, I knew that I simply needed to wait until my contract expired... and then go my own way. There are plenty of crazy people in the world who live without a penny, but are nonetheless happy doing what they love. Personally, I think that's an essential pleasure in life..." Material needs go head to head with creative desires; the former will fair poorly.

This same happy humility, contrary to financial logic, appears in other interviews: "When you're busy with your favorite activity, you already have a goal in life. All obstacles are then relegated to second place. Sure, those hassles still exist, but you never consider them insurmountable. There's always somewhere to go––beyond your problems." One of those goals, logically enough, would be an international stage. Artemiev ponders any such objectives in a sage tone:

"There are two sides to the issue [of overseas success]. First of all, English is really well suited to anybody singing pop music. Secondly, it doesn't carry the 'semantic overload' of your native tongue, which means that people just listen to the songs, pure and simple. Audiences here are so tired of everything 'meaning' something or other."

Observations such as these dovetail with Artemiev's views on touring around his homeland. Freedom from a single, primetime format or some weighty "significance" can lead to the celebration of creative liberties––often spoken of in spatial terms. The opportunity to wander nurtures an increasing sense of gratitude. "My life operates at a manageable speed nowadays, but I still really like touring. There's nothing to compare with the romance of a long journey, especially when you're on the road with friends and band members." Touring also allows for blissful privacy in a very public workplace: "I place a high price on my private life; I like to keep pointless encounters at a distance..." 

There's nothing to compare with the romance of a long journey

He continues with more praise for the domestic landscape: "There are so many beautiful places in Russia. I perhaps love Moscow most of all, but we should all have the opportunity to see Siberia, Lake Baikal––and Russian nature in general. That's essential if you want to realize where we all live!" A sense of being in––and belonging to––one nation comes from nowhere in particular; it's an emotional state that moves and morphs. Elsewhere the same notion is voiced in even simpler terms: "My imagination is stimulated when I travel; new impressions are absolutely key. If you sit still, remaining in one and the same place, then I just don't understand where you'd find the desire to work." Physical immobility and intransigence feed one another. People with one outlook also tend to live in one and the same place. 

Artemiev's career began on a nationally famous television show; today he talks about that experience with genuine thanks, yet also as something temporary. A similar lifeline, away from television, will perhaps soon be scribed by the young artiste Alyona Toymintseva. She comes from Nizhnekamsk, an industrial town in the Republic of Tatarstan. Claiming to have garnered her first stage experience before she was even three years old, Alyona would go to graduate from university––already as a semi-professional musician. Following employment both as a regional television presenter and regular guest at Russia's finest jazz festivals, she recently became familiar to much larger, even national audiences after appearing on Russia's licensed version of The Voice.  

Alyona Toymintseva (Nizhnekamsk/Mw): "The EP Session" (2016)

Oddly enough, those earliest childhood singing adventures came as a result of illness. Toymintseva's parents discovered that Alyona 's stubborn asthma abated whenever she sang. A medical necessity eventually became a pleasure––and then a tool of direct professional benefit. "Over time I gradually understood that I'd want to study music all my life... even if I had a rather 'unique' understanding of my future studies. I thought I simply needed to sing... rather than deal with any solfeggi or [complex] harmonies!"

In the same manner, she felt that Nizhnekamsk was too small for her growing ambitions. And so, at the age of sixteen, she moved to Moscow––but only after a protracted series of competitions and exams. Her family was never able to pay for an education; every step was therefore made with difficulty and determination. These levels of pluck meant that Alyona was even flown to Los Angeles, where she participated in the WCOPA (World Championship of Performing Arts). Even here, far from home, she was shadowed by trouble; during her brief time on stage the electricity turned off. Toymintseva, undaunted, just kept singing––and triumphed. "I think I won them over with some 'inner spirit,' rather than with masterful vocals..."

I heard real music for the first time in Los Angeles (Alyona Toymintseva)

The city rewarded Toymintseva for her ability to improvise and therefore overcome. "I discovered a totally different level of teaching and professional interaction in LA. I heard real music for the first time. Until that trip, I was convinced that 'jazz' consisted of James Brown and [Russian MOR chanteuse] Larisa Dolina." (Ironically, perhaps, Alyona would later perform a song by Dolina during her time on The Voice.)

As with Pavel Artemiev, so mainstream, linear television programming left Toymintseva with a sneaking sense of constraint. Regarding her participation in The Voice, she would later admit: "I don't usually offer audiences anything that's terribly familiar. The Voice didn't allow me to realize myself to the full. The folks in casting discerned some kind of 'intriguing limit' to what I do, but I always imagined myself as something else entirely." That sense of musical deviation can be audible, of course, yet it might equally be philosophical. After all, Alyona Toymintseva sees no difference between mental and musical wellbeing: both require flexibility. For this reason, she is studying online to become a psychologist and, she maintains, thus spare her students the pain of creative repression:

Alina Rostotskaya and Jazzmobile debuting the "Flow" LP.

"I socialize with people at work, so psychological skills are key. Sure, [I also study all this because] there are plenty of things I'd like to understand better about myself. In fact, I often think how much better it would be to live without a brain... [What's most important here is that] adults come to me for music lessons and they've got a ton of problems in their private lives. We therefore spend half the lesson talking about all those issues, before moving on to something musical. You have to do that, before the student can accept any new information [in a lesson]." 

Wellbeing comes from the ability to leave one place or emotional state and move into another. Health, put simply, is movement.  

The same interplay of collective and solo experience––of trajectories drawn simultaneously within public and private domains––emerges in the career of Moscow's Alina Rostotskaya. She performs not only as a widely recognized solo artiste, but also with the ensemble Jazzmobile. Together they've just released an album with the philosophically significant title of "Flow." 

The word 'flow' designates something that's alive––something in motion (Alina Rostotskaya)

A major jazz journalist in Russia has already spoken of Jazzmobile's bold spirit of departure, in terms of swapping various norms for an unknown, challenging realm of novelty. "I'd like to underscore the word fearless, in both creative and personal terms. It's something vital for anybody seeking to make their own way. Self-realization has to be sought, tested, earned, and then studied further. It's not enough to emulate the finest achievements of jazz music's golden age; it's not enough to compile preprepared, generic elements from recognizable sources. That only produces comforting material for an undemanding audience." The artist has an obligation to wander––a public obligation to be private, even.

In that light, Rostotskaya has talked in greater detail of the album's title. "I wanted to use an English word, something brief, meaningful, and full of associations, too... I think the word 'flow' in this sense is ideal. We speak [in English and Russian] of a flow [stream, or flood] of thoughts, emotions––and of music, too. Everything we do in Jazzmobile fits into that concept really well. The word 'flow' designates something that's alive––something in motion."

And, as with both Pavel Artemiev and Alyona Toymintseva, so Alina Rostotskaya talks about the importance of a private goal or fantasy that can both generate and maintain a risk-taking, itinerant spirit. "Even now, I think it's really important to dream. In actual fact, you need to dream big––and then, every day, take at least one small step towards that dream. It doesn't matter how crazy your actions might seem initially. [For this reason,] I genuinely believe that our music on 'Flow' is something important; it's capable of resonating in everybody's heart––precisely because it's written and performed with so much love."

Alina Rostotskaya

A similarly affectionate, yet intrepid daydreaming transpires in the catalog of Moscow saxophonist Masha Kutskova. From the outset, she views a lyrical lifeline through collective harmonies, themselves operating beyond any one genre. "My life has been tied to music since childhood. I first sang in folk ensembles and choirs. I played the accordion and domra, then studied in a music school. Classical music was often played at home; my mother was a huge fan. Rock music was also played in our home... because my father loved it! Then you can add all the musical discoveries I made myself, plus those of my brother. It was my grandfather who loved jazz..." The list grows longer with each and every family member.

(1) Define your goal and motivation; (2) Establish a timeline; (3) Back up your dream with action (Masha Kutskova)

Kutskova speaks of this multiplicity as a way to reveal experience beyond the constraints of solipsism. Group enterprise offers a revelatory risk. "I consider my fundamental task to be the realization and transmission of my thoughts to anybody who's ready to receive them… My credo is based on following an internal sense of drive. I bravely accept risk, in order to broaden the boundaries of my consciousness. You should always share what you have, keep studying, and strive for something loftier." Movement upwards or onwards is viewed as an increasing dispersal outwards, into the welcoming arms of others... hopefully. 

Social enterprise creates both a necessity for risk––for spontaneous, impromptu gestures––yet it also engenders a possibility of self-realization through the loss of arrogance. These dizzying options are best captured in the moments of anxiety prior to any improvisation; it is, after all, in moments of worry, directed towards the unknown, that anything seems possible, both good and bad. One's plans and personality, even, become part of a network: self-determination fades very quickly indeed. 

Part of this risk-taking is clear in Kutskova's multiple professional obligations. Her website currently lists ten different outfits or ensembles. One of them, called 3D Fusion, has just released an album with the rather peculiar title of "Doping." The band is an all-female trio: Masha Kutskova (saxophone), Darya Shorr (bass), and Ramina Mishina (keyboards).

To start with, it may come as no surprise to hear these three gifted artists speak of themselves as working outside of any one style. Such is the rhetoric of commercial enterprise. For example, Kutskova claims: "The 3D Fusion project, you might say, operates across numerous styles––precisely as a fusion…! Personally, I also like to experiment across multiple genres and then try synthesizing diverse approaches [to the material], so I might unearth something novel." Equally understandable or predictable is talk of pushing beyond various norms "in order to realize a dream."

Masha Kutskova (Moscow. Born in the Chelyabinsk District)

What, however, comes as a genuine surprise is Kutskova's recent and detailed essay on the workings of desire––which logically knows no stopping point. What might the connection be between fantasy and audible flights of fancy? The essay begins in Russian: "It has often been noted that people inherently want something––and endlessly, too. Yet only some folks will ever find what they're looking for, while others will remain with nothing. Why might that be?" Her text, after some related musing, then includes the following advice: "I emphasize here the fact that you should both concentrate on your chosen goal and move towards it in various ways. Be creative."

A singular target is best approached through some form of multiplicity; one purpose demands a range of tactics. In more specific terms, Kutskova boils down the essentials of desire and self-realization to three bullet points. "1. Define your goal and motivation. 2. Establish a timeline 3. Back up your dream with action." 

Don't drown in a bottomless pit of dull days (Masha Kutskova)

She then, according to a reverse logic, outlines three negative alternatives. Should one dismiss such advice, a private goal or dream might easily "drown in the bottomless pit of dull days." If one also refuses to define a timeline, then "you're no longer master of your fate, but simply waiting––passively!––for some kind of handout from life." Kutskova's third and final bullet point concerns the need to act. If an individual does nothing to realize their own, novel concept of satisfaction, then the following (imagined) statement becomes a reality. Kutskova adopts the voice of a weak-willed soul: "I don't need a dream! I'll get by without fulfilling my desires. I'm just fine as things are." That private declaration, if made in a public context, becomes dangerous. Individual passivity or acceptance might change society for the worse. One notes a political implication in her essay. 

And so Masha Kutskova, both as a solo artiste and with 3D Fusion, writes about her music in terms that conflate self-development and social obligation. Just as these other performers––Pavel ArtemievAlyona Toymintseva, and Alina Rostotskaya––alternate generic constraints with experimentation, or primetime media with solo careers––so Kutskova folds audience benefit into artistic jeopardy. Her bullet points of "Goal + Timeline + Action" make equal sense if transferred to a musical composition or civic/political project. Uniqueness, especially if it constantly rejects its own sense of comfort or convention, offers an ongoing escape from any herd mentality.

Just as Pavel Artemiev states, the same dedication to uniqueness and/or endless difference can adopt spatial forms. It's a commitment to different places and, consequently, a related willingness to surrender one's (rigid!) convictions to something else. One location gives way to many others, never seen before. And, in closing, the greater one dedicates personal energy, effort, and confidence to such matters, the humbler one will hopefully become. Confidence will lead to doubt––and then to new, alternative convictions. 

Singularity gives way to change or diversity––and that's a fine goal, both upon a stage and behind a political podium.

3D Fusion (L-R) R. MishinaD. Shorr & M. Kutskova: "Doping"


Alina Rostotskaya – Lullaby for Agafya
Masha Kutskova – Somewhere Without Me (3D Fusion)
Masha Kutskova – Windrogse (3D Fusion)

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