If the primary goal of popular music is to engage, then the moniker Ne Tvoe Delo is a strange, even confrontational choice. It translates as "Not Your Business" and belongs to a Moscow project fronted by various ex-members of the post-punk outfit Manicure: Anya Ayrapetova, Zhora Kushnarenko (also of Trud), and Ildar Iksanov. The first insight into some specific meaning for Ne Tvoe Delo came not long ago in a handful of clips made for YouTube. The venue captured in those films was less than promising: a grim roadside cafe called "Veterok." That noun––translated as "Breeze"––is sometimes used in Russian to describe favorable or trade winds––in terms of to "filling one's sails" or fairing well. It conveys good will, yet here adorns the entrance of a Kaliningrad greasy spoon; other PR images for the ensemble show depressing, striped smokestacks in the background. Neither fame nor good fortune are anywhere to be seen; Ne Tvoe Delo take the stage and perform a few songs. One or two indifferent customers stare, slack-jawed, at the proceedings.
This song is dedicated to all beautiful princesses (Ne Tvoe Delo)
Of special importance is the focus here upon a female voice. Not only does Ayrapetova act alone in the videos, she has also authored a range of songs dedicated almost entirely to the experiences of women in modern Russia. Some magazines have discerned everything from tenderness to domestic violence and social protest in the lyrics. The one thematic constant in Ne Tvoe Delo, perhaps, is instability. Local life is full of nasty surprises. And, in the words of one local webzine: "The band displays both a textual and melodic straightforwardness. It seems that we've probably heard all of this somewhere before. The truth of the matter, however, is that I cannot remember simple songs like these––performed in Russian––that are so firmly etched in my memory."
Ne Tvoe Delo offer an extremely simple form of synth-pop that, to Russian ears, will recall the earliest wave of primetime songs following the demise of the Soviet Union late in 1991. Both before and after that date, Russian entertainment invested excessive effort in aping foreign trends. Meager talents and major money were thrown at television sets, not to mention radios. Happiness and hopelessness operated side by side. Songs designed to be intimate looked and sounded cheap.
Cynicism was in the air as a political system fell apart; and love songs were "nobody's business." Whatever they professed, daily life evinced more cruelty than kindness. Indeed a Russian magazine in 2016 has quoted a key line from one of the band's songs. Both now and then, almost twenty-five years ago, everything has been "awash with Russian yearning"––toska.
An estranged, local lyricism: Ne Tvoe Delo (Not Your Business)
Vladimir Nabokov famously described that unique Russian term thus: "No single word in English renders all the shades of toska. At its deepest and most painful, it is a sensation of great spiritual anguish, often without any specific cause. At less morbid levels it is a dull ache of the soul, a longing with nothing to long for, a sick pining, a vague restlessness, mental throes, yearning. In particular cases it may be the desire for somebody of something specific, nostalgia, love-sickness. At the lowest level it grades into ennui, boredom.” Life slows down, conjures a feeling of nausea, and eventually stops.
I don't have friends. I dance alone (Ne Tvoe Delo)
The Ne Tvoe Delo album reflects these historical and cultural settings. To begin with, it is called "Best Hits," despite being a debut effort. There's an ironic attitude towards both fame and promotional rhetoric from the outset. Canned applause then cancels any pretensions towards honesty or veracity. The LP's plodding rhythms echo the pop stars of Russia's early 1990s, such as Irina Saltykova or Alena Apina, not to mention all-female outfits like Kombinatsiya. We're led to expect the standard phrasing of cheap pop music, but instead a woman's voice tells us: "I don't have friends. I dance alone. I like to dress in black."
The same voice says later on that our heroine's heart "is full of emptiness as I go on a date... with you." Or, a tad later: "The rules [of love] are really simple—we always fall in love with people who dislike us." Modern relationships don't stand a chance; neither do personal feelings. They're simply none of your business.
This inability of domestic society to foster individual hopes and desires is also placed a sinister historical setting by the Orel trio, Pomni Imya Svoe (Orel is approximately 250 miles south of Moscow). The three Russian words of the ensemble's name translate as "Remember Your Name"—and the musicians use both forms, occasionally running the letters together as an additional neologism: "Pomni Imyasvoe," for example.
Inspiration for a modern project originates in a terrible past. The outfit's name comes presumably from the Russian and Polish film of 1978, in which a woman is tragically separated from her son in Auschwitz. At one point in the feature, the mother crawls to the Nazi barracks where her son is isolated; through cracks in the building's ramshackle wooden wall, she whispers: "Remember your name." Her son should never forget his real––Russian––name, together with his Soviet citizenship. Only the loss of everything reveals the importance of something amid mass destruction.
In the same stern vein, Pomni Imya Svoe perform a multitude of well-known twentieth-century Russian poems to music, often as (gypsy) romances. Among them are works by Sergey Esenin (d. 1925) and Aleksandr Vertinsky (d. 1957), while other texts come from the darkest years of the Soviet Union. Given their recourse to themes of calamity, these Orel musicians––known in most venues only as Kseniya, Stas, and Maria––describe their craft in an almost Gothic register.
"An unsullied, profound and female voice ponders the most treasured aspects of human existence. It seems somehow to gaze deep within our hearts and souls, bringing both pain and joy to the surface... together with confusion and anguish. A voice breaks into a cry––and then slips into a whisper. A piano draws minimalist sketches, yet it gives voice to a manifest tension. On occasion it speaks of hopelessness, interweaving with the plaintive, expansive sounds of an accordion."
Nobody thought to get down on their knees (Aleksandr Vertinsky)
One of Pomni Imya Svoe's three core members, answering listeners' questions on VK anonymously, spoke of how these classic poems and romances mirror both the history and experience of others. One woman's loss repeats that of a nation. "Music reflects a person's life, thoughts, and feelings. It reflects his or her reading––and what was understood from all those books. It reflects the people encountered over time. Ultimately, we're dealing with something elusive and incomprehensible. It's something that we bring into the world unconsciously."
The new album from Pomni Imya Svoe, called "Sky and Stone" (Небо и камень), is very much an extension of these earlier concepts and registers. Again the voices of distant, deceased others are invoked; today is understood through the prism of yesterday––because nothing has changed. The best connection between now and then comes from Vertinsky, whose early career was shaped in the pre-Revolutionary cafes of Saint Petersburg. One of his most famous texts bemoans the death of some young soldiers whose military "purpose" merely erased their importance as individuals. War needs faceless bodies. "Nobody thought to get down on their knees/ And tell these boys: In a hopeless land/ Even divine deeds are merely steps/ Towards an endless abyss and elusive spring."
Just as pessimistic––again for historical reasons––is the text now borrowed by Pomni Imya Svoe from the impassioned bard Vladimir Vysotsky (d. 1980). His lifestyle arguably rivaled that of Esenin, whose suicide remains a common point of reference for these Orel artists. Both men desperately wanted private relief from public schemes that failed them; peace was sought in drugs and alcohol. The Vysotsky text here is called "Paradise Apples"––both a biblical motif of increasing import and an actual family of sweet, red fruit in Northern Europe (Malus Pumila Paradisiaca Schneid). Faith and reality compete for relevance.
The Pomni Imya Svoe song, employing Vysotsky's famous and very risqué lyrics, concerns the nightmarish ability of Stalin's Russia to create hell from a promised heaven. "As we galloped up, what I saw was not divine/ Merely a barren desert and some infinite abyss..." The only thing to do is flee. The song's hero, in a closing quartet, drives his "horses away from those godforsaken, frozen places." Safety lies at maximum distance from actuality or politicized promises.
Merely a barren desert and some infinite abyss (Vladimir Vysotsky)
A more abstract variation upon these sobering themes comes from a young Moscow outfit, called ÁGNI––writ large and with an opening diacritic to mark intonational stress. (Stress on the last syllable would create the stage-name of another East European collective altogether.) The term ÁGNI comes from an abbreviated form of Aginya Ivanova, the band's lead singer; her mother named Aginya in honor of the Vedic god of fire and knowledge. Here in the group's songs, too, metaphors of redemptive fire and escape are frequent––specifically by means of flight. We hear of "delicate, streaming water droplets that like to fly higher." Any human ability to reverse gravity, however, is immediately doubted: "I'm standing on the roof. I don't know whether to jump."
Flight is an alternative to leaden material existence. "I don't want to die. I just want to fly again." Public existence promises little to nothing. "I hang black flags as curtains at home––you can't see a damn thing... Then I open my door. I let anybody come and take what they want." In even broader strokes, ÁGNI paint a picture of "some forest of concrete outside.... Sullen faces inhale others' breath, their life... together with me." Aspiration towards some alternative lingers in vague convictions that "music––I swear!––can be heard from the sea. I'm tired of being sad. I've seen a sail."
ÁGNI (L-R): Helfer, Egorov, Kachanov, and Aginya Ivanova
Dignity lies, maybe, in a place never visited––somewhere on an open expanse without a name. Wherever that may be, it's neither here nor now.
The members of ÁGNI are Aginya Ivanova, Alexey Helfer, Andrey Egorov, and Kirill Kachanov. Their debut album was really announced with the Russian title "Скоро будет дождь" (It'll Rain Soon). Ivanova has already declared that water plays an important symbolic, even spiritual role in her life, be it the romance of a rainstorm or the abiding sense of peace found in a seascape. Helfer goes one step further, underscoring the essence of water as a fundamental life source. These mundane details prove to be increasingly important.
Music––I swear!––can be heard from the sea (ÁGNI)
Just as significant for the band's raison d'être is the constant inclination of ÁGNI towards premodern motifs, taken from various myths and legends. Ivanova is herself from the Altai Republic––where Slavic, Central Asian, and Chinese traditions have crisscrossed for centuries. She sees a connection between her Altai upbringing and ÁGNI's collective desire both to "study and endeavor with various folk instruments––together with our vocal experiments." There's more freedom in an open landscape (visually) and the tones of some distant past (audibly). Helfer claims an additional, romantic connection between Slavdom and Asia through the "universal language" of music, existing prior to individual tongues or territories. "It belongs to everybody. Music is a unified culture. It includes a multitude of facets and tones––not to mention an open embrace of all peoples."
Contemporary society falls well short of any such inclusivity.
And so, perhaps, we find a tad more optimism in the childlike wonder of outfits like Мы с Айя from Saint Petersburg, a trio who prefer the translation of their name as "Aya with Us." The three members––Anya Kordubaylo, guitarist Dima Madera, and percussionist/producer Alex Mars––show a lyrical penchant for the same natural imagery as ÁGNI and Pomni Imya Svoe. "Honey flows from the clouds"; "We all dreamed of a film's conclusion, under the strongest rain in the world. The slow frames penetrate my very soul. The music is beautiful, I could listen to it for hours..." And yet such scenarios remain precisely that––the stuff of dreams.
Liberty is more likely to grow in seclusion and retrospection. "I'll close the shutters on the windows so there aren't any drafts. And I like it that way. (Me too!) We'll endure in all the [house's] cracks and crevices. We like it that way." This desire––or feral need––to retreat leads to the most striking statement on the new mini-LP from Aya with Us. Water is redolent of some ineffable freedom, but it may endure only in madness and death: "I could be like Ophelia - water, water, water..."
This decadent strain finds a very welcome audience in Saint Petersburg, as noted by regional journalists. "The club was filled with smiling dancers, camera flash bulbs, and colorful confetti that floated in air. It all recalled a slow-motion movie scene." A metaphor from the band's songs is echoed in some northern journalism––the hope that time's passage can perhaps be decelerated. If so, there's plenty to celebrate. "Aya with Us create the sensation of some all-consuming joy––the kind of happiness you'll never normally see among sober grown-ups at 8PM!"
I could be like Ophelia: water, water, water... (Aya with Us)
Time is pulled backwards, as childhood is once again declared a fine goal. "Listening to Aya with Us, you'll feel sixteen years old... at most. Sometimes you'll even feel six. Perhaps it's all a consequence of this wantonly simple electronica, together with a dash of happy, carefree acid-pop." Adult lyrics, following this dizzy retrospection, can sometimes become childish nonsense: "Take me for a spin––like a bike. Or maybe like a scooter."
Aya with Us, however, remain an exception to the rule today. Ne Tvoe Delo cast a gloomy cloud over monetized merriment of the early 1990s; public collapse and private cruelty together led to a cynical form of popular song. Pomni Imya Svoe bring heartbreaking drama to the table, reminding viewers of some unspeakable tragedies, repeated throughout Russia's twentieth century. Those civic disasters form a backdrop against which songs of stubborn intimacy somehow endured. ÁGNI––in 2016––brandish a related sense of private dignity in obscure, inaccessible ages and places. They play upon references to a boundless (and therefore unnamable) homeland, replete with patchwork myths and legends. Inclusion and inspiration live in abstracted times and places. According to a reverse logic, liberty is not here.
Hence the broad appeal of Aya with Us, which might––initially––look either fleeting or throwaway in its wanton callowness. The band's eulogizing of seclusion and retrospection is, however, part of a very long-lived tradition. A basic need for self-realization is constantly snuffed out. The historically contextualized songs among these four projects help to explain the following paragraph, taken from a recent review of Aya with Us.
"I have to admit that indietronica is a genre basically free of taboos or anything canonical. It gives these musicians the broadest possible expanse for creativity... Aya with Us are now gravitating towards a more fashionable, dance-oriented sound. Sometimes it even suggests a rave. Can you imagine a 'kindly' rave, designed for grown-up children? I don't know about you, but I'd certainly have no objections..." The sadder songs this week explain why.
Aya with Us. Uncomplicated yet productively absurd