Snezhinsk is a small town relatively close to the industrial center of Chelyabinsk. That city, in turn, is no great distance from the Ural Mountains, which traditionally straddle European and Asian Russia. Chelyabinsk is home to more than a million people, yet Snezhinsk goes unmentioned on many of today's maps. It didn’t exist at all until the late 1950s(!) and for decades sported a number of secret names - because of its links to nuclear research. During the last quarter century of the Soviet period Snezhinsk was known merely as “Chelyabinsk 70” – and was extremely unlikely to be signposted on roads or marked in domestic atlases.
Here on the edge of Europe, public awareness, and mapmaking, we find Blear Moon, a one-man project otherwise known as Vlas Presnetov. Unwilling to document himself with any great clarity, Mr. Presnetov nonetheless informs people that he has been playing on the guitar, piano, and cello for the last three years. Recent efforts have taken that DIY dossier into the broader, more public realm of audio-visual performance. A quick perusal of local media, however, suggests that Snezhinsk's ability to host any such shows is meager, to say the least.
And so the quiet, lyrical recordings of Blear Moon are directed not towards a discernible human audience, but instead to the endless fields and forests that lie beyond Chelyabinsk, Snezhinsk, and even the purview of cartographers. That distant gaze produces imprecise sounds and faded photos.
Accounts at Blogspot and Flickr give Presentov the chance to gather some ethereal photography that contextualizes his recordings rather well; the first three images here are all his handiwork. These uninhabited, often wide vistas celebrate the beautiful trees and lakes that surround Blear Moon’s hometown. Much of the photography is offered us in weak monochrome or deliberately misty hues, all of which tends to frame local nature in terms of some fondly remembered ideal. Places of beauty are made to look like those of childhood or the pages of a dusty family album.
This overall stance is something we might associate with Karelian projects such as Bedroom Bear or Full of Nothing, in which that same distance between the present day and idealism also takes audibly fuzzy forms. In other words, the soft, unfocused hiss of lo-fi equipment, aging cassettes, and other ambient hubbub is all deliberately included from start to finish. En masse, it helps to create a wistful, if not melancholic sense of yearning.
For something or someone - who is somewhere.
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In this manner, the swathes of echo and reverb around Presentov's keyboards give the impression of diminutive, yet resonant utterances made beneath a lofty canopy – in a forest or some half-forgotten cathedral. The effect is, on occasion, genuinely beautiful.
The most specific context for this misty reverie – forever striving somewhere else – comes to us from a semi-audible sound bite in English. It is made from two brief quotes originating in “The Wind in the Willows,” specifically at the moment when some Ship Rats speak with dubious accuracy of their travels. Actual and fantastic locations become as one. The Rats tell their enthralled listeners: “Seafarers we have ever been, and no wonder; as for me, the city of my birth is no more my home than any pleasant port between there and the London River… We [once] lay in wide land-locked harbors, we roamed through ancient and noble cities, until at last one morning, as the sun rose royally behind us, we rode into Venice down a path of gold…”
We lay in wide land-locked harbors, we roamed through ancient and noble cities...
The sounds made by Vlas Presentov to orchestrate these stories of homeless romantics are, with gentle irony, written at home. The location of Snezhinsk only seems to encourage a charming, yet insistent fantasy.
Some new compositions by St Petersburg drone/ambient exponent Kluge extend these ideas a little further. This northern artist, too, has connections to the vague romance of Russia’s bleak wilderness. On this occasion, he employs field recordings made near the Arctic Circle, on the Kola Peninsula. To that he adds guitars, flutes, a metallophone, and “different objects in order to create a digital synthesis.”
The resulting sense of immersive space includes water, too: some of Kluge's newest recordings involve noise-captures that are evocative not only of Arctic tundra, but also the surrounding, seemingly bottomless Barents Sea.
These sonic vistas, some real and some imagined, have now dovetailed in a new Kluge release entitled (a tad awkwardly) “All That You Can’t Leave Behind.” An accompanying image shows the little feet and beach towel of holidaying children. Our gaze is cast down to some shallow seawater. The slightest encounter with profundity, so to speak, will only grow in time. As the dull parameters of adult life become manifest, the romance of depth - and disappearance - will increase.
Whatever “cannot be left behind” is eventually amplified to the levels we find here; the enticing hum of silence grows louder in our ears.
If nature - for the impatient - provides an insufficiently humbling sense of grandeur, one might instead turn to the industrial city of Togliatti and some new, kindred or "cosmic" work by Depto-3. It's all overseen by the young man below who goes only by the nickname of “Man of Ideas” (Chelovek Idey). His evocations of astral spheres, full of local references to Gagarin, fourth dimensions, “meta-universes,” and lost astronauts, are tagged as “mental hip-hop.”
Movement across the dancefloor - from one place to another - is replaced by a mental ability to transcend actuality, perhaps, and slip the bonds of physical experience. That escape, however, is not without risks.
Depto-3 employs a very muffled sample by Hungarian “space tourist” Charles Simonyi, in which he answers questions from the public about space travel. Specifically, the phrases used come from a brief monolog in which Simonyi explains how bone loss, radiation or other (major!) problems face those who spend too long beyond the Earth’s atmosphere.
The possibility of some comfortable existence between these extremes, between the charm and risks of open, unfamiliar regions, arose recently in a conversation we had with Roman Skarednov (below, right), from the city of Izhevsk. This is an urban location traditionally associated with arms manufacture and related heavy industry. Skarednov has been making music there since his early teens, beginning - as any proud local - with lo-fi and analog experiments.
Romantic music of a good vintage, 'cynical' IDM, and experimental downtempo
In years to come, he would eventually be associated with a number of projects, unified by his overarching desire to produce "romantic music of a good vintage, 'cynical' IDM, and experimental downtempo." Today that goal takes the form of ABC Galaxy.
What marks ABC Galaxy apart is its deliberate evocation of borderline kitsch in various forms, often taken from '80s synthpop. In particular Skarednov has been inspired by the computer game GTA: Vice City, which is set in Miami during 1986, the time of hit TV show Miami Vice. In other words, there’s often an ironic, playful attitude in his recordings towards various themes of adventure and/or danger.
We spoke to this artist a few days ago and asked about his working relationship with the open, unmapped expanses of the web. The natural or cosmic realms invoked by Blear Moon, Kluge, and Depto-3 all beg comparisons with the equal emptiness of the internet – a sphere of much appeal, yet so often devoid of both physical interaction and material income. It is a location of both liberty and jeopardy – one that never loses its allure and, therefore, “can’t be left behind.” It always embodies potential.
The name of Skarednov's current outfit, ABC Galaxy, immediately speaks to the attraction of some golden mean between childish simplicity and that sweeping sense of liberty “elsewhere.”
Currently he is preparing for a new album. He has no expectations of selling any CDs, though, due to the heartless and widespread workings of piracy. Because of piracy's ubiquitousness, in fact, he believes that record labels will have to come to “some kind of understanding with filesharing systems or illegal networks.” And yet, even if that happens, “the mass downloading of low-quality music onto Russian phones or computers will only grow.” The democratic promise of the web is also its undoing.
This inability to divorce hope from hassle leads, perhaps, to the "monstrous" avatar that Skarednov currently uses on Russian social networks. Somewhere on the horizon, a lumbering force awaits. Or, judging by the apparent movement of that figure away from us, major damage has already been inflicted. Vague realms lead to anxiety.
As a result, Skarednov tries to maintain something of a minor, even "salon" scale in his creative work: “I like making small releases for friends. Things with a tiny print run, designed only as personal gifts. In our age of simulated socializing – or cold, impersonal downloading - the very notion of a present given in person can be really special!”
In our age of simulated socializing the very notion of a present given in person can be really special!
Skarednov used to work in the realm of advertising, but currently relies wholly on his creative endeavors. Fiscal risk and romance thus begin their face-off.
He feels as if the unpredictable, unmanageable dimensions of the web force young or penniless artists to head for Moscow and St Petersburg. “I lived for five years in Nizhnii Novgorod and never saw anything locally significant take hold.” Hence the search for rail tickets - and some kind of tangible hope. Musicians flee the likely anonymity of web-based enterprise; they move, however, to a couple of cities whose musical significance is perhaps also lessened… by those same processes online. Centralized media erases the differences between good and bad taste by peddling mediocrity; the internet erases the differences between local and “distant” activity... yet offers only some frustrating, digital hinterland instead. Anything's possible online: very little, however, is likely.
A tricky, dual relationship thus emerges between optimistic, anxious expansiveness and safer introspection. Since that relationship is especially troubling in the present, it only makes senses that these artists would dream of a blissfully aimless wanderlust in other places: in childhood forests, antique English stories, science fiction, or amid the ironic (and therefore always resolvable) action plots of '80s primetime TV.
Kenneth Grahame's sea rats show the way to better, more satisfying stories. Just as they did 103 years ago.