AY (Alekansdr Udutyi, Moscow)
A few weeks ago, a new instrumental trip- and hip-hop LP appeared quietly in Moscow. Bearing the suitably stately name of "Museum," it was attributed to a mysterious figure known as AY. The one accompanying image of the artist (above) showed him covering his face - and vigorously so. Put differently, the recording's title spoke of respectful stasis and noiseless calm; the promotional photograph did little to single out present-day activity from the weight of the past. New information was not forthcoming.
And yet a host of individuals online in Russia have voiced a very personal reaction to this album: several people, it seems, care a great deal about these faceless, downtempo considerations of anonymity. Various ardent admirers have even expressed surprise that somebody - already known to them! - has actually reappeared. So who is AY?
Probably the biggest obstacle en route to any objective answer is the fact that "AY" makes more sense when transcribed in Cyrillic - as the graphically similar "АУ." That simple switch from one alphabet to another brings us a step closer to the real-life initials of Moscow's Aleksandr Udutyi, whose career has long been productively tied to that of his colleague Sergei Nakurennyi. Those two gentleman have been known in the capital's rap scene since the late 1990s, but - of late - have faded away somewhat. They're arguably most active this year within the Nenormzvuk label, whose name might be translated as "OddSound."
Nenormzvuk is a real force! (Soundcloud)
The track-listing of "Museum" continues this theme of sage retreat from the world - away from society's "goal-driven" enterprise into the welcoming, ahistorical corridors of a museum. Going nowhere in particular becomes a pleasing alternative to linear progression. And so, with that return from rap's cocky posturing to radical modesty (as turntablist psychedelia, even), AY now foregrounds various themes of transience. Considerations of time's humbling passage predominate. Composite nouns, neologisms, and wordplay give us titles such as "Rivermovement," "Om Da Place," and "Invisible."
This same desire to celebrate faceless (stressless!) movement over self-assertion is mirrored by some equally new recordings this week from the other side of Russia. More specifically, the Pacific city of Khabarovsk has conjured up an intriguingly named album, spun by the project known as "Ambitextr" from twenty-six hip-hop and rap compositions, alternating with a wide range of cinematic soundbites. The very first of those audible quotes, taken from dusty film stock and translated into English, would read: "We entered the Party together, worked together, and struggled together, also. He was a humorous and tender man. A romantic to his core! He was unique in everything - and it was impossible not to notice him..."
We entered the Party together, worked together, and struggled together, also
As this panegyric continues, it becomes clear that we're dealing with the Soviet silver screen heritage in particular - and a rather dated depiction of Richard Sorge (1895-1944). That real-life individual was a famous German spy who worked during the 1940s for the Soviet Union. In times of international conflict, he had access to major secrets of the German and Japanese armies - even if Stalin didn't always pay heed.
The scale of that access and possible operational consequence both meant that anonymity - and effectiveness - became increasingly difficult. The more successful he was, the more his identity was likely to be sought. And indeed, Sorge was both captured and executed in the closing months of WWII. That physical defeat, however, would only amplify his cultural status as a proud victim for the socialist cause.
These historical facts are now framed and amplified by the rap narratives of Ambitextr, dedicated in the words of our Khabarovsk musicians to a range of "eternal questions." More specifically, each of the tracks is attributed to an imaginary author and/or performer. Consequently, this album has the appearance of a compilation; it seems to be a collective effort. The opening numbers, developing that issue of virtual (perhaps fictional) groupings, are dedicated to related facets of modern Russian life, in other words to the thorny matter of whether Slavic existence displays any kind of group harmony.
Has the collapse of socialism brought people together? Does the Russian government in 2012 do justice to the lofty goals of democracy? Events on either side of 1991 give little cause for joy. Sorge's sacrifice for a laudable, yet risky cause seems very distant.
Tales of eternal questions
Just as AY hopes to slip away into the forgiving, comfortable forms of psychedelia, so the wantonly nameless members of Ambitextr mourn the loss of an equally inclusive social fabric. Individuals today are left to fend for themselves, sadly. These Pacific Coast musicians hope to treat each "song like a human being, with its own name and existence," because any such diversity and respectful standards are lacking in modern social spheres. For that reason, these Eastern artists do not give their own names, but instead list those friends who helped them produce the LP. Kindly groups are afforded special attention - since they're so rare.
In that light, it's interesting to see the semi-serious rules applied to the Ambitextr community online: "Please wipe your feet. Don't leave litter. Keep your thoughts clean - if you have any. Feel yourself at home."
An East German celebration of Richard Sorge (d. 1944)
Major problems can be overcome with friendship. Since one of the key obstacles to social connections in Russia is distance, it's pleasant and instructive to consider the PR materials of hip-hop and jazz instrumentalists Dapdown - from Omsk. Almost 1,500 miles from the capital we hear the following, friendly jest: "Dapdown are much better than you'd expect, my friend! They're a pleasant surprise, Goddammit! These are hip-hop, funk, jazzy, downtempo, and abstract broken beats... All kinds of good sh*t from Omsk, Siberia!"
There's little need for wordy explanation after an amiable handshake. "For all of you who patiently waited, we've prepared some sustenance for your eyes and ears. Bon appetit, Boys, Girls - and Aliens! Big respect to all the Omsk flava who helped to get this album ready. Thanks, friends!" A smiley face follows. "There's really nothing to say here, so we won't even try. It really doesn't matter, either! Just open you heart and let this music in!"
There's really nothing to say here, so we won't even try
On one of the band's Russian-language websites, that imperative becomes a slightly more forceful expression: "Shut Up and Dance!" The call to enter a busy, physical context finds best expression in analog forms: "It's a real joy to hear that Dapdown - as opposed to 90% of Russian beatmakers - aren't limited to a drum machine, samples, and a box of vinyl records. At various moments throughout the album you'll find live instrumentation, plus the use of well-prepared jazz and soul tracks... There's no sterile programming here!"
Somewhat closer to Moscow - perhaps 120 miles to the south - is the city of Tula. It is currently home to roughly half a million people. That fleeting sketch might suggest a modern, industrial setting, but the history of Tula also stretches back into the distant past, long before factories and power lines. It is often claimed that the region has been inhabited in meaningful ways since the fourteenth century, but social cohesion would only become evident once those scattered dwellings were placed within a fortress wall in 1530.
Modernity in lasting forms came to Tula during the reign of Peter the Great, who decided to make the town a center for ironworking - specifically in order to accelerate the production of armaments. These connections of Tula with cannons, gunpowder, and loud noises would endure all the way to WWII, when German forces laid seize to the city, aware of its unique production facilities.
A heroic defense would finally force the invaders back - and lead to decades of celebratory rhetoric from the Soviets. To this day, in fact, the streets of Tula are associated in the nation's mind with a proud, pugnacious heritage.
Despite that epic scale of material conflict, the newest recordings from those same streets are looking elsewhere. Somewhat dissatisfied with the options for local or communal amity, these eight instrumentals instead stare into the night sky for peace and/or quiet. The stars look more appealing and accepting. The artist responsible for these wordless considerations of harmony is known, quite simply, as U:mi.
Gravity is a force that gives rise to a couple of juxtaposed phenomena: destruction and creation
His musings come with a tiny text in Russian. "Attraction [or gravitational pull] is a force that gives rise to a couple of juxtaposed phenomena: destruction and creation. These are the same opposites that simultaneously inform the laws of Cosmic Justice. In turn, those same laws are responsible for the Universe's fundamental principle of evolution." The failings of earthbound society are manageable - or tolerable - if one imagines them as half of some universal, evolutionary balance. Put differently, the likelihood of concord in social, ostensible spheres seems feasible only if one looks away from them.
For that reason, we find comments regarding U:mi on Soundcloud such as "Crazy, beautiful atmosphere, man!" An accepting, inclusive communal realm remains both alluring and unlikely. It resides elsewhere - in the ideological romance of a prior political system, in the escapist patterns of trip-hop, amid imaginary collectives, or on another planet altogether...