Outwards: Elf & Puppet House, Argo Vals, Lucidvox, and A. Maskeliade

Argo Vals with a friend and a Frenchman

These four projects or artists are all promoting new compositions and - fortuitously - experiencing a wave of media attention at the same time. The performer among them known longest to FFM is multi-instrumentalist Argo Vals from Estonia. Originally from the small, southern Ahja parish and a graduate of the local arts academy, Vals enjoys support from many Baltic music critics - not only as a solo artist, but also in his related ensembles of Animal Drama and the Viljandi Guitar Trio. His current appearance on these pages is prompted by the emergence of a brand-new instrumental single: "24/Oxymoron." It is published through the Eesti Pops organization in Tallinn, which advertises itself rather strangely in English as "the one and only Estonian smokie-pop label and radio show!" Not surprisingly, the precise nature of "smokie pop" remains something of a mystery.

Recording music since 2006, mainly in his bedroom (Eesti Pops)

In their native language, the staff at Eesti Pops opt for a more straightforward self-description. It might translate as follows: "We're a domestic record label and promoter of fresh-sounding Estonian pop music." Whatever the case, Eesti Pops has a good working relationship with the Tallinn Music Week, on which we've also reported before. The press materials and tickets for Argo Vals at TMW 2014 are already on display. In those texts, his label speaks highly of an expertise that extends across prog rock, jazz, minimalism, "and ambient works, too." The distance between progressive rock's penchant for grandeur and anything minimalist is surely extreme, so the hopes for promoting Vals to festival audiences are high. There's something for everybody.

The Music Week PR team plots an equally impressive transition for Vals in spatial terms. Put differently, they claim that he "has been recording music since 2006, mainly in his bedroom." A closet composer, allegedly, is being shown (and shown to) the world. We should probably lessen the drama here by pointing out that our artist has already enjoyed commissions from Baltic films, television shows, and dance companies. In addition, his "Tsihcier" recording was nominated for Indie/Alternative Album of 2013 at the Estonian Music Awards. 

In short, success is spoken of in "expansive" terms: as distances traversed, styles combined, and as years endured in purported obscurity. A well-regarded Baltic publication is currently quoted by Tallinn Music Week in order to underscore these chosen metaphors of outward trajectories and some prior material obstacles. "Argo Vals is a real wizard, conjuring incredible moods!" Robert Fripp's name is even whispered in influential quarters. 

Argo Vals (Ahja, Estonia): artwork for "24/Oxymoron" (2014)

Any such tales of extension, expansion, or magical expertise play directly into the raison d'être of the Music Week as a whole, promoting local industry-related and tourism opportunities to many overseas communities. A flourishing and creative setting is advertised far and wide. Correspondents writing for Wire magazine in the UK concur. “TMW has proven that a country as small as Estonia punches well above its weight in terms of musical talent. The degree of technical ability and polish shown, across many different genres, both live and on record, is very impressive. What’s more, Tallinn’s musical community is warm, well informed and enthusiastic.”

A beautiful, honest carelessness

Another solo artist with a small, though excellent recording on offer this week is Anton Maskeliade from Moscow. We showcased his work recently, but this performer's reputation is growing fast in the capital, with attention from major media sources. As we mentioned on that first visit, Anton is a very unassuming figure, who prefers to operate far from the self-aggrandizement of most promotional phrasing:  "I simply do what I like. You're interviewing me to discuss music, so OK - let's say I'm a musician. You should know that I pour all my energy into live shows. As for the recordings I have online, they're a kind of DIY biography, a collection of [sonic] images. They're like little buoys called 'Save As,' strung across an ocean of memory.  An ocean that's framed with sound. Sometimes I find it'll take six months of work to produce something [even] ephemeral, elusive, and honest." 

He has now been celebrated in Moscow's Afisha - again as a single performer who's representative of wider regional hopes. Intuition appears the best guide in this world of bigger, better opportunity. "I entrust myself completely to my feelings - to a dual sense of rhythm and harmony. They lead me [to other places], twisting and turning en route. Sometimes they'll even deceive me, but that certainly makes matters more interesting..." Once more reflecting the oppositions surrounding Argo Vals, a distinction is made between DIY work at home and the complex, more "expansive" gestures of live shows or public display.

"Work at home always means working on yourself: it means endless self-reflection and perplexity. That can be cool, but it's incomparable with the pleasure you get from a really grateful public - and all their feedback. That's why I operate according to the principle of 'first takes.' In other words, I always leave the initial, roughest pieces of a composition [in the final edit]. They embody a beautiful, honest carelessness." They also assure a healthy humility, which - seemingly - is what audiences appreciate.

Anton Maskeliade (Moscow) and the "One Beat" EP (2014)

Despite Maskeliade's introspective or unassuming tone, Afisha soon asks whether he might consider himself "the sound of the future" and the poster boy for local music. He replies - and politely declines that bold, even unnerving assumption: "Let's leave all those questions until the future!" Here, as with the TMW, there's a desire to give an individual some marked or major consequence. Maskeliade himself is unsure, and would rather speak of private achievements than of public victories.

Within the same rubric, Afisha also wrote last month of another Moscow band that we've touched upon before: Lucidvox. As with Maskeliade, so these four young women prefer a humble, more prudent turn of phrase. In the recent past, they've used a quote from Albert Einstein in order to ponder a rarely recognized potential of social existence. Einstein's words suggest that the closest, most mundane connections between people might - on occasion - prove rewarding. The smallest act of charity can promise a great deal.

We depict moments that are familiar in everybody's life

Einstein's actual words are: "My internal and external life depend so much on the work of others that I must make an extreme effort to give as much as I receive..." None of the musicians involved in these recordings, however, find much cause for a related optimism in the daily grind. The outside world promises little, especially if we take their networking profiles at face value. The posts and pictures therein suggest it's better, perhaps, to stay at home and cultivate what Lucidvox call "psychedelic dream pop."

The magazine from Moscow was understandably keen to use Lucidvox as a sign of renewed musical life in the capital. The performers had doubts, though: "The main lyrical hero of our songs is [simply] a person. With a capital 'P.' We deal with the kinds of themes that everybody wonders about. We depict moments that are familar in everybody's life." Any leanings towards grandeur or self-confidence, even, were more likely to be philosophical than fiscal. The band's primary aim is declared to be intellectual, not material. "We're trying to discern something great and grand within life's tiniest details." The key word here is "trying."

As we already see above, intuition and/or subjectivity are better guides than pragmatic planning, especially if the music industry today has become a realm of dubious benefit. A decentered, heavily mediated industry - long subject to piracy - is a place without maps or established strategies. Everybody's flying by the seat of their pants, so to speak. 

Sounds from home: Lucidvox (Moscow)

"Occasionally when we're rehearsing together, there will suddenly be a moment when we understand that we actually like something [amid our improvisations]. We'll start laughing and the four of us will look around at each other. We'll genuinely be amazed that something [good] happened. After that, we quickly try playing it again - as if something significant flashed by and we're afraid of forgetting it."

These small, intuitive collectives hold more promise than grand, institutionalized equivalents. One of the band's recent songs in translation might read as follows. There's neither pomp, nor circumstance on show. Kindness is instead uppermost, although even that becomes an elusive option within large groups: "I want to be a person who can [perhaps] leave a crowd... and shout 'Good Morning!' One night I'd like to admit how weak these feelings are - the ones that give me little peace. I'd really like the world to have vivid colors - the kind that eternity simply cannot erase." Hypothetical, unrealized dreams suggest that both reality and self-realization will probably remain on a minor, modest scale.

It's tough being a musician in this town

A third outfit of interest to the Moscow press in recent weeks has been Elf & Puppet House. Showcased within a wider overview of Nizhny Novgorod, this one-man project - Sergei Romanov - operates in the name of some (very) minor figures. "I have dolls and elves here with me. They've neither a past, nor any names." The music composed in their honor is "noisy and lo-fi... but it's really nice, too!" In a similarly self-mocking tone, Romanov has advertised some recordings this season together with a triple promise of "music, sex, and snow!" The self-assured language of PR looks risible between lo-fi clamor and bad weather. Reflecting the same patterns of slow demise, Elf & Puppet House was once a duo, but half the band moved to China. Romanov, perhaps in the absence of any grand plans today, has felt inclined to release tracks on cheap cassettes. "Our music's ideally suited to that format."

Sergei directly plays down any journalistic assumptions of a regional scene or cultural boom. "I can't rid myself of the feeling that Nizhny Novgorod bands tend to copy other artists. They kinda disappear when considered against ensembles from elsewhere... We've no musical history here. There haven't been [successful] groups we could use as a model for growth. There's neither musical fashion, nor good taste locally... It's tough being a musician in this town. There are no decent studios. Nobody here can do a proper production job. Trends always reach Nizhny Novgorod rather late. They tend not to catch on - and die out quickly."  

In the case of Argo Vals, an Estonian label and festival both pen the romantic tale of a "bedroom" composer, whose "wizardry" has overcome great distances and will last a long time. Once transposed to Russian soil, however, any such desire to speak of self-determination and cohesive local scenes becomes much more challenging. Most of these Slavic artists prefer understatement - just in case. Big promises tend to achieve nothing. 

Left hanging. Elf & Puppet House (Nizhny Novgorod)

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