Kryvyi Rih, central Ukraine
Kryvyi Rih is an industrial city in central Ukraine, a striking combination of smokestacks and undulating grasslands. Despite the timeless sweep of that regional landscape, Kryvyi Rih is more likely to appear in news stories concerning environmental challenges. The consequences of Soviet coal and steel production have been hard on Mother Nature.
Given that noisy activity, managed (and used) by more than half a million people, it's perhaps surprising to come across acoustic projects from Kryvyi Rih such as Eskiz Koda. Not only is this duo responsible for some very hushed and understated songwriting; they also prefer to hide from the limelight. Put differently, these two performers like to be known - quite simply - as Madre and Padre. Language is apparently an insufficient medium to assess small, heartfelt enterprise: "There's no need for any dictionaries or interpreters in order to understand the musical lexicon of this duo."
A minimalist, vacant space to be filled with experiences, fantasies, and recollections
Founded a couple of years ago, Madre and Padre's ensemble speaks of an overarching aesthetic in equally minor terms, using the phrase "less is more" to categorize much of what they do. It's worth mentioning that the original author of that slogan was architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, whom Eskiz Koda credit directly - and whose own career overlapped with things Slavic on occasion. Not only a fan of Russian constructivism, he also built the minimalist monument to Rosa Luxemburg in Germany. Needless to say, the Fascists weren't too keen on it, and they subsequently destroyed Mies' work.
Of the examples that remain, Mies' constructions are the spatial equivalent of Eskiz Koda's soundscape. Clean, radically simple, and frequently quiet.
And now this same Ukrainian outfit has a debut album available, called "Minimalism." "We didn't chose that name at random! All you'll hear on the CD are two sets of vocals and an acoustic guitar. If you can imagine music in terms of a concrete space - somewhere that's entered by the listener - then we're talking about emptiness. Our own vacant space can be filled with experiences, fantasies, and recollections."
The local press have spoken of Eskiz Koda in glowing terms. "Sometimes you get the sense that a kind of gentle, magical force stands behind the songs. You realize it pretty quickly, too... It only takes 13.5 seconds[!]. After that realization, you soon surrender to the magic - it's a sensation worthy of half a kingdom (and a princess). There's a wide range of characters in these songs, all the way from wronged maidens and other more 'extreme' figures from folklore. The folk motifs are cleverly, elegantly interwoven into a whole. It's all done sincerely, effortlessly... and beautifully, too."
Calming, instrumental hip-hop... spiced with a little glitch
A related romanticism comes this week from the Bryansk region. Bryansk itself is an industrial town maybe two hundred miles to the south of Moscow. Although now a center for various forms of heavy industry, that air of stability is not reflected in the region's history, which records all manner of warring factions and their violent claims of ownership. Representatives of Russia, Lithuania, and Belarus have all run around Bryansk with large flags at some point in prior centuries. Our musician - Nathree - actually lives in nearby Dyatkovo, famous for its furniture production and lead crystal factories.
It'll come as no surprise to learn that Nathree is not a Slavic name; it refers to local resident Georgy Pervushkin. He proclaims himself the "author of calming, instrumental hip-hop... spiced with a little glitch. You'll find melodic vocal samples, wrapped in gentle beats and a warm bass. Together they form the basis of Nathree's style. Mixed with tales of nostalgia and melancholy, Nathree creates the sort of cocktail that'll meet with the approval of any yearning romantic."
An even clearer juxtaposition of romance and industry can be heard from the ensemble Karenin, fronted by vocalist Ksenia Gubina and based in Izhevsk. The city emerged approximately 250 years ago as an ironworks; by the start of the 19th century, royal decree had guided that noisy effort towards arms manufacturing - perhaps because the region had itself been invaded during a major uprising in the past. With equal predictability, over time, Izhevsk would then become a place of intense revolutionary activity as the events of 1917 grew closer.
The Soviet system plowed huge resources into local forms of military, often politically sensitive research. As a result, Izhevsk would eventually be closed to all outsiders. These extreme degrees of secrecy would lead to equally vigorous rumor and vague, yet patriotic terminology. Izhevsk was often referred to as the "Armory" or "Arsenal of Russia" - even though few people knew what was being built.
Ambient. Cinematic. Baroque
Karenin make direct reference to these grey surroundings (a "strange and secretive city") in their PR materials. "If you ever find yourself in Izhevsk, you'll need to overcome the sensation of being closed off or somehow estranged from reality." Not surprisingly, the band members recommend their songs as a soundtrack to a resultant escapism, whilst simultaneously name-checking some of their famous supporters (Artemiy Troitsky and Oleg Nesterov). Moscow approves of the escape plans.
The band are proud of their cabaret or lounge influences, several of which have graced Russian films over the last few years. In fact these musicians sometimes use a rather strange phrase to summarize their interface of filmic, wistful, and even sexual aspects. Put differently, Karenin qualify their downtempo elegance with three adjectives: "Ambient. Cinematic. Baroque."
The catalog of Eskiz Koda views its own romantic striving in terms of a "backwards" trajectory, towards various folkloric values; Nathree, in a related manner, considers himself the quintessential "yearning romantic," constantly dreaming of somewhere else. Satisfaction lies just out of reach... Karenin underscore and extend both of those emphases, in that our Izhevsk songsmiths discuss their discography or lyrics in terms of a desire for places that may never be seen. The more that clamorous, smoky actuality imposes itself upon a fragile soul, the more the heart moves in an opposite direction.
Industrial contexts inspire a flighty aesthetic, in several senses.
Music to experience the genuine taste of solitude
Gubina and her colleagues consider themselves quiet champions of a similarly lonely, longing heart: "Karenin write music for sad occasions. These songs will catch you unawares - in those moments when a sense of melancholy leads you to reassess your surroundings. This music will let you experience the genuine taste of loneliness."
Capturing the appeal of yearning realized, of solitude both sought and found, is the new work from Kiev's Oleg Shpudeiko, who performs as Heinali. On the last occasion we visited his studio, Mr. Shpudeiko was aiming for what he called "a very fresh, soft sound." Hard lines and harsh discord were left to the primetime marketplace.
Heinali has been experimenting since 2003. As someone with no musical education whatsoever, all of his achievements and web-releases have come as a result of long-term tinkering or trying various sonic avenues. "Experimenting [over the years] and attempting to find his trademark sound, he has produced a wide variety of tracks. Heinali has [by this point] worked in almost every known genre and style - all the way from noise and ambient, to jazz and 'guitar-industrial'..." That final adjective hopes to claim some aspects of an urban tonality and direct them elsewhere; a machinic insistence becomes an inspired flight from asphalt and concrete. One swift rhythm inspires another.
A leftfield aesthetic takes on a literal consequence. We've noted in the past how Heinali has used quotes from Monty Python screenplays in order to express the view that modern social planning, progress, and so forth are closer to absurdity than to common sense. Solitude therefore holds much appeal, especially in the new recordings entitled "Air."
The power of a light touch
Shpudeiko's publisher has framed these sparse, wantonly lonely instrumentals as follows: "Here we find examples of cinematic and sad music. The strings gravitate around some central, yet minimalist piano motifs." Both cinema and metaphors of emptiness return, again as grist for a romantic imagination. As Heinali's label has it (once we've polished the English): "This is the power of a light touch, the power of an ambience, of echoes, and one's thoughts."
In an online questionnaire not long ago, Mr. Shpudeiko was asked whether he might - one day - marry. His response: "I have no idea." He was then asked, in more abstract terms, about his favorite bird. Rather than name a specific breed, Shupdeiko admitted he has special affection for "any [kind of] solitary bird." Absence makes the heart grow stronger.
A resulting, double appeal of minimalism and romantic ennui therefore endures for these musicians, especially against the backdrop of loud and dirty industry. Small sounds embody a desire for understatement amid gross civic enterprise. The "power of a light touch" pushes back against the hubbub of factories.
Madre, vocalist with Eskiz Koda