If a Western observer were asked to imagine a quintessentially, even stereotypically Russian location, then Norilsk might well fit the bill. No Siberian city lies further to the north - in other words, we're dealing with an address two hundred miles above the Arctic Circle, which begs the question as to who might live there. It probably comes as no surprise to learn that the earliest settlements of consequence concerned mining... and imprisonment. It's then interesting to note that Soviet geographers officially designated Norilsk a town in 1953, the year of Stalin's death. Within those same twelve months, a famous protest would also occur in one of the local labor camps. From afar it almost seems as if the regional population was desperate to grow according to familial, not ideological bonds. As Stalin passed away, social unrest and civic development both accelerated.
Even now, some missile silos in the Norilsk area continue to shroud local streets with an air of Cold War enterprise. In many ways, therefore, this city corresponds to plenty of widespread, Western notions of "Russianness." One young composer, raised in precisely this storied location, has now moved to St. Petersburg, but she continues to fill her social networking pages with many DIY Norilsk images. Those lo-fi snapshots tend to include two particular motifs: grey, faceless factories and a surrounding Arctic wilderness, devoid of human presence.
Something is surrounded by nothing at all.
The lone human figure here is Le-Metron, a young woman who also performs under the even more complicated moniker of Askaira Indishle. Using that secondary stage-name, she has just released an intriguing and complex recording, "Celeste."
Tagging her output as ambient breaks, downtempo, dub techno, and industrial, Le-Metron then lists her main sources of Western inspiration as Ladytron, Ellen Allien, Apparat, Trentemoller, Royksopp, and Appleblim. Since our initial visit to her catalog, it has become clear that this artist's first name is Natasha - yet she simultaneously adds another layer of mystery to her discography. A small Russian-language paragraph accompanies "Celeste" and reads as follows. We are immediately carried back to snowy Norilsk.
Industrial structures surrounding a relatively tiny residential complex
"This young woman bears within her an idea about how to change the world, using vibrations invisible to the human eye. Askaira has her own, unique way of influencing the environment. The most important elements of her output are memories of her birthplace: industrial structures surrounding a relatively tiny residential complex. The severe climatic conditions of that same location - together with some minimal influences from the surrounding world - combine to make Askaira the person she is today. Music for this artist is a way of transmitting feeling. It is not an activity designed to earn money, since cash is meaningless to those who reside between Heaven and Earth."
There comes a point, seemingly, where distance slides into romantic absence, erasing the here and now. Some nations are simply large enough to make an endless material expanse akin to immateriality. As a faraway skyline fades, so does the division between "heaven and earth," apparently.
Another example of this transformation of space into "outer" space occurs in a new release from Kraptek, otherwise known as Anton Vasilyev, who lives in Surgut. A second Siberian location, Surgut is more than 1,300 miles from Moscow, as the crow files. A road trip will be considerably longer. Tradition suggests that the city's name comes from indigenous terms meaning "fish" and "hole." Those two modest nouns give a sense of what unrelenting wilderness met the first settlers more than 400 years ago. Whatever those spartan origins, however, Surgut would flourish infinitely faster in the twentieth century.
The last forty years in particular have seen the biggest changes. At this time Surgut began developing as a major center for the oil industry. Since the end of the Soviet Union, the city has become increasingly synonymous with big money, a distant territory of both high science and high rollers. Things may not look quite so rosy at the moment, but when the current crisis has passed, the oil and gas will still be patiently waiting beneath the earth's surface. Reflecting this local confidence, Vasilyev lists on one social network his preferences in life: "I like musical hardware, composing, and listening to music. I also like money and independence. Anything else is better said in private correspondence..."
And yet, for all that local pride, the music itself is viewed in very different terms. Vasilyev has just released a Kraptek EP under the title of "Obskur" - and he appends a couple of fascinating phrases. "Every nano-millimeter of my tracks' sound depends upon one thing: the degree to which the [cosmic] matter of our universe informs my brain cells while I'm writing techno." Put differently, "Obskur" is inspired by a realm so great that scientific fact and discernible matter morph into abstract fantasy.
Kraptek's current avatar sets the tone, turning angular abstractions into an expression of lurking anxiety.
We needn't necessarily travel to the edge of the map, either, in order to experience this rush from actuality. Take, for example, the one-man project known as Inverted Anima, which is attributable to a certain Kim Mindiarov in Chelyabinsk - a major industrial center in southern Russia. To a large degree, both the city and its current dimensions are a product of Soviet investment, especially under Stalin: Chelyabinsk blossomed in the 1930s. Those initial facts are enough to suggest both the scale and speed of urban development; the city and nation grew side by side. Unfortunately, however, the downturn of the Soviet economy in subsequent decades would also be reflected locally.
The nature of that decline can be sketched quickly. Since Chelyabinsk was, over time, responsible for the production of countless tanks and rocket launchers, the entire region was off limits to all foreigners until the early 1990s. Against this noisy backdrop of grandiose construction, though, equally impressive damage was done to the neighboring environment. Industrial growth led to industrial waste - on a similar scale.
As a result of decades of unbridled waste-dumping by southern factories, including the fallout from a massive nuclear accident in the 1950s, Chelyabinsk is still, in some cruel quarters, referred to as the "most polluted place on Earth." A lot of the amateur images uploaded by residents to Russian photography sites underscore these dual emphases: industry (being positive) and the chemical results thereof (less so).
The new EP from Inverted Anima places those opposites side by side: natural potential and a once-industrious realm, now a growing vacuity. Plenitude and emptiness inform one another.
Instead of endless materiality, stretched across a boundless map, here the issue is one of material experience downgraded or spoiled - to the point of nothingness. The deep techno coming from Inverted Anima does much to dismiss or mourn ostensible industry - in various forms. Mindiarov begins with a simple quote attributed to Bob Marley: "Money can't buy life." That removal of tawdry, tangible values should then be considered with the kind of language Mindiarov has used to describe some earlier compositions: "This track marks my awakening from a month-long slumber."
He then imagines another instrumental in visual terms: "To my left there's a shaggy dog. To my right are some friends. Ahead of me lies an empty road..." Just as mile after mile becomes nothingness, so another track is dedicated to the sensation of "each and every day being just like each other." Days merge into homeless white noise.
The human spirit is more powerful than any drug
Against these sad industrial contexts, countless miles, and endless days, some abstract notions are again foregrounded. More specifically, Mindiarov uses a Russian quote from the screenplay of Penny Marshall's 1990 feature "Awakenings," starring Robin Williams. That US medical drama included the following lines, which are quoted as an accompaniment to Inverted Anima's soundscape. "The human spirit is more powerful than any drug - and that is what needs to be nourished: with work, play, friendship, family. These are the things that matter. This is what we've forgotten - the simplest things." Should we wish to avoid this impressive, but worrying influence of isolation and material failure, we need to look elsewhere.
One might argue that a nation's capital - towards which so many roads lead - might shun the import of unwanted solitude, "wilderness," or desolated industry. One pleasant example - and proof of that comforting centrality - might be the work of Harry Light, based in Moscow. He's often connected to the project known as Friendly Vibes, which is designed to bring dance music from a cheerful domestic setting to the web. Small house parties broadcast online to the world.
Harry Light (Igor Filippov, Moscow)
The resulting mixes, sets, and videos become the opposite of what we find in Norilsk, say. A tiny domestic setting does not mourn its remoteness; quite the opposite - it broadcasts happily, far and wide. For that same reason, the promotional texts used by Friendly Vibes usually avoid all mention of place - being already in the center of things. Consequently, atmosphere - a comforting atmosphere - is what triumphs. The happy forgetfulness of amity replaces the fantastic immateriality we've seen thus far. Biographies are shaped by emotions, not postal codes, and so Harry Light is framed thus: "Addicted to both sounds and music since birth, Harry has managed to spin tracks directly[!] from his heart and feet. Actively supported by his friends, Harry has developed an ear not for fame or glory but instead for dancefloor happiness."
Hedonism trumps the mournful call of history.
An ear for dancefloor happiness...
Instead of being defined through goal-driven (and ultimately faltering) enterprise or industry, Moscow instead is seen as a busy realm of "urbanistic" (sic.) hustle and bustle, in Light's words. That peculiar choice of adjective, however we might choose to understand it, at least turns the city into a place of mental activity - or pure, central hubbub.
In all of these recordings from Norilsk, Surgut, and Chelyabinsk, the scale of Russian geography and industry has a marked effect. Endless miles foster an experience of immateriality - and the waning of industrial strength turns a musician's gaze away from all sad forms of physical labor. Based on this small sample of four new artists, it would appear that in Moscow - where both distances and quotas begin - there is a greater freedom from provincial or industrial stigma, no matter one's birthplace. The capital becomes a center of activity per se - without fixed direction or focus.
A well-folded sweater, placed across a shoulder, likewise speaks more of ease than of effort.
Harry Light in a moment of willful aimlessness