Late last year, the Goethe Institut in both Novosibirsk and Krasnoyarsk hosted a large festival and conference, dedicated to improving Siberia's cultural connections with Berlin and Germany as a whole. Hoping to foster a simultaneous "critical experience of––and reflection upon––modern music," the CTM Festival investigated multiple connections between sound, "new technologies, contemporary art, [local] music history, and [most broadly] today's sociopolitical issues." CTM spoke of clarifying the "social relevance" of electronic music in modern Siberia, including the "conditions in which those sounds and related movements are arising." What, in a word, was causing local music?
The participants included a wealth of names familiar to FFM, such as Appleyard, Buttechno, Dasha Rush, Dyad, Ferrein, Foresteppe, HMOT & Roman Stolyar, KP Transmission, Love Cult, Mårble, Mujuice, Nikita Bugaev, and Space Holiday Rocks. From the running list alone, it was clear that Siberia's pivotal role in modern Russian electronica had led to the participation of other representatives and regions––from coast to coast.
The connection between sound and 'socio-political issues'
Here, however, we narrow that focus and consider one city, in the light of a new compilation album. Omsk is home to more than a million people, and yet its location––over 1,300 miles from Moscow––has meant that the city is frequently synonymous with romantic distance. For many people, certainly in the West, the name conjures images of hopeful, even impetuous flight from European claustrophobia. In part, it would seem, those occasionally positive stereotypes are a consequence of history. After all, Omsk has seen its fair share of historical ups and downs: those same shifts in civic destiny, across the centuries, would eventually rob the region of any long-term equilibrium. At least in the public eye. A population center on the edge of Europe, Omsk has undergone many years of push and pull, be they productive (through trade) or negative (between armies and empires).
Omsk was founded as a fortress town in the Eighteenth Century, primarily in order to defend Russia's borders against steppe-dwelling horsemen from Central Asia. Most Russian schoolchildren in 2016, no doubt, also know that it would later become the final gathering-place for Czarist troops during the Civil War. Once the edge, therefore, of imperial lands, Omsk subsequently became the very last stronghold or fleeting "center" of the same civilization.
After the triumph of the Soviets, Omsk saw serious material investment from socialist coffers, and thus became a prime industrial center. Much of that industry was connected to the Soviet army, and––once 1991 rolled around––the decimation of the military by new economic planning meant that Omsk was brought to its knees (again) by high unemployment. Although the region has incredible natural resources that should make it a place of solid growth, the population has actually been falling in recent years. There are good reasons why young people move away. What, then, would be a fitting soundscape for a nexus of economic and military forces, all in the middle of nowhere?
We are here to sell out and make money and stuff... (Kim Pine)
When speaking of experimental Siberian electronic music and its roots, some valuable context is offered by the figure of James Alexander Darkforce, long based in Omsk. Born in 1973, Darkforce traces his own discography back to 1992 and the first noisy moments of post–Soviet culture. He recently, like the organizers of CTM in September 2015, has suggested that "national cultures are declining in significance today. Electronic performers should instead work to express and further the [transnational] essence of electricity, mechanical processes, towns, cities, plus other 'metallic' constructs." He hopes to find a sonic vocabulary for civic networks––in other words to voice society in some form.
And why is this so important? "Because today's culture is what we'll be discussing in twenty years time. If we don't [develop new sounds and values] then everybody will get stuck with today's culture––or whatever it has managed to pile up. That would be very nasty indeed..." In order to comprehend an entity or process, one first needs to name and therefore understand it. Social forces today are more uncanny than clear. They're frustratingly ineffable.
Darkforce states that worsening immorality, ideally, would be "impossible according to the laws of nature. You only find moral structures where there's social structure." That same structure, however, must itself be organic to some degree and not impose the kind of allegedly "unnatural" dictates that currently shape state sponsorship for Russian culture. "Today's censorship implies the existence of weak-minded souls. They need to be reminded when it's time to use the toilet. Or when to use cutlery... not to mention substantially more important matters." An absence of individual responsibility is tied to a dearth of moral norms.
The end of heavy of heavy industry, the absence of individual responsibility, and heavy-handed ideology will all produce some genuinely uncanny, if not frightening sounds.
Hope fades in Southern Siberia: "A lot of people leave Omsk. They don't believe that you can do anything of genuine consequence here––whether we're talking about artistic enterprise or other forms of useful employment. Many other people will criticize the city, yet are never able to leave, due to a lack of funds. Nonetheless, there are also some folks who––fully cognizant of all these minuses––continue living here voluntarily. They know very well what upsets them about Omsk and yet they stay––even if they're both recognized and respected figures overseas."
One such stoic soul, claims Darkforce, is Anton Gudkov, better known to FFM as the harsh noise exponent Booby Mason. "Sure, Anton has moved on occasion to other places, including Novosibirsk. Yet he has remained in Omsk and doesn't look like grabbing his suitcase or leaving forever. On top of all that, there are certainly enough local projects involving Anton to keep him busy. Some of them make you wonder how he manages everything!"
Those people who prefer talk over action have long been irrelevant (James Alexander Darkforce)
And so, after a long introduction, we come to Booby Mason/Gudkov, who indeed is an Omsk artist of wide import. His noise-scapes likewise reflect the relationship between a national language and ideology, melody and power, social harmony and violence. Darkforce continues: "Most of Anton's projects operate in the realm of harsh noise and drone. Those styles will never make you big bucks; nor will they make you popular among housewives or in a [snobby] conservative milieu... Still, Anton has been very active––and he remains active, too. He has attained his goal––precisely because he was active. He has avoided all manner of theorizing or debate. Those people who do prefer talk over action have long been irrelevant."
That local praise brings us to a clearly significant album curated by Gudkov on his Hiroshima Toy Pet Records: "Neuzeit." Framed by six images of six failing buildings (above), "Neuzeit"––with its ironic title––ponders the sounds of modern Omsk. Gudkov is not entirely alone in this venture; Siberian colleague and fellow performer Dmitry Kramb (aka "Crumb") is also of note. Kramb himself participates in the downtempo, ambient, and glitch enterprise known as It Isn't Bennings.
That very odd phrase comes from the cult B-movie of 1982, "The Thing" (dir. John Carpenter). An alien, malevolent life-form morphs into the physical shape of those people whom it kills; it therefore proves almost impossible to identify. It cannot be named. The horrified declaration It Isn't Bennings! comes from a polar scientist who––belatedly––realizes that the alien force has both killed and then assimilated his colleague Bennings. A long, ensuing scream shows that horror has no name; it lies beyond the printed page, much as the discordant recordings of "Neuzeit."
These same warnings fall on deaf ears today; after all, few people enjoy the harbingers of doom. They, in various senses of the phrase, do indeed sound awful. Dmitry Kramb admits to some related difficulties when it comes to promoting either Hiroshima Toy Pet or his own label, CrumbNoise: "Sometimes we do no promotion at all and, as a result, the social resonance of our tracks can be virtually nil." Civic messages and therefore morals tend to succeed based on their funding, rather than on their intrinsic value. Morality is money and vice versa.
Some of Kramb's other publications in Omsk are attributed to Schopenhauer's "minimalism, serialism, and hyper–spectralism... plus other stuff." Compositions hope to mirror the mathematical laws inherent in sound spectra; they seek to designate and therefore comprehend patterns beyond the here and now. In less rarified––and more typical phrasing–– Kramb also draws upon "airport drones, thunderclouds at sunset, the sounds of insects, and Kim Pine"––referring, one imagines, to the female drummer in the Scott Pilgrim graphic novel series. She is unable to take any relationship between sound and "entertainment" seriously: "We are Sex Bob-omb. We are here to sell out and make money and stuff..."
They're all a metanarrative (Dmitry Kramb)
And then, in one significant turn of phrase, which is jokingly tossed to his online audience, Kramb declares that some of his experiments act as a "metanarrative." They're a story about someone else's story. They're a sonic narrative giving voice to the wordy, ideological stories that Omsk society tells about itself. The resulting soundtrack is not pretty. In fact, to repeat Darkforce from above, it's very nasty indeed.
Hence, perhaps, the hypnagogic moniker of another Booby Mason project on "Neuzeit" called SNOM (i.e, "Through Dreams"). In a related and insightful comment online, Mason/Gudkov holds that his soundscapes often belong, quite literally, to nowhere in particular. If his hometown is widely considered to mark the edge of Europe, then Gudkov's published tracks on Hiroshima Toy Pet try to throw off the leaden weight of ostensible existence. They aim for some intermediary, peripheral experience, free of membership and/or generic ties. They also hope to operate "on the edge."
"My surroundings [in Omsk] don't influence my music at all. You might say what's important in the absence of any local influence." A related freedom––from both canons and regional policy––is found in unpredictable clamor: "In noise you can do whatever you want. It's loud and totally without responsibility..." As with the stage-name "It Isn't Bennings," so Omsk society proves a negative example––to the point where other tendencies come into play; they're also hard to name...
Yakutsk performer Tetsuo Kikai has commented on a more positive––and less combative––aspect of his colleague's work. "Some people say that noise music is made wholly of sounds that are both unpleasant and injurious for 'philistine ears.' Others would consider Booby Mason's catalog an unlimited and creatively free form of musical expression. It’s like some floating reverb, hovering above electric plants; it's like a journey taken through the de-energized neural system of some bleeding machine." Tetsuo (aka Foxberry) then corrects himself: "No, it’s rather like the mute whispering of organic life's final forms as they rush through freezing spaces at the speed of light. This is very personal and intimate music..." In order to map this transition from discord to relative harmony, a quick detour is first required.
When asked whether his predominantly strident sounds are designed to mirror either an escapist and therefore consoling "myth or [grim] Siberian reality," Booby Mason replies that "an element of self-irony should be present in all your recordings." For all the escapist promise of primal screams, he remains partly rooted in ostensible experience, on the edge of the city, as it were. For that same reason, our performer entertains no (delusional) dreams of moving away far from his snowy home, to some distant location that may––perhaps––be better. As a consequence, the rare moments of optimism among these Hiroshima Toy Pet tracks come not from physical flight, but from introspection. They come from private thought in a location where material actuality weighs heavily indeed.
I've no desire to get out of here. I want to travel, instead (Booby Mason)
"I tried living in Novosibirsk for two months. Omsk remains the hole it always was, but I moved back there recently—to my roots, you might say. And now Omsk has become my own [cozy] black hole! It's where my relatives and friends live. The city is also full of places that mean a great deal to me. I've started to see my hometown in a totally new light. I've no desire to get out of here. I want to travel, instead." That travel moves inwards.
The radical forms of aural distortion we hear from Booby Mason, SNOM, and other Hiroshima Toy Pet projects are, as a consequence, sometimes not designed to alter ostensible, external reality. Instead, in this artist's opinion, they are initially a way of voicing and comprehending the unnerving plenitude of everyday experience. They give voice––and a name––to the uncanny. Those sometimes shocking registers endure within quotidian situations––in places that are best hidden, perhaps. Crime, depression, lust, and betrayal all rise to the surface and so the process of self-examination begins. Psychology begins to hold sway over sociology.
In a blitz-interview published not long ago, Gudkov said that the fundamental building blocks of SNOM are "thick, viscous sounds with a tangential relationship to ambient structure. Most of those sounds are either found by me [in the field] or built on a loop station." Looking back on the genesis of those habits, he then adds: "Around 2009 I made my first recordings. It all kinda happened by itself. Everything was recorded live at home, using a dictaphone and some demo recordings by some group I once played in. The result was a twenty-minute collage. Then I started making harsh noise; lots of harsh noise. It was f***ing primitive and loud, too. Gradually, however, things have grown quieter––and longer, also." Some form of introspective consolation is found in longer, quieter, and more repetitious recordings.
Sounds remain, therefore, partially tied to physical reality in Omsk, yet increasingly reference other imagined and superior states of being, such that another "Neuzeit" collective––called Сверхнож (Sverkhnozh or Svrhnz)––is compared to psychedelic outfits of the 1970s. "Everything by Svrhnz is recorded spontaneously. It's all taken from our first––and only––run-through." Despite the project's name (which translates as "Superknife"), journalists have discerned "a marked lack of aggression. Everything here is pleasantly decelerated. The sound floats and envelops you with all sorts of resonant noises and vibrations. The guitars create a kind of percussive kaleidoscope. This is something of a surprise among [traditionally] rough-sounding Siberian releases; it's both warm in tone and floats off like a tropical breeze." It imagines somewhere better in understated, looping, and mantric designs.
It's warm in tone and floats off like a tropical breeze (Svrhnz)
This trajectory away from industrial, metallic clamor only seems possible in extreme isolation; it's a private response to public disappointment. Take another of the "Neuzeit" compositions, this time from Allelu Lockus, who is also known as Pasha Konstantinov in Novosibirsk. A recent interview sketches a little background in the third person: "Pasha resides in a small academic community outside the city. He lives among the forest, ferns, squirrels, and some closely packed four-floor buildings. Everything here is hidden in the trees. Pasha is a modest guy who oversees a number of electronic projects. One way or another, they're all connected with noise. Everything he does reflects a DIY spirit. It's all really interesting and, in some way, unique for Siberia; in other words, Pasha likes really long tracks. Some of them last several hours and have long, winding titles." Once again, peace and quiet are found introspectively and expressed repetitiously.
The collective hubbub of James Alexander Darkforce, Kramb, It Isn't Bennings, SNOM, and Booby Mason slowly becomes more meditative. Socially determined soundscapes morph into private forms of relief. Allelu Lockus continues: "In 2009, I spent a month at my dacha near Omsk. There wasn't really anything to do there. Thank Heavens, somebody––somehow!––had managed to drag a piano out to that [isolated] area. The summer days were long, dull, and hot. Over the course of several such summers, I committed hours of my senseless ivory-tinkering to tape. I didn't really know how to play anything properly––nor do I now. That meant I was involved in all kinds of improvisation."
Not only is meditative solitude key; one should also abandon all pretensions towards material gain or professionalism––like Kim Pine. "Sometimes I'll just dump the whole project––for long periods, even. I can remember several years when I did nothing."
In conclusion, Allelu Lockus is asked: "Have you been influenced by the people around you and the places in which you grew up?" He answers briefly and swiftly: "Yes." From an initial descent into din, discord, and sometimes despair, the "Neuzeit" album gradually shows Anton Gudkov's fellow Omsk residents plotting a form of liberation. Inspired by social realia (by negative example), these Siberian compositions do their best to avoid them. The best response to civic hopelessness, we're informed, is simply to walk away. Public failure prompts private self-improvement––and the forest is an excellent place to start.