Kubikmaggi: Using and Abusing the Traditions of St. Petersburg

Kubikmaggi are a wonderfully skilled, yet shambolic ensemble from St Petersburg. If that brief and contradictory declaration were enough to send you around the world in search of any such "wonder," the most recent opportunity to catch them live in their home town would have been a few weeks ago. Here they announced themselves as "yet again accompanied by a drummer, piano, bass... and loads of other stuff, too. In rather banal terms, it's a gig to be played 'after a long absence.'"

Long-term admirers of the quartet would no doubt have wondered whether anything had changed over the extended absence. Returning once more to the local stage, these musicians announced their concert as an opportunity to experience "an emotional infection[!] - through the medium of sound. Our style? Idiocy. After all, style itself is not a goal."

In a word, expect the unexpected.

And, of course, any reference to idiots on the streets of St Petersburg will conjure Dostoevskian echoes of past tales in which troubled souls are  trapped in their equally unstable or "unexpected" lives, thrown back and forth between physical illness and spiritual insight. To this we can add the locally famous fact that the band's singer and frontwoman, Kseniia Fedorova, is the daughter of Petersburg rock legend, Leonid Fedorov. That influence of things paternal is always evident in Kubikmaggi's music, specifically in the foursome's "idiotic" or manic abuse of various acoustic tools, all in the name of what they call "musical terrorism," "jazz-punk," or "constant experiments with the instrumentation."

It's a sound that could be positioned somewhere between the work of Mr. Fedorov, Alina Orlova, Kolibri, Tori Amos, or Regina Spektor, perhaps. A view of the pop canon from a quirky, occasionally dizzying angle.

This need to run around between points of reference is actively encouraged by the members of Kubikmaggi, who have no desire to sit still and be compartmentalized by the lazy pigeon-holing of others. "The band embodies a whole range of unrelated sensations: they display a remarkably serious stance towards their craft - as if in service of a Muse! -  whilst simultaneously using high degrees of irony, a sharp tongue, many forms of 'figurative' cynicism, and  - on top of all that - the spirit of youth, romanticism, and vigor, too...."

These snowballing, shifting aims are overseen by the aforementioned Kseniia Fedorova (vocals and piano); Maks Rudenko (bass, sampler); Il'ia Varfolomeev (drums, percussion), and Ivan Rips (sound engineering).  Given that they place such emphasis on their "idiotic" states of metamorphosis, we should not expect a concrete history of the project's development, and  - sure enough - we're told: "The group has great difficulty remembering dates. Having worked over a long period with all kinds of musical time signatures, the musicians are barely able to count!"

The group has great difficulty remembering dates. Having worked over a long period with all kinds of musical time signatures, the musicians are barely able to count!

One's notions of time, according to this logic, are formed by (not reflected in) artistic practice. A constant, "jazz-punk" disrespect for musical or stylistic consistency and conservatism will - eventually - allow for an escape from dull calendrical time altogether. The grim progression of the outside world can be sidelined or subjectively improved through a fervent commitment to "musical terrorism."

If you pull the carpet out from under your feet often enough, you might end up simply floating.

This extremely romantic view of music and poetry as salvationary tools in the face of society's failings is a clear continuation of a basic philosophy from Leonid Feodorov's neighboring generation. In fact were one to know nothing about Kubikmaggi, a few minutes of their music alone would, we imagine, incline most people to mark them as a St Petersburg outfit. This, after all, is the same combination of classical training and wanton subversion - using the tools of that training - that we noted a couple of days ago when reviewing the new Kolibri album. The enduring sounds and stagecredo credo of one city.

Heads down and study hard... in order to cause all kinds of trouble further down the line.

In one of the quartet's recent press releases, the band said its members manage to "concentrate so many musical ideas into one square centimeter of musical notation that the pressure can reach critical levels! Given the right preparation, Kubikmaggi can squeeze up to an entire album of material out of a single song." That opening reference to the "right preparation" is key; this is not some drug-addled, free-form or wholly improvisational nonsense, but a quintessentially Petersburg use of heritage, training, and tradition in order to some how undo them.

Consequently, any claims of idiocy need to be taken with a large pinch of salt.

Talking of which, the band's name, divided into a couple of separate terms, gives us - in English - "a cube of Maggi." This was the Nestle brand of salty stock cubes that appeared on the Russian market soon after the fall of the Soviet Union. As various Western companies tried - incessantly - to promote images of European domesticity, they also reached levels of "critical pressure." By this we mean that Russian TV lineups in the early or mid-90s did not have a wide choice of advertisers; breaks in between shows were filled with the same commercials, over and over again. Products designed to offer peace, calm, and comfort started to take on the air of psychotic repetition.

The picture below shows a Maggi product: "select potatoes" in a dry, powdered form. The disparity between "select" natural goods and chemical wizardry was enough to sow seeds of the surreal in market enterprise after 1991. The states of plenitude promised by capitalist PR quickly seemed as illusory as anything socialist rhetoric could offer. One set of facades replaced another - which, once more, brings us back to endless aspects of the Petersburg tradition in Russian literature, dedicated to the legal, moral, and spiritual horrors that often lurked behind the pastel facades of local palaces.

This is the cultural logic behind both the band's name and worldview, too: Fedorova et al. are dedicated to the stubborn, unrelenting extraction of surprising, if not shocking variety from behind the tedious canon of some supposed "pop-normalcy." As with Dostoevskii and Gogol, ostensible reality may appear to offer some consoling predictability, but if you look really closely, time and time again, all kinds of unnerving processes are at work! Dreams of the domestic hearth might even  hide a witches' kitchen.

If that seems a justifiable assumption, then Kubikmaggi and their gifted vocalist are offering an intelligentsia's commentary on capitalist Russia in the same way Fedorova's father did re: the (waning) socialist traditions of the 1980s. Sure enough, in further support of such ideas, we're soon informed that Kubikmaggi have no desire to mirror the cynical, deceptive, and profitable workings of today's primetime pop. The very idea of pandering to a young or dopey audience is inconceivable. "The band has no real sympathy for their listeners[!]; these four musicians replace those feelings with a self-irony that can transform into a kind of grotesqueness."

The band has no real sympathy for their listeners[!]; these four musicians replace those feelings with a self-irony that can transform into a kind of grotesqueness.

Showing no will to lessen that sense of the grotesque for financial benefit, Fedorova often makes the (ironic) comment that she has a charitable side-project, dedicated to saving refugees from Mars. Were we to ask who/what those refugees might be, Fedorova would probably reply that they're remarkably similar to herself. As a red-headed woman in a northern land where such people are rare, she has also referred to herself in interviews as an "alien." "We're happy people, us redheads, because we always get noticed in a crowd. In school, of course, I got sick of all the nicknames, but now the color of my hair has become fashionable. Redheads are like Martians. That's what friends call me. We're very impulsive people - and that's wonderful."

And so Kubikmaggi continue to offer idiotic, grotesque, and "high-pressure" investigations of reality's baroque multiplicity. It's a process that involves much training, constant hard work, and little rest. In addition, these efforts - as noted - are very much part and parcel of the local literary, if not psychological landscape. It may not seem a very happy realm in which to reside, but given the awful shallowness of the moneyed environment that Dostoevskii's Lev Myshkin discovered in the 19th century, maybe mental instability doesn't look so bad.

At least there will be moments of genuine joy. The rare joy of Martians. As the cover art to the band's most recent CD shows at the top of this post, such isolation can afford one an equally rare purview. The album was called "Ono ne trebuetsia," which could be translated as "It's Unnecessary" or "Not Required." If the needs and requirements of contemporary society can be best summarized by the maddeningly incessant repetitions of culinary ads, it may be better to stay well away from the kitchen, in fact from all manner of supposedly attractive norms. And live in a tree.

Not everybody can be expected to understand such contrariness, as we see below. The children of the late Soviet intelligentsia, however, know exactly what's meant. And so the traditions live on.

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