Lena Kudrina is from Kaliningrad. That town's proximity to Western Europe has––over the centuries––led to the combined influence of German, Polish, and Lithuanian cultures. In other words, Kaliningrad sits on the very edge of Russian territory. Local life has been formed by a multitude of contrasting voices, both peacefully and otherwise. In the same manner––as a young jazz chanteuse––Kudrina views her creative potential very much as teamwork and multifaceted enterprise. Her current colleagues are Askanaz Arutynyan, Fima Maliks (both piano), Oleg Fomin (double bass), Yury Andreev (drums), and Viktor Arkharov (saxophone).
Be prepared to close a dull book or leave a poor movie (Lena Kudrina)
A few observations in the Russian press or regional media thus far speak of Lena as "performing Russian songs in the style of European jazz." Again a Kaliningrad aesthetic is understood through peripheral spaces––through local geography. The singer, however, is herself keen to divorce that proximity to the West from any mercantile goals. Being close to Europe does not mean the cultivation of a wantonly accessible or "continental" style. "My personal story is unconnected to anything commercial. It's more a matter of desire."
That same contrast of private wish and social necessity (of desire and marketplace dictates) is reflected elsewhere in Kudrina's small catalog, since she has worked at the famous Petersburg Recording Studio, which was an integral part of the Soviet Melodiya catalog for almost three decades. Those same northern walls have been home to the St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra, the Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra, and the St Petersburg Capella Choir. Such classical heights are arguably matched by key rock, pop, and electronic publications from the Petersburg Recording Studio: Boris Grebenshchikov, Mashina Vremeni, and DDT have all recorded there.
Kudrina nonetheless discerns a connection between all those projects and performers, once again through the prism of physical space. What links them all is an address and/or passport. She gazes eastwards, back into her northeastern homeland: "I hope the hearts of listeners will respond to our music. We're trying to offer some sort of formal innovation in our songs. In essence, you'll discover a melange of instrumental material and some simple texts––in Russian." If Kudrina might be paraphrased, then formal expressions may change in her songwriting, but the heartfelt, national content remains the same. Whatever the cultural or commercial bonds of Kaliningrad to Western Europe, there's an overriding assumption that something choral or collective lies at the root of even the "simplest" Russian material.
A very private manuscript––and versified patterns of time
The same theme of membership––of physical bonds, on occasion––colors Lena Kudrina's chosen aphorisms on her networking profiles. For example, in one setting online, we read: "If people do not value you, then be prepared to close a dull book, leave a poor movie, resign from a bad job––and leave an indifferent public." She then quotes Tori Amos, a woman who has often spoken of an interplay in her discography between multiple characters and a single (audible) voice, sometimes within the same recording: "I have so many different personalities in me and I still feel lonely." Any act on stage is unavoidably a dialog both with prior traditions and the experiences voiced by a lyrical hero(ine).
I have so many different personalities in me and I still feel lonely (Tori Amos)
The result of all these places and performing traditions for Lena Kudrina was, very recently, simply called "northern music, in a roundabout jazzy style." In other words, an archetypal Kaliningrad or Moscow improvisation plays upon a Soviet, even classical tradition––and that debt to the past is foregrounded. The performer acknowledges plenty of voices from the past, making lyrical self-expression both harder and richer.
At this point, it's hard not to recall the thoughts on creative freedom and constraint(s) by poet Joseph Brodsky. Beginning with the basic fact that human life has physical limitations, Brodsky then holds that greater wisdom comes from learning how to operate within the kindred rules of versification. Life is never free, so poetry will teach you more if it mirrors life's frequent coercion(s).
Self-expression within or despite established form––within the history of others' creativity––is more enlightening than random streams of consciousness, whatever their pretension to expressive liberty. Hence Brodsky's disdain for free verse: "The first question [in such cases] should be––free from what... free from what?" Throwing paint across a canvas is neither novel nor reflective of life; it is delusional, selfish, and self-congratulatory. Thus spake the poet.
Even the most basic assertion of will assumes an awareness of preexisting rules and limitations, plus the ability to shun them. "Freedom" per se is not part of human experience; we choose neither linguistic nor biological forms. Better, therefore, to include the weight of a priori limitations in our speech and acknowledge the past before looking for private, subjective innovation therein. Hence Lena Kudrina's invocation of a sung history––in a land where self-expression is sometimes hard enough to make jazz a profound reflection of the Twentieth Century.
To quote Wynton Marsalis on a related interface of (my) autonomy and (other's preexisting) bonds: "Because jazz musicians improvise under the pressure of time, what’s inside comes out pure." Having worked within constant, entrenched beats, a soloist still manages to find a little room for individuality. And that makes it "pure."
It is precisely the delusional fantasy of unfettered expression that informs the newest single from Kiev's Endless Melancholy––otherwise known as Oleksii Sakevych. The author of "minimalist piano recordings," he has chosen for this springtime release––"Like Ships without Anchors––to draw somewhat unexpectedly upon four lines from the Latvian band Brainstorm. They speak about movement in some incalculable expanse: "Like ships without anchors, wide is the ocean––no islands, no shores. All is well, only this is such a lonely feeling... to be lonely."
That celebration of––and simultaneous belief in––the beautiful sadness of utter, endless solitude is translated by Sakevych into what one reviewer calls "sounds and whispers. These two new tracks [entitled 'Subtle and Closer'] offer five minutes of harmony, tenderness, and a complete absence of vanity... There's nothing to be explained here. It's purely a matter of listening."
There's nothing to be explained here. It's purely a matter of listening (Endless Melancholy)
Sakevych is keen elsewhere to use etymology in order to explain the raison d'être of his "subtle" craft. Drawing upon the original Greek roots of "melancholy," he teases some half-forgotten nuances of "sadness, darkness, and anger" from his moniker. Turning then to the subsequent ways in which melancholy has been viewed since the early Twentieth Century, he associates the understated audiovisual imagery of Endless Melancholy's discography with some "dark lunacy" of which fin-de-siècle scientists once spoke in Moscow.
Needless to say, the same issue of sadness very often emerges in interviews with Sakevych, even when Russian and Ukrainian journalists claim to unearth elements of "optimism" or "radiance," perhaps, within his catalog. The musician responds: "I'm naturally a melancholy guy! I'm constantly deep in some nostalgic state." Freedom here comes not from recognizing the past, but from residing in it. As opposed to the "escapist" stylings of Lena Kudrina in which personal liberty follows constraint, Endless Melancholy imagines free movement to be in the past, rather than in/towards the future. Retrospection is the right choice.
Of particular interest, amid these maritime metaphors of free passage, is a brand-new visual reference point. "Like Ships without Anchors" employs a nineteenth-century image by the Swedish artist Simeon Marcus Larson (d. 1864). His canvases evince a remarkable, enduring interest not only in boats, ships, and barges––but also in the contrary forces of nature. Whatever man could invent in terms of sails or steam to propel a vessel forward, nature would counter with often fatal results. As the Endless Melancholy artwork below shows, Larson's painting suggests impending doom, but is titled with peculiar dryness as "Steamship in a Sunset." These, perhaps, are typical tensions of calm and chaos.
"Steamship in a Sunset" is usually dated––somewhat vaguely––as the 1850s, when Slavic artists like Ivan Aivazovsky were operating in a related visual mode. That decade began well for Larson, as his earnings increased greatly. By the end of the 1850s, however, his career was in ruins: a new and expensive house had burned down; the artist contracted TB; and his bold style fell rapidly out of fashion. He died penniless not long afterwards.
According to these metaphors, images, and biographical context(s), the future looks dark to Oleksii Sakevych.; a sunset implies some predestined fall or demise, rather than dawn's salvation. For Endless Melancholy, the past appears both brighter and happier.
The transferral of optimism to "somewhere else or some other time" lies at the very heart of Isea-N, a moniker that plays upon the surname of Moscow's Ivan Isyanov. He has just released a debut album––"World"––on the capital's Mudra Music, whose catalog we recently showcased. The founding members of Mudra pepper their networking accounts with lots of phrases and proverbs advocating the importance of silence or solitude. The writings of popular American anthropologist Carlos Castaneda are also invoked, specifically on the issue of solitude's "profundity," versus the "comfort and convenience" of noisy human existence. Wisdom benefits from walking away; genuine insight comes from only a process of negation. Excess baggage needs to be jettisoned.
Modern society should take much better care of our planet (Trimurti Festival)
That flight from normality for Isea-N actually takes us considerably further than any exoticism associated with "world music" in commercial settings. The staff at Mudra define the "World" album as a heady combination of "ethnotronic, psytribal and new age" styles. The result is then designed to "reflect upon the relationship between man and nature––between love and life." Both nature and life do much to hinder the attempted liberties of wo/man and love––hence we return to the relevance of Lena Kudrina's musings above.
Isyanov himself began considering these relationships in 2014 and even now they bear a very private stamp. Both his stage name and chosen artwork (below) give voice to a maritime theme, perhaps because Isyanov is originally from the Pacific port of Vladivostok. Looking out to sea (as Endless Melancholy) and looking up to the stars become synonymous for Isea-N. Both are associated with a lost purity of "harmonic" relationships, one now sullied by modern life.
It seems fitting, therefore, that Ivan Isyanov has performed at Russia's Trimurti Festival, which takes place in a medieval setting and is dedicated to idyllic interpretations of the environment––prior to any industrial intrusion. "Trimurti is a place where anyone [in 2016] can transgress the limits of mundane thought. Visitors may both free and express themselves by creating––and living––within nature, whilst taking care of those same surroundings. Modern society should take much better care of our planet." The future looks worse than the present.
Isyanov is involved in the "Doctor Clown" movement that uses "games, magic tricks––and clowning around!––in order to heal children with art. It goes without saying that these circus skills will never replace operations or chemotherapy. But it has nonetheless been proven that the [theatrical] tools we offer both bolster the effect of medicine and lessen a child's pain or suffering. Some very young patients who previously refused food will start to eat [after having fun with us]; others will finally agree to complex forms of medical care. It's extremely difficult for a young child to accept that any doctors carrying needles, scalpels, and tubes might actually want to help him."
Can she, however, also leap into the arms of love? (Jean and Beatrice)
The thespian career of Ivan Isyanov travels further still, from hospital wards into serious academic drama. Isyanov has, by way of quick illustration, performed in a French-Canadian play by Carole Frechette, "Jean and Beatrice." Russian journalists discern in that one-act production "the difficult path connecting one person to another. Frechette's text concerns the fear of falling in love."
Beyond the limits of convention (outlined by Lena Kudrina) lies the risky expression of private desire, viewed as a bottomless ocean (by Endless Melancholy) or some distant, ecologically purer planet (by Isea-N). A leap of faith lies at the very center of "Jean and Beatrice," too. "This is the story of a lonely young woman, perched thirty-three floors up from the street. She is ready to throw herself downwards in desperation... Can she, however, also leap into the arms of love?"
These considerations of a distant, lessening faith or some wish-fulfillment are equally important to the Smolensk collective known as Kawri's Whisper––and now based in Saint Petersburg. Before we go any further, that complex stage-name needs to be unpacked. The word "kawri" refers to a kind of Australasian tree (spelled "kauri"), large sea snails (spelled "cowry"), and a few unrelated locations around the globe. "Therefore," say band members, "it's not very easy to define the primary meaning of 'whisper' in our name, either. If we're talking about the cowry sea shells, then 'whisper' in that instance means the [gentle, tidal] noise you hear whenever the shell is pressed to your ear... In essence, 'Kawri's Whisper' encompasses an endless series of meanings. We wanted our stage-name to be abstract––and therefore give listeners the chance to define its significance on their own. Everybody gives it a different concrete and private meaning."
The musicians continue: "We apply the same principle to our creative work. We don't like tags or labels––and avoid them whenever we're composing. Everybody is capable of interpreting our music privately––together with our stage-name, the title of every Kawri's Whisper track, and so forth."
On one of the band's networking profiles, there's a telling quote in Russian––a translated and famous quote from Henry Ford, regarding the Model T car: "Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants... so long as it is black." The imposition of industrial norms upon private desire sounds laughable today, although countless related strictures are still in place, of course. We therefore find some additional––and more local––lines from Khrushchev's equally pushy campaign to impose corn/maize upon Soviet consumers in the early 1960s and perhaps replace "meat, lard, oil, butter... and milk."
Everybody lies (House M.D.)
The mockery of institutionalized desire by Kawri's Whisper continues. Next comes a Russian joke that's almost a verbatim translation of two famous lines from "Forrest Gump": "Have you found Jesus yet, Gump?"––"I didn’t know I was supposed to be looking for him, sir."
Summarizing all these expressions of private doubt are two words spoken by Hugh Laurie's curmudgeonly character in "House M.D."––"Everybody lies." Truth lies beyond the rules of language. It resides beyond socially comprehended or accepted norms. It is, in the simplest possible terms, not here.
A handful of concluding words from Romanian philosopher Emil Cioran do little to bring relief: "Everything in the world is misplaced... starting with the world itself." A Kawri's Whisper's colleague explains that self-deprecating tone on another networking profile: "It's hard to add anything new today in the footsteps of [yesterday's] classics... [So] I've long since given up trying to predict the future. It would seem as if everything has turned out as it should."
And so––in these four Russian and Ukrainian outfits––we discover optimism for a hard-won future, varying degrees of retrospection and nostalgia, plus a quiet acquiescence to the status quo. For Lena Kudrina, Endless Melancholy, Isea-N, and Kawri's Whisper, the passage of time is a major theme, be it private or public. There is, however, no consensus––and so music "makes life meaningful." It at least dignifies time with a series of orderly, purposeful patterns––even if their ultimate goal remains (very) open to protracted debate.
The process of moving brings more pleasure than the prospect of any arrival. To paraphrase the tagline of Hal Ashby's 1979 feature, "Being There": Getting there is all the fun––being there is none of it.