Leonid Fedorov & Vladimir Volkov: A Musical "Hunger for Space"

Some of the finest Russian music in the last few years has come from collaborations between Leonid Fedorov, Vladimir Volkov, and their overseas colleagues offering additional sounds, such as keyboards from NY – John Medeski - or guitars from New Jersey, thanks to Marc Ribot. Three weeks ago, these same four men published another joint effort, going by the title of "Razinrimilev." Breaking down the individual components of that term - and then translating them - we end up with "Razin Rome and Lion."

Behind an apparently nonsensical noun lie several themes of direct and dramatic significance. "Razin" refers to the seventeenth-century Cossack rebel, Sten'ka Razin, who rose up against the Russian nobility and Czar in a bloody rebellion, which would end, rather unsuccessfully, with the public execution of Razin himself in 1671. The story of this uprising and its leader is here interpreted through the poetry of Velimir Khlebnikov (d. 1922), an intense and patently unstable individual who penned the text of "Razinrimilev."

Inspired both by the ancient roots of the Russian language and various visions of the future, Khlebnikov was partially responsible for the creation of a "trans-rational" form of communication, based upon countless neologisms and known as zaum.

Zaum was a language allegedly close to the speech of gods and/or birds; Khlebnikov was clearly not a soul designed for earthbound existence, especially in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution. He expired in his mid-30s from various chronic issues that afflicted his modest frame; Khlebnikov, to be more precise, passed away in a small settlement mid-way between Moscow and St Petersburg. Investigating expressive potentials in between sense and nonsense, he expired in the equally "pointless" provinces that serve only to clarify the whereabouts of towns.

Put differently, Khlebnikov, as the embodiment of various linguistic and locational "transitions" - perhaps fittingly - ended his life nowhere in particular, a slave to what he called an unending "hunger for space."

Fedorov finds great appeal in Khlebnikov's work for precisely these "synthetic" reasons. The poet is lauded by our musicians en masse for "a constant striving towards [issues of] universal harmony, indivisible humanity, and a union with nature. Khlebnikov considered that 'poems are the same as a journey. A poet should be somewhere that nobody has ever visited.' Having lived through complex, cruel times - and dying so young - Khlebnikov was a huge influence on various literary developments in the field of rhythm, etymology, and even soothsaying. All of these truths [believed the poet] were attainable through verse."

Although the music in this post, designed to celebrate Razin's cultural status, is a profoundly Russian project, the CD was recorded in New York for a reason documented in the PR materials. "This new album marks a new step by our Russian duo towards a synthesis of three tendencies: it aims to interweave both Russian and Western strains of avant-garde pop music with traditions of the Russian literary underground."


The recording was made over a two-week period, when Fedorov was in the United States for a festival. The basic difference between this project and the structurally similar "Devushki poiut" CD of 2007 is that, in Fedorov's own words, "Ribot and Medeski played more this time around. They contributed more from a creative standpoint." Volkov was supposed to have been present at these initial sessions, but for some reason, he was refused a visa. Fedorov therefore faced some linguistic problems: "I had to explain everything on my own! Maybe you could say this CD turned out to be a more American affair as a result?"

Whatever the musical context and complexities of the work, "Razin" is a - from a lyrical point of view - so dense with palindromes that it is often spoken of as untranslatable. Addressing these matters, Fedorov remarked recently: "Friends will sometimes read Khlebnikov's poem and ask me, 'What is this?! We don't understand a word.' I tell them that reading won't actually help you understand it." The text, supposedly, has to be heard and, as a result, performed (in order that it become audible!)

"I decided not to work from a [textual,] palindromic standpoint, but instead from a series of theatrical settings, such as 'A Battle' or 'Funeral Feast.'" These same settings or imagined events form the titles of the five opening tracks included in this post. They are all vivified by what Fedorov calls the "enormous energy" of Khlebnikov's musical wordplay.

Fedorov also sees a number of parallels between the overall architecture of Khlebnikov's poetry and his own songwriting: "Internally it all sounds like an incantation, but it's absolutely classical in form, a fully-fledged narrative poem. It's not really avant-garde; it's all done according to a certain set of rules. He's not writing from to the kind of viewpoint where someone might say: 'I'm going to work this way, simply because I want to change things.'"

In other words, the most conservative, logical, and rule-bound description of the world will reveal its ambiguities and palindromic oddities. Order, given time, will lead to forms of upheaval.

Bearing in mind the need to make palatable, comprehensible music, though, how far should one travel down this road to the fullness of "total" disarray? In recent conversations, Fedorov has drawn attention to his conviction that musicians ought not only to consider the textual or musical limits of their craft, but also to realize the philosophical consequences of testing those limits. "When a writer invents some kind of story [like 'Razin'] today, that makes you a 'postmodernist' of sorts. If, though, you cannot get 'into' that text and/or theme, you're simply an imitator."

When a writer invents some kind of story [like 'Razin'] today, that makes you a 'postmodernist' of sorts

In working with the limits of "common" sense, a superior insight emerges - if one "enters into" the full significance of the material. One senses here a kind of moral obligation, almost, to follow Khlebnikov's movement towards anxiety and mental instability. Music should not console, so much as reveal.

And that brings us to the meaning of Khlebnikov's text in a closer, more specific setting. Although Razin was a rebel, a conman, and a threat to imperial stability, his chaotic acts represent a perverse blessing. There is, within his danger and disaster, a positive connotation. It comes from Razin's kinship with the later upstart, Emil'ian Pugachev (d. 1775), and therefore with the Empress Catherine. Khlebnikov sees the Empress - and her foreign origin - as somehow impure; only by rising up with illogical, irrational force do Razin and Pugachev embody the proper (rational?) status of Russia.

Their disarray and destruction, frequently likened to the amorphous force of the River Volga, is naturally creative: it helps to defend that which should be.

This same sense of creation in breakdown is patently clear within the ten songs and 48 minutes of the CD. Fedorov, as mentioned, decided to build the album around "events," i.e., places of activity. Not so much narrative progress, as venues of growing intensity. The further this album continues, the more that intensity grows. As listeners have long expected from our chosen musicians, this recording from Fedorov, Volkov et al., will build slowly to reach various peaks of acoustic (and trademark) frenzy.

Strings and woodwork are audibly strained and stressed in the hands of the musicians; virtuosity dances on the edge of collapse - as a result of which, creative progress is made.

This symbolism of creative rebellion as deconstructive, fluid movement is very powerful; it is eloquently embodied in the album's wonderful artwork. Although Razin's uprising is closely connected to a specific moment in Russian history, and a specific "foreign" threat, the two images shown at the top of this text come from a 6th-century BC cave near Lake Onega in northern Russia. The mobile, water-born symbols of subversion are very long-lived indeed. It's precisely these deeply embedded, locally vibrant images that help to make "Razinrimilev" such an important recording.

As the picture below shows, early Russian cinema was fascinated by Razin, too, making him one of its first visibly mobile anti-heroes. The subversive threats embodied by this Cossack marauder were all the more unsettling when discernibly rootless or nomadic. Anything could happen! Change, metamorphosis, and inconstancy were suddenly coming right out of the screen. Khlebnikov believed, especially later in life when obsessed with numerology, that such threats appear with strict regularity; historians needed only to crack the code(s) of their frequency. Once those secret numbers were known, all wars could be predicted - and therefore avoided.

The new CD from Leonid Fedorov, Vladimir Volkov, John Medeski and Marc Ribot displays this same relationship between order and "unavoidable" breakdown. By dramatizing what they see as a classical work of literature, composed according to strict formal properties, these musicians investigate the kinds of "predictable" chaos to which regularity, sooner or later, will lead. It's just a matter of time and patience; eventually disaster and despair will (re)appear with another turn of history's wheel, as Khlebnikov saw it. By appealing to metaphors of motion and fluid change, Fedorov, Volkov, and Khlebnikov are all keen to accelerate this process and experience its chaotic, "trans-rational" limits.

These same experiments, like the life of Khlebnikov, mean passing through "complex, cruel times - and dying prematurely." That eventual demise can happen linguistically, musically - or literally. It's brought about by an obsessively romantic view of life and the need, whatever the consequences, to realize a "hunger for [creative] space." If Khlebnikov is to be believed, the classical, quantifiable structures of (grand) narratives will always lead to collapse, yet that same breakdown offers - through its failure - a view of the "big picture." Truth, in other words, is discernible only through fiasco and ruin.

Three cheers, therefore, for the sound of breaking strings, creaking wood, and other audible abuse.


Leonid Fedorov – Funeral Feast
Leonid Fedorov – I Am Razin
Leonid Fedorov – Partition of Booty

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