The following quotation comes from an online, English-language interview recently conducted with a well-respected Baltic performer. Its modest tone grows once some professional achievements are listed; hard work overshadows chutzpah. "I'm a guitarist and composer from Estonia. I have eight members in my band. It's quite a fresh project, something that was formed only in 2011. Those same members come from different groups of mine (I have four different bands). We play a range of different styles, all the way from acoustic guitar works to jazz, rock, progressive, and pop. I like to explore a lot of different styles in popular music. And that's why I have four bands!
Ensembles built with a great appreciation for minimalism
This combination of self-effacement and elbow grease comes from multi-instrumentalist Argo Vals, who is originally from the small Ahja parish in southern Estonia. A graduate of the local arts academy, Vals now enjoys support from many Estonian music critics - not only as a solo artist, but also in his related ensembles of Animal Drama and the Viljandi Guitar Trio.
His last publication discussed on FFM was entitled "Tsihcier." It was inspired by some private listening habits; in other words it reflected the penchant of Vals for the work of Steve Reich. Even more specifically, the repeated key motifs of "Tsihcier" were a tribute to Reich's famous use of loops. As Reich himself once stated: "I discovered that the most interesting music of all was made by simply lining [up] the loops in unison, and letting them slowly shift out of phase with one another." That statement seems relatively close to Vals' own desire to design "ensemble creations - built with the great appreciation I have for minimalism."
This same passage from simplicity to growing ornateness has been especially important in more recent audio and video. Put differently, the newly-minted Argo Vals Band has just published some live tracks that were committed to tape in a most prestigious Estonian location. The musicians were invited to play during the "Areaal Live" sessions on national radio.
The state channel hosting the concerts was Klassikaraadio, which - as that name suggests - is dedicated to more imposing registers. Vals' presence was striking not only because of the generic jump from classical music to baroque instrumental pop or prog; eighty percent of Klassikaraadio's playlists are also composed of non-Estonian works. In short, there are several reasons why Mr. Vals would not be invited here. Nonetheless, by broadcasting around the clock - both on and offline - Klassikaraadio has managed to find itself an audience far from home... and far from convention, too. Those same outreach efforts are noted by the station with a dry sense of humor. Requests can apparently can be submitted by any means except "bottle post." Messages in floating jam jars are unlikely to reach their target on time.
Music is comprehensible and close to us all, in one way or another
And so, with a willingness to straddle both stylistic limits and scheduling boundaries, Klassikaraadio came together with the Argo Vals Band in the name of a most romantic goal. "We may indeed speak different tongues, but music is one of the most universal languages – it's comprehensible and close to us all, in one way or another."
Prestige is thus sought and found far from any comfort zone, so to speak. At which point, we move to some simultaneous Russian news.
Moscow's Tinavie have just published a third album - "Kometa" through Electronica - and have therefore been facing a range of local publications for interviews, promotional slots, and so forth. Some of those periodicals are more welcoming than others. Founding band member Dima Zilpert admitted he was "surprised at the fairly friendly tone" of one major magazine - but why would that be? It soon transpires that amid today's modish champions of lo-fi discord in the capital, Tinavie worry sometimes that their music might be "almost too pleasant and excessively attractive! Too harmonious, even."
Moscow's Tinavie, with Dima Zilpert (L) and Valentina Manysheva
In one of those more confrontational chats, Tinavie faced some prickly questions regarding their (long-standing) decision to sing in English. Again Zilpert had some thoughts on the issue: "It's nice to see from our stats on Facebook and Last.FM that 30% of our audience is made of English speakers, worldwide. And yet we handle our social networking in Russian. We don't see the English language as a ticket to move 'over there.'" He was keen to steer the conversation into more welcoming waters.
We're not trying to be 'pleasant' - we're striving for beauty. And what's wrong with that?
To their own amusement, the members of Tinavie sometimes find themselves celebrating precisely the "kindly" or hard-won goals for which the Moscow press apparently shuns them: harmony, professionalism, and so forth. In other words, whenever the issue of language arises and discord looks likely, the best way to avoid patriotic or partisan squabbles is to stress ineffable themes, instead. That which has no name also belongs to nobody.
Singer Valentina Manysheva said to Colta: "The most important thing of all is feeling... I mean that I have to feel something when I'm performing. There's plenty of music around [nowadays] from which I get absolutely nothing." Zilpert then advances the same idea: "I'd even say it's a matter of magic. A song should become a kind of journey, as if you're immersed in a fantasy world, a place built with sounds." Universal harmony is proffered instead of grumpiness.
Manysheva admits with a smile that matters have, once again, returned to the Hallmark territory of "beauty, love... yes, I know." Her colleague, however, continues his enthused tone, to the point where he implicitly compares hip, condescending journalism to curmudgeonly support for that which is unattractive. "It's a matter of beauty, not just attractiveness. We're not trying to be 'pleasant'; we're striving for beauty. And what's wrong with that? I genuinely don't understand why so many musicians move in the opposite direction."
Tinavie live: Zilpert, Manysheva, and Dima Losev (R)
We only have to look back at another Tinavie interview several weeks ago to see Valentina Manysheva's endorsement of this romantic maximalism. "Personally I've been inspired recently by thoughts of outer space. I mean the [endless] human fantasy that we live on one of many planets - in other words, the idea we're only a tiny part of something huge, something inconceivable. Our new album ['Kometa'] will be rich in those themes. It'll be full of various fantastic, even 'cosmic' states of mind!"
What's lacking in Russian mainstream music today are kindly, yet crazy songs (NV)
In other words, the best reactions to institutionalized chilliness are dizzyingly(!) high standards and hard work - as Argo Vals proves vis a vis Klassikaraadio. Bearing all this in mind, it's also worth considering a brand-new Moscow project called NV, which - in simple terms - consists of Katia Shilonosova, a young woman who plays in Glintshake. That latter outfit likes to invoke the models of Smashing Pumpkins and Sonic Youth, so noise is to be expected from the outset. We also find an outlook akin to that of Tinavie.
Aware of the music industry's unwillingness to seek new talent in Russia, Glintshake have often responded with dismissiveness. Big problems are rejected from the outset. "You could probably describe our songs as pointless. We sing in English." Why, precisely? "Well, people don't understand half the words, anyway. Our music has more to do with atmosphere than with any consequential train of thought." Both performance and coherent lyrics are equally devoid of purpose.
Shilonosova, talking to Afisha, said that these new tracks from NV were designed to capture the equally pointless or "silly" nature of old-school Japanese pop culture. "And yet that's precisely what's lacking into Russian mainstream music today: kindly, yet crazy songs."
This same artiste is involved in fashion design, and one clothing-related conversation in the Russian press led her to the parallel admission that: "I just want to write great, sincere music. If you actually feel what you're doing - and believe in it - then other people will like it, too." Valentina Manysheva would no doubt concur.
This happy-go-lucky attitude to obstructionism hit a small road-bump a few days ago, when Shilonosova was informed that another group already exists under the name of NV, in Los Angeles. A confident PR text was dredged up from the web, speaking of a Californian band that is "perfecting its own energetic pop stylings around threads of jazz, country, and R&B." Institutional hassles threatened, not to mention some angry mail from LA. Her response? "Looks like I'll have to change the name, but - to be honest - I couldn't give a damn at the moment."
The less one cares, the more gets done.
Work like there’s no tomorrow. Train! Strive!
The same stance is nicely captured by a brand-new project from Samara, called Little Magic Shop. In essence, the ensemble is a threesome: Misha Shimarov (also of Cheese People), Sasha Baidachnaia, and Karina Grigor'eva. Together they have a debut EP to show, called "Planet after Light Preasure" (i.e., a combination of pressure and pleasure, we're told...). In more specific terms, Sasha Baidachnaia likes to use a quotation taken - in Russian - from Michael Jackson as her philosophical guide.
The original reads thus - and again we see faith in diligence as a means to overcome multiple obstacles: "In the end, the most important thing is to be true to yourself - and those you love - and work hard. Work like there’s no tomorrow. Train! Strive! Really train and cultivate your talent to the highest degree. Be the best at what you do. Get to know more about your field than anybody alive. Use the tools of your trade, if it’s books or a floor to dance on... or a body of water to swim in. Whatever it is, it’s yours. That’s what I’ve always tried to remember.”
To what should this hard work be applied? Little Magic Shop offer us a snapshot of their ideal setting, far from conflict and condescension. "These are the sounds of a music box: the fragile resonance of antique crystal, the murmur of grass or the rustle of paper planes as they take flight. It's music made from thousands of sounds. Brought together, everything becomes as bright as the world... a world of possibilities." Potentials open up in realms free of malice.
Songs as bright as the world... a world of possibilities
"You can wake up in the jungle and stage a dance revolution - while still in your pajamas! Or - if you stay perfectly still - you can hear the melody of rain as it drips and drops across the leaves. Our songs are whispered in creaky attics and then retold by sunbeams. We can gather an entire army of restless noises in a single song - and then give another song to the wind, so it plays with pebbles along a garden path."
This youthful whimsy is eventually turned into a miniature manifesto. "We describe the world precisely as we see it. It's huge and amazingly varied, too. It's all visible, in fact, if you just open your eyes a little wider. Everything's audible... if you try to hear a little more." These new publications from Argo Vals, Tinavie, NV, and Little Magic Shop all face institutionalized obstacles: the academy, journalistic disapproval, issues of copyright, and "adult" cynicism.
The answers to such barriers, we're told, are remarkably simple: what's needed are hard work, faith, and wide-eyed wonder. Nothing more and nothing less.
Little Magic Shop: Karina Grigor'eva (L) and Sasha Baidachnaia