One of the recent Tallinn Music Weeks was attended by a journalist from the UK magazine Mojo. He placed the Baltic sounds on offer within a specific historical context. "Estonia's capital Tallinn is strategically located. On the south of the Gulf of Finland, the Baltic Sea's eastern arm, it's a two-hour ferry trip from Helsinki. East of the two capitals, where the gulf terminates, is St Petersburg, Russia's former imperial capital. Stockholm is due west. Tallinn has been a trading centre since the beginning of the second millennium. Now, in the early third, Estonia is trying a new type of export: music."
Local folk music, taken closer to the psychedelic
One of the artists celebrated in the same material was a young violinist, Maarja Nuut. Her penchant for an equally antique and culturally "strategic" aesthetic led the Mojo writer to draw parallels between a venerable heritage and modern forms of estrangement. Put differently, the sounds of past centuries seemed more peculiar to him than anything offered by modernist innovation. "Maarja Nuut is a striking solo violinist rooted in local folk, but taking it [that tradition] closer to the psychedelic... Drones are present; she [often] uses [tape] looping." The result was described as "transfixing,"
For all that wistful hyperbole, there's nonetheless an element of truth at work. Nuut describes herself as a fiddler and singer from Northern Estonia who is "fascinated by the tunes of old village musicians - as well as Indian ragas and the giddy, yet ultimately controlled patterns of folk dance." A third-person manifesto continues: "In her music Maarja leans strongly on tradition, and in those old tunes seeks a bridge that can bring them into the present day - thus allowing them to commune with us in the here and now."
Her closing verb will prove to be significant.
Maarja Nuut at Sweden's "Umefolk" festival
Rather than turn to the past in search of some conservative security, Nuut instead promises audiences "a sensory journey through time and space." Prior times offer a range of different, disorienting trajectories. They become the start of reconsidered alternatives. In structural terms, the looping patterns of drone or folkloric crafts are tied by this artiste to the natural symbolism of ragas: traditional forms of repetition, just like the seasons, become a guarantor of variegation, not sameness.
In the romantic words of another English-language journalist, this Baltic folk music offers us the "feeling of being sung and played to in a quiet wooden house among the wide skies, marshes, silver-birch and dark pine forests of the Estonian countryside. As on a walk in a favorite special place, so each time round brings a new perception.”
Each time round [a cyclical structure] brings a new perception
A related form of escapism through retrospection (or private revolution through reconsideration) has always informed the glo-fi styles of Valotihkuu, otherwise known as Denis Davydov. This solo performer lives in the industrial city of Cherepovets on the banks of the Sheksna River. With a prior release this season, Davydov stepped beyond the historical framework of the 1980s that had provided him - thus far - with the VHS and C60 tools needed to foster a Dolby-tinged fuzziness.
Put differently, a Valotihkuu album appeared online with the title of "Palermo High Places." It came together with some hand-colored, fin de siecle artwork of that location designed to blur any line between reverie, repose, dreamy vacations, and psychedelia. A longing gaze was cast both backwards and far away. A physical location led to an ethereal yearning - directed beyond the city limits and the status quo. Those same sounds were called "hypnagogic, hedonistic, and rhythmic electronica" by the Russian press.
By pondering the past, they spoke of future desires.
Now Palermo has become an even more exotic location. The newest Valotihkuu single - "Medusa Bay" - is based on a couple of reconsidered tunes from the 1990s Sega computer game, "Ecco the Dolphin." In essence, the game's core storyline once concerned the efforts of a magical dolphin to fight extraterrestrial forces, both in the ocean and in space... These efforts also involved significant time travel, as Ecco goes 55 million years(!) into the past, in order to find the original sources of both an alien threat and repeated ecological disaster. In the famous words of one concerned dolphin within the game, "Something terrible has happened, something very powerful."
Something terrible has happened...
Travel to an imagined past will offer new ways to reconstitute the present. The fact that such games appeared during Valotihkuu's childhood only strengthens the significance of these fantastic, futural metaphors. The distant past - as with Maarja Nuut - is not a hiding place, but instead a locus of corrective, kinder alternatives. Ecological symbols, pondered in the past, offer the possibility of a superior social membership.
These patterns are extended even further by the Tunguska Electronic Music Society (aka "Tunguska EMS"). Once more, ecology, aesthetics, and ancient events are productively interwoven. Any discussions of this organization, however, should begin with its peculiar name.
One hundred and five years ago, on the morning of June 30, 1908, a massive explosion sounded in the sky above the Tunguska river in central Siberia. To this day the exact cause of the blast is unknown, but the general assumption - after decades of research - is that a meteoroid plowed into the earth's atmosphere, creating gigantic shockwaves as it fell apart maybe five miles from the ground. Over eight hundred square miles were decimated, once covered by dense forest. More than a thousand times more powerful than the Hiroshima nuclear bomb of WWII, the blast threw approximately eighty million trees to the floor.
Preparation for an Aquascape performance in natural surroundings
The Tunguska incident and its symbolic resonance would produce a musical collaboration, born just before the explosion's one hundredth anniversary - in other words in April, 2007. Its Moscow members declare nowadays that they came together in order to "draw public attention to such an event." Music would be used to make sense of nature - and vice versa. In fact it's interesting to note how the explosion is referred to alternatively in English and Russian by Tunguska EMS as an "event" and/or "a catastrophe." That wavering definition reflects the ongoing uncertainty - despite scientific evidence - as to what caused things to happen; theories of alien involvement are loud and insistent, even today.
No doubt Ecco would have been interested.
The primary motivation for our creativity is creation itself (Tunguska EMS)
People in distant villages who were blown from their feet (but nonetheless survived) ran to their churches in order to ask if Armageddon had begun; once it became clear this wasn't so, surely the most appropriate music would have been some chillout compositions... On a more serious note, such styles help to consider a realm of relaxing, long-lost harmonies amid modern forms of discord. And that's what today's Tunguska project offers us: "melodious instrumental and electronic music." The Tunguska project has even produced a manifesto to shape its future activities, founded upon the basic principles of "free people writing free music... for free people." Liberty is best expressed through natural, ecological networks.
Two recent and representative chillout projects operating closely with the Tunguska EMS have been Moscow's Aquascape and Aleksey Chistilin from Rostov-on-Don. The former outfit, as with Valotihkuu, sees more hope at sea than on land. Metaphors of movement operate with greater freedom away from terra firma.
A troubled harvest. V/A: "Tunguska Chillout Grooves, X" (2013)
Aquascape are, in fact, a substantial ensemble: Andrei Kostomarov (keyboards), Anton Salikov (guitar), Sergei Kiselev (bass), Liya Izvol'skaya (drums), Anastasiya Migova, Maria Karimova, and Alina Plotnikova (vocals). With their overarching commitment to psy-chill, ambient, and chillout registers, these musicians have been working together since 2004. What's especially surprising is that the founding members moved towards a downtempo escapism after several years in black- and death metal bands. Tales of destruction were replaced with those of natural networks.
"Friends within the band eventually realized their stylistic boundaries had become rather narrow and so they directed their energies in a new way. They opted for the broader realm of 'intellectual electronic music.'" Studio work was slowly interwoven with gallery sound designs, all in the name of building three-dimensional spheres to challenge paltry actuality.
I believe in the power of laughter and tears as an antidote to hatred and terror (Charles Chaplin)
These intentions, being part and parcel of the Tunguska worldview, are repeated in the quiet catalog of Aleksey Chistilin. His own instrumentals are designed to aid "relaxation with an easy-going sounds. The result is a combination of both energy and expressiveness." It is strange to find claims to "energy" in chillout of MOR works, but Chistilin is clearly ascribing to the Tunguska philosophy of social or temporal "retreat" in terms of realizing new, futural potentials.
Another way to express that relationship between repetition and renewal, retrospection and progress, is through an aphorism from Charles Chaplin, much admired by our Russian composer. Chistilin quotes Chaplin's conviction that: “I believe in the power of laughter and tears as an antidote to hatred and terror.” Acquiescence - in this case to sentiment - fosters the likelihood of other, superior options for the future. Parallels thus emerge with the viewpoints of both Maarja Nuut and Valotihkuu: a humbling, if not humiliating recognition of nature's superior harmonies will both subvert arrogant solitude in the present and allow for a better, more social alternative - hopefully soon.