A quick overview of instrumental music in Anglo pop culture shows that its heyday as a marketable format on 45s was arguably in the 1960s and '70s. The subsequent evolution of electronica and club culture led to longer instrumental forms that were unsuitable for radio. In Russia, too (if we exclude various TV themes), short instrumental works are rare on the airwaves. Equally small in number are the major artists in Russia who will commit an entire album to a wordless project - and expect it to garner serious, profitable interest among members of the general public.
Perhaps the two best-known examples of this risky approach would be from the discographies of composer Igor' Krutoi (himself not blessed with a voice of any note) and long-lived heartthrob Dima Malikov. The latter, shown below, has in fact has produced three such albums, to some degree because he can - quite literally - afford the risk.
Both Krutoi's and Malikov's CDs in this vein are similar in that they, too, have operated as a kind of soundtrack or theme tune, albeit for the lives of their listeners. These albums were constantly marketed from the late '90s onwards as expressions of moneyed, elegant Moscow; the accompanying videos did little to change this impression. Everything shone brightly and was orchestrated by unhurried harmonies. For distant provincial listeners, these albums must have sounded heavenly - and yet the object of their attention was utterly unattainable.
Nowadays, however, with the very status of music as something marketable up for debate, experimentation is - ironically - much easier. Three artists and collectives have just released some instrumental recordings (as free downloads) that differ in purpose, but are unified in the fact they're not designed for the dancefloor. Nor, come to that, are they striving in the direction of challenging, atonal experimentation. All three operate with relative degrees of politeness on the edge of a primetime aesthetic, offering electroacoustic tunes that could - quite conceivably! - find admirers on high streets and in shopping centers... yet they refuse to succumb wholly to such temptation.
If we order these projects in terms of increasing formlessness, then first up is Moscow's Andrey Nailer (above), known to us already as the man behind the keyboards in Readmylife. Hovering above those same ivories is a clear and lasting influence: the band members make no secret of their admiration for England's Keane, and in fact they even produced a cover of "Everything's Changing" for their most recent EP, "Blossom." Nailer has published this week a five-track instrumental EP of his own, "Venta," on which both the timbre and chord progressions sound on occasion like a direct tribute to Tim Rice-Oxley.
These are remarkably simple and attractive melodies, marked by an overriding melancholy. They look straight in the eye of an easy-listening modus operandi without flinching; they're not afraid to dally with elements of MOR, yet are decorated with a few percussive bells and whistles that suggest a more knowing composer. Take, for example, the track "Closer" (above). The opening crackle of a run-on groove and the constant click of a reverse loop to mark time are two little gestures that suggest this apparent effortlessness actually took some hard work. The growing layers of toy-shop pecussion sound especially finicky...
Particularly appealing is the title track, which has been used to score a brief section from a famous South Korean animated love story, "Wanee and Junah." It's heartbreakingly sentimental and - dare we say it - precisely the kind of tune that Malikov himself could have written. Watch the video at your risk: copious amounts of Kleenex made be needed.
Nailer tags these gentle compositions as "ambient, contemporary classical, and electronic," which - once again - allows him to stay one step away from any accusations of banality. His list of influences works to the same end, namechecking Prokofiev, David Sylvian, and Coldplay among others. Intellectual references stand side by side with music found in most supermarkets.
And so to the second band, on our brief journey from polished structures to deliberate fractures. Also laying claim to the label of ambient is the intriguingly named Tree, Bosier ("Derevo, Boz'e") from Khabarovsk, a city within walking distance of the Chinese border. They, too, throw a telling handful of names into the ring: the Cocteau Twins, Prefuse 73, and Telefon Tel Aviv. If Nailer's tunes are suited to more maudlin members of society, Tree, Boise declare themselves "a band for people who like sleeping beneath the magic polyphony of ambient compositions." Sleeping replaces weeping.
This Eastern threesome - Pavel Parakhonich, Maksim Anan'ev, and Aleksei Rusinov - work, whenever possible, in an improvised fashion and are not big fans of fussy, time-consuming producers: "Much of our music comes into being at the moment when it's performed live - and we're not afraid of that, either!" This is one good reason why their work differs from that of Nailer: he is very much a man of the studio environment; Tree, Bosier are much more at home on stage... where the degree of control is markedly less.
Much of our music comes into being at the moment when it's performed live - and we're not afraid of that, either!
The twiddling accelerates and hair falls out of place.
Similar spontaneity is encouraged is the crowd. "We're glad that the people who come to our gigs enter willingly into a special atmosphere. It's the kind of mood where you don't want to chatter, jump around, or shout things out." The sounds use to encourage peace and quiet - a nice counterpoint to Nailer's melancholy - sound on occasion a little like Lemon Jelly, especially in the percussion department, yet here British irony is swapped for some respectful nods during funkier moments in the direction, say, of Herbie Hancock.
These all, however, remain hushed and unobtrusive. As one recent snapshot of the ensemble in the Russian press noted, this is - again - music designed for slumber or a mood that's "peaceful, quiet, calming, thoughtful, and [on occasion, even completely] silent."
So as not to wake the animals.
Our third - and most disorderly - release comes from the amazingly productive Evgenii Kharitonov, aka Eughene Kha, who heads Moscow's Microbit Project. One of his many endeavors involves Togliatti's Mikhail Lezin; together they refer to themselves as Yoko Absorbing. The duo's list of suggested tags is even longer: "Sound art, abstract music, concrete, prog-jazz, prog-rock, noise, ambient, electro acoustic, audio collage etc." This may seem silly, but the new album from Yoko Absorbing - "Vinyl" - is all over the shop. In essence it's built upon three jazz-funk tracks, which - again a la Hancock - appear at the album's opening, mid-section, and close, but all the other instrumentals dabble in a huge range of musical areas: glitch, ironic drone, clanking, acoustic strumming... Most are short and would no doubt have been dropped from an old-school, commercial release. Given the free and digital format of this album, however, experimentation is not only possible but actively encouraged. Things "intriguing" are allowed to take the place of those "marketable."
Sound art, abstract music, concrete, prog-jazz, prog-rock, noise, ambient, electro acoustic, audio collage etc.
Kharitonov himself admits that "Vinyl" is stylistically schizophrenic. "This is a really strange album. Probably the strangest one we've put out and the most 'dadaist,' too... At the basis of the band's work is an absolute insistence upon spontaneous composition... Over and above the studio instrumentals, there are lots of snippets from rehearsal-tapes by rock bands we used to be in. Those come from the '80s and '90s. On top of all that, there are even sounds taken from old LPs, too. It's an album full of nostalgia, and that's where the title comes from. It's hard to define the overall style. It's a 47-minute collage of movie soundtracks, free-jazz, concrete music, decorated with elements of minimalist post-punk. Summing it all up, it's all in the real Dadaist spirit I mentioned. A kind of organized eclecticism."
Dadaism arose as a response to the "benefits" of logical, Western culture before WWI. The sense of pleasantly illogical behavior offered by our three new Russian works is nothing like the willful epatage of that original movement - and heaven knows how far it is from the nation's most famous instrumentals, mentioned above and fashioned ten years ago in better economic climes. The new "movie soundtracks" that Kharitonov refers to are designed for personal downloading, not public performance. So what kind of respite do they offer from the outside world? What better narrative or personal story do they score? Nailer, "Tree, Bosier," and Yoko Absorbing work hand in hand to accompany desirable thoughts of sentimental retrospection to one's childhood - and slumber.
Nailer's cover art shows a boy pondering adult effort at a distance - with no apparent desire to join in; Kharitonov's profoundly Russian cover displays a homeless cat doing absolutely nothing on a ramshackle dacha fence. Both evoke silence, simplicity, and solitude. All three of these instrumentals look lovingly at that state of peace and quiet, because it's currently in short supply.
Which leaves us with the conclusion that these new albums are designed as IPod soundtracks for slow, quiet walks in no particular direction, just before bed. Better still, take an umbrella when it's not raining.
Dadaism for beginners.