The willful cultivation of anonymity by online musicians is nothing new; the internet does much to inhibit self-promotion, yet––with relative frequency––witty souls turn that problem into a deliberate stance. Rather than struggle against the likelihood of a "faceless" career, they instead cultivate it, refusing to publish any photos, texts, or contexts for their public. Now and again that same anonymity––deliberate or not––is still tied to somewhere specific. Faceless and "placeless" are not synonymous.
Take, for example, the electronic instrumentalist Paul Menska, about whom audiences learn only the following: "I am a sound producer from Ukraine. I write music in different styles, ranging from melodic ambient to experimental dance and electro rock." Such levels of imprecision make his personal statement almost useless. And yet that's how matters are supposed to be; consider Menska's featureless avatar (shown here on the right).
First there's physical travel––and then a mental equivalent (Paul Menska)
The role of geography unfolds in a different manner. Menska has just released a voiceless album through Moscow's Terminal Dream, a lo-fi and ambient outlet overseen by Pixelord. The label's minimalist site is topped with a poorly tinted photograph of two elderly––and evidently happy––gentleman. Those two individuals are Mikhail Lavrentyev (d. 1980) and Mstislav Keldysh (1978). Lavrentyev was a renowned Soviet expert in hydrodynamics, not to mention the art of controlled explosions. His student, Keldysh, would outpace his mentor and become a leading force within the Soviet Union's "space race." In a word, these two men together symbolize the foundation and/or romance of early space exploration in the USSR. They embody a rapid move upwards, from the Earth to the sky.
Not every Terminal Dream release is dedicated to space flight (by any means), but the label does operate along three parallel lines, no matter the performer in question: Soviet nostalgia, a tape aesthetic, and various nods in the direction of modern psychedelic chillout. Metaphors of flight predominate in multiple senses, yet all are cut from the same cloth: some shared reverie has come to an end. Political change, civic clamor, and prohibition all play their part. A faceless culture has taken root in a particular place.
A single geographic fact tying Terminal Dream to Paul Menska's individual situation is the fact he's from the small town of Shepetivka, in the Khmelnytskyi Oblast of Western Ukraine. Known more for its intersecting railway lines and passing trains than for anything permanent, Shepetivka was largely sidestepped by most of the Twentieth Century. Histories of the region are more likely to focus upon peasant revolts of the pre-Revolutionary past.
A prior idealism. The Nikolay Ostrovsky Museum in Shepetivka
And yet... Shepetivka was also the childhood of home of a genuine Soviet icon, the writer Nikolai Ostrovsky (d. 1936). As a schoolboy prior to the Revolution, Ostrovsky was involved in communist underground groups. He was then thrown headlong into the unforgiving battles of the Civil War, despite suffering the crippling effects of early-onset arthritis and typhus. Blindness would soon follow, but Ostrovsky was still desperate to commit his frontline experiences to the printed page––as dramatized autobiography. He died a young man, but would remain a legend across decades of Soviet culture, thanks largely to the inclusion of his prose in school curricula, coast to coast.
In the instances of both Shepetivka and Terminal Dream, therefore, a romantic past triumphs over an ailing present, whether one is talking about the Civil War (as literature) or the Space Race (as sound). Hence, it would seem, the artwork and dual raison d'être of "Travel Memoirs" by Paul Menska. In suitably faded tones, the LP cover consists only of a dogeared Polaroid, documenting not (physical) global travels, but some mental flight of fancy––upwards, towards a dowdy chandelier in a rundown mansion. Somebody lies on a bed, within the peeling walls of a prior generation, and stares lovingly upwards.
Then, at the very last minute, Menska offers his readership a couple of lines in English. "This album is divided into two sections. First there's physical travel and then a mental equivalent. They do, nonetheless, intertwine––as a kind of metamorphosis." Wherever the body fails, hope and dreams keep moving. Mental doggedness still outlasts physical experience in Shepetivka.
One must hurry to live (Nikolay Ostrovsky, 1934)
A related, fading aesthetic has always colored the output of Andrei Mitroshin, aka Milky Toad and originally from Omsk. The allure of somewhere far from tawdry, cynical enterprise persists in his lo-fi tape music––year after year. One biographical sketch, early in the story of Milky Toad, certainly suggested as much with its stunted phrasing and a lack of faith in the present day. "My name is Andrei Mitroshin. I now live in Moscow. I was born on December 8, 1987. I studied in the Computer Science Dept. of Omsk State University. I like making new acquaintances, just as I enjoy spending free time with friends. I like going to discos and listening to music..."
That wantonly silly tone masks a very busy schedule, since Mitroshin oversees the excellent and productive Dopefish Family organization, even after his move to Moscow. Then, to boot, he continues to participate in a range of musical offshoots and solo endeavors, many of which deliberately mask his identity. Mitroshin neither advertises himself with any particular effort, nor does he want any financial benefit from his adventures. He consistently refuses to sell his music for profit.
The Moscow magazine Afisha spoke to Mitroshin late last year, both about his Siberian Dopefish colleagues and other collectives in the capital. His documented opinions sound especially relevant after the release of a brand-new Milky Toad album this month, called "Youth Gone Wild." That title alone, with its mocking reference to an "outrageous" US soft porn franchise and its self-aggrandizing owner, sets the tone perfectly. The tracks are titled "Youth Gone Wild One" and so forth, with only the number changing. Mild shock becomes silly repetition––and all authorial presence is erased, just as a lo-fi Slavic tape aesthetic undercuts the gloss of Western magazines.
In the same way, the DIY artwork for these brief, self-deprecating instrumentals shows some low-grade graffiti and a young boy merely pretending to be outraged or upset. English glitz comes to Russia and looks laughably out of place. An anonymous street artist cannot even distinguish between upper- and lower-case text. Seriousness and self-importance are constantly undermined, to the point––as mentioned––where nothing matters in the present. Nothing has a home.
Music to be enjoyed with headphones––or in a forest (Milky Toad)
Afisha suggested that Mitroshin may manage as many as fifteen online projects (for free), but the very first was Milky Toad. His most recent memories of that Siberian beginning read as follows: "I always designed Milky Toad as dreamy electronica for audio cassettes. At the time I was still living in Omsk––and this was the first of my endeavors that attracted public attention... Nonetheless, there came a moment when I was [often] performing in clubs and bars, whereas I had only written music to be enjoyed through your headphones––or in a forest. Nobody's going to bother you in the forest––and anything that's written 'for headphones' can simply be upload online [i.e., away from crowds]. I really don't like playing live; all I do is stand there and press buttons on a sampler..."
And so a different project was needed for "jollier," more socially oriented tracks: ARM Author. "That was more rhythmic material, stuff more suited for dancing." He then––fondly––recalls the origin of that bizarre moniker.
Whilst working in Omsk State University, Mitroshin was briefly employed under a "slightly schizophrenic mathematician. He was always telling us about stuff nobody needed to know! For example, he wanted to make a library system that connects the entire planet. It was a real plan for taking over the universe! He'd share this grand design with us at meetings and use all kinds of terminology that nobody understood... because he'd invented it all." One of those obscure terms was ARM Author, a system to link distant libraries instantly to users. "It all sounds pretty dull, but if we could teleport our director here right now, he'd completely blow your mind!"
An old socialist romance has sadly given way to smaller dreams in 2016, if not to collective anonymity. Big ideals are few and far between.
Glam returns to a noiseless forest: Andrei Mitroshin, aka Milky Toad
Quieter still is the catalog of Vladimir Karpov from Cherepovets, a town more than two hundred miles north of Moscow. Performing with the stage-name x.y.r., he directly invokes Nikolai Gogol's famous novel of 1842, "Dead Souls," in which one of the characters is pretentious enough to build his own "Temple of Solitary Contemplation." The first three letters of that phrase in Russian spell out "x.y.r." Our Russian musician is poking fun at his own romantic leanings––in tiny lower-case characters, no less.
Gentle, poetic flights of the imagination (x.y.r)
Karpov's colleagues in Montreal propose a thematic or narrative through-line from a recent x.y.r release (inspired by the lonely figure of Robinson Crusoe) to the newest material. Both celebrate the primacy of fantasy over fact; individuality is expressed mentally, rather than physically––in terms of one's address. Ideas offer an escape from actuality; dreams are better than dull normality.
Translated from the French, a tiny related press release reads: "After the now mythical album, 'Robinson Crusoe (Lost Soundtrack),' Vladimir has continued to produce enchanting recordings." Special praise is reserved for his "gentle, poetic flights of the imagination." In the same way, rather than simply speak of publishing "waves t*pes vol. 2," the staff at Jeunesse Cosmique instead declare it has been "launched into the stars"––very much in the daydreaming, nostalgic spirit of Paul Menska. The society and street names of one's youth may have faded forever, but a lonely soul can still take comfort from the imagined, digital company of web-based acquaintances. The world is repaired in immaterial forms––in both senses of the adjective.
In fact permanence belongs neither to the present, nor to the future. Only the past––and its accompanying soundtrack––will last forever. Vladimir Karpov explains how: "I listen to all kinds of music––a process that has taken up almost my time! Nonetheless, there’s never enough time to evaluate everything properly. I gradually came to the conclusion that most musical movements are fleeting. So I tried making a certain selection, and I’d end up with most important recordings, the ones I’d enjoy forever. Things that would always remain relevant. That meant I kept a lot of ambient, classical, and film score. I also chose plenty of instrumental or electroacoustic stuff, together with ‘ethnic’ records. I remember, even as a kid, that I enjoyed the music used in Soviet children’s sci-fi films and animation."
Karpov then offers the names of people who fixed that childhood reverie forever. The sounds of socialist idealism are made specific: "I mean composers like Eduard Artemyev, Yevgeny Krylatov, Alexander Zatsepin, Aleksey Rybnikov, and others. Among classical composers, I prefer Schnittke, Satie, J.S. Bach, Part, etc. My true discovery of ambient came later, when I came across [Brian] Eno––which in turn led me to other aspects of ambient sound (Schultze, Budd, The Orb, F.S.O.L., B.O.C., Roedelius, Popol Vuh, Banco de Gaia…). But I didn’t yet want to work that way. In fact I don’t think I’ve ever made true ambient material. I’ve simply taken some ingredients from each direction and mixed an ‘ideal cocktail’ for myself. The last artists who inspired me to start a project of my own were probably people like Panabrite, Peaking Lights, Ducktails, and Lybomyr Melnyk."
A force with which to counterbalance mankind's guilt (Jeunesse Cosmique)
In the light of that Slavic romance, born on the relatively quiet streets of Cherepovets, even Jeunesse Cosmique offer a working manifesto in 2016 that could be either Soviet or Orthodox in provenance. "We see ourselves as an alternative to modern commercial levels of responsibility. We give art a real opportunity to assert itself [away from profit margins] and to muster a force with which to counterbalance mankind's guilt." Apparently the meek, should they prove stubborn, will inherit quite a lot.
These multiple examples of anonymity, self-deprecation, and even self-loathing are no guarantee of silence, however. The homelessness or meaninglessness of digital existence can also produce a reverse and sometimes violent reaction. Thankfully Russia's online, musical "nobodies" want occasionally to be somebody(!) and so resort to audible revolutionary gestures. Not everybody wishes to remain anonymous or quiet. One example of a strident, even striking response comes from Moscow's IC3PEAK. The project is a duo––who usually refer to themselves simply as Nick Kostylev and "Nerdy" Nastya. Elsewhere they offer the self-definition of "audiovisual terrorists. We position our creative work as a response to both the web and everyday experience." Listeners are told to expect "noise or sugary glitch and resonant bass-lines, plus some vicious sawing noises."
At the start of a recent interview, Nastya spoke of her unique, rather plaintive vocal style as a similar response to restrictive habit. Hers is the voice of anxiety. "Using various techniques, I try to escape any traditional notions of [proper] 'female vocals.' Women don't have to sing beautifully; nor do they need to look beautiful. They might come across as severe and even hysterical: there's an element of truth in all those states." An admission of disorder in social settings––specifically in spoken communication––morphs into a way of living. Existence is improved through a process of rejection.
IC3PEAK: Nick Kostylev and "Nerdy" Nastya
In another published conversation this season, IC3PEAK were asked to define their style. "Well… we'd rather not do that, but if we must, then 'experimental electronica' [would be OK]. If you need to explain what you do, then your work probably doesn't say anything." Anonymity is here not proof of insignificance; it's used as a form of threat. A rebellious noise that could come from anywhere at all.
The new IC3PEAK album "Fallal" is defined as "an investigation of beauty's ugliness––and vice versa." As with Milky Toad, the music is meant for individual listening, whatever its social stance. Attention paid to individual values is the most civically relevant stance of all. "The LP is intended for a domestic setting, rather than for live shows. It's less concerned with the dance floor and, as a result, has gravitated towards more abstract compositions. This is not music for your parties..."
That sense of social disconnect came in large part after a long and onerous IC3PEAK tour around Russia. "We were really depressed by what we saw. We all know that Russia's in a bad state––but not to that degree. We had to steel ourselves for 2016... and we've managed to find some sources of pleasure." Having travelled to the middle of nowhere, IC3PEAK find themselves outraged by the imposition of anonymity on real-world citizens, as opposed to any freely chosen stance by socially awkward performers online.
Just get rid of everything... except the forests, lakes, and mountains (IC3PEAK)
The newest IC3PEAK interview helps to flesh out the general picture. "Music fans in Russia tend to be young people or schoolkids, even. They all dress alike, as if they represented some [paradoxical] subculture." The provinces are not very welcoming of difference and/or diversity. And yet it remains unclear how one might respond to such massive conformity or indifference. Kolya jokes: "The only way to improve matters in Russia is to get rid of everything... except the forests, lakes, and mountains. Then it'll be just fine..." He immediately admits, however, the difficulties of criticizing Russian society with its own language. Not only is domestic critique often branded as self-loathing or subversion, from a patriotic point of view; it's also hard to sound objective in one's native tongue. How might one critique Russia with Russian?
Nastya explains further: "Whenever we express our point of view regarding certain [civic] matters, we always hope that people's perception [of local reality] will somehow change for the better. On the other hand, we're perfectly aware that many folks see us as alien, awful figures. What we do––and how we sound––remains a complete mystery to them. The question of what 'Russia's chosen path' should be remains a complete mystery, too. Should we approach the future with violence and terror? Or maybe with with patience, by doing everything properly and decently? Perhaps we need to beat education and enlightenment into people...?"
IC3PEAK interpret the troubling experience of their compatriots by way of trauma––as the result of an idealized and suddenly interrupted Soviet past. The loss of a grand, shared ideal has left nothing in its place. Whether individuals would rather hide from modern society online or feel rejected by an ostensible equivalent in the real world, the problem of that common, yet lapsed idealism endures. Nothing unifies everybody in "the middle of nowhere."