A Detached, Yet Passionate View of the Past: Port Mone and Swing Couture

Swing Couture are a jazz ensemble from St Petersburg, with a special affection for the Russian/Soviet cafe culture of the early twentieth century. Their name, however, takes us in a slightly different direction. What, in short, are the connotations of swing for Russian listeners? It came to Eastern Europe relatively late, so we should probably start in the Western context. Swing's fast tempo and sexy lyrics had brought it both widespread popularity and notoriety in the US by the 1930s. This emotional maximalism and risque humor would have just as much appeal elsewhere - albeit for different reasons.

By the time of the Second World War, swing's hedonism was certainly a fine antidote to anxiety born of international conflict, yet - rather surprisingly - some mundane factors would soon lead to the style's decline. Being a jazz offshoot that's often performed by big bands, in other words by many people, it suffered from the widespread effects of a wartime draft: available musicians were thin on the ground.

What, then, of Eastern Europe? The biggest impact of this impassioned tradition for Russian fans came in 1962, when Benny Goodman's orchestra visited the Soviet Union. State Department approval, Stalin's death, and socialist subsidies for musicians all created a more accepting and affordable environment for large orchestras.

Swing, therefore, was reborn and flourished in Russia - with much enthusiasm and equal delay. The emotions celebrated had little to do with either calendars or fashion.

As for the term "couture," it speaks to a francophile strain within Russian culture that seems equally timeless. The two nouns in the group's name, consequently, reference a long-standing yearning to be elsewhere, either during war or amid the desperate constraints of the Cold War.

And, when advertising their music today, Swing Couture use the following turns of phrase that speak to the equal constancy of heartfelt zeal: "Classic music is once again in style! The great, timeless themes sound remarkably modern when played by Swing Couture. You'll be amazed by the wit and originality of the musicians' interpretation."

Put differently, the themes never change - but to what degree does the band's name actually reflect the music being performed? What's the connection between the label and the contents, between theory and practice?

The ensemble has six basic members: Lina Kolesnik (violin), Aleksei Stankov and Maksim Belitskii (guitars), Sergei Ziuzin (clarinet), Sergei Petrov (accordion), and Dmitrii Novitskii (double bass) - although additional colleagues do appear on occasion; the expanded lineups can be seen above and below. Together, it seems fair to say, these committed individuals can be best defined through the work of a man whose life they often celebrate on stage: Petr Leshchenko (1898-1954).

Born near Odessa, Leshchenko would find himself cut off from home by the events of WWI, and was destined to spend many years wandering neighboring lands. He sang and danced for audiences that changed constantly, because warfare and politics denied him stability. Although he managed to outlive Stalin by a few months, he had - tragically - just been arrested and would pass away in a Soviet prison ward. His movement and music eventually petered out after years of rootlessness.

The "King of the Soviet Tango," as he was ultimately and ironically known, had been condemned for music that - just like swing - promised flighty, fickle emotion in a land of serious intentions.  A figure who ran endlessly from threats and sang simultaneously of unrequited love was eventually stopped dead - in several senses. This is the kind of gypsy aesthetic inherent in all that Swing Couture play: the sounds of yearning and dreams of movement - be it to America, France, or in Leshchenko's case, simply to safety.

Improvisation was and remains an expression for Slavic artists of options and better, less dangerous alternatives.

...bright, passionate, exciting, and daring

The band's music, because of this background, has been described as "bright, passionate, exciting, and daring." There's a good reason for that degree of gusto, as we see: history in prior decades was doing all it could to smother private whims. Spontaneity fell victim to inculcation with horrible frequency.

Soviet writer Maksim Gor'kii famously defined jazz as "music for fat people," i.e., the profitable sound of moneyed, manipulative cafe owners. Contemporary music critic Artemii Troitskii countered that view not long ago by calling Swing Couture "music for thin people." In other words, for those folks who've tried to muster a smile, how matter how much deprivation is undergone.

In times of war, when the sounds of consolation really need to be mobile, many Slavic singers and songwriters have turned to the accordion. During WWII, for example, when pianos could hardly be shunted back and forth along the frontline, accordionists were in high demand. Until - that is - the temperatures fell far below zero, at which point the bellows stopped opening and closing as they should. They simply froze shut.

Keeping that stubborn heritage alive are three men from Minsk, known together as Port Mone: Aleksei Vorsoba, Sergei Kravchenko, and Aleksei Vanchuk. They turn the traditional harmonies of the accordion into what they call a "mix of ambient, noise, experimental, and classical/traditional" forms.

A departure from traditional Slavic melodies through a recourse to minimalism

"Sometimes their music departs from traditional Russian or Slavic melodies through recourse to a surprising minimalism, in fact to the point where the original composition can't be recognized. Awesome!" The form changes, but the thematic content stays - one of constant departure. And therefore possibility.

It's a welcome narrative, even today.

The musicians continue their self-definition: "Our work is an attempt to give freedom to both sound and the present moment... It's all driven by a detached, yet sensual evocation of things heard, seen, and partly forgotten in the daily grind." The grey, monotone quality of weekday obligations has, it seems, become a petty, yet very imposing equivalent of past pressures. Desire is no longer driven down by fear - it's merely sidelined by the white noise of normality.

A state from which escape seems very appealing.

A detached, yet sensual evocation of things partly forgotten in the daily grind

Accordions first appeared in Russia in the early nineteenth century: domestic production began simultaneous to the onset of industrialization. As traditional rural communities were gradually destabilized by urban labor - by seasonal factory jobs - songs of consolation needed to be portable. The resulting, plaintive sounds of homelessness became so long-lived that the Soviets even established accordion schools in the 1920s, teaching young men and women how to play "properly."

Ironically, the same skills were then used to offer emotional relief when that Soviet system turned ugly. 

The bittersweet sounds that we hear from Port Mone and the preceding generations have, by chance, also inspired a little commentary from Mr. Troitskii. Here's what they mean today:

"Port Mone play a kind of post-rock/folk melange in a minor key. It's actually really nice accordion music, though! Both the individual and collective aspects of the band's work seem top-notch to me. That's a real difference from most of the improvised accordion music we hear today, whether we're dealing with jazz or avant-garde performers. On most occasions the performer - most irresponsibly! - will squeeze all kinds of bombastic discord out of the instrument...."

Port Mone play a kind of post-rock/folk melange in a minor key

In place of bombast, we have understatement. Instead of wild abandon, we find a "detached, yet passionate" view of selfhood in difficult times. The minor key that's referenced here comes from major social problems - born perhaps in the early nineteenth century, when the accordion first appeared on Slavic soil... and the sad sounds commenced. Today's minimalism, used by equally understated performers, therefore makes no arrogant claims to permanence. The music of Port Mone, punctuated by silence, is more modest - and weighs a lot less on paper. Mobility is everything in unfriendly places. 

As we can see, the sounds on display here are produced with a conscious awareness of times gone by. They're the soundtrack to a precious wistfulness - and the kind of private peace shown by the lady in the middle.

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