SBPCh: The Art of Formlessness

"SBPCh" stands for Samoe bol'shoe prostoe chislo, a long and awkward name that translates into The Biggest Prime Number.  Based in St Petersburg, they have recently emerged as an offshoot of the ongoing and well-respected project known as Elochnye igrushki (Christmas Tree Ornaments).

In particular - and without the need for any more long names - what we're dealing with is vocalist Kirill Ivanov (above right, with SBPCh) and a group of young poets, collaborating in a series of lazy raps, often staged in complete chaos - as we explain below.

What happens - as you can see from the first video - is the usual structure of an SBPCh concert.  Before the proceedings begin or the lights have gone down, the musicians hand out all manner of cheap instruments to the audience.  Many of them cost mere pennies and are designed purely for the purposes of entertaining a child; they're less than likely to produce anything resembling a professional sound.

Each member of the crowd is asked to use their toy instrument at least once during the course of the concert.  Hence sounds will come either from the rows of seats, or closer to the microphones, as guests are constantly asked to come up on stage for a few seconds - and then return to the floor.

As the band note themselves:  "The line-up on stage changes constantly.  Sometimes it all looks like a public rehearsal; on other occasions it's reminiscent of childish performance art - or maybe some kind of avant-garde mystery play."

The line-up on stage changes constantly. Sometimes it all looks like a public rehearsal; on other occasions it's reminiscent of childish performance art - or maybe some kind of avant-garde mystery play.

SBPCh's work in the "studio" shows no more pretension towards formal consistency.  The other clip here is taken from a recording session that led to one of the tracks on this CD.  Recorded in one of many provincial towns across Russia, it begins with two of the musicians lying down, side by side on a sofa, and "harmonizing" on their ten-cent plastic trumpets.  Lyrics are intoned in a deadpan fashion next door, with pots, pans, and barking dogs all audible in the background.

At the forefront of these "shows" are the vocals of Ivanov, who uses the chaotic honks, squeaks, and ambient washes of the assembled musicians or percussionists to create litanies of complaint against all aspects of contemporary Russian society.

They don't qualify as protest songs, despite all the swearing going on.  They're closer to various forms of a grumpy, curmudgeonly fatalism.  The pressures that lead to such grim texts often don't reside in the real world; therefore they're unable to be rectified and instead take vague shape as various, bizarre phobias. One particular source of upset, for no apparent reason, is the US TV figure of Dr. House, played by Hugh Laurie (and shown below with one especially rude line).

These recordings deserve multiple listenings: together with other outfits like Komba Bakkh or Stas Baretskii, maybe Pahom, these poems or quotidian raps by SBPCh are complex, clever insights into the unavoidable and troubling trivia of everyday life in St Petersburg.

There's no great drama on display, despite the constant cursing - and certainly none of the barrel-chested misogyny of Western rap.  Instead we have minimalist, miserable, and often witty verse read over an audible background that's designed to embody normal, frustrating existence in Russia.

Small-scale chaos is apparently the best vehicle.


SBPCh – Kogo s toboi net
SBPCh – Ovoshchi

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