A couple of new Russian releases this week - from very different towns - examine the theme of emptiness in intriguing and locally specific ways. First on display is SLP (aka Alex) from Krasnodar, who works as a DJ in and around the southern dub scene. The various activities of SLP and his colleagues are centered on a series of events known as Dubtarelka, which could be translated as "Dub Dish."
SLP himself is remarkably taciturn, preferring on most web venues to remain silent. In those instances where he does present a little textual information, it consists of the barest facts and figures. Despite this tight-lipped approach to his craft, SLP is, all the same, clearly embracing a dub/deep tradition for both positive and inclusively social reasons. Layers of echo and reverb are added to elements of house or techno, such that one key facet of a reggae heritage is employed at good-natured gatherings.
People start moving.
Asked to explain the social appeal of music, neurologists will sometimes say that it's a form of investigating our immediate environment. Put differently, music operates as a series of rhythmically demarcated steps, out into realms where logic fades and we - with trepidation! - begin instead to trust our emotions. Music marks the transition from reason to affect: the former lends itself to planning. The latter does not.
The ability of individuals to "let go" in a club setting, for example, is precisely this kind of wordless trust. By extension, we can add that whatever behavior we see on dancefloors is just as evident - and important - on the silver screen, thanks to a melodramatic tradition. Music in romantic comedies, for example, is used to show the disparity between a hero's bumbling attempts at love and the bigger, better world that awaits him - if only he could have faith in his heart.
That technique is sometimes referred to as "disassociation." The romantic ideal - conjured by music - beckons; we, however, are less than willing to take a leap of faith. Our laughter is therefore with the hero, not at him; it's sympathy, not satire.
The use of soundtracks in political advertising and even shopping malls is likewise designed to evoke this potential pleasure of trusting - and investing in - one's surroundings.
The echo and reverb of Jamaican dub have always done the same. The term itself is linked to a couple of possible themes: sex and/or spirituality. In Jamaica the noun "dub" has been used either as a reference to sexually explicit dancing or to sex itself. The big spaces evoked by resonant, echo-rich dub cuts, therefore, are realms of impending gratification... if the listener trusts them.
In this spirit, SLP's photography frequently ponders the appeal of deep-field imagery. Worries are replaced by a sense of wonder.
In a related, but less material vein, the notion of "dub" has also been employed in the West Indies as a synonym for "spirit." Whether that comes from a Rastafarian heritage or a more abstract notion of soulful music, once again the implied significance of "dubby" sounds is an alluring, even promising one.
Echoing bass notes reverberate through (implied or fantasized) spaces - and they look tantalizing.
The second - and very different! - recordings come from Nizhnyi Novgorod, Russia's fourth largest city. More specifically, they arrive courtesy of musician and sound designer Stanislav Vdovin. His newest material is published by the label he himself founded at the start of 2010, Occasion. That project's output is designed, in no uncertain terms, to use "digital technologies" in order to investigate our "natural environment." Do these spaces, however, develop as appealingly as those in Krasnodar?
Time to use these technologies and take a closer look.
Vdovin (born in 1985) has an education in both classical and jazz piano. Around the year 2000, though, his interests moved towards electronic music. This led eventually to a couple of projects celebrated on this site more than once: Unit 21 (of his own making) and Sleepy Town Manufacture (with colleagues).
His newest recording, offered here, is the four-track EP "Countless Efforts (to Carry On)." That title alone strikes a bold contrast with SLP's catalog. The appeal of physical or spiritual contact lying "ahead" - be it spatially or temporally - lessens. Moving onwards or outwards - in any form - becomes something that's considered with doubt.
Vdovin's new audio material comes with strange, even bizarre textual support. These sonorous tracks are accompanied by a long, wandering monolog on the benefits of Italian cookware! It even sounds as if the paragraphs in question were taken from the customer comments left at an online shopping resource. They begin: "I’m all for bargains when it comes to shopping - and I couldn’t pass up picking up a seven-piece nonstick cookware set. After becoming frustrated by countless times of scrubbing off stuck-on food, I picked up Tramontina’s 'Made in Italy' set..."
Marketplace desires are dark indeed; any artistic response needs to match them on a related scale.
As if that opening salvo were not enough, another four or five paragraphs continue in the same vein, ending with an admission that: "The nonstick covers still work fine - though without a good pan it doesn’t help much. This set was OK as a starter kit, but don’t count on it lasting long."
Vdovin's EP is designed as a response to these vacuous interests. Most telling here is the composition "Empty Fairground," the latter half of which is a slow, melancholy and ambient meditation on places of commercial pleasure - once the commerce stops. Layers of makeup are wiped from the faces of clowns after the crowds have left; what remains is decidedly unfunny.
The "plenitude" of fairground jollity reveals itself as a thin veneer over enduring nothingness. At least in the short term.
A possible antidote to this sadness can be found in more compositions by Vdovin, also announced this week. This additional output was followed by another text, which begins as follows: "Past the dim glimpse of land he sailed, tacking more westerly now, in a faint, dank drizzle that over land might be a light snow. There was no sound at all but the small creaking of the boat - and light slap of waves on her bow. No boat or bird went by..."
That prose quotation appears to come from an English-language fantasy novel entitled "A Wizard of Earthsea." It is advertised to Western audiences as the tale of "a boy who grows to manhood while attempting to subdue the evil he has unleashed on the world - as an apprentice to the Master Wizard."
Lamentable acts in the present foster a desire to flee their consequence in the future. In other words, neither mercantile nor public forms of merriment offer any respite from the damage of regret. Emptiness is imagined in terms of time, as a regrettable future - and it looks bad. The one saving grace in Vdovin's soundscapes comes, however, from the same fantasy quote; only the blankness of naturally unpeopled spaces is enticing.
Vdovin, as a result, places himself within that fairground, waiting for the social hubbub to fade and the whisper of wind to return.
Whether we prefer Vdovin's northern severity or SLP's southern, trusting stance towards the future, both of these recordings are informed by a common spirit of anticipation. SLP's recordings look with great hope towards the dancefloor and its residents. As the artwork below to Vdovin's EP shows, though, a hushed park and quiet fountain are perhaps better company.
Somewhere in the background we see cranes looming above a building site: new housing for the employees of Italian cookware firms, no doubt.