The social networking profile of Omsk's Smokey Hill project is dusted with a handful of quotations from popular songs and movies. What they have in common is a call to spontaneity. Readers are asked to "show their soul" (Red Hot Chili Peppers); "have fun" (Andrew W.K); and even "stellify" (Ian Brown). We then find Iggy Pop's debatable credo that a big heart will always overcome big guns. Once, however, matters turn to some homegrown Russian quotations, skepticism overshadows any youthful idealism. One of those domestic aphorisms––a direct imperative––demands that individuals test revolutionary ideals on themselves before instigating any social unrest. Spontaneous citizens should not impose their zeal upon others (at least not hastily).
Always be merciful. Practice kindness (Awesomenauts)
These wavering degrees of civic romance are now captured in audible form by Hiroshima Toy Pet Records in the same Siberian city. That label is best known for its experiments in harsh, profoundly industrial noise––in the sense of sonic friction between material existence and any thankless industry or effort that's needed to overcome it.
Minimal detective work into this lo-fi, instrumental hip-hop reveals Smokey Hill to be the work of Artem Orlov. His newest recordings, packaged as "Smokey Cuts," are said to represent many "hand-woven memories... The album is made from twenty-two trips through the dark––and some movement towards the light." In fact, the whole LP is dedicated both to the allure of recollection and to the people who made those memories precious. Civic skepticism is replaced with a hard-won familial spirit.
Omsk is far from the easiest location in which to build a musical career––and indeed the first words on "Smokey Cuts" offer a consoling alternative to dejection. (Help is quickly needed.) They come from the popular Dutch computer game Awesomenauts, in which "two teams of three intergalactic mercenaries try to destroy each others' base." The voice of a monk sounds quietly forth amid the exploding stars:
Smokey Hill (Artem Orlov), inspired by distant, hand-drawn worlds
"Ayla, you are now a monk, a disciple––you are prepared. Your studies are now complete. These are your instructions: remember the way of Shaolin, the true reflection of wisdom. Respect the way. Be true Shaolin. Now you go out into the world. Always be merciful. Practice kindness." At least in ludic forms, it seems possible to keep local reality at bay.
Elsewhere a thematically juxtaposed soundbite comes from Robert Redford, narrating an obscure documentary on wolves and their place in mythology. It is quickly followed by Arthur Brown's demonic call of 1968: "I am the god of hellfire!" Ironically or not, the themes of danger are more prominent than any regional optimism.
This is not the way the world is supposed to be (Miles Morales)
Hoping, quite literally, to built something better for Siberian residents, Artem Orlov employs his impressive skills as a graphic artist. One of his more recent construction proposals was titled "Bizarre." He framed the architectural project as follows: "This is the greatest hotel complex ever, with a marvelous interior and an amazing natural setting. It looks almost like a small city, the kind of place that would host a multicultural festival. That same event could celebrate the world's cultural variety, if not majesty. The hotel represents one possible way of uniting everybody around the world." Everyday life in Omsk, be it private or professional, would again suggest that such harmonies are unlikely. Homo homini lupus est––as Robert Redford might say.
The same interest in parallel lives emerges in a separate and much larger text, posted by Orlov on the subject of Spiderman's alter-ego Miles Morales. In fact, some of Morales' more famous words speak to another kind of social difference. The distinction here is not so much between fact and Superman's fantastic exploits, but instead between sad actuality and the ways things could be. And so we find the following social wisdom in comic book form:
"This is not the way the world is supposed to be. This wasn't the way the world was created. This... this is a patchwork quilt of madness, so madness can rule over it. The world you are living in now... it was constructed using cosmic forces way beyond us. This isn't what New York is. Our dimensions were... they were thrown on top of each other on purpose. We didn't do this. Man didn't do this. This was done to us."
New York is imagined under the burden of some nameless, homeless, and malevolent force; the citizens of post-Soviet Omsk will no doubt recognize a few elements of that social meddling––also from the middle of nowhere.
A related consideration of contemporary alter-egos comes from Moscow's Delete, whose real name remains a well-guarded secret. He always prefers to obscure his face with a mask of some description. Anonymity is a better position from which to discuss the faceless workings of modernity. A couple of years ago he released an album entitled "Things of a Predatory Minute." That odd phrase harks back to a 1965 sci-fi novel by the Strugatsky Brothers, "Predatory Things of the Century," usually known to English readers as "The Final Circle of Paradise." The central drama of the novel concerns an alternative reality that's so powerful, it tempts its users (or abusers) to ignore their basic bodily functions––such as sustenance. Their physical well-being worsens and a narcotic, alternative experience leads to the death of life altogether.
The virtual kills the real––and fiction preys increasingly upon fact.
I learned self-awareness and how to live in the present moment (Mikhail Nikitin)
To this day, Delete speaks of his alter-ego or pseudonym "creating electronic music that's positioned somewhere between dubstep, ambient, and future garage." As mentioned, he always covers his face on stage and––tellingly enough––published not long ago an EP dedicated to the Polish writer Marek Hłasko. That author was never able to overcome problems with both mental and social displacement; he died at the age of 35––amid many myths and legends about his real biography. Fact and fiction again struggled for prominence, because a writer was crippled by the need for a suitable social "visage."
Born in Warsaw, Marek Hłasko lived through WWII as a very young boy. Not surprisingly, the experience left him traumatized for life. Even after graduation, he was unable to hold down serious jobs in transportation or construction. Only through creative writing was he able to make sense of life. Fiction was more logical and philosophically productive than political rant.
After Hłasko managed to travel briefly to Paris, even the French press took note of this universal, inherently youthful struggle between desire and social demands. Given the cinematic context of the time, they likened Hłasko to James Dean. Emigration to Israel didn't help; nor did the support of Roman Polanski, who tried to find Hłasko gainful employment in Los Angeles as a screenwriter. That increasing vacillation between hope and likelihood came to a swift and tragic end. He accidentally caused the death of a friend during a drinking bout––and himself died in mysterious circumstances not long after. Hłasko's literature was not able to overcome his life story.
The masked figure of Delete, being both present and absent
The newest material from Delete, developing these same themes, is an EP called "Neverending Story," with a title presumably taken from the German children's film of 1984 (Die unendliche Geschichte). The movie's source material tells of an alternative, imaginary land called Fantasia that is under threat from a negative force known as The Nothing. The same defense of reverie underlies both Hłasko's biography and Delete's use of masks. Nonetheless, all these variations on the theme of "Fantasia" could so easily succumb to the kind of social negativity or dejection evident in Omsk. Hence the looping emphases of Delete's most recent catalog. The same problems transpire, over and over.
The Polish material by Delete was composed with Belarusian rapper Mikhail Nikitin, aka "Mladshy Syn Neba" (Heaven's Youngest Son). He spoke not long ago to Russian journalists about his own issues with mental health, made bearable thanks only to the predictable, yet intangible patterns of music. As Leibniz once said, "Music is the pleasure the human mind experiences from counting... without being aware that it is counting." Arranging and repeating compositions (or their structural elements) brings the same pleasure, too; it offers law and order, so to speak, in the face of considerable anxiety.
Unconscious aestheticism (Honey/ Maxim Savchenkov)
Nikitin admits––pensively––to his own search for mental order: "Even when everything goes badly, your [faulty] mind still insists you're doing everything properly. 'Keep on destroying yourself––because that's what poets are supposed to do. It's the price of entry [into the pantheon]. The world around you is idiotic. It's not worth keeping your sanity...' Thank heavens that people started to care for me. They––again thankfully!––dragged me off to both yoga and psychotherapy. I learned the power of focusing upon one's breath. I learned self-awareness and how to live in the present moment. That's how to avoid both regrets in the past and anxiety about the future."
Kaliningrad's Maxim Savchenkov (aka Honey and Honey Montana) has almost fifteen years experience behind him in music. Like Smokey Hill, he views his craft as a way to unify people in an increasingly fractious civic environment. "My goal is to use music as a universal language. It transmits emotions, awareness, and unity." Again idealism and non-material values emerge to counter a poor economy.
Moving further still from material existence was a statement once offered by Savchenkov on his social networking account. The following words in Russian were borrowed from a description of traditional Hindu medicine. They related to the concept of "doshas" or bodily humors. One contemporary study explained these arcane matters in greater detail, specifically with regard to the notion of "vata dosha."
"Vata governs movement in the body, the activities of the nervous system and the process of elimination. Vata influences the other doshas. If 'vata dosha' predominates, movement and change are characteristic of your nature."
This ancient concept has then been paraphrased by a modern spiritual organization, from which Savchenkov or Honey took his own, introspective self-definition in 2015. He talked of "an innate ability to 'fly,' combined with unconscious aestheticism and a need for beauty. [Thanks to the vata dosha,] life operates according to the principles of moderation, beauty, and grace."
A wise and happy retreat into noiselessness is then extended with a couple of quotes from Andrey Tarkovsky. The first of them reads: "You can’t escape from yourself; what you are, you carry with you. We carry the house of our souls like the tortoise its shell. To travel the countries of the world is only symbolically a journey. Wherever you get to, you are still seeking your own soul." Prior to material experience is something both quieter and infinitely greater.
I have never heard the song of the Cherubim (Heavenchord)
The most consoling, consistent exit from these tussles between dreaming and likelihood comes from the solo project Heavenchord (Artur Galstyan) and his newest material, penned in the city of Krasnodar. Originally from Armenia, Galstyan began his career in the world of southern raves circa 2002, although the subsequent move to Russia brought with it more experience in chillout and lounge bars. Currently his declared emphasis is upon "ongoing experimentation, psychedelia, and a personal synthesis of sounds. Heavenchord today is best defined as classic dub techno, heavy chords, and [plenty of] tape hiss."
This passion for the resonant sounds of dub techno, or what Heavenchord calls a "repeated, long echo," leads us directly to Cold Tear Records in Lithuania. Two striking facets of this international collaboration are––once more––an unwillingness to fill networking profiles with superficial PR materials and a related, yet novel emphasis upon faith.
In other words, beyond modesty and workplace determination lies a profound rejection of mercantile, if not material practice. Most of the posts on Galstyan's profiles, over and above embedded audio or video clips, are spiritual in nature. The man himself says almost nothing.
Instead Heavenchord/ Galstyan quotes––most recently––the Akathist Hymn. In translation it reads: "What sort of praise can I give Thee? I have never heard the song of the Cherubim, a joy reserved for the spirits above. But I know the praises that nature sings to Thee. In winter, I have beheld how silently in the moonlight the whole earth offers Thee prayer, clad in its white mantle of snow, sparkling like diamonds. I have seen how the rising sun rejoices in Thee, how the song of the birds is a chorus of praise to Thee. I have heard the mysterious mutterings of the forests about Thee, and the winds singing Thy praise as they stir the waters. I have understood how the choirs of stars proclaim Thy glory as they move forever in the depths of infinite space."
That timeless, undoubtedly widespread unity is––rather surprisingly––a reason proposed by Heavenchord for his aesthetic or professional choice of dub techno. Whatever the sentimentality or melodrama of the following lines, they come as the result of a contrary, quotidian force. As Nothing continues to threaten Fantasia, personal dreams push back, hoping for a unifying harmony to fix civic discord. Galstyan's borderline mawkishness mirrors the "industrial" effort needed to keep a daydream alive in the South.
And so the most recent PR from Heavenchord reads thus, also framing his other new EP "The Shape of Things to Come": "Artur insists that dub techno is more than just music. It's the interpretation of an energy found within both pure love and kindness. This EP is devoted to the kindly plans of people who hope to improve the world––without being pushy. Artur holds that music is the art-form closest to the soul; it oversees ethical growth within us all. He then adds [in the same tone]: 'My music elevates people to winged, lofty sentiment.'"
Some of the EP's proceedings or profits are going to Flowers of Life, a charity in Kaliningrad designed to give local disabled children artistic or creative outlets for dignified self-expression. Charity hopes to offer an alternative to indifference.
Elevating people to lofty, winged sentiment (Heavenchord)
Smokey Hill, Delete, Honey, and Heavenchord all express considerable concern about the disparity between dreams and "normality." With Heavenchord, those same hopes are transferred both to the "loftiest" plane and applied to the lowest social strata. A soundtrack of dub techno, full of emptiness, inspires the creation of some superior social "content." A consideration of Nothing leads to Fantasia––or regional charity––benefitting from something.
On August 3 this year, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev spoke to a gathering of school teachers in Dagestan––located to the south of Heavenchord's Krasnodar. He was asked by one teacher why school wages remain lower than, say, the income of junior police offers. Medvedev responded: "Teaching is a calling. And if you really wanted to earn money, then there are excellent ways to do so faster and more efficiently. Take business, for example." An almost sarcastic, rhetorical question followed from Medvedev: "Yet you didn't go into business, right? Well then..."
Not surprisingly, a large number of teachers were outraged, demanding––by way of example––that Medvedev both apologize and resign. This scandal came on the heels of his equally unfortunate admission to a Crimean pensioner that: "There's simply no money. Just hold on! All the best!" The connection between power and lack was highlighted in a Change.Org petition this month: "Medvedev shows a banal indifference to everything going on around him. And, as a result, he also displays a desire to do nothing." Both from political podia and musical stages, the relationship between Fantasy and Nothing is underscored with increasing volume.