A Vinyl Ethos in Virtual Forms: The SPEKTRAL VA MIDItation Album

The "SPEKTRAL VA MIDItation" album from Krasnodar (2017)

Back in 2014, the Khabarovsk beatmaker RJB (РЖБ) was asked about his involvement in a new Russian film, documenting domestic DJ culture. "The movie's not actually about beatmaking," he responded. "If I'm honest, I was kinda skeptical about the project to begin with. By the guys involved turned out to be both professional and serious––plus they were running on pure enthusiasm! Judging by the footage I've seen thus far, I think the final result will be great." That same laudable output, however, would not come quickly.

The feature in question is called "Turn the Record Over" (Переверни пластинку!) and jointly directed by Roman Naveskin and Stepan Polivanov. Evolving from the staff roster at Koster [Bonfire] Records in Saint Petersburg, the movie's crew would ultimately focus on the vinyl of Moscow's scene instead. Shooting the required footage took a year and a half. Then came the post-production work. Neither goal was reached with speed.

Various local heroes in the context of today's vinyl culture

Only on May 1, 2016 would a Facebook post declare: "Hey guys! The film is finally READY! AFTER TWO YEARS OF SHOOTING AND EDITING.  We're so sorry that nothing worked out in 2014... At long last, we've managed to bring various local heroes together, all in the context of today's vinyl culture––even if those people had very different world-views." RJB had correctly judged the film in terms of quality––to the point where perfectionism had sometimes slowed progression. 

An intense affection for vinyl, expressed today by DJs and beatmakers alike, immediately recalls a riskier love affair with 78s, singles, and LPs from the Soviet years. The USSR black market in Western entertainment had been fueled by vinyl, offering braver citizens a chance to enjoy deeply moving, international sound. Given the persistent problems with such "underground" activities, even today, Naveskin and Polivanov would discern some sad parallels between socialist attitudes and governmental clampdowns in 2017. Various events that unfolded during the filming process looked like Soviet oppression. Police raids were conducted on urban raves; the ruble collapsed as a result of "intervention" in Ukraine; and Moscow's vitally important Solyanka club fell victim to bureaucratic skullduggery.

This embedding of club/dance culture in Russian modernity––as a reliable cultural barometer––leads us not only to the passionate documentarians of "Turn the Record Over"; it also inspires new performers to try their hand at music-making. Especially online, where countless programs for music production, creation, and performance can be found on torrent sites. And that, in turn, prompts a discussion of young institutions like the Spektral Music Academy in Krasnodar––where inspired amateurs come together.

Evgeny Fomin (aka Copper Beard) and Alexander Tochilkin (Koett)

The Academy declares its current mission in no uncertain terms: "We are a creative laboratory, studying new creative methods in today's musical culture. We run experiments in the the field of applied sound design––which in turn help to shape our seminars, conferences, and master classes. In short, we both build virtual instruments [together with our students] and create soundscapes for dance floors, festivals, and art installations."

A wide range of academic topics at Spektral is designed to support both established professionals and enthused amateurs––precisely because of the romance celebrated in "Turn the Record Over." Whereas illegal Western vinyl once allowed those romantics to escape quotidian drudgery behind locked doors, today's software makes sonic reverie even more subjective. Rather than choosing one's private soundtrack from a stack of 45s, callow artists can design it from scratch. The DIY musician becomes both author and audience; escapism becomes a bespoke craft. Any need for external, social narratives is reduced, if not removed completely.

An atmosphere of both peace and progress (Arbiem)

And so we read: "Spektral offers a unique, immediate introduction to the secrets of today's electronic music––at home. You will both grasp fundamental techniques and improve your live performance. Not to mention our lectures on how to actually publish your tracks. Whether you're a producer or somebody who's just planning to launch their own label, Spektral can help." 

Today, in celebration of the Academy's twelfth anniversary, a compilation has appeared, called "SPEKTRAL VA MIDItation." It includes a number of local talents, four of whom we consider here, together with graduates or domestic luminaries such as Arbiem––otherwise known as Vladimir Daronkin from Saint Petersburg.

Since we first encountered his work several years ago, Daronkin has invested much time and effort in hiding from all forms of self-promotion. "I merely offers a combination of melancholy motifs with deep bass-lines and some unobtrusive, occasionally lively melodies." He then shifts briefly from the third person into the first: "Without any lofty words about the 'distinctive features' of my music, I'd like to point out why I prefer mixing several emotional states in a single track. Whenever they're interwoven, those contrasting emotions help to form a special atmosphere of both peace and progress."

Maintaining this appealing, yet extremely abstract tone, he concludes: "I'm not claiming to have created anything terribly new. I just trying to help incompatible elements co-exist." 

Arbiem (Vladimir Daronkin from Saint Petersburg)

Arbiem prefers various stage-names to prosaic, even troublesome actuality: Vova Walder is one such moniker––although he began his career using the arguably more florid "Minimalmind." Other nicknames include "Untitled-W" (a collaboration with EL) and "VVP," a joint undertaking with Prisheletz from Saint Petersburg and Evgeny Shchukin, a Krasnodar native who is more familiar today as WOLS. Even that final, seemingly stable project has two forms, with Shchukin sometimes recording with Arbiem (again!) as "Zaria." Here the primary inspiration comes from "old-school cassette recordings and and vintage Soviet synthesizers." A rich local scene generates dizzying patterns of teamwork; they often draw upon the years of vinyl and magnetic tape.

One electronic music publication discerns in all these offshoots and side-projects "a carefree, melancholy mood––something that's often characteristic of idm." Minimal monetization options in Krasnodar and maximum local creativity combine in a bittersweet aesthetic. 

A carefree, melancholy mood

Evgeny Shchukin has been familiar to us since the inception of FFM, being an essential performer and publisher of electronic music across the Kuban region. Not only was he a founding member of the generation-defining collective Modul; he also created the equally important label Fuselab––which remains the southern home of Russian electronica. 

Shchukin's dual involvement with both WOLS (in the studio) and Spektral (in the classroom) makes sense in the light of several, prior observations on the unschooled, disorderly nature of web creativity. The internet, he maintains, leaves us "with the impression of some huge musical stockpile, making it hard to distinguish something good from anything bad. Your average listener simply isn't used to digging deep... he's happy taking whatever is lying around on the surface. He'll typically choose his music from the biggest and most prevalent bands.... Nowadays you really need to offer people some kind of show, too. Especially if you want to attract public attention. That's all rather sad."

To make matters worse, the Russian mainstream's tendency towards glitz, glamor, and overfunded grandeur can often stop sympathetic figures from offering a helping hand to fledgling talents. There's zero tolerance for difference and/or deviation from any primetime norms. Hence the need for Spektral, perhaps, especially if that same intolerance affects the worldview of others. 

"Snobbery is a big problem in Russia, also; it can stop you getting things done. Let's say you've found some interesting, unique guy... but he sounds kinda naive. He's got problems with the quality of his sound, etc. In those moments you find yourself thinking: what should I do? Should I release this stuff or not—if nobody's going to even try and understand it? It's a vicious circle." An assumption of public indifference negates private enthusiasm.

Evgeny Shchukin and the live, extended lineup of WOLS (Krasnodar)

As mentioned, WOLS developed in part from the early lineup of Modul, where Evgeny Shchukin both wrote and performed with fellow homeboy Aleksandr Tochilkin in Krasnodar. The same two men have other joint projects to their name, such as the ambient, minimalist enterprise called Feldmaus. Currently Tochilkin operates alone, however––as Koett, a moniker he has used increasingly for one-man recordings since 2011. He is also is co-owner of the widely respected XOXO Club in his hometown; it was recently listed among the forty best venues in Russia. The club credits its success to harmonious, shared effort. "Thanks to everybody who makes this possible! You have all worked really hard and energetically. You all helped our dreams come true––so we can all continue being creative in our own big team!"

Now the entire world can hear what we do!

The man Tochilkin and Shchukin frequently credit with influential team leadership in such ventures––or adventures!––is Denis Korsunsky.  He performs live both as Clapan and––in this case, on the "MIDItation" album––as Information Ghetto. Together with yet another Krasnodar neighbor and longstanding colleague, Evgeny Fomin (aka Copper Beard), Korsunsky manages the day-to-day business at Spektral. One of his pedagogical––or perhaps promotional––statements reads: "Don't waste any time! It doesn't belong to you..." Just because digital craftwork is accessible to all, inclusiveness should not mean uselessness. 

Last among these familiar FFM faces from Krasnodar––and again represented on "SPEKTRAL VA MIDItation"––is Simak Delitvin, whose nickname plays upon a more mundane reality (Maksim Litvin). His career began in 2003 as he struggled to grow "according to the slow speed of musical evolution in the South." Web radio dramatically increased his international exposure, however, allowing for "new and global audiences." Hometown experience paid off, far beyond the limits of any regional roadmap.

Simak Delitvin's playful moniker, as inclusion on this compilation might suggest, is now tied equally to local students––through Spektral's classrooms––and to the same organization's fledgling in-house label. Lecture halls and dance floors alternate with increasing frequency. "Now the entire world can hear what we do," says Korsunsky. "The seventy largest music stores worldwide are currently offering our sounds. We've done plenty at Spektral to familiarize the Russian public with brand-new technology in our classrooms. Now we have a fresh, additional goal before us: to showcase our graduates [and teachers] across the globe!"

Krasnodar, together with Novosibirsk, has arguably been the most important location for cutting-edge Russian electronica over the last ten years. The "SPEKTRAL VA MIDItation" LP, as evidence in support of that claim, is both a wonderful reintroduction to local teachers and a snapshot of current pupils, far beyond the sunny beaches of the Black Sea

Simak Delitvin (Maksim Litvin) & Denis Korsunsky (Information Ghetto)

Audio

Arbiem – Gor. 104 (feat. Fenya)
Wols – Gorvetka
Simak Delitvin – Solstice of Benefactor

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