Three Kinds of Optimism and Cheer: Tanya Zykina, HFBN, and Igor Rysev

Tanya Zykina, Live 2011

This summer, singer-songwriter Tanya Zykina released a delightful live album that was made in a small and storied concert hall on the outskirts of Moscow. More specifically, her songs were committed to tape in Zvenigorod on the western periphery of the capital. There were both financial and cultural benefits to playing a little further from standard venues: the theater chosen by Zykina had been named in honor of Liubov' Orlova, arguably the most famous chanteuse of Russia in the 1930s - and beyond, too, during the years of high Stalinism. This leafy address had, therefore, immediate and impressive associations with a kind of consoling - or inspiring - music written for an unpredictable age. Zykina's sentimental narratives were deliberately placed in a rich context, one suggesting that local (if not national) experience is always in need of a comforting alternative. Even if it only lasts for three minutes.

Love songs, it seems, never go out of fashion in places where love itself is a particular challenge. 

Interaction with one's audience is conducted in intimate half-whispers

And now, against that culturally savvy backdrop, we have Zykina's newest album, "Me and My Expectations" (Ya i Moi Ozhidaniya). It establishes the same dignified and yet strikingly earnest tone. The Russian press defined this kind of understated delivery rather nicely a few days ago:

"Tanya Zykina operates in a quiet realm of popularity, where interaction with one's audience is conducted in intimate half-whispers. In the background, some kind of pastoral keyboard motifs will often sketch a song of mermaids." That final turn of phrase is employed with a touch of irony, but it certainly speaks to the ongoing appeal of peace, quiet, and their associations with somewhere else. It speaks to their connection with an absent ideal. 

Tanya Zykina, "Me and My Expectations" (2011)

Zykina has tended to view these aquatic or maritime metaphors in a less fanciful light. "I've long been convinced that my career path mirrors that of a submarine! I've traveled through different waters - but now found a proper, deep harbor where things happily come to rest. I need that sense of 'depth' - and have every intention of staying here." Understated romance operates at a willing distance from the gaudy scale of primetime media. 

I've long been convinced that my career path mirrors that of a submarine!

As the press also notes: "Tanya rarely interacts with her audience - but that's precisely what allows her to be more 'generous' in her lyrical display." And yet, as we already imply, there's much in Russian daily experience that makes the very likelihood of any such calm or confidence tricky. A couple of days ago, by way of example, Zykina provided some background to her views of modern hope (and dreams) on a LiveJournal account. In particular, she expressed her amazement at the fickle workings of fate in the lives of old friends: what she knew of those friends at school had proven no indication of where adult experience might take them.

Destiny had played surprising and sometimes cruel games with childhood plans and fantasies.

Tanya Zykina, Live 2011

"Some of my old school friends used to hate one another, but now - after a few personal failures - they've become 'close buddies' in a sea of booze. Others have swapped a lack of private happiness for religion and started to show an unhealthy degree of spiritual zeal. Others [as fashion victims] wear sandals on top of their socks and walk around with their shirt always tucked in! Then there are some who've become total workaholics... due to a lack of sex. A few still live with their mother - or with the kind of person they would have despised in years gone by. Some have turned out to be completely dishonest..."

I am content with my own, rather unsightly version of happiness

She finishes by saying - in wise, yet somewhat resigned tones: "Whatever fate we're dealt, the only thing that matters is whether a person's happy... or not. I personally am content with my own, rather unsightly version of happiness - whatever others might think of me. And vice versa."

And so the uplifting, intimate tone of Zykina's songs acquires a more "adult" resonance against the modest, yet endless contradictions of surrounding actuality. Daily life simply refuses to unfold with the pleasing patterns of a song or screenplay. All of which makes Tanya Zykina's recordings more valuable. She continues to be an impressive, intelligent voice within Russian popular music, operating at a sensible (and happy!) distance from the clamor of mainstream media.

Hum Flying Bulletproof Noodle (Minsk)

This celebration of rare simplicity is just as important for the distant ensemble from Minsk known as Hum Flying Bulletproof Noodle (and usually with lowercase characters). "Hello!" they say in the newest online statement: "We are HFBN. You can find us sitting around at home, where we write music and drink tea - some time around 5pm on most days. Every now and then we'll go and rehearse. Occasionally we'll play a concert. For the last two years we've been recording an album."

Already we hear an ironic description of undemanding, daily habit - as if normality rarely works with such ease. Instead these musicians are faced with petty, persistent obstacles: the kind that turn straightforward recording goals into 24-month challenges. 

We sing about various kinds of adventure - or about journeys out to sea

The result of that effort is described thus: "The new album's full of interesting stuff. You'll find unique guitar effects, little bells taken from an orchestra, small sampled violins, synthesizers, drum machines, and in one track there are even live drums!" Life rarely makes this childish scale an elementary goal. It tends to reduce or frustrate, by way of quotidian hassle, the likelihood of the experiences that are documented in HFBN's songs: "We sing about various kinds of adventure - or about journeys out to sea. In fact, the new album contains a track that's all about the ocean!" Various unexpected problems complicate that passage outwards - to open waters and freer movement.

Hum Flying Bulletproof Noodle: "Tape" (2011)

The CD's artwork situates our point of view in a related, liminal location of possible romance: we're placed in between terra firma and hopes for a distant horizon. In considering these hushed tensions between fact and fiction, the Belarus web-press has already spoken kindly of HFBN's complex and admirably insistent lyricism. "It all sounds like music filtered through the consciousness of an unsociable youngster. The kind of person who would respond to the world's pushy noise by sitting down at the piano and writing an earnest, simple melody for a broken heart."

Earnest, simple melodies for a broken heart

This yearning for distant places and elusive ease sometimes reaches the point where textual specificity is abandoned in favor of empathetic intonation, pure and simple. The mere sound of emotion steps in where language is unable to designate its shifting object of desire. Vocalist Egor Iarovskii has said: "Our English lyrics come together through inertia and nothing more. They mean absolutely nothing: in fact, there are even two songs on the album where I sing exactly the same text!" 

The album's title - "Tape" - also plays into this theme of illusory, and therefore vigorously sought, simplicity. HFBN's second vocalist Ivan Kilin has declared: "The word 'tape' has multiple meanings, and that's precisely why we chose it." It refers both to a mobile form of expression and to a ribbon-like pattern of audio samples taken from various locations, all the way from moribund Russian electronica (4 Pozicii Bruno) to Shostakovich's string quartets. "We tried putting things together according to a [mosaic or patchwork] system of motifs, and it kinda works!" These searches for an appropriate register succeed only with concerted effort: finding the words to mirror unpredictability is no easy task.

Hum Flying Bulletproof Noodle

And yet, when they do indeed "work," the gratitude of their authors can be considerable. Kilin just admitted: "When I heard the new recording [done by our drummer] for the first time, I got a real lump in my throat. That is precisely the reason why I've dedicated my life to music. You reckon you know somebody and then - wow! - he goes and makes something that beautiful!" Disarmingly honest, open, and accurate self-expression is a rare and therefore precious occurrence: it emerges unexpectedly from people whose past behavior proves no indicator of future likelihood.

This kind of musing - and emotionally committed performance - tends, as we see, towards the validation of various universals. Zykina's thoughts on the passage of time - and how it alters the workings of the heart - would be applicable to any generation. 

For that reason, it's worth paying attention to some brand-new recordings from the town of Kirov in central Russia. All of a sudden, a local netlabel has produced some profoundly "Russian" instrumentals - thanks to an accordion and cheap xylophone - which are bordering on good-natured stereotype. And yet that very stereotype is a product of its endless relevance. The only reason that an accordion summons both a wry smile and thoughts of penniless, provincial romantics is because it seems - simultaneously - so likely.

No great graphic or compositional skill is needed to depict a universally recognizable scenario.

One of Igor Rysev's side-projects: "Iyi and Mashamasha"

One can imagine an entire nation(!) of unshaven accordion players, each wailing beneath the stars with a bottle of beer. It's an image simultaneously comical and yet deeply touching. So who, therefore, is behind these miniature tracks, which are only attributed to a collective with the unpronounceable name of Iyi (Йый)? A good amount of time spent digging online and looking in dusty corners will unearth a young man known as Igor Rysev, who lives in Kirov but is, like HFBN, originally from Minsk.

He has a multitude of stage-names and half-empty web venues, none of which play a central or organizational role. Various side-projects, spinoffs, and alter-egos all help to illustrate a snowballing process. They do not, however, locate that activity any closer to one, objectively defined individual and his coherent statements of purpose. What we find is activity, not direction.

UP Musik: 'The true avant-garde / underground sound of Kirov'

Bringing at least some order to the proceedings is the Kirov netlabel, UP Musik, who are publishing this material. The staff happily declare their commitment to various forms of freedom: UP, in a related spirit, recognizes no stylistic limits among possible contributors - and has no intention of selling anything. That upbeat manifesto, however, might also be interpreted as acquiescence to economic realia. A positive spin is put upon the total inability to make music a profitable career or "move forward," in a professional sense. For that reason, perhaps, much of what UP Musik releases has a certain chillout aesthetic, often by way of reggae and dub. 

Igor Rysev, somewhere on the road out of town

Kirov itself is a fine mirror of domestic history - and the role of civic chance on a grand scale. The city grew slowly over several centuries, eventually becoming a major transportation hub, thanks in part to railway developments of the 19th century. And yet many of the local rail, river, and air companies all went broke with frightening speed during the market-driven insecurities of the 1990s. A long-established stability suddenly fell away - for no predictable reason. The local economy was devestated, as were the lives of Kirov's residents.

In a related manner, one of these new Kirov recordings from Igor Rysev (or, if we prefer, Йый) makes much use of a subtantial quote from the screenplay of Jim Jarmusch's 1986 drama, "Down by Law." In that movie, three figures try to make sense of their own (comical) lives, being imprisoned for crimes they did not commit. Together they manage to escape prison, but life, love, and free movement outside are almost too frightening. Existential and directional choices are more disturbing than they first seemed.

Wanting and then managing liberties are two very different challenges. Hence the desire for an occasional love song and its reassuring, even cliched patterns. The role of a simple, dignified tune - bolstered by the story of some lovelorn hero - means even more to those people whose lives are topsy-turvy.

It takes, apparently, only three minutes and a catchy melody to instill a modicum of optimism and cheer: those two emotions come from a growing sense of common experience. Tanya Zykina found that commonality on the edge of Moscow, where modern corporate architecture fades away and the happy repetitions of provincial experience begin. Were Mr. Rysev to travel to the edge of Kirov, he'd find a similarly happy transition into history and a qualitatively different "congregation."

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