Two days ago - on April 20th - various corners of modern society celebrated Counterculture Day. Rather than set fire to a police car or break some windows, participants were much more likely to smoke a joint. The reason for doing so can be traced back to California of the early 1970s - and a group of schoolchildren who stumbled across an abandoned cannabis crop. Lest any visits to those illegal plants be discovered by parents or school employees, the children used their meeting time - "4:20" - as code for anything surreptitious. Subsequently, that same slang term would become more widely employed, to the point where exponents of cannabis usage - across the US and beyond - would demand legal changes to drug legislation on the twentieth day of the fourth month.
Breathe deeply, stretch out on the sofa, and wait for the forces of nature to work their magic!
It's a very long way from Southern California to Siberia, but the Novosibirsk webzine Big Echo has just released its own celebration of "4:20" with a host of young producers, many of whom are associated with the widely respected Ritmo Sportivo label. Other contributors here include Bad Panda Records, Rainy Treehouse, and Echotourist, also based in Novosibirsk. The editor of Big Echo, Dmitry Vesnin, invites listeners to "breathe deeply, stretch out on the sofa, and wait for the forces of nature to work their magic!" (The resulting, relaxing, and often retrospective sounds can be downloaded here.)
One of the non-Russian contributors, Miro Belle (Jeff Tuyay), comes from San Diego and offers Big Echo a little insight into his own SoCal experiences of counterculture on April 20th.: "Every year at the University of California Santa Cruz campus, there's a field [Porter Meadow] where everybody just gathers around to get high on 4/20." Tuyay recalls that the effect of a private practice suddenly being celebrated in public places was too much for him; invited to partake in the open air, he turned and left the event altogether.
"The idea of coming together to get stoned for 4/20 - at 4:20 - was a bit much to handle! Everyone was surrounded in a shroud of smoke, with their cellphones and cameras in the air to document this moment of absurdity. Then everyone slowly trickled off to carry on with their days. So yeah.... That's my story. What about you?"
Gathering viewpoints from our Russian collaborators can be a bit tricky, in that they're almost all regular faces here on FFM. We already use their news and updates on a regular and timely basis. In other words, they have not published any new texts or interviews since we last discussed them - with one exception. The young performer known as Audiosynthes, who lives in the town of Oktyabrsky (near Ufa), talked recently of his music and worldview to a local newspaper. The resulting observations were always likely to be framed in optimistic terms, since the interviewer (with good reason) spoke of Audiosynthes' most recent collection as "one of the best dance records made in Russia last year."
I'll take an old track from the '70s or '80s, cut it up, stick it in the sampler...
The background to these upbeat, glo-fi sounds is sketched in the simplest terms. Audiosynthes, we're told, was studying for a job in the oil industry when he happened to download a program or two - and start composing with growing, yet amateur zeal. After two quiet years he was invited by Ritmo Sportivo to join their ranks. Daily life, however, has not changed since that endorsement; our young composer currently works for his brother in a town close to Oktyabrsky and is only able to find time for music after 9pm. "[As soon as I'm free,] I'll take an old track from the '70s or '80s, cut it up, stick it in the sampler, listen to various bits and pieces, and keep the ones that work!"
Heads go down among the diligent.
Simple pleasures evidently remain a hard-won rarity. As does public performance; Audiosynthes says he has still to play before the public in any form. In the meantime, his vivacious instrumentals, redolent of sunny shores and '80s primetime glamor, emerge from a small Russian apartment in a town nobody knows. "I've got a ton of unfinished tracks... Another problem is that I just don't have the patience to sit down and mess with them." Assiduousness, as a result, is also an issue, not to mention the ability or desire to travel across a huge nation. "I wouldn't want to leave my home town for long... I want to stay here. I like this town. Things are fine here."
I wouldn't want to leave my home town for long... I want to stay here
Guiding those muddled, yet potentially promising efforts to some degree is Ritmo Sportivo, as mentioned. Overseen by the figure of Feyorz (Ilya Bodrov), this label is currently publishing a series of "Afterhours Sessions" or EPs which showcase the efforts of other bedroom producers, each working over the course of one night. The challenge is to compose and complete a maxi-single before the sun comes up. By combining considerable potential with minimal time and small spaces, the "Afterhours Sessions" celebrate the soundscape of big dreams - fashioned in minor locations.
St. Petersburg's Cream Child (Nikita Semenov) was a recent contributor to that nocturnal project; he also brings a new work to the Big Echo tape. Here, thanks to the effort of Mr. Vesnin, he's also joined by a colleague or two whose careers bring things closer home to Siberia, such as Novosibirsk beatmaker Mechanical Thought. Despite that severe-sounding moniker, "M.T." is at least willing on one DJ portal to reveal his Christian name: Vyacheslav. Promotional materials relating to local shows reflect a similar gap between minimal PR and a dramatic stage persona; they promise "discerning post-dubstep sounds and the crazy energy of other bass-music styles."
Substantial pathos can develop underneath a standard hoodie.
Any ability to entertain those dizzy levels of (latent) romance, however, does not come easily. Comments on Soundcloud define Mechanical Thought's output as "heavy and depressive, but psychedelic." That same "heaviness" - the imprint of a material burden - finds sympathetic ears: "This is inspiring!" A community of consoling spirits starts to form.
The sensation of pushing against material or geographical obstacles directly informed a Mechanical Thought release of last year, which was framed with some very impressionistic phrasing. It suggested how Vyacheslav views his music-making as an activity that flies in the face of logic. Compositional work cannot be justified as a source of material well-being and, to make things trickier, touring is hardly an easy option, given the enormous distances between Russian towns. And so that 2011 release imagined itself as sound emerging from a wayward, faltering vessel: "When the ship returned from its eternal travels, the crew could not discern the shoreline... Sailors were slowly throwing a bulk of vinyl overboard, in order to clear space for the last party in history."
Clearing space for the last party in history
The same effect, one might argue, is audible in the track offered by Clonki, who is another Siberian and linked closely to the Dopefish Family project in Omsk. The Dopefish website says it is fundamentally designed to gather the work and efforts of young, local performers who share a common "interest in music and brown bread." There's no time for chutzpah or empty finery in a realm where basic needs sometimes go unsatisfied. There's much in the physical world to discourage these young men from doing anything at all. That tension between actuality and reverie can produce audible discord. Clonki declares an interest in fashioning what he calls "crunchy, heavy beats, together with a deep bass and all kinds of samples. As a rule, it's all spiced up with lo-fi sounds and crackling noises..."
Romance and reality face off.
Other names on the Big Echo tape (and familiar to us) include Thallus, who was born near Russia's Mongolian border, but now lives in Germany. One recent interview with Thallus on a Russian-language site prompted him to describe his creative efforts on Roland keyboards as those of a magician, hunched "over a cauldron - with clouds of smoke" billowing forth. A need to spin those audible spells relatively quickly remains at the forefront of his mind, since he admits that music - sadly - will never pay the bills. Consequently he also holds down a regular job; the hassles faced by Audiosynthes come back yet again.
Slaving over a cauldron - with clouds of smoke
Textually, the track from the Novosibirsk duo known as FACDUB stands out, both in its length and overt techno influences. It's a stark ten minutes of sound against the backdrop of fundamentally dreamy hip-hop from most of the 4/20 contributors. This project has two members: SPH (Space Holiday Rocks) and Psee (Anton Goobin).
As we noted before, the debut compositions from Psee and SHR last year took the specific form of three variations upon a similar dub-techno track, "Helsinki." That metaphor of travel was then bolstered with an accompanying video, shot entirely between the endless green carriages of a Novosibirsk shunting-yard (below). Long-distance trains and the linear, constantly mobile forms thereof dominated the film. Textually, sonically, and visually, the opening material from FACDUB was dedicated to an imagined passage - elsewhere and away from an empty status quo.
For that reason, the ongoing efforts on the Big Echo "4/20 Tape" deserve sustained applause. Against considerable odds and distances, the sounds do endure - and find welcome listeners in Santa Cruz. Some of the communal romance once exercised on Porter Meadow now takes shape in weightless, digital, and legal forms.