The St. Petersburg netlabel Festival Lounge has just published an appealingly titled "Spring Edition" compilation, showcasing a wide range of dance tracks. The styles tend towards deep- and tech-house, but whatever the recognizability of those sounds, the people creating them are mostly unknown. A few of the performers here have been discussed on FFM, but - for the most part - we're dealing with debut acts, from a range of locations around Russia and Ukraine. Lest these young men and women be forgotten, we'd like to frame the material with some information about their lives and hometowns. After all, these performers have chosen to make music for a reason that's informed by where - or how - they live. Contexts shape texts.
An audible journey into the forest
If we were looking for a familiar starting place, we'd logically turn to Alexander Saykov, who releases much of his music under the moniker of Koalips. When we first touched upon his catalog, we sketched Saykov's biography in terms of changing emphases or influences over the last few years - and therefore drew a line from Autechre to what Saykov himself called a more "melodic, calmer register." His last EP, released a few months ago, extended that same trajectory.
In a few impressionistic phrases, Koalips likened some slow and atmospheric instrumentals to "a journey into the forest." That imagined loss of orientation was then interpreted positively, as "a time for experimentation." Deceleration and a metaphorical view of waywardness were both understood as beneficial flight from the noise of the mainstream. Those same emphases and images continue today. There are benefits to getting lost.
Now included on the Festival Lounge compilation, Saykov/ Koalips has published a few simultaneous observations elsewhere that speak to this issue of unmapped or empty space in a more specific manner. "In my home town of Kaluga, there's a great deal of space between the buildings; your view of the landscape and sky is completely uninhibited. Visitors to Kaluga often tell heart-warming tales about the color of the clouds [high above the town], not to mention all kinds of curious stars at night." Saykov has since said that only electronic music allows him to express a related sense of nothingness and freedom - as they overlap.
Moving to Moscow has not reduced his sense of wonder, it seems. "The megapolis is constantly spinning. The city's heartbeat and power-lines are interwoven in a single rhythm... Some of those clusters of sonic energy become dub techno, with its pulsating flow and soft reverb."
In Kaluga, your view of the landscape and sky is uninhibited
If Kaluga and Moscow have - as we're told - made the sounds on display, then what of the other individuals on the Festival Lounge CD? We've chosen four of them here, using both their tracks on the new album and another, representative composition. In that spirit, we could move next to Vitaly Tarasuk, born in 1985 and a dedicated follower of progressive house. Apart from a few isolated facts and figures on a Russian dance portal, Tarasuk has nothing to say for himself, preferring - like Saykov - to employ music instead of wordiness in expressing his day-to-day experience.
The open streets and vista of Kaluga
Tarasuk's sounds come from the Ukrainian city of Vinnytsia, which dates back to the fourteenth century. Local history does not make for easy reading. Vinnytsia was first conceived as a fortress, in order to defend against Tatar attacks; this would only be the first of many "regional claims." Subsequent centuries would see the city tossed between Polish, Russian, and Turkish systems. Much later, when German troops invaded during WWII, they stumbled upon mass graves that held large numbers of Stalin's victims. The waves of violence were frequent enough to overlap as one intruder replaced another.
Kaluga's presumed "emptiness" prompts a certain worldview and soundscape; the awful backdrop to Vinnytsia's history (marked even now by local monuments) could make the appeal of a related, natural absence great indeed. There's little in local history that speaks of purposeful, concentrated effort within social spheres. In the comparison or juxtaposition of human presence and absence, the latter looks a lot better.
If we were seeking a more positive - and maybe predictable - framework, then we might tend to associate tech- or progressive house with a modern, possibly industrial setting, as in the West. There's a good reason, for example, why early US techno often had a "robotic" or futuristic subtext. Such are the generic expectations. Nowhere in Russia matches those assumptions better, perhaps, than Izhevsk, a city famous for some of the proto-electronica that emerged at the end of the Soviet era.
Izhevsk is over 600 miles from Moscow. This is a city born of heavy - and often bellicose - forms of enterprise, as we'll explain. "Entertainment" is not an immediate or logical association; sounds coming from here are presumed to be severe (rightly or wrongly!).
Izhevsk emerged approximately 250 years ago as an ironworks; by the start of the 19th century, royal decree had guided that noisy effort towards arms manufacturing - perhaps because the region had itself been invaded during a major uprising in the past. With equal predictability, over time, Izhevsk would then become a place of intense revolutionary activity as the events of 1917 grew closer.
The Soviet system plowed huge resources into local forms of military, often politically sensitive research. As a result, Izhevsk would eventually be closed to all outsiders. Those extreme degrees of secrecy would lead to equally vigorous rumor and vague, yet patriotic terminology. Izhevsk was referred to as the "Armory" or "Arsenal of Russia," even though almost nobody had visited. Factories and laboratories - according to a reverse logic - also produced an influential wave of stark-sounding, experimental electronica as the Soviet Union imploded in the late 1980s. Growing, if not gaping holes in the social fabric emitted some disconcerting noises.
Even from these few sentences, it should be clear that the nation spends little time associating these distant streets with club life or light entertainment. And yet... here we find the musician known as El Aero, another progressive house exponent with an added penchant for crowd-pleasing trance. His real name is Elmar Kurbanov and he has been writing or performing in Izhevsk for the last six years. The image below suggests a rather zealous approach to sound editing, much in the spirit of local industry. "Cut and paste" takes on a whole new meaning.
Although one might certainly make the argument that this city's background has informed El Aero's instrumental styles, his personal outlook works against any cultural cliches. Currently his profile on a Russian social network reads: "Whatever you do, don't get discouraged. This moment in time is perfect for showing how grateful you are to be alive. After all, things are only beginning..." And, when he transfers some of his tracks to more public, even international realms via Soundcloud, the public quickly endorses and amplifies his sunny viewpoint: "Wow... This is so deep and captivating... Could you send me this track? I'd be honored to have and play it!"
Really very nice indeed! (Soundcloud)
Our three musicians thus far come from specific, discrete spheres within Slavic music; each carries its own cultural baggage. On some occasions, those same stereotypes are actualized in the performers' material or musings: the music reflects what we expect to see. In other instances - as with El Aero - cliches are turned on their head. In other words, the classic connotations of (noisy) Moscow, industrial "provincial" centers, and even Russia's snowballing wilderness are all invoked in this compilation. We see how musicians use, abuse(!), or simply ignore the importance of their location. There's an ongoing dalliance with space - with places embraced and rejected.
What results is a fascinating push-and-pull between cultural accrual and innovation, between concrete locations and the liberty of work online. Remnants of tangible space - and its local meaning - are incorporated into "faceless" digital enterprise. Geography still has some meaning for these web-based composers. And, given that tension between real and digital locations, between fields, forests, and the ether, it seems appropriate to end with somebody very much in between them. In a liminal place of potential.
Behind the stage-name of Asten we find Evgeny Suglobov, yet again a declared aficionado of progressive house. With eight years' experience behind him, he has seen previous publications framed as follows: "After listening to these Asten tracks, you can imagine yourself somewhere far away: deep in the cosmos, in between the planets, or on different worlds. These stories [and their locations] are so lacking in our present-day experience." Or, elsewhere: "These ethereal, sonic 'waves' make their grand debut - to awe-inspiring effect!" And where exactly might this expansive, star-gazing aesthetic be fashioned?
After listening to these tracks, you can imagine yourself somewhere far away
Although he offers no photographs online of his appearance, Asten certainly lives and works in Stupino, which is maybe sixty miles from downtown Moscow, yet still part of the capital's peripheral region. Founded only during WWII as a location for arms production, Stupino continued to grow around a secret military airbase. With the demise of the Soviet system and the reduced size of the armed forces, this town now houses the biggest chocolate factory in Russia - owned by Mars.
From a place between urban culture and the endless sweep of "inland" Russia, between two different centuries or socioeconomic systems, come sounds dedicated to a faintly imagined location "deep in the cosmos." Flights of fancy, it seems fair to say, emerge here for a special reason. The link between address and style continues, with or without digital modes of delivery. The recent picture below of Stupino shows rather well how a peripheral, liminal location - on the edge of two lifestyles - might inspire the thoughts and sounds of a distant, starry realm.
The Festival Lounge sampler shows how widespread those "cosmic" thoughts are, and the kind of places where they endure. Predictably or otherwise.
Stupino airfield, Moscow region