A hundred and one years ago, on the morning of June 30, 1908, a massive explosion sounded in the sky above the Tunguska river in central Siberia. To this day the exact cause of the blast is unknown, but the general assumption - after decades of research - is that a meteoroid plowed into the earth's atmosphere, creating gigantic shock-waves as it fell apart maybe 5 miles from the ground.
Over eight hundred square miles were decimated (above), previously covered by dense forest. More than one thousand times more powerful than the Hiroshima nuclear bomb of WWII, the blast threw approximately 80 million trees to the floor. If - for some strange reason - you'd like to get an idea of what this sounded like - a Hungarian website has created a five-minute approximation.
Thankfully there is not a physical equivalent for us to (re)experience, since these shock-waves were so inexplicably mighty, they were registered even in the United Kingdom.
The Tunguska region has now produced a musical collaboration, born just before the explosion's one hundredth anniversary - in other words in April, 2007. Its members declare they came together in order to "draw public attention to such an event." In fact it's interesting to note how the explosion is referred to alternatively in English and Russian as an "event" and/or "a catastrophe." This reflects the ongoing uncertainty - despite scientific evidence - as to what caused it; theories of alien involvement are loud and insistent, even today.
People in distant villages who were blown from their feet (but nonetheless survived) ran to their churches in order to ask if Armageddon had begun; once it became clear this wasn't so, surely the most appropriate music would have been some chill-out.
And that's what today's Tunguska project offers us: "melodious instrumental and electronic music." The Tunguska project has produced a manifesto to shape its future activities, founded upon the basic principles of "free people writing free music... for free people."
This cyclical logic is seen elsewhere, for example in the project's assertion that anybody can potentially become a member if s/he "shares our moral principles, ideas, and goals. The main goal is to create a domain of alternative music, video, and cinema. The basic motivation for our creativity... is creativity itself."
The main goal is to create a domain of alternative music, video, and cinema. The basic motivation for our creativity... is creativity itself.
Given the distant Siberian roots of TEMS, plus their inspiration from the forest explosion, there's a strong sense of an ecologically-driven aesthetic here. The musicians are joined by a self-generating system of creativity: they compose because they compose. This, allegedly, is a musical enterprise that is always beginning, yet never ends. No doubt the young men and women at TEMS would smile at this point in the conversation and tell us: "Yes, just like nature."
In the goal-driven world of urban commerce, these soothing, circuitous melodies are a precious commodity, either as an antidote to frantic activity or a marketable illusion of peace and calm. For those reasons, perhaps, some of the music in this post has already been used on mobile phones and in computer games.
It has also - for happier reasons - scored an ecologically concerned documentary film ("Heart of the Taiga") and played in the background of nature shows for the Discovery channel. Even National Geographic has come knocking to borrow TEMS' music for several presentations.
The group also notes that various institutions around Europe have used these instrumentals, too: a technical museum in Munich, chain-stores in Ukraine, branches of IKEA, and a multitude of bars, restaurants, cafes, and gyms - all the way from Moscow to Madrid... passing through Greek and Croatian locales en route.
Chillout allegedly began in Great Britain, in the clubs of Manchester as respite from the sound and speed of the dancefloor. By the early 1990s the British government was obliging club owners to include some kind of chillout facility in every facility - together with lots of drinking water, all for those people who were dehydrated after popping some less-than-legal objects into their mouths. In Russia, though, the style seems to have more of a social resonance and begs parallels with the recent rise of slacker and stoner rock in Moscow. Dropping out seems increasingly attractive.
In terms of what that dropping-out sounds like, British chillout grew from the very English, nostalgic melodies of the Durutti Column or dreams of summer via Balearic soundscapes. Russian chillout and downtempo, in this case from TEMS, is turning to some of the most powerful metaphors of patriotism: endless Siberian forests. British chillout wants to vanish into childhood or go on holiday; the Russian version wants to join the bears, trees, and beavers.
In even simpler terms, the UK equivalent is introverted or centripetal; TEMS is, conversely, offering music for increasing, centrifugal membership in systems that have - for centuries - symbolized the social strengths of a nation. It's drawing upon ecological systems, the biggest and most complex social spaces of all. That suggests that the composers of these tracks are - at least unconsciously - unhappy with the way things are right now.
Designed for chilling out, this could - in fact - be music of extreme social protest.