Ekaterina Ilina and her bandmates in Moscow's Wednesday Morning
Based in Moscow, Wednesday Morning are a relatively young outfit, yet despite their brief biographies, several band members already have meaningful experience in other collectives. Anton Vinnik, for example, also performs with Siberia*––asterisk and all. That latter band recently said of its summertime LP: "We experimented with several genres of instrumental music on 'Kaleidoscope.' The resulting recording is a collection of blistering post-metal tracks, together with gentle, all-enveloping ambient textures and melodies. Taken as a whole, they're designed to represent human happiness––the kind of joy that will keep a flame [of idealism] alive. The kind of happiness that brings hope to every yearning soul."
Hence the definition of Siberia* by the performers themselves as "a musical alliance of five people unified in their love for music and all manifestations of the surrounding world. In fact, they show equal affection for everything that lies beyond the world's limits." That italicized preposition will prove especially important in looking at four professionally busy outfits this week.
Home is where all your attempts to escape cease (Naguib Mahfouz)
Some of these same ideas and ideals are transferred to Wednesday Morning, albeit in much smaller forms. Rather oddly, the band appears to have no promotional texts online. Anything resembling a programmatic statement, therefore, is more likely to appear by accident, in the private postings of individual musicians. By far the most active band member online is vocalist Elizaveta Ilina. Some of her uploaded jottings are remarkably straightforward and earnest, musing––for example––upon "unsuccessful attempts to turn back time [in the daunting face of] new languages, new plans, and a new life." These overwhelming obstacles and/or fears of the future are best captured in a quote Ilina takes from the Egyptian Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz: "Home is not where you were born; home is where all your attempts to escape cease."
She continues in a related, increasingly associative vein: "The biggest mistake we make is 'being prepared' for everything. We think more than is necessary and breath deeper than we need to. We often think about the wrong things––at the wrong time... The fifth season of the year is endless fatigue––non-stop. I've completely forgotten what that feeling is called; it's something like 'Duties Come First.' With every step I make, things are getting harder [and yet] with every step they also grow easier. It's as if I've grown numb inside, somewhere in the depths of my memory. It's something I've no time for––or I've simply, totally forgotten. We're learning how to seek a feeling of ease."
The surrounding obstacles to both serenity and/or metaphorical harmony are many, it would appear: "The world is so big, wonderful, and full of possibilities. For that same reason, it's such a shame to see people focus on arguments and anger; so many people want only to increase their rank or their ability to be condescending. They never seek our the truly beautiful aspects of life."
According to that rationale and romance, the members of Wednesday Morning take constant comfort in the stargazing optimism of their colleagues in Siberia*. Thoughts directed "beyond the world's limits" are most reassuring. Ilina again writes, having seen her friends on stage: "This is the second evening in a row I've watched Siberia*. How inspiring!" The same Moscow friends help Ilina slowly to "recall things that were once so dear to me." Promise and profundity both lie far from the here and now.
Hell is other people
This "downgrading" of actuality is what underlies the widespread use of irony and lo-fi styles in Russian popular music online. Take, by way of illustration, the project known as Kate in the Box from Rostov-on-Don. This outfit is a duo: Andrei Vozianov (percussion, vocals, and guitar) together with Sergei Tarasov (bass and computer). The band's PR material has remained fundamentally unchanged over the last six years, if not longer; put simply, there is no striving towards grandeur or adult expertise.
"Bass and drums? Yes, please. Let's emphasize them! Percussion? Absolutely! You could add a few electronic noises here and there. This is no atonal racket, though; it's just that the guitarist doesn't know how to play. But who needs a guitar solo, anyway? It'd only spoil the overall mood. We don't know how to sing, either! But who needs dance music? If there's any snobbery at work here, it's only so that we demand more of ourselves. Oh yeah... we shouldn't forget a few cultural references: LCD Soundsystem, Liquid Liquid, Pan Sonic, and Prinzhorn Dance School."
The social doubts of Wednesday Morning are extended by these Rostov-on-Don jesters, using some very famous words from Sartre: "Hell is other people." The sound needed to reflect or amplify such woes was described recently by Tarasov and Vozianov as something that's "falling on your head like an uninvited relative. It's something both alien and grotesque." Put differently, Kate in the Box do all they can to escape the moneyed sameness of primetime popular culture. Here is their alternative to well funded studio time: "The people living next to us in the dormitory just moved out. They left an empty, unoccupied room behind them––together with remnants of a sofa. We used their old cushions as a bass drum. This track is a declaration of love for a close friend of mine. It's also full of love for my grandma and grandpa, who both helped me out by clapping along in the background..."
Kate in the Box: Andrei Vozianov (L) and Sergei Tarasov
When taken on stage, the music of social apprehension remains equally messy. "Strange though it may sound, out first gig was actually in Moscow. Some kindly soul emailed me a recording of that twenty-minute horror show. It was then we understood you really have to rehearse before playing live!" Lest this contrariness seem especially odd, unusual, or wantonly obscure, Kate in the Box have uploaded an interesting article from the Russian press this season––about similar behavior among great Russian writers.
It begins by documenting the attempts among Russian officials in 2015 to approve only "proper, decent" writers for the national school curriculum. With little effort and many examples, the article's author points out Tolstoy's dislike for the church, Turgenev's links to the West, Gogol's Ukrainian roots, Pushkin's extreme liberalism, and so forth. The finest writers of the Twentieth Century, be they decadents or absurdists, were equally unlikely to prove useful for today's flag-waving nationalists. Outsiders have long been turned into insiders, by institutions in search of uniformity.
The support of friends helped us a great deal
As state-sponsored media fosters a related homogeneity in audiovisual forms, Russia's surrounding reality falls slowly apart. Rather than admit any potential improvements and promising narratives that might emerge from collapse or failure, government bodies insist that centuries of storytelling have always celebrated the status quo. Lofty literature, allegedly, is always free of protest and problems.
By endorsing the lo-fi clamor of cheap discord and disruption, performers such as Kate in the Box are arguably superior proponents of civic change and improvement. In rejecting mendacious, institutional uniformity, they are endorsing something better. Kate in the Box and Wednesday Morning need not, it follows, necessarily be seen as skeptical or contradictory ingrates. They are perhaps the embodiment of an alternative harmony, in various senses of the word. Two other outfits this week toy with the same themes of minor rebellion and muted "protest songs."
Young Adults are an all-female and Moscow-based trio: Alyona Nalimova (vocals, kazoo, and tambourine); Anna Vorfolomeeva (ukulele and vocals); plus Lera Stepanenko (trombone, beatbox). These artistes––who perform mostly cover versions––are lauded in the capital for their "easy-going, ironic manner... Young Adults' concerts always have the air of family festivity. Everything's in its proper place, together with hugs, kisses, and dances that'll make your head spin!"
Originally from Saratov, Nalimova and Stepanenko moved to Moscow after school, where they met and soon enlisted Vorfolomeeva. The first moments on stage were overwhelming for the trio, no matter the assurances of professional colleagues. "We didn't know whether to sit or stand. We had no idea how to behave––or what to do!" Vorfolomeeva admits, however, that the horror of performing live was soon overcome, despite enduring fears the "band would literally implode... A few concerts later, people finally said they could hear something resembling music! The support of friends helped us a great deal."
This return to a stable family base becomes increasingly important. Whatever fears may have persisted regarding failed communication beneath the limelight, one's nearest and dearest would stay the building blocks of something superior. Families, in brief, provided micro-social examples of something bigger and better; they remain a key social support system. The musicians of Young Adults speak with enthusiasm of any opportunity to perform at home in Saratov, for example at an upcoming children's festival. Stepanenko then says in greater––and more telling––detail: "My mother and grandmother will always come to see us. My grandma may even cry at the show; she always does that whenever I play on stage. She really wants me to sing, because my voice seems to please her!"
Songs about break-ups, romantic dates, and everything else in between
It then transpires in the same conversation that if the parents and grandparents of Young Adults ever come up on stage to sing, they'll probably only know a couple of numbers by heart: one is a nineteenth-century Russian folk song, the other a Soviet classic of World War Two. And yet commonalities will always be found. These relatives, say Stepanenko, Nalimova, and Vorfolomeeva, will probably merge their favorite ditties in a melodic pot pourri, if only because geniality is better than conflict. At the basis of both the suggested songs lies a loving relationship between two people––even if the Soviet number tells of a tank crew in battle. Once more, micro-social settings can teach the macro-social equivalents a great deal. Love speaks louder than politics; it outdoes the familial rhetoric of ideology.
Young Adults' kindred spirits, also with news to report, are the Siberian trio Platya za 130 from Novosibirsk. They are celebrated in the Russian press as a "musical and theatrical collective, emphasizing originality, positive emotion, and the fact they're unlike anyone else." One would, of course, expect any ensemble to speak of itself in terms of uniqueness, but––once again––this language implies the undesirable pressure of sameness in primetime media. Difference and diversity will place one outside the mainstream; they offer expressive freedom, together with professional constraints. This is especially important when MOR primetime songs operate so close to the fraternal language––and media budgets––of government.
In fact, these young women––Anna Morozova, Ekaterina Zhirova, and Marina Kondrat'eva––promise(!) in their PR materials not to perform the songs of several overtly named and nationally famous artists. Instead the audiences of Platya za 130 are led to expect a combination of "energy, upbeat emotion, and crazy stagecraft. We're three charming and individual women, each with a microphone."
L-R: Lera Stepanenko, Alyona Nalimova, and Anna Vorfolomeeva
Sometimes the songs of Platya za 130 are strung together in a single narrative or mini-musical, about "three maidens from a little village who travel around the world," looking for a missing chicken that once supplied the villagers with eggs. The stage program is subtitled: "How to Suffer Properly from Unhappy Love." "It's a rather sarcastic, but ultimately upbeat song cycle from both female and male viewpoints. It covers break-ups, romantic dates, and everything else in between." Without placing any real hope or faith in romantic convention, these Siberian musicians look askance at social norms. In fact their moniker refers to the very cheap dresses they wear on stage. Daily life deserves little more.
Anna Morozova explains that she and her fellow artistes actually have family connections in towns other than Novosibirsk. They are originally from Seversk (near Tomsk), Kiselyovsk (near Kemerovo), and Ulan-Ude (not far from distant Lake Baikal). Morozova was initially brought to Novosibirsk by her mother, "who wanted to make a Wunderkind out of me... I never became a pianist, but I did come back to songwriting [in this trio]. So thanks to my mother for that, because I used to hide all the songs I wrote when I was younger. I never thought they'd be interesting. I reckon that the [audience and journalistic] activity surrounding our work nowadays is really cool. It's always really scary to put yourself in front of the public, especially when singing involves heartfelt self-expression––to complete strangers. Eventually [and thankfully] Platya za 130 got the support of those listeners and close friends who truly like our work."
A micro-social world is valued over anything grander. Morozova then quotes her mother's witticism that: "In order to please everybody, you'd have to be a $100 bill." Better to be worth less––yet more valuable, so to speak.
I don't understand this meanness ('August: Osage County')
Instead of marketable tedium, Morozova has chosen of late to work on a Russian production of Tracy Letts' play, "August. Osage County." This profoundly morose snapshot of familial relationships would not lead one to seek any greater, grander equivalent in society. Basic human psychology makes a sufficient mess of even the smallest social linkages. As one of Letts' characters says, in an attempt to shield some children from woeful, adult cruelty: "Kids, go outside, would you please? I don't understand this meanness. I look at you and your sister and the way you talk to people and I don't understand it. I can't understand why folks can't be respectful to one another. I don't think there's any excuse for it."
Given the mess and meanness that these three Siberian performers frequently notice outside the four walls of a theater, the choice of "August. Osage County" is perhaps not surprising. The private posts of Wednesday Morning offer an initial, creeping doubt about modern mores; the brand-new material from Kate in the Box turns that same doubt into lo-fi, underfunded cacophony. It mirrors local life.
Any apprehensive forays out into the wide open world by Young Adults are made substantially easier by longterm friends and close family members. One small social group becomes a buffer against civic crudity. That same discrepancy between big and small assemblages is then underscored by Platya za 130, who sing tales of "unhappy love" with a smile. Their choice of an admittedly sad style guarantees audience recognition; their inclusion of a smile offers hope.
Platya za 130: Anna Morozova, Ekaterina Zhirova, Marina Kondrat'eva