The Russian Association of Independent Genres has just offered for free download the album "Dante/Moscow" by Won James Won. This net-release comes as part of RAIG's new online venture, "Accessory Takes." The album consists of a single 30-minute composition originally designed to accompany a film of the same name by the Arbor Studio; before now it was only available in an extremely limited gift-edition. Offered to a new audience, it comes with an official designation: "Chilling and chaotic, mellow, melancholic, minimalist electro-acoustic ambient music."
The Dante project, subsequently published in book form, was based on a photographic exhibition by Aleksandr Maslenitsyn and Sergei Kos'ianov. The show's images were inspired by the question of whether Dante's masterpiece, already celebrated by countless painters and engravers, could be evoked in photographs. Thirty-eight images were produced from the cityscape of Moscow to conjure appropriate moods for Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven.
Won James Won work with similar questions of generic tradition or limits, both visual and audible. In existence for four years and based in St Petersburg, they run from a core duo of Daniil Smirnov and Tikhon Kubov to a seven-piece ensemble when live. In a similarly shapeless fashion, their collective output - both in and out of WJW - runs the sonic gamut of dabblings with industrial drone to part-time membership in funk/punk outfit Kirpichi (The Bricks). The results are somewhat reminiscent of Throbbing Gristle or the early years of Cabaret Voltaire.
The first video here finds them in relatively restrained form: held in place by a series of loops, "Tapeworm Delivery" maintains a discernible structure. The core metaphor of the tapeworm, however, is revealed in its full, gory glory elsewhere in WJW's portfolio. Many of the band's artworks expose an equally insistent series of looping returns to death, decay, and a chaotic sense of physicality.
With some peripheral members of WJW contributing from other locations across Russia, they together make recourse to the art-movement of Zvezdaz ("Starz") as their shared group identity. Given that the home page of Zvezdaz shows nothing more than a recumbent skeleton and remains endlessly "ANDER KONSTRAKSHN," the theme of breakdown returns once more.
WJW's MySpace page refers to Zvezdaz as "an invisible art-community" responsible for "even more unlistenable and obscure formations." Sooner or later we reach the point where formation vanishes altogether, so the works aren't obviously or regularly punctuated at all. We lose the ability to "listen" (to count, to be sure of passage) and simply find ourselves in the sounds.
"Dante/Moscow" as a singular 30-minute work also strives for that sense of sonic place, rather than for movement. Hence the Dantesque motif of a punctuated journey (ring after ring) that slowly gives way to both endless, circling forms and pure states of eternity.
At times "Dante/Moscow" displays a great beauty. Nonetheless, the danger of collapse, of physical or structural failure is what makes that gorgeous tranquility so tense. It's a latent force that's usually much more to the forefront of WJW's work. This struggle between order and disorder , individual and habitus, is well captured in "Annus Confusionis." The political connotations here and elsewhere can be numerous, but given the fact that WJW are undeniably obscure lyrically, the clearer social critique is usually left to the artwork. Hence the value of video.
This shambolic busyness allow for an interface between genres or projects that's impossible at the upper levels of the music business. In other words, WJW exist in a state of continuous financial peril. Sometimes that's audible.
In the third video, "World History, Part One," the influences move in the opposite direction: mayhem informs the mainstream. We can certainly hear strains of WJW's other, more accessible rap/funk outlets, like Kirpichi or Jazzlobster. That's the greatest value of Won James Won: although displaying an abandon that is utterly impossible inside generic performance, their investigations of formal limits nonetheless do help to invigorate the more radio-friendly endeavors. The mainstream benefits.
Kirpichi's recent rockumentary "V udare" showed this cross-fertilization in an interesting game with its own chronology. The film is split between numbers played on stage (the reality of the recent present) and prior footage of the day's preparations, where the potential of a future event is seen unfolding. In some scenes shot at home, the screen even splits three ways in the multiplicity of a single moment across several spaces, each occupied by different musicians. Traditional experiences of integrity are subjected to doubt.
These polite and pleasant structural tricks have their roots in something much, much darker.