Commedia dell'Arte: Yoki, Olga Arefieva, Surfer Rosa, and Fontan

Olga Arefieva (Yekaterinburg/Moscow): "Theater" (2013)

Olga Arefieva is a staple on the Russian folk scene; she also enjoys a related fame in various offshoots of that same tradition. Born not far from Yekaterinburg, she first passed through a regional university education and came quickly to national attention as the 1980s ended - along with the Soviet Union. As an empire gradually collapsed, Arefieva moved permanently to Moscow, where entertainment was becoming a very different "business." Further musical training was undergone in the capital's finest schools, whilst Arefieva began to grace the pages of some very prestigious literary journals. Over time, she has both studied and employed aspects of modern stagecraft with а similar vigor. In short, Olga Arefieva has proven herself to be a woman of many talents and widespread critical success. 

There's mystery, magic, celebration - and failure, too

Thanks to the unwavering support of colleague and multi-instrumentalist Petr Akimov, Olga Arefieva almost always performs with her band known as "Kovcheg" (i.e., "Ark"). Together these artists have continued to dovetail music, drama, and elements of the printed page. Arefieva's newest album, reflecting these lengthy timelines and generic interfaces, is simply called "Teatr." Its authors describe the LP as follows: "'Teatr' is like a christmas cracker, full of confetti. An entire world is contained within a magic box, full of hidden springs. If you look inside, though, you'll find neither candy nor sparkles... this is a risky walk upon a tight-rope, strung between skyscrapers. Olga Arefieva's songs are inspired by the mysteries of a clown's craft [and the parallel space of a circus]. A clown's work is both sacred and profane; countless generations have been secretly attracted - by those same talents - into tents full of wandering artists or comedians..."

A new interview with Arefieva has brought some clarity to these abstract celebrations of jesters, holy fools, Commedia dell'arte, and decadent pre-Revolutionary cafes. "I've long been excited by the theater. I mean the stage, glistening with limelight, and a lone actor.. I mean those dusty places offstage and the hidden figures who make this little world go round [with pulleys and levers]. You'll find fantasy, tragedy, tears, excitement, and playful narratives both big and small. It's a world of cardboard majesty. There's intrigue, revelation, celebration - and failure, too."  

Olga Arefieva and the members of "Kovcheg" on stage

Arefieva feels that her study of stagecraft has led to a "hybrid of things material and immaterial... Everything takes place in a space of amazement, mysticism, and wonder. Everything is made from nothing."

Another appeal of the theater lies in endless variety (in various senses of the word); it offers the possibility of constant, disorienting difference. All of which is a healthy alternative to quotidian tedium. Arefieva feels, therefore, that her listeners should come ready for the unexpected. "I have a special respect for those audience members who stick with me... The people who've found the strength in their mind, heart, and soul to handle some pretty complicated issues. I means things that are more original or peculiar [than the mainstream]. Things that operate beyond the function of mere entertainment..."

Things that operate beyond the function of mere entertainment

Originality, to paraphrase this artiste, requires the failure of tradition. It needs oddity and shock, even. Hence the desire of Soviet authorities, long ago, to close down most cafe or cabaret stages after the Revolution; "Teatr" openly celebrates those twilight years. Venues inspired by circus traditions were too unique; they were unpredictable and subversively disrespectful. Olga Arefieva's celebration of an antique art form in 2013 says something rather pointed about the present day. 

Looking even further into the past is the Moscow neo-folk ensemble Yoki, who reinterpret a wide range of pre-modern and rural practices. "The group combines both ancient and modern forms of expression. We interweave our own, original lyrics with folk melodies and the heady beats of a modern city. Each performance is designed to combine sound, dance, and the theatrical arts in an exciting display. Viewers will often be transported to a realm of fairy tales."

Yoki (Novosibirsk/Moscow): "Vesta" (2013)

These musicians have been garnering various regional and national prizes since 2004, whilst playing regularly at Russia's folk or folk-rock festivals. They also endeavor online to foster creative identities that operate far from dullness. Fiction always beats fact. By way of illustration, Aleksei Stolyarov, the band's lyricist, says he lives voluntarily without an internet connection - and avoids all social networks, therefore. There's little to learn in terms of objective, factual information. Instead Stolyarov collects and praises the works of Russia's greatest, most imaginative poets across the twentieth century.

Simultaneously, his colleagues Ol'ga Larionova and Valentina Tolmacheva "carry within them with the cultural traditions of their native Siberia [i.e., Novosibirsk]." Spontaneous expressions of that heritage are filtered through the expertise of a classical education. Instruments both modern and ancient are brought to the fray. Added to countless electronic samples, this melange of wood, wires, and the ether leads to what Yoki call an opportunity for "total surprise." Whenever new themes and emphases are brought to fruition, involving a clash of custom and fleeting whim, the artists then voice their desire to develop or fix everything in a theatrical format. The best place in which to vivify the past - and foster the unexpected - is the stage. 

The creation of everything from nothing

These statements recall Olga Arefieva's specific love of the theater as a small, self-contained, and self-determining world. It creates "everything from nothing" using the invisible skills of "hidden figures [or stagehands] who make that little world turn." Once more, this understanding of dramaturgy as creation ex nihilo suggests that modernity has become predictable, dull, and closed to surprising intervention. 

A view of the (fixed!) past as home to unexpectedness appears elsewhere this week - albeit with less jollity and in different genres. We might turn to the Voronezh alt-rock outfit, Surfer Rosa. On most of their web resources they declare: "We play alternative rock the way it was in the 1990s - energetic and strident, yet simultaneously melodic and fragile, too." These romantic ideals first emerged last summer from the ashes of older Voronezh outfits, such as the rather misjudged "Mr. Hitler & His Magic Friends." 

Yoki and metaphors of movement from the past

Local indifference appears to be an ongoing problem. "It's part of the general Voronezh mentality, if not something nationwide. People just sit at home and say: 'There's nothing going on here. There never was - and there never will be.' Nobody's ever interested in anything because they reckon it's all rubbish. We could be playing a gig where nothing's audible, 'cos the crowd is shouting so loud - and somebody will still claim we're 'just another Voronezh band.'" 

People just sit at home and say: 'There's nothing going on here'

These doubts persist, even within the group. "It's too early for us to consider any sort of crowd-funding. We have to achieve something first of all. You have to be so f***ing cool before anybody actually gives you money"; "We can't do anything on our own. Nothing happens in Russia of its own accord. It's pointless thinking it will."

When talk turns to a couple of domestic outfits that have actually done well, the assumption within Surfer Rosa is that they've received suspect help or unfair financing. "It's evident that nobody in Russia is ever going to work with somebody like us"; "In the West people understand they need good production standards... Here everything's different, though. Nobody even wants to try [and challenge sad likelihood]."  

Surfer Rosa's wariness - together with their overt nostalgia - leads logically to a discussion of their stage-name, which is surely taken from the Pixies album of 1988. Depressingly rich in themes of physical abuse and other predatory passions, it offers today's listeners a cathartic decadence, perhaps. In other words, in a city (or nation) where "nobody even wants to try," the allure of surrender would be great. Recordings such as "Surfer Rosa" arguably foster a fatalism that allows free will to throw in the towel - and therefore remove all anxiety. If all is lost, then worry logically concludes, too. 

Olga Arefieva and Yoki interweave the past and present in order to create a stylistic melange of constant, even timelessly significant surprise. Innovation and creative freedom are pulled from times gone by. Surfer Rosa, conversely, look back to some morbid material of the 1990s and feel that nothing has changed; local realia will swamp all possible, "theatrical" metamorphoses. Liberties can never overcome real life. 

Surfer Rosa: five representatives of a fragile optimism in Voronezh

Moscow noise-pop and shoegaze outfit Fontan decide to borrow their own view of the universe - and happiness in particular - from Kafka. The stage is quickly set for skepticism by this threesome: David San Martin (bass), Mikhail Kamnev (drums), and Demid Miroshnichenko (guitar). Vocal responsibilities are shared among some wary youngsters. Arrogance has no place in a potentially nasty world. They recently uploaded this promotional text: "The term 'shoegaze' was invented as a mocking definition of uncharismatic artists - the kind who don't put on a flashy show. They look detached and act in a passive, apathetic manner, just 'gazing' at their shoes. If you come and see us play, you'll discover that we [as modern representatives of that style] cannot play our instruments at all. Don't come to the show! Don't repost this message!"

You must make mistakes, fall down, hurt yourself, and lose everything (L. Tolstoy)

A sense that magic, transformation, and metamorphoses were once possible is palpable on one Fontan webpage. Guitarist Demid Miroshnichenko recently posted a large compilation of Soviet electronic music, noting its difficult relationship with the authorities. Tales of distant fantasy were divorced from political pragmatism, yet spoke to more excitement and optimism than everyday socialism could manage. As a result, even wordless tracks were often "gently" forbidden, as Miroshnichenko says. Lying in the background of Fontan's romance is a sneaking suspicion that Surfer Rosa's fatalism may, perhaps, be justified.  

In that light, Miroshnichenko also quotes some words from Leo Tolstoy, which in translation could read: “You must make mistakes, fall down, hurt yourself, and lose everything. Peace of mind is spiritually vulgar." With those beliefs held high, even the most skeptical, pessimistic artist can perhaps venture forth. Safe in the knowledge that Olga Arefieva's magical, miniature universe will indeed be crushed by reality(!), these young fatalists can hope for increased wisdom as a result, together with - in Tolstoy's words - "honestly." Truth only comes from discovering what doesn't work.

Put differently, the stage is a place of delusion. According to the notes left online by Fontan, both honesty and truth lie outside, amid the blows of actuality. Two of these ensembles celebrate subjective fantasy; the other two think ostensible reality will - certainly! - lead any hopeful "magic" into "mistakes, failure, and loss." Neither is much cause for joy. 

 A distant, doubting gaze. Fontan (Moscow): "Way Out" (2013)


Yoki – Gulyala (I Strolled)
Fontan – On the Road
Yoki – Volya (Freedom)
Fontan – Way Out

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