The Subwise label in St. Petersburg is currently advertising the publication of two recordings by the little-known project Just Aum, itself from Volgograd. Given that situation and silence, there's an immediate need to go in search of contextual information. The first piece of background data that floats to the surface - after concerted detective work - reads as follows in translation. "In my daily life I'm known as Olga - and I've been playing electronic music since October 2010. To start with, everything was done on a fairly inconsistent basis - and it was impossible to listen to the results! Some people said their earphones even flew off their head..."
A healthy sense of humor is evident from the outset.
Some people said their earphones even flew off their head...
Although there are seemingly no photographs of Just Aum, more research produces additional background data, at least in textual forms. When asked to state some basic autobiographical facts and figures for a social networking profile, our artist declares her religious interests to be "atheist and/or zen." She harbors a very negative attitude towards alcohol and smoking, while focusing all her sober effort upon the pressing issue of "personal development." Diligence is front and center.
If major investigative machinery is then launched deep into the heart of the Russian web, even more scraps and snippets can be produced. It transpires, for example, that "Aum" is to be understood as shorthand for "alternative, unknown music." Even though that same tag can certainly be found on a number of Western portals, in this case it supposedly concerns an interface of "sacral Jewish or Hindu music" with aspects of American chillout. Hope and acquiescence struggle for predominance.
And yet, whatever the relationship or relative success of these atheist or(!) sacral motifs, the theme of hard work is always foregrounded. Creative progress involves a lot more exertion than inspiration.
The legacy of Stalinist architecture in modern Volgograd
Olga runs a small blog, where some of these ideas are laid out in more evident or detailed forms. On a fairly regular basis, she despairs at moments of inactivity - and will then type up various plans or bullet points, all in the name of combatting lethargy. Recently she wrote: "I seem to be in the early stages of writer's block. Why do I think so? I've been working on a track for more than a month! MORE THAN A MONTH!!! That has never happened to me before. Usually I'll create the basic groundwork for a composition over three or four days, and then hammer out the melody over another two days..."
Endless plans and projections are drawn up in avoidance of stagnation and stupor.
I've been working on a track for more than a month!
For many domestic listeners, the hometown of Just Aum must play into this resolute scenario; the very term Volgograd - referring to the city once known as Stalingrad - has a huge and enduring resonance. The experiences of World War Two will surely never fade: аs many as two million men and women died defending these streets from German troops during 1942 and 1943. Family tragedies aside, those were unspeakably heavy losses in a realm of heavy industry. The loss of a labor force and the superhuman effort required for postwar reconstruction both seemed incomprehensible.
Even today, Volgograd is associated with the clamorous end of industrial production. The city is home to shipyards, oil refineries, steel plants, automobile factories, and a nationally famous hydroelectric station. That cityscape of the present and the unspeakable losses of the 1940s both help to make Volgograd a city synonymous with concerted, if not grim toil. For that reason, perhaps, one of the two tracks published now by Subwise is called "Agartha." That exotic noun refers to another, less material address - a mythical town supposedly hidden in the mists of the Himalayas. There, says a legend, universal wisdom and truth are being held in secret - until the moment when mankind proves itself worthy of such revelations.
Ideal knowledge will come only from collective, communal exertion.
The relationship between material effort and immaterial gain - between work and wisdom - also colors the discography of Pavel Chigarskikh, who lives and composes in Yekaterinburg. Interestingly, he documents his hometown as "Sverdlovsk" which was the name of Yekaterinburg for most of the Soviet period. Like Stalingrad, Sverdlovsk was developed as a major center of socialist industry and - on more than one occasion - was considered by the Soviet government as a place of possible retreat, should Moscow find itself under attack. Sverdlovsk was viewed as pure, persistent enterprise - in various senses of the word.
Its commitment to the tangible world took on an ethereal symbolic import. Perfect labor was an ideal.
Beauty, art, kindness, honesty... and the unconscious
Born into one such system, Pavel Chigarskikh now resides in another. The recipient of a local music education, he does much to avoid the industrial or political changes that would mark a difficult transition from Sverdlovsk to Yekaterinburg. He declares, for example, his general worldview to be colored by "the power of the sun," and that various other - apolitical - emphases take precedence over anything stridently civic. Foremost among his cherished values and virtues are "beauty, art, kindness, honesty... and the unconscious."
Interestingly enough, he then documents Dostoevsky's novel "The Idiot" (1869) as his favorite book. That story is, of course, largely dedicated to the tensions between material and immaterial values - between commerce and conviction, finance and faith. The yearning - or physical effort! - in search of something loftier colors the entire story and produces a host of well-known quotes. For example: “It is easier for a Russian to become an atheist than for any other people in the world. And not only does a Russian 'become an atheist,' but he actually believes in atheism, just as though he'd found a new faith, not perceiving that he has pinned his faith to a negation. Such is our anguished thirst!”
A long-standing sonic curiosity. One of Pavel Chigarskikh's current avatars
The sounds coming from Volgograd and Yekaterinburg both hope to find some productive, self-generating system beyond effort, engineering, and industry. Imaginary cities amid Himalayan fog and Dostoevskian spirituality set the stage. The noises generated in search of that elusive, alternative realm will not, however, be complacent or leisurely. Chigarskikh's choice of favorite novel certainly speaks much more to "anguished thirst" than to spiritual progress. Hard work will produce harsh noises. Consequently he offers another favorite quote, which on this occasion was seemingly overheard in real life: "Pavel - what are all those noises? It's some kind of psychological torment!"
The two tracks we've chosen represent that disparity. They show the primary poles of Chigarskikh's electronic output: drone and industrial, even acousmatic clamor. Enduring or energetic states, stasis or industry. Neither has the upper hand.
What are all those noises? It's some kind of psychological torment!
Since the world appears unwilling to link yearning and revelation, one could, perhaps, adopt an escapist register instead, as we see with the Moscow-based pianist Ashot Danielyan. He publishes quiet, semi-improvised instrumentals on the back of a classical education at the prestigious Gnessin Russian Academy of Music. The great majority of his restrained, even ambient compositions are dedicated to the charms of a nameless muse. In a similar spirit, he imagines a considerable part of his dossier to be "cinematic" in nature and therefore capable of either accompanying or generating a parallel, immersive actuality.
Although very reticent on his various web platforms, he does at least provide a list of telling quotes and aphorisms. As with Pavel Chigarskikh, famous or eloquent individuals are used to make sense of reality's conundrums. These sampled voices range from the maudlin (Bernie Taupin) to various representatives of moral upstanding (Sherlock Holmes, President John Kennedy, and others).
Gradually, though, Danielyan's pearls of wisdom come from other figures whose biographies suggest a decreasing satisfaction with ostensible experience. These might include Mafia heroes from the silver screen, Hunter S. Thompson, Roger Waters, or Timothy Leary.
Ashot Danielyan (Moscow)
By the time we reach Cheech & Chong, it's clear that typicality is being fled in earnest. But why the rapid search for an escape? The final quote in Danielyan's selections comes from liberal politician Boris Nemtsov, whose assessment of Slavic life is not positive. "There's always a choice in Russia... between bad and worse."
A related air of hopelessness, perhaps, informs the work of Kievan artist Zelmershead (Anton Pokrovsky), who is currently working on a new EP - "Invisibles" - for release next month. Pokrovsky has expressed a rather cynical attitude towards "real-world" success in the past, especially when it comes to creative labors. One of his recent - and rather sarcastic - comments posted online read: "I'll never be famous, That's awesome!!!"
There's always a choice in Russia... between bad and worse (Boris Nemtsov)
Cynicism, self-doubt, and a cutting sense of humor all seemed to be operating in the same space. His April "WhiteSideBlack" recordings (produced with Lin Helly, below) emerged as a result of similarly muddled sensations. That earlier release was praised by one Western blogger as an impressive evocation of (metaphorical) "darkness and the mind's mysterious wanderings."
Such were the concrete images that emerged from abstract, dub-tinged trip-hop a few months ago.
It's interesting to note the most recent response this summer to Zelmershead's recordings in the Ukrainian press. Local listeners imagine here the workings of a specifically local reality, and to what degree they'll ever acquiesce to personal whim. Translated into English, those comments might read as follows:
Imagine yourself in a cityscape - and suddenly enveloped by fog...
"Imagine yourself in a cityscape - and suddenly enveloped by fog. You stand still. The world around you is illusory... and the tension's growing with every second, too. The only bodily sensation that remains trustworthy is your hearing. Your ears catch some deep tremors, together with a strange crackling and rustling. The voice of an unknown singer resonates somewhere. There's a lingering sensation in this mist of not being alone..."
The new music by Just Aum and Pavel Chigarskikh is colored by themes of "industry" - and questions of whether effort is synonymous with progress. The answer is far from clear. Hard work may guarantee nothing. While the instrumentals of Ashot Danielyan are inclined to take refuge in private sentiment, maximally distant from civic enterprise, the Kievan press views Zelmershead's catalog as reflective of weak agency in the world. Self-determination - no matter one's wishes or will - is deemed to be (eternally) vague and directionless. Bristolian trip-hop pays a visit to the streets of Ukraine: it seems very much at home.