Zemfira and Ksenia Fedorova: The Elusive Sound of Perfect Intonation

A few days ago, Russia's most famous rock chanteuse - Zemfira - placed a large amount of concert video onlinе for free downloading. The footage came from a couple of shows that took place on 17 and 18 September 2010 in Moscow's Crocus City Hall and the Strelka Art Center. The performances were part and parcel of a mini-tour designed to promote the re-release of Zemfira's early CDs. Consequently, the set lists involved much that was familiar.

Needless to say, it was only a matter of hours before anonymous individuals had stripped the audio from that footage and distributed it online, too. Thus the images and soundtrack began to circulate both together and separately, each celebrating the singer's back-catalog.

As usual, Zemfira avoided both interviews and promotional chit-chat; the shows had been equally restrained, with little tolerance for visual frippery. Many of the songs, already known verbatim by audiences, were downscaled to a very basic, semi-acoustic format.

This search for some "essential" values within the artist's discography would be important, as we'll see.

In that same context, it's interesting to ask why the ripped audio appeared online in the first place. Obviously being smaller in size and easier to download, the soundtrack would appeal to those people frustrated by slow connection speeds. Nonetheless, the fact that such violence was done to the footage - and so fast! - suggests that the audible aspects of Zemfira's concerts were just as important as the visual - if not more so. She is, as mentioned, a notoriously tight-lipped artiste, which only helps to increase the value of her sung utterances. 

We're focusing, in that case, not so much upon the value of what is said - since the tracks are already nationally famous - but how.

What marks those songs, in fact Zemfira's catalog as a whole, is a grammatical and intonational style deliberately opposed to the glitz or grandeur of Moscow mainstream pop. In both her language and visual presentation onstage, a contrary, stern sense of discipline prevails. In her lyrics, two tendencies are uppermost - and both are absent from primetime fare: a flatness of phrasing and a use of quotidian, almost wantonly dull terminology. Prosaic expression and emotional tension occupy the same space.

Zemfira almost never resorts to florid or "thespian" rhetoric, preferring instead to use the curt, occasionally sulky structures of everyday speech. She keeps her expressive potential within the humdrum limits of typical experience. In the name of veracity.

As proof of that honest reductionism, we offer the first two songs from Zemfira's Moscow footage, both taken from her debut CD: "Arrivederci," and "Rhumba." The first, in translation, begins as follows:

"Moscow's ravens woke me up. Wet matches killed my will to smoke. That means I'll live longer. It means... I'll burn my bridges. I'll swap a ticket for cash. Grow my hair to my shoulders. I'll never go home. Things are interesting with you - but not with them."  There's a combination here of purposelessness and potential outburst; the tension between low self-expression and grand emotion will only increase. When a breaking point is reached and some form of lyrical statement comes forth, it's dealt with ironically. "You can see I'm burning... Somebody got confused and set me on fire."

Wet matches killed my will to smoke. That means I'll live longer. It means... I'll burn my bridges

Once again, pathos is avoided at all cost. The "right," eloquent words are rarely attempted - and never found.

"Rhumba" is no less standoffish in its attitude towards wordy drama: "I'd cast a spell on Thursday... honestly, no kidding - and take you away. But I know I really shouldn't. I opened the door. The snowflakes, frozen together, would cheer me up. I'd dial your number... but it's all useless. All pointless." In recalling - or considering - these steps, the singer is again merciless in her self-assessment: "I got cocky. Should've pitied myself, but I loved you so much..." Emotional commitment, when expressed out loud, is synonymous with silliness. 

Better to stay quiet - or just hum along. These are the tensions that lie within everyday banter.

Even these brief translated quotes show the degree to which Zemfira's lyrics are devoid of flourish. In that light, it's instructive to look at another new and live recording, this time from a St Petersburg artiste (although recorded in Moscow). It comes from the remarkable Ksenia Fedorova, lead singer with the ensemble Kubikmaggi

Entitled "Aum Ra," this endlessly rewarding album is even more severe in format than Zemfira's live work. In essence, the 28-minute release consists of little more than Fedorova at a piano. We hear the occasional ripple of applause at the end of some tracks, but those sounds of public approval have been pushed way back in the mix. They are both deliberately hushed and even manipulated such that handclaps vanish further still into an echoing, exaggerated silence. The rare noises of human presence and approval are used, perversely, to emphasize the isolation of the performer on stage.

This context, built around Fedorova's work, matches the sounds of the songs themselves.

We say "sounds," because here too intonation is key - perhaps even more so than anything taken from the pages of a dictionary. Fedorova's technique is recognizable from a great distance, because of that incantational quality. Her fingers run swiftly back and forth across the keys in looping, almost traumatic patterns of increasing ornateness. Her voice follows, dancing on the edge of comprehensibility.

This is no penchant for baroque decoration, though; quite the opposite. It's an increasingly frantic chase for full and proper self-expression. Nervousness and anxiety make clarity impossible.

The CD's opening track, "Little Fairy Tale" (Skazochka), is built around two core elements: the childish articulation of some nonsense verse - made from sounds alone - and adult cries of pain, reappearing on multiple occasions. The youthful utterances are mere phonemes, but recognizable, nonetheless, as the singsong modulation of a happy, enchanted youngster. That music of amazement and adventure is endlessly interrupted. Sounds of comfort are rudely pushed aside by bird-like cries - redolent of the "Moscow ravens" mentioned above.

For Zemfira, the "poetry" of hope remains elusive; it is stuck on the level of brief, often frustratingly mundane phrasing. On the level of a raven's dry-throated call. For Fedorova, in a similar fashion, some vague form of anxious discomfort refuses to let the musicality of "little fairy tales" sound forth. And so the cyclical movements persist in her work, running - over and over - towards a possible crescendo or heartfelt breakthrough.

This alternatively anxious and ecstatic style comes, no doubt, from the singer's conviction that "one should write as if God were watching." Paltry language and a divine challenge are unlikely to find an easy middle ground.

Fedorova recently admitted that "a tragic worldview exists within us - first and foremost." She sees that sadness as an unavoidable consequence of life's brevity: romantic irony, itself the product of a short lifespan, slips into farce, self-condemnation, and then tragedy. Most ridiculous of all, only by making an artistic statement does the gap between daily existence and a "divine" calling become evident. Only by speaking do the limitations of speech appear. Effort, therefore, is tied directly to exhaustion - and talking is bound to an embarrassed silence.

...you should write as if God were watching

If we take the daily fumbling and failings of Zemfira's heroine - and place them within the brief lifespan of Fedorova's - then a sense of desperation is bound to grow. The disconnect between feeble grammar, childish "little tales," and a stern, watchful figure is almost inconceivable. 

Or, more accurately, inexpressible.

Which brings us back yet again to the issue of intonation and sound rather than (troubled, fractured) semantics. Fedorova recently said that she "makes no pretension to the calling of a 'poet' or 'speaker of truths'! The lyrics of my songs interest me more in terms of how they sound."

Here the album's name is of direct importance; it also forms the basis of the artwork, shown above. The syllable "aum" in Hindu thought - as a monotone, singular vibration - represents the totally of universal creation and consciousness. It gives form to the notion of God, prior to language - which will only spoil that wholeness. In a world where noisy ravens and wet matches make romance, let alone trusting faith impossible, we should not be surprised that Fedorova is enchanted by attempts to deal with essential sounds, prior to any nervous runaround the dictionary.

Especially if God's watching.

There are theories in modern anthropology to support these themes. Some would hold that there once existed a prehistoric "musilanguage," made of elongated sounds to evoke universal notions; with the creation of language as we know it, though, that mystical tongue was lost. It became a romantic ideal - yet endures with us in the traditions of melodrama, for example, offering music when amorous feelings are inexpressible on stage.

Now as then, when reality looks hopeless, our favorite, inspiring sounds offer an alternative - mobile! - context, a way to improve the saddest of surroundings.

No wonder, therefore, that the audio was stolen from the Zemfira footage. Take the melody and run....


Zemfira – Arrivederci and Rhumba (live)
Ksenia Fedorova – Little Fairy Tale

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