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Improvisation on the Fringe in Russia

By · Photography VLADIMIR GORLINSKY UND ALEXEY SYSOEV · Date 05/26/2016

200 years since his birth, Birmingham Contemporary Music Group and Karl Marx Exhibitions Organisation present a series of concerts, soundart installations and events commemorating the life and work of Karl Marx in Trier in Germany and Birmingham and London in the UK.

On April 29, 2016, the jury of a youth literature competition organized by the human rights group Memorial arrived at Moscow’s Dom Kino along with a group of participating schoolchildren. In front of the building, they were attacked by nationalist hooligans hurling eggs and paint. Among those present was the acclaimed novelist Lyudmila Ulitskaya, herself a victim of the violent Stalin-era history which Memorial aims to confront. Several of the hooligans had dressed themselves in World War II-era Soviet Army uniforms; speaking to the television cameras, they claimed the children they attacked were “Jews in need of an exorcism.”

An improvisation set by Dmitry Burtsev, Katja Rekk, and Yury Yaremtschuk, from the festival Set by Set at the Tchaikovsky Conservatory, April 2016.

On April 21, the British journalist Arthur House, the acting editor-in-chief of the Calvert Journal, gave a lecture on arts projects in Eastern Europe at the National Centre for Contemporary Arts in Nizhny Novgorod. Following the lecture, he was arrested and deported. The reason given for his expulsion was a problem with his entry visa. In 2008, each of the British Council offices in the Russian countryside was closed. It was claimed that these locations served mainly as bases for espionage and the propagation of anti-Russian values.

Since 2012, any non-governmental organization that has ever received funding from outside Russia must be registered as a “foreign agent” with the authorities—even if the funding was received only a single time. (The Duma borrowed this terminology from the Nazis.) As a result, many independent cultural foundations were forced to suspend their activities and shut down. These rules apply to contemporary music as well: for example, the Pro Arte Foundation, in St. Petersburg, which was partially funded by the Ford Foundation, had to reduce its programming to a bare minimum.

Yury Akbalkan, Orchestra; Orpheus Radio Symphony Orchestra

On April 18, Alexander Ivanovich Bastrykin, the Chairman of the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation and one of the highest-ranking officials in the country, published an article in the newspaper Kommersant calling for Chinese-style internet censorship in order to protect Russia from the “false values of Western democracy and liberalism.” He additionally proposed a law making it a criminal offense not to recognize the legitimacy of the annexation of Crimea.

Since 2013, when a law criminalizing so-called “homosexual propaganda” passed in the Duma, the number of hate crimes, including robberies and murders of gay people, has risen considerably. Suicides among gay youth have increased, while most LGBT activists have left the country; others have been arrested and subjected to humiliating treatment. On March 30, the renowned theater critic Dmitry Tsilikin was found murdered in his St. Petersburg apartment. The investigation showed that he had been brutally mutilated and tortured before his death. Two days later, the perpetrator was caught and confirmed that the motivation behind his heinous crime was Tsilikin’s homosexuality; he requested that his actions be seen in light of a “cleansing of society.”

These events—at least, in their frequency and proximity to one another—would have been unthinkable just five years ago. Today, they are the expression of the climate in Russia; a climate within which artists must work and live. The number of emigrants, many of them young and creative, doubled from 2013 to 2014, rising to approximately 220,000 people per year.

The author Sergej Newski, with Boris Yukhananov, Sverlien, Act II (Fragment), at the Electrotheatre Stanislavsky, 2015. 

The Sverlien trailer. With Sergej Newski,  Boris Filanovsky, Dmitri Kourliandski, Vladimir Rannev, Alexey Sysoev and Alexei Sioumak.

Up until three years ago, the cultural scene was characterized by a sort of productive symbiosis between radical artists and their progressive advocates within official structures. Today, cooperation with the government has become more or less impossible. A turning point was Putin’s installation of Vladimir Medinski as Minister of Culture in 2014: he promptly called for new doctrinal rules, so that only “patriotic” art that presents a “positive vision of Russia” would be eligible for funding.

Over the last four years, Medinski has relieved innumerable independent thinkers at the Ministry of Culture of their duties, such as Sofia Apfelbaum, the head of the music and theater department, and Grigory Revzin, an architecture critic and curator of the Russian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. (He had criticized the annexation of Crimea in a post on Facebook.) Boris Mesdritsch, the artistic director of the Novosibirsk State Academic Opera and Ballet, which occupies an important place in the cultural landscape, was fired; so was the renowned director of the Russian State Archive, Sergei Mironenko, whose offense was to cast doubt on a World War II-era propaganda myth, resurgent under Putin, in public. The director of the Bolshoi Theatre, Anatoly Iksanov, and the former head of the Moscow Department of Culture, Sergey Kapkov, who brought about decisive reforms to the capital’s cultural life, had to go, too.

These purges have now reached the conservatories of music. At the end of April, the leading Russian specialist on Stravinsky, Svetlana Savenko, and three of her colleagues at the Moscow Tchaikovsky Conservatory were fired, effective immediately. Massive efforts are underway to reverse the shift that took place in the cultural elite—and in its funding priorities—from around 2005 to 2010. Medinski and Alexander Kibowski, the head of the Moscow Department of Culture, have allowed themselves to be photographed alongside the leader of the Night Wolves motorcycle club. The group, which is loyal to Putin, organizes “charitable projects” financed to the tune of millions by the Ministry of Culture.

Until very recently, some sources of funding for independent projects continued to exist, providing a lifeline for a variety of new music concert formats. This funding has now dried up for all intents and purposes. One reason is that Ministry of Culture bank accounts have been frozen by a federal prosecutor, as an investigation into alleged misappropriation of public funds by five of Medinski’s surrogates proceeds. One has been arrested already, though the Minister himself, as an embodiment of the new state, will of course remain in his position. A mixture of state-controlled organized crime and pseudo-Fascist ideology, which serves to lend legitimacy and cover to this criminality, prevails. The combination seems unbeatable.

How does new music continue to exist in these new conditions? The last decade was a period of rapid growth, with innumerable new institutions aiming to support modern art and modern music being formed; new concert series, festivals and ensembles sprouting up; masterclasses and education projects conceived and carried out. In a short span of time, contemporary music attracted a new audience that was both diverse and loyal, with an average age 20 years younger than in Western Europe.

Already these institutions are being taken apart again, destroyed, left without funding. Some rudiments of the boom remain, such as the exciting, intelligently-programmed “Other Space” festival, at the Moscow State Philharmonic Society, under the direction of Vladimir Jurowski, or the International Young Composers Academy in Tchaikovsky city, by Perm. These recent additions, too, operate under permanent threat of losing their funding.

The reaction of artists to these changes may be described as a kind of massive escapism, or downshifting. Practitioners of new music don’t try, as they did five years ago, to occupy the traditional orchestral institutions; nor do they try to create their own, new ones; instead, they are gravitating toward the fringe.

The most important musical trend in Russia right now is Echtzeitmusik: a style in which composer and interpreter perform together as a kind of discrete unit. The boom in improvisation is related to the dire situation of ensembles and new music festivals, but it has its own, separate aesthetic quality. You could make a superficial comparison to the Berlin music scene around the new millennium, but with an important difference: whereas the improvisation scene there broke off from the academic composition world completely, only to be integrated a full decade later in new music festivals, in Moscow, the cooperation between improvisers and composers is thorough and intense. It’s a flourishing scene that enjoys complete independence from the state, yet it’s the “academic” composers who set the tone.

Improvisation, with Kirill Shirokov, Daniil Pilchen, Daria Zvezdina, 2014. 

Every day, several concerts of extremely radical improvised music take place. Audiences attend reliably, listen alertly, and are usually young. The scene is involved in an exciting exchange of ideas with internationally recognized improvisers. This month, artists such as Yoshihide Otomo and Shelley Hirsch will perform in Moscow—others, such as the Pitch Quartett, Sven-Åke Johansson, Sachiko M., and Annette Krebs, have performed already. The label Mikroton, which publishes exclusively improvised music, recently added Berlin-based artists Duo Boris Baltschun and Serge Baghdassarians to its roster.

Vladimir Gorlinsky, Unity for viola, electric guitar, electric piano, percussion, and cello; KNM Ensemble, 2015.

The most important influence on improvised music in Russia today is not the sonic material, the type or presentation of the performance, but its syntax. Young composers such as Vladimir Gorlinsky, Kirill Shirokov, Daniil Piltchen, Daria Zvezdina, Dmitry Burzew, and their somewhat older colleague Alexei Sysoev, concentrate on the phenomenon of time. In improvised music, this parameter is hardly a restriction. Four-hour sets made up of very, very soft pieces, in galleries on the city outskirts, or on the steps of Moscow’s chic Electrotheatre Stanislavsky (where Dmitri Kourliandski is music director), are a standard part of musical life. Radical reductionist composers such as Antoin Beuger or Jürg Frey are idolized, and performed frequently. In late April, the Tchaikovsky Conservatory put on a three-day symposium and several concerts dedicated solely to improvised music.

An improvisation set entitled Robert Schumann, with Alexei Sysoev and Dmitry Burtsev.

Since nobody spends money on new music, Russian composers are excluded from the capitalistic music industry. (A culture of commissioning never really established itself in any case.) Their work belongs only to their colleagues and a limited number of fans and listeners. Because of this, there is no pressure for their music to be “interesting,” “exciting,” or even entertaining. There is also no incentive for the work to be radically different from that of fellow composers, to have its own “branding.” Russian composers are truly interested in shaping time, in the process of live communication. I don’t want to be melodramatic here, but I believe they are looking for transcendence through the making of music.

My colleague Dmitri Kourliandski recently told me that in the Russian music scene today, the pieces aren’t the end goal: rather, the aim is to present a complete worldview. It’s true that an old mechanism has come into play: the more regressive the state, the less hope any one person has of changing the system, the stronger the presence of the metaphysical in art. When Brezhnev was General Secretary, political and economic stagnation led to a flourishing of neo-Romantic, neo-religious musical thought. The post-minimalism that took shape during that time is—along with the dominant, post-Wandelweiser aesthetic—enjoying a resurgence after a decade of radical experimentation. One way of looking at the scene in Russia today would be as a series of competing esoteric categories. Their material, their syntax, may be different, but their utopian, metaphysical approach is the same. Music becomes a way of escaping a dismal reality.

For young musicians in Russia, the only hope of positive development in the scene and in the art world in general is the growth of private funding. This has taken off in the last two years, as the state has shown itself to be incapable of administering cultural policy. New record labels such as Fancy Music, dedicated exclusively to new music and financed exclusively by private backers, are opening. Theaters, such as the Electrotheatre Stanislavsky, are financed by wealthy supporters—new music is often played there. Unlike the traditional opera houses, they stage contemporary operas that are new in their artistic language, not just in their date of composition. These developments are occasions for cautious optimism. More time will need to pass before their true significance can be analyzed and appraised. ¶