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New Weird Russia - #5 The Diaspora
Richard Foster , December 3rd, 2019 10:19

Richard Foster looks at music made by the Russian diaspora, specifically those in Berlin. Modern classical stews, crossborder tricksters, spaced out nostalgists, free lovers, and dance floor deconstructors feature

Pictures courtesy of Galina Ozeran

When I first sat down to write this article I remembered a remark I heard at the inaugural Station Narva festival in 2018, where writer and promoter Greg Goldenzwaig reminded us that “the Russian language is not owned by the Russian regime”. It cannot be stressed enough that “Russia” is not a monolithic, closed-off, top-down construct. And Russian communities and Russian-speaking groups have always been a vital ingredient in the wider European socio-cultural mix.

The idea of Russians abroad, and in particular cultural emigres (pioneered by Alexander Herzen in the 1840s and developed into a “trope” of sorts during the Cold War) has taken an interesting turn during the last decade, certainly in popular and modern classical music. There is a growing sense that Russian artists can exist and thrive in multiple countries. Many musicians use their social media to state they are “based between” one of the two capitals and another place. Many have taken a chance to work elsewhere. The chamber pop duo iamthemorning find themselves split between London and St. Petersburg whereas the singer of Peter’s Pinkshinyultrablast, Lyubov, is currently based in LA, with other band members scattered around the place. Magic Doll from SADO OPERA told me: “The modern Russian system is very similar to what it was one hundred years ago, and even to what it was two hundred years ago. Basically it never really mattered what the leader was called. A tzar, a general secretary or a president. It has remained a sort of an absolute monarchy until today. So the emigre situation is still unfortunately relevant. But what is positive is that for many people it’s still possible to move back and forth. And we hope that this possibility will change Russia for the better. Because information, cultural bridges and communication between Russia and the rest of the world are crucial.”

Many of these culture-carriers display omnivorous, inquisitive and impatient natures, some are sentimental, others play with identity. There is an unspoken consensus that time is precious and should be used; sometimes to curate alternative or new ideas of Russia, or Russianness. This can be seen with the output from well-known Russian artists such as Philipp Gorbachev (whose recent Centrifuge One compilation promoting select sounds from the Moscow dance floor is a belter), SADO OPERA, Ivan Zoloto or Kate NV.

‘русский берлин’

Many - if not the vast majority - wash up in Berlin at some point. Why Berlin? For one, it has a central quality to the (Western) Russian viewpoint. In addition Inturist’s Jenya Gorbanov told the author that, “in a way, it’s still our city”. Red Army graffiti still adorns the Reichstag. Galina Ozeran, aka electronic composer Chikiss, opines that her part of Berlin, Treptow, retains a “strong Soviet spirit”. The last two decades have seen the growth of nights and initiatives such as the Russendisko, and Alexander Kasparov and Armin Siebert’s very enjoyable Eastblok label. The freedom (and the insatiable partying) offered by LGBTQ+ clubs like Wilde Renate (where SADO OPERA are the resident band) and Fikken3000 is also very alluring.

Magic Doll from SADO adds: “Here you learn that the house beat is not just a part of dance music, but also a symbol of liberation and resistance. And of course you learn that all sorts of consensual kisses are not a deadly sin but a natural part of social life.” The chance to play in the city’s celebrated classical and modern classical networks is another draw. Chikiss also drew a couple of key contrasts with Moscow: “Berlin relaxes, there is no feeling of rush or a ‘non-stop deadline’. In Moscow people work hard all the time to survive, especially people like me, who came from provincial towns and the countryside.” Ozeran also points to the city’s legal stability “I like that the laws work well here and human rights are protected.” There is a downside; Berlin-based Russians I know talk wryly of emotional nights spent at ersatz therapy groups, where migrants come together to understand what they are becoming and collectively mourn their lost sense of Russianness.

Dancefloor Denialists?

A Moscow-based friend, much given to fevered historical allegory and the primacy of rock music, once told me he’d like to “storm Berghain” as the Red Army once had the Reichstag. Maybe this ambition masked a certain degree of jealousy. Berlin’s reputation as Europe’s “dance capital” has attracted Russian deejays and producers in their droves over the last two decades, including notable Siberian producer Nina Kraviz, who recently had to face accusations of racism for her defence of wearing her hair in cornrows. Whilst Kraviz has a case to answer, it would be unfair, at the very least, to include the artists on her label трип (Trip) into the controversy, as it gives a voice to many underground acts such as Moscow’s Buttechno (see passim) and Berlin-based Knigi. Berlin is not Berghain, though, as clubs like OHM prove. And many Russian producers and deejays simply appreciate the boundless space and freedom to create and network that the capital has to offer. The musical results often have little to do with dance music: the offerings below often reveal painterly, cinematic approaches, or strange abstract amalgams that either look to start a debate, or to question wider assumptions around dance music itself.

Some musicians enjoy mining the creative headspace in between places, using Berlin as a sort of sleeping satellite. For example, constant flitting between the two capitals has seemingly helped Philipp Gorbachev hone a powerful, cinematic vision of his mother country. His music is nothing if not direct and his latest record Kolokol (2019) draws on his faith and the Russian landscape, and reflects both the itchiness of Russian acts like Motherfathers and a very (yes, sorry) ‘German-sounding’ love of precise electronica. It is a typically bullish, determined release, almost imperial in its scope.

#1 Philipp Gorbachev - 'I Am Saved'

Another well-known wanderer is Dasha Rush; celebrated over this past decade or so for her bruising, no-holds-barred approach to techno and her ability to juggle large cultural projects with partying hard. Rush’s vision somehow incorporates sound design and digital media with foot-to-the-floor clubbing. Proof of this is the intriguing 2015 work ‘Sleepstep’, based around the varying states of sleep that somehow still captures her restless vision and bewitching sense of rhythm.

#2 Dasha Rush - Samples From Sleepstep

Other quizzical, footloose spirits can be found with Dasha Redkin and Anastasia Vtorova, aka Machine Woman. Dasha Redkin came to Berlin by way of Kiev, Moscow and the UK. Her dreamy soundscapes - described as ‘intergalactic, psychedelic mind-bending signals’ - are incredibly moreish and look to mix unexpected sonic ingredients into her trippy worldview. She also creates gloriously tranced out, KLF-style, krautrock-heavy space signals under the name Zoya Zerkalski. Anastasia Vtorova is a producer and multi-disciplinary artist whose restless spirit has digested a sojourn in sun-baked Salford before the German capital. Her music, often driven by her life experiences and a liking for cross-disciplinary work, is impish and amusing and has a debonair and very open spirit that is hard to pin down. 2017’s ‘Camile From OHM Makes Me Feel Loved’ is a typically witty cut.

#3 Machine Woman - 'Camile From OHM Makes Me Feel Loved'

#4 Zoya Zerkalski - Гипноз 5

The mental soundworld of Perila should also be mentioned at this point. Perila, aka Alexandra Zakharenko is a deejay and visual artist based (you guessed it) “between Moscow and Berlin”. She is incredibly prolific, and her spacey pieces on Soundcloud (often created as radio or mixes for broadcast) show a proclivity with mucking about with sound at the quieter end of the spectrum. Ambient odysseys like the horizontal ‘Space Africa’ can leave the listener feeling utterly discombobulated. Lord knows what she must be like spinning the wheels of steel.

#5 Perila - 'Dome'

Classical Changelings

Berlin has a formidable reputation on the classical music circuit. Unsurprisingly the city has attracted a number of adventurous modern Russian composers, such as Alexandra Filonenko, Boris Filanovsky, and Sergej Newski). All seem to revel in making daring pieces with the accent on improvisation, or sudden effect. Maybe it’s a case of fighting to be heard in a busy market. Echoes of great modernist adventurers such as Louis Andriessen, and Stockhausen can certainly be heard in many of these works, as well as the spirit of Berlin’s wider free improv scene.

A couple of these artists seem to throw a rope bridge out to the more experimental end of electronic popular music: Filonenko’s startling work, ‘Gravity Of Love’ alternates between dreamy and dramatic passages where the seemingly loose component parts take the form of a sound collage or an interrupted broadcast on an old radio. The mnemonic elements could remind one of a Matana Roberts or Thighpaulsandra piece.

#6 Alexandra Filonenko - 'Gravity Of Love'

Then there’s Sasha Pushkin, who seems happy making anything; his output incorporating drum & bass, classical and all manner of bracing electro-folk stews along the way. Somehow Pushkin’s often very playful music (which seems to deliberately court parody) reminds this old sweat of Holger Czukay’s fearless spirit, as heard in ‘Still Alive’.

#7 Sasha Pushkin - ‘Boom Beat P Of M’

Love And Light And Fighting For Your Right

Perila’s track 'Round Table Sex Tox' is a suitable way to introduce the topic of another of the city’s core attractions, a liberal attitude to love and sex. The broken nature of this track and the incredibly open subject matter it samples somehow creates a mental image of a Berlin of fun, freedom and not a little confusion where people slowly grapple (sorry) towards an understanding of their true emotional selves.

The key Russian figures in this world are SADO OPERA, a glamorous and glitzy funk machine armed with a razor sharp attitude. The band are on a mission to show that all refractions of love and sex’s prism are borderless entities working for the common good. SADO’s weirdness is less in their glammed-up, party-hard funk, than in their resolute refusal to bow to societal or political pressure. They manage to hide in plain sight; at once incredibly open about their lives in their music whilst being digital-age cartoon characters of themselves. Berlin attracted them for purely artistic reasons. Magic Doll: “We were born and raised in St Petersburg. And you know it is a very homoerotic city filled with seductive European architecture and sexually attractive masculine and feminine statues everywhere you look. Berlin happened to be the city that offers many recognisable elements we were raised with. A good example is a beautiful bridge across Fontanka River in St Petersburg. It has some of the most celebrated ornate railings in the city. These railings are actually a copy of Berlin’s Palace Bridge. And same spectacular naked, muscular horse tamer statues as at the Russian bridge which you can also find in Berlin’s Kleistpark.”

#8 SADO OPERA - 'Patriarchs'

SADO act as a bridge for like minded souls; working with many current Russian musicians, often inviting them to play at parties held at their residential clubs. Alongside their “pre-party” sex-blog workshops at Ficken3000 (spotlighting Russain sex activists) they also book and promote Russian acts and activists at Wilde Renate; names thus far being Pompeya, Haute Dance, Koyla, Santa Valentina, Lolja Nordic and Itallika. “We are absolutely sincere... often, what shocks people in one culture seems to be the absolute norm in another.”

#9 SADO OPERA feat. dOP - 'In The Dark' (ROTCIV Remix)

Free Spirits

Love and curatorship in the city can be found in another form with the work of Chikiss, who came to Berlin via Minsk and St Petersburg. The maker of a remarkably empathic brand of electronic pop music that sensually skips between kitsch and something much more surreal, Chikiss is an ambassador of sorts for an older Russian music scene. Though Ozeran feels at home as a citizen of the world, creatively she considers herself “a successor of the Soviet school of electronic music, as these melodies and sounds are in the subcortex of my consciousness. My lyrics are in Russian; it is about the Russian spirit”. A huge fan of and public advocate for the Soviet cartoons and pop music of the 70s and 80s, (including this mind-bending “Soviet reply” to 'Yellow Submarine') Chikiss looks to mould her nostalgia and romanticism in new ways. Her Berlin studio (co-run with her two cats who regularly sit in on the mix) is an orgy of wires and cables and synths, old scores and plants from a blooming garden.

#10 Chikiss - 'Echoes Of Rave'

Two other ambassadors - with very different approaches - are Ivan Zoloto and lya Frederik Minaev aka Zodya. Ivan Zoloto was born in Petrozavodsk in northwestern Karelia, a place he has called “the punk capital of Russia”. Zoloto is a restless man who juggles a number of projects that seem to be spread over a number of countries (including three record labels and numerous curatorial projects; such as this great mix of Russian folk music). Currently (if my pal Dmitry’s mail is correct) her resides in Barcelona. Zoloto also runs New New World Radio, a “post-genre, post-geography” online radio project in Moscow. His music is hard to pin down, equally open to making free noise (his latest release, ‘Red Eyes Moscow’ is a 21-minute extempore screamathon) whilst his solo release on the mighty Zurkas Tepla’s label CANT is described euphemistically as “filth folk”.

#11 Ivan Zoloto - 'Compass'

lya Frederik Minaev aka Zodya is yet another who cast his rune on the Moscow-Berlin leyline. Zodya uses his status as a deejay to be Music Coordinator at Love Foundation Berlin which is an open network of artists and activists who organise projects “to spread love and connect people” and to raise cash for water development projects in Kenya. His music is a mix of punishing techno and other more esoteric aural concerns that touch on his foundation’s work.

#12 Zodya - 'strobe.04'

How better to end on a Berlin-baked prankster vision of a number of traditional Russian musical tropes? A very endearing aural chaos is provided by the duo Baba Dunyah, who play “doom polka” and “a capella dubstep” if such things can be imagined. They do actually sound properly nuts, a sort of speeded up crusty cabaret, as their latest “greatest hits” LP reveals. But hell, it’s good fun if you’re in the mood and has something in common with German situationist rockers Die Goldenen Zitronen.

#13 Baba Dunyah - The Real Baba Dunyah

Once again an enormous debt of gratitude is owed to my Russian and Belorusian friends, wherever they may find themselves. Specifically for this article, Tanya, Veronika, Dmitry, Dmitriy, Zenya, Galina, Ирина, Magic Doll and The Colonel… Thank you to all at the Quietus for letting me mine the smallest of shafts into this seemingly endless seam of music. большое спасибо