Reissue Of The Week: Valentina Goncharova’s Ocean

It is almost criminal that Valentina Goncharova doesn't have much purchase in the general consciousness; maybe this timely reissue of her Symphony For Electric Violin And Other Instruments in 10+ Parts will change that argues Jakub Knera

This monumental recording, created behind the Iron Curtain in the perestroika era, combines minimalism, drone music and improvisation based on electrified violins and amplified household objects, showcasing a Ukrainian violinist’s extraordinary creativity.

If Sisters With Transistors ever gets a sequel, one of its protagonists should be Valentina Goncharova – an outstanding violinist and experimentalist, barely present in the wider consciousness. The most intensive period of her work took place in the 1980s, in Tallinn, Estonia (where she still lives today) making it difficult for her to reach the public with her music both at home and in Ukraine, where she was born, and in the wider world. Ocean, Goncharova’s outstanding, timeless album recently reissued by Hidden Harmony – first released in 1989 by Leo Records in London under the title Document: New Music From Russia – The 80’s – finally has a chance to change that. 

Valentina Goncharova’s musical career started at the age of three. She was taught to play the piano by her grandmother, who worked as an accompanist at the Kyiv Opera House. Three years later, it turned out that Valentina’s perfect pitch and slender fingers marked her out for playing the violin. And so, in the 1960s, she started studying this instrument at the Kyiv Special Music School, followed by a music school and then academy in Leningrad (Saint Petersburg) a decade later.

Western recordings were not easily accessible in the USSR, but fortunately, the music conservatory became Valentina’s window onto the world. There, she heard composers such as Krzysztof Penderecki, Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Iannis Xenakis, and John Cage. In parallel, at a student organisation called The Composer’s Club, she and other young composers showcased their own works to experts and discussed them with colleagues. It was also there that she discovered the music of Tangerine Dream, Can and Klaus Schulze, and began to experiment creatively.

With fellow composer and pianist Svetlana Golybina, Goncharova formed the duo Accents and played the music of 20th-century European and American composers all over Asia: from Ulan-Ud, through Eastern Siberia to the Far East. Goncharova was very much into the underground rock scene. She was amazed by Soviet jazz trailblazers Ganelin Trio in the late 1970s and took part in various music sessions, playing with the likes of Viktor Tsoi, co-founder of the legendary group Kino, or future members of the industrial band Pop-Mechanika. In the mid-1980s, she married an engineer named Igor Zubkov, and the couple moved to Estonia. Since then, Goncharova has lived in two different realities: she composed in Russia, where she already had an audience, while Estonia provided her with a passport, enabling her to travel around Scandinavia and Western Europe.

I discovered her work through the Estonian label Shukai, founded to unearth the forgotten achievements of Soviet music, which published her unreleased music on two albums. The first, from 2020, shows her fascination with concrete music, tape manipulations, abstract electronics, and new age references. The second, released in autumn 2021, is from roughly the same period but documents her interaction with other artists from Estonia, Finland and Russia recorded in clubs or apartments. They are closer to the jazz idiom, more shrouded in darkness. Goncharova recorded much more material for Leo Records, but the label only released the Ocean album – her magnum opus and most complete, comprehensively conceived recording.

The album, treated as a work divided into ten parts, is an extended epic work, illustrating different compositional and formal techniques. Goncharova’s husband created piezo-electroacoustic pickups for violin, guitar, percussion, and household objects. The artist used two violins: one had magnetic pickups and, via a special wire, was directly connected to the tape input. The other sounded more electric thanks to the piezo pickup. This distinction may clearly be heard on the title track ‘Ocean’, which is based on long, heavy violin strokes counterpointed with a cut-up approach and overlaid with murmurs and reverberating sonorities to add density. The rest of the sounds on the album were created on whatever was at hand. In ‘Molecules’, we hear a sound which was actually made by a finger being traced across the surface of a notebook; it resembles a snowstorm against which the rest of the music is layered. The track also makes use of a patented device for three-second loop samples based upon a LELL RC Soviet signal processor. In ‘Golden Ball’, the starting point is the clearly audible sound of a cauldron bell. But when electrified pencils are used as strikers during ‘The Way’, it becomes more difficult to discern what the sound source is. 

Goncharova and her husband turned limitations into advantages. For example, if the OLIMP 003 recorder did not enable recording individual tracks, the only way to make a "multi-track recording" was overdubbing. Another example: the piezoelectric element “pulled out” an array of overtones, so they created a delay with the LELL RC signal processor, which adds depth to the compositions.

There are moments where Goncharova shows her improvisational skills. Take ‘Wind And Stream’ – the ephemeral, least electronic piece on the record, which relies on the spontaneous energy of the violin. In ‘Sirens’, you can hear shreds of vocals recorded directly via the pickups of the instrument, without a microphone. The same is true for the monumental closing piece ‘Ohm’. Their heavily fuzzy sound recalls the sound of a flute.

Ocean sometimes reminds me of the philosophy of Pauline Oliveros or Eliane Radigue, not only because of the title. The music refers to nature; it can be treated as a description of the process of transformation of the world – from primitive forms to the beginnings of culture, the formation of complex relationships or complementary opposites (embody the primary principles of Yin and Yang in the punctual and subtle ‘Golden Ball’ to the drone monumental ‘Sirens’).

As Goncharova admitted in an interview with Lucia Udvardyova, she aimed to energise music not through volume but through changing the music itself: looking for new structural possibilities, new colours and rhythmic combinations. Ocean illustrates this idea brilliantly as she moves with ease between classical music, experimentation, minimalism, drone music and improvisation on standard and non-standard instruments. This outsider, outlandish effort seems very modern even today.

I am attracted to the strangeness of this music and its intriguing atmosphere, but at the same time, I do not have the feeling that Ocean has grown old. It sounds very up-to-date – maybe because of the analogue sound and simple production techniques. Many of Goncharova’s solutions and performance practices can be heard in the ideas utilised by the musicians featured in Sisters With Transistors, even though they were often created in a completely different way. Perhaps the ‘differences’ between Western and Eastern countries weren’t that huge after all.

Ocean: Symphony For Electric Violin And Other Instruments In 10+ Parts is out now

The Quietus Digest

Sign up for our free Friday email newsletter.

Support The Quietus

Our journalism is funded by our readers. Become a subscriber today to help champion our writing, plus enjoy bonus essays, podcasts, playlists and music downloads.

Support & Subscribe Today