"Dreams in Moving Space" by Artemiy Artemiev and Philip B. Klingler (ELCD 014), "Space Icon" by Artemiy Artemiev and Peter Frohmader (ELCD 015), "ANSiana" by Stanislav Kreitchi (ELCD 016), "Forgotten Themes" by Artemiy Artemiev (ELCD 017), "A Book of Impressions" by Edward Artemiev (ELCD 018), "Download the God" by Anatoly Pereslegin (ELCD 019).
In reviewing my first electronica for five years - or "electroacoustic music" as Artemiy Artemiev prefers - I feel like the astronaut Kris Kelvin might have felt, had Stanislav Lem decided to send him on another mission to the planet Solaris.
It's interesting that the best-known of these composers, Edward Artemiev (Artemiy Artemiev's father), actually composed the theme music for Tarkovsky's film of that novel (as well as for two other films of his, The Mirror and Stalker). For the process of trying to "describe" this kind of music, in order to assist a potential listener, is no less risky than the task of trying to make sense of the phenomena that occur in an alien ocean such as that depicted by Lem.
There are three main strategies that reviewers of electronica can adopt - these can co-exist, which makes things a little easier. The first is to describe it in terms of musicology - this needs prior training, however, and it might also be argued that this music resists more traditional
criteria, in so far as it tends to downplay melodic virtuosity in favor of the construction of complex and/or unprecedented timbres. In fact, Artemiy Artemiev emphasises this feature in his website notes, asserting that, as a result of new technologies, "composers have been able to master the whole world of sounds existing both in nature and in their imagination". In theory, at least, this is indisputable.
The second method is the associational one. This is not a new approach, but carries itself over from Romanticism and its aftermath - it rests on the idea that music can take us to specific places (whether psychic or physical) and that, by ways of various cues (including those residing beyond the music, such as titles and sleeve notes), a relatively sure transaction can be enacted between a musician and a listener. This approach is especially potent at the level of geography - from Smetana's "Ma Vlast" (for example), through to the place-related compositions of Brian Eno, Harold Budd, Jon Hassell and fellow-travelers, this has been a key feature of modern musical practice. And, for a geomaniac like this reviewer, it's tempting to fall into this mode at the lightest provocation which might or might not be of practical assistance to a reader.
Third, there is comparison. However, the comparisons have to be plausible - for example, I've noted a tendency of reviewers of electronica to make slightly loose comparisons between the music and that of contemporary classical composers (I will proceed to take the same risk later in this review). Second, comparing one obscure CD to an even obscure one might only assist a tiny coterie of experts, who have managed to keep up with a wide range of material (not only a time-consuming task but an expensive one). Yet glib comparisons to better-known pieces of music might also mislead.
The final risk of the comparative approach is that it might make music appear to be less original than it actually is, playing down its novelties because they are more difficult to describe. In reviewing this batch of CDs, from a part of the world that has perhaps not been associated with innovative electronic music so far - more, it seems, from marketing problems and the relative weakness of cultural links in the Cold War period, than from anything else - one runs the risk, in comparing these releases to others, of implying that these musicians are simply following
in the footsteps of more innovative "Western" colleagues.
Before starting to review these individual titles, therefore, I must assert that any comparisons are not so intended - that all these musicians are evidently engaged in producing work that is distinctive, original (in so far as this is possible) and fresh. Any red herrings associated with their Russian origins, moreover, should be tossed back into the Baltic - with hardly any exceptions, this music is not overtly referential to Russian origins, but takes its place within an international frame of reference.
In fact, the first two of these releases emphasises collaborations across national boundaries - "Dreams in Moving Space" features the North American musician Philip B. Klingler, and "Space Icon" the German Peter Frohmader. "Dreams" presents two long eponymous tracks (the second of which is entitled "Moscow Mix") as well as three others of varying lengths - although the "Moscow Mix" offsets a beat against the lowering cumulus of noise that masses behind it, this is a sombre collection of pieces on the whole, invoking the point at which one's longings turn jet black. With a hint of Eno's "The Lost Day", and of some of Ligeti's slower pieces ("Lontano", the first movement of the Cello Concerto), coming through in the mix, it does so with an intensity, and a care for the color of sound, that makes this a wholly successful work.
The mood of "Space Icon" is brighter, although the music is as demanding and inventive - the title track has Frohmader strap on his guitar and place quasi-Karolian figures over the Schmidt-like burbles, tweets and washes of Artemiev's arsenal of electronic instruments. Can are not an exact parallel, but this is the point about comparisons - they are a well-known point of reference, and the 'feel' is not entirely dissimilar. However, the standout track is the final one, "Cosmic Jungle", in which a synthetic world-music of sampled marimbas and howler monkeys gives way to a feeling of increasing awe, as delicate filigrees of keyboard levitate against a muted, intermittent rhythmic backdrop. The title goes perfectly with the music, to the point where another one can hardly be imagined - and the conception, and execution, of this piece seems highly original. The space it opens up, indeed, is both "cosmic" (Rarified, remote) and "jungular" (intensely-populated, fervid) - as if a myriad stars had clustered together
in a canopy of fronds.
Whereas these two releases draw upon avant-garde classical music in an oblique and intermittent way, "ANAiana", by the older composer Stanislav Kreitchi, is a faithful heir to the Darmstadt legacy. This in itself indicates the scope of the Electroshock project, this label's willingness to make connections across the unnecessary boundaries that still hamper the appreciation of new music - and the result, here, is a strong collection of pieces that, up to a point, could have been released three decades ago, but are certainly none the worse for that. Perhaps "Six Days of Creation" is the most distinctive, with its manipulation of a spoken Russian text echoing the strategies of Luciano Berio (in works such as "Paroles") - however, there is a spare beauty about the entire CD, and it is clear that this musician has mined his particular seam successfully. The monophonic nature of Kreitchi's compositions, on the whole, is redolent of Darmstadt, of the making of marks on tapes the size of fairground wheels in white-coated laboratories - but this music takes this lineage forward into the present day. And the use of the ovaloid - an acoustic musical instrument constructed by colleague Viatcheslav Kolleychouck - enables a warmer tone to be struck at times.
The majority of Artemiy Artemiev's "Forgotten Themes" date from a comparatively early phase in his career, and were composed (it seems) for film and television. Here, the dilemma resides in the reconciliation of commercial and musical priorities - these tracks succeed in striking a balance, with only an occasional resort to whimsy, although Artemiev does best when he has the time to stretch out and expand. The influence of "Exit" and "Tangram" period Tangerine Dream is seemingly manifest on some of the shorter pieces, but two longer compositions stand out by some way - "Realm of Shadows" lays Dmitry Kutergin's soaring violin above a minimal pulse in a manner suggestive of "Art Zoyd", and "An Autumn Breath" develops a Budd-like figure over eighteen bittersweet minutes. Both these pieces have a strongly "architectural" quality to them - listening to the former, I see the vaulted ceiling of a cathedral, whereas the latter evokes a cool courtyard, either Moorish or Californian, deftly intersected by running water. Is that where I was meant to be taken, and is it helpful for me to pass this on?
If "Forgotten Themes" contains "apprentice" material, Artemiy Artemiev has been apprenticed to a master musician - "A Book of Impressions" presents one of the widest lexicons of timbres I've ever heard gathered on one CD, and Edward Artemiev's consummate skill in using them is also harnessed to strong melodic awareness and the ability to create coherent, yet challenging and surprising compositions. The ten tracks reveal a range of parallels, from the Ligeti of "Lux Aeterna" and "Requiem" ("Noosphere") through to the Frohmader of "Medusa" and "Homonculus" ("Ritual", "Intangible"). The two most interesting tracks, however, are probably "Three Regards on Revolution" (a heady blend of avant-garde montage and melodic electronica, inspired by the French Revolution) and the final piece "Pregrini" - this
starts off with a hyperactive sequencer break, as in Tangerine Dream's "Through Metamorphic Rocks", and gradually opens out into a lyrical passage comparable to Michael Hoenig's "From the Northern Wasteland". When one considers that this piece pre-dates these others, having been composed in 1975, one can grasp the measure of Artemiev Senior's achievement.
Anatoly Pereslegin's "Download the God" is a single composition in six sections, based on the prophetic works of Isaiah and Ezekiel and composed in Jerusalem during the mid-Nineties. There can hardly have been a more positive example of "Jerusalem Syndrome" during the decade - this composition is millennial in the very best sense. It might not have succeeded but, in fact, it is an extraordinary success - probably one of the dozen or so most powerful pieces of electronica (or post-classical) music I've ever heard. If it has a point of departure, it would be Messiaen - it has the same carillon-like quality, the same chromatic lushness and the same non-linear ecstasis to it - although the dark maelstrom of Ligeti's "San Francisco Polyphony" is also suggested, as is the percussive minimalism of Reich and the op-art patterns of Glass and Riley. It's obviously been composed with extreme care, although its architecture is designed to let in maximum space and light - perhaps its most remarkable feature is the way in which it combines gravitas with delicacy, power with swiftness, to produce a musical analogue to the prophetic experience that is totally convincing.
It also sounds unprecedented - as original as contemporary music can get without sounding contrived. When I put it on for the first time I could not believe what I was hearing - although I was transfixed - and that's a rare feeling these days. Yet all six of these releases produced the feeling, at least in episodes, and this suggests the promise of much more to come from this particular region of Solaris. I wanted to praise these CDs even more - but I'm up here in my spaceship, surrounded by faulty monitors, still trying to learn the language of a strange yet strangely familiar planet.
Norman Jope ("Stride")