His muse boasts an impressive pedigree, but Russian composer Artemiy Artemiev isn't the typical prodigal son - he's been over ten years creating some of the most vivid electronic music the world's never heard. Time to see what's got the Red Square snow melting.
Sometimes having a famous father is a burden; some times it's a blessing. For electronic music composer Artemiy Artemiev, son of Edward Artemiev, Moscow's most famous cinematic composer and a renowned electronic music pioneer in his own right, no doubt the latter's the case. With Artemiev Sr. having scored some of Russia's (and perhaps the planet's) most groundbreaking films - Solaris, Stalker and The Mirror - it was nearly a foregone conclusion that son would follow in his patriarch's footsteps.
But Artemiev is hardly content with residence under cover of his father's famous shadow. His Electroshock label, a many-armed beast whose activities extend beyond the realm of mere CD issuance (the catalog is approaching forty releases) via multi-media performance, television, and film scoring and even its very own cable show, has made Artemiev a formidable presence in his native land. Yet that presence is virtually unknown throughout the rest of the globe, despite the fact that the gregarious young composer has aligned himself with such mercurial soundsculpturists-in-arms as PBK, Peter Frohmader, and many regional artists operating on similar experimental peripheries.
Such a beehive of activity arises out of modest sources. Artemiev executes his composing and organizing acumen out of a small flat in Moscow with his wife, son, daughter and a white cat, Dikusha, and though his primary means of support derives from his scoring films and TV shows, and not from the label, such support most definitely exists without help from dear old dad. "My father once said, 'If you want to be a composer, then try to find work by yourself. If you at least score films, then you'll survive in the cruel music world." Artemiev is a member of the Union of Cinematographists of Russia, and to that end "has scored well over fifty-three Russian feature films, six documentaries, two soap operas, five theater plays, one radio play and a lot of music for TV programs and advertisements."
Throughout his adolescence, an enthusiastic delving into a menu of wildly divergent music pricked up Artemiev's ears more than most anyone else in the then Gold War-era Soviet Union. While marveling at classicalists such as Wagner, Stravinsky, and Tchaikovsky, he somehow found time to absorb Gage, Stockhausen, Reich and Varese, while simultaneously devouring the Western rock idioms of Pink Floyd and King Crimson, eventually gravitating, as did fellow aficionados a world away, to the likes of Tangerine Dream, Klaus Schulze, and Vangelis. It didn't hurt that an eventual appreciation for jazz, and yet more investigations into luminaries Jaco Pastorius, Terje Rypdal, and Herbie Hancock, made its way into his listening agenda.
But it was at his father's recording sessions at the Experimental Studio of Electronic Music (ESEM) in Moscow where Artemiev became mesmerized by the process of sound manipulation. "I saw how my father worked with instruments and different people and I tried to understand and grasp this process of working with electronic sound. For me it was magic, and my father was the magician, surrounded by all of these strange apparatuses, synthesizers, lamps, etc., making sound on all of these incredible machines."
"When I was playing rock music in a group called Doctor, my father asked me about my plans for the future. I told him I wanted to play electronic music and compose music for movies. My father's work was certainly of enormous influence. Watching him, I learned to compose, to listen and to understand music." Yet there remains distinctions in approach that father and son take in the course of their compositions and in achieving the final outcome. "Edward moves in more of a traditional sense that culminates in a liquid symbiosis of classical, academic and electronic. I'm more into avant-garde experimentalism and the symbiosis of sounds both natural and artificial."
At ESEM, Artemiev heard for the first time the sounds of a modular synthesizer, and later, one of the most unique custom-built electronic music instruments, the ANS (named after composer Aleksander Nikolaevitch Scriabin), the first-ever Russian-built synthesizer, which his father used in the creation of the soundtracks for "The Mirror" and "Solaris". Developed by Russian scientist Eugene Murzin, who spent the time between 1987 and 1957 creating it, Artemiev notes that the ANS "joins three processes together: music creation, recording, and performing. The ANS had a very complicated process for creating music, making sound by notes that were cut on glass discs covered with a special layer. You'd see this amazing instrument twinkling from different lamps, and the discs rotating inside. The drawings on the glass discs were the notes, the engraving mould being the transfer that resulted in music." Not that the ANS was to find its way into Artemiev's compositional arsenal; his first keyboard was an old electric organ, a German-made Vermona given to him by his father in 1982 when he was sixteen. His acquisition of equipment was stifled due to the particularly crushing economic conditions so much a part of the Soviet Union of the time. Of course, down came the wall, the Gold War thawed, and so did the ability to procure instruments of mass audio enlightenment. "It's not so difficult to obtain instruments and recording gear in Moscow now, though prices are still twenty-five to fifty percent higher than in the States."
Amidst the dawn of the '90s, and with his equipment in tow, Artemiev began in earnest to integrate himself and his projects into both the Moscow and international music scenes. A cursory look back into his now voluminous discography reveals a recording timeline of two phases, with the entree of a third phase focusing on his collaborative work. Phase one, cinematic in scope and feel, surging with orchestrated, melodic themes, veritable electronic symphonies of sounds, makes up the bulk of his first few albums: "The Warning" (1993), "Cold" (1995), "Point of Intersection" (1997), and "Five Mystery Tales of Asia" (1998). This music, upon close listening, is very much influenced by the German and French electronic rock composers of the '70s. Artemiev's use of grand synthesizer sweeps and long evolving passages illustrates a compositional level eclipsing '70s sequencer-based space music as it gels into decidedly more serious, adjunct realms.
As he moved out of the European synthesizer enclave, Artemiev pierced the electroacoustic barrier, breaking the fourth wall of rigid synth dynamics to incorporate varied genres, motifs, and organic areas of interest. "Composers should not only be able to reproduce any sound required but to actually decompose sounds at will. Modernists might prepare a sound much like a biologist bending over the microscope, comprehending the amazing complexities and designs of a living organism's structure. It's the freedom of creating sound and atmosphere - you're standing in the heart of the musicmaking process; it's a whole-body approach. I try to create atmospheres not by using presets, but through a combination of the atoms of a sound that you create with the help of the instruments, or the computer, or the human voice. Electronic music has always been the music of imagination. A person can listen, close his eyes, and fly away, but the composer determines the direction where the listener will fly. And will that flight be relaxing, dangerous, or a journey to the unknown areas of mind and soul?"
Yet, Artemiev's artistic goals ran in direct contradiction to the musical climate prevalent in Russia in the mid '90s. Moving away from traditionalism meant that Artemiev needed the proper outlet through which to disseminate, broadcast, and indulge himself without fear of compromise. His opening salvo became the establishment of Electroshock, set up with his close friend and ally Vladimir Krupnitsky, himself a talented film and music producer at the Moscow Acoustic Laboratory. As fledgling labelheads, they recognized the limitations of putting all their eggs in one singular media basket, so Electroshock the Label also begat Electroshock the Gable TV Show, tossing video, concert footage and, yes, even interviews with electronic musicians about electronic music, onto the unsuspecting Moscow populace.
Electroshock itself houses dual identities: the Cinema-Video Center ART, which Krupnitsky operates, produces films and soap operas, provides mixing facilities and video programming, and essentially deals with everything that is connected with the moving image; Artemiev handles the label's music-related affairs. Cinema-Video Center ART has been very active sponsoring video projects in numerous performance spaces around Moscow. Krupnitsky has also directed a series of inhouse videos that combine feature, documentary, and computer film footage with sound and mechanical installations. Christened "Electroshock Presents", the series has run the gamut of the city's nightclub circuit, challenging the ears of the Moscow public with the ideal sonic copy of Artemiev senior and junior, plus Stanislav Kreitchi, Anatoly Pereslegin, Roman Stolyar, and other charter members of the Electroshock coterie. Suffice to say, the reaction has been one of overwhelming delight. "People are amazed to see films showing these strange types of machines that dance around in sync with the concert or installation music performances. We didn't expect that so many Moscow nightclubs would be interested - it's been a successful experiment, and especially more satisfying because we were experimenting not just with sound but also with other modern, visual art forms."
These installations convinced Artemiev and Krupnitsky that he and his fellow Electroshock denizens were on the right track. "Many young people would attend these events and would tell me that they were sick and tired of techno, pop, rap, hip-hop, any other pieces of commercial shit. Having traveled all over Europe, I have met many who are very interested in listening and buying more avant-garde forms of electronic music." Even coming from his indigenous perspective, Artemiev's furtive criticism of pop music culture is pointed and succinct. "The cultural situation in the world is very sad and our country is no exception. Nobody wants to read serious books, watch serious films or listen to serious music. They call techno or rap the 'highest level of art' - look and see the tears of joy on their faces while they listen to music going at 130 beats -per-minute. When I've asked them who Michelangelo or Da Vinci is, they say 'those are the names of the famous turtles, those mutant heroes.' My God, it scares me."
Life in 2003 Russia remains a daunting challenge for its inhabitants, obviously impacting the country's overall music scene and Electroshock's very survival. "Russia lives by its own laws, and those laws differ greatly from the rest of the world," Artemiev laments. "Our economy was ruined after the 1998 crisis. The old Communist Party still controls all trade and commerce even after the end of the formal era of Communism, and I think it'll control every sphere of economy and business until the old-age leaders die. Russia is heading toward catastrophe and not many understand it. We have no new resources, we can't find money to repair the old equipment (we can't even dream about buying new pieces), our gas tubes are damaged in the far eastern regions of the country, and our Metro rail system needs repair work in every city. People struggle even in big cities like Moscow or St. Petersburg - a trip to the country shows how life there is so different than in Moscow. The salary for the average man in the countryside is $150-$290 a month, but you need at least $800-$1000 to make ends meet in the big cities."
These vestiges of chilly wars and political mismanagement left an even more telling impact. Artemiev and Krupnitsky were attempting to organize a large-scale music festival hosting electronic artists regional and nationwide when the whole enterprise came to a crashing halt, masticated between the jaws of the bureaucratic sharks. "We had various meetings in a desperate attempt to persuade financial organizations to give us the money for the festival. We got some sponsor money in the beginning, and money was promised us from the Ministry of Culture. However, after the October incident during Nord-Orst (when a terrorist siege of the performance hall ended with a number of civilian fatalities), the Russian government asked the Ministry of Culture to help with reconstruction of the concert hall. The Ministry spent nearly $300 000 on the reconstruction and then informed us there was no possibility of any funds being made available for the festival. The financial organizations said that 'electroacoustic is a very interesting genre of music, but it's not popular with the masses' and that they had other more commercial projects running, particularly for the St. Petersburg Sooth year anniversary program. Banks and financial organizations have asked us to wait for another few months, but unfortunately we can't wait until May to inform participants. So the festival is on hold."
Obstacles notwithstanding, Artemiev isn't one to lie fallow, awaiting an economic upturn or cultural three-sixty. Plans for Electroshock forecast another prolific roster of releases throughout the year. In addition to a new solo album, Artemiev is working on a collaboration with British poet and composer Norman Jope, contemplating a second go-round with Karda Estra, and continuing his series of joint efforts with Phillip Klinger and Peter Frohmader, as well as hotwiring up with Mathias Grassow, Amir Baghiri and British group Elektrum for future recordings.
And it doesn't stop there. Assuming that he foregoes sleep, Artemiev is also a contributor to "Music Box", a very popular Moscow-based music magazine that finds him wearing the hat of columnist, record reviewer, and interviewer. Furthermore, he regularly conducts public lectures at various Moscow institutes, a service he is particularly proud of. This aspect of Artemiev's efforts has become important to the continued vitality of his label and music. "During my lectures, I often present the work of composers who operate in the genres of serious electronic, experimental, and avant-garde music. I usually concentrate on one composer, present his compositions, provide information about him, display written scores, show videos, do interviews, and compare his music with other artists experimenting in similar styles. The audience that attends my lectures is anywhere from 22 to 55 years old. They're looking for something new, something 'specific' as they like to say, and they attend my lectures and find these 'specific' new things in music by the likes of Riley, Reich, Kagel, Boulez, and our own Electroshock artists."
Pierre Schaefer once said "through the noise comes the sound and through the sound comes the music." In spite of difficulties with climate control, artistic stonewalling, and commercial indifference, Artemiev has eked out a niche without compromise, censure, or copyism. Not bad for a son rising out of a tall shadow.
Dwight Loop & Darren Bergstein ("E/I" Magazine)