First, one can only praise the superb job that "Electroshock Records" are doing to make electronic music, not just from Artemiy Artemiev's home country of Russia but from all over the world, available on well-packaged, well-mastered releases. Second, the collaborative spirit in which Artemiev works - the way, in particular, in which he has deployed new technologies to create successful compositions with colleagues from other parts of the world - is exemplary. His promotion of the electronic music produced in the former Soviet Union has also been commendable - helping to correct some of the impressions people might have about the musical policies that were in operation under the old regime. And finally, the dynamism he is exhibiting, in doing all this at such a pace - as well as preparing for a major festival of electronic music next year in St. Petersburg - is remarkable, a case of cramming ten years' work into two or three.
Even if I disliked the music he was issuing, all this would still apply. But the opposite is the case. Four of these ten releases appeal to me greatly, but the other six are also of a high standard, and other listeners may find them at least as appealing. That's an excellent return, for a zero investment on my part!
"Transfiguration" (ELCD 021) is the second Electroshock collaboration between Artemiy Artemiev and the German composer/musician Peter Frohmader. Over the last few years (to generalise somewhat), Frohmader has moved away from the neo-classical, 'Deep European' style of his Eighties output, in favour of a more assertive, aggressive, rhythmic approach - this has affected the nature of his music, but not its quality. On this release, Frohmader and Artemiev offer a music which is ambient and aggressive by turns but, remarkably, succeeds in both respects, particularly on the final track "Transfiguration. Part V". This thirty-minute composition completely overshadows the rest of the CD, and is remarkable even for these composers. An ominous figure repeats itself over a relentless pulse, as metallic interventions and thuds out of nowhere hammer into it from every side, and yet the track also has a weightless grace to it, and possesses a rare sense of balance throughout. Imagine an interzone, in which Massive Attack and Scorn rub shoulders with the Hafler Trio and Lull, and you get some idea of this piece - the soundtrack to a remake of Fritz Lang's "Metropolis" set in contemporary Moscow or Munich.
By contrast, Bardo (ELCD 028) by the Italian musician/s Oophoi, offers ethereal drift music which attempts to call to mind the contents of the Tibetan Book of the Dead. The four tracks, whose English titles are "Contemplation", "Dissolution", "A Path of the Lights" and "Crossing the Bridge of Existence: The Eternal Cycle", merge seamlessly - there is little progression, only reinforcement as one is drawn deeper and deeper into the musical cloud mass. Nor is this cloying New Age music, far from it - it has a subtly threatening feel to it, as it suggests the possibility of a mystical realization that will not preserve our personalities but crush them beneath its weight. There is a point in the Bardo experience, allegedly, at which the reincarnating soul is conscious of itself only as a heap of lukewarm ashes on a dying bonfire at dawn, and this music is equal to the terrifying aspects of its subject.
Anatoly Pereslegin's "Fastgod: E-Psalms" (ELCD 024), is also a response to mystical text - in the form of the Psalms, some of which are spoken or sung. The use of vocal material sets this CD apart from his previous Electroshock release, the superb "Download The God", as does the appearance of Alexander Zagorinskiy's cello, notably on the standout track "Turn Thee to Me". Although I'm not convinced about the vocal content, much of the sonority and intensity of the previous release remains. As with "Bardo", this is music that justifies its elevated intentions, drawing upon C20 composers such as Messaien, more contemporary electronic sources and the musics of Jewish and other ritual traditions to create a vortex of visionary resonance. Had it not been for the sheer quality of "Download The God" - at its best, one of the most exciting pieces of music I've ever encountered, period - then I suspect I would have rated this release even more highly.
Another Artemiy Artemiev collaboration, with Karda Estra, also impresses with its interiority, although the mood is not so much sacral as quietly meditative. Equilibrium (ELCD 031), recorded in Moscow and Swindon - the second of these locations was a pleasant surprise, in view of four years of cultural deprivation endured there in the early Nineties! - is low-key but impressive. There's a clear Harold Budd influence on the title track, but the outstanding piece, for me, is "The Teller of the Tale". This extended meditation has the same, broody, crepuscular feel as some of Terje Rypdal's early Seventies compositions (on LPs such as "Whenever I Seem to be far Away" and "Odyssey") - I kept expecting Rypdal's aquiline guitar to home in and take flight, but its absence doesn't diminish this track's quality at all. As with the CD as a whole, it oozes quality and musical intelligence.
Of the other six releases from Electroshock, the most impressive is arguably Stanislav Kreitchi's "Voices and Movement" (ELCD 023). This weaves a delicate web of sound that suggests a narrative too complex to be told in words, yet convincing and compelling for all that - it is clearly the work of an expert sound sculptor, someone with a lifetime's experience behind him, and deserves more attention than I give it here. Another expert practitioner, Edward Artemiev, offers a very different kind of release in Three Odes (ELCD 030) - with the exception of the folk-influenced "Phantom from Mongolia", the best track on the CD by some way, much of the music is dramatic and assertive, even bombastic on the Andrew Lloyd-Webber like (!) final track. This appears to be commissioned music from the Soviet era - hymns to sport and the like - and needs to be seen, and appreciated in that cultural context. Think of a Soviet equivalent to Todd Rundgren's Utopia, and you may, at least, get some of the picture. Very different again is Antanas Jasenka's "Deusexmachina" (ELCD 025) - this Lithuanian composer credits the Hafler Trio, and anyone who likes their music would probably like this. There are the same abrupt shifts from pianissimo to fortissimo, and the same reliance on looming blocks and masses of sound. There's even a woman quietly having an orgasm, as if in homage to Annie Sprinkle.
The other three releases consist of a double compilation CD Electroacoustic Music Vol. VII (ELCD 026/027) and two more Artemiy Artemiev collaborations: "A Moment of Infinity" with Phillip B. Klingler (ELCD 022) and "57 Minutes to Silence" with Christopher De Laurenti (ELCD 029). The collaborations move between onslaughts of concentrated noise and more rarified interludes - the transitions on the De Laurenti collaboration are more abrupt with, for example, the minimalist drift music of "Transmission from the Coalfire" giving way to the dropped-piano-clunk-and-thud of "Aboard the Coalfire" (the convergence of titles suggests a loose SF narrative). "In a Moment of Infinity", the longest track on the Klingler collaboration, is a complex and fast-moving sound collage, which segues into the treated vocalisations of "A Rite of Passage" (featuring the next link in the Artemiev dynasty, Artemiy Junior). Both these CDs won me over after a little initial resistance, above all for their constant invention. As far as the compilation goes, the work of fourteen individuals or groups has been gathered from around the world, and the material spans a period of three decades. Highlights will depend on personal taste, but I particularly appreciated the subtle drift music of Vidna Obmana's "In Memory of Morton Feldman", the cello and electronics duet of Rodrigo Sigal's "Tolerance", and another Tibetan-Buddhist influenced track by Oophoi, "Dissolving in the Void" (the track, as one might expect, reflects its title).
These ten releases suggest a contemporary electronic music scene that is diverse and active - the product both of increased access to equipment, and the globalisation of this way of making music. Listeners will react to particular manifestations of that scene in their own way, and will construct their own maps of what is worth keeping in touch with, or not, as a result. Given the fact that this music is all but inaudible on the BBC (Radio Three continues, as ever, to lack the foresight and flexibility to do it justice), it's hard to explore it in depth without a very healthy bank balance. However, I understand that the situation is not quite as bad in other countries, and anyone homing in on the Electroshock project, with its energy and eclecticism, may well get a good sense of what is happening overall. Above and beyond these individual releases, excellent as they are, the project as a whole deserves respect. Russia, after all, has only eight time-zones - Electroshock has thirty-one, and the figure's still rising.
Norman Jope ("Stride")