Special interview and "Mikhail Chekalin PORUGANIE PATSIFIKA A Post-Symphony in 9 Parts" for “Progression Magazine” #51 by A. Patterson Spring/Summer 2007, eng
The history of experimental music from Eastern Europe, for the most part, is based primarily on what musicians managed to sneak out of their individual countries via clandestine channels. The sporadic release of this music in the West, and low level of publicity it garnered, marginalized it for the most part. There were a few exceptions, and interviews with musicians form those parts are rare even today.
Now, the political and social East/West barriers have vanished, literally. The Internet has made everything and everyone more accessible, at least theoretically. An underlying irony is that the flood of information offers so much that it tends to obscure all but the most savvy in terms of technology and marketing strategies. Some of the most creative and groundbreaking artists often are left toiling in obscurity.
Mikhail Chekalin is one such artist — arguably the most influential modern composer of the last 30 years in the former U.S.S.R., now Russia. His work was "experimental." In fact, his creative intent was to break new ground stylistically. He worked outside the boundaries of established culture, while at the same time breaching those borders when possible to make his music heard.
Chekalin has produced some 30-plus works that range the spectrum from "post pop," to free-jazz, electronic, and "post-symphonic." While his music was known to me since the '80s, it was only recently we "met" via the Internet. In the past year he has sent me most of his albums, and I've been amazed by the spirit and high level of creativity embodied by the sum of his work.
From that contact followed a series of "conversations," and at last, this interview. What appears here is an abridged version of a very long manifesto, of sorts, that he wrote in response to my questions. I found Chekalin's music, his personal history, and philosophical grasp of cultural dynamics absolutely fascinating in so many ways. The text was translated for him from Russian to English over there. I have tried to leave it be as much as possible with only slight interpretive changes to clarify what he was saying as I understood it.
In the end, I think he is not only one of today's leading "tuned-in" artists in the truest sense of the term, but someone who understands the universal truism: if you don't learn from the past, you truly are doomed to repeat it.
Progression: Was it difficult obtaining exposure to Western pop culture and experimental music, under Soviet control? Who were the Western artists that were best known during those years?
Chekalin: "It's really sad. It seems hard to imagine that getting exposed to Western culture in the U.S.S.R. wasn't difficult, it wasn't difficult at all. It was even less difficult than it is nowadays. I'll try to express my point more clearly.
"If we are taking the U.S.S.R. as subject matter, we should Idraw some lines of distinction first. The U.S.S.R. of the '70s was one thing. The U.S.S.R. of the '60s was a U.S.S.R. of the 'thaw.' This matter has been much reflected upon, and therefore tends to balance on the positive side if we speak in terms of modernity, modern art, and art engage.
"Art engage stands for 'official art' of the U.S.S.R. as opposed to the 'unofficial art,' I suppose, though I'm aware that's not quite the same thing.
"Then people managed somehow to hear new music from the West. I can think of no far-away Siberian corner (as it happens I had an opportunity to travel up and down the U.S.S.R.) not to mention Moscow and its surroundings, where they were not listening to recent Deep Purple or Led Zeppelin or Beatles albums. True, it would be some umpteenth tape-recorded version, but so what. People used to come from another city just to listen to these stereo sound recordings. In the '70s and '80s it was the same story with video.
"The reigning atmosphere here was liberal indeed. Well, maybe in comparison with the Western countries it didn't seem so, but there wasn't anything of the same order of things with us in Moscow. This liberality was exercised even more in the Soviet Baltic Republics - Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia. Lithuanian rock groups were granted permission to have their discs released by Melodiya [the government-sanctioned record label] much sooner than some perfectly insipid, feebly unoriginal Western beat-style song from those Moscow quarters of ours, which managed to navigate the barriers of obstruction to be issued as well.
"If and when, eventually, it got released, after having been arranged and pawed at by this and that, and all the rest, representatives of contemporary Soviet music (Soviet Composers' Union being its embodiment), usually interfered in such an awful way that no traces were left of initial attempts at beat or rock."
Progression: Concerning the state-owned record label named Melodiya: Was it possible for artists to get signed to contracts to record their music and get paid like in the West?
Chekalin: "Well, yes, it was not difficult at all. But it depends on what you call 'difficulties.' It's a fact that there was no publicity going for the most recently recorded Beatles album, that kind of thing, all the way around. How to get informed was problematic.
"Now, there was that 'Catch-22' of ours: You could buy a recording bearing the caption 'Vocal & Instrumental Music Ensemble.' This rendering sounds lame, but it wasn't quite the same as a Western rock band. So, you buy it and on the back cover you find, 'Music & Lyrics by J. Lennon and P. McCartney,' printed.
"At record shops under the Melodiya trademark you could buy only Schoenberg's or Stravinsky's or Bartok's LPs. These could have been issued either by Melodiya itself or by a Polish or Hungarian label, for the Eastern European Republics, where a good deal of liberality as well as fine sensibility existed. In Eastern Europe there existed a highly sophisticated modern culture, of which Polish jazz and Polish cinematography are among the examples."
Progression: Perhaps there was an "underground scene," or maybe you had to get a license to play in public like in some of the other East European countries?
Chekalin: "The unique phenomenon of unofficial Soviet art has absolutely nothing to do with this sad thing much-acclaimed as a 'Soviet underground scene," if we speak of art as a craft and a profession and if we call a spade a spade.
"It's a matter of prime importance to divest one's self of this phenomenon that any underground scene existed, as, say, in New York City in the 1960s. Especially if we are to speak of underground in application to Eastern Europe, then, you know it's not a big deal.
"It makes one sad indeed; thai is where and when the schism started and Soviet culture set off infamously under the banner of secondary status, of being an imitation culture. But I was born before that time, and so I had made my stand. It's a matter of pride for me.
"I identified myself quite early as one determined to choose a music career for myself, not just as a performer but rather as a composer. In this sense, I steeped myself in the 20lh century at large. It made no difference for me whether it concerned philosophy, or art in general, or music in particular. Sure, I had different priorities at different periods of time, and this or that influence might be traceable in connection with this or that age. But if I loved to show off throwing in all the citations and reminiscences which I have managed to amass when playing beat on the piano at a 'kvartyrnick' (a session at some private flat) where I performed either as a rock musician, or as a free-music improviser.
"Whenever I went to classes for composition I left all this stuff on the outside. It would be correct to say that I fell under Hindemith's, or Liggetti's, or Bartok's influence. Certainly, I submitted myself to influences, how could it be otherwise? And what is more, I still don't know whether I've collected them all; I reckon I've been affected by too few."
Progression: I first heard your music when a friend in Estonia sent me an LP called Post Pop - Non Pop on the Melodiya label. Did you always release your music on Melodiya, or did you have other "underground" releases?
Chekalin: "Many recordings are underground-made; official releases were available only through Melodiya. That was a state-owned monopoly, there didn't exist any other label. Having one's works released at Melodiya was official recognition. By conquering this institutional stronghold of the Soviet empire, one conquered a place for themselves among those of a recognized rank.
"As a matter of fact, that subterranean recording studio of mine wasn't some stationary affair, it was a movable feast, quite literally. It was perhaps the very first of its kind in Russia at the end of 70s.
"When you did that you were in for real prosecution from the law for having committed an illegal act - having produced a sound recording withoul sanction by the proper authorities. If people copied someone's music (unreleased in particular^ with the aid of a domestic tape recorder, that also qualified as illegal. That is, either as an abuse of state-owned recording facilities in order to gain a private profit, or for the spreading of unauthorized information. So it's either a civil case or a criminal offense.
"My music used to have an audience of 70,000-90,000, such were the number of visitors who frequented the famous annual exhibition of Twenty Moscow Painters during the '80s. Today, modernity has been all but abolished that. The well-known phrasing of Solzhenitsyn's to that affect that "don't you forget to wipe clear the face of your watch" has drawn a bottom line under the process. A modern culture had been carried on in the and then all of a sudden it just ceased to be the '70s. Today one has got to carry on incognito, as it were, to go into hiding, but not into any sort of real underground."
Progression: When glasnost came about did it help you and other more "experimental musicians," and does it still exist today?
Chekalin: "In those days the real giants were right over one's shoulder. Here was Shostakovich, over there was Solzhenitsyn. Everybody realized that things were changing, the change was almost upon us; those present had to go along with the tide. People such as me were just the first breakers; it was I, us, who achieved glasnost, not Gorbachev.
"Today, it has been eliminated. This current situation is a sort of state-like cultural decay, and a culture of crisis. It is really quite the reverse from before. Basically, it's a case of turncoats all over again. That was due to these very same people who one would expect were to be held responsible at last for all those shameful indignities of the past. I'm referring to petty compromisers who were so eager to please, catering to the ideological demand in the '70s for their employment by this corrupt intelligentsia. They acted as loyal attendants for the former Soviet authorities; they are again right there in the old place, now in coalition with those who are not even intelligent. This current situation appears to be one of total corruption.
"Now fully employed and in a position to draw benefits are those representatives of the elder generation of cultural workers who were officially engaged during the Soviet period. They are joined by those of a much younger generation who happen to be their children, quite literally. That is, not in the figurative sense of the word in which we all in the past have been successors to our fathers' deeds and glory.
"Those singular persons, those recognized names of repute in the modern unofficial culture of the U.S.S.R. of the '70s and '80s — whose artistic masterfulness and expertise one would expect was going to come in handy, during the '90s — have been completely hushed up.
"Meanwhile, we observe a flourishing of such thing as a "culture of functionaries' backed by a newly established mass media of glamour magazines which manipulate the cultural news to the benefit of those officials functioning in the sector of culture, without regard for their competence or lack of it, and to the exclusion of everything else. Not going into the particulars, I don't even mention the yawning absence of a national sound-recording establishment comparable with Melodiya on the scale of its national and worldwide activities.
"As for attitudes toward artists, it's not different to any significant extent. I'd rather say it's a counterpart of the former attitude notwithstanding new settings. In the words of one of the great Russian cultural workers, Pavel Florensky: 'What makes people leave Russia? Why, having suffered from bitter mortification ..."
"I wouldn't say that it's a subject peculiar to Russia; it's rather a Soviet peculiarity. As I was born in Soviet times it strikes a deep note with me, a note of piercing anxiety. I just hate like hell to pedal it."
Progression: Now that the U.S.S.R. and cultural police are gone, hasn't the cultural climate improved to offer more freedom for artists in Russia?
Chekalin: "That's the point; that's what the drama of solitude is all about. In fact, now there is an anti-glasnost of such monstrous dimensions as we never knew during Brezhnev's time. Back then, freedom was present by implication, it existed within the rule. Things were so self-evident that it revealed an infinity of possibilities; one held one's head high. Anything, everything was possible; a magic metaphysics just worked itself; or one worked their own magic.
"Now, it just makes no sense. It's impossible to give an account of how one has been composing synthesizer music, having no synthesizer of his own. I remember I was distraught when Keyboard Magazine interviewed me in 1988, the occasion being my LP released by Melodiya. I was totally at a loss, how I should answer the customary questions - what synthesizers I have, which I prefer. But I wasn't amazed in the least, that at my age of 27 I'd won a position within this stronghold of Melodiya. I'd found a way to have a new genre approved. Even as I took account of my circumstances, I was sure that I didn't just beat about the bush, wasting my time. That is, come what may, having my guiding light, I was bound to come up with a result.
"Since I was 16 years old I knew what it meant, impersonating an artist, especially in such a country as U.S.S.R., what part an artist has to play. Even then, every dirty rocker in U.S.S.R. knew his part by heart, without ever bothering to put it into words. It's a pity that almost the whole lot of them lost their chance to mature, didn't reach beyond that boyish-infantile social rock of theirs, and got trapped in simply second-hand music-making."
Progression: When you began making music what was your emphasis, a sort of pop music, electronics, or something else?
Chekalin: "Quite early on I was determined lo make a music career for myself noi just as a performer but rather as a composer. An oratorio, a composition for mixed chorus and orchestra, which I wrote in 1975, was a landmark for me. So I date my professional existence from that event.
"It was at a later date that I did something more on a synthesizer. At the beginning of the '90s there appeared press reviews, some dozen and a half of them, concerning my album
I Night Pulsation on the German Erdenklang label. That was a sort of breakthrough perhaps as the first disc by a Russian composer on the worldwide electronic scene. The reviewers are quite correct in pointing certain influences they chose to remark upon. If they wish to see those works of mine through the perspective of Stravinsky and Rachmaninoff's heritage, fine. I'm really grateful for their comments."
Progression: What kind of music are you currently working on? And will you nave a new album coming out in the near future?
Chekalin: "Well, I work around ihe clock non-slop since I'm a composer, so alt kinds of things may come 10 pass. Is there a demand for it? For sure, I'm dead certain there is; the very thing that I create is in demand. Whether it is sought after from a commercial point of view, is still another matter. In order that my kind of work gets an engagement, a revolution should occur. And a revolution is pending in the world, no doubt of it. That there's a change in the air is indisputable. That's why an artist is a great futurist by nature. In earlier days, when I delved into the past, I was really reaching for the future. So I'm of the opinion that all three decades of my career I have been engaged in a very serious piece of work, and I'm not going to change that, ever.
"I have made my presence more known by my electronic works. The music for one of my works Last Seasons was executed in a most conventional way. It was done as if I composed a traditional score, drawn from a vocabulary based on a mode of expression from 19th-century heritage. It was an act of rebellion on my part, I'd say. It would be excessive to enlarge on the meaning of this work. I do, however, consider it to be of importance, as there is no other opus for all I know, which played up this canon of a genre. There's still another work of that son on CD, under the title black Square.
"Another, among my more recent ones, is Porughaniye Patsifika (The Desecration of a Pacific Sign). I doubt anyone is going to come up with an offer to release it as an audio CD. I've already mentioned the abolishing of institutional sound recording on a national scale in Russia. Since Melodiya has been torn down there is no other label comparable to Deutsche Gramophone, for example, or even to BIS or Chandos, which are meant to release new styles in classical or jazz. Here, nothing exists that is even remotely recognizable as a national policy in sound recording in terms of promoting our national culture. The late Melodiya recording operation is literally conspicuous by its absence. There is no market for music officially.
"Today there exists a pseudo culture of imitation playing a vile trick on the genuine rock music culture here, which has been forced out and doomed to a state of everlasting amateurism. This cultural wasteland has supplanted our music scene, which was stripped in the process of all value it might have possessed because of being second-rate. There was nothing progressive about it and never could be. Things were very similar within electronic music in terms of being considered as art and part of a progressive-music scene. That was non-existent in the U.S.S.R. In fact, there were composers who, having full sanction from on high - and I don't mean high heavens, for sure - used to receive commissions to make electronic music. Only what kind of electronic music was that, when they summoned an orchestra to produce an orchestral sound, then they summoned a rock group to produce a rock group sound. In reality, that was just music where they played a synthesizer along with all the other instruments.
"That's why I wasn't keen on electronic music. But, as fate would have it, I have been set face to face with such a problem that if I were to achieve my ambition as a composer, to be able to realize my conceptions I should learn to perform this way myself. I wracked my brains to find a way around that; but in the end became reconciled to use the method of electronic music compositions to achieve my desired creative and compositional goals."
__________________________________________________________________________________ Mikhail Chekalin PORUGANIE PATSIFIKA (A Post-Symphony in 9 Parts)
This new CD released now by Mir Records (a new sub label of Eurock devoted to the music of Chekalin) represents Mikhail’s latest musical production. The music was recorded in 2005 for a film shot during 2006 and is based on the paintings of a group of well-known Moscow artists known as founders of the Soviet unofficial art movement of the late 60 80s, the famous Twenty (20 Moscow Artists at Malaya Gruzinskaya Street) whose original works are now stored in private museums and collections. As the title implies the music is post symphonic in the sense that it echoes the symphonic form of the past perhaps, but goes beyond that genre stylistically by infusing into that spirit a neo-electronic palate that bears little resemblance to the experimental style of the German influenced Euro scene, or pop music. Upon listening it is obvious that Chekalin has an innate understanding of multiple styles and genres. He hasnt so much learned them as lived and thoroughly absorbed them into his consciousness. So the resulting music is totally organic, not simply a fusion of styles in any way. He combines melody, compositional dynamics, and sonic tone colors in myriad layers and striking ways. Each composition creatively embodies the spirit of the art used in the films imagery. The combined affect creating a unique conceptual sound experience as you listen. After a few listens I think one could say that The Desecration of a Pacific Sign represents not only the best of the past, but a step forward creatively for the future of electronics musically. It channels the spirit of a former time, and by some alchemical musical process brings it alive, unprocessed and unadulterated, creatively exploring new sounds and compositional styles in this brave new world of the new digital domain. The DVD was released in Russia early in 2007. In addition, Chekalin has two other productions finished - Paradigm Transition & Untimely completed which comprise the other parts of his most recent post symphonic a conceptual musical triptych trilogy. These titles are set to come out on Mir Records before the end of 2007. Perhaps the endgame for the situation Chekalin and his music as comes with the West’s immersion in an age of high technology, which has irrevocably altered the words’s artistic landscape. It may be that such genuinely “revolutionary” works are born solely from the restrictive social conditions under which Chekalin toiled. Let’s hope a quantum shift in consciousness occurs. Maybe then, once again we will be lucky enough to peer out of the darkness and envision a new golden age musically, and otherwise. A.Patterson