The first Russian Boiler Room exemplified both the biggest asset of this country’s electronic music, and its greatest flaw.
It was July 2014, and the frenzy was crazy. The media started building the tension well in advance, and the organisers were inundated with requests to attend. Some of the Moscow glitterati hadn’t got invitations and were grumbling about the whole thing being flawed and corrupt. The venue for the show, the old and beautifully decrepit pavilion at the legendary Soviet Exhibition of Economic Achievements architectural complex, felt hot and sweaty. Halfway through the event the online live stream went down, presumably because there were too many spectators wishing to witness the historical breakthrough.
The headliners were supposed to be Lone, with his broken British grooves, and Octave One, with their refined Detroit sound. However, it quickly became obvious that another guy had stolen the show. A quirky blond in a black baseball hat and perfectly white t-shirt, Roman Litvinov, aka Mujuice, set the room on fire with his both historically respectful and intricately contemporary acid house set. He wasn’t just on par with the celebrated foreigners; he was better.
The first Moscow Boiler Room offered convincing evidence that Russian electronic music was alive, well and, in fact, booming. However, it was telling that the musicians and the public themselves needed an approval of some international institution to accept that flattering fact.
“I don’t think that we need a ‘scene’ in the current circumstances,” says Sasha Kholenko, aka DZA, a producer who also has been running his own label, How2make, for more than a decade. “Maybe we used to call such isolated islands a scene, because the information spread slower.”
However vague it may seem, this is an astute observation. I was asked to write a story about the current Russian electronic scene; but the term “scene” seems to imply a certain level of confinement which is no longer applicable in the digital era. Subcultures needed fully fledged scenes — with their behavioural and fashion protocols and tribal mindsets (if you aren’t one of us, get out) — partly for economic reasons; when your reach is limited by simple logistics, it makes sense to stick together. Nowadays, you might as well thrive (or die) on your own; there isn’t a need for a complicated cultural infrastructure to get your name or your crew out there — especially in Russia, where VK, the most popular local social network, provides plenty of opportunities to establish a name and an audience without any help from such old-fashioned entities as media or labels. When a scene was a concern, Russian electronic music was a toddler; when it became an adult, it already seemed a charming, but rather unnecessary, concept.
When scenes dissipate into global networks of sounds and ideas, old concepts consequently become redundant. In the digital cultural landscape, provinciality is more an attitude than anything to do with geography. While Russia grows more politically isolated from the western world, divisions in the creative industries seem to be fading away. “The ghettos are no more,” says Yana Kedrina, who, under the alias Kedr Livanskiy, records haunting and intimate synth-pop. “In the contemporary world, there aren’t any hierarchies. Everybody’s roughly in the same position, and you choose the one you’re the most comfortable with.”
Subcultures needed fully fledged scenes […] Nowadays, you might as well thrive (or die) on your own
Because of the complicated history behind the Russian music industry — the belated birth (the industry didn’t really exist in Soviet times), the piracy and heavy self-deprecation, every genre in Russia can be compared to a different type of political regime. Pop music is an oligopoly, split up by a handful of established producers who are wary of letting new competition in. Rock is a gerontocracy; no big Russian rock stars have appeared since the last century. Hip hop is a republic: there are working institutions, and you can get as far as your talent takes you. Indie is anarchy: everybody loves each other, and no one really has any money. Electronic music might be considered a federation; a wide network of fairly independent states united only by a common name, which is pretty much useless anyway (there isn’t much music that isn’t in some sense “electronic” these days).
Even with this decentralised structure, the genre has been getting stronger in recent years. There are more events, more communities, more clubs, sub-scenes, audiences, diversity — and more impact. “Electronic artists are paving the way for popular genres, researching new sounds and inventing their own. Ivan Dorn, Krovostok, SBPCh and others are all using the ideas that were first expressed in electronic music,” says Alexey Devyanin, a co-founder of Hyperboloid label who records both as Pixelord and Gultskra Artikler.
In fact, all the representatives of contemporary Russian electronic music who I spoke to said that they felt positive changes happening over the recent years. Fedor Pereverzev, who has just released, under the name Moa Pillar, his new record Humanity, told me that now he doesn’t have as strong sense of a united scene as five years ago, but that’s actually for the better. “We have a lot of different groups, each of which has its own interests, is successful on its own and is independent from others. The territory is clearly divided. I think it’s a sign of growth,” he says.
Ildar Zaynetdinov, who runs GOST, perhaps the most interesting and impressive label to emerge from Russia in the last two years, shared this sentiment. “Unity isn’t as important as it was when there wasn’t anyone around. We don’t have to hold hands and promote each other,” he says. “Everyone should take care of their own thing, and there has to be a competition of ideas.”
“In the 2000s, there were no limits. Club budgets were enormous, and the ability to bring anyone to the city affected the productivity of the local scene”
There are numerous reasons for current developments in Russian electronic music. For one, it’s good old-fashioned perseverance. How2make has been around since 2004. The organisers of Outline, by far the best Russian music festival of the last two years (a sort of local urban counterpart to Burning Man, but with a far better line-up), previously worked at Arma 17, a club that brought to Moscow almost every electronic musician you can imagine. Aleksandr Khmelevsky, a promoter who now runs NII, one of the best clubs when it comes to new electronic sounds, has been bringing forward-thinking artists ranging from High Wolf to MF Doom to Moscow at his own expense for years. Now all these efforts finally seem to be paying off; at least to a certain extent.
The economy works in its mysterious ways, too. In a way, Russian electronic music is going through the same import phase-out stage as the whole country. “In the 2000s, there were no limits. Club budgets were enormous, and the ability to bring anyone to the city affected the productivity of the local scene,” Roman Litvinov, aka Mujuice, told me. “There was less demand, but at the same time these years provided a powerful and diverse cultural background for what’s happening now. They created a fruitful soil, which is able to produce a lot of interesting things.”
Even though Russian electronic musicians don’t tend to be very vocal about politics, it is a factor, too. At least Ivan Afanasyev and Anna Kutz, who record experimental droney music as Love Cult and run the Full of Nothing label from their home city of Petrozavodsk, think so. “There are more positive things happening, because people are less afraid,” they say. “It’s hard to deny that the current political situation is very encouraging for art. You want to take this pain inside you and turn it into something that will affect people. When businessmen are lost and depressed, true poets think more clearly.”
In the end of the day, however, there’s no logic, chronology, or structure to describe it; more than anything else, the Russian electronic music scene is a living organism. Litvinov puts it like this: “I don’t think there’s any consistency or continuity. It’s more like a chain of coincidences and setbacks created by people. This is why community is so important: because it is the community that articulates the identity.”
The question is: what, if anything, makes this identity Russian? In a world where culture has become a global network, is there a way to create and express local identities in music (especially if there are no words and no language involved); and do they even matter?
According to those who actually play the music, well, not much. It seems that by now, at least for electronic musicians, Russian-ness isn’t some inherent quality, it’s more like a device that can be used to design one’s public persona. There’s nothing particularly Russian about Proxy, who plays thunderous EDM rooted in the 1990s, but he uses Soviet imagery to strengthen the overwhelming feeling of his tracks. As for Nina Kraviz, another internationally acclaimed electronic musician from Moscow, there have been many more debates about her gender than her provenance; and her delicate, smart and assertive techno doesn’t sound either very feminine or very eastern European anyway.
“It’s easy to exploit stereotypes,” Afanasyev and Kutz told me. “For instance, Kraviz is a “Russian beauty,” Proxy is a “brutal communist”. For Love Cult, however, it seems more intriguing and gratifying to underscore their regional, rather than national, identity, when it comes to it. “We’re basically two nice young people in love, who like the ideas of Scandinavian social capitalism and, a little bit, of anarchism. Our music is about dark pine trees and existential loopholes, so it actually makes sense to keep our identity mysterious.”
Ildar Zaynetdinov’s label GOST, whose name comes from a Soviet abbreviation for state product standard, seems to be more preoccupied with seeking some kind of a Russian sound. Even though it’s hard to pinpoint what’s local about the tunes of beatmakers like Lapti and OL, Zaynetdinov claims that he, at least, feels something Russian in their music. However, subtlety is important too. “Russian culture is way more broad than balalaikas, bears and Soviet symbols,” Zaynetdinov says. “And GOST is actually Russian, not Soviet or post-Soviet.”
“I would like to believe there is some particular Russian sound, but I’m afraid there isn’t. To a certain extent, all music is borrowed”
“GOST has a great brand identity, but I wouldn’t say that their releases actually have Russian sound,” disagrees Kirill Sergeev, who records as Kito Jempere, and does A&R for Chicago-based label Glenview. “I would like to believe there is some particular Russian sound, but I’m afraid there isn’t. To a certain extent, all music is borrowed; however, it always goes through a process of adaptation, and that’s when personalities and circumstances start to matter.” In any case, nobody except the Russian themselves, seems to really care. “When I play abroad, it doesn’t matter where I’m from,” Sergeev says. “They put me on the show poster without even mentioning that I’m from Russia.”
Looking for national identity in electronic music might be particularly tricky, because some of this music is inherently resitant to the idea of an identity itself. To run a sort of test, I asked Jared McNett, a friend and a music writer from Kansas City, to listen and evaluate a dozen Russian electronic tracks. Several did provoke stereotypical associations: Hmot’s sound was characterized as “Siberian”, even though no information that Hmot was indeed from Siberia had been provided; NV’s track was compared to Tetris. Most, however, didn’t; in fact, one Jared’s favourites turned out to be a track by 4 Positions of Bruno in which the cryptic Ural group dissect Russian chanson and flooded it with their signature toxic dub. Jared compared it to Arca; Love Cult to Aphex Twin; Pixelord to Burial. And if you think about, it makes sense. As Yana Kedrina put it, “When electronic music isn’t based on melody, what’s left is pure physics. The bass drum is very physiological. It’s the documentation of a pulse, a murder of the ego. In this sense, electronic music destroys borders; it’s international.”
“I love being romantic, but frankly, we work with math and physics, and they don’t care where you’re from,” agreed Pereverzev. Coming from someone who has been tirelessly exploring the realms of Russian traditional music and trying to merge it with modern technology (it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that Moa Pillar’s early output was as Russian as electronic music has ever got), these statements sound especially curious. These days Pereverzev claims that his folk experiments were just a stint on a bigger path; he needed his roots to learn how to stand on his feet firmly. “Folklore and ethno have never been a goal, just a device,” he says. “Now I reached a stage when I can try to speak my own language without using these crutches.”
Just as the most productive way to describe Russian electronic music is to stop thinking about it as a “scene”, maybe the most efficient way to discover its identity is to stop looking for one, or at least for any clear rules, identifiers or timelines. “The world is way less impervious nowadays, and the most interesting things are happening where cultures collide,” Litvinov muses. “I think that, as soon as we decide not to seek a coherent tradition or legacy and start to see the work of distortion algorithms, the identity becomes much clearer.”
The Calvert Journal is hosting Eastern Promises, a club night featuring Johns’ Kingdom artists, at London’s Alibi on December 17. See here for more info.