Search for:

Brief History of New Improvisatory Music in Soviet Russia

Sergey Letov

Some apocryphal tales claim that history of new improvisatory music in Russia began in the 60’s. Before I started performing, I heard from Boris Labkovsky, a very versatile coeval of mine, that there was a Moscow musician Victor Lukin, who invented such free improvisatory music and performed it. Later, drummer Mikhail Zhukov, who first took me on stage, confirmed this apocryphal tales: he personally played in Victor Lukin’s band during his military service in the Moscow Guard of Honor Orchestra (where, by the way, he met French horm player Arkady Shilkloper). In the very beginning of the 80’s Victor Lukin immigrated to the USA, where he played “in New York streets” (as it was written in a postcard, received by B. Labkovsky from Lukin 20 years ago). From there Lukin moved to India, then to Nepal, where he spent in prison 10 or 15 years. Most likely, that Lukin returned and now lives in Moscow. I didn’t hear Lukin’s music, but his audacious behavior on stage, deliberately unconventional approach to musicianship, designing of acoustic instruments (I saw these instruments with my own eyes and tried to play them, and later to replicate them; their replicas sound on some of my vinyl LPs and CDs) – all this proves that he was a charismatic personality, later reflected in music of his partners. Lukin was a self-taught musician, and his main idea, which later affected some Moscow new-jazz musicians, was that the instrument itself should be the determining factor, and one should rely on the instrument, its abilities, and not on its traditional use and its school of playing. Later, from jazz and classic music, this approach attracted to the new improvisatory music such musicians as French horn player Arkady Shilkloper (from academic music), tuba player and vocalist Arkady Kirichenko (from Dixieland music! – it reminds of the story of the American soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy), and, to a certain extent, electric guitarist Oleg Lipatov.

The pioneer of the New Improvisatory Music, who is still performing, is cellist and guitarist Vladislav Makarov. from Smolensk. Makarov never played jazz. Never. Like many youths he was in rock-music, playing in some beat group. But by the end of the 70’s he developed his own, like nothing else, abstract cello “language”. Makarov is an artist by profession; he transposed principles of modern graphic arts on cello plying. It was like implementations of Klein’s, Hartung’s and Jackson Pollock’s lines in cello. It’s worth mentioning, that Makarov, like Lukin, has no academic education in cello playing, being a self-taught musician.

Makarov’s major influence was the English school of free improvisation, so-called Company: Derek Bailey, Evan Parker, John Stevens. Derek Bailey, the theorist of the school, defined non-idiomatic improvisation as improvisation, not mediated by any existing musical styles, schools or practices. It is like a spontaneous speech in one’s own specific language. The main principle of such music is negative aesthetics, consisting of prohibitions: prohibitions on cliches, citations, allusions, prohibition on melodies, regularities of any kind – rhythmical, melodic, harmonic, intonation. Spontaneity and a deliberately high degree of unpredictability. It is like speech of an aphasic person, some kind of glossolalia, elucidation in unknown languages. While Derek Bailey’s music was quite monotonous and rather illustrated his own theoretical declarations, other English musicians, such as Even Parker, Trevor Watts, Gavin Bier, managed to achieve a high degree of energetic intension and expressivity. For an impartial ear it sounded like American free jazz and modern academic music (before the overspread of minimalism!). Some kind of school formed around Makarov in Smolensk, he influenced much on drummer Mikhail Yudenich, saxophonist Eduard Sivkov from Vologda (Ne Te), Nikolay Sudnik, Valery Dudkin (ZGA, St. Petersburg).

It ought to be mentioned, that in the USSR there existed contiguous directions – it was the line of polystylistics in New Jazz, implemented, first of all, by composer and pianist Vyacheslav Ganelin and his trio (GTC – abbreviation of last names: Vladimir Tarasov, Vladimir Chekasin, and later other musicians). Ganilin was born in Kraskovo near Moscow, but when he was a child his family moved to Vilnius, were he established himself as an academic composer, who wrote for orchestras, theater of music comedy, etc. Aroun 1969 he tried himself in jazz music, first in the style of Bill Envans (cool jazz). In 1971 he enticed to Vilnius drummer Vladimir Tarasov from Arkhangelsk, and they started playing as a duo in almost the same style. In the mid 70’s they were joined by saxophonist Vladimir Chekasin from the Ural. Music of Ganelin’s trio was comprehended by listeners as avant-garde, as a radical breakthrough. Meanwhile, their music based on polystylistics, free operation of any musical styles with a high level of improvisation and was extremely energized due to personal expressivity of the soloist – Vladimir Chekasin. While their music seemed a free improvisation for untrained listeners, for a more experienced ear it sounded like contemporary academic music, not dull, but energetically intensified. Some relative parallels may be drawn between GTC and Alfred Schnittke’s music, which also was enthusiastically met by listeners. All the three GTC musicians worked in the Lithuanian Philharmonic, thus overcoming certain restrictions, imposed on all Soviet/Russian musicians.

In spite of a considerable popularity of Ganelin’s trio, Soviet jazz critics did not like them, except for a wonderful Leningrad music philosopher Efim Semyonovich Barban, who used to publish the only USSR jazz magazine “Kvadrat” (“Square”). Though he did not immediately become a GNC adept. First, he didn’t accept their music, continuing to praise the epigonous jazz quartet of Nosov-Goldstein (Leningrad, an imitation of Ornette Coleman – Eric Dolphy quartet, which was not bad for our poor jazz scene of those days). Gradually, E.S. Barban became the main ideologist of free jazz (he wrote a very interesting book “Black Music – White Freedom”). In his articles Barban gradually started to separate new jazz from easy listening music, applying analytical methods, associated with structuralism.

And how miserable was American critics of GTC, in comparison with Russian reviews, during their first historical tour in the US! A critic of Washington Post in the article “Jazz to be exiled to Siberia” wrote: “What a strange perception of jazz these Russians have – it is even impossible to dance to their music”!

In the second half of the 70’s a similar, but jazzier line was taken by the jazz band Arkhangelsk (from jazz to free jazz). It is interesting, that the founder and the leader of the band, saxophonist Vladimir Rezitsky, played more modernly than Chekasin. Actually, Vladimir Petrovich Reznitsky was the first saxophonist, who played as modernly as the leaders of European avant-garde jazz – Peter Brotzmann, Willem Boecker, Evan Parker – with a fine technique, abounded with sharp explosions, punctuated, nervous, winding and somewhat chaotic voice-leading. Besides Vladimir Reznitsky, I’d like to mention Arkhangelsk drummers Oleg and Nikolay Yudanovs and vocalist Konstantin Sedovin. In the 80’s new voices started coming from Siberia, but very low and irregularly. In Novosibirsk the band Homo Liber was formed, resembling Ganelin’s trio very much, led by composer (a member of the Union of Composers, of course) Yuri Yukechev and saxophonist Vladimir Tolkachyov. Sometimes they were joined by drummer Sergey Belichenko, who had undoubted executive talents. Homo Liber’s music is polystylistic compositions, based on Yukechev’s music. Funny, Homo Liber’s saxophonist Vladimir Tolkachyov, like Chekasin, came from the Ural. Another interesting, but not completely realized event was a duo of drummer Vladimir Vysotin and pianist Sergey (?) Isayev from Novosibirsk. Contrabass player Askhat Sayfulin from Tomsk was also very close to jazz. All of them performed little outside Siberia and were more known by their rare records, first released exclusively in England by Leonid Feigin (Leo Records ) and broadcasted by BBC Russian service, where he used to run the jazz column under the name Alexey Leonidov.

However, improvisational music itself often has not jazz, but rock-music origin. From rock bands “Big Iron Bell” and “St. Petersburg” one of the brightest musician-improvisator of the 20th century, Sergei Kuryokhin, came to the quartet of Anatoly Vapirov, a professor of Leningrad Conservatory. Kuryokhin did not have any systematic musical higher education. By the time I met him, he finished a couple of courses at the Culture Institute, specializing in choir or piccolo flute. Anyway, he had a very non-academic hand positioning. Probably, this positioning allowed him playing with an incredible speed, hypnotizing both the audience and partners-musicians. As the ideologist of new improvisatory music, Barban introduced Makarov to Kuryokhin. They met and played in a trio with bassoon player Alexander Alexandrov (he played in Aquarium, with Pyotr Mamonov in Zvuki Mu, since 1989 in Three “O” and during the last five years actively cooperates with Andrey Bitov, who recites Pushkin’s drafts).

But the most stable Makarov’s partnership was not with Kuryokhin, but with drummer Alexander Kondrashkin (Aquarium, Strannye Igry, AVIA, Manufaktura, Jungles, Noise and Toys). Later, in the second half of the 80’s, Kondrashkin stepped aside from free improvisatory music towards rock music.

The most mysterious and not illuminated corner of improvisatory music history in Leningrad is the activity of Mikhail Malin. I met him in 1981 or beginning of 1982, before I hit the stage, on the recommendation of the same Boris Labkovsky (who emerged from the underground and has been playing for 5 years in Rada&Ternovnik as a bass guitarist and saxophonist). Malin used to play in the metal band Marathon, rehearsing in Tosno (a town in Leningrad Oblast). He was absolutely not interested in jazz, was a hard-rock person, but meanwhile was the author of a mysterious and underdeveloped concept of null-music. This null-music, in which Fyodor Chistyakov and some other people, whom I don’t remember, were involved, was a certain form of spontaneous out-of-style improvisation, not borrowed from Great Britain and West Europe like Makarov’s, but invented independently (like invention of the bicycle). Misha Malinin used to play the flute, that’s all I remember. After meeting with Kuryokhin and Kondrashkin we didn’t communicate. I saw him last time in Nantes, in autumn of 1992 during St. Petersburg Days. He died soon after this.

My attention to rock past of many free improvisators was draws by Alexander Kan, an organizer of avant-garde music life in Leningrad. Kan was the president of the Modern Music Club at Lensoviet Cultural Center. He arranged the first visit to the USSR of the famous American saxophone quartet ROVA (though, by the time of their arrival to the USSR, the club had been closed by security authorities because of a too audacious performance of Kuryokhin’s Crazy Music Orchestra featuring Grebenshchikov). In the 80’s Alexander Kan did a lot for me and development of improvisatory music in Leningrad. Probably, after his and Efim Barban’s departure to England, improvisatory music in St. Pete has come to the state it is in now.

Further in Siberia, in Krasnoyarks, pianist Yakov Eisenberg arranged concerts and even festivals. It is impossible not to mention the third informal capital of Russia – Sverdlovsk/Ekaterinburg. In Sverdlovsk, as well as in Leningrad, Yaroslavl, Volgograd, Novosibirsk, there were experienced organizers, arranging concerts of improvisatory music, some underground magazines, books and brochures were self-published. It was worse in Moscow. Ganelin’s trio played in Moscow exclusively on two concert stages – in the Society of Blind Persons (!) and in the GPZ Cultural Center on Dubrovka, which became notorious in 2002 because of taking of hostages by Chechen bandits. The underground musical life was irregular and occasional, though it was not controlled by security authorities, unlike in Leningrad, were some kind of an experiment was carried out.

In Sverdlovsk, the main organizer, oriented on Barban, was Gennady Sakharov. He managed to arrange a concert of our duo with Kuryokhin in the Mining Institute before Perestroika began, during the most sever post-Brezhnev period of confusion. In Sverdlovsk we net with local adepts of improvisatory music, pianist Mikhail Agre and drummer Igor Zakharov. Later, in the second half of the 80’s and in the 90’s an entire school of new jazz formed there. In the very end of the 80’s the band Orchestrion of Sergey Karsayev/Ravil Azizov from Volgograd stands apart – it was neither from rock, nor from jazz. Karsayev and Azizov organized in Volgograd “Unidentified Movement” festivals of avant-garde arts, with the participation of musicians, poets, critics, artists and film-makers. In the beginning the festival was semi-underground and took place in a cultural center in some remote working district of Volgograd. By the end of Perestroika, after Orchestrion’s tour in Germany and recording in England, “Unidentified Movement” was identified by the local philharmonic and best concert halls were provided. Orchestrion consisted of poet/performer Sergey Karsayev and his wife Lena, multi-instrumentalist Ravil Azizov and operator of original sounding sculptures Vyacheslav Mishin. Unfortunately, Orchestrion did not last long. Karsayev was involved in video and cinema, shot a film about Terteryan; one of his films won a prize at “Vityaz” festival. By the end of the 80’s improvisatory music life in Moscow reanimated gradually, but did not reach the level of Leningrad. The second greatest female singer appeared in Moscow – Sainkho (real name – Lyudmila Okan-oolovna Namtchylak, later – Graf). Like the greatest female singer of Russian improvisatory music Valentina Dmitriyevna Ponomaryova, she is not Russian (Ponomaryova is a Gypsy, Sainkho is a Tuvinian). Mikhail Zhukov transformed gradually his Orkestr Nelyogkoy Muzyki (ONM) (Uneasy Music Orchestra), where I played with my brother Igor (who is more known as Egor, “Grazhdanskaya Oborona” ) into a minimalist band of percussion instruments.

Two bands fall out of a traditional division into rock and polystylistic music – these are a duo of Vladimir Volkov and Vyacheslav Gayvoronsky from Leningrad and Moscow Ensemble of Intuitive Music Three “O”. Volkov-Gayvoronsky duo played refined chamber music with short mathematically computed pieces. Three “O” is a kind of hooligan punk mixture of parodies on jazz, blues, fugues and ethnic music. The ensemble actively worked with underground poets, the parallel cinema of Aleynikovs brothers, theaters. The band’s name was registered in SOYUZCONCERT (Concert Union) by popular actor Alexander Filippenko at the third try. His first try to register the band’s name as “Three Female Holes” with MOSCONSERT in 1987 failed, the second try with “Three Holes” also flapped. The duo and Three “O” often played together and even toured in the USA.

And, in conclusion, about sad things.

Two outstanding musicians of new improvisatory music were in prison in the 80’s. One of them is Anatoly Vapirov, the leader of Leningrad jazz life, a kind of bridge between jazz traditionalists, academic contemporary music and avant-garde experiments. When he was in prison, his record “Sentenced to Silence” was released in England. Interesting, in prison he organized a jazz band, which won the contest of prison jazz bands! In the beginning of the 80’s in Moscow underground scene a very talented pianist emerged – Artyom Blokh. He was Sergey Kuryokhin’s cousin and played the music, resembling Sergey’s music circa his “Ways of Freedom”, released by Leo Records. He was distinguished by his highly energetic intension, uncontrollable fury at the keyboards. In 1982-83 Artyom did not play polystylistic music like Kuryokhin, but uncompromising, very energetic music, sometimes resembling Cecil Taylor. At the peak of his solo he used to kick the chair and the keys of the instrument splashed around! Like many Western musicians, he abused dopes and in the beginning of 1984 was put in prison. He was released in 1987. He did not play improvisations any more, only refined cool jazz. Later he immigrated to Israel. In 1999, in Cologne, before the last jazz broadcast of the Millennium, where I played in Tree “O” with Mal Waldron, Gene Lee and Blixa Bargeld, Artyom’s wife told me, that he had gone.

The end of the 80’s – beginning of the 90’s were marked by mass emigration of musicians: cellist Boris Rayskin, tuba player and vocalist Arkady Kirichenko aka Freeman (to the US), saxophonist Anatoly Vapirov (to Bulgaria), pianists Mikhail Agre, Vyacheslav Ganelin, Yakov Eisenberg (to Isael), Sainkho (to Austria), bassoonist Alexander Alexandrov (to Germany). Sergey Kuryokhin, Vladimir Rezitsky, Alexander Kondrashkin, Mikhail Malin and Boris Raiskin died.

november 2003






Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *