Author: Antje Mayer
Published: REPORT. Magazine for Arts and Civil Society in Eastern- and Central Europe, September 2006

Anna Ceeh


“What else should we do during the cold polar nights except make music?”

Anna and Franz Ceeh Pomassl bring with her label Laton music from the wild, exotic East to the rest of the world

With your label laton you have been travelling around the east for several years, to explore uncharted territory on the music map, to release the work of musicians from there and to promote them in the west. But is this whole east hype not rather old hat by now?
Franz Pomassl: Bratislava, Prague, Zagreb and so forth are still being marketed as the exotic, undiscovered “East”. We know that during the days of the Austrian Empire a tram ran between Vienna and Bratislava, which was entirely natural. Looked at in retrospect the Iron Curtain was a sad interval. It is long over, but unfortunately it still exists in peoples’ heads. As long ago as 15 years the “East scenes” already interested us as a theme, even before 1989. From 1990 we worked together with the Club-U (now the Subclub) in Bratislava or with the musicians, artists, and the director of, Boris Ondreicka. For us there are no longer any uncharted areas there, even though some people seem to believe that they have to use various EU subsidies to bring this scene to the surface. In fact it’s swimming on the surface already. The new territory for music is to be found further to the east, in Murmansk above the Artic Circle or in Vladivostock on the Japan Sea. The scenes there are what interest us nowadays.

What kind of musical developments did you encounter there?
Anna Ceeh: firstly we encountered the incredible dimensions that ultimately are expressed in the utopian character of the music production. Even we Russians are not really aware of the size of our own country. I come from western Russia, from St. Petersburg. When I was there recently I saw a poster in the Underground railway advertising different telephone rates. There was a rate for Moscow, a rate for calls to Central Russia and a “rest of the world” rate. That seems to mean that for the Russians too anywhere beyond the Urals is the rest of the world! If you think about the population of Moscow alone, 12 million people that is far more than in the whole of Austria.

But can you speak of a single musical scene in these geographically immense regions? Surely there must be thousands of them there?
F.P.: In fact one can. For example there’s the tradition of connecting music with the latest technological inventions. One thinks here of the historic invention of the theremin, one of the first electronic music instruments, which the Russian Lev Sergejevitch Termen invented in 1919. And there are currently many musicians with a high level of scientific education and therefore there is a scene that deals at a high level with the electronic production of music in an experimental way, often paired with performance and media art. This is an interesting phenomenon in Russia.

Has the electronic music scene developed in a similar way to the scene in the West?
F.P.: when the first computers of the Soviet Union were available to the citizens the young people used them to produce music, just like here, but using Soviet equipment that sounded different to ours. But the drive to make acoustic research, to extract sound from the most unlikely things was the same. And also, just like today, these people did not live outside the world. Even in the “rest of the world” it was possible to obtain information. Murmansk is one of the largest ports in the region.

It’s hard to believe that much can be happening musically inside the Artic Circle...
A.C.: In the past people from Moscow or Leningrad used rarely visit the polar regions, and the same still applies today. This area was more culturally influenced by the West, by Norway and Finland. Murmansk is 26 hours by train from St. Petersburg. This remote region was so culturally alive because in the days of the Soviet Union well-qualified specialists were often sent there who established a certain level of urban life, and the same also applies to Vladivostok. Not to mention the fact that there is hardly a family living in Murmansk that does not have a member in the navy. The sailors have seen more of the world than all the rest of us together. They alway brought music from all different kinds of countries and naturally also the latest fashion and technology. In general it would be true to say that the North was always more musically active than the South. After all what else should one do in the cold polar nights except make music?

In our European-biased way we still speak of musical influence from the West, is and was this so important in Russia? After all in Vladivostok, where your laton artist Evgeny Beresnev, aka Park Modern, comes from, Asia is practically next door?
F.P.: The situation is hermetic in the sense that in Russia one is still very much fixed physically, people do not travel, apart from virtually through the Internet. The borders are not open, everything is so far away and travel is therefore expensive. Avant-garde music is promoted only through the network. For us here this is still the future, there it is already reality. They have, so to speak, skipped a step. As a result of this situation Evgeny Beresnev even has fans in South America.

That is why Putin is so afraid of losing his power. The citizens are no longer orienting themselves towards Moscow, at least not virtually.
F.P.: No DJs from Moscow drop by in Vladivostock, but nor do any from Asia. There is not a single independent club, bar or gallery. Productions are made at home and nevertheless in the 1980s or 1990s strangely enough one encountered almost exactly the same kind of music productions as in the West, down to the styling of the musicians. New Wave, Minimal, Ambient – at exactly the same time!

How did this happen?
F.P.: Music and art seems to be less dependent on the political system than many believe. In the 1980s, when I was musically active with my partner Alois Huber Austria was just as far behind, in that sense the situation was the same. When bands made a European tour they did not even bother to visit Vienna, for them here was already East bloc.

If there are no clubs and studios in the areas of Russia you mentioned, then how and where is the music made?
A.C.: As specialists the musicians earn relatively good money and therefore they have technically extremely well-equipped studios at home, which musicians in Vienna would be very envious of. The software and the appliances can be bought cheaply on the black market only a very short time after they have been launched. But this is no reason for envy. These remote areas were and still remain ecological deserts with climatically extremely difficult living conditions. The average life expectancy of the male population in Russia in 1994 was 57. “We are a dying people”, one of the large Moscow newspapers lamented. In Murmansk the life expectancy is said to be even lower. It is noticeable that you see very few elderly people on the street. Many musical pioneers of the 1990s have already died, many due to alcohol and drugs that were used instead of consulting psychotherapists.

Do musicians deal differently with the material?
F.P.: In capitalist countries we can only serve the technology and the sounds therefore become more and more similar, whether it is Madonna, Björk or Fennesz. In the turbo-capitalist countries they can still use the technology for their own ends, and they do this without respect, with a real feeling for improvisation. Whereas in Europe we throw the technological rubbish away, there every material (including sound) is recycled. This creates an individual kind of music. In the future the craziest kinds of sound machines will be developed there. The laptop is not last word on the subject of producing music.

But surely without a stage making music can become a rather lonely activity?
F.P.: Many musicians we met said they want to give up making music. Our invitation to release music with us and to perform at our avant-garde festivals such as Minimax in the tranzit workshops space in Bratislava or the Radius Festival in the MAK Gefechtsturm in Vienna last year encouraged many of them to try to continue. Now they can finally measure themselves against the international avant-garde.