Dissecting tones under the microscope

The experimental music scene in Ukraine

The development of the independent music scene in Ukraine has always depended on the enthusiasm of a number of individuals. The state has never shown interest in investing money in experimental culture; in the context of official “Ukrainian Culture” such a culture is as good as non-existent. Even though foreign cultural funds occasionally finance individual events, these are more or less confined to the “circle of the initiated”.

Ukraine has an underdeveloped middle class, which reduces the purchasing power of the population as a whole. A distribution system for music is also lacking, even though from time to time individual distributors promote and sell “risk CDs”. Music piracy should not be forgotten but it is concentrated less on local experimental music (if at all) and oriented more on big international labels such as “Ninja Tune”, “Warp” or “Mute”. Besides which in Ukraine we still do not have an independent free press: monthly magazines, TV and radio devote almost no space or time to the experimental music scene. Even Internet, which in Ukraine is particularly alive and much used, pays little attention to culture, perhaps ultimately because there is little going on in this area. The level of interest of the population, even in commercial light music, is very low. There is not a single local musician who can live from the sales of his or her recordings. Dmytro Fedorenko, one of the protagonists of the Ukrainian experimental scene, is not surprised by this fact: “If there are no pop musicians in the Ukraine that the public is particularly interested in, how can an underground scene develop normally?”
And yet: In recent years in Kiev as well as in Kharkov, Odessa oder Dnjepropetrovsk avant-garde events have been held regularly, not least of all thanks to “Nexsound” the most important label for electronic music in Ukraine. As a result a new class of music consumers has been created over the course of time and with them a new “culture of listening”. “Listening” is still today a foreign world in almost all other post-Soviet countries, with one exception: the Baltic states, where elite art has always existed. I have noticed that it never even occurs to the majority of young people that they can go to a club not just to dance but also to listen to music. But in Ukraine things are different now, there is a public that uses its ears. It is not a very large public but all the same it has survived its first “cultural shock”. The roots of contemporary music in Ukraine lie in our great music tradition. This is based largely on the voice and on narration. These characteristics are also found in our modern music. Traditional songs concentrate on the ideas and problems of everyday life. As in many other eastern European countries, in the history of Ukrainian culture music has never been used for amusement or light entertainment. Music served more as a medium to convey and process what had been experienced and seen. I find that the ritual moment of traditional music that takes hold of the listener and transforms him into a participant in the ritual and in what is being narrated can also be found in the music of the present. The artists do not simply hold their guitars in their hands, they do not only stand in front of their noise generators or laptops but work conceptually and emphasize the narrative moment in their music. And they do have something to tell. It is extremely interesting to listen to them while they are doing this, for they take a very serious approach, and it is obvious that they have examined things at great depth.

Differences between the scenes in Russia and in Ukraine
Much of what is called the “Russian scene” is associated with punk. The way I see it the Russian music tradition is dominated by high spirits and uproar. Whether at the Moscow festival “Noise and Fury”, under the Jaroslaw label “Spirals of Evolution” or in the case of the Moscow Band F.R.U.I.T.S. (regarded as the pioneer of Russian underground) everything in the Russian scene has an unmistakeable tendency towards the unrestrained, towards actionism and aggression.
Initially the Ukrainian scene developed rather isolated from Russia and from other countries. The production is characterized by a high proportion of escapism, it is more conceptual, more introverted and listens more to the inner organ of music. Ukrainian folklore is not as zestful and striking as Russian, it is less booming, is how I would put it. More everyday love ballads have been handed down in the Ukrainian tradition than great celebratory songs. In a number of regions of the country entertainment songs were not known at all, as was already mentioned above; for the locals there only existed the so-called “private songs” with which people expressed their personal worries and experiences. Nevertheless: in the Ukrainian scene there are clearly “punkish” projects such as “Actually Alone”, “Zsuf” and others that work mostly with the local label “Quasi Pop”. And yet in Ukraine a sharp distinction is drawn between the “underground” (punk) and the “avant-garde” (experimental music).

The Ukrainian Label “Nexsound
In my opinion it is only people that are seriously musically “infected” and have good taste that can alter the difficult situation of avant-garde music in Ukraine. Just such a team has been built up around the independent Kharkov avant-garde label “Nexsound” that releases partly in Internet, partly on hard media. Andrey Kiritchenko is the director of this label. Kiritchenko started in 1996 with a radio programme “Vilna zona” (free zone) that took techno as its theme. A year later he started a programme of the same name in regional television and also worked as a DJ in the Kharkov club “Deep”. In 2000 he founded the label “Nexsound” under which he released not only his own work but also that of friends in Kharkov. Gradually this label won acceptance, above all in the West. This led in turn to collaboration on many levels and to working with well-known and less well-known musicians such as Francisco Lopez, Kim Gaskone, Jonas Lindgren or Franz Pomassl as well as with the local groups such as “Kotra” and “The Moglass”. Under the labels “Ad Noiseam”, “Zeromoon”, “Spekk” and the online labels “Autoplate”, “- N”, “Fukk God” as well as “Let’s Create” more than 20 albums were produced with the collaboration of Andrey Kiritchenko. Every new musical product from the label boss Kiritchenko is unique. His activities extend from techno to musique concrète, from ambient to microtonal noise. Kiritchenko is one of the most eclectic musicians of the experimental contemporary scene, a kind of multi-instrumentalist. He works with the modular synthesizer “NI Reaktor”, uses acoustic instruments that he places in a dialogue with electronics and existing recordings. For his tracks and also during live recordings he uses the laptop less than the guitar, lira (hurdy-gurdy), keyboard, cymbals and a specially adapted children's bandura; he also uses MD players, contact microphones, various objects with delayed feedback and Alesis Air FX with infrared controllers. One can truly describe his music as “sound art”. Kiritchenko maintains that much of what we hear from him is “the result of deliberately or accidentally used sources of sound”.

The group “The Moglass”
Kiritchenko has a good friend in Kharkov, Yuri Kulishenko, who performs under the stage name Paul Cust. He is a guitarist and the ideological head of the Kharkov improvisation band “The Moglass”. Vladimir Bovtenko plays bass, the third in the group is Oleg Kovalchuk, a qualified biologist who fiddles around with old Soviet synthesizers and develops new instruments out of discarded pieces of electronic equipment (Kovalchuk performs solo with his “lo-fi ambient” project “Ok_01”).
“The Moglass” has existed as a band since 1993. Since then they have released ten albums, some of them on the New Zealand label “Pseudo Arcana”. In 2004 “Nexsound” launched a split release from “The Moglass” and the “Tom Carter Duo” (Charalambides) with Vanessa Arn (psychedelic folk group “Primordial Undermind”). In mid-2005 “The Moglass” toured with the cult group “Jackie-O Motherfucker”. “The Moglass” works in the style of psychedelic post-rock using electronics. In an interview the group described their style as “personal folk”. This music is “cautious” not too fast and not too loud, a kind of introverted improvisation. There is a lot of echo, a lot of large empty spaces, screams, excerpts from audio pieces and any amount of howling guitar playing. The musicians in “The Moglass” have coined the term “psychogeography”: according to this idea the human psychological condition is formed by movement in space. Through aimless walking, strolling in space, whether real or musical, one can achieve a state of ideal self-observation.

The Project “Kotra”
The radical noise project “Kotra”, behind which Kiev musician Dmytro Fedorenko is concealed, is one of the loudest, pushiest and self-assured creative units on the Ukrainian noise scene. Dmytro Fedorenko and Andrey Kiritchenko have played at many – if not at almost all – festivals of experimental music in Europe. At present Dmytro is working for the label “Nexsound” and organizes events in Kiev.
The music of “Kotra” and of Dmytro Fedorenko is “one hundred per cent experimental” and is the result of what is basically a constant capacity overload of the output signal. A mastering of the tracks would destroy their particular spirit, for their quality lies precisely in the digital deformation and distortion. I believe that one cannot listen to the albums of “Kotra” from start to finish, not only because they are not exactly melodious but also because each sound is designed for a specific space. Dmytro Fedorenko's music gives one the impression that it dissects its sounds under a microscope.

Zavoloka, a new shooting star
In recent years Kateryna Zavoloka's career has taken off vertically in an unparalleled way. In 2003 the label “Nexsound” launched her first MP3 release “Suspenzia”, that was the most frequently downloaded piece in the Internet. At the end of 2003 the CD-R “I” appeared on the noise label “Zeromoon”. After her legendary performance in the “Palast der Republik” in Berlin in September 2004 the CD “Plavyna” appeared at the beginning of 2005 under the Austrian label “Laton” and under “Nexsound”; next followed appearances at the avant-garde festival “club transmediale” in Berlin, at “Unsound” (Warsaw), “Garage” (Stralsund), “Femmes” (Hasselt) etc. Although she works with groups such as “FM” and “Granular Synthesis”, Zavoloka still finds traditional Ukrainian culture extremely inspiring. She likes to travel to remote Ukrainian villages to search for people with a “voice”. For her tracks she uses the recordings made during her “cultural and anthropological expeditions” thus achieving an astonishing interplay of vocals and electronics.

Author: Denis Kolokol
Published: REPORT. Magazine for Arts and Civil Society in Eastern- and Central Europe, December 2005

Translation from Russian: Anna Mikhailova

The author of this article, Denis Kolokol, was born in 1978 in Zaporozhye in Ukraine. He lives and works as a part-time journalist and music fan in Almaty (Kasachstan). He makes his living as a software consultant. His interest lies in the area of “online labels”. Kolokol is also a member of the artists group [antiparty gang] in Almaty, in this context he is involved in organizing events, actions and music performances, as well as in “creative DJ-ing” (including the festival “SoundVision” in Almaty in 2005).

The Moglass

Kateryna Zavoloka