English translation of this Russian text:http://lgfoto.livejournal.com/3227.html
text & photo: LEV GONCHAROV
translation: MAX NEMTSOV FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS
Somehow I manage to have very long postings here, running to 54 frames. Like a poker game, now we're into the third deck.
This film is a bright (maybe too bright) illustration of what happens when a professional appliance ends up in the dilettante's hands. Initially, I used a "Zenith" camera with a standard lens, no flash - I didn't like it and didn't have it. I shot with the aperture open, big exposure, using the 250-unit film. Later I read some textbooks and started to expose it like a 1000-unit film, and then I pumped it up with the homemade glycine developer. Recently I've learnt that glycine is sold in drugstores as a mild soporific, that is, it has a similar function, to develop dreams. Yet both methods produced 80 % of rejects.
Now, that time a friend brought me a 4-meter telescopic lens (practically a telescope). It was old, made by LOMO, it's weight and dimensions were of an antitank projectile, so I even used it for my morning calisthenics. The friend of mine warned me, "Make sure you're not arrested, it was nicked from the Mosfilm, and it's numbered". I suggested to obliterate the serial number to that.
But it turned out to be impossible to be used in the venue without a flash. So I had to borrow the flash from Michael Chernushnik. As a result, I was unable to calculate all the parameters (and I learned to do that long after that), so the flash interpolated with the floodlights, and so you can see all faces are white. Which nicely corresponds to the Sonic Youth's music in contrast.
In those years, some touring artists started to come our way, but they were either old farts, like Uriah Heep, or very cultish (like the participants of some joint Soviet-Danish rock festival). I was very selective about the gigs I went to, and will name only two bands close to the SY, MDC and The Ex. The Kurt Cobain's favorite band played a kind of yobbish metal, but the Dutch Ex, a sort of noise avant-garde, were very good, and I even wrote some rapturous review but there were no photos, alas. They seemed to perform at the last Sergei Kuryokhin's festival.
In 1989 Sonic Youth played a couple of gigs in St. Pete and Moscow (Orlyonok Hotel). I hadn't heard them before, I only knew they were some trendy "indies".
The opening act was, for some obscure reason, Vova the Blue
. Then onstage they started bringing out zinc boxes and unloading electric guitars in large quantities from them. The instruments were there like sardines in cans, with no cases or anything. At that time I was more interested in Hendrix's solos and didn't have a slightest idea of any alternative tunings (although I did notice that they didn't have a single regular chord in their whole show). So I just gawked at all those beaten and scotched vintage Jaguars, Jazzmasters and Telecasters, wondering why do they have to have so many of them. Among the instruments I was amazed to discover an East German Eterna Deluxe
, the most popular guitar in the USSR at that time, and Moore was striking it with a drumstick. They say, some years ago the SY had all their collection stolen with the tour bus, so if any of you have an extra Eterna...
Naturally, they tuned all their arsenal for quite a time, and then there came THE SOUND from that stage, which I never heard, before or after. It was the force field, woven from millions of overtones, prickly and pulsating, that pulled into itself everything around it. I hade a strange sensation of participating in the ritual, we seemed to float in that sound and didn't care who produced it. It had nothing in common with the usual moronic "energy exchanges" of our rock shows ("Give me your hands!"). They didn't act like heroes, they didn't grovel before their audience and never even tried to overcome that infamous "fourth wall" which both the artists and their fans crash their foreheads on with shouts "We're in it together!" There was no fourth wall there.
Although I watched the documentary on their European tour of the early 90's a while ago, when they were supported by some grunge bands (I think it was "The Year the Punk Broke"), and I didn't like them that much. Moore seems less adequate there (probably influenced by freakish Seattle crowd), scaring passers-by with some drivel about extraterrestrials shouted from a hotel window through a loudspeaker, and harasses German first-grade girls with questions if they listen to American punk rock. They say, all of them were on drugs then, though. Speaking of Seattle, when I first listened to Mudhoney in the early 90's, I tried hard to remember when and where I saw their name. It was on Moore's T-shirt that time.
Myself, I got rid of all those post punk influenced pretty fast, for I had grown on older music in any case. The only things that remained were The Smiths and Sonic Youth. After them, there appeared only one real thing, Portishead (namely, their lead singer Beth Gibbons). All the rest is somewhat smallish (although "Godspeed You! Black Emperor" seems to be OK).
At that time we were very much into the Sonics, and "Goo" is still the favorite for many of us, like Boris Usov (the frontman of the Straw Raccoons). Maybe I borrowed their tape from him. By the way, the characters
from the album cover look somewhat like Boris and his wife Nastia
. I still listen to "Tunic" a lot, it's a very beautiful and tragic song, dedicated to the memory of Karen Carpenter.
Yet among their albums, I like "Daydream Nation" more (it looks like they played it that time in Moscow): it is vary spatial, free, and it strikes one with its ingenuity. Say, in "Rain King" one always seems to hear a brass section, yet it's imitated so finely, rather hinted at, that there's no certainty they had it in mind when recording. It's totally impressionistic as a trick.
Their later recordings are less interesting for me (I rather grew tired of their sound), and I didn't listen to all of them.
Influenced by Sonic Youth, I even started to tune two my Czech Yolana guitars at tritones or seconds intervals, so that my ears rang. I read somewhere that Glenn Branca (with whom the Sonics started), tuned his guitars as based on the overtones progressions, using a slide-rule to calculate the speed of beats between the dissonant frequencies, and based the rhythm of his compositions on those pulsations. I thought that I might give it a try. I found my grandfather's slide-rule in a drawer, handled it for some time, but didn't understand how to use it and canned the idea. Branca, meantime, goes on to compose beautiful symphony music.
Their song structure is primitive. The harmony is either based on 2-chord progression or nonexistent. Ranaldo says that usually they don't even understand if it's minor or major. Instead of melodies they have brief ditties, and they sing like nothing to write home about. In short, they don't make literature out of their music. It more looks like some alternative movie-making. Everything is held on the rhythm and overtones' interplay. "I can never understand why do we have to sweat over those intricate tunings, all our songs can be played in normal pitch. But every time I try it, it turns out to be the usual hardcore", said Moore. Their music is rhythmotimbric, if I may coin a term, in essence it's very close to peal music.
I wish I could drag them up some belfry and make them play there, listening to what happens. Bells are "auditory microscopes" of some kind, the more you listen to them, the sharper your ear. There are three main tones in every strike, but as you listen to them, you start to discern more. The great Russian bell player K. Sarajev could hear 1701 sound in an octave (121 sharp and 121 flat from each note), although he died in a lunatic asylum for that. The harmonies collide and vibrate bearing more and more new sounds - it all depends on a number of bells in the works, and the mastery of players. It is interesting to listen to the fading of large bells, for the sounds then slowly pass in order, floating one from beneath the other. It is quite impossible to listen to any recorded music after that, especially tapes, for the machine sound is clearly fuzzy.
I've heard a lot of Moscow belfries, and I believe that lower ones are the best, located in pockets close from the urban noise. The three of my favorite ones are: the Kazan, at the Red Square
(with the original workings, preserved in the Kremlin), the Spas of Transfiguration on the Sands
(with the bells from the demolished Passion Monastery), and the Sergiy in Krapivniki
(with the new workings, cast in Tutayev according to the ancient specifications). The large bells are trouble: there are always too few of them, for they're expensive, and they are usually located at tall belfries, and the tall ones are better to listen to from afar. In Moscow it's next to impossible, everything is covered by traffic noises. My dad and I once went to the Kremlin to listen to the Easter Peal, but were turned away from the premises, so we decided to listen to it from the outside. So, the Ivan the Great
is not heard from the outside, though 100 years ago it was heard all over Moscow
, the city being quiet and low-structured. Inside the Kremlin it's different, of course, although you'll probably won't be able to hear the Great Assumption Bell
: they try not to bang too often, saving for the posterity). But the 2000-poud Reut will be enough, for all the Cathedral Square is shaking with its sound.
Myself, I played the bells only once, in the city cathedral, Christ the Savior
. I visited my friend the bell-ringer, and someone from their team was sick, so they assigned me to a down beat for a 100-poud bell. It was a strange sensation, like it played you instead of the vise versa, and I wondered how my actions could lead to SUCH a result. Yet their big church-going bell is not too swell, for it has a distinct tin pan sound. Although the specialists claim that it might be beaten to the form, in about 30 years.
V.N. Ilyin, the Russian philosopher of the early 20th century, called the peal music "the sounding sophianity of the matter" (that is, the response of inorganic matter to the divine call). And Iggy Pop said that "we've approached the worship of the machines. In the 70's I could listen to the amplifier's whine for hours". To the latter, I'd said that drugs usually do the trick.
I think that for Sonic Youth the truth is somewhere in between. The "sophianity" of their sound is, of course, rather relative, but one can hardly call their old instruments "machines" either, for they definitely have soul. And the Sonics are great for not stealing that soul, but let the matter sound as is, for their music is composed of the sounds of wood, metal, silicon, cardboard and (so much for the matter) vacuum. If God created the universe from nothing, there's something of the Creation in playing through the vacuum tube amplifier. Or, if God is totally immaterial, the sound of a vacuum tube is more divine the more emptiness there is inside it. The Russian vacuum is known to be the emptiest vacuum in the world, that's why the whole world plays with old Soviet vacuum tube appliances. The Chinese, who don't know the meaning of NOTHING, produce them to our specifications, but poorly.
Unfortunately, our unity and sense of participation at that show was broken when someone from the screaming crowd threw a beer can at Kim Gordon. There seemed to be no malice in the act, just a testosterone drive. Moore didn't like such treatment of his spouse, so he applied a brake to his Jaguar, and ran to kick at the crowd with his boot. The punks were offended and climbed up to thrash Moore. Several guys jumped from the wings, spread along the stage and started to push the crowd back with their feet. I thought for a moment that the Sonics have their own guards on tour, but the guys were promoters themselves (there was no notion of security at that time). The scuffle went on for some time, but I couldn't film it, for my bag with the equipment was lost somewhere in the crowd. Suddenly, a smallish man appeared on stage, fell down beside Shelley's drum kit and started banging his head and all his limbs against the floorboards, wildly screaming all the time. Looking at him, everyone somehow calmed down.
This incident is a good illustration of the difference in mentalities. Our "customer is always right" dictates that an artist can be abused, and the artist doesn't have a right to answer it in kind. Someone remembered the dance parties of the 70's: "If public liked the band, they threw a brick on stage, but wrapped in a thick winter jacket". The Sonics, on the other hand, don't feel they are artists, everyone's equal at their gigs, there's no fourth wall.
Kim was regal throughout the incident, looking at the siege from above, and when everything calmed down, snorted something like "Fuck, it smells like pot!"
They finished the set orderly, but there was no unity with the public anymore.
We went out deafened and depressed, no one said a word, only I mumbled something, trying to put the experience into words, at which Yanka, the Siberian Joan Baez, said something like, "No use calling it anything". So now I finally did it...
Many of those who were at that show are no longer with us. Yanka
, Tania Didenko, Smith
, Dimka Down, Michael Chernushnik
, Sabbath, Nina, others. Once I decided to how many people of our circle died only in the 90's. There were 100 straight off. I think, Umka
or Nick Rocknroll
(who are Russian equivalents of Patty Smith and Iggy Pop and know more people than I do) could name 300. the average age is 27, the first COD is accident, then suicide, OD, etc.
Tomorrow Sonic Youth play in Moscow again, although this "again" sounds awkward, for the first time happened in different country and another millennium.