Can Batukan – Soviet Punk and Post-Punk
A new, previously unpublished paper by Dr. Can Batukan, a researcher at the University of Normandy Rouen, France.
What do we know about the punk and post-punk practices in the USSR? Inside a zone where most of the material about punk was prohibited or unknown, what was the atmosphere like? What was the general feeling of being a punk, listening and recording punk and post-punk music? What were the main differences between the West and the Soviet regime in terms of experiencing punk and post-punk? This article deals with these questions via two witnesses to this period: Alexei Borisov, the lead singer and guitar player of Notchnoi Prospekt, and Ivan Sokolovsky, synth player/philosopher. Furthermore, this article suggests a philosophical interpretation of two notions (phono-eye and atmosphere) deriving from the argumentation and the perceptive world of the Soviets, which may be linked with music theory and cinema.
Soviet Punk and Post-punk: Notchnoi Prospekt and its Philosophical Interpretation
by Can Batukan
Notchnoi (Russian, “Notch” (ночь) night, Notchnoi, nightly) Prospekt (Russian, (проспект) avenue). Notchnoi Prospekt: an avenue one must visit at night. Spekt, spectra, to see. Pro, pre, before. Pro-spekt must have another meaning. In ancient Greek: pre-vision, seeming something beforehand, seeing or feeling what is on its way toward us. Seeing what is now dark or invisible, that which will be visible only in the future of time.
It was a glitch in time since the band was formed in 1985 of recorded history. Yet the time sketch of the Soviets was displaying something near to 1978/9 in terms of post-punk. The idea of the Soviets was an arrow towards the future of Humanity and towards the future of the Universe (Вселе́нная) as the time experience inside the bodies and souls was coming from the past. This paradoxical ground of living created an incomparable “atmosphere” for writers, artists and musicians inside a vast territory that remained outside the capitalist regime. It was filled with simplicity, mediocrity, darkness, a “no future” feeling, bureaucracy and pride. It was filled with equality, a “no goods” feeling, hidden jealousy and immensity. It was a “grey world”.
The Nightly Prospekt was perhaps a musical eye to see in the dark. It was not the kino-eye of Dziga Vertov but another culturally enlightened eye of the Russian intelligentsia.
Through the doors that were opened by westerners in the UK and Europe, particularly during the second half of the 70s: the punk and post-punk attitude. It was a phono-eye, the “eye” of a sound made by an animal or an instrument and not by man. Not by man since the eye of Humanity was too busy with science and progress. It was too busy with politics and “Cold War”. Inside the immense power device, the phono-eye created by Notchnoi Prospekt and likes were only minority cases. Some useless remains of Moscow academia, failing to reproduce and resonate the supremacy of the Soviet ideals. Yet, it was in fact, one of the few original and striking productions in arts and music (like the works of Tarkovsky, Viktorov and Shaknazarov in cinema) under the rigid control and social pressure of the regime. [i]
Notchnoi Prospekt’s live performances and recordings during the 1980s include “Humanitarian Life” (1986), “New Physicists” (1987), “Democracy and Discipline” (1987/88), “Acids” (1988/89), “Asbestos” (1989/91). In 1989, they played their first ever show abroad in Vienna. They toured Scandinavia and released their “Sugar” LP with the “Accelerating Blue Fish” label out of Malmö (Sweden). They shared the stage with Sonic Youth twice, opening for them during their Moscow concerts in 1989 and 2007. In 1991, the band took part in Frank Zappa’s documentary about Moscow music and art life. [ii]
At the end of 1989, Sokolovsky left the band to launch his solo career. Notchnoi Prospekt was active as a band until 1995, and later was transformed into an experimental modular project. In 2000, the band was reorganised by Borisov, Sokolovsky and Kutergin. For the last 20 years Pavlov has lived in Munich, joining the band from time to time on stage and in the studio.
Alexei Borisov was born in Moscow on 7 December 1960. He studied history and arts at Moscow State University and joined his first band called “Tsentr” (“The Center”) in 1980. He played guitar with this new-wave band until he formed Prospekt in 1981. Prospekt became Notchnoi Prospekt when he and his friend Ivan Sokolovsky from Moscow University reshaped the band in 1985. Borisov and Sokolovsky started as a duo and tried different styles in their music including electro-pop, ska, rockabilly and twist. After the introduction of drummer Sergei Pavlov and violinist Dmitry Kutergin in 1987, they evolved into a post-punk and industrial band. They soon became well known and started to put on concerts all over the Soviet Union. Notchnoi Prospekt maintained its core members and distinctive style up to the end of 1989. The following is from an interview I conducted with Borisov in early 2016:
Batukan: How do you describe your first album period of Notchnoi Prospekt? I mean what was your main idea of making that album, in terms of lyrics and musical aesthetics? How would you describe it as a whole?
Borisov: We call it electro-pop but it’s a bit too formal. The main idea was to widen somehow our technical and music potential, to develop our new-wave/mod/beat/ska style of “Prospekt” further; the band that existed from 1981 to 1984. We tried to add new elements to our music – a bit of musique concrete, spoken words, rap and electro. It was between 1984/85-1987. The lyrics were a combination of the absurd, realism, existentialism and retro… [iii]
At the end of 1989, Ivan Sokolovsky decided to leave the band to have a solo career. This was the end of the legendary partnership between Borisov and Sokolovsky. Although they remained friends and reunited as Notchnoi Prospekt in 2000, the atmosphere of 1985-1989 could never be recreated.
Batukan: I see that technical impossibilities were an important factor for creativity in the Soviets. But I think the difference in tones, instruments and the northern mentality was also giving a very profound feeling, united with the gigantesque being of the Union, its projections (prospekts) and its dreams. Those dreams were not of course always followed by all citizens. Yet they were somehow even defining the character of the critique. I feel that Notchnoi Prospekt during the years 1985-89 created one of the few musical critiques of Soviet ideals. It was (as in the movie “Gorod Zero”) [iv] a time of decadence and illusion. The communist experience managed to create a whole new world of perception (in cinema, art and music) with its good and bad sides. It managed to resist to capitalism for a certain period of time.
Borisov: It’s partly true. We had been impressed by electronic sounds and at the same time, we did not have much choice in electronic devices. Yet we tried to produce pop music in a wide sense, even something danceable. After, being limited by pop-rock standards and frames, we moved to a more industrial sound.
Yes, the word “decadent” is important. We did not criticise the Soviet regime but tried to promote an alternative way of life, a more intellectual and open minded one. At the same time, the Soviet reality became part of our lyrics. [v]
This atmosphere was being created out of the “abyss”: being held in limbo. In May 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev made his famous speech in Leningrad announcing the economic decline of the Soviet Union. This was the beginning of “Perestroika” (economic restructuring) and “glasnost” (state of being open to public knowledge). As two young intellectuals, Borisov and Sokolovsky were feeling the consequences of the political: they started to make music more freely, without auto-censorship and yet still, carefully. They knew that the bans and regulations on music were absurd but they did not want to condemn the Soviets as a whole. This is due to the fact that Soviet reality was already giving them a unique perceptive world. In fact, the communist experience managed to create a whole new world of perception (in cinema, art and music) with its good sides as well as its bad sides. The Soviets managed to resist to capitalism for a certain period of time and this was something precious.
It was an “abyss”; disparity, Maelstrom. A time of waiting after decades of a closed society for “freedom”. In exchange of what? Ideals? Morality? Money in exchange of culture? Goods and services in exchange of serenity? We might say that Notchnoi Prospekt was born into a great depression. [vi] It was an expression of decadence in music created without criticising the regime. It was an early unity in multiplicities, the promotion of alternative subjectivities and the Soviet world-vision. [vii]
Batukan: What do you think about the future of the World and humans?
Borisov: I don’t really know… I am not so optimistic at the moment, like most of the people, I guess.
Batukan: How about 30 years ago, under the Soviet rule?
Borisov: It was a contradictory time. Everything was prohibited yet at the same time there was an intensive underground and alternative activity since the late 50s… Sometimes it was dangerous, sometimes not so. Iron curtain at the same time… [viii]
Today, Alexei Borisov continues to make music all around Europe and Russia. He performs mostly with Olga Nosova as Notchnoi Prospekt and under their new project called Astma (electronic, noise, improvisation), collaborating with various artists and musicians from all around the world including my band Robotik Dreams. [ix] I consider him as a “simulation” or a “ghost” of Perestroika who travels constantly on European soil and repeats in creation.
Ivan Sokolovsky was born in Leningrad (St. Petersburg), on 10 February 1962. He studied philosophy and history at Moscow State University and wrote his thesis on Russian religious philosophy in the 19th century: Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Alexei Khomyakov and Konstantin Leontiev. As a postgraduate, he continued his studies in St. Petersburg at the Institute of Religion and Atheism at the Russian Academy of Science.
In the 70s, he was listening to prog/art-rock such as Emerson, Lake and Palmer, King Crimson, in addition to classical music. During the 80s and 90s, he wrote for the Sam-izdat press (Smorchok, a fanzine of Sergei Zharikov), and later for the magazines Exotica and Kontra Kultura/Counter Culture. He took piano lessons from a private tutor, and experimented with self-made synthesisers and tape recorders.
It is clear that Sokolovsky had an advanced understanding of music and philosophy. Sokolovsky and Borisov were quite different as musicians but there was a union in their approach to music. Together they managed to convert their ideas and affections into the dark atmosphere of post-punk.[x] Described as “a philosopher, musician and composer who had an encyclopaedic knowledge and a keen sense of humour”, Sokolovsky believed that music was the highest form of art and a way of making philosophy. [xi]
On January 26, 1984, he wrote to himself:
Sokolovsky had mixed feelings about the Soviet transition era, with the regime which was about to collapse and the Capitalism to come.
There was a day, there was a storm… A small boat full of terrified people was tossed from side to side by the violent sea. Without knowing and understanding why and how, they were thrown inside a rabid hurricane, and rushed in panic from side to side. Some tried to find something stronger to grab onto, pushing aside everyone else, looking for a better place. Others were simply thrown aimlessly from one corner to another and eagerly inquired: “How is this happening, what is it?” And among them was a philosopher. He calmly stood on the hurricane deck, smiling while people were screaming. “Why are you so quiet, and what are you smiling at?” – I asked him. [xiii]
The Soviet people enjoyed an intellectual and artistic boom in big cities. Yet, they were living as they were in a small boat tossed from side to side by the sea. They were living inside a bubble of protection. Although they did not know about new styles and movements in the West, they had a very high level of perception and sensation inside their limited worlds. They did not have a singular world, it was not possible. Even under the strict control of the regime, they always had multiple worlds inside their rooms and inside their minds. Intellectuals of the Soviets were simply “killing time”. It was at the same time boring and paradoxically creative. It was perhaps this creativity which came out of the constraints of boredom. They were killing time and could not kill themselves. First becoming immortal and soon afterwards having a pure desire to be dead.
Sokolovsky was feeling the dark spirit of his time (Zeitgeist) and the atmosphere that was about to call for creation: the fruits of a dark age. While other Russians were busy with the newly available consumer goods of the capitalist production-machine, Notchnoi Prospect was experimenting with the possibilities of translating music into philosophy. On the question of the soul (anima, psukhé), Sokolovsky wrote in his diary: ‘life is a timeless animal’. [xiv] It has nothing to do with being human or not. Life was pure immanence, and it is that mere fact which gives us our affections.
How could we get rid of the rationality which was killing our affections? How could we escape absolute definitions of humanity (“man argument”) which determines the conditions of our thinking? With two things: robots (computers) and animals. Anti-humanism in an “anima-list” point of view today requires the study and the intuitive experience of animals and robots. This is exactly Ivan Sokolovsky’s motive as a musician and a philosopher. He clearly underlines the importance of robotic intervention in music to be able to reproduce the shamanistic meditative mood in order to escape this world of realities (extase). [xv] Sokolovsky aimed to add a robotic-mysticism to human repetition and improvisations through what he called “blanks” produced by a computer. Here the human being (Bioconstructor) is a sacred alliance between the hypothetical human side of the robot (the possibility of making choices and artificial intelligence) and the animal side of the human. In addition to this, there was the error which could also lead to the meditative “exit” effect and the mental-astral dimensions forgotten (covered) in modern European thinking of music: ‘the domination of melody and rhythm destroying the archetypical musical minimalism.’ [xvi]
Electronic people for electro-pop: Can we think of the “electro-pop” as a vision of the “electronic people”? Adding computerisation to popular music is a way of shaking the society, an awakening towards the real power of music as in Shamanism or other religious uses of tonality (extase). The untranslatableness of Orthodox concepts and Russian culture has always served to build invisible walls between Russia and the West. As an empire, Russia had access to the East, as well as to the West. Intellectuals, writers and artists experienced this paradoxical situation: some wanted to get closer to the West, some to the East, yet none could totally belong to one or another. Therefore, Russian westernisation (somewhat similar to Ottoman westernisation movements), always had some reservations about and hesitations towards Europe. A contrast between reason and heart, system and sentimentality, Enlightenment and Religion, humanisation and animalisation: the “electronisation” of the people. Khomyakov was one of them: he believed that the West failed to solve the spiritual problems of the human being, defining the West as a “decadent civilisation”. [xvii]
After 1989, Sokolovsky produced experimental music in his solo projects TVD, Soft Animals, Yat-Kha (in collaboration with Albert Kuvezin) combining ethnic music (mostly shamanic) with electronic instruments and loops. [xviii] He died in 2005 from a cerebral stroke.
Punk and Post-punk in the Soviet Union
While the 70s were exploding into the punk era in the Western World, the Soviet regime was suspicious about the consequences of letting alternative cultures exist inside their own world. This was actually a part of the Cold War game: freedom for all cultures, styles and ways of being (including sexuality) in the US and Europe in order to put more pressure on the Iron Curtain. Soviet decision makers decided to ban or restrict most musical styles that represented the American way of life, such as rock’n roll, twist, country and rockabilly. However, blues and jazz – even though they were the roots of rock – were considered protest-music originating from oppressed Afro-Americans. Therefore, they were not only allowed, but actually encouraged by the regime. The Russian Empire’s strong classical music tradition offered an immense force in order to produce the compositions needed for the Bolshevik Revolution. The regime used this power, and thanks to this, many new creations were born. However, popular culture was about to declare its definite victory soon after World War II.
Borisov: I’m not sure about the gothic in the 1980s; we did not have much knowledge about that culture at that time. Punk originated mainly from St. Petersburg. There was a band that can be translated as “Automatic Satisfaction Machine”. Another one was called “Labour” (“Trud”). Those were all bands from St. Petersburg. There were also some punk bands from the Baltic countries – from Estonia and Lithuania. In these countries, punk was more established. Inside Russia however, hard rock and heavy metal were more popular. In big cities, we had a few new wave and electronic bands.
Batukan: I remember that you mentioned some bands from Ekaterinburg as well.
Borisov: Yes, they also had a well-established rock scene. There [in Ekaterinburg], post-new wave was ahead, not many industrial or gothic. “Zga” appeared as an industrial band, from Riga. After some time, some of their members moved to Petersburg and some people from Smolensk joined them. It was more like an inter-city project. Another Baltic band was “Atonal Syndrome”. [xix]
Punk and post-punk spread in big Soviet cities not as a subculture but as an illegal – and therefore desired – activity. The top cities were Moscow, St. Petersburg and Ekaterinburg. The Baltic countries had the advantage of being closer to the West. They also had better quality guitars and synths than the Russians. On the other hand, those who were closer to the Ministry of Culture in Moscow (“official bands”) could order the instruments they needed from Europe and the USA using the State budget. This was technically an advantage but a disadvantage in terms of being “bound to the official ideology”. It was both an opportunity of symbolism and the possible destruction of any inspiration inside one’s mind. The period of decadence and abyss should have produced some kind of hesitation among the bands, with a regime that is about to collapse and the wind of liberty on one side, and a non-western understanding which is determined to survive and remain in power on the other. Russian culture has experienced the trauma of being between East and West since the 19th century. Just like the Ottomans, they were feeling neither exactly Western, nor exactly Eastern; this created a form in literature, arts and music for a long period of time. In a way, Sokolovsky was demanding from the West what belonged to him. This was a state of spreading of “minorisation” inside what is Western, into a whole society. Therefore, it was a geography in which the poor, the slave and ethnic minorities experienced alienation as a constant darkness. This atmosphere was home (heimat) for genres such as post-punk and industrial, which is why they were intensely experienced in Soviet lands.
Borisov: The Russian rock scene in the 1980s was quite big, in Moscow of course, Petersburg and Ekaterinburg. The name of the latter was called “Sverdlovsk” during Stalin’s time. So it was renamed again. It was renamed twice. The original name was Ekaterinburg, then it became Sverdlovsk and later after the collapse of the Soviets, it was renamed as Ekaterinburg again.
Nosova: And somewhere else?
Borisov: Novosibirsk for example. In Omsk, there was “The Civil Defence band”. I can’t say that it was a pure punk band but it may be compared to punk music. They started to play actively in 1986-7 and then they became quite famous and popular in the Soviet Union. The leader of the band also died maybe 3-4 years ago. They were a big name and they played a very different music. It could be punk, it could be a little bit of industrial, noise, sometimes even acoustic. They had different sub-projects.
There was another band in Novosibirsk called Kalinov Most after the Kalinov Bridge. It was a combination of folklore and rock with some blues elements. There were some bands in Nizhny Novgorod and also in Kiev – it was a big rock scene in the 80s. Kharkov as well, another big city from Ukraine. In Kiev the lyrics were mostly in Ukranian and in Kharkov, mostly Russian.
Batukan: Did you travel to those places and play?
Borisov: Yes, from time to time. Also to the Baltic States… There were many bands over there.
Nosova: Did they produce instruments as well? Especially guitars…
Borisov: No, not guitars but mostly synths. We got instruments mostly from DDR, Hungary, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria. A few local instruments as well but they were producing synths in Estonia probably. In Russia as well – Polyvox of course. It is from Ekaterinburg. In Russia, some drums and guitars were produced but they were mostly very bad quality. Nobody liked to play Russian drums or guitars.
Western instruments were really expensive and one could only buy them from the black market or in the case of having the legal status of being an “official band”.
Batukan: For free?
Borisov: Mostly. The State or the Ministry of Culture might order some of the instruments and equipment to be spread between bands, singers, orchestras, ensembles. In the case of amateur and illegal bands, everything you bought, you bought at your own expense. We had also the so-called “Culture Clubs”. It was not like a real club but more like a big venue. There were some sections inside, like vocal ensembles, folklore and dance studios.
Batukan: Like an institution.
Borisov: Yeah, they had some instruments as well and we were able to find some rehearsal space at these Culture Clubs. Rock music was officially prohibited. One could not use the word “rock” publicly. On TV, on radio, there was no rock music at all. Instead, there was something that might be called beat or vocal ensembles music. In this sense, there were some popular ensembles with some rhythm sections, keyboards, brass sections (like trumpet and saxophone). We may compare them to bands like Chicago, Blood Sweat and Tears. The same type of music, some kind of pop music, quite melodic, a little bit of jazz or jazz-rock elements.
Even if the codes of punk and post-punk were introduced very late in the Soviet Union, the impact of punk on musicians and listeners was huge. A young generation raised on original, refined classical music and a usually very simple, banal pop or jazz-rock in official broadcasts and official art production were suddenly stepping inside this new world with the charm of the word “forbidden” written on the door (and most likely some hidden efforts from West). However, they were unaware that they were moving towards a sensation that would once again surpass the West.
According to glasnost, Soviet youth should be trained in “ideological immunity” in order to withstand the psychological warfare being conducted by the West. [xx] Popular culture as an industry was widely criticised by academics in the Soviet Union, especially in the light of Adorno as the cause of perversion, drug abuse, violence, passivity and stupefaction. [xxi] Young people were to be careful of the West’s “subliminal messages”. All rock genres – including punk – were strictly controlled, and only “ideologically acceptable” examples were encouraged. It was only after Perestroika that new bands with a different or unknown style stopped feeling the pressure of State institutions (such as Ministry of Culture, Moscow City Komsomol Committee and Moscow Rock Laboratory – an officially sanctioned club). [xxii]
Şimşek: What we were taught for years about Soviet and Eastern Block art was that art education started in elementary school but it was a strict and traditional one. The Eastern Block was isolated at that time. What were the reactions to such music without any notes, without any harmony, with critical and controversial lyrics like punk in the first half of the 80s?
Borisov: Yeah, it was quite different. Of course, professional musicians didn’t like rock so much at the beginning. It was maybe too primitive and simple.
Nosova: It was the amateurs who were interested.
Borisov: Yeah, beat music came to the Soviets in the 60s, towards the middle of the 60s, and it was mostly amateur student bands playing that kind of music – like the Beatles or the Monkees.
Nosova: But did we have avant-garde before?
Borisov: Avant-garde was more like an academic movement. Of course, when punk appeared – we heard of punk maybe in the very late 70s or early 80s – it was totally prohibited. It was possible to read about punk music a little bit in the Soviet press where punk was highly criticised. There was also a special TV programme called “International Panorama” which demonstrated, discussed and criticized western life. And punk was like a decadent movement of young people, unsatisfied by the social reality of western society, some kind of protest. It was seen as western youth protesting against the bourgeois society, but it was of course completely impossible to play it publicly. There were some hidden underground events for a closed audience, for friends, not for everybody. Sometimes, we would have some problems with the police or some local communists. Even our band; we didn’t look like punks, we looked more like “young scientists” with suits. We wanted to look like this but we could be accused of looking like fascists. If we had long hair, we could look like hippies. This was less dangerous than sharply dressed people playing electronic Kraftwerk style music. Authorities might be suspicious about such music. It was a bit unclear for them; what kind of message we had. Punk was more obvious. It was quite simple. But of course, the music community was divided into people being more interested in more serious styles like progressive rock, art-rock and jazz-rock, and those who enjoyed punk. For me, punk was not too brutal but I realised that I couldn’t be a punk and a student at the research institute at the same time. I was more influenced by mod and new wave movements in Britain. It was easy for us to play this kind of music. But sometimes we shared the stage with heavy-metal and punk bands because we didn’t have many opportunities to perform. So, many bands were coming altogether. There the audience might be very fragmented and they might have some different reactions to our music. Jazz musicians didn’t like punk or new wave much because it was maybe too primitive, too simple for them but I suppose it was like this everywhere.
The real successors of Dadaism and Futurism have lived and created artefacts in the Soviets. This was because the “atmosphere” of the Soviet territories was filled with this original feeling or what Martin Heidegger calls Stimmung (“fundamental tonality”). [xxiii] It was omnipresent in images (still and moving) and in sounds. In fact, most of the productions made in the Western World were already influenced by this immense “atmosphere” of the Soviet Union.
Sokolovsky often made reference to Nietzsche and was fully aware that through Nietzsche, he found the anti-thesis of both Enlightenment and Christianity. It was the mystery of Man, the ambiguity of the human soul which was at stake. If we erase all affectivity in our souls, we will only end up with an instrumental reason and indifference. If we iterate everything to the final point of logic, we will never get a pure science or philosophy but each time a catastrophic event in humanity. Therefore, one must go beyond the boundaries of human egotism (subjectivity). One must see that there are infinite perceptions and sensations to give meaning to the Universe. There is no true meaning; there is no singular and absolute explanation. Punk and post-punk as anti-theses of the modest and docile human being were ways of opening the “groundless ground” of the future. [xxv] Despite their strict prohibition in the Soviet Union, they created an inevitable root (or rhizome) as a subculture.
Russian Orthodox culture was the main barrier to accepting the westernisation as a whole. The desire for a total sovereignty (of God) in reverse (Socialism) was so powerful as to make a revolution against “the failure to solve the spiritual problems of the human”. The Soviet Union in the mid-80s was the place for the desired spiritual serenity to be born, according to both the descriptions of Socialism and the Orthodox Church. It was a moment of transition in time. [xxvi] This was perhaps the main reason Ulus Baker – an exceptional scholar on Spinoza and Deleuze – insisted so much on Soviet cinema and its perceptive world.
Ulus Baker during a video-lecture, 1998.
In his posthumously published text Aralık-düşünce/Interval-thinking, Baker describes Vertov’s cinema as a rhizome-image. [xxvii] The interval here is a critique of “division”, “distance” and “alienation”, which in Vertov’s works becomes a level of proximity rather than the space between two images. [xxviii] As Being is defined as “becomings with intervals”, the possibility of reaching polisubjectivity increases. Therefore, from the notion of “interval” to the notion of “points of view”, the de-subjectivation of the “western man” may be possible in philosophy, painting, music and in cinema by ‘placing perception inside objects and reproduction the subject from there’. [xxix] And this is exactly what we may find in a video of a punk or post-punk performance in the Soviet Union recorded after the era of punk and post-punk in the West, but reflecting something earlier and more original in movement and time. [xxx]
At this point, I want to turn to “atmosphere” (Atmos (ἀτμός) + sphaira (σφαῖρα) meaning vapour-sphere surrounding a planet) as a philosophical concept. [xxxi] It was the “atmosphere” which created the potentiality (or virtuality) of Notchnoi Prospekt’s music between 1985-89. “Atmosphere” as a philosophical notion will have as its main components the notion of Umwelt (surrounding world or world) in Jacob von Uexküll; Mitsein (coexistence) and Stimmung (tonality or affection) in Heidegger; Chaosmos (disjunctive synthesis), becoming (devenir), deformation, repetition, ritornello, variation and plane of immanence in Deleuze-Guattari.
We have assumed that the paradoxical ground of living in the Soviet Union during the 1980s created an incomparable “atmosphere” for writers, artists and musicians. Inside a vast territory which remained outside the capitalist regime characterized as follows: filled with simplicity, mediocrity, darkness, the feeling of “no future”, bureaucracy and pride, equality, the “no goods” feeling, hidden jealousy and immensity.
The “atmosphere” is the totality of actual and potential forces in time and space that become perceptible and sensible for all living beings inside its impact area. It is the life bubble for the artist and for the musician. Space and time may be infinite but the impact area of creation will be limited.
Music as a totality of soundwaves produces a certain tonality. This tonality is created not only through the composition itself but also depends on performers and instruments, space (performance site) and time (day or night, season, moment in history). Therefore, we must think primarily about the atmosphere created inside a certain bubble of perception (an Umwelt for the receivers, listeners or spectators of a particular performance). In addition, we must consider the main atmosphere of that particular society and State, defined and determined by the rules and regulations, social codes, traditions, behaviours, habits, climate, philosophy, literature, culture, corruption, depravation, hopes, future projection, collective memory, etc.
Inside the small bubble (which is the performance hall, studio, room, etc.) there will be the possibility of being isolated from the big bubble (main atmosphere of that society and state as a whole) to a certain extent. As people allow their brains to concentrate on the crafting of sounds, there will be a limit to “isolation” and “de-subjectivation” for each self in terms of its own philosophical baggage. Instead of a fundamental tonality (Grundstimmung) where the being-there (Dasein) is attuned to its own world in Heidegger, I would like to assume a Stimmung without ground. This Stimmung would be indefinite and in movement which like the subatomic particles in quantum physics can be uncertain but existent (according to the uncertainty principle). Therefore, this rhizomatic Stimmung for the receivers (listeners and spectators) of a particular musical performance, will enable the possibility of an atmosphere which may have infinitely different results in the processes of perception and sensation. It will create therefore, a temporary or transitory Umwelt for each receiver, according to his/her affects. It will create also a coexistence (Mitsein) inside the small bubble for all living beings who are captivated by that particular performance’s creative powers. I would like to call that Mitsein, a state of returning back to the original logos, the Logos of Nature. This is not the same negative use of the concept, one of banality and everydayness as defined by Heidegger. Rather, it is the opposite: an affirmative Mitsein not only for human beings but including all life (as an ontology of life) – humans, animals, plants and even stones, water or wood (as a part of the environment that will reflect and give the sound its desired perceptive form).
Inside this affirmative Mitsein, all becomings (devenirs) are possible. It is ruled by the unity of Chaos and Cosmos that brings the possibility of an imminent extase, different from Heidegger’s ex-stasis which was defined for the inter-temporal being of Dasein, but identical to the Shamanic and other religious rituals that produced extase in de-subjectivation through an intertemporality inside Nature itself. So, exactly as Sokolovsky expressed it, music may become a mode of spiritual transcendence in any kind of performance if all the conditions are provided.
Through Borisov and Sokolovsky’ vision, the Nightly Prospekt was a musical eye to see in the dark. It was not the kino-eye of Dziga Vertov but this time, another eye for music: a phono-eye.
The phono-eye perceives music according to the Logos of Nature. It takes the sound of silence (Sokolovsky’s “blanks”), the language of the deaf/voiceless to create a margin between the given ideology or system (boundaries, regulations, stupefactions) and individual minds (in their proper perceptive worlds). Poli-subjectivity was inevitably there in the Soviets. ‘The difference is not the negative, on the contrary, it is the non-being which is the Difference.’[xxxii]
The power of affecting and being affected is for every being (living or artificial) adequate as a total to make each of them a subject. Therefore, we must look at the World and Universe that we are in, from the perspective of polisubjectivity. This was one of the main results of Deleuze’s thinking. Yet, its theoretical connections with animality still remain unrevealed. [xxxiii]
Notchnoi Prospekt’s phono-eye, though never popular, did become famous for some time. This is due to the fact that, in opposition to the kino-eye, sonorous pleasure is highly dependent on the syntheses of the mind. In other words, one could get a certain pleasure (although not with a highly sophisticated artistic view or education) out of a film since the image is immediate. It can be immediately consumed by the brain and produce pleasure without any need for synthesis. On the other hand, musical codes and aesthetics are abstract and invisible for the masses. As a result, an Eisenstein movie may reach millions of viewers, even if most having an immediate, superficial taste, while a phono-eye reveals a Pravda (truth) that can only be heard if it is not matched with visions by synthesis. Dziga Vertov explains the inability of the human being without technology and his lack of worlds as follows:
The machine makes us ashamed of man’s inability to control himself but what are we to do if electricity’s unerring ways are more exciting to us than the disorderly haste of active man and the corruption inertia of passive ones? (Vertov, 1922) [xxxiv]
Vertov was ashamed of the poverty and privation of the human being’s world in contrast to the infinite possibilities of cinema. The power of reception starts in perception, as Uexküll shows us. So with the camera, the perceptive world of the human being expands so indefinitely and infinitely, that it is difficult to say that we are still humans. Actually, it is the same case with the phono-eye, with the combination of the same sense organs (the eye and the ear), yet with a different synthesis based on musical codes and aesthetics. Therefore, beginning from Dionysian theatre, the same art transforms and creates infinitely different worlds. A musical perception produces a Pravda (truth) that will unite the human being with the musical machine (guitar, synthesiser and amps) and becomes something else.
For the Soviet perceptive-world, this new phase in the historicity of the human being was a revolution. So, it was affirmed. Can the cinematic investigation of the Earth be made without the kino-eye? Yes, it is possible with the phono-eye as well.
I am kino-eye, I am a mechanical eye. I, a machine, show you the world as only I can see it. (Vertov, 1922) [xxxv]
We must think of a production where processes are not separated as radio-ear and kino-eye. This is completely different. As a machine, I can see-hear and hear-see. Different from cinema, what I suggest with Notchnoi Prospect is the latter (the primacy of the ear): “hear-see”. As a phono-eye: Notchnoi Prospect’s recorded concert videos (1985-1987) are a combination or a synthesis occurring through the power of a perfect gothicness of the “atmosphere”.
[i] Vertov described the basis of kino-eye as follows: ‘The establishment of a visual (kino-eye) and auditory (radio-ear) class bond between the proletariats of all nations and lands on a platform of the communist decoding of world relations. The decoding of life as it is.’ Vertov D. (1984) ‘Kino-eye’, in A. Michelson, (ed.), Kino-Eye: The Writings of Dziga Vertov, 1st ed., Berkeley and LA: University of California Press, p. 66.
[ii] The documentary remained unfinished and unreleased. Several bands and projects from Moscow such as Notchoi Prospekt, Nuance, SEVER/NORD were filmed.
[iii] From the exclusive, unpublished interview that I made with Alexei Borisov in January-February 2016 about Notchnoi Prospekt, himself (life, family, influences), the Soviet punk and post-punk. Batukan, C. and Borisov, A. (2016). Unpublished interview with Alexei Borisov, January-February 2016.
[iv] See the first scene of Gorod Zero; the arrival of the train and the atmosphere at the station. (Gorod Zero. (1988) [film] USSR: Karen Shakhnazarov, 103’)
[v] Batukan, C. and Borisov, A. (2016). Unpublished interview with Alexei Borisov, January-February 2016.
[vi] The power of utopia and dystopia in Soviet society. See To the Stars by Hard Ways (1981) [film] USSR: Richard Viktorov, 118’; Amphibian Man (1961) [film] USSR: G. Kazansky, V. Chebotaryov, 95’.
[vii] Not the official world view but the “world-vision” discovered and produced by Soviet musicians, writers, intellectuals and artists.
[viii] Batukan, C. and Borisov, A. (2016). Unpublished interview with Alexei Borisov, January-February 2016.
[ix] Astma and Robotik Dreams shared the stage in 2015 at Arkaoda, Istanbul. Currently, Robotik Dreams (a.k.a. Robotik Hayaller) is mixing a special recording of Notchnoi Prospekt’s Acids to be published as an EP in Russia and Turkey. (Current line-up of Robotik Dreams is Rafet Arslan, Can Batukan, Anıl Çelik, Ali Kutlu Suytar. https://robotikhayaller.bandcamp.com/)
[x] Or “affects” as defined by Spinoza in Ethics. For further information and complete discography, see http://www.raig.ru/sokolovsky.asp
[xii] Sokolovsky, I. “Experience Philosophical Diary”, 1982-84. In ivansokolovsky.com (2011). Articles of Ivan. [online] Available at: http://ivansokolovsky.com/on.html [Accessed 26 May 2016]
[xiii] Sokolovsky, I. “Experience Philosophical Diary”, 1982-84.
[xiv] Sokolovsky, “Experience Philosophical Diary”, 1982-84, September 13, 1982.
[xv] Sokolovsky, “Notchnoi Prospekt, the creative portrait of the band”, 1989. In ivansokolovsky.com (2011). Articles of Ivan. [online] Available at: http://ivansokolovsky.com/on.html [Accessed 26 May 2016]
[xvi] Sokolovsky, “Notchnoi Prospekt, the creative portrait of the band”, 1989.
[xvii] Khomyakov was one of Sokolovsky’s favourite philosophers along with Dostoyevsky and Leontiev. He devoted two articles to his thinking: ‘The Problem of the Relationship of the Church and the State according to Khomyakov’ (1988), “‘Russian idea’ according to Khomyakov” (1990).
[xviii] He also collaborated with different artists such as NOM, Sergei Letov, Sainkho, Anatoly Gerasimov, DK, Alexander Sklyar and Natalia Medvedeva.
[xix] Batukan, C., Şimşek S., Arslan R. – Borisov, A., Nosova O. (2015) Interview with Alexei Borisov and Olga Nosova – April 2015.
[xx] Pilkington, H. (1994) Russia’s Youth and Its Culture, London: Routledge, p. 106.
[xxi] Pilkington, p. 107.
[xxii] Pilkington, p. 108.
[xxiii] Stimmung: tonality or affection.
[xxiv] “Person as the will of God”, 1983 in Sokolovsky, “Experience Philosophical Diary”, 1982-84.
[xxv] For a detailed definition of the “groundless ground”, see Deleuze, G. (1956-7) « Qu’est-ce que fonder? », lecture at Lycée Louis le Grand, Chapter III : Fondement et Question, in webdeleuze.com (2016), Conférences, [online] Available at http://www.webdeleuze.com/textes/218 [Accessed 13 Jan 2017]
[xxvi] Heidegger calls such a transition in his 1929/30 Freiburg Lectures (The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics: World-Finitude-Solitude) Langeweile – a long time in a short period of time towards new perceptive possibilities, longwhile leading to profound boredom which may be the essence of a fundamental tonality. Cf. Heidegger, M. (1995) The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics: World-Finitude-Solitude, trans. McNeill, W., Walker, N., IN: Indiana University Press, part I, chapter IV.
[xxvii] Aralık-düşünce: Rizom-İmaj: Vertov/Interval-thinking: Rhizome-Image: Vertov, in Baker, U. (2011) Beyin Ekran/Brain Screen, Istanbul: Birikim, pp. 207-343.
[xxviii] Baker, U. (2011) Beyin Ekran/Brain Screen, Istanbul: Birikim, p. 209.
[xxix] Baker, Beyin Ekran/Brain Screen, p. 211.
[xxx] Image-mouvement / image-temps in Deleuze. Baker, Beyin Ekran/Brain Screen, pp. 215-6. As an example to this phenomenon, I would like to suggest the video of Notchnoi Prospekt’s “Acids”, recorded at Moscow State University, Institute of International Relations, 1987 (November or December). Notchnoi Prospekt (2007) Кислоты (Acids)
Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OKd9CjcVd6A [Accessed 26 May 2016].
[xxxi] As a background, I am referring mainly to the notion of “atmosphere” in Walter Benjamin’s writings.
[xxxii] Deleuze, G. (1968) Différence et Répétition, Paris : P.U.F., p. 89.
[xxxiii] See Part I, chapter 3 ; Part II, chapter 1,2 and 3 in Batukan, C. (2015) ‘Question de l’animal chez Martin Heidegger et Gilles Deleuze’, Ph.D. thesis, University of Galatasaray, Istanbul.
[xxxiv] Vertov, D. (1984) ‘We: Variant of a Manifesto’, in A. Michelson, (ed.), Kino-Eye: The Writings of Dziga Vertov, 1st ed., Berkeley and LA: University of California Press, p. 7.
[xxxv] Vertov, ‘Kinoks: A Revolution’, In Kino-Eye: The Writings of Dziga Vertov, p. 17.