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Sergey Kuryokhin – Interviews
Russian Jazz: Sergey Kuryokhin Interview
By Graham Duffill
Typescript from the magazine "Independent Music", Olympia, Washington, 1983, pp 45-47.
The Lensovieta Cultural Hall is a multi-purpose building of grey prefabricated concrete, situated on a busy road in the center of Leningrad. Pictures of Soviet achievements and photographs of dairy maids and miners receiving medals hang prominently in all the corridors. For three days in march 1982 paintings of unofficial artists hung in the second floor concert hall, whilst passers-by heard the strangest, most discordant music pouring from the open windows. I wondered what their reactions would have been if they had pushed their way into the hall, packed with over 400 people, to see Sergei Kuryokhin leaping around the stage smashing cymbals and tin pans together, his face a picture of ecstasy, as he conducted his Creative Music Orchestra.
The Lensovieta should feel honoured to be the official home to Alex Kahn’s Contemporary Music Club, and even more honoured to be the venue of the first ever festival in the Soviet Union devoted exclusively to free jazz.
From the Vapirov Ensemble to Vladimir Chekasin, of the Ganelin Trio, the most brilliant avant-garde jazz musicians in the Soviet Union followed each other on the small stage. But it was Kuryokhin who brought the festival to a most stunning climax.
The hall was overflowing. From the back wall to the stage people were crammed in, whilst the unfortunate ones filled the corridor to feel the atmosphere and enjoy the music through the walls. This was something special. Looking at the audience I was struck excitement on the faces–they were beaming before anything had even started. The average age of the audience would probably be about 35 and they were undoubtedly intellectuals. I was introduced to poets, writers, painters, and shoved away from “official-looking types.”
Kuryokhin, dressed in black, introduced the movements of the “Discourse on the East-West Divan.” A flute joined him; an alto sax, two vocalists, and then the rest of the ten musicians came on, one by one. The hour-long show was underway, although there were so many changes of mood, moments of such intensity, that it seemed to last a day. It resembled a circus, as the action on stage drew one in as much as the music. Kuryokhin’s charisma held everyone captive. He conducted the audience as much as the orchestra. His expressive face followed the moods of the music. The unexpected was constantly introduced to change the mood and startle the audience. A guitar was smashed, the piano thumped, and a vocalist, dressed like a gypsy woman, produced piercing high-pitched screams.
Everything ended suddenly during a pitch of intense activity and noise. Kuryokhin shouted 'Vsyo" –“That's alI,” and an empty stage received the ten minutes of applause and screams for more.
The paintings were soon taken down, and the audience left showing no expression. It was now clear to me why Kuryokbin's group deserved the name which was attached to it in the West (after somebody mis-heard the real name) "Sergei Kuryokhin's Crazy Music Orchestra." The effect this "crazy music" had on people was also clear. Two days later a Russian friend told me that he was in despair–he couldn't sleep, sit still, think of work after that, he was almost in a state of shock. His reaction says a lot about life in the Soviet Union, the peculiar intensity of Russian intellectuals, as well as about Kuryokhin's music. When Kuryokhin himself emerged three days later I talked with him about this.
Graham Duffill: Why did you start playing music?
Sergey Kuryokhin : In all Soviet families the parents decide what their children are going to be and send them to a special school, for example, to an athletics school. I was sent to a music school because they found that I had perfect pitch when I was four.
G.D. And why are you not a concert pianist playing with the Philharmonla now?
S.K.: I do play classical music. When I am practicing I play rock, traditional jazz, Prokofiev or Rachmaninov, whom I like very much. At home I never play avant-garde, I always play some other music.
G.D. Do you ever give classical concerts with an orchestra?
S.K.: No, I don't, because there are a number of complications which influence whether you can play that kind of music In concert. You have to graduate from a conservatory, and you have to be included in the list of musicians who are allowed to perform in concert. Although I love Rachmaninov and will play his music at home for pleasure, I would never play it in performance for an audience because it doesn't come from within me.
G.D.: Is avant-garde jazz the only music that comes from within you?
S.K.: Well, firstly we have to define avant-garde. For me the definition of what is avant-garde constantly changes. Yesterday avant-garde: just meant “open form.” What is interesting for me now is to turn eclectic subjects into musical performances. The object is to make a musical whole out of complex and contradictory elements.
G.D.: Your jazz music is so intense. Why?
S.K.: It is a very personal thing which comes from inside me, and I think that I am quite a neurotic person. I have always related very badly to impressionism and haven't had much interest in it. I am very skeptical of the very popular trend in contemporary jazz which is exemplified by the jazz produced by the West German ECM label. It is very European, very refined, rational and expressive, but I just don't understand what it is trying to express. It's very thin and doesn't express anything from within. I am not criticizing the musicians; there are some very good musicians playing the music. What I criticize is the content of the music.
G.D.: With what spiritual traditions do you identify the formation of your own jazz: music?
S.K.: It is very difficult to say because the spiritual tradition is a very fragmentary one and I know a very little about a great deal. I don't have an entire and complete spiritual tradition. For instance, I can't be judged on one performance and one program. I could very easily make a completely different and contradictory program in a fortnight's time. Also, what I value very highly today, for instance Plato, I might think is complete rubbish tomorrow. I have always liked reading and listening to people who were innovators and who then became the basis for a whole new movement, like Proust and Joyce. I am now reading much more than I am listening.
C.D.: Do you have any sense of progress or development in your music towards some point?
S.K.: Absolutely not. I don't know what I want. What I do try to do is make into sound, into music, what is in my head at the time and to make that into a concrete thing. I don't know what's going to be in my head later on.
G.D.: Can you tell us something about your musical structure?
S.K.: All my musical thoughts are on a horizontal line. There is this, then that, then this. I can play it on the piano, and then I can play exactly the same with an orchestra. A violin will make the line, then the drum, then the guitars, then the vocals and the piano. It's just the same horizontal line which I play not with the help of keys on a keyboard, but with people sitting in an orchestra. I have an antithetical structure so that a paradox is produced in the music. It is very necessary to have a contradiction all the time in the structure.
C.D.: Is the audience important to you?
S.K.: Very important. The bigger the audience the more intensity I feel. The more they respond the more I think while I am playing.
C.D.: And what do you feel you are giving them? ls it just good fun, or do you want something to have been pulled out of them and their feelings exposed?
S.K.: It is not possible to play to everybody, and people come to the concert with different cultural baggage. People have different ideas of what they are going to listen to. It's never possible to please everybody. I don't try to evoke certain feelings from people; I simply try to say what is in my head, and if I succeed in saying it then I am happy. And I am sure that there will be people in every audience who will understand me and feel the same.
G.D.: Who listens to your music?
S.K.: That depends where I am playing and what kind of music—it may be contemporary music for people who already know me and my music—then I try to show them the most interesting things going on in my head at the lime, and I know they will understand. If I play in a town where I am not known then I may play something from my old repertoire.
G.D.: Yes, but it's very complicated music—does it, therefore, basically attract intellectuals? It doesn't seem to be attracting young kids who are rejecting Soviet rock music as structured and boring?
S.K.: Again, it depends on the program. I can quite easily play with a rock group. I am not limited to anyone structural form. I like rock, especially English rock—I have fun playing rock.
G.D.: How would you have developed as a musician if you had been born in the West?
S.K.: It is impossible to say. My whole psychological makeup would be quite different, and I can't really judge as I don't know this psychology from the inside.
G.D.: I have heard that avant-garde jazz music in Russia is considered to be 10 years behind the West. What does this mean and what do you feel about it?
S.K.: This may be true because of the difficulties with communication. But there are people who, in their creative work and creative potential, have inside them everything they need to create real art. They are really in advance of all music—West and East together—and this is so in every art.
People everywhere are striving for professionalism. In the West this is easier—for instance, a musician can find more published music, he has more opportunity to listen to any kind of music, Tibetan, African or whatever. Here, in Russia it is just more complicated. That is the main point. There are people who do everything in their power to listen to this music, they devote their whole life to it. Then there are people who are able to condense energy and then pour it out—the situation here produces artists of an incredible calibre and strength. Take, for example, Vladimir Chekasin from the Ganelin trio. He is a musician who is unrivalled in the West. Anthony Braxton is supposed to be the leading musician in the West, but Chekasin is unquestionably a better musician.
People may be skeptical about what I am saying, but I know that if tours could be organized and Chekasin could play anywhere, then they would realize.
G.D.: You said that you were a nationalist chauvinist. What did you mean?
S.K.: I was talking about Russian culture being isolated from the West. Some people see it as dependent on Western culture, subordinate to it, yet detached from it. This sensation of inferiority gives Russian culture its special element of self-confidence.
Russian culture has always been great. It has developed along less rational lines than Western culture because it is influenced by its origins, roots – the Tartar invasions, for example. Russian culture could be said to be looking towards the West while being influenced by the East.
C.D.: How do you fit into Soviet society, where life is very regimented and structured?
S.K.: If I wanted to I could find work in an institute, make quite a lot of money and get to a high position. I don't want to and I don't need to. I've got quite a strong will. I have friends that I love and it gives me much greater pleasure to communicate with my friends than to get to some high place in the hierarchy. There is a particular quality of this society's structure—the higher the person gets, the less sincere he becomes. If that person is sensitive and aware then he knows what he is doing.
G.D.: What can you say about the destruction of individual personality in the Soviet Union? Do you feel the pressure on yourself?
S.K .: Despite al! the oppression and all the destruction of culture which does exist in this society, for those people with strong enough will-power, strong enough conscience, and strong enough determination to do their own thing, nothing will prevent them doing that. You know, if a man sees his direction, if he sees what he is striving for, and what he has come to, he will always accomplish it. But people with that will power are an exception. Ordinary people involved in music can be crushed by the system.
C.D.: What will you do if you find that all doors are closed to you and you cannot play your music?
S.K.: That isn't a real possibility, because even if everything was shut, I would always find a place to play. Somehow, I can't be just strangled like that; I will always find a place to play and people to listen to me.
C.D.: How do you relate to people who fight the Soviet system from within—the dissidents?
S.K.: Most of the people that are occupied in those kinds of things are not basically creative people. We speak totally different languages, we talk about different things and therefore we have almost nothing in common. I am striving for the freedom of art, and they are striving for something different. They are on exclusively political wavelength. I do what I want, nobody stops me from doing this. A lot of writers are now considered to be dissidents because of their political views, but they are not in fact really creative people because the level of the literature that they are producing is very low, and lower than the average level of Soviet official literature. There are amongst them some exceptions, especially people who are writing fiction and have also incidentally some political views, and are in opposition. They just sit and work and do their thing. I would like to spend some time in the West, but the idea of moving to the West to work creatively is to me incomprehensible. There are some Western musicians who have been guiding stars for me and I am used to looking to the West, in a musical sense, for inspiration. I would very much like to be able to go, to have the chance to communicate with musicians, but I wouldn't write a request to the authorities and tell them that I am kind of genius who has the right to communicate with people in the West. I will just sit and wait for the opportunity, for the time when I am recognized as a genius and simply let out.
 More information about the "Contempory Music Club” here and in Hans Kumpf's essay "My Trip to Russia”, pages 1, 2, and 3.
 Editor’s note: In his book from 2012 “Курехин. Шкипер о Капитане” [Kuryokhin. The Skipper about the Captain], Alexander Kan [Kahn] calls the concert the “finale concert of the third club festival “Весенние концерты нового джаза” [Spring Concerts of New Jazz] and dates it to 12 April 1982. According to Kan, this concert provoked such a scandal that the “Contemporary Music Club” was thrown out of the Lensovieta Palace of Culture together with the Lensovieta director.
•Кан, Александр [Kan, Alexander / Aleksandr]. Курехин. Шкипер о Капитане. [Kuryokhin. The Skipper about the Captain], [PDF for Digital Editions version] Saint Petersburg, Amfora, 2012. pp. 33/34