Saturday, February 06, 2010

Sergey Kuryokhin - pianist of anarchy

Sergey Kuryokhin passed away in 1996 at the age of 42.  He was an avant-garde improvising pianist from the Soviet Union.  Apparently he did a lot of other things and was quite well known in Russia.

Years ago I purchased Kuryokhin's solo album Some Combinations of Fingers and Passion.   Each of the four track titles begins with the word "combination"; for example A Combination of Boogie and Woogie.  The first cut, A Combination of Passion and Feelings, is my favorite.  Another cut based on the Dave Brubeck tune is called A Combination of Power and Passion (Blue Rondo a la Russ - a Tribute to Dave Brubeck).  I don't remember why I originally bought the disc but I do remember how it amazed and impressed me.  It still does.  (You can buy it online here.)

Some Combinations of Fingers and Passion reveals an obviously classically-trained artist who is free-associating his way through the musical styles of several centuries.  He does everything with tremendous good humor, a complete lack of self importance, seemingly limitless talent and a large well-spring of pure creativity.  His styles range from Mozartian classicism through the most excessive uber-Romantic schmaltz with episodes of pop musics from different eras.  All of this is spiced with bursts of the most atonal free jazz you or Cecil Taylor could imagine.

Sergey Kuryokhin - Some Combinations of Fingers and Passion

There is information about him at the website of the Sergey Kuryokhin Modern Art Center in St. Petersburg.  The center organizes SKIF,  the Sergey Kuryokhin International Festival, held yearly in Kuryokhin's memory.  Here are several interesting excerpts from their biography page about Kuryokhin:
In 1984 he formed Pop-Mechanika Orchestra - a band, a concept and a philosophy. The band, which could be anything from a modest trio to a full blown multimedia extravaganza complete with a full symphony, a brass band, a rock group, a circus, a zoo, a gypsy singer, and whatever else his fantasy could bring up at the moment, subsequently toured most of the world.
Pop Mechanics was probably perestroika’s most exotic fruit, a big band melding all the typical cliches from dozens of musical styles – industrial music, free jazz, hard rock, operettas, contemporary music, King Crimson, Glenn Branca’s massed guitars and so on and on – into a sometimes sloppy, sometimes feverishly driving pileup. The “pre-Leningrad Cowboys” visuals were an inseparable ingredient part of the concept. They included live goats, pigs, tigers, chicken, dogs, donkeys, monkeys, snakes and ponies onstage, surrealist dresses, and when Pop Mechanics was on its peak in the late 80’s Kuryokhin managed to have a folk ensemble, a KGB employees’ choir, a classic chamber orchestra and an army truck performing simultaneously in addition to the big band itself.
"We hadn’t even properly heard the music [from the  west], only read about it. For us Western industrial music, Einsturzende Neubauten and all the rest were like a myth, just the same way that it was a truly mythical event when John Cage came to meet us in Leningrad in 1988. Cage’s thinking had influenced very much the concept of Pop Mechanics, especially his idea of all sounds having equal right to exist. Thus we always wanted to have both human and animal sounds in the live show”, [Pop Mechanics' member Sergei "Afrika"] Bugaev says now.
Sergey Kuryokhin at two pianos - The Ways of Freedom

Of the discs I own, besides the ones for solo piano, there are performances by Kuryokhin with small groups and with big bands.  One strange disc (I think it's called Introduction in Pop Mechanics; it's number 3 from the four-disc set Divine Madness for which Leo Records annoyingly does not provide a downloadable program booklet) is apparently played with one hand on an organ and the other hand on a sampler keyboard.  It goes for over an hour with only one short contrasting section in the middle.  In other words, the sudden twists and surprising turns which I like so much are not there.

He did a lot of different things - I said that before.  YouTube might be the best place to get an overview: you can search for Курехин on You Tube.   You'll find many interviews in Russian plus clips of movies for which he wrote the music.  A BBC documentary about Pop Mechanica's trip to Liverpool in 1989 (it's in English; Part One and Part Two) really gives the over-the-top kitchen-sink anything and everything feel of his performances.  I particularly like the scene where Kuryokhin is singing into a microphone while being beaten about the head and neck with bouquets of flowers.

Contemplating these mad anarchic happenings in small doses from a distance is refreshing, especially since anarchy is so very out of favor in American music lately.  I doubt I'd care to attend a Pop Mechanica extravaganza or any sort of happening at all these days, but, hey, what's wrong with watching a little anarchy, I always say.  Back when happenings were happening in the U.S. their creators weren't known for extreme musical stylistic variety in the way Kuryokhin seems to have embraced so naturally.  Try searching Google for the phrase "David Tudor plays jazz".

The craziness aside, it is specifically Kuryokhin's solo piano playing which I find inspiring.  Without that, there would be no point in my writing this article.  Alas, there seems to be very little of his solo work available on YouTube.   Here's a YouTube video from the solo piano album The Ways of Freedom, a cut called The Wall Kuryokhin:

The picture above of him playing two grand pianos is from the same album.  On the record jacket it says:

Leo Records is grateful to all those people who had the courage to smuggle out the tape from behind the Iron Curtain.
Some of the playing has a Conlon Nancarrow-ish feel.  Kuryokhin plays blindingly fast on a tinny sounding instrument - or maybe the tape speed has been messed with.

His solo playing also attracts me because it is so completely unaffected by the "jazz swing" pandemic from which improvised music often suffers.  These days, in certain types of music, swing feel is omnipresent, like it was handed down from God.  Modern jazz seems hopelessly addicted to it.  I'm often annoyed when players can't turn it off.   Kuryokhin almost never turns it on - although other players on his albums do.

Sergey Kuryokhin - Absolutely Great!

The seven-disc album Absolutely Great! is fascinating, full of wonderful music.  There are three complete concerts recorded in 1988 in Northern California.  Each concert is on two discs; the first of each pair is mostly Kuryokhin playing alone and the second disc is ensemble music.  (The last disc is a less thrilling commercial release by Kuryokhin and Henry Kaiser.)

Kuryokhin's solo playing surprises and delights me.  It leaves a very positive feeling.  Of course, as with any improvisations, quality varies; you take each moment as it comes.  Inevitably, some moments are better than others. I like the mix of strangeness and vituosity.  To say that his music is from another country doesn't begin to describe it.  Rather it seems to me like it comes from a different planet.

I've added the album Some Combinations of Fingers and Passion to David's Favorite Music which you can find in the left side-column of Mixed Meters.  It's my woefully incomplete list of things I like to listen to a lot.

I don't add music to that list because I think other people will necessarily like it or because I think it will endure through the years.  There are other blogs chasing that fool's errand.  The reason I put music on my favorites list is because it inspires me to create my own music.  That is the highest tribute I can imagine offering to another musician.

Other Mixed Meters' writings touching on improvised music:
Art Tatum Plays Live - June 2008
Mingus Epitaph (if only to see a picture of W playing a guitar)
The Golia LaBerge Ocker Trio
A New Rhapsody in Blue (Marcus Roberts)
A Tradition of Experiment in Los Angeles which comes complete with a collection of reviews, programs and fliers from the late eighties and early nineties.  Get it in pdf or text.

Sergey Tags: . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

1 comment :

Eamonn said...

Im a huge fan of the Soviet New Jazz scene - thnaks for the very informative piece on Kuryokhin. I found this site while researching Valentina Ponomareva...the jazz/gypsy singer who played with Sergey.