Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Irrational Mechanics from Alexey Devyanin and Yevgeny Zamyatin’s Futurist Prose

I imagine Alexey Devyanin making music from a Moscow tenement block where he lives on a diet of vodka and borscht whilst ‘Stalker’ plays constantly on the 17-inch black and white telly in the corner. His equipment is rusty and there’s always a tap dripping...
   In reality, he may be a wealthy suburbanite surrounded by the latest technology, but he can’t make much money from music like ‘Qwerty’, his latest release as Gultskra Artikler on Cluster. It’s not going to be charting anytime soon...except in your ‘Top Ten Avant-Electronic Classics of the Year’...well, it’s in mine anyway.
   This Russian thing began with ‘Stalker’, the track by Alva Noto from his superb ‘For 2’ album, which captures the mood of the film brilliantly. I’ve played it a lot over the last few weeks...
   Fast forward to Highgate’s Oxfam bookshop which I had just left empty-handed, wondering why the god of second-hand book supply had deserted me, then steeling myself for the rare task of having to buy something new. So I entered the ‘proper’ bookshop, scanned the shelves for a while and ‘ping’, Yevgeny Zamyatin’s ‘We’ sprang to mind, being something I’d intended to read for years (you know how it is, this back-catalogue of things you intend to buy sitting in your noodle). There it was, as the author’s name dictates, sitting towards the end of the bottom shelf, one copy – good.
   I retired to a cafe to read the foreword by Will Self, which reminded me of the time he bought a copy of ‘Tough Tough Toys’ for me and signed it, which makes him a thoroughly decent chap regardless of how he comes across on TV sometimes (erudite moody smart-arse...which, actually, does not negate the possibility that he can be kind-hearted and generous, does it?). He also wrote to a friend of mine, a budding author (who never flowered fully, but that’s writing for you) with words of encouragement.
   I recommend ‘We’. It’s a tale of the future written in 1921and banned in Russia. It really is like no other sci-fi novel (and I’ve read quite a few), just as ‘Stalker’ is like no other sci-fi film. The prose (allowing for translation) is distinctive, sometimes surrealistic; the story is set in the One State where everything is done by the book and exactly on time, every day (socialising, sex, work etc). People march in time to ‘the pipes of the Music Factory’. Comparisons with a real totalitarian state being obvious, we might also consider our own willingness to march to the same drummer in the supposedly free world.
   Stan Kenton’s ‘City of Glass’ suite might make a good soundtrack to the book, considering much of the architecture described by Zamyatin, although perhaps it’s a little too abrasive. Jeff Mills might be more appropriate, in keeping with the regimentation of life in the One State. Devyanin’s ‘Qwerty’ is too radical. Unlike Zamyatin’s ciphers (as people in his world are called), it does not conform to regularity, although intermingled with all manner of electronic emissions there are subtle rhythms, patterns played out by ticks, clicks and other unnameable sounds. To enter it fully is as unnerving as going into Tarkovsky’s Zone, or living in the world of ‘We’, where all music is a matter of ‘rational mechanics’. The sound of Devyanin’s ‘mechanical’ output is, thankfully, irrational and unpredictable.

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