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• Sergey Kuryokhin and Pop Mekhanika – all documents
• Сергей Курёхин и Поп-механика – все документы

Sergey Kuryokhin: Improvisations and Performances

by Hannelore Fobo, 2017 / 2018

Part Two

Pop Mekhanika in the West
Chapter headings >>

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page 5 • Geese and goats as antithesis

It is interesting to study how such a – slight or serious – breach in communication manifested itself through what might seem to be a secondary element in Kuryokhin’s concept: animals on stage. I return to Hans Kumpf’s abovementioned quote: “I was quite ill at ease with Kuryokhin’s festival show when he started to stage scared hens and a goat which hid away under a piano.”

In my opinion, Hans Kumpf’s criticism of animals on stage defines the problem of Kuryokhin’s “antithetical structure” on a deeper level: the opposition between thesis and antithesis reveals the conflict between a free individual and a “thing” serving a function.

In his article from 2007, Sergey Letov expressed this contradiction, although he doesn’t seem to be fully aware of it:

    Kuryokhin composed “Pop Mekhanika” with concrete individuals, each possessing their own specific way or talent of improvisation, each acting in their own specific way on stage and in life. This is why it became a celebration of unprecedented self-realisation for any musician. The performances abroad showed that the European audience wasn’t ready for joyous madness. In Moers, simple-minded German “Green” came to defend the goat, which was not presented with due respect. Austrians were offended because in their opinion their folklore group was not presented with due respect. The West was unable to understand the fusion of different layers of reality. Famous “Pop-Mekhanika” caused disenchantment.[1]

We thus see the emergence of a two-class society, with an upper class consisting of free individuals, the musicians, representing the “thesis” – and a lower class, the folklore group (and, as it were, the animals) as “antithesis”. The latter were “not presented with due respect”, that is, without room to express themselves as artists. This distinction between the two classes was clearly felt in the West, because the antithesis concerned the Western side. Instead of creating a productive tension leading to a synthesis, it created dissonance.

In contrast to Letov, Kan doesn’t even see the “upper-class” musicians as artists expressing self-realisation: “All musicians, regardless of their degree of professionalism, fame or the importance of their contribution to a Pop Mekhanika performance unquestioningly played a subordinate role. They only carried out Kuryokhin’s instructions.” [2] In other words, Kan sees all musicians as workers, not as creators.

Yet this does not suspend the distinction between two classes. It simply assigns them different qualities. If everybody “only carried out Kuryokhin’s instructions”, then the problem was not at all that they were all to fulfil a function within a pre-established framework. It was the question whether a particularly person or group a) knew about their function, b) accepted it, and c) whether the performance allowed them to actually fulfil it. The upper class knew, accepted and fulfilled, even enjoyed their role, the lower class was not aware of the purpose they served – which basically consisted in countering the seriousness of the enterprise. Accordingly, it could neither accept nor refuse such a role, let alone fulfil it.

If Kuryokhin was the demiurge and the show was his material creation, there were, however, conditions to be maintained. After all, Kuryokhin was only a subordinate deity, and the musicians and other performers were not his creatures. To be treated with lack of respect was clearly not a condition the Austrian folklore group had agreed upon. In the case of animals at Moers, exposing them to ridicule was another condition the audience was unwilling to accept. It may have come as a surprise to Letov that animals should also be treated with respect, but the audience felt instinctively protective of these poor beings. The audience protested on their behalf, since all the animals could do was run away or hide. Alexander Kan is to the point: “While in Moers, Germany, the green-oriented New Jazz community was outright complaining about what seemed to them cruelty to animals.”[3]

Pop Mekhanika 18 Internationales New Jazz Festival Moers Pfingsten`89 (Germany), 1989 Timur Novikov and goat Photo: Hans Kumpf

Pop Mekhanika
18 Internationales New Jazz Festival Moers Pfingsten`89 (Germany), 1989

Timur Novikov and goat

Photo: Hans Kumpf

Most likely, Kuryokhin’s idea for Moers had been to stage the geese as a parody of human musicians. Here is a fragment from the already quoted interview from October 20, 1988 “Soviet Pianist Exudes An Animal Magnetism”, that is, prior to the Moers concert. The “female opera singer” is a reference to the Pop Mekhanika concert in Stockholm 1988, and “next spring” is obviously an announcement for the concert at Moers in May 1989:

    “Me and my friends teach animals to play instruments. We want to make the first Russian animal rock group – I think maybe in the spring is the first concert of this group. We teach one goat and three chickens to sing be-bop like Manhattan Transfer. A month ago, we had a very famous female opera singer sing Verdi with many geese–very, very good.”[4]

The reaction of the audience in Moers would quite certainly have been very different if Kuryokhin had actually trained a goat and three chickens to sing be-bop like Manhattan Transfer. In other words, if he had taken a very serious, professional approach to humour, like Charlie Chaplin. If Kuryokhin had put some effort into it, I think he would have received standing ovations, and his respect for animals wouldn’t have been questioned at all.

But Kuryokhin wouldn’t keep his promise and presented whatever was available: ordinary, untrained geese and other scared animals – goats and a pig. They were no substitute. It felt like a cheap trick. This was the point where parody did not work.

I assume that Kuryokhin tried to repeat in Moers what he had tested in Stockholm. The Stockholm video shows performer Sergei Bugaev chasing around eight geese. Holding a stick in his hand, he is acting as a gooseherd, scattering grain and making the geese walk around an opera singer. Occasionally, one or several geese start honking.

According to Alexander Kushnir, this is how Sergey Kuryokhin remembered the episode:

    “I decided to insert a beautiful and melodious romance in the middle of the concert,” Kuryokhin later recalled. “It was to be performed by an excellent opera singer, a famous Swedish soprano. We had forty geese in store for this occasion, and I arranged with the singer that we would scatter some grain and herd them in the background. But then something happened that no one could have foreseen. As soon as the singer hit the first high note, the geese began to howl terribly. That was their agitated reaction to the second octave, and the flock continued to bawl during the whole aria. To an outsider it seemed that this was a well-rehearsed and precisely executed performance. On the whole, it was a great piece of luck that added to the concert an element of spontaneity and slight idiocy.”[5]

Alexander Kan offers a different version

    There were some problems with the animals, however. In Stockholm, for example, a local opera singer was very distressed by the fact that during her performance of an aria from one of Verdi’s operas, a flock of geese was walking around hissing angrily.[6]

Kuryokhin’s account stands in obvious contrast to Kan’s account, but also to the video. If Kushnir quoted him correctly, we can say that Kuryokhin gave an utterly embellished interpretation of the event, removing the more unpleasant facts, multiplying the number of geese by five and making up such exquisite details as  “their agitated reaction to the second octave”[7] – in short, by moving it closer to Scriabin’s “action in a total harmony.”

Kuryokhin wouldn’t admit to himself his “inelegant” behaviour. On the contrary, he knew that he could rely on his charisma to bring in exotic contributors, and not just a military orchestra (Leningrad, March 1988). According to Alexander Kan, famous actor Vanessa Redgrave was charmed by Kuryokhin’s art of persuasion and agreed to move around stage on hand and knees:

    She was perfectly aware of the fact that [Kuryokhin’s] audacity was no desire to abase her, but was really the challenge of an equal partner, ready to bow down before the bravery and dignity of a smart, brave and charming woman – if this partner was willing to accept him as an equal, too.[8]

Calling Kuryokhin and Redgrave “partners”, Kan contradicts his own interpretation of PM participants playing a subordinate role. Rather, a subordinate role was given to the Swedish opera singer. Considering her reaction, it seems plausible that Kuroykhin hadn’t used his charm to explain her what would happen during her performance; perhaps simply for lack of time or for lack of an interpreter.

Reference list >>

[1] Курехин сочинял «Поп-Механики» из конкретных людей, со всеми особенностями их импровизационного дара и сценического и жизненного поведения. Потому это был праздник невиданной самореализации для каждого музыканта.

Зарубежные же выступления показали, что европейская публика не принимает веселого безумия. Тупоумные немецкие зеленые бросились «защищать» козла в Мёрсе, представленного недостаточно уважительно. Австрийцы оскорбились за недостаточно уважительное, по их мнению, отношение к фольклорному ансамблю. Запад не понял и не мог принять смещения планов реальности. Прославленная «Поп-механика» вызывала разочарование.

Йя-Хха / Yahha, 20. 7. 2007 http://www.yahha.com/article.php?sid=126 retrieved 17 December 2017

[2] Все музыканты – вне зависимости от уровня мастерства, известности и весомости вклада в фактуру того или иного представления – беспрекословно играли в «ПМ» подчиненную роль, лишь выполняя курехинские указания. Kan, Skipper, digital version, p. 74

[3] А в немецком Мёрсе настроенная по-зеленому новоджазовая публика откровенно возмущалась немилосердным, по ее представлениям, обращением с животными. Kan, Skipper, p. 74

[4] John Litweiler, “Soviet Pianist Exudes An Animal Magnetism”, review at the Chicago Tribune from 20 October, 1988 http://articles.chicagotribune.com/1988-10-20/features/8802090561_1_sergey-kuryokhin-animals-chicago-concert retrieved 17 December 2017

[5] В середине концерта я планировал вставить красивый и мелодичный романс, – вспоминал впоследствии Курёхин. – Его согласилась исполнить прекрасная оперная певица, знаменитое шведское сопрано. Для этого момента у нас было припасено сорок гусей … И я договорился с певицей, что мы насыплем немного зерна и попасем гусей у нее за спиной. Но тут произошло то, чего никто не мог предугадать. Как только певица взяла первую высокую ноту, гуси стали страшно реветь. Оказалось, что они так возбужденно реагируют на вторую октаву. И это стадо орало на протяжении всего романса. Со стороны казалось, что это хорошо отрепетированная и точно сделанная программа. В целом это была большая удача, внесшая в концерт элемент непосредственности и легкого идиотизма.

Kushnir, Kuryokhin, p. 119, English translation by Tatyana Zyulikova.

[6] С животными, правда, возникали проблемы. В Стокгольме, например, местной оперной певице очень не понравилось, что во время исполнения ею арии из оперы Верди вокруг нее ходила и злобно шипела стая гусей.

Kan, Skipper, digital version, p. 74, English translation by Tatyana Zyulikova

[7] There are many similarly colourful legends on Kuryokhin’s successes, for instance the one printed in Jon Pareles’ article “Furtive Look at Soviet Rock Pianist”, published in The New York Times on July 17, 1986: “[…] at a recent concert, we’re told, a Leningrad subway stop had to be closed to run crowds away”. https://www.nytimes.com/1986/07/17/arts/furtive-look-at-soviet-rock-pianist.html Retrieved 17 December 2017
More modest versions of this legend only have the street leading to the Rock Club closed.

[8] Она правильно почувствовала в этой дерзости не стремление унизить, а действительно вызов, но вызов равного, готового – если и партнер признает в нем равного – преклониться перед отвагой и достоинством умной, смелой и очаровательной женщины.

Kan, Skipper, digital version, p. 79

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Russian names: Сергей Курёхин, Поп-механика,

Alternative writings: Sergey Kurekhin, Sergei Kurekhin, Sergej Kurjochin, Kuryochin, Pop mechanics, Popular Mechanics

Uploaded 26 March 2018
Last updated 27 January 2021