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• Sergey Kuryokhin and Pop Mekhanika – all documents
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Sergey Kuryokhin: Improvisations and Performances

by Hannelore Fobo, 2017 / 2018

Part Two

Pop Mekhanika in the West
Chapter headings >>

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page 6 • Why shouldn’t one play with a funny nose on? The “styob”

Kuryokhin’s wit and his love for provocation allowed him to easily create antithetical effects. As we have seen in the previous chapter, they possessed a mocking note disguised as a joke – although “joke” is not the proper term for Russian “styob”, a slang word expressing sarcasm, derision, and facetiousness simultaneously. Sociologists L. Gudkov and B Dubinin defined “styob” in the following way: “Styob is a type of intellectual sarcasm, consisting in the public or written diminution of symbols, achieved by deliberately using the symbols in question within the context of a burlesque.”[1]

According to Yu. Vorotnikov, “styob” appeared in the 1970s and 1980s among young intellectuals as a counterweight to or defence against the pathetic official political “newspeak” abounding in “mandatory synonyms”, such as “party” and “people“:

    “Styob” became the home of a new, dissecting way of thinking and a new oppositional-destructive way of being. Herein lies its important role in the annihilation of “newspeak” – the GULAG of existence and thought.[2]

Although “styob” relates to verbal speech utterances, we can extend it is meaning to “styob situations” (“stebalovo”), and in this way it can be considered to be the Russian equivalent to American “camp“, as defined by Susan Sonntag. Camp and styob are similar with some essential qualities; Sonntag spoke of a “sensibility that, among other things, converts the serious into the frivolous.”[3] Both rely on “artifice and exaggeration”, but “styob” ridicules taste whilst “camp” celebrates it.

“Styob” is, however, not always overtly aggressive. According to L. Savchenko’s definition, this phenomenon may range from chaffing at or making fun of somebody or something “in an innocent way” in order to make the communication more intimate, to “an extreme form of irony”.[4]

Kuryokhin mastered the whole spectre of of “styob” and combined it freely with “gnat’”, a verb expressing the faculty of making up the most fantastic stories. His verbal dexterity and wit were truly impressive. As the example of his TV interview “Lenin was a Mushroom” (1991) shows, he could improvise nonsense for any time, not only a without losing the plot, but also with a serious face (the scenes where he burst out laughing were cut from the film). The swiftness of his thoughts, his capacity to drop names and quote from a wide range of literature, to present good reasons, if he felt inclined to do so, made his speech a perfect simulation of academic talk.

“Styob” helped Kuryokhin to demonstrate his superiority over established authorities. I was struck by his flippant remark in is 1982 intverview “Also, what I value very highly today, for instance Plato, I might think is complete rubbish tomorrow more>>.”[5] In the same direction goes his remark from 1987. In the interview given on the occasion of the release of the LP “Insect Culture”, he “introduced” both a horse and a pig (the latter was to appear at Moers):  “I’ve always liked the idea that Caligula made a horse a senator, why can’t I bring pigs on stage?” more>> [6] It is sheer luck that Kuryokhin didn’t remember Nero playing the fiddle while watching Rome burning.

His opposition towards anything considered “official”, “serious” or “authoritative” didn’t stop before music. In his interview with Alexander Kan for Cadence, he said

    And I want the audience to have fun as well – if they want to. Most people for some reason or other don’t, they take everything absolutely straight. A. Vapirov, for example, simply does not accept eccentricity on the stage – he regards his music as serious, academic – that’s probably how it should be – he has his own opinions on the matter – I should like to put on a funny nose during one of his serious compositions, and all the seriousness would be dispersed. Why shouldn’t one play with a funny nose on? The whole audience would react in a different way, normally. Contact would be established instantaneously more >>.[7]

Kuryokhin did not mind playing the red-nose clown on stage, the “auguste“ who gets slapped on his back and squirted with water – in the literal sense: in one of the Pop Mekhanika performances, we see Тimur Novikov and Sergei Bugaev pouring water from a bucket on him while he keeps on singing. However, their (soft) flagellation of Kuryokhin’s back with thorny roses clearly has a religious connotation.[8]

In the same way, Kuryokhin expected participants of his show to endure a prank, sometimes of a rather mischievous kind. Gayvarovksy recalls how Kuryokhin once persuaded both Volkov and him to perform a solo part in one of the Pop Mekhanika concerts. Volkov agreed only when Kuryokhin swore that there wouldn’t be any fooling around with them. As they were playing, the audience suddenly started laughing. A horse had been dragged onto the scene and relieved itself behind them. Feeling not amused, Gayvarovsky asked Kuryokhin “Sergey, what does this have to do with music?” Kuryokhin answered with striking honesty “Nothing”.[9] When it came to entertain the audience, a good joke in the “styob” style counted more than allegiance to a friend. With animals, Kuryokhin certainly did not set himself the aim of being subtle.

Regarding critique from the Western side, there is a valid argument that the viewer’s cultural background may influence the perception of Kuryokhin’s “jokes”. E. Zemskaya describes the perception of “styobs” in the following way:

    The distinctive characteristic of styob is “a deliberate and accentuated amalgamation of styles” (according to the definition by M.A. Kronhaus). This special kind of humour can be understood only by a person familiar with its stylistic features and with the realia of the subject of conversation. This humour may remain unintelligible to Russian children and young adults who did not attend Soviet school, and it isn’t always clear to foreigners from the Western world. It is more accessible to people from Eastern Europe, since the linguistic situation of post-Soviet Russia is somewhat similar to that of other East European countries, such as Poland and Bulgaria. This allows Kronhaus to speak of a special type of socialist-antisocialist humour; that is, humour born out of socialism and directed against it.[10]

Kuryokhin’s strategy of undermining or playing down the value of authorities was taken over (consciously or unconsciously) by many of his friends and supporters as a means to counter Western critique. As we have seen, Letov accused the Western audience of not being on the same intellectual level as PM’s leader. For Letov, the West was “unable to understand the fusion of different layers of reality.” After all, who would seriously expect geese to perform be-bop, even when promised by a charismatic pianist?

Blame it on the audience. In Letov’s words, it was “simple-minded”, “not ready for joyous madness”. Alexander Kushnir quoted journalist Vlad Bachurov, who described as “pure hell” the confusion created at Moers by owners rescuing their animals from stage. He then comes to the conclusion: “Kuryokhin’s type of happenings, with the Maestro[11] pouring water into old pianos, blew the socks off of the saturated bourgeois.”[12]

It doesn’t sound convincing to me. It sounds apologetic. But I am from the West.

But it is nevertheless true that Kuryokhin’s humour did not meet with unanimous approval even among those musicians he appreciated or admired. This also concerned some of the musicians joining Pop Mekhanika performances, such as bassist Vladimir Volkov, as we have seen. And it certainly concerned those who decided not to join, for instance saxophonist Anatoly Vapirov. In his “Cadence” interview with Alexander Kan, Kuryokhin accused Vapirov of being too serious with regard to music, but continued playing with Vapirov’s free jazz quartet for several years. 

Reference list >>

[1] “Стеб – род интеллектуального ерничества, состоящий в публичном, печатном снижении символов через демонстративное использование их в пародийном контексте…” (Знамя, № 1, 1994: 166). Quoted after Е. А. Земская 29.01.2001 http://gramota.ru/biblio/magazines/gramota/28_52

[2] Стеб стал домом новой, препарирующей мысли и нового, опозиционно-деструктивного бытия. И в этом его важная роль в разрушении "новояза" как ГУЛАГа бытия и мысли.

18.12. 2007 Yu. L. Vorotnikov, О некоторых особенностях языка средств массовой информации [About some linguistic features of media language]

http://gramota.ru/biblio/magazines/gramota/ruspress/28_606 Retrieved 17 December, 2017

[3] Susan Sontag, Notes On “Camp”, 1964


Retrieved 17 December, 2017

[4] Диапазон явления определяется от «невинной манеры» подшучивать, подсмеиваться над кем-либо, чем-либо, чтобы интимизировать общение, до «крайней формы иронии».

https://ru.wikipedia.org/wiki/ Стёб#cite_note-savchenko-3 Retrieved 17 December, 2017

[5] Dulfill, Russian Jazz, p.46

[6] See footnote 41. Permalink http://www.e-e.eu/Insect-Culture/index.htm

[7] Kan, Sergey Kuryokhin Interview, page 12

[8] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zndZFn24uY0&list=RDzndZFn24uY0&t=1800 at approx. 39.14 Retrieved 17 December, 2017

[9] Kan, Skipper, digital version, pp 70 / 71

[10] Отличительная черта стеба – “сознательное и подчеркнутое смешение стилей" (определение М. А. Кронгауза). Юмор подобного рода понятен лишь человеку, знакомому и со стилистическими приметам, и с реалиями описываемого. Такой юмор может быть не понятен детям и молодежи России, не учившейся в советской школе, он не всегда понятен иностранцам – жителям Западного мира. Более близок он людям из Восточной Европы, поскольку языковая ситуация постсоветской России напоминает языковую ситуацию, сложившуюся в других странах Восточной Европы, например в Польше и Болгарии. Это позволило Кронгаузу говорить об особом типе социалистического антисоциалистического юмора (т. е. порожденного социализмом и направленного против него).

E.A. Zemskaya, Активные процессы в русском языке последнего десятилетия ХХ века. Часть 3, [Active processes in the Russian language in the last decade of the twentieth century] 29.1.2001, http://gramota.ru/biblio/magazines/gramota/russianworld/28_52

[11] Kushnir and others respectfully call Kuryokhin “Маэстро / Maestro”.

[12] Все эти курёхинские хэппенинги, в процессе которых Маэстро заливал водой странные рояли, срывали крышу сытым бюргерам. Kushnir, Kuryokhin, p. 139

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Russian names: Сергей Курёхин, Поп-механика,

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

Uploaded 15 July 2018