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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 7 • The formal side of anarchy

The spirit of boldness combined with provocation was Pop Mekhanika’s strong point, and this was its weak point, too, because the effect of provocation soon wears off, especially in a world that has seen it all – the West. To keep Pop Mekhanika performances new and surprising, Kuryokhin escalated visual and other effects, that is, developed Pop Mekhanika “formally”, as he called it. Kan writes: “Each new ‘PM’ became larger, more epic and … more boring.” [1]

But the problem was more profound – it concerned the “principle of friendship” that united the Russian musicians and artists. Kan states that Kuryokhin started feeling weary of Pop Mekhanika as early as 1989:

    Once, Sergey, in a completely uncharacteristic way, even admitted of his pet project’s creative depletion. It was in an interview sometime around 1989 […] Sergey made a highly interesting confession which I am going to quote entirely:

    I can probably continue to exploit the idea as it is. It is developing – not in a significant way, but it is, and it may be possible to subsist on it for some time yet. But nowadays there is overall disunity in Russia, especially in the realm of culture. When people were constrained and pressed together, they could work together for a common cause. Everybody knew who was an insider and who was an outsider. Now the situation has changed dramatically. It has become possible to pursue your own individual career, and this is what everybody does.

    There is no unity, no common feeling that would unite people and make them create a common culture. Pop Mekhanika was once based on the principle of friendship. It brought everybody together and, consequently, carried a certain spiritual charge. Now it is able to carry only a purely formal charge, and this is the only charge it is carrying. I can expand it compositionally, find lots of new stylistic devices, but the process has become somewhat mechanical. Moreover, while travelling to many countries, I have learned to make a Pop Mekhanika out of people I have never met before, although this goes against the general idea. Therefore, I think that Pop Mekhanika cannot develop spiritually but only formally.[2]

It is а paradox that the moment “Popular Mechanics” became popular, it was also becoming mechanical.

But Kuryokhin’s bleak confession is surprising for two reasons. First, it was made during a period of success and recognition. As a matter of fact, it did not stop Kuryokhin from touring with PM – a very busy 1990 was still to come. It was only in 1991 that the number of performances decreased sharply, both abroad and at home, and it is now difficult to say whether this was the consequence of Kuryokhin’s own decision or whether opportunities were getting rare.

Sergey Kuryokhin "The Ways of Freedom" Leo Records, London, 1981 Cover picture: Hans Kumpf

Sergey Kuryokhin "The Ways of Freedom"
Leo Records, London, 1981
Cover picture: Hans Kumpf more >>

Second, Kuryokhin’s criticism that everybody was pursuing their own individual career instead of working together for a common cause sounds inappropriate, to say the least. Kuryokhin himself had always been pursuing his own individual career “outside” Pop Mekhanika, playing with different groups, giving solo concerts, and recording his music. His international career started early, long before he had the possibility to go on tour. In 1981, he had already released his first solo LP “The Ways of Freedom”, at London-based Leo Records.

It brought him immediate fame among the international jazz scene. It therefore seems strange that he should accuse other musicians of pursuing their own projects, dismissively called “career”. After all, Pop Mekhanika had never been conceived as a  “touring ensemble”, let alone as anything close to an institutionalised orchestra with paid members. Perhaps more than anyone else Kuryokhin benefitted from reducing the number of PM performances in the 1990s. It gave him time to work on TV and as an actor, to write film music and large compositions.

In my opinion, the sentence “Everybody knew who was an insider and who was an outsider” expresses the main problem. It was part of Kuryokhin’s antithetical structure: the insiders “attacked” the outsiders – the public, which surrendered peacefully to the insiders’ “action on a totally global scale”. Kushnir, who dedicated the introduction of his biography to a colourful description of the Helsinki performance (1995), going far beyond what can be seen on the video, writes that Kuryokhin set up an action plan “to strike relaxed Europe with the most radical Russian avant-garde.”[3] Kuryokhin needed a “critical mass” of insiders to fight the battle at ease and with joy, and in this respect, the conditions were not ideal when touring abroad with only few of his companions, “buying in” guest musicians.[4]

This antithetical concept was so important because Kuryokhin’s ambitions were so vast – “action on a totally global scale” per se includes everything. But “everything” needs to be structured in some way – otherwise we will perceive its components as chaotic, which to us is the same as random. Other than the traditional Gesamtkunstwerk, say, a Wagner opera, the PM performances had no specific narrative, no plot structuring the performance. The thesis-antithesis opposition was PM’s backbone.

And it naturally reflected Kuryokhin’s psychology, described by Alexander Kan: “to go right through, against expectations, to challenge boldly. To crash traditions, including the tradition of avant-garde. To assert himself not only as a master pianist – something just obvious the moment he played the first notes –, but as an outstanding, audacious, unrivalled artist, making everyone gasp with amazement and delight.”[5]

Kan gives this description following an account of Kuryokhin’s duo with John Zorn at the famous New York Knitting Factory Club in 1988. Kuryokhin kept on breaking aggressively into Zorn’s jazz improvisations with Tango, Waltz and other music pieces that were typical for PM performances, but completely out of place in the given situation. According to Kan, Kuryokhin botched his performance at the prestigious Telonius Monk competition two weeks later with the same defying attitude.[6]  Kushnir writes that Kuryokhin was so convinced that he would receive the award that he didn’t even bother to prepare his performance. And when he performed, he didn’t play Monk, as the regulations required, but parodied the candidate who had played before him. However, the jury just politely thanked him and left the room.[7] Among these highly professional jury members, his love for a good “styob” was not appreciated. A “styob” may be funny, but as an antithesis it is basically a reaction – an afterthought.

What did the antithetical concept do to advance music?

One can, of course, develop it to the point where it annihilates or crushes tradition. Yet if the Pop Mekhanika concert “battles” brought new visual and sound effects that crushed tradition, the same cannot be said about the music as such. Free jazz players would play free jazz, traditional accordion players would play traditional accordion tunes, and rock musicians would play rock music. The public had a chance to experience a taste of Russian anarchy, orchestrated by Sergey Kuryokhin, but the musicians were not incited to go beyond their repertoire. In this respect, Kuryokhin’s collaboration with the “New Composers” for “Insect Culture” stood out – because of the New Composers’ innovative electronic sound collages.

We have seen that as early as 1989, Kuryokhin admitted to himself that the process of creating Pop Mekhanika concerts had become “somewhat mechanical.” The audience would not necessarily perceive them as “mechanical” or routine – especially in the West, where the public would assist at one performance, not several.  

However, what Kuryokhin described as a formal as opposed to a spiritual development might have become a reason for PM’s regular participants to give priority to other projects – all the more so since Pop Mekhanika was and had always been clearly identified with Kuryokhin’s name, not theirs. He was the one who could not be replaced by anyone else.

Here is a quote from a 2014 interview with rock guitarist Alexander Liapin who collaborated with Sergey Kuroykhin on multiple projects between 1977 and 1996.[8] Although his statement does not relate to PM concerts alone, it is indicative of the situation of a talented musician experiencing artistic growth.

Asked about the reason for his moving to the U.S.A. in 2013, Liapin gave the following answer:

    I simply came to understand that I did all I possibly could for what is generally called “Russian rock”. You can’t deny that for the formation of the bands “Aquarium”, “DDT”, Sergey Kuryokhin’s “Pop-Mekhanika” and many others I did more than enough. I’m not in the least interested to stay [in Russia] to play the VIP or a jury member sitting behind a table. I finally decided to think about the kind of music that interests me, that is dear to my heart. And it is rooted in the American past – Afro-American, to be precise. […] I simply moved to the place where I can do what I love to do. [9]

That is, Liapin did not see any perspectives for his creative development in Russia. He also adds a quite severe critique of his Russian fellow musicians:

    Regarding Russian musicians I will say one thing: many, almost all of them, play with “rock music”, but not rock music itself. They simply don’t bother to understand its essence – the essence of what real rock means. Most love themselves being in music more than the music within themselves.[10]

Pop Mekhanika was definitely not the project to develop musical ideas to a point of refinement. But it gave a number of Russian musicians and artists the opportunity to try out new “crazy” forms of collaboration, and, last but no least, to get to know the Western world at a time when such travels were still anything but common. Liapin looks back on his earlier activities without regret. They gradually made him understand what was important to him.

In 1995, Sergey Kuryokhin found a way to develop Pop Mekhanika spiritually – if we consider occultism and magical practises as a means of pursuing spiritual growth. In the next part of my research I will examine how the last two important Pop Mekhanika performances from September 1995 became the stage for his new occult-anarcho-totalitarian ideas, which included his support of radical, anti-Western positions of the National-Bolshevik Party as a new form of art. Whether or not Kuryokhin just “played with” these ideas is a question that is still dividing his friends and admirers.

Hannelore Fobo, March 2018

Reference list >>

[1] Каждая новая «ПМ» становилась все масштабнее, все грандиознее и… все скучнее Kan, Skipper, digital version, p. 79

[2] Однажды Сергей даже – что в принципе было ему совершенно несвойственно – признался в идейном истощении своего любимого детища. Было это примерно в 1989 году в интервью […] Сергей сделал весьма любопытное признание, которое я здесь процитирую полностью:

Можно, наверное, продолжать эксплуатировать ту идею, которая существует. Она развивается – не так чтобы очень, но развивается, и какое-то время на ней еще можно существовать. Но в России сейчас идет тотальное разобщение, особенно в свете культуры. Когда все были зажаты, спрессованы вместе, то вместе делали и общее дело. Все знали, кто свой и кто чужой. Сейчас все это радикально изменилось, появилась возможность делать карьеру индивидуальную, чем каждый и занимается.

Нет целостности, нет общего ощущения, которое объединяло бы людей и заставляло их делать совместную культуру. Раньше «Поп-механика» строилась по принципу дружбы, собирала всех друзей и поэтому несла в себе определенный духовный заряд. Сейчас она может нести уже только чисто формальный заряд, и только такой заряд она и несет. Можно расширять композиционно, можно делать массу новых находок… Но она обрела уже некоторую механистичность, тем более, что, путешествуя по многим странам, я научился совершенно спокойно делать «Поп-механику» из людей, которых я никогда ранее не встречал, хотя это и противоречит общему духу.

Поэтому я и не думаю, что «Поп-механика» может развиваться духовно – только чисто формально.

Kan, Skipper, digital version, pp 79/80, translation by Tatyana Zyulikova

[3] (дабы поразить безмятежную Европу экстремальным русским авангардом.)

Kushnir, Kuryokin, p. 5,

[4] Not only were there fewer of his “own” musicians, but they also might behave in unpredictable ways, turn up to the show completely drunk or not at all. Kan gives an account of a so-called “Small Pop Mekhanika” during the Berlin Independent Days 1993, which had only four musicians from Saint Petersburg, more exactly, three: Kuryokhin, Titov and Liapin, since saxophonist Kostyushkin got drunk and lost on the day of their arrival. Kan, Skipper, p. 73/74

(Kan erroneously dates the performance to 1994, but Kuryokhin is mentioned as participant of the 1993 festival in the Glaucia Perez da Silva’s book “Wie klingt die globale Ordnung: Die Entstehung eines Marktes für World Music, Springer Verlag, 1.12.2015, p. 184)

[5] То есть идти напролом, с дерзким вызовом, наперекор всем ожиданиям. Ломать традиции, в том числе и традиции авангарда. Утверждать себя не только и не столько в качестве мастера – это должно было стать очевидным с первого же его фортепианного пассажа, – сколько в качестве уникального, дерзкого, ни на кого не похожего, заставляющего всех дружно охнуть от изумления и восхищения художника. Kan, p. 95

[6] Kan, Skipper, digital version, p. 97.

[7] Kushnir, Kuryokhin, p. 126

[8] See Liapin’s website  http://liapin.com/?artist=pop-mechanics Retrieved 17 December, 2017

[9] Просто пришло понимание, что для жанра, который называют "русский рок", я сделал все, что мог. Согласитесь, для становления групп "Аквариум", ДДТ, "Поп-Механики" Сергея Курехина и многих других мною было сделано более чем достаточно. Оставаться в качестве "свадебного генерала" или застольного члена жюри мне было совсем не интересно. Потому пришла пора подумать о музыке, которая интересна мне, о направлениях, которые близки моему сердцу. И корнями она уходит в американское, точнее даже - в афро-американское прошлое. […] Я просто переехал туда, где могу спокойно делать то, что люблю

Алексей Бондарев:, Российская газета [Alexey Bondarev, Rossyskaya Gazeta], 3. 7. 2014,

Гитарист из "Аквариума" рассказал, почему уехал в США

https://rg.ru/2014/07/03/reg-sibfo/lyapin.html Retrieved 17 December, 2017

[10] Касательно русских музыкантов скажу одно: очень многие, почти все, играют в "Rock", а не сам "Rock". Не удосуживаются просто понять суть - что же есть настоящий Rock. Большинство любит себя в музыке больше, чем музыку в себе. Ibid.

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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