James Manteith

A Single Tongue, the Chord (Blues report)

Published in: 17. Octave

“St. Petersburg has no traditions, no history beyond that of the palace conspiracies, and there is nothing in its past to attract the writer or thinker.”

Encyclopedia Britannica, 1910-11

“The city remains itself. The walls conquer all. A couple of years of rain — and it all becomes just as it always was. Simply Petersburg.”

T. Apraksina (from a conversation in 2009)

“Oh Petersburg, your citizens mean nothing beside you.”**

By 1910, of course, these conquering walls were already built, in the main, although having yet to pass many of their tests. The same Neva, moistening the walls, flowed through the city. Now the Neva has flowed a hundred more years, and the walls on its banks have kept growing as well. To speak of this artificial city as “eternal Petersburg” has by now become so commonplace as to pass unnoticed — untested… and how easily the untested theory recedes in the annals of doubt! But as they say, “a sacred place is never empty.” And Petersburg receives test after test, receives life through all the years and seasons, goes through phases of affirming its eternal traits.

And so through the “city without traditions or history” moves the hand of BLUES, along points of its traditional partnership on the map of the future.

“My blood will flow in your rivers, my tears spill rain on your granite.

In the mansion of the HOUSE OF COMPOSERS, as always, the stairs still creak. The painting “Faces of Shostakovich” occupies a place not over the fireplace, as before, but on the wall opposite. The fireplace mantle now holds a modest memorial to Andrei Petrov. His successor, Grigory KORCHMAR, sees his task as one of preserving the active creative style and atmosphere cultivated by Andrei Pavlovich, although measuring up to this authority is far from easy. The most serious achievement has been that of managing to avoid dependency on the tastes of the market, to defend the organization’s characteristic non-commercial profile. As if to confirm this, the head of the Composers’ Union lists some of his own compositions from recent years. The large-scale forms he describes include a cycle of musical settings of texts from Mozart’s letters, as well as an orchestral work based on tales of Baron Munchausen’s adventures in Russia.

The whole setting of the mansion, including the portrait gallery of Soviet classics, exudes a Hoffmanesque sense of mystery. Grigory Korchmar, in obvious harmony with the place and its ideals, seems a personal embodiment of the eternally fertile integrity of classicism.


But head only a couple of doorways farther along Bolshaya Morskaya, and this image gives way to the following. At the Nabokov Museum, publisher VITA NOVA is presenting a new book — an edition of Leonid Andreev’s “Judas Iscariot and Others.” On the walls hangs an exhibit, the originals of this edition’s illustrations. Here, in the impressive cycle of monochrome prints, the main theme is one of fragmentation, collapse. Student turning on teacher, brother against brother, parents and children against each other, self against self. All this is elevated into a world of imagery fusing the narrative of Christ’s life with the passions of history, with the split of individuals between the call to know through childlike faith and the temptation to know through power — whether their own or borrowed. Often through a crowd.

The illustrations’ author, Anastasia ZYKINA, acknowledges having undergone a deep and difficult immersion in the subject. Evidence of this experience can be seen in her face as well as in her drawings, expressive of authenticity on both psychological and documentary levels. Despite the works’ refinement, they are full of an air of brutality —the market’s, the functionary’s, the people’s… The cycle contains a trace of apprenticeship, which in this case comes across as a plus: the apprentice herself is hard-working, and the chosen teacher is a good one.


“The city a piano must have an honest master.”

At the MITKI group’s museum, an exhibit opens, displaying work by two Mitki artists, Aleksandr Nekrasov and Andrei Kuznetsov. In these spaces, it’s difficult to separate the new from the old. Paintings seemingly recently made already appear decrepit. Their content seems to draw on a mentality no longer rooted in any reality except in the minds of the artists. Recollections of past feelings, reproductions of past shared understandings. Unifying attributes of simplistic naivete. Do these things unite anyone now? Did they truly unite anyone before? The Mitki have their section in a recently published anthology, “Leningrad in the Perestroika Years,” which includes the text of an early manifesto proclaiming the characteristic Mitkovian “indescribable joy.” The museum, whose design doesn’t ignore the demands of formal pomp, contains hints of a kind of panicked joy, most of all, perhaps, in a series running along the upper part of all the walls — sculptural compositions fashioned from pieces of household junk in the likeness of musical instruments. The cleverly assembled collection of trophies evokes a sense of eerie discomfort, like Haymarket Square accordionists moonlighting in the dreams of impressionable children and old men.


Here, too, is Olga PERSHINA, like a siren of chasteness, led by reason no less than by voice. In recent years, she has dedicated herself to a new form of service, founding the “Pastushok” (“Little Shepherd”) Christmas Center. Olga explain that because of the disruption of the old traditions for celebrating Christmas, a need exists to restore an understanding of this holiday and to renew the customs tied to it. The activity of “Pastushok” is devoted foremost to children. O. Pershina is completely absorbed by her mission, creating cycle after cycle of songs, poems, stories about Christmas. These have turned into a series of children’s books and albums of music, released in Petersburg and Moscow. Her great selfless work, a ceaseless battle, is sometimes rewarded by the joy of success, and Olga sees this as “simply a miracle.”

In Pershina today, it’s not hard to recognize traces of her metamorphoses in creativity and life — from the regal hippy, the star of the Leningrad rock scene, the singer for “Big Iron Bell,” the longtime neighbor and friend of Kolya Vasin, to the heiress of the solitary spirit of Anna Akhmatova (for whose poems she provides original musical settings on a series of albums released in the first half of the last decade). This latest phase in her biography has already managed to leave its mark on her: one of a tempered, spartan mothering of the blessed poor. And some traits may yet reveal themselves in new work.


“Walls creased with looks rains verse backs of those who have no other to lean on.”

The poetry and prose of Kari UNKSOVA, struck down in an auto accident some twenty-five years ago, have at last become available to the reading public. Her work has come out in a serious, thick volume, including a biographical sketch. A presentation of the book took place in a special evening in memory of Kari Unksova, hosted by the Akhmatova Museum at the Fountain House. The evening brings together those who have long known and loved these poems, those who knew and loved their author. Familiar lines are declaimed, wielded as incantations. It seems this causes the air in the reading space, modest in scale, to grow heavy, to congeal — as if no time at all had passed and nothing had changed, forcing each person to suffer and hope, hope and suffer, in just the same way as before. Kari Unksova, a vivid representative of the world of the nonconformists, moved in one company for a time with such like-minded peers as the artists Yevgeny Rukhin and Gleb Bogomolov, the poet Joseph Brodsky and the composer Boris Tischenko. Together they formed and refined their ideals, their expressive principles. The voice of Kari Unksova the poet may reveal an intonation characteristic of a specific historical era, geography, culture and subculture, but sounds no less clearly with the polished uniqueness of one who possesses a personal ark to link all possible influences.

Marina UNKSOVA, the poetess’ sister, an art historian, compiled and edited the book, also writing its introduction, as well as a biographical survey. “These poems,” she says, “aren’t written like the ones to which people are perhaps accustomed. Their thought process has an associative structure, built of words and images in combinations that a reader might not fully understand the first time around. But sometimes they suddenly turn out to be incredibly moving, to the point of tears — I know this from how others respond to them and from my own reactions while putting together the book. And of course this work had to be done, unquestionably.”

It’s probably more than chance that both sisters, Kari and Marina, were educated as geologists. The experience of studying natural forms may have proven useful — first for the poems’ author, and then for the arranger of the collection.


Another form of engagement with human geology is found in the work of RUSSIAN MUSEUM research fellow Aleksei KURBANOVSKY. Emerging from the museum hall after his lecture, he produces a copy, set aside as a gift for BLUES, of his relatively recent Darkness Falls — a book resulting from the many years of research that anchored his doctoral dissertation. The doctoral defense took place at the philosophy department of St. Petersburg State University. As an author, A. Kurbanovsky is distinguished by seriousness and independence of thought, by a recognizably individual manner of exposition. His articles have long commanded authority among specialists, while simple readers relish the attenuated sharpness of his pen and thought combined with broad erudition. In this book, he obviously reaches still deeper layers, interpreting and systematizing the flow of culture from an innovative angle, steering the perception along the untrodden course of an untraditional viewpoint. This is expressed not only in the content but in the presentation. The book itself creates the impression of an art object, as if aiming for fetishistic, kabbalistic influence. The footnotes, the parallel series of citations, commentaries, fragments of rare documents, the unexpected, surprising originality of the set of illustrations, weaving a carefully thought-out pattern, decode the dynamics of the history of aesthetic preferences, concurrently evoking a general catharsis of seeing. The calm, soft-spoken author, who has dared to have dealings with “darkness,” bears outward resemblance to a pastor — a highly disciplined one. At present, Kurbanovsky is engaged in a new large-scale project developing and expanding the inner thrust of the rich museum collection.


Meanwhile, at the ST. PETERSBURG STATE UNIVERSITY PHILOSOPHY DEPARTMENT, new generations of scholars are maturing. At the division of ethics and aesthetics, there is talk of promising students. One of them is making use of knowledge of Sanskrit in his studies; another has specialized in analyzing of the philosophy and aesthetics of Oscar Wilde. Nadezhda Vasilievna GOLIK, running the division with an experienced hand, spares no effort to preserve the principles of high academic rigor that always marked the style of the University. A chair in the office holds an improvised memorial display devoted to the widely respected philosopher and culturologist Moisey Kagan. Before a large photograph with a mourning ribbon lies a single rose. Several years have passed, but here the loss seems fresh. M.S. Kagan’s works fill an entire display case at the department library: from sweeping studies of human psychology through the prism of art, to monographs investigating the theme of eternal Petersburg and its history.

And in the outer gallery of the building housing the departments of history and philosophy, workers furiously sand the stone vaulting of the arches. Heavy white dust hangs in the air, prompting breaths of material being of the eternal city.


“A solitary drake at the granite bridge paddles.”

The material of the eternal, encountering a specific historical moment, forms its image, symbol, face. Hard to avoid returning to the past in a place with so rich a past, especially when that past arrives in familiar faces. Naturally, some Blues meetings transpire accompanied by the invisible presence of Mike Naumenko. Fellow musicians speak of him. Members of a film crew share memories of working on a documentary film and on television features about him. His name surfaces among those who knew him well and those with less direct ties. The artist Igor “Isha” PETROVSKY muses, “Sometimes, in the dark season here, you get a strong sense of this being a city built on a swamp and bones. I miss Mike not because he became famous, but because he was my best friend. I often wonder what Mike might say if he saw how things are now, what it’s all become…”


Mike asserts himself, too, in a meeting with the film director Aleksei PRAZDNIKOV, who talks of creative plans, maintaining, “If I decided to make a movie about a rock-hero of that time, I would choose either Zhora Ordanovsky or Mike Naumenko.” The director hesitates to pursue such an idea, however, troubled by “how things actually happen” in film production. In the making of a feature film about Viktor Tsoi, for instance, the script went through a host of changes, having little to do with the real person and his biography. “Who needs a lot of Mike in a movie about Tsoi! Everyone wants to see a lone hero. But it’s common knowledge what a key part Mike played for Tsoi.”

It must be said, though, that Aleksei Prazdnikov has no shortage of candidates for film subjects among the heroes and topics close to his heart. One of these is the composer Boris Arapov (1905-1992). In his most recent film about Arapov and his music, A. Prazdnikov had to confront concrete difficulties that also demanded well-honed musical qualifications: “silent” footage, capturing an expressive performance of Arapov’s “Revelations of John the Evangelist” by Mikhail Gantvarg’s chamber orchestra, required integration with a separate audio recording. The result in the film is enough to see such alchemy as rendering the document still more powerful.


In the city’s concert halls, the alchemy of miracles is a daily business. The GREAT HALL OF THE PHILHARMONIC retains its right to despotism and tyrannical power over hearts. Beneath the passionate, unerring bow of Liana Isakadze, the city’s spirit, its piston, surges with living flame. Once upon this stage, too, stood the author of today’s program, Peter Ilych Tchaikovsky, and although the place at the conductor’s pulpit now is commanded with commonplace assuredness by the orchestra’s permanent director, Alexander Dmitriev, the great composer’s presence is palpable in the lofty commonplace of the musical act, in the faces of the musicians, set apart from the world in their concentration, in the reverent hush of the audience. The soloist, who carelessly asserted before the concert that after ovations in New York, Tokyo, Rome and Paris, local applause means nothing to her, nonetheless is moved by the enthusiastic welcome she receives, leaving the stage with an armload of bouquets. Dmitriev, despite the persistent calls for an encore from the hall, relentlessly leads the orchestra away after taking a third bow.

A good backdrop for conversations with musicians: customary, organic, disposing to straightforward speaking. But the conversation that took place in the intermission reached an uncustomary degree of straightforward seriousness. Of course! Without seriousness there would be no serious music — including BLUES!


“My hand will eternally shelter your heart even if you are heartless to me.”

Who and why needs BLUES music, what it means and for whom, was discussed at a meeting with the magazine’s authors — authors of yesterday, today, tomorrow. The publication is unique in that it not only gives a flat cut of an already defined space of thought and culture or introduces experiments, but, crystallizing unmanifested trends, creates a prism that allows one to capture the nature of the future and its landmarks in its focus. Thus, the future participates in “blues” work and is formed by it, casting its reflection on today’s thinking, introducing into reality the real specificity of future points of interest. Any of the materials of each issue, taken in the combination proposed by the journal, invites the reader to take a step forward, beyond an established circle of reactions. This is a new kind of relationship with intellectual, creative substance.

Many are interested in the non-magazine forms of Apraksin Blues which have formed during its existence in America. Fresh guesses, ideas, suggestions arose. Nikolai SEROV, who has worked with BLUES since the first issues, expressed general feelings: “We all work in our niches, but we are lonely, on our own. We need an organizer! Thank you!” For all those present, the meeting was a stimulating event, a harbinger of a new wave of initiatives and discoveries.

There is a subtext in that the discussion of views on the future, preparation for it, took place in a cozy room belonging to a school with the poetic name “STERKH” — a white crane, a sacred bird, a harbinger of the future and a symbol of eternity in the symbolism of the East.


From the windows of the conference hall of the MAYAKOVSKY LIBRARY, the Fontanka is visible in both directions. “When will the Pacific Ocean flow into the FONTANKA!!” asked one of the letters from a Petersburger to AB’s California address. Today we can assume that this has already happened, and in a completely civilized form. The fact is formalized at the final PRESS CONFERENCE, in a luxurious baroque hall with stucco molding and three windows that open onto a full panorama of the Fontanka embankments, loaded with evening traffic. The darkening water reflects the illumination of white columns, arches and curbs of buildings, a curved line of lights. So they met, formed their circuit: water with water, stone with stone, the western coast of the country with the western edge of the map of the world. They met — in human understanding, reflection, intersection. They met in human hopes, enriched and burdened by the experience of years. The eternal, in passing through time, becomes still more eternal.

The meeting with the authors of Apraksin Blues and the press conference dedicated to the upcoming 15th anniversary of the publication were realized thanks to the timely organizational activities of Natalia GLADUSH as a co-coordinator of these initiatives. Through her efforts for many years, the magazine has continued to maintain contact with the inhabitants of St. Petersburg, whom N. Gladush offers an opportunity to communicate and exchange information in the form of the Apraksin Blues Club she founded.

In his article following up on the press conference, Pyotr Tarasov wrote: “The fact of such a long existence of the magazine, which has no applicational significance, is comforting — as is the dedication to creativity, ideas, meaning. That means this side of human activity has not been lost. That means development and movement forward is possible. ”

Indeed, when there is dedication, there is no doubt about the opportunities for development.

* T. Apraksina, “Petersburg Walls” (1999). ** T. Apraksina, “Faces of Shostakovich,” oil on canvas, 1986.

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