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Tatartronic! - click opera — LiveJournal
February 2010
Thu, Mar. 25th, 2004 12:20 pm

Somewhere in his diaries Kafka describes waking up from a nap -- the kind of oblivion he would fall into after a night of insomnia and writing -- and overhearing two ladies calling to each other outside. 'What are you doing?' asked one. 'I'm revelling in the grass,' the other replied. To Kafka it was a glimpse of something he wasn't supposed to see: a simple pleasure barred to him, an enviable, unattainable, almost unimagineable ease and harmony and lightness. I felt something similar in Udmurtia on Sunday when, photographing wooden houses surrounded by deep snowdrifts, I heard a Tatar pop song -- jaunty yet fiercely odd -- wafting from a back yard. I wasn't supposed to be here, at the border of Tatarstan, out near the Ural mountains that divide Russia from Siberia. I felt like I'd been set down randomly somewhere on the face of the earth only to hear in a piece of music the old familiar strangeness, its own negotiation of the balance between the particular and the universal. For although there were specifics of race and history and place in this music which excluded me (and I wanted to feel excluded, to feel all the joy of a spy or someone who's just woken from a nap), there were also universals which welcomed me: the inherent pleasure and optimism of the rhythms and shapes of the music, the dialoguing voices and their controlled, yelping joy.

Walking on Kastanienallee yesterday I stopped to write down a title idea for my next album. Songs from Imaginary Central Asian Republics. Why not make an album that does for the folk traditions of the ex-Soviet semi-autonomous Asian Republics what Folktronic did for Appalachia and Oskar Tennis Champion for kabuki and Cantonese opera? Why not assemble a bunch of samples, not just of balabans, tars, garmons and so on, but also of the little orchestra pit pop bands Weill and Eisler would engineer for Brecht plays, fusing their idea of Chinese opera with their idea of ragtime and music hall hits? Why not make story-packed songs for sort of actorish amateur voices (Lotte Lenya never could sing) and fill them with soap opera-like subjects drawn from life as it might go on in Kazakstan? Somehow mixing in cLouddead and The Books and Sachiko M too... You know, the usual stuff. Kleptomania, advancing by desire. What do I want to shoplift today? What's making me jealous? What's making me dream?

What's really making me dream is the ex-Soviet Central Asian Republics. Uzbekistan! Samarkand and Tashkent! The lands between the Black Sea and the Caspian! Border disputes with the Chinese! Those scary Chechens! (One day I'll tell you the story of my Moscow friend's Chechen car-jacking experience...) Old men drinking tea in dusty towns under snow-capped mountains! Apart from some dark days under Stalin (he drew the republics' borders in such a way as to make racial-nationalist and religious movements as difficult as possible) the Soviet Union treated these places well. Indigenous languages and customs were respected. There was a certain amount of autonomy. Generous state subsidy protected (or museumised) folk culture. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union the state ensembles and concert houses in places like Kazakstan have fallen into disrepair, and musicians, no longer waged, have had to travel about more to get paid.

But these were always nomadic people. The Tatars, who are represented in ex-Soviet states from Azerbaijan to Udmurtia, are descended from the armies of Genghis Khan. What I remember from the brilliant early 90s BBC TV series about the Mongols, Storm from the East, is how these people, a kind of Roman Empire with a bunch of tents on some high windy grassland instead of Rome, were brilliant kleptomaniacs themselves, press-ganging artisans skilled way beyond themselves into their service, sending some back to Mongolia and others forward with their armies. Instead of forcing everyone to live 'the mongol way' (there wasn't really one, except war and constant movement) they became savage curators and disseminators of other people's culture, cherry-picking skills (Glass-blowing! Silversmithery!) and injecting them along the Silk Road then up through huge swathes of Asia and into Russia on the point of a sword.

So think of my album as basically Mongol-Tatar in spirit. Think of it arriving in a whirl of beating hooves, stealing what it wants from the places it passes through, and forcing its cherry-picked riffs and tics through new territories until all the memes are spliced with something else, and form some imaginary, unimagineable new culture. Tatartronic is coming!

(Listen to some real Tatar songs here.)


Thu, Mar. 25th, 2004 04:10 am (UTC)

1/12th of the men on the planet are related to Genghis Khan.

Just spent a week hanging out in Berlin, it's lovely. Wish I was still there getting my coffee on beside the Zionskirche.

Cityish Alt-ish Fortyish
Thu, Mar. 25th, 2004 04:17 am (UTC)

Surely everyone on the planet is "related" to Genghis Khan, albeit distantly?

"Directly descended from Genghis Khan", now that's a fine assertion.

ReplyThread Parent
Thu, Mar. 25th, 2004 04:18 am (UTC)

Whoops, it was actually 1/200, directly descended. Still impressive buh.

ReplyThread Parent
Worker #3116
Thu, Mar. 25th, 2004 05:47 am (UTC)
Weill and Eisler Are Dead!

I think that your idea for your new album is very good. Just please don't cover Mac The Knife.


Thu, Mar. 25th, 2004 07:51 am (UTC)

You're like some mad, salacious, memetic-mimetic scientist. You should buy a white (non-powdered) wig and don pink and green lab coats.

As transcendent as your new concept album sounds, I was still hoping that you would assemble a band of top-notch Nashville studio musicians to rerecord Stars Forever, ala Bonnie 'Prince' Billy, simply so you could entitle the album Star Folking.

Thu, Mar. 25th, 2004 09:25 am (UTC)

wow, those tatar songs are awesome!
my favourite thing about them was the hiss, how strange, foreign and anachronistic it makes them sound.
basing your next album on this would be a wonderful and natural progression from oskar as well, both thematically and sonically.

Good bye
Thu, Mar. 25th, 2004 01:44 pm (UTC)
Tatar blood flows through my veins.

Peripherally related anecdote: when I first moved to Toronto, I had by chance one Siberian roommate named Rouslan (an economist, in fact-- can you imagine anyone with a grimmer world-view than a Siberian economist?). Now he and another roommate, a Canadian, often argued the relative merits of their respective national styles of hockey. (Both countries make claim to have invented the game). The Canadian suggested that the Russian played a swifter, more graceful style, because they were not tough enough to handle the more physical, aggressive Canadian style. Rouslan responded (in his marvelous Vizaslutz accent) "Do not fuck with me. Tatar blood flows through my veins."

debbie carlos
Fri, Mar. 26th, 2004 04:40 am (UTC)

dear momus,

would you perhaps be interested in contributing some writing to revol? we would love to have you in our next issue! i don't know your email address, otherwise i would have contacted you more privately.

miss modular
Fri, Mar. 26th, 2004 09:51 pm (UTC)

central asia is truly an untapped oasis of unqiue beauty, much of which is so unbeknown to the western world. A beautiful blend and hodgepodge of east and west.

my mum grew up listening to alot of chinese and russian folk music of the 60s. I listened to those tartar songs. Very cool. Be very interesting to see hear what you produce on this tartronic albulm.

and sheesh that uzbeks mono in that pic above is the silk road of monos.


Wed, Mar. 31st, 2004 10:41 am (UTC)
You say Tatar, I say Tartar

A passage from Bruce Chatwin y'all might enjoy:

"For the purpose of Russian history, the words Tartar and Mongol are synonymous. The Tartar horsemen who appeared on the fringe of Europe in the thirteenth century were thought to be the legions of Gog and Magog, sent by the Antichrist to announce the End of the World. A such, they generated the same kind of fear as the hydrogen bomb. Russia bore the brunt of their attack. In fact, so long as the Tartar empire survived, the Russian Grand Dukes were sub-vassals of the Great Khan in Peking--and this, together with a folk memory of whistling arrows, piles of skulls, and every kind of humiliation, may account for a certain paranoia the Russians have always shown towards the slant-eyed peoples of Inner Asia." Now, channel that spirit into music, please!

Further recommended reading: The Seven Who Fled by Frederic Prokosch, an imaginary journey set somewhere between Tannu Tuva and Kashgar. It's full of the wanderlust of the Mongols and Huns, viz.: "They were standing in the very middle of Asia. Two thousand miles to the east lay shining the city of Pekin, two thousand miles to the west rose the pebbled shores of the Caucasus. The world, the whole rest of the world, was far, far away... "

...Eisler, eh?