Underground...what is it? What makes an artist become an underground artist? What is avant garde and what is the connection between underground and avant garde? As long as “culture” has existed, there has been an underground culture. There have always been those who were different, those who refused to accept a “given norm” of their culture, refused to follow the only right way. Those who refused to adopt what was suppose to be “the truth” instead of what they believed it was. It is also a rather special way of perceiving reality, a special way of seeing - a tunnel vision of sorts which is putting an author in an underground position. So, underground needs a certain context, points of reference, and a certain concrete culture within which it develops and functions. Goya, Blake, Dostoyevsky, Poe, and Shostakovich could all represent an underground tradition, an underground personality...
Avant garde, on the other hand, is less concerned with concrete existing culture and more with developments of new languages, new aesthetics, new means of expressions, and ultimately, new reality all together. Avant garde is more universal and cosmopolitan in its nature, and underground is always connected to a certain culture within which it exists. Debussy and Stravinsky, Kandinsky, Prokofiev, Joyce and Pound could represent avant garde artists. Both of them - underground and avant garde are the most potent forces which are constantly moving culture “forward”. The relationship between “official” commonly accepted cultural norm, avant garde, and underground are complex and intricate. It is a kind of triangular dance in which partners, the different sides of a triangle, are constantly moving and changing their respective positions. Underground becomes officially accepted, avant garde becomes a new norm, a new standard, and creates its own establishment and official culture- a previous norm becomes outdated and obsolete...Until the next round, until the next dance.
The beginning of the 20th century had witnessed a cultural revolution in a very real sense of the world. New movements, new artistic philosophies and styles had been formed which defined and shaped the developments of the 20th century culture. In Russia, the cultural explosion of that time is truly staggering and unprecedented. Kandinsky, Malevitch, Schagal, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Mayakovski, Mandelstam, Pasternak - to name just a few, had lived and created in Russia in that time. Diaghilev’s “Ballet Russe” has been at the very top of avant garde theater- setting up new standards, new criterias, and a new art form. It was an incredible, liberating time for Russian culture, for the world culture. From the beginning of the 20th century, underground was taking a back seat and avant garde came into play in full force and colors. During the 19th century, the situation was quite different. Historically, Russian culture, namely literature, has been concerned and occupied sometimes rather obsessively with moral and ethical issues. Russian artists of the 19th century were “critics of reality,” and the dominating artistic ideology of most of the 19th century is “critical realism”.
A work of art was obliged to carry a certain socially and morally meaningful message. The formal perfection, the craft itself, was less important than the message. Russian artists, as the whole of the culture, carried a collective and personal responsibility for solving such questions as how to live a good and moral life, how to reconcile a reality of Russian life with Christian values, and most of all, the responsibility for the destiny of Russia. The role and status of the artist in Russia went far above and beyond just being an artist. It was responsibility, a duty of the artist to defend the innocent, to expose injustice, to show the way, to tell the truth. The influence that such writers as Pushkin, Gogol, and Dostoyevsky have had on their countrymen and contemporaries was profound and extensive. The moral stature of Lev Tolstoy in his late years was unmatched in Russia and beyond. Certainly, any truly great artist always transcends any ideology and manifesto by sheer magnitude of their personalities, gifts, and universalities of their thoughts. The existential experiments and psychological intensity of Dostoyevsky, creative imagination and wit of Gogol, supreme equilibrium and clarity of Pushkin, ontological insights of Tolstoy, and emotional impact of Tchaikovsky’s music are as universal in nature as the works of Shakespeare, Goethe, and Beethoven.
The 19th century witnessed the beginning of Russian culture in exile. This “trend” will continue until the very recent past. The matter of control and censorship has always been a serious issue in Russia. Both Imperial Russia, and afterwards Bolsheviks Russia, tried to control and manipulate the public opinion, and used “creative intelligentsia” to direct them in the right, needed direction. Obedience and cooperation were rewarded, disobedience and stubbornness were punished. The mechanism of “carrots and whips” remained largely the same in Imperial and Soviet Russia. Only the “whip” part (punishment) had became not a matter of risking your social status, not a matter of being exiled and going through hard times, but a matter of life and death.
History of the 20th century is dramatic and bloody. Even on that background, the history of Russia is shocking with the magnitude and scope of its ruthlessness, barbarism, and tragedies which were inflicted on millions of people and which have affected the whole of Russian culture, and the collective consciousness of Russia. After the revolution of 1917 (which was more of a coup d’etat), there were relative freedoms of expression for some time. Bolsheviks had more important and urgent matters at hand to worry about. But as soon as the system and infrastructure of power were put in place and firmly established, authorities started to "take care" of culture. It became abundantly clear that culture and its creators would have to follow a strict party line - to glorify and glamorize the reality of the first "just and perfect" society in the history of the world. Previous freedoms had been destroyed and ruthless totalitarian mechanisms of terror and intimidation were established. Stalinist systems of terror were universal in nature. Nobody was safe; no one was exempt from the "grinder". The terror was total and affected all and every level of Soviet society. All of these facts are well known and well documented by now.
When Soviet authorities were introducing their new ideology to their subjects, they actually were not inventing anything new. Ideas of patriotism and loyalty to the Motherland had always been very appealing and worked very well in Russia. Certainly, Soviet methods have been more blatant and extreme, but the process of appealing to the patriotic feelings, the obligation to defend and protect their first socialist state against all enemies from within and outside and to preserve the purity of Russian culture, had found a desirable response from the majority of people. One must say that Soviets have been skilful manipulators and were successful in selling their ideology, not only to their own people, but to the outside world also. Ideology has one very special feature - the more primitive, more primal, and explicit it is, the better it works.
After the death of Stalin in 1953 (Prokofiev and Stalin died on the same day), the situation started to change. In the early 60’s, a brief period of Khrushev’s "Thaw" had opened some previously tightly closed doors. Literally magazines started to publish "unimaginable" earlier works, exhibitions were showing unimaginable earlier art, and composers were composing music never heard before. The "Thaw" did not last for long, but it created a new fresh atmosphere, and it gave a faint taste of freedom. It created some cracks in the monolith of politically correct Soviet culture which, as it turned out to be, was impossible to close. The genii of freedom was out. Certainly an official cultural establishment was not going to give up its positions of privilege and power easily. Those who were in charge, those who were setting up cultural policies, did all they could to prevent a new generation of creative artists from being known, recognized, published, and performed. During Brezhnev’s time, an era of stagnation, the mechanism of carrots and whips was still very much in place. "Good guys" were rewarded with free apartments and country homes (dachas), good cars, titles, and medals and... special foods. It is rather difficult for a westerner to imagine that getting good quality food without standing in lines could be a compelling incentive. But it was just that. In spite of the resistance of the Soviet system, the new generation of authors were steadily gaining ground. After decades of being fed ideologically pure products of "social realism," the appetite for new nonconformist art was quite voracious. Theatrical premieres were becoming cultural happenings- most notably in the theater on Taganka. New publications of such previously forbidden writers as Bulgakov, Platonov, Pilnyak or poetry of Pasternak, Tsvetava, Akhmatova, Mandelshtam, as well as new works of such young poets as Yevtushenko, Voznesensky, and Akhmadulina, were instantly sold out. Musical premieres of such composers as Schnittke, Denisov, Gubaidulina, and Paart where eagerly anticipated. The fact that all of these were happening in spite of the efforts of Soviet authorities was very telling. Soviet ideology, the whole of the Soviet system was rotting at its roots. The Soviet empire was on the way to self destruction. New non-conformist art and its creators had become known and recognized in the West. Exhibitions of new art had taken place in the West as well as performances of new Russian music. Actually, during the 70’s and 80’s, Russian new music had been more often performed outside Russia than inside. For example, the first symphony of Alfred Schnittke had to wait for nearly 20 years before it was performed in Moscow. The fact that many non-conformist artists had difficult times with authorities and had been accused of formalism, modernism, cosmopolitism, and other "mortal sins," was very helpful for the development of their reputations and careers in the west. Let's not forget - it was a Cold War.
"The masterpieces of Russian underground" project puts together some of the most significant composers who lived and worked in Russia in the second half of the 20th century. Unavoidably, the format of this project, 3 concerts, has put limitations on a number of composers it could represent. However, it gives an overall view, a panorama of sorts which is as representative and diverse as it could be. Fourteen composers, starting with Shostakovich, are different in their philosophies, techniques, and artistic styles. Shostakovich had enormous influence in Russian music. After the death of Prokofiev in 1953, he became a leading figure in Russian music and a symbol of sorts. Russian composers of the next generations went their own ways, but most of them had been influenced in some degree by Shostakovich’s music.
Since its very beginning in the early 60’s, the second wave of Russian musical avant garde effectively coincided with the underground. In other words, avant garde was underground and underground became avant garde. Most of these composers went through the dodecaphonic techniques stage and through a period of experiments with different cutting- edge techniques and styles before the 70’s during which they found there own voices, their own universes. Valentine Silvestrov remembers these times-"from very beginning Alfred (Schnittke) and I used to show each other what we have written. It was impossible to play it, so we just looked at the scores. Then, some times later we could actually play what was written and even later still we could simply sing what was written". So, it moved from complexity to simplicity, from being rebels to being just composers, from avant garde ideology to an open all inclusive space of sound. One could look at the history of Russian avant garde-underground as an experiment, as an attempt to find the roads less travelled, a search for new meanings -a search for Freedom.
Russian artists and those who lived and worked in the former Soviet Union have produced incredible art. This art has been created in spite of all political and ideological dogmas, all limitations and difficulties, in spite of almost everything simply because, as Schnittke once said, “I write the music which has to be written.” The Russian underground project is a testimony to the creative human spirit, to inborn dignity of any true artist which is emerging ever victorious over all ideologies, all lies...
There is a new era in Russian history. It seems for the time being, that there is an atmosphere of creative freedom; it seems that there is an opportunity to create and produce whatever the artist desires. It might turn out to be the hardest test of them all - the test of freedom. Let us wish to a new generation of artists to live up to their heritage, to carry on, to be true to themselves. Let's wish them well.