1. 1922: Radiophonic futures / Baku
—Velimir Khlebnikov, 1921
Radio dawned a new era of communication, and by extension, conciousness. Futurist poet, Velimir Khlebnikov, was intoxicated by the emerging technology and saw it as a means for his ideological and creative sensibilities to converge. A vehicle for the political and artistic fervour of the time, “radio [was] imagined as a medium both for the universal edification of mankind and for its musical delectation” (Jokiranta, 2016). In turn these idealistic projections would go on to alter the formation of identity within the republics and territories both during and after the collapse of communism.
Radio became an instrument of power and selfhood. Unlike Filippo Tommaso Marinetti’s earlier Manifesto of Futurism (1909), the ambitions of the Soviet Futurists were integrated into the daily lives of not only artists, but the public as well. The way people were listening and interacting with music, if even their own, was being radically changed.
3 months after Khlebnikov’s death, another avant-garde proposition and happening was brought to the people. A mass spectacle using the city of Baku itself as an orchestra, took place on November 6 1922
avvromov : Motorised guns, cannons, sirens, ships, destroyers, boats, airplanes, hydroplanes, bells, fireworks, alarm signals, artillery, red and white flags, roaring crowds thousands strong, the flaghorns of the entire Caspian floatilla, and a wind orchestra playing La Marseillaise to a choir of automobiles – all inundated the port of Azerbaijan’s capital as the cacophony of Arseny Avraamov’s Symphony of Sirens was performed. Also a creative insurrection of communications within a rapidly centralising regime, Avraamov’s grandiose experiment was pushed unto the people of Baku to actively partake, with the instructions for the composition published in multiple local newspapers the day before the performance. Such events of the early Russian avant-garde would also foreshadow a century of how Soviet peoples listened, conceived, and distributed music.
Sound became a tool to collectivise consciousness. Herein a radiophonic ontology began to appear. One that would begin to move away from western art/life delineations, and arguably stem back to traditional musics, such as that of Ashiq folk from Azerbaijan and its diasporic communities.
What parallels can we draw between these vast concepts and the music of minorities living in the former-Soviet world almost 100 years later? How does this navigate the resurgence of ‘traditional’ musics post-independence?
It is often reductive to analyse with a Soviet or post-Soviet lens, but I use it here to implore reflection on how these histories and experiments effect the social organisation of DIY music cultures in the modern-day Caucasus. With the methods of the Soviet pioneers of avant-garde sound and performance in mind, the following impressions unravel the hidden multitudes ‘national’ musics continue to encounter in their exchange and flow.
2. Marneuli, Borchali region, Georgia.
carride Borders are rigid and precarious in the former-Soviet space, especially in the Caucasus. As I sit in the 45 minute marshrutka drive from Station Square Tbilisi to Marneuli, landscapes and languages change. The Borchali region of southern Georgia is mainly comprised of a Turkic/Azerbaijani ethnic group that have lived in the area for centuries. It is disputed as to exactly how long the Turkic people of Borchali have lived here, having been invariably politicised by both Georgian and Azerbaijani historians respectively. Etymologically, the region’s name can be crudely translated to ‘wolf’s nest’ in Azerbaijani. initial walk I hop out into an overcast winter morning in Marneuli. Multiple streets lead to the main bazaar – a central nervous system for the city. Layers of kebab smoke blow through stalls selling frozen meat, poultry and fish, clothing, playing cards, electronics, pickles, car parts, pots and pans, building supplies; all beneath blue and grey sheets of tarpaulin and corrugated iron. This type of marketplace is common in much of eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and elsewhere, and they almost always have the pulse of local music blaring loudly from somewhere within the labyrinth walkmusic I wander through the market, toward the clamour of the stereo, stepping between customers and merchants in animated conversation, over thin rivulets of rainwater rushing the ground, under dried foods and carpets dangling from the roof. The sound builds in volume as I press on. Positioned out front of a butcher with half a sheep carcass hanging in the display window, I come to a stall of colourful CDRs sitting by a PC on a steel table. Large speakers boom beneath the discs – this is the radio of the bazaar.
Next to Hollywood DVDs, compilations of pop and the lauded Azerbaijani guitarist
remish Rəmiş, sit large stacks of various albums and mixes of Ashiq music from the Borchali region.
Usually accompanied with a saz, the Ashiq is a long tradition of minstrel bard-poets. Playing weddings, village gatherings, in fields or in people’s homes, the Ashiq is a roaming repertoire of folk songs and poems, with unceasing performances (rarely, though potentially) lasting for several hours at a time.
dilq There is a multidimensional aspect to the Ashiq, where the line between distributor, musician, archivist, poet, and vagabond assimilates into one. I use the word author here to express the performative literary lore the Ashiq embodies.
The merchant tells me how most of the recordings are made in Baku, which are brought to him either in person or sent online. He makes regular trips to Lilo market in Tbilisi for new spindles of CDRs. Akin to the music on the discs, there is also a roving dimension to the CDRs themselves – most of the Ashiqs on the CDRs here include their personal phone number on the front or back cover. There is an aesthetic roundness with the music and the artwork. Faded and Xeroxed, presumably from a copier somewhere else in the bazaar, the covers are distinctly handmade, with nearly of all the CDRs inside having no titles or artist names written on them. The presence of these CDRs in this bustling marketplace of mostly domestic goods and produce, recalls the Futurist movement’s desire for art to be indissociable from daily life. The flow of this exchange also echoes underground movements in western countries abroad - (see: David Novak’s The Sublime Frequencies of New Old Media). Considering this current distribution of the Ashiq and her/his music, I ponder how the tradition may be, albeit in a different way, an extension of (or a main influence on) the ideals these Futurists were proposing with radio.
daglara I buy handfuls of CDRs and slowly make my way back to the bus stop. A lowered car with small boxing gloves dangling from the rearview mirror speeds by with a compliation CD blaring from the inner stereo. The man in the passenger seat flicks through a CD wallet of nameless discs. The car passes a large renovated tea house with the blue, red and green fesses of the Azerbaijani flag shining from plasma screens in the windows. I look in the other direction to see it offset by at least 10 Georgian flags erected in the central roundabout fountain of Marneuli.
3. Transmissions of alterity
Thinking of this music through the lens of Futurist agitation is superfluous to an extent, however, it also offers a alternative perspective to connoting ‘traditional’ music with paradigms of nationalist identity. Given the antiquity and nomadism of their music, the Ashiq moves passed such worn-out binaries and gesticulations. Is the Ashiq not a radio of their own, for their community, and beyond? One that predates Futurism, technology and nationalism; a handful of significant factors the music has faced in the past century.
The frequencies and journeys of the Ashiqs, along with their CDRs – entangled with the linguistic and radiophonic experiments of the early USSR – elude that the music and the people it touches exist across vast geopolitical machinations that often become illusory. Radio is a site where these themes converge: whether it be a manifesto, a symphony of sirens in Baku, the soundtrack of a marketplace, or the repertoire, fingers and lungs of an Ashiq on a burnt CD. These interrelated threads give insight into the multitude that thrives within the musical lives of the Borchali region, and how they continue to expand.
The collision of performative and literary traditions in Ashiq folklore, and how they are integrated into daily life, is a form of transmission that the Futurists were, without the side-effects of nationalism, likely dreaming of. Wedding these two periods and innovations – Futurist sound art and Ashiq folk music – sheds light on where this cultivation of DIY music burning and sharing comes from, and where it finds itself now. In other words, the distribution of Ashiq music reflects the nature of the Ashiq, as well as the myriad circumstances and changes their music has faced over time. Passing the music around in the Marneuli bazaar or Borchali region or elsewhere, is as much a case of an imagined unity, if not more than one of ethnicity or taste in music. Perhaps in some essentialist, romantic way, the Futurists and the Ashiqs, gesture toward a place “somewhere beyond all dimensions/ [where] the face has a life of its own” (Khlebnikov).
shahbaz A nomadic transmission, the Ashiq continues on, a living and breathing radio. Where will the music go next?
Scott McCulloch writes prose and essay and makes music. He currently lives between Ukraine and the Caucasus
Jokiranta, M 2016, 'Khlebnikov's Radio of the Future', Radio National ABC, Australia http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/archived/soundproof/features/museum-of-imaginary-musical-instruments/radio-of-the-future/8103630
Khlebnikov, V 1921, 'The Radio of the Future' in The King of Time: Selected Writings of the Russian Futurian, translated by Schmidt, P 1985, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, p.155.