They didn’t know what to call jazz when they brought it to Russia. Parnakh came back from Paris in 1922 with the instruments and some scores in his luggage and the memory of the feel of the music in his head; he introduced it to St. Petersburg as the Russian neologism “orchestra-rumpus.” His circle of avant-garde friends and enemies fell hard for it, as they did for Dada, aviation, sheets of pure color, the tango, helices and stupas, and abstract pictures of satellites hung in the corners of rooms like the ikons of saints. They knew that the only way to be truly modern was to be ancient at the same time, to go back to fantasies of origin so they could get a feel for living and working at the bright dawn of the noon to come. To be at the beginning of something. They lived Wittgenstein’s challenge: “You must say the new and yet, as clearly, the old” – both at once. And they were not alone – as H.D. saw through Sappho’s eyes and wrote as if creating her own fragmentary manuscripts to be recovered centuries hence.
(“You cannot learn Greek only with a dictionary,” H.D. warned – you also learn it through “your hands and your feet and especially your lungs,” she said: “Taste snow in the air, and distinguish the different qualities and intensities of the wind as it rises from the deep gorge before this temple.” You know it through rain on granite and marble, and sea foam blown up into fir trees – and yet she was ecstatically and severely modern, then and now, seeking in rocks and Greek translation paths out of “the dead world” into which she had been born.)
The Russian contingent were into Dionysian antiquity and ferro-concrete. Before they called themselves “cubo-futurists” they called themselves Hylaeia, after the ancient Greek name of the Kherson province where Burliuk went on vacation. (David Burliuk: a “wonderful wild steppe horse” in human form, poet and painter and co-author of the Russian Futurist manifesto A Slap in the Face of Public Taste.) Their rivals called them “barefoot,” a slam: that they weren’t refined metropolitans but rural rubes. But they were often barefoot – followers of Isadora Duncan, self-declared modern primitives, taking off the toe shoes to dance on thawed ground and floorboards the spirit of a ballbearing factory or a lightbulb. Khlebnikov’s name for this group was the budetliane, most accurately translated as the will-be-ists.
Khlebnikov grew up around Kalmyk Buddhist astrologers. He believed life was the the unfolding of repeated cycles and rhythms (births and deaths, stellar orbits, historical events, radioactive half-lives) calculable in numerical patterns – and that insight into these patterns would enable him to perturb current events and thereby prevent future wars. Here’s a formula for determining the cycles of love in a single human life from birth to death:
X = K + (2^13 + 13^2) + (1053 + 48 + 365)(n - 1)
– a private, retooled Kalachakra theology, nested and meshing cyclical destinies. He could be one of the budetliane by going to the start of the cycle, where it would one day return, seeking primeval, pre-human, pre-language orders and patterns. (In 1904 he requested: “Let them read on my gravestone: He wrestled with the notion of species and freed himself of its hold. He saw no distinction between human and animal species.” This while proposing mobile cities of glass shipping containers hung on vast steel frameworks.)
His friend Mayakovsky (previously), pacing the streets with metal taps in the soles of his shoes to keep time as he muttered through lines of verse, looked for what he called “the hum.” The hum was where the “rhythmical outline of the world of the factories and machines” met the rumble of the sea, someone slamming the door at the same time every morning, and the rotation of the earth. (Mayakovsky would bang a drum every time a Futurist came in to the Society for Intimate Theater, into their wine cellar with a piano and stage. Futurism was a room with blank walls, textiles from Mexico, gleaming cutlery, and thin paper for printing magazines.) As he paced the streets he wore a distinctive yellow-orange blouse – the color of the Russian tango.
The budetliane loved the tango, and made it a dance about a life broken and sharp, a place where the new biomechanical body met melancholy, memory and obsessive love, with elegance and coarseness together – playing out in an open landscape, the dream of the Argentine pampa and the Russian steppe. A way of feeling and living that was old as tragedy and new as the morning paper. (Mina Loy: “My love is eternal and my train leaves in fifteen minutes.”) Malevich, painter of satellites, dreamer of life in space, said that artists had to stop making figurative paintings of nature and turn to abstraction so that one day they could paint nature again. We could start over, he promised. “I have released all the birds from the eternal cage and flung open the gates to the animals in the zoological garden,” he wrote in 1916. “Hurry! For tomorrow you will not recognize us.”
As is annual tradition, I’ve collected all my favorite new-to-me music from the previous year, one track per artist, to share with you. You can find it here. Enjoy!
“bleak tape loops sampled from horrifying black friday youtube videos”
“Members of the Society affix buckets to their vehicles’ roofs during automotive flashmobs”
(Thanks for reading, as ever.)
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