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Sergey Kuryokhin – Interviews
Sergey Kuryokhin Interview
Taken by Alexander Kahn [Kan], December 1981: Leningrad, Russia
Translated from Russian by Felicity Cave
Typescript from the publication in Cadence. The American Review of Jazz & Blues, Vol.9 No.2, February 1983, pp. 10-14, 24.
CADENCE: Recently your name has started appearing more and more frequently in both Soviet and foreign Jazz journals. However, in spite of this, your work is practically unknown to the Jazz public at large.
Could you tell us how you came to Jazz?
SERGEY KURYOKHIN: I began to play music when I was 4, at home. We were living in Moscow at that time. Then I went to a special music school and studied the piano. Later I studied choral conducting in a music college and then went to the Institute of Culture where I had two special subjects: piano and conducting (orchestral). I didn 't finish my studies, but that is unimportant for me as I can't stand the academic side of things. I simply didn't have the patience to study things I wasn't interested in.
CAD: When did you really start playing, and what?
S.K.: My development has been fairly typical of my generation: we were all playing rock at that time - I played rock in groups at school. At the same time I started listening to Jazz. I didn’t really like it at first, I listened to it out of curiosity. The Voice of America programmes of the time were so scheduled that the Jazz programme came first before the rock programme. Gradually I got used to it. The only thing that caught my attention at the time was John Coltrane & his Quartet, or rather not so much Coltrane himself as McCoy Tyner.
I didn't like Coltrane much then, but I was absolutely stunned by Tyner. I never thought the piano could be played like ·that, Rock pianists at that time played with really only two fingers and Tyner's effect was entirely due to his mastery of the keyboard, which seemed to be unattainable - so I began to be interested in Jazz. I began to play consciously some time after I left school, at about 17 or 18.
CAD: You play new Jazz, avant-garde. Jazz pianists always maintained - and there are those will still do so - that in order to play avant-garde, the higher mathematics of Jazz, one had to have worked through the arithmetics of traditional Jazz. What do you think about this?
S.K.: In the first place I don't agree with the statement itself. I don't regard avant-garde as “higher mathematics,” or the earlier stages of Jazz as arithmetics. The mathematical approach to art seems to me to be incorrect, even ridiculous. Music of any kind takes many forms. In the case of Jazz there is bop, Dixieland, Jazz-rock, avant-garde, etc. When it reaches a certain level, say genius level, then these forms merge. In every kind of music it is possible to achieve the highest level of spirituality which transcends the framework of this level. Every music has its peaks and heights and I don't understand why one should play only rock, avant-garde or whatever.
CAD: So you would say that there are no aesthetic gradations of style?
S. K.: Yes, I think I should. But again only at a certain level. When dealing with genius. It's much more interesting to listen to good bop, say Max Roach or George Adams, than uninteresting avant-garde.
CAD: So we are really talking about musicianship?
S.K.: No, not at all. It’s not musicianship. There has to be a sense of spirituality. Without it the musicianship has no meaning at all, it’s quite naked. And there is another thing… I regard it as… degradation. There is an enormous number of record labels documenting practically every performance by well-known musicians. Any musician who plays constantly, gives ordinary, even downright unsuccessful concerts, as well as outstanding ones. But when Braxton or Taylor cmes to Europe every concert is recorded, all the records are released and you have five records which are rubbish, while every sixth is brilliant. One has to extract some kind of music from this flood of information. At the moment everyone is pushing the same thing – avant-garde and more avant-garde, which can only be bad. Take someone who has never heard avant-garde – he listens to one of these records and, naturally, doesn’t like it, it repels him. So avant-garde music, like any other, has its few masterpieces which are the heights, and the rest is mediocre. Real music, real creativity only starts above this level, and then the styles merge.
CAD: I didn’t quite mean that; what I meant was: is the traditional Jazz school absolutely essential for an avant-garde musician?
S.K.: It’s difficult to say. The question is complicated by the fact that it is now rather difficult to define the aesthetic boundaries on avant-garde. The European influence in avant-garde can be much stronger than any other. A pianist, for example – I quote pianists as I know more about them – who has never played Jazz but has had musical training can start playing avant-garde automatically, without any knowledge of the traditional Jazz school.
CAD: And you think this could be good avant-garde?
S.K.: It’s difficult to say…
CAD: Does it depend on personality?
S.K.: Yes, it is mainly dependent on personality. And yet: a pianist who has studied the whole arithmetic of Jazz knows all the Jazz “skills” and has come to avant-garde music because of a spiritual need, could actually not pull it off – I mean he could play it entirely mechanically: he could destroy the structure and create some kind of open form, but this would not be in any way interesting. Nowadays we are dealing with a new perception of music and there are as many imitators of Cecil Taylor as there are of, say Oscar Peterson. Even ten years ago it would have been unthinkable that Taylor should have imitators – it simply wouldn’t have entered anyone’s head.
CAD: You mean there is now a new cliché?
S.K.: Yes, certainly. Rock is, after all, a product of European culture, it has developed within the framework of European tradition, although there is a large element of rhythm and blues in it, and it is much closer to the White European than what Black musicians like, say, Leo Smith and his friends from Art Ensemble of Chicago call “creative music.” Therefore, why not play rock: if it has made some new discoveries, then why not make use of them?
CAD: So do you do this?
S.K.: Yes. I use some of the rhythmic structures, some of their obvious structural discoveries. One should make use of everything one can, the main thing is that it should form an organic whole. I now want to make use of the whole arsenal of European culture (laughs); I want to play sarabandes, allemandes, waltzes, gigues, mazurkas and polonaises
CAD: And what are your feelings about Jazz-rock?
S.K.: Jazz-rock? If I were to speak dogmatically, then every hybrid is short-lived, and Jazz-rock is a hybrid. When it first appeared it was very significant I mean the first Mahavishnu Orchestra records and Chick Corea’s – they were very alive and spontaneous – the rest of Jazz-rock today is complete rubbish, empty nothingness.
CAD: You say that hybrids are short-lived, but isn’t avant-garde just as much of a hybrid?
S.K.: No, no. Avant-garde is certainly not a hybrid.
CAD: Why not?
S.K.: Well, for one thing, avant-garde is a new idea, and a hybrid is not an idea but two ideas mechanically fused. Avant-garde was the birth of a new musical idea. The approach to structure and timbre were new.
CAD: Have you ever felt like playing contemporary composers’ notated music?
S.K.: Yes, I have always. If the music is good enough, if I like it, why shouldn’t I play it? I would do so with great pleasure. But the thing is that recently I haven’t heard anything really interesting in the field of classical piano music. Everything seemed rather shallow to me and I felt that any pianist that plays new music could sit down at the piano and play the same thin spontaneously. Although I must say that I often play Rachmaninov when I am at home, and with great pleasure.
CAD: Theatre is becoming more apparent al the time in your programmes and Chekasin’s during the last two years. The grotesque visual elements of the theatre, happenings and clowning are becoming important. What I want to ask you is: is this a desire to give society’s taste a slap in the face, or second possibility – to avoid the deadening academic effect of “serious” art which has crept even into avant-garde, or – third possibility – does it all have some deeper, more substantive meaning for you?
S.K.: The first possibility can be discounted immediately. There is no slap in the face, no protest at all. The eccentricity of our behaviour on the stage is very easy to explain – Chekasin and I have often discussed this question and always come to the same conclusions – that for us the behaviour is always the continuation of a musical idea, including everything: jumping about, hitting plates and stamping our feet. For me a word can grow into a musical phrase, and a musical phrase into a gesture, although some of it has, of course, been thought through in advance. I feel – I don’t know whether this is right or not, some people may like it, others may not – I fell like having fun.
And I want the audience to have fun as well – if they want to. Most people for some reason or other don’t, they take everything absolutely straight. A. Vapirov, for example, simply does not accept eccentricity on the stage – he regards his music as serious, academic – that’s probably how it should be – he has his own opinions on the matter – I should like to put on a funny nose during one of his serious compositions, and all the seriousness would be dispersed. Why shouldn’t one play with a funny nose on? The whole audience would react in a different way, normally. Contact would be established instantaneously. I love the theatre, I have worked a lot in it – I was the musical director of the University Theatre and wrote the music for many of the shows – I have always loved the theatre. I want my performances be worth looking at. Our musical reality is so cut off from contemporary avant-garde Jazz in the Weset that we only hald [sic], from Carla Bley’s concerts or the Globe Unity Orchestra at the local Fair (Mar. ’80, p.31). It gave me great pleasure: a brass band, a band of accordionists and the whole Globe Unity Orchestra – it was really great.
Ordinary human music, with the noises of the Fair, the soloists reacted in a very lively way to every sound and played up to them.
CAD: you have become recognized as a pianist, but recently you have been playing the piano less and less in your programmes. Why is this? Have you had enough of it, or have you simply started thinking more orchestrally, as it were?
S.K. I have several answers to that question. In the first place I am not tired of the piano, it’s a marvellous instrument, although I do think it’s a dying one. I think it’s dying out. I can’t say more than that yet. So I have not found anything new for myself in “piano thought” in the last few years. I don’t think this is snobbism – I hope I shall be understood correctly, but over the last few years I haven’t heard a pianist whose playing I have liked, or even been impressed [by]. The only piano playing that creates any […] is in the context of the play, if it is an integral part of the play’s structure. I want to give variety to my programs, each program should be different from the one before. Today, for example, I may be organising a big band to play spontaneous improvisations, next time a big band with semi-traditional arrangements, then I play solo, then a duo with a saxophonist, a bassoonist, or a singer. I can make music which will not be Jazz either in sound or phrasing. I want to exploit the whole arsenal of musical means that is available to me. And now I feel more like composing. I feel much more attracted to composing than performing. And then… very recently I suddenly realized that all my life I have longed to play the saxophone. 60% of the music I listen to at home is saxophone. Whenever I write music, or just compose in my head, I always give the leading part to the saxophones. This is also why I work only with saxophonists – A. Vapirov, V. Chekasin, and with two others, younger, but marvellous musicians – Igor Butman and Pyatras Vishnyauskas.  I base everything on the saxophone as the main instrument – I mean I think in a linear way, not harmonically but melodically. Even when I am playing the piano now I play as though I am playing one voice only, as though I am singing a song. I can play complex chords, complex harmonic structures, but I think in one voice.
CAD: You say you have recently been more drawn to composing. How do you set about this? Do you write it down in traditional notation or in some other way? Tell us about it in detail, of you can.
S.K.: Why not? Perhaps not at all the details, but the general principles. If it has to be written down in notation, the why not? If in the music that I am writing a moment of traditionally notated music arises among the spontaneous improvisation then I naturally write it down. If I am writing a spontaneous composition which will turn into some kind of dance at the end, then I write down the tune of the dance and […] the musicians simply learn it form the [notes]. I use both contemporary and traditional notation systems, depending what sort of music I am writing.
CAD: So for you there is no dogma: playing only spontaneous music or notated music.
S.K.: No, no, although I am a great devotee of spontaneous improvisation, which is for me the dominant form. My works have a very formal structure, then I invite those musicians whose work I know, like Derek Bailey does, but he has no structure, his is all spontaneous improvisation, whereas I construct a very exact composition with individual musicians in mind, and in my mind I fill our the skeleton, the construction, with improvisations which are characteristic of those musicians. And they improvise with in the bones of this skeleton. In this way while I am constructing the composition I can already, as it were, here it being played by the musicians I have I mind.
CAD: This kind of approach makes it difficult to imagine that you could work for an extended period of time with a permanent group.
S.K.: Oh no! This is the main thing for me at the moment. I think about it a great deal. A permanent, active group is absolutely essential and the establishment of this kind of group – which must be at least a trio – is my most pressing problem at the moment. There are, of course, many many problems, but nevertheless I hope that I shall have a permanent group to work with. Of course I shall still be working with other musicians and shall carry on doing what I am doing now. The musicians working in our group will also be connected with other groups, be we shall have our won music, we shall have what I call a real ensemble, something which takes years to build and demands a great deal of mutual understanding. I think it will probably happen with A. Vapirov. You couldn’t really call what we have an ensemble at the moment, it’s almost a duet – the musicians that do play with us are changing all the time: If we just had another two permanent people the we’d have the kind of ensemble we’re looking for.
CAD: For several years now you have been right at the centre of Jazz life in our country meeting many musicians. How would you define the place of the Jazz musicians in present-day Soviet reality?
S.K.: That is a very complex question. Every musician who has anything to do with Jazz tries to find his own way. It’s all very difficult… A great many musicians work in restaurants, some tour with all sorts of variety groups, others teach, but as a rule Jazz musicians, with very few exceptions, are not doing what they would like to be doing. If their own kind of music were well-paid, they would never work, of their own volition, in touring groups. They would not accompany singers or work in restaurants or variety and so on. We’re not talking about huge sums of money – only enough to live on.
CAD: One more question. Over the last few years the Jazz scene in this country has become noticeably busier. New clubs have appeared, new festivals; the state-owned record-label “Melodiya” has started showing more interest in Jazz. We won’t talk about the artistic quality of the Melodiya records, but the quantity has considerably increased. Why do you think this has happened?
S.K.: There is a whole series of reasons. One of the main ones, it seems to me, is that the artistic resources of serious rock have dried up. Serious rock held the attention of a fairly large part of the music-loving public during the second half of the ‘70s. This was when interest in Jazz declined. Now we are witnessing a renaissance, which was to be expected.
CAD: Every musician is first and foremost a listener…
S.K.: (laughs). So they say! I assure you most musicians don’t listen to music at all!
CAD: And what about Jazz? Who do you listen to?
S.K.: Jazz? I have had enough of Braxton, although even fairly recently he was one of my favourite musicians – I like listening to Evan Parker, Derek Bailey, The Rova Saxophone Quartet – a pianist who loves the saxophone – and many others.
CAD: Following your own creative development would you be able to select the key figures that influenced you most in the formation of your artistic image?
S.K.: Yes, of course. I have thought about it. I could give you a resume, but not in chronological order. Frist, Coltrane, two rock groups – Emerson, Lake and Palmer; I have always liked them and Henry Cow. At the moment I enjoy listening to some new wave. It’s difficult for me to say what influenced me in traditional Jazz – I’m afraid, probably nothing. I´m comparatively young, of the new generation which was being formed in the ‘60s, and for me Jazz is what the mass media made it – the deadening boredom of big, semi-variety orchestras. Then Jazz seemed to be an echo of an epoch which had long since gone.
CAD: Imagine that you have unlimited financial and organisational resources …
S.K.: Great, great …
CAD: What kind of project would you try to tackle?
S.K.: Oh, I love huge projects; I would take, say, five or six symphony orchestras, set them out on a stage of 5 square kilometres, give it amplification, add a lot of electronics, invite something like 30 or 40 soloists of the musicians I like or respect – Braxton, Parker or Bennink. Chekasin would conduct a professional choir for which I should write the music. I want action on a totally global scale, what Scriabin called “action in a total harmony,” I want the metaphysics of total unity, I want to come close to mystery, I love mystery, I love the very spirit of this ancient ritual. This is of course totally unrealistic, although if the Guggenheim Fund would give me a grant I would be prepared to go to Paris to work with some orchestras, choirs and soloist.
CAD: A trivial question. What would be the ideal group for you to play with?
S.K.: I don’t know… I’d play with Chekasin… and who else? I like Bennink very much. Chekasin, Bennink and me – that’d be enough. That would be the essential minimum.
CAD: What place does the sort of music you play occupy in world culture?
S.K.: This is a very complicated question. I could only answer it properly if I had a full and objective picture of world cultures, but this is almost impossible for one person – especially if we take into consideration the isolation we are in. It is very difficult to understand what is going on in the world of contemporary music when one is taking part in it. John Fischer was telling us that in America practically any kind of creative experimental music is played – any. Everything is played together, all the traditions are merged, all concepts. Rock musicians play Jazz and Jazz musicians try to experiment with folk music. An experiment is being carried out in all fields of art, everything is fused. It is not possible to separate anything out. Complete confusion – in a positive sense.
CAD: Do you agree with Leo Smith who maintains that the whole world is moving towards “world music” as he calls it?
S.K.: Yes, I think that there is this tendency. But I don’t know whether it is good or bad. Leo smith is sure that the prospects are very bright, that it will lead to the unity of all nations. I don’t know how interesting ot how long-lived this would be. For me the questions of folk-lore and epic are very important. I somehow feel that this “universalisation” is negative process of personality, and this will lead to the degeneration of culture. Perhaps I am wrong, I don’t know, I don’t want to insist on my point of view. If we were talking about the philosophical basis of the problem, then we could talk for hours. But that is not the sort of conversation of a Jazz magazine. We could talk about Russian spiritual traditions, I am a national-chauvinist, you know.
CAD: Another question on this; Jazz is a fairly alien phenomenon in Russian culture?
S.K.: Yes, it is. Especially [if we] consider the concept of Jazz. The fact is that I share the opinion of Panassie, who is critized by everyone: that be-bop is already not Jazz. Someone has said that Parker’s music is Parker’s, Ellington’s music is Ellington’s Ellington never called his music Jazz […] he carefully avoided this word, although he is considered one of the giants of JazzThat is why Jazz in its original meaning, as it developed in the beginning, is certainly alien to our Russian understanding of art.
CAD: In that case how do you see your own original, independent creative work and the work of the other best Soviet Jazz musicians – the Ganelin trio, for example, within the framework of the traditions of Russian culture? Can one talk of this?
S.K.: Of course one can. It is not only possible, but essential. I consider – it’s my own opinion and you can disagree with it, but I am sure of it, I know the situation and can make judgements – I consider, then, that the Ganelin trio are developing within the framework of Russian, and I mean Russian feeling, art. This could have happened [sic] in the West. It is a completely different principle which could never have happened in the West with the pragmatic rationalism of European culture. But we are getting on to non-musical questions, questions of a nation, ethnos, nature, national feeling of a kind felt by Dostoyevsky, questions of social environment, climatic conditions which in many ways condition our life (laughs and looks out of the window at the mud and wet snow). No sane person could live in this town, we are being forced to live in completely unacceptable conditions, and this forms the psyche of a person, his culture and so on. All the traditions of musical education, the music I heard on the radio and TV, played in school and college, in a word everything, one’s whole cultural national heritage is reflected in one’s music.
Dec. 1981; Leningrad, Russia.