Front is media partner of the offline edition of Rewire – on 10, 11, 12 and 18 September 2021 in The Hague. In addition to Leo Svirsky, Nazar, Felicia Atkinson, Sarah Davachi, Loraine James, Machinefabriek shown here. More information can be found on the website from Rewire.
Leo Svirsky, composer and pianist, is partial to the decaying of that which once reached great heights. The Japanese live shows in John Coltrane’s final year, ethnographic recordings of dissipated cultures, an unfinished piano piece that was to herald the end of the world. With his latest album River Without Banks and the accompanying live show, Svirsky hopes to capture the passing of time in his own distinct way.
Written by: Ruben van Dijk
During an almost two hour interview, Leo Svirsky – Russian-American experimental pianist, composer, currently living in The Hague – mainly talks about other musicians. John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Marshall Allen, Scratch Orchestra, Alexander Scriabin, Bach. His encyclopedic knowledge is sometimes difficult to keep up with, the connections to Svirsky's own music are sometimes hard to trace. Either way, his passion is apparent.
At the time of speaking, Svirsky's most recent album River Without Banks is celebrating its second anniversary. The recordings themselves are more than four years old. Once the cultural sector has been given a green light, he is set to finally play the live show - with his band The River Without Banks - he envisioned all along. A home game at the Rewire Festival in The Hague, this September.
“One bad habit, which I’ve still not gotten out of, is that I'm always much more ambitious than what’s achievable. It does kind of work for me, but it makes things unnecessarily stressful. I originally conceived River Without Banks as an ensemble project, but there were a lot of ideas that I couldn’t really capture in the studio. Doing it live now is a crazy confirmation. Just because in the studio a lot of stuff didn’t work, doesn’t mean that they can’t be done. There’s a lot of stuff on the album that was real painstaking editing, syncing up all these things that are a lot more fun to do when jamming. It gives me a lot of vindication. In that sense I’m still an experimental composer. I’ll be like: wow, it works!”
“Dipping into a reservoir – that’s what making music is to me. It’s not about being original.”
Svirsky dreams of touring endlessly, constantly playing different, neverending sets, and then cutting the best performances from the tour into an album. Like Coltrane, or the Grateful Dead, “or maybe the [Sun Ra] Arkestra – less heroin.” He has managed to temper those dreams in the past year and a half, because of the pandemic and the mind-boggling government policy towards the music industry, but also because Svirsky knows that studio and stage are still separate worlds for him.
The intended ensemble record turned out to be mainly a piano record. An adventurous piano record, that is, with plenty of guest appearances (by Horse Lords' Max Eilbacher and cellist Leila Bourdreuil, among others) and surprising twists and turns, but with Svirsky firmly at the helm. The reason for this probably lies in its academic approach. Svirksy based the premise of River Without Banks on 'heterophony', or polyphony: instead of one or more parts playing the same melody in the same way, in the same tone, as in most western music, here each instrument plays its ‘own version’. “An ensemble where the individual voices remain intact.”
“There is a saying of Heraclitus: 'No man goes through the same river twice.' On this album, in the case of the piano, I combine two different readings of the same music, creating a kind of rhythm pattern – a very unusual form of reverb. It gives a feeling of spaciousness. And these idiosyncrasies in my own playing - that’s just how a human reads a melody.” According to Svirsky, people are often unconscious of the fact that everything they hear has been captured by a microphone. What the listener hears on River Without Banks is not only the result, but also the process, “the idea that the passage of time has been recorded.”
Nowadays, Svirsky listens almost exclusively to ethnographic recordings in which heterophony is the norm. He mentions, among other things, the recordings that ethnomusicologist Paul Berliner made of Zimbabwean mbira musicians for his book The Soul of Mbira – a classic in the field. “These are recordings from the 1970s by musicians who did not survive that period [the Zimbabwe War of Independence (1964-1979), ed.]. And even though musicians are still playing this music, there’s a certain consciousness of the fact that what the microphone recorded, no longer exists.” Another example: “If you listen to a Russian village choir from the early twentieth century – you can hear so many things, so many different harmonies, so many kinds of affect that just aren't there anymore, or at least not in that form.”
Most of the music that has been of great importance to Svirsky was almost exclusively born from spirituality and religion. It is music that works as a snapshot, but simultaneously transcends all boundaries between the material and the immaterial. A "river without banks", as Svirsky's former tutor Genrikh Orlov calls it in his manuscript, Tree of Music, something Svirsky wants to give his own interpretation to with his latest album. Without borrowing explicitly from said influences, the pianist hopes to achieve a state of transportation through his own methods.
That calls for a Coltrane quote. "It's a big reservoir that we all dip out of," the jazz legend once told historian Frank Kofsky. Svirsky: “The reason I make music is inextricably linked to that. That to me is exactly what it is: dipping into this reservoir. It’s really not about being original. It’s about finding a specific sensibility.”
And so Svirsky works through the same holy water as Coltrane, as Ornette Coleman, as the Arkestra, as the Russian village choirs, the Zimbabwean mbira musicians, and as Alexander Scriabin, one of the other big names Svirsky can't stop talking about. The prominent Russian composer and pianist died early in the twentieth century, at the age of 43, but as far as Svirsky is concerned, he belongs in the same group as his jazz idols, because Scriabin was spiritual jazz.
Exhibit A. The magnum opus Scriabin never finished: Mysterium, a megalomaniac feat of performance art avant la lettre; an orchestral work where no spectator was to be an actual spectator, but just another musician; a performance that would last a week, that was to be performed at the foot of the Himalayas, and would eventually herald the end of the world, or at least a complete reset of humanity. “It's a fascinating piece because it both does not exist and is everywhere. It was the beginning of so much avant-garde work… Avraamov's Symphony of Factory Sirens, La Monte Young's Dream House… It lies at the cradle of expressionism.”
Mysterium exhibits a quest for ecstasy and rapture similar to a lot of jazz, and a temporal consciousness much like that which Svirsky tries to achieve with River Without Banks. For both Scriabin and Svirsky, a moment can be everything, but is also inextricably linked to his own disappearance.
Still: where Svirsky once saw it as his "musical end goal" to finish Mysterium, he now prefers to walk a different path. “I'm very interested in the music that people actually made in the Himalayas, the things Scriabin never knew. He was obsessed with how he thought things were. I can now learn about all the things that he himself had to fantasize about.” And ambitious as Svirsky is, he is unlikely to venture into something as megalomaniac as Mysterium. “It was a big influence on me when I was a lot younger. Now I don’t really care about influencing the course of all art in the next century. But it is very cool.”
What then is Svirsky's musical end goal? A difficult question. The pianist always has a lot of things on his plate, and likes to take his time with them. Besides playing with his own 'Arkestra', he is now studying organs. And he is particularly interested in a unique replica of a Van Straten pipe organ from 1479 (onder meer door Sarah Davachi gebruikt op haar album Cantus, Descant), which can only be played in the Orgelpark in Amsterdam. It’s hardly surprising: one chord played in said room instantly takes you through a deeply rooted sacral process that no longer exists outside of it. A common thread in Svirsky's work.
The predilection for the otherworldly and the transient, the pursuit of a heightened awareness of space and time. It has a political dimension that Svirsky prefers not to talk about with any big words. Not because he doesn't care about, say, an imminent climate apocalypse – quite the contrary. Svirsky prefers to let the music speak, just like his jazz idols. "It's a bit of a paradox: to be really political, you also have to be authentic and you should therefore not flaunt it or rub it in on your audience." Svirsky prefers to follow “the model used by Coltrane's, Cecil Taylor's or Burton Greene's”; musicians who, in their deconstructive, avant-garde methods alone, questioned society as it existed at the time. “Nothing is more political and spiritual than Coltrane.”
Svirsky also wonders sometimes: "Does any of this shit matter, in the event of the apocalypse?" But bringing people together through music is what makes it worthwhile for him too. “Politics in the underground is largely about bringing folks together, people who all think differently, so that they can talk to each other and learn about social issues that go beyond just music. Bringing people together is what’s at the foundation of it all.” Touring a record that transcends physical space and time, Svirsky hopes to provide just that when the time comes.