V.A. ~ Notes From the Underground: Experimental Sounds Behind the Iron Curtain

Ever from the Dostoevskian name of this intriguing compilation, there’s a drive to articulate all these avant-garde expressions from beneath the Iron Curtain in the 1970s and 1980s as a form of resistance to the totalitarian utopianism born from the Stalinist period. This ‘postutopian’ art was severely conditioned by the various states it was practiced in, buried less by straightforward censorship and more by means of an obscuring apparatus that left most of them isolated and unconnected to wider audiences. It’s important to stress that this situation was quite different from the one our popular consciousness, still quite influenced by Cold War political aesthetics, usually associates with the entire history of the Soviet bloc, applying even to the decades mentioned. The Stalinist image requires us to think of persecutions and executions alike, but by the 70s and 80s this terrible hold had given way, via programs of ‘de-Stalinization’, to new artistic developments previously unthinkable, with states applying pressure through channels that even in their inclusion of imprisonment nevertheless allowed the recordings that the archival research of the Unearthing the Music project now offers to us here. From the USSR itself to the German Democratic Republic, the tracks compiled in Notes From the Underground reflect a wide variety of experimental projects that include electronics, post-punk, noise, and even some prog-rock (of the more radical RIO variety).

What is interesting – to me at least – is that these wild avant-gardists sound not altogether different from those that at about the same time were radically questioning the nature of Western progress and its liberal idealisms. That is to say, even though the context is different, there’s a continuity between the aggressive styles of post-punk and industrial music by the USSR’s New Composers and those of Throbbing Gristle, the noise performances of the GDR’s Pffft…! and those of Einstürzende Neubauten (even though they never heard of each other); the same tools are used to fight against very different enemies, which is why I believe it reflects instead a generalized vanguardist stance that rejects any and all ‘official culture’, whether democratic or totalitarian. As such, this archeological act of unearthing does not perhaps reveal the uniqueness and isolation of these projects but their opposite, their belonging to a wider trend in experimentations that share a common core of negativity that crosses any and all purported Curtains.

Irony is a primary resource for this stance, like Vladimir Tarasov’s sinister treatment of state hymns by means of harsh electronics, not too dissimilar to the ways in which early Psychic TV appropriated the telemarketing aesthetic. Aktual, an experimental punk band founded by none other than Fluxus artist Milan Knížák in 1967, parodied the jargon of the Czech Communist Party and deconstructed its meanings by using free improv; Kilhets, a RIO collective that used costumes and visuals in order to build a coherent performance noise unit, developed ritual events that emphasized their anonymity; Der Demokratische Konsum (roughly translated as “Democratic Consumption”) personify the post-punk approach of making relative acceptance in a society a signal of its hatred; most of these bands and artists deploy ironic tactics to survive at the margins of a totalizing culture, which is the same that could be said, with very few reservations, about the many outliers of the noise, industrial, and hard-edged electronics scenes in the Western bloc. The postutopian comes to be similar, in this sense, to the anti-utopian, sharing a set of values that dictates that anything other than untrammeled freedom is to be rejected.

Notes From the Underground is a titanic work, commendable at every level as a valuable contribution to the histories of avant-garde and popular music. The recovery of all these recordings is a testament not only to the commitment to archival work by Unearthing the Music but also to the exciting paths they are now opening to the public at large, both in terms of research and of simple curiosity about what exactly was happening in countries in which hostility to aggressively new music was not expressed by indifference and cooptation but by more direct forms of intervention as well as oblique patterns of delegitimization. (David Murrieta Flores)

Available here

Note: There’s no stream currently available but there are a few clips of different works by some of these artists in Youtube.

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