Sometimes the timing of a release affects an album’s relevance. This is the case with A Collective Memoir, released less than 24 hours before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The album, commissioned by the Urkavan Festival, presents like-minded artists from both Russia and Ukraine, as well as Armenia and Georgia. We have no idea if the Ukrainian artists are alive right now ~ if they have fled the country, if they have taken up arms. We have no idea how the Russian artists feel about the invasion (although we can guess). Most chillingly, we have no idea if this review will pass through the censors of the aggressor nation. What we do know is that music is a unifying force, and that composers around the world operate on a different frequency than politicians. Their first thoughts are not to fight, but to collaborate, unite, band together for common causes. The very fact that this compilation exists is a statement of solidarity with the art of creation itself: a life force, as opposed to a death force.
Ironically, death does come into play, as these tracks are loosely clustered around a hauntological theme. Urvakan is Armenian for “ghost, phantom or spirit.” New ghosts are being created as we speak. This is also an album about “collective memory,” shared across nations and cultures. The most violent track leads off the album, sampling language around school shootings and including threats, crashes and alarms. Georgian artist Ana Jikia is confrontational for a cause; “Splint” is a statement of awareness, a clear and present danger.
Armenian artist Nystagmus‘ “False Awakening,” which closes the album, is eerily prescient. The track is based on field recordings “made ten years ago at the college of the city of Shushi—formerly a part of the self-proclaimed Republic of Artsakh, which was retaken by Azerbaijan as a result of the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War … now lying in ruins.” A dark ambient sheen covers the track, thick in tape dust that continues to cling while metal objects are struck. This town is coming like a ghost town. Also from Armenia, I s seeks to “peer into the past with a sense of rest.” Her track is indeed peaceful, a reflective piece whose repetitions are soothing and which give way to a vast orchestral sea. If we played this piece for an invading army, would they lay down their weapons and cry, engulfed by memories of all they had lost and had yet to lose?
Ukrainian artist Nikolaienko hails from the besieged Kyiv, but lives in Estonia, where we hope he is safe. His interest in sonic archeology is reflected through reel-to-reel tape loops of vibraphone jazz. When the track was recorded, it was likely done in a spirit of curiosity and adventure ~ but now the hauntological theme strikes all too close. The other Ukrainian track comes from Chillera feat. DJ Graffity. Like “False Awakening,” “Porto Franco” gives voice to a location stripped of its former glory: the docks of Odessa, now occupied by “stalkers and artists,” including a jazz band who plays as if war is a distant memory, no thought given to future conflict. The waves crash against the shore as the ship horns bellow.
Three artists hail from Russia. Siberian history teacher Foresteppe is familiar to our readers, but shifts gears to cover “Zola” by emo band Those Days Have Passed, Can’t Be Got Back, the very name of which is distressing given today’s conflict. The track is mournful and melancholy, a “reflection on history and time,” closing with the sounds of a now-dismantled railway. In one sense, the artist could not have known what was coming. In another, unfortunately, history tends to repeat. Sound artist L provides a bit of relief with a lighter version of collective memory, as she time-stretches an inescapable 1990s commercial tag into sonic oblivion. And Perila bears a message that could not be more timely, sampling the beginning of the movie “To Love,” in which people on the streets of Soviet Russia are asked, “What is love?” The track was written in a round of Russian protests, and released during a new round of protests, and the circle comes around again, and we still need love. The optimism that Perila feels when she writes about the track may be muted today, but is more essential than ever, a collective memoir that can be called forth. Perila’s track also connects to Nystagmus’ track as both contain birds, a symbol of life and hope.
A Collective Memoir is a document of a dream: a world in which borders are porous and shared experience is more powerful than political division. If only, we say. And yet here, for the duration of its running time, it exists, a time capsule that we hope will never be buried. (Richard Allen)
Update from the label: All members of Chillera from Odessa, Ukraine have fled to Chisinau, Moldova and safe atm. We’re in constant contact with them. Other artists from this compilation are far away from Ukraine and safe too.