MUSIC AS MUSE
One day, Sergei invited me back to the one-bedroom apartment where he lived with his father. Those who have seen poverty know that it often looks not dirty but spare. There can be great pride where there is little money. The three rooms were immaculate, and they were nearly bare. Sergei’s mother had died of cancer when he was a little boy, and his dad worked a late shift at a local baked-goods factory. In the kitchen was a small table with two short backless stools, where we sat for hours talking as we drank tea and nibbled priyaniki, puffy iced ginger cookies, from the factory.
When the conversation turned to music, Sergei jumped from his stool and darted into the room that served as a living room and his bedroom. A single piece of furniture served as a couch by day and his bed at night. We sat on the floor to preserve the delicate balance of Sergei’s unrequited crush on me and my need for his platonic friendship. He pulled a record player out of the cabinet. This was the fall of 1991, and yet, a record player. Then he took out his prized possession: a collection of albums by the rock group Aquarium (in Russian “Ak-VAH-ree-yoom").
He placed the needle on the record, twisted the volume knob as far as it would go—oh, the male need to feel cool with loud music for the ladies—and the room filled with Boris Grebenshchikov’s voice and the band’s unique sound. As I had made my way from the kitchen to the living room, I was skeptical, if not cynical, about this music that I just had to hear, as Sergei insisted. Yet, the song entranced me from the first note. The timbre of BG’s voice, the unusual combination of instruments, the unexpected rhythms and harmonies, and the sounds of the Russian language reached down into a deep and mysterious part of me, that human place that music alone can find. The songs connected me with something intangible outside of myself, and they soothed a part of me that I had not known was ruffled.
We danced, Sergei sang (unfortunately), and we embarked on a long journey to teach me the lyrics. BG (pronounced “Beh Gheh" in Russian) was a writer in the tradition of the Russian bards. His lyrics were poetry, sometimes dense with imagery and metaphor, sometimes witty or in need of explanation for a foreigner, and always luscious with the hard consonant clusters and soft fluttery sh, zh, shch, and wide open vowels of Russian.
A sample from his song “Ivan-chai,” a flower that grows in Russia, is representative of Grebenshchikov’s writing:
Take a snow-white canvas,
Touch it with green and yellow,
And dazzling blue;
Paint some trees—and they'll tell you
How everything I want becomes the wind,
And the wind kisses the branches.
And I say, “Thank you for this joy.”
Grebenshchikov is a prolific songwriter and music-maker, and by the time I graduated from college and returned to Russian in the summer of 1994, new Aquarium CDs were available at sidewalk kiosks in St. Petersburg. I listened to them in my apartment, and then one day I learned that my American boyfriend had a Russian artist friend who knew BG. The artist told Grebenshchikov about me, an American writer with plans for a career in journalism who wanted to profile the singer and his band for American readers. Always eager to promote himself and build his reputation outside of Russia, BG gave me unlimited access to practice sessions and backstage during the band’s upcoming tour. I immersed myself in the world of Aquarium and BG for about five months. I was alone with them in the practice room when they rehearsed and improvised changes in songs for the new album. Backstage, band members would smile at me and pat me on the back in the darkness of the tall velvet curtains just seconds before they stepped into the flood of stage lights and the screams of thousands of fans. The thrill of hearing them perform live was enhanced by the sweet memories of the intimate moments that I had spent alone with them in their studio. A chord progression or a repeated chorus whose emergence I had witnessed during rehearsals was like a secret that I was in on.
Interviewing Grebenshchikov in the studio living room before and after rehearsals allowed me to watch his mind expand and to fill in the gaps between his music and his life. The same mind that had made the songs was available to me in conversation. The inside of an artist’s mind was a sacred place to wander. I could ask him anything, and he would answer, sometimes in a sentence, often in a paragraph, and every once in a while in an entire page. Now and then , I got a single word and an icy stare. I would quickly move on to the next question. We talked about his past and present as a musician, his spiritual beliefs as a Buddhist, his travels to England and Nepal, his changing country and post-Soviet life, his fame, his image, his fans, his privacy, and more.
At a press conference when the band released its new album, a Russian reporter told me that Grebenshchikov was known among journalists nationwide as a tough assignment and a difficult and stubborn subject to interview. This clashed with my experience. BG was the first person that I interviewed formally and the prelude to my career that began two years later when I finished graduate school in journalism. I served him a steady stream of questions, recorded and then sorted his answers, observed him and the band in rehearsals and performances, and finally wrote using the best of the material to the best of my ability. The fifteen-page piece never got published, but it earned me a personal letter of praise and encouragement from David Remnick, ardent Russophile and then a writer at The New Yorker, where he is now editor. That was more than enough for me as a young writer and budding journalist.
On a winter afternoon in St. Petersburg, I sat alone in the back corner of the studio on a wooden chair sized for a child and painted in the bold red, black, and gold of the Russian folk art tradition. My knees were up around my chest, and a notebook was tucked inside my lap. One by one, the seven band members entered the practice studio, picked up their instruments, tuned them, and tested microphones. Some sent smiles or waves my way. Then, with a single nod from Grebenshchikov, the room filled with the opening notes of a new song. Two men in headsets worked the controls in the small room beyond the glass wall. An audience of one listened ostensibly for the sake of writing a published piece but in truth for the unmatched pleasure of hearing, live and fantastically close, music that I loved.
The song was happy and upbeat, infused with the rich dense sounds of violin, guitar, mandolin, flute, bass, accordion, balalaika, drums, and other percussion and instruments. Layers of melody and harmony drenched the room with the distinct music that to me was the heart and soul of Mother Russia. From my small seat, I had a clear view of everyone, and I, too, was drenched with the notes and chords that ricocheted off the walls and ceiling and thumped inside my rib cage. This was the music that had saved me during many lonely days and nights as a young woman in Siberia. As the instrumental opening melted into a pause, the voice appeared, the singular voice, assured yet raspy, buttery but aging, of Boris Grebenshchikov. He stood not ten feet from me as the song poured out of him.
Though the melody was new, the music was familiar. It transported me back to Sergei’s apartment across the country in Irkutsk. I saw the living room with its lone piece of furniture. I saw my friend’s hands working the knobs of his record player. I felt the liberating bliss of leaping to my feet and dancing around that wide open room as we two shared a mutual joy through music that sang to our depths. I missed Sergei as I sat alone in the corner of Aquarium’s practice studio. I missed him, yes, but mostly I thanked him for a lasting gift from a lovely friendship, both of which would nourish me for many years to come.