From Russian Classical Fanboy to Cultural Ambassador: In Conversation with Jeremy Thal

Photography by Sasha Arutyunova

In June 2017, Found Sound Nation led its second annual OneBeat International program, which took place in Russia’s Moscow and Tatarstan regions. OneBeat Russia brought together 13 musicians and 5 dancers for three weeks of collaborative creation and performance. Over the next week, we will be releasing audio tracks featuring our OneBeat Russia fellows, video portraits created by the award winning filmmaker Ben Stamper, and breathtaking photos Sasha Arutyunova. Please stay tuned at 1beat.org.

OneBeat Artistic Director Jeremy Thal reflects on the genesis of this project.

OneBeat Director and Brooklyn-based musician Jeremy Thal in Russia

“When I was a kid my musical taste followed the unoriginal path of my Midwestern peers: Michael Jackson, Paula Abdul, MC Hammer. As a teenager, I followed the trends towards tortured grunge and rebellious hip hop: Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Dr. Dre, ATCQ. I associate that music with carefree days but none of it was my own. I could never be as devoted a fan as the kids who sported Primus T-shirts, who cloud-nined their cars to Phish, or who sewed Dead Kennedys patches onto their jean jackets.

I aspired to like the music one day, when I was cooler. In the interim, the only music that could match the depth of angst in my adolescent soul was early 20th century Russian classical.

I stumbled into this odd musical corridor in the basement of the Exclusive Company, a record shop on State Street in Madison, WI. It began with music for french horn, the instrument assigned to me in 6th-grade band: Britten Serenade, Brahms Horn Trio, Mozart Concertos. I loved it. But my truest fanboydom was reserved for the Russians: Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Prokofiev. The sounds of the names held a magic and gravitas. While my hipper peers memorized the The Digable Planets lyrics, I dove into early 20th century Russian history. I read about the civil war between the Whites and Reds, Stalin’s Terror in the 30s, Trotsky’s gruesome death in Mexico City.

Jeremy Thal with Moscow-based producer Anton Sergeev and curator Katya Bochavar

The bygone Russian world was a mythological struggle that I wanted to be a part of, in which art was instrumental in a great fight against an evil empire to keep gentle, creative souls alive amidst the barbarity of war and totalitarianism, to sustain the vital essence of humanity. Thus began my anachronistic, long-distance love affair with 20th century Russian music.

One piece that struck a special chord with me was Stravinky’s L’Histoire du Soldat aka The Soldier’s Tale. The music, which evokes the pagan spirits of old Eurasia, is played by a small, scrappy, multidisciplinary ensemble retelling an ancient folk tale within a modern context. It tells the story of a soldier who sells his soul (signified by his ability to play the violin) to the devil in exchange for worldly riches. He then spends the remainder of the drama attempting to win back his fiddling abilities. Soldier’s Tale’s themes are as relevant today as they were in 1917, even while the tools of soul-selling have become digitized and reformatted.

When we got a call to organize a Russian-American collaborative exchange with a group of 10–15 artists, we decided to recreate the Soldier’s Tale, building off the basic story, but creating entirely new music.
PoemaTheatre Dancers perform alongside OneBeat Russia Fellows

We wouldn’t dare try to improve upon on Stravinsky’s handiwork, but the libretto of the original leaves much to be desired (Diaghilev famously hated it). So we asked young talented Ossetian playwright Karina Besolti to re-write it. We assembled a never-seen-before cohort of sonic soldiers: Chicago emcee/producer AQ, Muscovite punk rocker Diana Burkot, Buryat morin-huur player and throat singer Alexander Arkhincheev, to name a few. For the final piece of the puzzle we invited Poema Theater, a Butoh-inspired dance company based in Moscow, to lead the storytelling through movement.

Meanwhile, the high-level Russian-American political drama dissolved into the background as we wrestled with deeper, unifying human issues.

Personally, this project was a powerful way to come full circle, to join in the creative expression of Russia in 2017. And in doing so I realized how fundamentally the artistic landscape has shifted in the last hundred years, and yet how the human themes at play remain essentially unchanged.”

OneBeat Fellows perform together (left to right): Andrey Dolgov, Eduardo Valencia and Marina Vishnyakova

Meet some of meet some of the amazing artists who participated in OneBeat Russia. Check out the Fellow Portraits gallery.

Listen to ‘Wedding Song’, a track from the upcoming OneBeat Russia Mixtape. The full album will be available this Friday, September 15 via Soundcloud.