The electronic and experimental music made under the Iron Curtain and other oppressive regimes
People use the theremin even today, whereas Laibach played Australia.
Note: interview originally published last year in Romanian.
If I utter the phrase “musique concrète”, chances are that you’ll think of pioneers such as Pierre Schaeffer or Robotnick. But electroacoustic music was born and developed not just in France, Italy or similar countries. Musicians, electricians and enthusiasts from all continents were building their own synthesizers, composing their own more or less avant-garde tracks or simply experimented with new forms of phonic communication.
The decolonization of music — this is the mission that Cedrik Fermont embarked on. Born in Zaire (currently the Democratic Republic of the Congo), he grew up in Belgium and moved to Berlin. He travels through eastern and south-east Asia and was an important pillar in the DIY exchange of culture during the 90s, when he was sending tapes and even flyers in South Africa or Chile. He studied at the Conservatory of Mons, even if he didn’t graduate “luckily or sadly, regardless”, as he likes to remark. This is roughly the mosaic of which the compositor and laureate Zairian-Belgian author is made up from.
Last month, during Timișoara’s Simultan Festival, he spoke about precisely these subjects. During the day he told stories about artists and alternative music from outside the Western World, with an emphasis on their contemporary existence along that of the westerners, and also gave a clear opinion that their importance should’ve been just as notable. Once night fell, he delivered a cinematic electroacoustic set, in whose liquid texture elements of acid house were occasionally dripped.
He curated a database of the acoustic stuff that he’s keen on, after playing in 2004 throughout Asia, in countries like Laos, Thailand or China. On print, he materialized everything in a book co-signed with an academical friend: NOT YOUR WORLD MUSIC — Noise in South East Asia.
I sought him after the concert for a chat in regards to cultural matters closer to us Romanians. Thirty years after the anti-dictatorial revolutions from Europe’s right side of the map, I was curious to hear how hard it is, as a westerner, to get your hands on unconventional music from behind the Iron Curtain (or countries with similar regimes); about the synths or compositions created by Russians or even North-Koreans; but also how the cultural distance between us shrank in the meantime.
in.TM: Let’s talk about the experimental music made under dictatorships. We could start with North Korea, since that place is totally peculiar, a land in which time stands still. Is there any scene to talk about as such?
Cedrik: There is none in that sense, but there is this myth that Laibach were the first avant-garde artists that played there, three years ago. It’s a myth because they had some punk and rock bands there in 1989, as part of a cultural exchange with Finland. Just imagine, punk only for the state’s elites… Therefore, it is very hard to create a movement there, for two reasons: the strict population control, with repercussions if you are a dissident, and the second one being the lack of connection to the rest of the world — they have an intranet, not internet.
When it comes to classical electronic music produced there, you can find some in the movie Pulgasari (1985). It’s kind of a cheap version of Godzilla, in which the dinosaur comes at first to help the villagers, with the purpose of the movie obviously being a propagandistic one.
The flick was created using a Japanese director and actress which Kim Jong-il kidnapped. Fortunately, both of them managed to escape de regime while at a festival in Vienna.
What about the USSR?
Well, things were not so bleak there if we consider that, for example, Lenin sent Léon Theremin around the world with his invention. Or when thinking of avant-garde directors, such as Dziga Vertov, which combined classical and synthesized music. If we think more about it, the soviets made a lot of synths back then, one of which was Murzin’s ANS synth.
After the war, things slowed down. But towards the end of the 70s, new horizons were opening for them too. Especially via Sankt Petersburg, the inhabitants of which were bribing authorities in order to import basically anything from Scandinavia: food, goods… and even culture. This is how punk and synth pop appeared there, and this even led to the formation of bands such as Biokonstructor. You could kind of call them a late Depeche Mode of the USSR.
There’s this really good documentary that explores those musicians and their toys called Elektro Moskva (2013).
Give me some names from the Baltic countries.
The Latvians have an important industrial music label, Sturm. And if asking about an 80s album, I have to mention Zodiac with their Disco Alliance, which came out on the state label. A must-listen to!
Let’s get closer to the non-soviet countries from behind the Curtain. What information reached you guys?
Well, to be honest, even for us westerners there were places which we considered islands of artistic curiosity. For example, we didn’t know much about stuff from Albania, Bulgaria or Romania. But we know, from the larger culture, about László Moholy-Nagy.
There also were countries in which the culture varied. For example in Czechoslovakia most of the studios were in Prague. A few still existed in Bratislava, with a notable example called Experimental Studio. Recently, I know that they put out some compilations with recordings from the 60s ‘till the 80s.
What did the few things that you knew about Romanians consist of?
Even now I’m the proud owner of a Rodion G.A. release on Electrecord, but from what I’ve heard they never played during the communist days.
Why do you think that failed to happen? Was our society not ready for such artists?
No, my guess is that Ceaușescu’s strict regime is to blame. Even stricter the Polish one of that time. Also the economic factor came into play, because you couldn’t make electronic music without money or access to instruments. On the other hand, we have Yugoslavia, which is a special case. It distanced itself from the USSR from the beginning, and opened its borders a lot more. This led to a massive import of western culture, and therefore it’s no surprise that Laibach or Borghesia came to be in Slovenia during that time. Furthermore, not just the ex-Yugoslav capitals were making a lot of great music.
But even so, there were limits. For example, the socially critical attitude of Borghesia got them into trouble with the authorities.
The German Democratic Republic (East Germany) was also behind the Curtain. Now you reside in Berlin. Was it hard to get a hold of music from there when you used to live in Belgium?
You’ll probably laugh, but it was even harder than that from Serbia. There were, of course, studios and clubs that were into this music. For example, I’ve got something from De/Vision in my collection. But… come to think of it, they too were from the other side of the Curtain.
Now, thirty years since the revolutions of 1989, do you feel that the social and cultural distances has shrunken between Western and Eastern Europe?
I can meet punks or avant-garde people in most of Europe’s large cities now. Let’s consider culture from a socio-political standpoint. You must understand that this wave of dissatisfaction from the Eastern European countries, unhappy that their occidental dreams failed to come true, is not local. Populist trends are growing even in the west. There are even people that vote nowadays for the far right. In a way, differences exist and always will, even if you go from the north to the south of the continent, if you make the urban-rural switch, or even between ex-yugoslav countries. But we can at least travel and get to know each other easier than in 1989.
Now it’s more about access than distance. And we have common struggles, which in turn inspire people and give birth to new forms of culture.
During your explorations, would you say that electronic and experimental music is made in countries where social cohesion is tighter (as you were saying about Indonesia), or do you see it more as a reaction against the system?
It honestly depends on who you ask. In China, for example, they don’t do it in order to challenge the system, that’s a fact. Some will tell you the truth when asked privately, but some won’t comment. But even in Indonesia, where people put on a great DIY concert or party, their music is totally against the system. Same goes for Myanmar, even if we’re thinking about hip hop and punk groups, rather than experimental ones. But there it’s still hard to do an improvised music show of any kind, even after fifteen years in the business. Western music, being generally forbidden, any act of this kind is considered political, whether you intend this or not. The same can go for Egypt or other countries.
Would you say that there’s more and more space claimed by women and the LGBT+ community on stages where experimental music is played?
Even if electroacoustic music was dominated primarily from its beginnings by men, there are a few notable exceptions, like Johanna Beyer. The situation nowadays has changed a lot for the better, even though women are not yet that visible — I’m thinking about all of Europe now, not just Eastern.
In regards to the LGBT+ persons in this field, they are more and more prominent. Even in countries as far as Uganda, where the government treats them with violence. But you can also find islands of freedom, like the Nyege Nyege Festival, where the police turns a blind eye and allows people to enjoy their time. There’s at least that. Meanwhile, you have Tanzania’s example, where things generally have turned pretty bad in recent years.
When thinking about Asia, the situation is a bit more relaxed generally, at a social level. For example, in Vietnam it’s not forbidden to be gay, and recently Taiwan was the first country in the region that legalized LGBT marriages. China doesn’t forbid them, but the government dislikes it when you’re too proactive. But without caution these rights can deteriorate even in places like here, in Eastern Europe. Hell, even in Paris, for that matter.
Where can we plunge into the genres that we spoke of in this interview?
Besides my website and the book that I recently launched about Asia, I recommend Sound Exchange: Experimental Music Cultures in Central and Eastern Europe. Important resources can also be found at UbuWeb and Monoskop, in which you can drift for hours on end.