Year Zero: The Music of the Ganelin Trio

Year Zero: The Music of the Ganelin Trio

by Steve Kulak
copyright © 2000 Steve Kulak

Can barbarism ruin your ears or just your appetite for consumption?

On the eve of the Second World War, Trotsky could only imagine barbarism or socialism triumphing. We know what happened to socialism. So what's left?

It's no use sitting frozen in apathy and hoping the clock spins backwards. Every so often we need to purge our ears, offer them something new. An extravaganza that will take us out of ourselves and raise doubts about the way we hear things. It pays to seek out mysteries in music as in life. Put aside your wonder as to why anyone would believe the only thing worse than Russia and Jazz is putting the two together. Expose yourself to the music of the Ganelin Trio. Then we shall all pass from darkness into light

Each society produces its own type of madness. The Iron Curtain may have saved us from the Russian Bear and the cold fact of Communism but it also hid from view the mesmerising sonic intelligence of the Ganelin Trio. In fact, Trio is an inadequate appellation for what most of the time sounds like a group of ecstatic visionaries expanding the range of contemporary music and creating new uses for sound. People shouldn't always believe what they hear.

Yet hard as it might be to believe otherwise, Catalogue: Live in East Germany (Leo Records) is the work of three men. Vladimir Chekasin is rarely content to blow his horns one at a time, just as piano virtuoso Slava Ganelin doesn't mind peppering the score with driving bass riffs produced by what sounds suspiciously like a bass guitar. And if Vladimir Tarasov is playing the drums, then who's playing the guitar? Wait a minute is this inspiration or lunacy?

Adrift in their own skewed universe, this is both: inspiration crowned by a soft serving of lunacy. The Holy Fool after all is never very far from a Russian.

Now if that is not enough to entice you to surrender yourself to their landscape, then commentators who write about "the most dramatic development in jazz performance since the New Thing of the 1960s" and "one of the most significant bodies of work of the last 20 years" just might. Reading reports like that and not being familiar with the music could drive a person to distraction. Fortunately Nature has happily given us a special passion for recognizing our own ignorance. It's time to do something about it.

Apart from Catalogue: Live in East Germany (the tapes of which were smuggled out of the former Soviet Union by a German tourist), there is also the extraordinary Ancora Da Capo (also on Leo). This album features the Trio's performance at the historical 1980 concert in West Berlin. Those lucky enough to be there would no doubt have witnessed first hand what was meant by "an insanely accelerated history of jazz." The music can be approached as one extended composition, or as a series of scenes, although it may seem odd to speak of scenes in a work where hearing and sound prevail. Yet hearing, together with vision, is the second sense that brings us knowledge from afar. And those who were there to see and hear the Trio were astonished.

The Ganelin Trio in live performance must have been an impossibly seductive occasion. Most jazz life in the former Soviet Union centred around festivals, which no doubt provided the usual opportunities for predictable caravans of musicians to practise their scales. The most important was the Autumn Rhythms Festival in Leningrad (present day St. Petersburg) where no band was invited to play two years in a row. The exception to the rule was always the Ganelin Trio. They played every year. The Penguin Guide to Jazz, in awarding the album its highest possible five star rating, stated that the monolithic intensity of Ancora Da Capo condensed everything the group was about: "It is quite simply a masterpiece and we strongly recommend it to your attention."

Had these albums been released by three white boys from New York, the course of modern music could well have been catapulted into different time zones and ridden a different wave onto the beachhead that is contemporary music today. But this was 1979, and these were three Russians at the wrong end of the '70s. We were still a whole decade away from the hole in the wall that would signify not only a new Berlin, but a new political order and with it the fading memories of a vanquished Soviet system. Too many aspects of Soviet culture suffered the same discrediting process that the failure of its political system implied. To the victor not only the spoils but all the glory.

Before you are left to wonder what it is that three Russians could do so differently that hadn't been done before, let's make perfectly clear what type of music this is. What we have in the Ganelin Trio is not a free jazz hybrid: it is highly structured, new music. Unarguably and absolutely. It is structured in a way that improvised music can not be. It is played with intensity and gravity, which is not necessarily what makes it different, though its humour and teetering-on-the-edge quality might. It may be humourous in the way that all excessive intensity is; it depends on whether intensity affects you that way. It can also be heard as music which appears to live in two different epochs: its own and as a rehearsal for the next one. One blink from then to now and back again.

The Ganelin Trio offer layers of compositional audacity that elude music with a greater claim. What impresses most is its structure, an edifice comparable to the inside-outside architecture of a glass and metal building with all the beams, wires and ducting exposed but with no walls to obstruct your line of sight. It is a most impressive construct: the way it all fits in and works together, especially if you care enough to follow the pipes and cables from beginning to end. But there is more: the calibre of the musicianship, its attack and fluency, its exemplary execution and uncompromising commitment, right through to the sheer originality of the overall conception: all this represents the Ganelin Trio. The music is astounding. It is not wallpaper but furniture. You cannot ignore the music.

It forces you to listen to it, takes you inside. You might end up feeling like an exhausted fish pushed to the high tide mark and then abandoned, as the Trio's retreat starves you of oxygen and leaves you floundering with only sound clinging to your gills. But it might also leave you with the creepy sensation of a chill searching for a spine.

It is an impossible music. Impossible to categorize, impossible to dance to, impossible to dream through and impossible to ignore. You can drink through it comfortably though, and all the while generate a sense of being closer to its inspiration if the collective spirit grabs you. There is in the end no one way of accessing it. Analyzing the context of its creation might contribute to an understanding of it that may or may not be useful.

Appreciating the method of artists in the context of the social history of their times can be instructive. But listening is the only viable option, not words. That might sound self-evident, but listening in this case amounts to much more than that, which is why a drink might help to get you through the experience. Although their densely textured sound presents a formidable challenge to any listener, this is not impenetrable music. This is music that penetrates you and your psyche in other ways. Because within the vibrant animation that pervades every inch of the surface of their compositions lies an absolute stillness. In the end the performance becomes a spiritual experience coaxed into existence by visionaries.

How much music can you listen to? How much music do you need? What form should engagement with this relentlessly modern music take? Approach it as you would approach a transforming fire or fallen pieces of the moon.

Is it fair to say that as a New York trio they would have been anointed for such bold structural innovation in music and canonised? America does have a dominant spirit of irredeemable materialism and an indifference to the poetry of things, but America can also do many things very well. To say the Ganelin Trio's music could only have been created within the context of a Soviet shadow is unarguable.

The major role of any artist is to make invisible passions either visible or heard. In the expression of those passions, we should realize that artists are shaped by contexts which they do not necessarily choose and which go on to inform the nature of their individuality. Much in American music is muscle and technique, lacking the elusive quality of great music. Just for a second imagine the bloated cadaver of jazz/mock fusion. Now try to imagine instead another direction, a richer musical hybrid of a type that was being invented at that same time in the '70s in the Soviet Union by groups such as the Ganelin Trio.

This music was all but hidden from view by an Iron Curtain that too few on the bright side of it were privileged to peek behind. Leo Feigin of Leo Records in London will one day tell his story about peeking, smuggling and the privileges of portly men in overcoats, and I daresay aspects of it will read like a typical cold war thriller. What a time it must have been.

Music like this, heavy, tragic, powerful, astonishing, thrilling is not created in horror or despair, social oppression or political restriction. After all it was a supremely even-handed system: it forbade both the elite and the poor alike to beg in the streets and to steal bread!

The music of the Trio is not a political statement. It would trivialize it too much to restrict it to such a petty ephemeral canvas. The Ganelin Trio is light years beyond politics yet inescapably formed by it. The music addresses futility of another sort.

It disperses our emotions and throttles our less than common sense by obliging us to address the force of nature itself. You are deluding yourself, it screams, and by the end of any concert recording by the Ganelin Trio you are probably perfectly content to admit it. If the access button in your brain is switched on, you may never listen to music quite the same way again. IIt may not be an obvious or even a conscious decision. But you will not be able to ignore this epochal roar from those times when greater certainty prevailed and whose pathetic passing may be of some regret. If you were born to this, then you were born to riches as nourishing as peasant bread. So what about the 1970s? Often pilloried as an uneventful decade with a personality bypass, it may just be that its greatest asset was its undefinable certainty. You knew who or what your enemy was, whether in politics, music or your neighbour's taste in clothes, and if you didn't, you had a good time imagining one.

When the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, it was too late for the Ganelin Trio. TTheir own equally unique architecture had collapsed several years before and then finally with the defection to the West by the pianist Slava Ganelin. In the battle of political wills, a consumerism unembarrassed by victory may have pipped communism to the post. Any opportunity to influence musical history throughout those cold years was submerged by overt political battles. IIn the gritty fog of communism, there somewhere between the cracks, slipped the Ganelin Trio, plundering history in the process and defying the gravity of disintegration to the end. They had Communism: we had 65 different brands of floor wax but still no Ganelin to take home. With the coming of the '80sa different euphoria prevailed, but it was all over by then, for them and us.

Today too much music speaks last year's language. To recall T.S.Eliot: last year's words belong to last year's language/ and next year's words await another voice. It is not only the voice that commands the story. It is also the ear. We await new sounds. But our minds are too often already made up, rather than always in the making. We need music that threatens the dogmatism of our own nature.

Great musicians leave their listeners with unfinished business, offering us irresistible invitations. With the end of politics, the old narratives are gone, never as rigid and cogent as we once thought. But contrary to the present outcome, we should never forget that all sorts of endings are still possible. The illusion of progress and the politics of conquest will no longer do.

"When you are philosophising you have to descend into primeval chaos and feel at home there." The Ganelin Trio would have felt at home with Wittgenstein on that one.

All CDs by the Ganelin Trio can be purchased directly from Leo Records at

"As for my space and time, just to give you an idea: I'm from Sydney, Australia and born in 1957. I've always had an ambition to write and have decided to make it my main occupation these days. I was a working musician for 10 years, gave it away to spend another 10 years travelling the world (Africa, Europe, Asia). Came back here, built my home from scratch, started writing and hope now to make a living from it. Perhaps 'Steve Kulak writes about new music and what informs it' will do as a bio line. The message is important, less so the messenger."


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