Taiga tales: letter from a Siberian techno festival

Last month, Berlin's CTM Festival held its first satellite event in Novosibirsk, showcasing local electronic musicians on the same bill as international stars. The Calvert Journal spent three days in the Siberian capital soaking up the atmosphere

Byetone, Globus Theatre, Novosibirsk (Photo: Anastasia Golovina)

Byetone, Globus Theatre, Novosibirsk (Photo: Anastasia Golovina)

Being sent to Siberia isn’t something you’re meant to look forward to. It’s a place where you go to be exiled or imprisoned; a byword for brutality, if stereotypes are anything to go on. So when journalistic duty summoned me there for an electronic music festival last month, I felt pretty fortunate, in the grand scheme of things. There was no forced labour involved and I stood a good chance of seeing my loved ones again. If the music had been terrible, it would hardly have mattered.

The annual CTM Festival of Adventurous Music and Art has been going on in Berlin since 1999, attracting all sorts of plaudits from fans of experimental, mainly electronic, music, so you could be forgiven for wondering why the organisers decided to stage their first ever satellite event in the middle of Siberia — in its capital, Novosibirsk, to be precise. Electronic music — particularly the difficult, trendy kind — is often described in terms of bleakness and coldness (synths are invariably “icy”), but wasn't this going a bit far? As in, several thousand miles too far?

Novosibirsk’s extreme continental climate means that by mid-September the mercury is already plunging southwards, and my colleague Igor and I stepped off our four-hour red-eye from Moscow into a bracing 7 degrees C at the airport taxi rank. Once en route, our cabbie, who was from Yakutsk, launched into a diatribe about global warming and how the winters in Novosibirsk just weren’t what they used to be. Time was you’d get snow by October and a reliable -30 by midwinter, he said, but these days it’s none of the white stuff till November and a disappointing -15 or -20  come January.

Among other impressive feats, such as meeting a bear in the Altai mountains, our driver was particularly proud of having a German wife — not from Germany, mind, but Volga German: the descendant of Germans invited over by Catherine the Great to farm the Volga region and then scattered generations later by Stalin to inhospitable parts of the Soviet Union. As a result, Germans are one of the biggest ethnic minorities in Novosibirsk — admittedly not big enough to justify the wholesale relocation of a techno festival from Berlin, but perhaps one reason why the Goethe-Institut, which was instrumental in conceiving and supporting CTM:Siberia, had an office there in the first place.

A workable western equivalent to Novosibirsk might be Minneapolis: both cities are industrial hubs on big rivers, on the edge of taiga forest, half way across continents. (Wikipedia informs me that the cities are actually twinned and, as luck would have it, one in five Minneapolitans are of German descent.) Also, both are remote enough, but at the same time big enough, to have cultivated distinctive creative scenes. Novosibirsk may not have produced a Prince yet, but for now it has Evgeny Gavrilov, aka Dyad: the lynchpin, along with Krasnoyarsk-based Stas Sharifullin (aka Hmot), of a Siberian electronica scene that has been steadily attracting international attention in recent years.

As well as producing music themselves, Gavrilov and Sharifullin release their friends’ — the likes of Nikita BondarevForesteppeFerrein and Appleyard — on their own labels, Echotourist and Klammklang. Theirs is a musical fraternity that has grown up without infrastructure or commercial viability. “There’s a huge lack of proper platforms for independent music promotion, both physical and digital”, says Sharifullin, “[but] we’re free to do whatever we want, to keep exploring new sonic territory”. A genuinely original music scene built on freedom to experiment with no need for commercial compromise: considered like this, it becomes easier to see what attracted the Berliners.

Reliant on local knowledge, it made sense for the organisers to ask Gavrilov and Sharifullin to co-curate the festival, which had a two-day warm up leg in Krasnoyarsk before decamping to Novosibirsk for the rest of the week. They had done their homework on the local audiences, too. With over 70 local universities and close proximity to Akademgorodok (a Soviet science town-turned IT hub known as the “Silicon Taiga”), Novosibirsk is home to more than your average number of highly educated, tech-minded young people. Exactly the sort of crowd, then, that would appreciate the chance to hear knob-twiddling sonic pioneers from all over Russia and abroad play in their own back yard.

Although Russia’s third largest city, Novosibirsk is so remote that most western Russians don’t ever go — why would they, when they could go to Europe instead? But even here, nearly 3000km from Moscow, there’s much that feels familiar: grand boulevards clogged with cars, imposing Stalinist blocks; a vast central square presided over by Lenin; a gaudily coloured, late-19th century train station that would have looked at home in Komsomolskaya Square. And yet this far inland it feels almost like another planet. The fresh thinness of the air and brightness of the sunshine feel alien, especially to someone from a small, temperate island coddled in mist and fog. Apparently the winters are similar, but dialled up: appallingly cold and brutally sunny. Even in the city centre you feel closer to the elements. The petrol fumes, richer and fruitier than in Moscow, are served up to the nostrils neat and pure.

We only had three days, and unfortunately we couldn't spend all our time throwing experimental shapes by the bass bin. The main, cynical reason we went all that way was to deliver two workshops for local journalists and photographers in order to recruit future star TCJ contributors. The first, which was part of the CTM festival programme, went on at the city library and pulled in 35 punters despite stiff competition from a theremin masterclass upstairs, and the second, which was supported by the British Embassy, took place in one of the trendier bars on Novosibirsk’s “hipster mile” (aka Lenin St).

It quickly became clear that CTM:Siberia was a special kind of festival that ran on the goodwill of those participating. Upon arriving at the library lecture theatre for our first workshop, we were met by an extremely helpful sound engineer who seemed to know everyone and everything about the festival, and spoke flawless English. It was only when he’d made sure we had the flipchart/projector/mikes we needed, wished us luck and run off to another venue, that we realised that it had been Stas Sharifullin all along. There aren’t many festivals in the world where you’ll find the curator, star, and inspiration for the entire event humbly doing the sound as well.

Next we found the guy who’d volunteered to translate for us, and immediately recognised him as Ivan Zoloto from Karelian noise duo Love Cult. With his black clothes and bald pate, Ivan bears an uncanny resemblance to Death from Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, but is far better company. Before the workshop he explained to me the famous Siberian sense of humour, which seems to involve frequent recourse to incest jokes. And as well as making ear-bleedingly brilliant “northern technology noise pop” and playing one of the standout sets of the festival with his partner Anya Kuts, he turned out to have a prodigious ability to remember minute-long chunks of rambling reflections on feature writing and deliver them straight to the audience in seamless, and doubtless more coherent, Russian.

Both workshops were well attended, and from the energy and ideas on display, Novosibirsk’s reputation for having a young, fearless and opposition-minded electorate seemed justified. As for the rest of the festival, what we managed to see was an emphatic success buoyed up on eager audiences and a fraternal spirit between performers. The lack of dedicated independent music venues in the city led to some improbable pairings, including spellbinding Tuvan throat singing from Huun-Huur-Tu in the Novosibirsk Philharmonic and an epic sound and laser show by Monolake’s Robert Henke in the Globus Theatre, a vast late-Soviet concert hall. Both main club nights of the festival took place at a restaurant called Ragu, on the top floor of an ugly glass and steel tower from the 90s, a sort of miniature Gherkin manqué. It wasn’t exactly cut out for clubbing: the dancefloor, too small for acts like Mujuice, doubled as a queue for the bar (which in its defence served themed cocktails called things like Modulator and Generator I & II).

But to wish that one of Novosibirsk’s many superb Constructivist buildings could have been used as a venue instead would be to miss the point. This most unlikely of festivals shone a well deserved spotlight on one of the most exciting creative scenes in the Russian regions and was carried off in an admirable spirit of internationalism that is much needed in times like these. As Sharifullin put it: “Somehow, we were all friends, even if we don’t know each other’s names or were speaking different languages. It was full of love.”