An Appreciation of Sergey Kuryokhin: On the Occasion of a Reissue of ‘Some Combinations of Fingers and Passion’

An Appreciation of Sergey Kuryokhin: On the Occasion of a Reissue of Some Combinations of Fingers and Passion

By Seth Watter


            The philosopher Didi-Huberman writes of hysteria that it is “a thousand forms, in none.”  All the attempts of Professor Charcot and his colleagues at the Salpêtrière to photograph hysterical women, in the name of objective science, were doomed to fail; because a still image of a hysteric is essentially only the picture of an intermittence, a gap between the phases of a hysterical attack.  The actual phenomenon is an unpredictable unfolding of contradictory states, agony, jouissance, terror, hope, dementia, insight… 

            So it is with the work of Sergey Kuryokhin, whose music flirts with hysteria.  And so it is with the writer who attempts to describe this music, condemned to record in words only intermittences: for the real substance of Kuryokhin’s art is the transition from one mode to another, each style in isolation telling us nothing.  What is being told is the story of an instrument, the piano, and its circuitous route between past and future.

            The distant past (the 19th century)—an illustrious history of composers, Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Borodin, all bourgeois, aristocrats, relics of feudalism.  The recent past (the revolution, Stalin, the Cold War)—a Soviet campaign to renew interest in popular folk forms, music of the rural poor, a proletarian music.  The present, the time of Kuryokhin’s maturity (1981-1996)—Glasnost, Perestroika, the loosening of cultural oppression and renewed trade with the Western world, the rapid deterioration of the USSR as a world power; which also meant a renewed interest in jazz, a music suppressed by government on and off since its formative years.  The future—a reconciliation of the different phases of Russian art, a music both national and international, structured and improvised, populist and avant-garde, a music recklessly tossed into the arena of world culture.

            Some Combinations of Fingers and Passion (1991) reflects something of this matrix.  How much, I am unsure; but certainly it is one of the late Soviet Union’s greatest achievements.  And it emerged, joyous, exuberant, august and consummative, at the same historical moment its motherland was on the precipice of a great collapse and dissolution.  “A poet’s speech begins a great way off… The eclipses of poets are not foretold in the calendar” (Tsvetaeva).  What seems inopportune may be the blessing of foresight.


In a recent article (Signal to Noise, no. 56), I wrote the following:

Contradiction is at the heart of Kuryokhin’s career; it is one of the hallmarks of his genius.  Crudely speaking, these contradictions number among themselves several binaries: constraint/freedom, tradition/progress, affectation/spontaneity, perhaps even—a mythological conception of East/West.  No musician before or since has so fully embodied the contradictions of the Soviet Union while making music that so gloriously transcends them, making each pair of oppositions fissure in every direction until they explode into pure force.

That was in reference to a concert of 1988 (the recently issued Absolutely Great!).  I think, three years later, the description does not hold quite so much water, if only because these heterodox influences on the musician have finally been condensed into a form so polished as to veil the workmanship from which it was painstakingly crafted.  The pianist does not want postmodern distanciation à la John Zorn; he has become tired of these myriad forms that do not congeal in the work of art so much as sit side by side under the arbitrary banner of the ‘artwork’.  There are no longer abrupt shifts from jazz to opera, from rock to waltz; that sort of aesthetic violence went out with the bathwater somewhere en route from The Ways of Freedom (1981) to Some Combinations; or perhaps it was merely shouldered onto Kuryokhin’s other longterm project, Orkestra Pop-Mekanika, the multi-media ensemble (music, film, performance, dance, zoology) which I called “a tireless effort to keep the state of Soviet culture in a permanent state of carnival.”  Some Combinations of Fingers and Passion is the result of a great purification: not of Kuryokhin’s prodigious musical vocabulary, but of the antagonisms which previously gave it voice.

            Speaking of The Ways of Freedom.—A wonderful first recording, completely anarcho-destructive of its idiom(s) used as cannon fodder for blunderbusses of improvised runs, manic twittering like a possessed pianola (unclear whether the speed of the recording was changed, the keys sound so tinny and unreal), supremely gestural, each line a percussive blow (aimed at who?), the instrument opened up for dissection and vivisection—literally!—slapping and bruising the insides, playing all its hammers, rollers, strings, springs—pounding away in the very joy of destruction!  (Joe Milazzo of One Final Note: “the sound of a young man, reared in a very particular tradition of instrumental virtuosity, discovering and delighting in his powers of musical subversion.”)  The music was considered so repugnant to official taste that it was secretly recorded and smuggled to England as the inaugural release of producer Leo Feigin’s eponymous label.

            Is it jazz?  Underneath all the obfuscating factors, something of that art form remains.  It is not often that jazz shows itself naked and unabashed in Kuryokhin’s music (though he did briefly tackle Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag” in 1984).  It bears repeating, though, that anyone playing jazz in Russia would be implicated in a complicated legacy.  “The Music of the Gross” (Gorky, 1928):

In the deep stillness resounds the dry knocking of an idiotic hammer.  One, two, three, ten, twenty strokes, and after them, like a mud ball splashing into clear water, a wild whistle screeches; and then there are rumblings, wails and howls like the smarting of a metal pig, the shriek of a donkey, or the amorous croaking of a monstrous frog.  This insulting chaos of insanity pulses to a throbbing rhythm.  Listening for a few minutes to these wails, one involuntarily imagines an orchestra of sexually driven madmen conducted by a man-stallion brandishing a huge genital member.

(A film made around this time, Taxi Blues [Lungin, 1990], helped cement this association of jazz with Western decadence; a cab driver who despises his saxophone-playing neighbor is unashamed to say he misses the guidance of strong centralized government.)

I think there is reticence in the early Kuryokhin to let jazz be jazz.  Thus he made his music distinctly inhuman, certainly asexual, and buried his Willie “The Lion” riffs beneath a torrent of atonal thrashing-about and pointillist abstraction—at loggerheads with his muse.


            No such shame on Fingers and Passion; it is a sustained meditation on jazz, not just the harmonics of jazz but the swing and the feel of jazz.  Of course, he couldn’t entirely throw off the heritage of virtuosic Russian artistry, beautiful and baroque; I would say Kuryokhin never got quite as earthy as his famous contemporaries, the Ganelin Trio.  But “A Combination of Power and Passion” is one of the few occasions I know of when he really dug deep into post-war American jazz, particularly Dave Brubeck’s music—the song’s subtitle, after all, is “Blue Rondo a la Russ”.  The West Coast master’s rhythmic innovations must have left their imprint on Kuryokhin, who had little to no respect for standard jazz time signatures.  If on previous recordings the Russian pianist let his hands compartmentalize the keyboard, agitating each other, creating a fractured-hysteric aesthetic, here they work together with interlocking melodies and rhythmic counterpoint.  All the effort of moving between styles is so gradual and mellifluous, the listener is generally unable to pinpoint the decisive moment of transformation.  By varying the pace and delivery of Brubeck’s central theme, gaining momentum with a sportsman’s fervor or slowing down in a staccato articulation, he allows room for new aspects to emerge, aspects which derail the music and force it to ceaselessly evolve.  As soon as one has grasped the theme of a cluster of repetitions, already the music seems elsewhere.  The most sublime improvisations operate in this manner, like the churning factory of the unconscious, bringing bits and fragments of memory-experience to light before burying them beneath revisions, detours, reversals and variations.

            The verdict is still out on whether or not God exists; but if he did, Sergey Kuryokhin would have been his gift to the piano.  The half-hour “Combination of Passion and Feelings” which begins the album is the kind of declamation orators only dream of, a tour-de-force as muscular as a Cossack, delicate and pastoral like a wheat field.  There is love, terror, sentiment, festivity, vertigo, a whole spectrum of emotions on display within this performance.  Yet to isolate its phases, to hold them up as illustrations of a musical lexicon, would destroy what makes it so fascinating, which is the dissolving of one into the other: the process, the passing-through.

            “A Combination of Hands and Feet” betrays the artist’s penchant for humor.  He had a biting wit, but is mostly remembered for a playful jackdaw mentality.  The brand of slobbery he kept in abeyance with his hands more often than not came to fruition through the voice.  Not that the pianist sings: one is more likely to distinguish gurgles, cries, squawks or whistles.  The absurdity of matching such serious music with these shrill aleatorics is not unlike the solemnity of Wile E. Coyote crushed beneath another russet-colored boulder.  “Hands and Feet”, part-ballad, part-waltz, is the closest he comes to genuine tenderness—which is never without a wink.

            “A Combination of Boogie and Woogie” is the most straightforward piece Kuryokhin ever performed as a solo artist, playing in the two-beat style of American piano giants James P. Johnson, Luckey Roberts and Meade Lewis.  It’s close to gutbucket, but specifically Russian with its sense of high drama and capacity for florid embellishment.  Even if it isn’t quite the barrelhouse, it makes good on the promise of its title; for once, there is reverence on the performer’s part for the standard beat, and as anyone who likes a good boogie-woogie knows, that striding rhythm is simply unstoppable.

            Poets invite us to dream, writes Bachelard.  One says there are moonbeams in the linen closet; Reason sees through this logical aporia, but the imagination continues to be stimulated, carried aloft to new heights.  Kuryokhin’s reverie was one in which East and West were not only united, but had lost all meaning: a daydream of a distant future, or a distant impossible.

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