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(Fragment) Vladimir Tarasov. Photo: Arūnas Baltėnas

“If someone tried to play like Jimi Hendrix now – they wouldn’t get anywhere!” 0

An interview with Vladimir Tarasov, jazz musician and artist

Agnese Čivle

Vladimir Tarasov – an Arkhangelsk-born, Vilnius-based founder of the Lithuanian School of Jazz – was once a member of the renowned jazz trio GTC (Viatcheslav Ganelin, Vladimir Tarasov, Vladimir Chekasin). Having already garnered international acclaim as a drummer, percussionist and composer, Tarasov is also in possession of a refined sensitivity in terms of visually tonal subtleties. It is precisely this ability – to hear music in art and to see visual elements within music – that prompted Tarasov's entrance into the territory of visual art: he has presented his work at multiple international biennale's, and in 2009 he received Russia's Triumph Award for the highest achievements in the arts.

We met with Mr. Tarasov during the ArtVilnius art fair, in the shadowy private space installed 'behind the curtains' of his multimedia installation “The Sixties” (2009), on view at Hall No. 4 of the Litexpo center. Tarasov created this work as a metaphor of the 1960s – a time during which many musicians turned to recreational drugs as a way to stimulate their creativity. And it seems that, through this composition of sound and millions of pixels, Tarasov has succeeded in transmitting something narcotically intoxicating into the current day. Throughout the duration of the art fair, never for a moment was this space empty of people – reclining on the aromatic floor covering of pressed hay bales, fair-goers relaxed for hours on end as they watched two wall-sized, large-scale video projections of an infinite field of poppies swaying in the wind, in which every so often an important musician of the time - Miles Davis, Glenn Gould, John Coltrane, Ravi Shankar, Jimi Hendrix and Scott MacKenzie - rises among the flower heads, seemingly caught in mid-performance. One would be hard-pressed to believe that the only reason for the piece's popularity was the fact that is was the only legitimate place where one could sit down and take a breather from the visual marathon of the fair.

In the semi-darkness of Hall No. 4, visitors lounge on bales of pressed hay. The air is fragrant. An endless poppy field slowly ripples in the wind in large-scale video projections on two walls. Every now and then a cult musician from the 1960s appears in a video montage among the red flower heads: Miles Davis, Glenn Gould, John Coltrane, Ravi Shankar, Jimi Hendrix and Scott MacKenzie... We hear the sounds of the legendary song “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Some Flowers in Your Hair)”...

Before meeting with Mr. Tarasov, Rokas Kilčiauskas, the architect of the fair, recounts Tarasov's actions at the fair's opening ceremony on the previous day: “He is a genius, he is a master. He performed a 20-minute percussion solo at the opening. You had to see it, you had to hear it to believe it! It was as if he were tearing your flesh apart and playing on a knot of naked nerves! And that went on for twenty minutes, non-stop. I have no idea how Tarasov does that. And it is the same with this video installation.”

When I greet Mr. Tarasov, he tries to recall when he was last in Riga, and names all of his peers in jazz over there: Normunds Šnē, the oboist; and Māris Briežkalns, who played the drums in the Baltic Art Orchestra with Tarasov in the 1990s. He tells us about being on stage in 2008 during the Rīgas Ritmi/Riga Rhythms festival, and how last year a fashion label asked him to create the soundtrack for their fashion show. Tarasov doesn't remember the name of the fashion label, but he does remember that the audience was made up of “all sorts of bourgeoisie, the ex-president, and tall girls dressed in Gucci and Armani.” Then he laughs heartily as he recalls the time a good friend of his – audio-engineer and Blue Microphone founder Mārtiņš Saulespurēns – invited him to his summer house in Carnikava: “We had two choices – to speak either in English or in Russian, and since Russian was easier for us, that's what we did. An older gentleman happened to be in our company, a hardened 'comrade'. Suddenly Mārtiņš – who is very intelligent, quiet and reserved – switches over to Latvian and in a raised voice addresses the old communist as “sarkanais dirsinieks (red asshole)” Knowing Lithuanian, I can understand a bit of Latvian. I couldn't help but notice that the older man gathered his things and left. Obviously, some sort of conflict of a political nature had arisen.”

Rokas Kilčiauskas, the architect of the fair, said that, unfortunately, it was impossible to provide the original version of “The Sixties” – in which projections of a poppy field should cover all four walls of the room and the viewer is swallowed by a sea of poppies, creating a more full-blooded version of a multi-sensory space. What exactly did you want the viewer to feel through this work?

Remember Billie Holiday – she died from heroin addiction. Remember this song she sang, “Sophisticated Lady”:

“... Smoking, drinking, never thinking
of tomorrow…”

That's what those times were like – that's how music often came into being in the sixties; and the way that the music was back then – it will never happen again. This work is about the energy of that time. It's not only about narcotics as such. Yes, many musicians were into drugs back then. I tried them myself... My God, I even recorded something at the time! If only I hadn't... This work isn't nostalgic either; it was created to show the essence of the time. If someone tried to play like Jimi Hendrix now – they wouldn't get anywhere! You can't copy a time. This is a dedication to the times of which I am a child. I still remember the feeling of those times. I chose the “legends” of those times for the soundtrack – Miles Davis, Glenn Gould, John Coltrane, Ravi Shankar and Jimi Hendrix...

The piece is technically complex; it was difficult to present the whole work here – originally it consisted of eight screens. It will eventually move on to the Moscow Biennale.

Could you expand on one of your works that you showed in another biennale – at the European art biennale Manifesta 10 in St. Petersburg – where your work “Fourth River” was on exhibit?

Then I have to go a couple of years back into the past. For many years I had a copy of Dante Alighieri's “Divine Comedy” in my studio, and I would regularly leaf through it. Inspired by the metaphor of the river as discussed in the work, I got the idea to create the visual and acoustic installation “Dante's Rivers”. There were four different rivers, and at the Manifesta biennale the fourth one was shown, the one in which the rivers of fire and water meet. As the flames touch the water, a hissing sound is emitted, which I also used in the soundtrack.

In 1993, you and Ilya Kabakov presented “The Red Pavilion” at the Venice Biennale.

Yes, he was pivotal in my decision to start making installations. That was at the end of the 80s. Of course, I've been alongside artists my whole life – they came to my concerts, and after the concerts we would hang out in their studios. However, it was Kabakov who inspired me to make my first piece. In 1991 at the Dusseldorf Kunsthalle there was an exhibition dedicated to post-soviet and contemporary art – Sowjetische Kunst um 1990. Binationale CCCP. The museum’s director at the time, Jürgen Harten, asked me to create the musical program for the exhibition—and so I proposed my work “Drum Theatre,” and Kabakov brought his famous “Red Wagon.” Drum Theatre was dedicated to the people who had perished in the gulags in the Soviet Union. It contained sentimental Russian songs. Kabakov liked this, and suggested that it could be part of the work: “Red Wagon”.

Recorded in 1992, Ronald Feldman Gallery, New York. Recorded by Larry Buksbaum, mastered by Eugenijus Motiejūnas. © Vladimir Tarasov 

Our next collaborative project was “Incident at the Museum or Water Music”, in 1992 at the Ronald Feldman Gallery in New York City. The piece then traveled on to Barcelona, Lisbon, and Chicago... “Music on the Water” (1996), which is currently at Kiel's Schloss Salzau, is our only collaboration that is not driven by social commentary – there's nothing about the Soviet Union in it. There's just a pavilion on the edge of a lake, the wind plays a quiet music of bells... And so, step-by-step, I found myself and began to do solo shows.

At that time you still worked with sound installations; at what point did you turn to video?

Once I understood that it's much too expensive for museums and galleries to set up mechanical installations (laughs)!

That was about twelve years ago; the video work was called “Septima”. I was in Venice, sitting on the edge of the canal and watching the gondolas... Seven gondolas, seven districts in Venice... And the rhythm of the gondolas rocking in the green waters, exactly the shade of old bronze... The facades of the buildings reflected in the water. The time when Russia and Venice were like sisters, and acquired their art from a shared mother – Byzantium... As a musician, this structural imaging of Venice instigated associations with the intervals between sounds – a major seventh. And I was inspired to make a video.

I went to our art academy, to the artist and photographer Alvydas Lukys, and asked him if he could teach me how to make a video. I learned how to, I got a good camera, and I went back to Venice – to the same exact place where I was hit with inspiration – and I started to work. Everything that I do, I'm used to doing it completely by myself, from filming to editing. I enjoy the cross-over of working as a musician and visual artist.

Stravinsky's Syncopations, Vladimir Tarasov, 2014, 2'02"

That was your first work. What is your latest work?

One of the last pieces I've been working on is a request from the Fondation Igor Stravinsky. I'm making the video installation “Stravinsky Syncopes”, as a reminder that Stravinsky's use of syncopation came before jazz syncopation.

What's the difference between the thinking processes for making music and for making a visual work? How does your creative energy flow?

When I turn to the visual arts, I hear music in it; when I turn to music, I see visual elements in it. Music opens up like a beautiful flower, one petal after another – one sound after another... Somebody asked me yesterday if I paint; no, I don't paint. I don't know how. I work with what I know, namely, sound. Sound and its visual moment – those are my things.

In the beginning, there was sound; then came music. It's a combination of sounds. It's the same in the visual arts. But of course, the primary thing in both cases is the idea. Bringing it to life – that's in second place.

Is it possible to get tired of music, to get tired of sound?

Yes, it is possible if you work with music in the sense of just reproducing it – like in a routine job. I've worked in a symphonic orchestra – it's a routine job; Federico Fellini's film “Orchestra Rehearsal” (1978) is completely true – in their free time they play cards, get tied up in love stories, and rarely think of music because music is their job. However, if you love what you do, you are a part of it. You play yourself. Then you can't get tired of it. It's the same in the visual arts. You simply speak through what it is that you do, because you have to speak – you just can't do it in any other way. But when you try to repeat again what someone has already said, that is no longer interesting. I remember when I was visiting Riga and somebody said to me: “Oh, we have a really great saxophone player – he plays like John Coltrane!” But I've already heard how Coltrane plays – I have all of his recordings. I don't have to hear somebody that copies him. He should do his own thing. I may not like it, but at least it will be his own thing.

Vladimir Tarasov. In Between, 2009, 2'02"

So, originality is essential to you?

It's not as if I especially try to create something totally original. There are more than six billion of us on this planet, and do you know what the greatest thing is? – that we are all completely different. To find yourself – your true, authentic self – that's the best thing that can happen. For an artist, the most important thing is to open your own doors yourself; find your own way to be. Kabakov once made a good comparison between art and a communal apartment – open one door, there's a Duchamp; open another, there's a Kandinsky. You can copy them, or make something that's yours alone.

Do you think about new opportunities in art and music?

Today's technologies have given us many opportunities to realize our ideas. For example, there are various computer programs for composing music – Sibelius, Finale... but if you don't have any ideas, they won't help you much.

I like young people who let themselves make mistakes – at least they're trying to find themselves; our academies mostly produce only copies. And after finishing their studies, these young, talented people simply disappear somewhere – they work in a job unrelated to art.

Have you been to this year's Venice Biennale?

Yes, I played a concert with Grisha Bruskin at Fondazione Querini Stampalia on the opening day.

What did you think of the Biennale?

Chaos, as usual, but some things did seem interesting. For instance, Christian Boltanski at the central exhibition, and Okwui Enwezor's work in general. The British pavilion, the Polish pavilion... The video made by artists from the Polish pavilion was good, although I heard my American friends claiming it was politically insensitive – how the white people came and showed the black people what opera is. I also liked Singapore's pavilion; it shows that really interesting work is happening there. The Mozambique pavilion was also interesting – their installation was slightly reminiscent of Ilya Kabakov's work “The Big Archive.”

Many have characterized this year's Biennale as very depressing.

If people find the work depressing it may have to do with the way much of the work reflected geo-political concerns - the work often exposes this and can lead to such comments.

Vladimir Tarasov. Photo: Arūnas Baltėnas

You travel, but you always return to Vilnius. What keeps you here?

This is the most beautiful city! I remember that Vilnius' Old Town was renovated before your Riga. It was done by my friend Algis Reimeris, who is also a musician. I remember when he started the renovation work – he'd go to different government institutions asking for the necessary pastel-colored paint for a building's exterior, and he took great care in obtaining the appropriate colors for the architecture.

There is an excellent energy here in Vilnius. I have a house by a lake; a beautiful 200-year-old tree grows right outside my window. It inspired me to create the installation “Kyklos” (2010) – while making it, I filmed the tree every day for a year. Now the piece is on exhibition at the RAM Museum in Rome.

I travel a lot, I'm surrounded by many people, and that's why I look forward to returning to the complete quiet of my studio and home. Actually, home and studio can be anywhere, I am on the road, but there is always a special connection that I experience in Vilnius.