Below is the unedited version of the interview done by Maxence Grugier with the founders of N&B Research Digest, Anton Nikkilä and Alexei Borisov for the French magazine Musiques & Cultures Digitales in March 2003.
The interview was conducted via e-mail between Paris, Moscow and Helsinki. The article which it is a part of was published in issue #41 of Musiques & Cultures Digitales in May 2003, and a part of the article is online at the magazine's website.
Here are the questions. U can answer as long as you want, it's for two pages on the magazine...
Ok, so, let's go :
1/ Where are U exactly in Russia ?
AB: I live in Moscow and Anton Nikkilä lives in Helsinki, Finland.
2/ N&B Research seems to be a very intellectual structure. What is your background before managing your label?
AN: We're not aiming to combine intellectualism with music, I think we're just incorporating our background, both professional and life experience in general, into our musical expression. I think it's quite important not to deny who you are and where you're coming from, not to try and follow the standards of the international electronic music scene, but instead bring something idiosyncratic and personal to it.
AB: I have been making music since around 1980, like Anton too. I have been a professional musician since 1989, before that I graduated in political history and worked for a short time as a junior researcher in a Moscow institute of international relations.
AN: I'm doing other things on top of music - translating Russian literature, organizing festivals (Avanto Helsinki Media Art Festival), writing about Russian music occasionally.
3/ What does "N&B research" means ?
AN: The label started like a game, without any serious business plans. So our first releases were cd-r's. We were bored with the way visual presentation (videos, record covers etc) dominate the way music is perceived, even in experimental electronics. Nowadays the marketing and advertising business seems very effective and it immediately absorbs any "experimental" ideas, which emerge in the field of visual design. This is why many cd releases look like disgusting, tasteless "lifestyle accessories" - their style is familiar from advertizing. The cd as a medium itself - shiny, compact, expensive - reinforces this phenomenon. So we thought - what could be an artistic gesture into another direction and a comment to the way music is commodified? We came up with the image of a Soviet research center. The USSR was full of so-called "closed" (ie secret) research institutes, because so much of all activity in that country was in one way or another connected with the military machine. This kind of institutions don't advertize or do image-making - they only publish research reports, which are in best case made available through the system of scientific libraries. We wanted to make our releases look like data storage discs coming from a research institute, with photo-copied archival stickers instead of cover designs. Of course this kind of anonymous anti-image is familiar from the early techno scene with its white label vinyls, endless project pseudonyms, pirate radios and the rhetoric surrounding them, but in 2000 when we started, this was all in the past. But now, for our latest two releases we chose another style for the visual designs - the traditional design of French books, with no graphics or photos in sight. The name of the label is not as pretentious as it may sound, if you think about our initials (Nikkilä & Borisov) and the fact that we've actually done a fair bit of research in mapping the Russian experimental underground. A Belgian cd reviewer had another interpretation of our name though, which I thought was great: he was all the time talking about "Night & Black Research Digest".
4/ Is there a kind of political symbolism to be a outer-boundaries structures, to work with musicians from Finland for exemple ? Long time ago (and maybe today) Russia and Finland were like "dog and cat", looking at each others, above theirs boundaries & had some bad relationship...
AB: Russia and Finland have been very closely connected economically, politically and culturally for a long time. And geographically, of course. Before 1917 Finland was a part of the Russian Empire. The confrontation between Russia and Finland was quite a short historical episode, provoked by the Second World War and the international situation of that time. Some territorial discussions now could have only theoretical character, but not practical.
AN: Russia and Finland have indeed always been very closely connected, but for the majority of Finns the situation is psychologically difficult. It's next to impossible for us to deny the cultural richness of Russia, but for most people here it's hard to be really interested in its cultural traditions and cooperate with Russians on equal terms, because Russia oppressed Finland to various degrees for most of the time from early 19th century up to early 1990's. My co-operation with Alexei started quite naturally. I have worked and studied in Russia for short periods, and my ancestors are from Russia, they came here after the 1917 revolution. My generation of Russian emigrés is already more Finnish than Russian though.
5/ Is N&B Research an electronic label, or an electroacoustic one, maybe an accousmatic ou concrete music label ? What kind of name do you done to the musician's work in N&B Research ? Is it important for you to give a self title to these musics ?
AB: The main methodologies of modern electronic or experimental music, some of which you mention, are present in our work. Conceptualism, experimentalism and archival work are three key parts of our activities. Also it's interesting to reflect on the results of research in sound and describe it in writing. All our artists are some sort of enthusiasts of sound experimentation and research.
AN: I'm not so interested in working within existing "pure" genres like acousmatics, glitch etc. We have no urgent need (for whatever reasons, commercial or otherwise) to place ourselves in any single context, tradition or system of funding.
6/ How do you built these artistic network ? The N&B Research artist are from all over the world... What kind of difficulties does it give ?
AN: Everything is based on personal relations. All the people involved on our compilations are our friends in addition to the fact that we like their work. Some people try to build virtual artistic networks on the internet, but I don't have much belief in them. Internet has changed many things, as everybody knows, but not creating long-lasting working relationships.
7/ Your label edit some unusual artists & unconventionnal sounds, why this choice of experimental music ? Is it an unconscious metaphore of the end of ancient structures (like the soviet one's) ?
AB: It could be caused by our backgrounds and personal characters. Or conscious choice is stimulated by any number of unconscious motifs.
AN: It's difficult to say. When I started making experimental music, us teenagers expected an imminent end of the world in the form a nuclear war. I remember for example that with our schoolboy French-language skills we interpreted Plastic Bertrand's melancholic/campy new wave/disco hit "Tout petit la planete" to be a song about a nuclear holocaust, though in reality I guess it's about UFO's. Another big favourite of that formative period, "Metal Box" by Public Image Ltd. also had a strong post-World War III atmosphere to it, like many post-punk recordings. This was the early Ronald Reagan era, when the musical underground reacted quite strongly to the escalation of the Cold War. Now it seems that the current international situation has no effect on the music people make. Musicians react only on the level of words.
8/ Do you think that N&B Research stay involved in experimental music all the time, or do you think to produce some others musical style, like techno, pop, hip hop or anothers... ?
AB. Of course, some of those pop forms are accumulated and transformed on our releases, so it's taken place already. But it has more of a post-modern character than being an attempt to occupy the territories of other musics.
AN: I agree, but I wouldn't use the word post-modern. It has an aura of cultural impotence connected with the ideas of "end of history" and the self-satisfaction of the Western cultural system in the early 90's. Mere knowing winks of eye and amusing games with art-historical references are not so exciting to my mind. But I guess all that we do is predicated by the "post-modern condition" in which we probably still live in. Personally I work all the time with those song forms you mentioned, but modify and distort them, so you might not immediately notice it.
9/ In White Night (a great album!) You say that U explore the soviet obsession for technology, you call it "The Cult of Technology", Could U explain this specificaly aspect of the soviet culture in the past ?
AN: It's a very big subject... The cult of technology was an integral part of the Soviet culture from the very beginning in the 1920's. This was globally an age of belief in rationality, mass production, Taylorism and Fordism. But in the Soviet Union it took semi-religious forms when the Soviets tried to abolish Christian religion, and the cult of Lenin and shock-work was constructed as a substitute. Machines, factories and worker-heroes were eulogized in literature and arts. This continued for decades with interesting modifications such as the endless amounts of paintings of the 50's, where nature and industry are depicted living in harmony with each other (every landscape painting has an idyllic-looking hydro-energetic plant looming in the horizon etc.). Then there was the optimistic age of the Conquest of Space, until finally it was impossible to keep quiet about the destruction caused by the rapid super-industrialization which culminated in Chernobyl (prophesized in Tarkovsky's film Stalker). I'm very interested in this "industrial" level of Russian history of mentalities and I've studied it quite a lot.
I also like the sounds of mechanical machines, though industrial music and its offspring may have given them a bad reputation, as very often industrial music presented the universe of mechanical sounds in the form of aimless massified banging and clanging. A slightly reminiscent phenomena is the current international wave of glitch/microsound/digital noise musics, where the focus is on the inner sounds of the computer mechanisms and software - this time on the microscopic level as opposed to industrial music's obsession with large scale.
10/ Do U think that Soviet Unions of the 60's and the 70's were so typic and specific culture, hard to understand for the western people ? In France, we have a lot of "clichés" about these years. A lot of people in europe, think that U haven't any real musical mouvement, no culture in the 30' until the 70', they only know the movie culture (some great film makers like Tarkovsky...) but that's all... What do you think about this ?
AB. The 60's and the 70's in the Soviet Union were an interesting period in cultural development. We can speak about well-developed pop and jazz scenes. It was also a period of the formation of rock underground and the electronic music scene. The development of avantgarde music and art was also taking place. At the same time it was a period of strong censorship and total control of KGB.
AN: I think the developments in Soviet arts should be explored in their own context, in relation to the totalitarian Soviet society and in relation to other forms of Soviet culture.
But on the other hand, the Soviet Union was also always a part of European and global culture, despite its closed borders. In the 30's it wasn't so unlike Germany, the period from the start of the WWII until early 50's was very bleak as in most other places, and in the 50's the USA was just as conformist and conservative as the USSR. In the early 60's the first electronic music studio in Russia was established in Moscow, at about the same time as Helsinki University's electronic music studio - not so long after these studios started to spring up in Central Europe and the USA. Later, during Brezhnev's more suppressive regime it was closed down of course. But definitely the USSR was not a cultural monolith with no dissent or interesting details and nuances.
11/ Actually, some musicians like Vadim or Solar X are fashion western europe. Do U think that it's possible now, to know a "hype" phenomenum about russian musicians ? Do U feel the think change for the east artist ?
AB: Some changes are taking place now, but they are not so big, especially for Russian electronic or experimental artists.
AN: I don't know about hype, but you mentioned political symbolism earlier. For some reason so far there hasn't been much interest for our music in the USA and the UK. The French and the Germans seem to be more receptive to it, like they have traditionally been to both Russian and Finnish music and culture in general.
12/ Last one : Your governement ask that it will put a resolution against the war in Irak, at the O.N.U. if the american governement continue to promise a war in Irak... What do you think about this position of Mr Poutin government, and what do you think about war yourself (and the Russian people...) ?
AB. Nobody likes war but it doesn't mean anything, unfortunately. The position of Putin is quite reasonable and understandable in view of Russia's economic and geopolitical interests. But the outcome of the Russian course becomes clear in the nearest future, I suppose.
AN: Putin is KGB, I think that says it all. I don't know about all of the French and German politicians, but I don't believe Putin is against the US aggression for the same reasons as every decent and civilized person should be.