Analysis Uncategorized

Exploratory Analysis: “Russianness” in AK-47’s Track “Circle Tinted” (2009)

From an analytical perspective, to attempt to empirically deduce the “Russianness” of music created in Russia is a thankless task as you run up against the difficulty of defining your parameters. The lack of functional clarity of what “Russianness” is, although many texts, both historic and contemporary, argue otherwise, paints any analysis using this term as suppositional unless firmly rooted in sociohistoricity.

Any research methodology must be based upon several key principles, chief among them being the substantiation of the “scientific method” (i.e., observation, hypothesis, implication, testing) [1]. However, when it comes to more musically-oriented analytical procedures, where it is far less based on stringent methodologies and more on the detection of constructed formulas as set by historical principles and/or constructed epistemic and analytical frameworks (e.g., Ruwet’s “Methods” based on semiotics [2], Middleton’s theory-by-gesture [3], and A. B. Marx’s “Formenlehre” [4, 5]), analysis becomes rooted not in hypothesis but in schemas. Therefore, when attempting to understand the “Russianness” in the repertoire of Russian hip-hop, it’s not enough to note cursory observations in the track’s timbre, texture, rhythm, instrumentalism, and textual theme.

Rather, because of the epistemological difficulties in ascertaining what “Russianness” actually is from a phenomenological [its appearance to observers] and even ontological [fundamental] standpoint, it’s not possible to make just one schema of “musical Russianness.” However, as my Master’s dissertation is hopefully demonstrating, by reviewing what was historically understood as musically “Russian” (e.g., moods, theory, semantics), a piecemeal methodology forms that can provide a possible in-road into the construction of a functional methodology. Essentially, systematically tracking the qualities and theoretical aesthetics that were (and are) commonly attributed to the “Russian character” [6], the “Russian soul” [7], if you will, I argue that you are left with a succinct list of tenants that can be adequately used for analytical purposes. Perfect? Not at all, but at least what this method gives you is an analytical base that is advantageous in “first-order” observations (i.e., superficial aesthetics and structural considerations).

It’s also notable that due to the relationship between “Russianness” and “musical Russianness” and the ‘politics’ of 19th c. Russia, the aesthetic delineation of the second as educated by the first, gestated itself from national discourses, is not simply musical. Thus, “musical Russianness” is as much about implication as intention, where masculine voices could be a convention or supercharged semiotic. In short, how you read “Russianness” in music is a strong factor in what you’ll find, which Helmers (2014) address when he calls for the foregrounding of reception.

In this vein, using previously collected notes, I will attempt to do a very brief musical analysis dedicated to revealing the “musical Russianness” within the track. However, I will be looking at one layer in particular, and that is the connection to folk music that the track professes in its base ostinato pattern [see figure one].

Via Music

As is evident if you listen to the song, the music is comprised of, essentially, a highly repetitive ostinato with a secondary melodic ostinato overtop. Musically speaking, the track is very typical for the Russian “Old School”, the track having been released in 2009. One can’t quite call it completely boom bap but rather a “Russified” rendition of the boom bap texture, as there is no overt syncopated bass underneath the rapping. However, the “Russian” element comes into play as an isolated analysis of the base ostinato reveals something very interesting indeed:

Fig. 1: Main theme of the track and the underlying ostinato

What is this, you might be asking, and how is this an example of “Russianness” within the track? For starters, it reads as very much ‘Russian’ due to its clearly minor tonality of Db minor (or C# minor, dependent upon your view), and it’s very slow within the song, which colors the ostinato in an introspective tenor. However, this ostinato is also connected to Russian folk music more tangibly and perhaps is connected to the “protyazhnaya” (or the ‘drawn out song’), a historical folk song form intimately connected to the legacy of Russian music. M. Locanto explains,

The protyazhnaya was a type of slow, melismatic lyrical folk song which in the mid-nineteenth century came to be seen as a paradigm for all Russian folksong, or even as the essence of Russian creativity and the ‘Russian soul’ itself.”

(2021, 165)

A serious counterargument to this ostensible connection, outside of the fact that the style’s origins are from Mongolia and not Russia as some claim, (Zemtskovsky, 1967) can be drawn from the very texture of the ‘drawn-out song’ itself. From a structural level, the genre is lyrical and operates outside the conventional mode of verticle harmony (a theme commonly associated with Western music). Further, there is no underlying ostinato-like fabric to the mixture, as usually there are only a few singers, and they operate in counterpoint with each other (e.g., “All the Universe” [8]). Thus, we are back at square one. If it’s not the “lingering song” that the track is echoing with its ostinato, what is the track’s ostinato alluding to then?

Figure 2: Second melodic motif of the track, overlaid on top of the bass motif

If we go off the process of “negation”, then we can definitely say that the track is not echoing the ethos of the “Ditty” (Chastushki), as it’s not upbeat nor jubilant enough. There isn’t an accordion used as well (e.g., ‘Play Harmony!’). It’s also not indicative of the “Ritual song” as, again, it’s not celebratory, nor is the theme a match for its pragmatic usage [9]. In the long list of negations, it’s also not what is called “dance songs” (khoroddnie pesni) [10], “Cossack songs” [11], “Nagrish” [12], another strongly Russian dance style, and certainly not the “comic song” [13]. So, again I ask, what is making this repetitive melodic pattern sound and feel Russian?

I argue that within this debate on what is and is not musically Russian, therein lies a strong argument that the invocation of “Russianness” is inherently linked with the inability to cogently identify what invokes the ‘Russian’ feeling. The appropriation of ambiguity into the very schema of “musical Russianness”, even when the aesthetic is shrewdly identified, promotes this idea of exclusivity and originality, two tenants that are symbiotically connected to “Russianness” as a geopolitical and sociocultural term. If said quality is a collection of ‘cultural codes’ used to define the Russian existence and identity (Hellberg-Hirn 1998), then perhaps the foreign analyzer will always be ostracized from gaining a true picture of its existence.

Is this acceptable to state that one can endorse its presence without knowing what makes it present in the first place? Can I justifiably say that this track is “musically Russian” based on my internal feeling of “folk” rather than something substantial? Is it Academically untenable to construct a methodology on aesthetic hunches?

In Conclusion

As this hopefully demonstrated, the aesthetic deduction of “musical Russianness” in Russian hip-hop is as much a process of identifying what said track is NOT than what the track IS via aesthetic means. This type of analytical framework cannot be regarded as novel, as Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov was among many who noted that the whole method concocted by the “Kuchkists” (i.e., The Mighty Five), a collective of five auto-didactic composers in the mid-19th century, was rooted in the removal of aesthetic devices and techniques deemed too Western. Thus, in this track, there is a tension between the “boom bap” Old School of the Americas and the Russian “Old School”, similar in nomenclature but aesthetically idiosyncratic enough to warrant more research going forward. In any case, the “Russian” element is not musically clear, yet there is a fundamental “folk” quality to the ostinati. Why? What is being indicated by its usage here, and what meaning does it hold for the geo-political orientation of its artistic fabric? How is the track transformed into a player in larger networks of Rancierian-like political power exchanges through its usage?

The only way to unambiguously find out is to ask the creator, “Why the ostinato?” Without this question, I may never know exactly why this pattern was used. And here lies the conundrum between “musical Russianness” and Russian hip-hop. Unless you confirm the teleological usage of a certain aesthetic trait and stylistic characteristics, you may never actually know why something is there. Thus, the music researcher is left to cogitate their own reason, leading to the polemic state of “musical Russianness” today. Speculation, subjective readings, and theory but in the end, no one answer. “Musical Russianness” in Russian hip-hop is as much about coming to terms with the reality of ambiguity as it coming up with real answers.

In the end, there is no methodology for “musical Russianness”. All there is, however, are theories supported by the historical, social, and political track record of the Russian nation. For me, however, this is unsatisfying. I will continue to search for the aesthetic evidence of “musical Russianness” in Russian hip-hop. It’s there, within the genetics of the genre, but where those genetics begin is not yet known.


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