Georgy Kozhevnikov

Yuri Orlov: The Soviet Underground Rock Hero Who Pioneered Russian Electronica

In the early 1990s, the writer Victor Pelevin, who at the time could still be sighted in public, would hum an unusual phrase under his breath: “My head is mysteriously floating in space.” Avant-garde music aficionados realized that he was quoting the lyrics of a song by the group Nikolay Kopernik, founded by Yuri Orlov, a man now considered an icon of 1980s Moscow new wave. But few people know that Orlov went on to pioneer Russian electronica, mentor the group Block Four, and launch the project Cold Hand of Moscow. V-A-C Sreda asked music journalist Georgy Kozhevnikov to trace Orlov’s road from central figure of the Soviet rock movement to hero of the Russian rave community.

Translated, from the Russian, by Thomas H. Campbell

Nikolay Kopernik, “Head in Space” (1988)

Punk Mixed with Synthpop, Shamans in Abakan, and Homemade Pyrotechnics

As Artemy Troitsky noted in his book Back in the USSR: The True Story of Rock in Russia, even before Nikolay Kopernik was formed, Orlov had followed “the traditional road of a musician testing himself in various subdisciplines — percussion, choral conducting, and saxophone.” Orlov himself recalls that playing instruments had a “superhuman appeal” to him from childhood. During his school years, music enabled him to distance himself from the popular amusements of punks on the outskirts of Moscow: showdowns and brawls. In an interview, he recounted how, in the very early 1970s, he would walk around the Dubrovka area of the city in the company of his peers, whose favorite pastime was fisticuffs. “I was a complete pacifist myself, I never liked brawls. But I grew up in an ordinary Moscow courtyard, and the people there were different, of course, ” Orlov said.

The local “fight club” usually met outside the GPZ-1 Culture Center, which later became the Theater Center on Dubrovka, the site of the infamous 2002 terrorist attack in Moscow. During one of their walks in the neighborhood, Orlov’s comrades, fueled by port wine and wielding chains, began trashing the fence. Suddenly, a bearded man leaned out of a window in the culture center. “Why are you breaking that? Come on in here!” the stranger shouted to the young men. Taking his words as a challenge, the chain-wielding punks ran upstairs. The Russian new wave’s future icon raced after them.

They found a smiling man with long black hair surrounded by a sea of instruments — guitars, drums, and wind instruments. The manager of this treasure was Mikhal Mikhalych Semyonov, who played saxophone in the Variety Theater and worked part-time at the culture center. “The vibe was simply fascinating, and the guys decided not to beat him up, ” says Orlov.

From that day on, for several years, Orlov went to the culture to study for free and play in a local teenage group. “I brought elements of electropunk to this cacophony, ” he says. “When I showed up at the culture center, I was already playing the guitar with might and main and giving concerts in the courtyards. My first instrument was given to me by my father: it was a classic yellow acoustic guitar with a timbre regulator.”

How could a simple Soviet boy have known about electropunk in the mid-70s? The fact is that Orlov’s father worked as an engineer on a naval ship and brought all sorts of records back home from his cruises abroad — discs by Kraftwerk, Donna Summer, Sex Pistols and other new-fangled stuff. “I mixed the sound of the punk and synthpop bands that I really liked. It was a synthesis, a reinterpretation of both styles, ” Orlov explains. But he liked artists like Deep Purple and Uriah Heep less: according to him, the whole courtyard was listening to them at that time. He preferred more minimalistic groups, but he owes a debt to many musical styles.

“I’ve always been a music addict. I liked both avant-garde and classical music. And even pop music, like Maya Kristalinskaya. I felt no hostility to any particular genres, ” Orlov recalls. “It’s the same thing nowadays. I can enjoy listening to fierce Japanese noise, finding something interesting about it, and then turn on Billie Eilish and also single out something that moves me. But most of all I listen to modern minimal house.”

After school, Orlov would immediately run to the culture center or Mikhal Mikhalych’s flat, where during three years of lessons he learned the basics of playing the saxophone, simultaneously picking up a variety of musical knowledge. At home, Orlov laid down tracks using improvised means: the foil-covered motor of an old vacuum cleaner (as a substitute for percussion instruments) and a rusty megaphone. He would lay down rhythms on a tape recorder before superimposing guitar sounds over them. The musician would later bring this ingenuity to other projects.

After leaving school, in 1979, Orlov enrolled in the wind instruments program at the music school in Abakan, in the eastern Siberian region of Khakassia. When asked why he chose to study in Abakan, Orlov answers vaguely. “Somehow it worked out that way. I was interested in shamanism then, and there were romanticism and shamans there, ” he explains. In addition, there was a powerhouse saxophone teacher at the school, although even this did not keep Orlov in Khakassia for long.

“I arrived there right in the middle of the academic year and enrolled. But it was quite dreary after Moscow. The locals were conservative guys, but I was a punk-jazz guy, closer in spirit to someone like (the Leningrad pianist, composer and band leader) Sergei Kuryokhin. So, I returned to Moscow, ” says Orlov. Before leaving, Orlov performed at a local festival. He invited shamans from the local hinterland and lit bonfires on the stage, around which they danced. “Consequently, I was even awarded a prize for this performance for my avant-garde approach, ” Orlov recalls.

Upon returning to Moscow, Orlov enrolled in the conducting program at the Institute of Culture (MGIK), but did not complete his studies: his innovative approach found no soil to put down roots there either. During the Red Carnation military song festival, Orlov again put on a show, filling the stage with fireworks and blowing them up while performing a brutal song about soldiers. “I was disliked for my extreme focus on militaristic topics. There was friction between me and my teachers. Plus, I wanted to learn what I liked, but at the institute I had to take classes on the history of the Soviet Communist Party. I had nothing against that per se, but I didn’t want to waste time. My mood soured, so I left, but the like-minded people I met there remained in my life. A friend rebuilt a reel-to-reel tape recorder for me with two stereo and four mono channels, ” Orlov recounts.

This tape recorder was used to record Nikolay Kopernik’s never-released debut album A Man on the Road. Orlov founded the group in 1980, his first year at the institute. The first lineup featured guitarist Artur Muntaniol, keyboardist Valentin Trofimov and opera singer Elena Kiri. Orlov recalls that the album consisted of four tracks and says that he still has the master tapes in his home archives.

We can get a sense of the music performed by NK during Orlov’s studies at the institute only through numerous eyewitness accounts, from which it follows that their songs were only nominally rock music. As Alexander Kushnir wrote in his book 100 Tape Albums of Soviet Rock, “Kopernik was almost the only band performing on the rock scene that had nothing to do with rock.” The band’s sublime and contemplative music more resembled electroacoustic experimental music than rock in the ordinary sense of the term.

NK’s Classic Lineup, Motherland, and Jungle

One fine spring day in 1980, Orlov was walking along Sadovo-Kudrinskaya Street. “There used to be a music store there and ads were always posted outside it — ‘musicians wanted, ’ ‘instruments for sale, ’ that sort of thing. Among this pile of ads, I noticed a sheet of paper on which someone had written ‘Double-neck guitar for sale.’ That piqued my curiosity something fierce, ” Orlov recalls. At the time, he was looking for new musicians to join NK.

“I arrived at the address listed in the ad, rang the doorbell, and a completely naked man comes out, Andrei Suchilin (founder of the group C Major). He invited me to come in. I thought, Well, okay, rock musicians are all weirdos, it’ll be fine, ” says Orlov. They spent several hours assembling and tuning a disassembled double-neck guitar and discussing current music. In the process, Orlov told the instrument’s owner that he was looking for a bass player. Suchilin suggested his friend Oleg Andreyev, a student at the Moscow Conservatory, for the vacancy.

A couple of days later, they went to meet Andreyev at the conservatory’s dormitory. “Oleg had just enrolled then, ” explains Orlov. “He immediately struck me as a person with a slightly different temperament — he was silent all the time. We Muscovites are more animated and talkative people. So, we met in the dorm. I was yelling out songs while playing on the guitar, and a neighbor came running when he heard the noise. It was Igor Len, who was working on the music to Olympics ‘80 at the time. It turned out that he liked my delivery.” This was how the members of NK’s classic lineup met for the first time.

However, the new friends began working together only three years later. Since their services were in high demand, the virtuosos Andreyev and Len were in no hurry to quit their other projects. Orlov tried for a long time to lure them away. “Oleg was then involved in cool projects, like the group Sonance, while Len was working with (the renowned electronic and film composer Eduard) Artemyev, ” says Orlov. “But in 1983, Kopernik did a powerful set at a festival and Oleg really liked it. So, I coaxed him away. Then I beautifully outlined to Igor my plans for making a new wave album. Consequently, he joined too.”

In parallel with this, in 1983 NK’s founder went on a “recon mission” to Leningrad, where the Leningrad Rock Club’s first festival was taking place, and met the members of the band Jungle. “I liked their innovative stance, so I suggested playing along with them on the ‘electronic’ saxophone, ” Orlov explains.

The “electronic” saxophone had been built for Orlov by the Moscow instrument maker Yura Ushakov, whom he had found via the very same bulletin board on Sadovo-Kudrinskaya. “I attached a piezoelectric sensor to it and connected it to a sampler. To pay for the purchase, I had to work as a loader at Detsky Mir, ” recalls Orlov.

After the festival, Jungle’s leader, the guitarist Andrei Otraskin, asked Orlov to join the group. He had to live in the attic of the Leningrad Conservatory, where Otraskin, who was then studying history at the university and worked as a janitor, had himself taken shelter. “We started rehearsing. I switched on my saxophone and it wailed and squealed like a wounded elephant, not like a human being, not like a saxophone. Everyone dug it. Jungle seemed to me like this sectarian group, in the good sense of the word, ” says Orlov.

But Jungle played only instrumental music, while Orlov was thinking about lyrics, vocals and samples — things he could do only with Kopernik. In addition, he had a minor kerfuffle with Jungle. According to Orlov, the group’s musicians snubbed the other members of the Leningrad rock community, and they referred to Kino and Aquarium as “pop” music. In 1984, Orlov left for Moscow for a short time, and when he returned to Leningrad, a big surprise awaited him.

“I had come to put together a new set with them, and Igor Tikhomirov, who later left to play in Kino himself, told me that Otraskin was in Aquarium and had a concert that day. I went to it and the place was packed. Andrei really was playing. Later, I said to him, ‘Andrei, you were chewing me out for associating with ‘pop’ musicians, but who are you performing with now? You’re onstage with one of the poppiest groups in Petersburg.’ That was how we parted ways, ” says Orlov. Although he performed dozens of times with Jungle, they never recorded anything together.

Back in the Soviet capital, Orlov set to work with Oleg Andreyev and Igor Len composing new songs for Nikolay Kopernik. The band’s classic lineup was the sum of absolutely dissimilar personalities: Len was a talented improviser and arranger, Andreyev was a measured and deliberate musician, while Orlov was steeped in psychedelia. A little later, the group was joined by drummer Dmitry Tsvetkov and saxophonist Igor Andreyev, whom Orlov lured away from the band Bravo.

In 1985, the Rock Laboratory was opened in Moscow: it was an organization that was supposed to coordinate the efforts of all the capital’s rockers. It was at auditions at the Rock Lab where Kopernik debuted their first experimental set. Their performance was markedly different from everyone who auditioned before and after them. According to eyewitnesses, the performance was more like an avant-garde jam session than a set by a rock band. On the eve of 1986, the band debuted the set “Motherland, ” which later formed the basis for the extremely successful eponymous album.

There were two secrets to the new set’s success. First, there were the lyrics. After leaving the institute, Orlov had got a job as a watchman at Spark of the Revolution printing plant. While passing the time at work, he happened on a collection of poems entitled The Song That Came True and was charmed by its ideologized texts, exemplary in their stupidity, triteness, and soullessness. Orlov decided to set them to beautiful and aesthetically perfect music. Secondly, there was the music itself. Yura Ushakov, who had built Orlov’s electronic saxophone, again came to the rescue. This time round he came up with device that Orlov himself dubbed the “crystallizer, ” a gadget that chiseled crystal-clear reverb from the guitar, Kopernik’s signature sound.

The result of these experiments was Motherland, whose title track was one of the anthems of the Moscow new wave era, setting a cosmically high sonic bar for Russian new wave bands. The album was released in 1986, the same year that Kopernik recorded The Northern Way. Two years later, they released the track “Head in Space, ” a line from which Pelevin had liked to hum.

Композиция “В небесах лазурных” с альбома “Родина”, 1986 год

In parallel with his work in NK, Orlov released solo albums—for example, Notes of a Snowman, recorded in 1987 at the studio of the Sovremennik Theater, which he infiltrated with the help of his friend Boris Raskolnikov, the founder of the underground club Third Way. Orlov’s psychedelic experiments with guitar at the Sovremennik generated, perhaps, the most underestimated album by a Moscow Rock Lab member in the late 1980s, an album permeated by Orlov’s trademark fondness for synthesizer and droning sounds. But real electronic music was still in his future.

France, Musique Concrète, and F.I.O

In 1988, Orlov met his future wife Catherine Rue, a Frenchwoman who had come to the Soviet Union with a group of session musicians. Their relationship got serious, and at the very end of the 1980s, Nikolay Kopernik’s entire lineup left for France, where Orlov enrolled in courses at the experimental music school IRCAM (Institut de recherche et coordination acoustique/musique), where there were two programs at the time.

The main program was Pierre Boulez’s laboratory, whose participants were engaged in recording live acoustic instruments, dividing individual sounds into overtones and then playing these overtones. “The French government budgeted a lot of money to IRCAM. And the place had a very powerful computer at the time; there was nothing in the Soviet Union that even came close to it. All the work was done on it. I was young then, twenty-four years old, and I was terribly impressed by all of it, ” says Orlov.

The second (supplemental) program was the acoustic department under the direction of Jean-Marc Jot, in which Orlov spent several important months. Here, students were mainly busy doing field recordings. “We would go to see Jean-Marc in the country. He showed us all sorts of tricks, which were very useful in my future work, although I had arrived there as an experienced user of samplers and could program complex devices on the go, ” Orlov recalls.

At IRCAM, Orlov learned how to work with natural sounds. “Catherine and I would hike in natural forest landscapes, recording crickets, insects and the noise of trees. Let’s say you’re walking through the woods and you capture the sound of branches and roots crunching under your feet. All these sounds — so-called musique concrète — were sorted into collections. Then they were put in a sampler, played back in the room and pinpointed in space.” These experiments fostered in Orlov a love for ambient music, although before he had been more involved in “composing in the classical sense of the word.”

Orlov returned home with a pile of musique concrète records. While studying in France, he earned extra money by returning to his old hobby of painting. Orlov produced and sold several paintings, buying a tape recorder and a couple of samplers with the money. Using this equipment, he began looking for a new sound. “I recorded a lot of songs that, unfortunately, were never released anywhere. And now, listening to these tape cassettes, I sometimes don’t understand how I made them, ” Orlov admits.

In Moscow, Orlov and Oleg Andreyev formed the acid house group F.I.O. (“Full Name”). In the new project, Andreyev switched from the bass guitar (which he had played in NK) to synthesizers, while Orlov handled the samplers. Rehearsals and recording of the new material took place in his flat in Dubrovka, the same neighborhood where his musical career had kicked off.

F.I.O. continued Orlov’s experiments with new sounds. “We would stretch condoms over cups, clicking them and making unusual drum sounds. The result was music reminiscent of early Aphex Twin, ” says Orlov. The band was Orlov’s first purely electronica project, and it performed in Moscow, Petersburg, and Kyiv.

No F.I.O. album was ever released, so the group’s tracks can be found only on rare collections of Russian electronica from the late 1980s and early 1990s, such as Moscow Beats Vol. 1, Purple Legion Strikes Back, and Technonation. “Gosha Shaposhnikov (another Soviet new wave pioneer) produced CDs. There are some instances in which two or three little things by us appeared. But as such, there were no independent releases at the time. We simply couldn’t find the means to press them, ” explains Orlov.

Block Four and Cold Hand of Moscow

In 1991, the members of Nikolay Kopernik’s classic lineup got married and left for different countries. Igor Len went to conquer America, Oleg Andreyev flew off Colombia, and Dmitry Tsvetkov moved to Belgium. By that time, many of them were no longer involved in NK. Orlov recruited the band’s third lineup, recording the albums Blinded by the Sun (1989) and General of the Galaxy (1990), but then, after frequent lineup changes, he folded the group.

Nikolay Kopernik, “I Fly” (General of the Galaxy LP, 1990)

Orlov began spending a lot of time at home with samplers, as well as at SNC, the recording studio founded by rock musician Stas Namin. “Sitting in the painted room at SNC, which was gradually turning into an electronica club, led to some progress. I somehow completely grew out of new wave and was playing electronic hardcore at the newly opened clubs, ” explains Orlov. “Even the most ferocious hardcore makes a philistine into a man, into a proper manifestation of humanity. Not to mention intellectual dance music. Its looped textures make us stop and look inside ourselves.”

SNC was the birthplace of Block Four, a project launched by Konstantin Smirnov (NK’s keyboardist after Igor Len’s departure) and sound engineer Oleg Salkhov, whom Orlov helped out by feeding them interesting samples and performing vocals on their tracks. According to him, the band was greatly influenced by the pop art style of the Petersburg duo New Composers, who molded their hits from samples of old tracks. Block Four made music in much the same way.

Salkhov did most of the sampling, while Smirnov handled the songwriting. “I would bring them ideas of what to sample. We’ll take this bit from Brian Eno, and that one from David Byrne, I’d say. There were tracks where I sang — ‘Ah, What a Pity, ’ for example. Oleg called me then and said that they’d done this piece and it was just begging for lyrics, so I went to the studio, quickly penned the text, and threw it down.” With help from Orlov, the group produced the tracks “Who Works with You?” “Sovtransauto, ” and “Radiobiology.” Some of these pieces are still heard at parties and raves where Leonid Lipelis, Andrey Ramonov and other Moscow DJs perform.

Subsequently, Orlov tried to record a separate record with Smirnov. Although the album was never released, the regulars at SNC remembered the recording process for a long time after. “The project was absolutely lurid, ” recalls Orlov. “Stas Namin comes in one day, and I’d been standing there for two days, twisting the knobs on the synthesizer. Stas showed me off as this oddity, apparently not understanding what exactly I was doing. And I didn’t care — I kept recording. A third day passed. Salkhov arrived. ‘What, you haven’t gone home yet? ’ he asked. I said, ‘No, I haven’t left yet, I’m still here.’ I was standing there recording. On the fourth day, a party gathered just to admire the hero. I was absolutely pale, my eyes were a light blue color, but was still standing there recording.”

Orlov’s most well-known electronic project is the solo album Cold Hand of Moscow, which he performed in 1994 at the opening of the famous Ptyuch Club in Moscow. “There was this guy, Misha Malin, a Petersburg musician from the group Fantom, ” Orlov recounts. “By the way, Misha was a great friend of Brian Eno’s. Misha came to see me. I told him that I wanted to do a new electronic project. So, we were sitting there and fantasizing, and I came up with a title, ‘Hand of Moscow.’ And Misha says, ‘Cold Hand of Moscow.’ That’s what we agreed on.”

The tracks on Cold Hand are deep house, sometimes veering into outright hardcore. Guest musicians (for example, Alexei Borisov from Nochnoi Prospekt) have been involved in live performances of the project, which have been staged at some of Moscow’s most iconic clubs, including LSDance, Shanti, and Roof of the World.

Parts of Cold Hand can be found in archival collections such as Trans-Siberian Express and Worldview, although, according to Orlov, it is better to listen to the project live, rather than the individual tracks.

Cold Hand of Moscow: “Cool Head” (1997)

Orlov continues to perform Cold Hand even now. He is also preparing to launch a new project — “low-fi lounge music” that should be “music to the ears of a post-covid society.” He has not yet chosen a name for the group. “I want to invite different musicians for live performances — electronic musicians, trumpeters, and guitarists, ” he says.

About his transition from new wave to electronica, Orlov argues, “Time itself dictates its own laws, emphasizing the relevant aspects. I then imagined that electronic dance music was more in line with the zeitgeist, that it would be a trend. It just became another wave, a logical evolution of events. It was a natural metamorphosis for me.” According to Orlov, Kino’s late drummer Georgy “Gustav” Guryanov, for example, had taken the same route in his day.

The influence of Orlov’s electronic projects has been acknowledged by Valery Alakhov and Igor Veritchev (New Composers), Anton Kubikov (SCSI-9), Boris Nazarov (Moscow Grooves Institute) and other movers and shakers on the Russian electronica scene.

Of course, due to the niche nature of Orlov’s solo projects, they are not as popular as Nikolay Kopernik, which says nothing about their quality and ingenuity. So, if Victor Pelevin appeared in public nowadays, he would probably have Block Four and Cold Hand of Moscow pulsating on his AirPods.

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