ALBUM PURVIEW by Andrew C. Kidd

Greg Nieuwsma and Antonello Perfetto ‘Earth’
(Submarine Broadcasting Co.)

Although Oleksandr Dovzhenko’s Earth aligned with many of the Soviet ideologies of its day, the film stands irresolute in this regard. This is perhaps because it is viewed through the retrospectoscopic lens of the present-day. Even so, its poetic symbols must have seemed somewhat removed from the usual plainsong of socialist realism of its day. I detect agitation. Take the crushed chaff of the wheat that billows into the air, referencing the yellow-blue bicolour of the Ukrainian flag that was banned at the time. In the same breath, Earth promotes atheism and contains split-screen shots of humans and plant life (depicting the ‘community of life’), which are more in keeping with the Soviet aesthetic. These opposing philosophies are not co- equal; rather, Earth is predominantly realist, somewhat beset by moments of idealism. In newspeak: idrealism.

The silent film inspired Greg Nieuwsma and Antonello Perfetto to compose a novel score, which has been released on the Submarine Broadcasting Company label. Before the tribulation of synchronising the original cinematic footage on YouTube with this new score (which, coincidentally, was one of the joys of reviewing this piece), I decided to explore some of the antecedent outputs by the duo. Asylum, released by Hreám Recordings in May 2021, is absurdist, disentangling reality through its revision of everyday objects. Then there is the obfuscous Aquarium LP, another Submarine Broadcasting Company release in June 2021. The track ‘Momento’ on the Hiyachuchi LP (Submarine Broadcasting Company, April 2022) had all the xylophonic-analogue-drone futurism of a Jon Hassell release. The musique concrete of El-Dabh echoes distantly on ‘dsinθ=mλ’ on the LP Interference Patterns (released on Strategic Tape Reserve in November 2021).

I return to Earth. The Carpenter-esque ‘Opening Credits’ rattle and jangle into Chapter 1. We are standing in an open field of grass and grain and sunflowers and apples. Songbirds natter in the background. A lightly tapped acoustic drum beats down rhythmically like the hot sun. Altered strings and distorted guitars cut into the tiers of droning synths that sway like wheat crops in the wind. The strings are like that of a bandura, the lute-zither of Ukraine. It is an Eden-like opening – a Tolstoyan utopia. It is equally unnerving and fugitive. An old peasant, the grandfather of Vasyl who we will meet shortly, dies quietly in an orchard. An arabesque melody is played out on woodwind. I imagine this as a sopilka flute. It is limber, and light. This Byzantine influence features throughout the score. It is synonymous with the music of the Russian orthodoxy (I suspect antonymic on the most part here).

We inevitably meet the cold hand of conflict in Chapter 2. This is Soviet cinema after all. On screen, fists clench. Vasyl and his father argue. Their argument concerns dekulakisation, the targeting of wealthier landowners (kulak in Russian, or kurkul in Ukrainian) under Stalin’s First Five-Year Plan. The son takes a pro-stance on the assimilation of individuals’ farms into landholdings owned by the state. The father is doubting. The hammer action of piano keys pulse scornfully and guitar chords stab into an ascending scale. We meet Vasyl again in Chapter 3. He smiles youthfully. His father is ashen. A plodding off-key melody kicks in as the plot quickens. In Chapter 4 we are outside again. This time, clouds gather and wheatgrass jolts. The music is sustained. The piano from Chapter 2 is reprised – this time it plays freeform. Children observe an old man sitting reflectively by a grave. He places his ear to the ground. The children laugh and are scorned. The rhythm is kick-drum-heavy. A glockenspiel plays melodiously. The cowbells match the cows in the field. Farmers and tractors are in motion. The score quickens and loops round like the brief shot of a windmill. The tractor makes its arrival to a full audience. It overheats. Peasants piss onto the radiator tank. After it cools down, it flies. “We’ll prosper with tractors!”. The music is privately triumphant: stock brass and horns play gleefully, perhaps ironically. They dance a desultory dance. This chapter concludes with a ritardando and staccatos to a halt. Nieuwsma and Perfetto have been clever here, matching the antagonistic approach taken by Dovzhenko. Did he know that the celebrations would be short-lived? In the two years that followed the premiere of Earth, a famine caused by collectivisation would kill millions.

Earth was filmed in Poltava Oblast in Ukraine on the left bank of the Dnieper. I can visualize Tara Shevchenko’s poem Testament: “in steppeland without bound / whence one may see wide-skirted wheatland”.  An arpeggiated synthesiser melody ascends and descends and churns into itself like the harvester threshing the land on Chapter 5. The modular sequence twists into complex patterns like the hands of the on-screen women who thatch-weave. Vasyl is taking a merry ride in his tractor. His father hacks at the land with his scythe. The score pulses and thrums and clangs and echoes. A baying horse welcomes a counter melody. It is here that the famous sequence starts to play out: the grain of wheat jostles and shakes fervently in its wooden containers and carriages. A psychedelic mélange of guitar notes tremolo as the wet dough peels off the churning blades – and just like that, bread is made. It conveyor-belts away on the soft bow of a stringed solo.

Chapter 6 opens circumspectly. The strings are tentative, the visuals blurry. It is dawn. A light choral section is advective: it rolls off like water vapour on a cold river. The morning mist manoeuvres in diagonal ascent: step-like, and slow. The effect here is to disarm the listener. The same effect is created on-screen as crepuscular rays rip through the sky. The piano opens up here despite this. The guitar and drum sections are undeniably krautrock as Vasyl dances a traditional dance called a hopak. The altering time signature of the score keeps apace with his heels that kick white dust of the track into the air. It is incorporeal. Again, we have poetic symbols: Vasyl’s hopak mirrors the earlier mechanisms of the modern bread-making process; the dust dug up from the land serves to foretell his murder.

Chapter 7A is mesmeric. “Vasyl is dead!”. Horror is scored into his fiancé’s face. The guitar and drums rattle into an accusatory double-snare-hit rock rhythm. “Khoma, was it you?”. A cymbal crashes. The melody flat-lines out into a whorled mass of contemplation. An off-beat rhythm drives the scene forward. It was Khoma. He will eventually go insane. The synth sparkles as the guitar picks away unconsciously. The piano keys half-glissando as the score disintegrates, almost completely, until it finds salvation in a glockenspiel. This is apparition-like as it appears and reappears. The burial will be an irreligious affair. Denuntiatio dei. Vasyl’s father opts for a new way. The score masterfully conveys this. Simple synth-fare plays a melodic canto; wordlessly, it sings peacefully – funereal even. Chapter 7B is a powerful sequence. The aforementioned music of the Byzantium Empire reappears here as women make crosses with their hands. The composers start to revisit all their previous motifs and compositional elements. I close my eyes for a moment. I imagine the reverse-tape looping as the farmers on-screen playing the otherworldly tsymbaly (a Ukrainian hammer dulcimer). I imagine the swathes of synths as long notes of a trembita (wooden horn) and gusli (a Ukrainian relative of the zither). G-modal tuning is being plucked on a kobza (lute). The dead Vasyl files past the bowing sunflowers in a cart- coffin. The scene is both warm and distant. The priest scorns the impious. Words of resistance flash on the screen: “It’s my Earth, I won’t give it up!”. Rather poignantly, the chorus line is not sung in anger. A mournful string section plays as the synths are laid bare like Vasyl’s naked fiancé. A symbolic downpour ensues to cleanse the world. It is the lifeblood of the fields and the orchards. The bright key change in the score reflects this. In its denouement, there is false peace.

I have listened to previous scores to Dovzhenko’s Earth, including Ovchinnikov’s famous 1971 version and the poly-symphonia of the live bijū recording on Komuna Warszawa. The score offered by Nieuwsma and Perfetto is as complex and intricate as the source material. Their waveforms and filters arpeggiate poetically to illuminate its idealism. They bring me closer to the chimaera of collectivisation that Dovzhenko was perhaps intending to showcase.

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