Ever since she was a child, initially discovering the world of sound around her grandparents' house outside of Moscow, and then in the special music school for kids where she studied during the late '80s and early '90s, Anna Mikhailova maintained a deep connection with the melodic realm in which she lives. Following a rather intense path of education, from the Moscow Tchaikovsky Conservatory, through the Chicago Columbia College and up to electronic music production in The Netherlands, she found her unique voice, bringing harmony and distortion together.
Today, after an extensive period of travel and creation all around the world, Anna is back in Moscow with a refreshing gust of wind and a strong motivation to inspire younger creative minds. With a wide angle on music composition, which can sometimes be quite experimental, she wants to bring a more global perspective and her own distinctive experience as a theatre director, opera composer, koto player, writer and a sound junkie, to a place which is at times not easy to create in. We spoke with her to find out more about her work, her current projects, and what challenges she is facing during these trying times.
Your work seems to span over multiple disciplines, ranging from opera, music, video, sound experimentation, spoken word, literature. How would you describe what you do?
I deal with multi-dimensional spaces, areas, ways, chambers, fields, organisms – essentially trying to connect all of them together.
Interesting. I have noticed that one recurring topic in many of your works, especially in your opera productions, is psychogeography and the writings of the Situationist Internationals movement of the mid-20th century. How and when did your curiosity about this movement start?
My first glimpse into this occurred during my years in the Moscow Conservatory, where my professor of Philosophy introduced me to the works of Guy Debord. After I read his work, The Society of the Spectacle, it resonated with me. I found it quite intriguing as a matter of organisation which contained so many dynamically urged artists (but not only artists), such as architects, painters, thinkers, philosophers, mathematicians, etc. Later, when I was already in The Netherlands, I began exploring the idea further. I asked myself, who are the characters of the opera today? A thought which coincided with the realization I had back then, about the fact that the reality in which we are living today was created by the generation of my grandparents, born in 1917.
operas from that generation, the likes of Guy Debord, Asger Jorn, Constant Nieuwenhuys, Gianfranco Sanguinetti and Michèle Bernstein came to mind, and I proceeded to implement them in my works, like in Michele Frankenstein and Constant Tranzit for example.
Another quite intriguing project I saw is the Ultimate Game Opera. Can you please describe what is it? And what prompted you to do it?
So, as I went further in creating operas, two questions arose about the distance with the audience and how big the show can be physically. During my time in The Netherlands, I went to a couple of football matches and saw this union of the crowd, the synchronisation between the vast number of people, the combined excitement, the interaction of the crowd with the game in a huge space. So I was like, yeah, this is what I want to bring to opera! Also, my approach to opera, not just in terms of bel canto but also in all varying types of voicing, is the question of spacing of the voice. Do you need to see the singer who is currently performing?
All that led me to research the question, and at some point I saw an interesting drawing by Asger Jorn, where he created a hexagon-shaped football field with three goalposts, suggesting a game between three teams with one single ball. That sparked the idea in me to apply this to opera, to create a scenario with three teams of different characters. For example, an all women-team, an all-queer team, an all-men team, etc., where each character has its own perception of the ball, and the whole game will have only one single goalkeeper running between all posts. I started developing the idea further, creating various situations for the characters, yet still, I did not manage to bring it to life in a full-scale manner. It requires a lot of patience and work, but I believe it will happen one day.
Sounds like a complex production indeed. What are the main challenges you are facing in bringing this project to life?
For the moment, it is the building of the team behind it. It involves a lot of inner programming to bring all the particles together – in terms of lighting, video, logistics, etc. It also involves doing it in a stadium, which is quite a challenge, as the idea is for the audience to be divided and put in separate sections of the stands in order to give each block of people a distinct perspective of the game. It is a large-scale production and quite a dynamic show, but I have the patience to do it eventually.
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That is great. So, let’s move to your music now. You are known for playing some self-made instruments. What is it that fascinates you about this? And why do you think it is important to explore these unknown territories in music and art?
Once you touch the instrument, you make your sound. Even if it is not a music instrument per se, but deeply and thoughtfully received by you like one, it becomes yours. For me, at first, the building of the instruments was meant for the performers who played the music I composed, but later on, I began to scale smaller stuff and test them myself.
I initially received invitations to perform some gigs and decided to bring my own instruments to try them out. After a few tries, I started to like it because it felt like a small laboratory. From there, I began my noise initiation phase, playing some deep and harsh industrial type of sounds with my gear, or someone else’s gear, or my own instruments – something that allowed me to travel the world through that direction as well. I think it is a password to reach different places.
Great way to put it. Like you have mentioned, you deal frequently with noise and experimental sounds. Some people might claim that noise is not music – it is simply noise. What have you got to say to those people?
Noise is like sex as it contains more sound than you can process. Sonically, it is a very physical process of receiving information, therefore, one should consider it not merely by listening to it, but by actually being inside the sound itself.
Your work ranges from harmonious koto playing, well-composed opera pieces and experimentation with noise and unconventional instruments. It is all quite a dissonance. Where do you find the connection between these extremes?
I think that in the current project I am working on these days, a band called Sound Fishing, I am trying to connect these dots together. It consists of more musical and song-related material, combining melodies with textures from my own electronic instruments in addition to more traditional instruments like bass guitars and pedals, as well as processed voice. For me, this project can be metaphoric to the old ways of water dowsing – like finding water in unconventional ways and places (laughs).
That is an interesting perspective. I noticed you also have a very multi-cultural and multi-linguistic approach in many of your works. Where does this aspect come from?
Initially, it came from my first opera works, which were written in Dutch, French and English languages, as they were based on the words of the Situationists' and Letterists' multi-language writings. In addition, I discovered the specific approach of working with a human voice allowed you to have a lot of steps and layers to bring different dynamics and colours from various languages. This is also something which I research in numerous languages – like in Japanese, Chinese and various old languages. How they are written? How do they sound?
I also have a side project that I like to explore called Epiglottal – epiglottal is basically a sound which comes from the low muted chords of the throat, which can be found in some native Caucasian languages for example, and I enjoy investigating these aspects of specific sounds. Furthermore, I would say that my dominant language is music. It is very multi-dimensional on one hand, but simultaneously universal.
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Another fascinating aspect in your creations is the absorption of opera into a whole different format – like the video production in your In the Distance Go On ForeverContemporary Frankenstein piece. What made you go in that direction?
I first received an invitation to write a video opera from Experiments in Opera in New York, and it came at the same time I was myself contemplating on creating some focus in video format on the various characters I developed for the Ultimate Game Opera project. I enjoy the fact that video allows you to obtain this controlled environment for the audience’s perspective and focus. In a physical hall, you create the whole picture, but you don’t know on which particular part or detail the public is looking. In a video format, on the other hand, you can provide a lot more nuance.
You have created and worked all around the world. What are the places which remain close to your heart, where you met the most creative minds?
(Laughs) Oh, there are quite a lot. You know, I feel extremely lucky in this aspect. My first trip to France in 2006 with a flute orchestra, playing the organ for them, was pretty fruitful and eye-opening. Then, in The Netherlands, when I started to explore electronic music, that was quite an experience – these remain my party years, let’s put it this way. My time in Texas during the International Computer Music Conference in 2015 was great and very inspiring. The International Noise Conference in Miami was really cool. Also, here in Moscow these days, I try to build my capsule and spot creative people to offer them a stage in my two-floor garage venue, arranging small festivals here and there.
Out of the many projects and works which you have done, what was the most memorable one? And what was so special about it to you?
I think the project which I am most proud of was the film opera In The Distance Go On Forever – Contemporary Frankenstein. Despite the fact that it was only a vocal project, without any electronic sound to it, I believe that each step towards achieving the final result was organized in a very good way, and I feel good about how it turned out.
Let’s move to the present day. You are now back in Russia after a decade of extensive travel and creation around the world. What do you feel you can bring into the art scene of Russia today, after your explorations and experiences?
Well, some real shit. To be frank, in my point of view, I find the art scene here very square, narrow-minded and quite short-sighted. I don’t know, I think I will not be here for much longer. I do want to build a community of upcoming artists, but I don’t see myself sticking around for much longer in this place. I feel like today, there is a lack of genuine appreciation for music in Russia. It is exceptionally hard to progress and make a living from art anywhere, and even more here compared to some other places.
Just to give an example, one out of many. Recently, a piece I wrote for four drum sets (originally for forty though, but never mind that), was performed at a big festival here. The person who performed got paid, but not the composer. It is frustrating.
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You were raised in Russia in the Soviet and post-Soviet era, with all the turmoil around it, how did it affect your creativity growing up?
I remember one funny story from when I was about 4 years old. I then lived for some time in a house in the forest, which my grandfather was building at the time. There were a lot of empty paint cans lying around the house, and I recall how I placed them on the windowsill one day, asking my nanny to take out the back lid of the piano we had, in order to expose its strings and turn its rear to the window. I then placed a heavy box on the sustain peddle and proceeded to shoot the cans from the outside with the air-rifle of my grandfather. The cans fell on to the strings, and I extremely enjoyed these new sounds, which for me weren’t actually new, rather they were 'the sounds.’ After this, I was sent to music school, so yeah, my creativity was quite supported.
Then, in this music school, my music was sent by my teachers to various competitions and was recognized at an early stage. I also had teachers like Mikael Tariverdiev, who was a prominent composer of many USSR cult movies back then. So indeed, from an educational perspective, growing up there and being shared with the knowledge of some very experienced people was profoundly fascinating. Studying in a special music school and a conservatory later was really cool. It was a culture that liked to dig deep, and they encouraged you to dig even deeper.
And back to a more global point of view, what are your thoughts about the recent pandemic in relation to the creative output? How were you affected by it?
At the moment, I am searching for students in composition, and it is indeed very challenging today. This is what I want to establish in Russia while I am here, I want to build a community of younger artists who look for guidance and experience, as well as a place to create, and who want to compose their own music. I hope I can help younger people find their way to express themselves creatively, and believe it would be a good way to deal with this current uncertainty, in that aspect.
You have quite an extensive resume and a long list of accomplishments behind you. What advice and suggestions do you have for young creative minds, who doubt themselves and are not quite sure about what comes next?
Don’t stop breathing. And listen in all directions. As a matter of fact, this question reminds me of the small book I have written during the quarantine, which kind of refers to this as well. It consists of only twenty pages, with a sole score on each page and a single phrase in English. It might offer some inspiration, I believe.
Interesting. Is it published? Where can we find it?
Yes. It was published in The Netherlands, by De Ketelfactory (an art/exhibition space with a small publishing operation in Rotterdam), as part of their voorjaar 2020 (spring 2020) small books collections.
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Are there any interesting projects which you are working on these days?
I am working a lot with my band, Sound Fishing. We are rehearsing songs, making arrangements, looking for a drummer at the moment actually, which is quite a challenge I must say. Besides that, I am working on the music composition for a cartoon, a very interesting project. It is a work created by one of the painters of the Russian version of Winnie The Pooh, who for the last several years was drawing this multi-layered and quite erotic, twenty-minute cartoon. So, the music I compose for it also involves many layers, as you can imagine.
I am also gradually building a performance space at my garage in Moscow, Hood Sound System, and that involves an almost daily routine of maintenance in terms of gear, etc. And lastly, I am working on a new literary project these days as well – a small book about 'octopus people' (laughs).
Quite busy, I would say. So, to sum it up, what are the new horizons which you feel you want to explore in the upcoming future?
There is another band I am playing with, called Electric Mayhem, and we do a kind of industrial noise music, with a lot of different synthesizers and self-made instruments as well. I believe it can find a place here, and I try to make it resonate in many directions. I really see the potential in this project, as there is nothing of the kind in Russia, in terms of music history. So, yeah, I believe there is a place for a band like this here. And, of course, I would like to find a way to bring my Ultimate Game Opera project to Wimbledon or Wembley Stadium, sooner or later (laughs).
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