Christian Kiefer, composer and literature professor, sets imagined Russian landscapes to music in a haunting series of abstract compositions.
Christian Kiefer is not the kind of composer who can sit down and write about falling in love and out of it. He is not much concerned with the standard territories of pop -- or for that matter, classical music. No, he is the kind of artist who needs subject matter, whether it is the American West in his first album Welcome to Hard Times, the Dust Bowl emigration in his second Exodust, or Czar Nicholas Is Dead, his latest collection of ambient folk and experimental sounds. Kiefer says that the project began with a vision of endless snow, space, and a stand of woods at the horizon, and grew like a fever dream into images of bloodshed and anarchy.
There is obviously some form of narrative behind these 10 minimally instrumented tracks. Titles refer to Russian historical figures -- Yurosky, Ipatiev, Dubinushka -- and place names. There are no lyrics, except for the final cut "Troika", so listeners would be hard put to infer the story without some background in early 20th century Russian history. It doesn't matter. The music has its own melancholy pull.
These cuts are substantially different from one another, but they move in a recognizable arc. "Yurosky's Lament" is pensive and hesitant, with long-reverberating guitar notes, sporadic bell tones and distant percussion. It is the sound of a narrator just getting going with his story, thinking about how to tell it and searching for the right words and images. Later "Kalmykov (Poppies)," with its high altered vocals and distorted spoken words, is a dreamlike flow of surreal imagery, beautiful and mysterious. "July 21: Ipatiev Returns Home", with its sad cello and slow tempo'd drums, conjures a piercing loneliness and regret. And the closer, "Troika", opening in staticky radio transmissions and lucent guitar (Loren Connors comes to mind), is the culmination of the whole project, its densely harmonized vocals more song-like than anything else on the disc.
All the tracks make use of traditional folk instruments, such as guitar, stringed instruments, and drums. Song structures are, for the most part, shunned, and the cuts evolve very slowly. Many incorporate natural found sounds, such as the hum of crickets, a barking dog, or a bird's song. There is a summery warmth to some of the music that seems at odds with Kiefer's Russian theme, but there is no denying the sense of overhanging tragedy.
This is a very odd and beautiful work, guided not just by intelligence but scholarship. It fits in with no trends. It makes no concessions to what people expect or want to hear -- and that, in itself, makes it interesting and well worth checking out.