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No Kharms Done

by Simon Nabatov

Pursuing 03:06
Interlude 1 02:37
Hunger 06:10
Nonsense 03:09
Petrakov 06:31
7 or 8 04:22
Watchman 05:36
Interlude 2 02:59


Original liner note by Stuart Broomer

Simon Nabatov’s No Kharms Done

Certain Russian writers figure large in Simon Nabatov’s imagination, totemic figures of the cultural history into which he was born and spent his first 20 years, figures of revolt against insurmountable odds who sometimes managed to create radical new forms in the midst of terrible repression. The works that he has devoted to Joseph Brodsky, Mikhail Bulgakov, Daniil Kharms, the Gileya group and Isaac Babel are collaborations, with the writers as well as with fellow musicians, acts of outreach and recovery.
No Kharms Done is Nabatov’s sixth CD in 22 years devoted to setting Russian writers, most of them pre- or early-Soviet era authors, most of them writers whose works survived for decades in hiding, all of them writers who endured suppression, prison, starvation or death, whether execution or the inevitable consequence of ill-treatment. That Daniil Kharms is the first to be revisited, 16 years after Nabatov’s first recorded exploration of his work, A Few Incidences, demonstrates his special pull on Nabatov’s imagination.
Daniil Kharms (born Daniil Ivanovich Yuvachov in 1905) published little that was openly directed at adults; rather, he survived as a writer of works for children while his “real” work accumulated in drawers: violent, absurdist, truncated, surreal, as surreal as the state that promised a new world only to deliver deprivation, starvation, death. First convicted of anti-Soviet activity in 1931 and imprisoned for a year, he was later charged in 1941 with producing “defeatist propaganda”, dying in the prison hospital in 1942. His writings for adults began to circulate as samizdat ‒ underground, mimeographed or hand-copied works ‒ in the 1960s, only appearing in widespread forms in the 1980s.
There is, I think, a special relationship between music and ideas of Hell, whether we imagine it as moral dimension, theological punishment or just an experience that’s horrible beyond any degree of the norm, like Messiaen managing to compose, rehearse and perform Quatuor pour la fin du temps in a German prisoner of war camp. Nabatov is willing to take his warm, generous personality, his epic technical and expressive gifts and his brilliant musical associates into the depths of Hell, not, like Orpheus, to fail in his recovery mission, but rather to ensure that an account endures in all the contradictions that entails, in the original setting, in our own world, in the original works and in the adaptations. If there is something sublimely operatic in the emotional scale of the Nabatov/ Minton adaptations (Brodsky’s Nature Morte, Babel’s Red Cavalry, the two CDs of Kharms material), one might mention the first three major operas to come down to us from the dawn of Italian opera, that transformation of church music circa 1600: Jacopo Peri’s Euridice (with Peri himself singing the role of Orfeo), Giulio Caccini’s Euridice and Claudio Monteverdi’s Orfeo, all based on the sublime singer’s trips to Hell.
What is the strange amalgam of musical suggestions that constitutes “Pursuing”? A military band playing free jazz in a circus tent? A vocal that begins as sprechgesang ‒ “sung speech” ‒ and ends as Daffy Duck hysteria scat? It is the music of the terror of the chance encounter, a text in which an innocent bystander, “the third man”, is caught up in something he knows nothing about, when a man being pursued in turn pursues him, “the third man” a convenient available link in the spreading terror, a sacrificed stranger randomly betrayed by the man initially pursued.
The terrible self-assault of “Scratching” ‒ "An old man was scratching his head with both hands. In places where he couldn't reach with both hands, he scratched himself with one, but very, very fast” ‒ virtually becomes a score, every member of the group creating scratching sounds with his instrument, first slowly, with isolated scratches, then faster as the poem is intoned, the scratching of the poem becoming viral.
“A Man Left his House” (like “The Red-Haired Man” from A Few Incidences) is a song of the “disappeared”: “He came to a forest/ As dark as the night / He walked/ Right in/ And vanished from sight.” The extended performance begins in the nursery-rhyme simplicity of the text with rolled major chords, with a beautiful piano interlude in between; the band performance becomes ever more attenuated, until the screamed voice and musical shambles of an orchestra deliver the ending (“But if ever you chance/ To meet up with this man/ Oh please/ Let us know/ As quick as you can”) and then the recapitulation of the disappearance.
“Hunger” begins as an anxious rustling of papers, as if poems might be a food source. “Falling into Filth” demands the absurdity of dignity, of purposive action: “The important thing is just to do this with style and energy.” “Petrakov” manages to fall asleep. When he awakes he wishes only to fall asleep again.
The title No Kharms Done to name a collection of settings of the writer Daniil Kharms is fitting, both in its evident contradictory absurdity and as indication of one of Kharms’ special traits: his writings may never be quite done, finished, complete, whether as statement or thing to be interpreted. Some seem like music hall skits, vaudeville bits that don’t resolve; instead they’re ended abruptly by violent narrative non-sequitur (horror here interrupts banality like Suicide bombing kills 22 at Ariana Grande concert, an appalling parallel that suggests how Kharms’ art mimics our reality as much as his own.
That art also resonates with certain of Kharms’ contemporaries. Setting out in 1940 to write an account of America, Henry Miller would eventually call it The Air-Conditioned Nightmare, a dystopia of technological comfort. Kharms’ bluntly states his aesthetic and world-view in “Nonsense”: "I am interested only in 'nonsense'; only in that which makes no practical sense. I am interested in life only in its absurd manifestation." In an introduction to his is 5 (1926), e.e. cummings wrote:
My theory of technique, if I have one, is very far from original; nor is it complicated. I can express it in fifteen words, by quoting The Eternal Question and Immortal Answer of burlesk, viz. "Would you hit a woman with a child? ‒ No, I'd hit her with a brick." Like the burlesk comedian, I am abnormally fond of that precision which creates movement.
When Nabatov sets “Nonsense”, the credo is reduced to the vaudeville minimalism of a voice and a percussionist with sound effects, Jim Black accompanying Minton with sudden gun shots, bicycle horns and flexed metal, assorted explosions and electronic flatulence, while Minton mimics hysteria with breathless panting and distorted laughter.
“Kharms”, the invented name, puns in English on both “harms” and “charms”. The act of determining whether 7 or 8 comes first in the poem “7 or 8” becomes a puzzle the minute someone poses the question, because the question is deemed outside the authoritative and determinant insistence of the usual sequence, the mindless forward thrust of time into the future: “We would have argued for ages, but fortunately then some child fell off a park bench and broke both his jaw-bones.” “No Kharms Done” here, then, because for Kharms, sudden violence, “harms”, is a textual mechanism of release, thus also a kind of “charm”, freedom from the inevitable anguish of a conventional, rational account of Kharms’ world that can only be more gruelling and torturous than rapid, unexpected violence and termination.
Kharms’ world grows darker still. “The Watchman” begins in mournful, mysterious midnight music, and Minton intones the text in a rumbling, sepulchral bass. The narrator ‒ quiet, alone, secretive, demonic, watching ‒ describes how the watchman, “interested only in vices”, achieves “confidence, erudition…becomes a genius” through the process of becoming “interested only in one vice”, then discovering “a specialisation of his own within this vice…”
“I Don’t Like Children”, as weirdly lush as Jack Teagarden’s “Don’t Smoke in Bed”, begins with the most lyrical and “lived-in” trombone swimming upward on the most beautifully and lushly harmonized piano, only to become an ultimate assault on the human condition by complementing misanthropy with an obsessive, specialized lust. It might get played on late-night mainstream jazz radio where English isn’t spoken. The two brief Interludes, meanwhile, seem like playful, discontinuous mysteries, piped in from another world, a generous one, spared coherent speech.

Stuart Broomer, October 2021


released May 6, 2022

Phil Minton - voice
Matthias Schubert - tenor saxophone
Wolter Wierbos - trombone
Simon Nabatov - piano
Jim Black - drums, live electronics

all music by Simon Nabatov (GEMA)
recorded in LOFT Cologne September 26 2021
recorded, mixed and mastered by Christian Heck
liner note by Stuart Broomer
released on Leo Records CD LR 923


all rights reserved



Simon Nabatov Cologne, Germany

Simon Nabatov, pianist and composer, was born in Moscow in 1959.
In 1979 he emigrated to the USA, spent in NY next 10 years and 1989 he moved to Germany.
Simon Nabatov played with the "who's who" of the jazz and improvised music community, gave concerts in over 60 countries, appeared on the numerous international festivals, received prizes and documented his music on 30 CD's under his own name.
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