Music is a Universal Language

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Interview with a Famous Russian Musician Peter Nalitch.

One regular summer’s day my French boss came up to me and spotting a photo of Peter Nalitch on my desktop, smiled and asked, “Is that Peter Nalitch?” Despite the fact that his name as one of the Eurovision’s most alternative participants was at that time on everyone’s lips, I was speechless; do non-Russians really take an interest in this music? It’s something that many people even in the Russian-speaking world don’t understand. Two years later, one of my friends from abroad asked me if I could initiate him into the Russian contemporary music scene. After he had rejected the first few specimens, I sent him a link to the famous YouTube video of the song Gitar. The friend replied with a load of superlatives informing me that, “On first listen, I already love it!” I decided I must get to the bottom of this phenomenon and so I turned to Peter himself for help.
Pete, what do you consider true music to be?

Music is a certain indicator of the pulse of life, the processes, which can be expressed and defined by music. It is a language that is much more universal than ordinary language – that is precisely why music is understood on an emotional level often not expressed by language. Music is diverse; it can be Apollonian – the great purifier of man – or it can be Dionysian – merry, for dancing, loose. These two elements are essential, as are the millions of genres produced in the wake of mankind’s development and all of them are wonderful; there are no bad genres. For me personally, music is my life, and that includes our own original music. In it you’ll find some jazz and ethnic elements and rock. Some of our compositions are flowing and lyrical, akin to the American ballad and Cossack mourning songs. In some places it is closer to Dixieland, or it has gypsy or Latin American or Italian motifs, – it’s all soil in which we plant the kernels of our ideas. But on the other hand, it is classical music; with six years of piano, after completing my first degree [Peter read architecture – Ed.] and classical singing, I’m now studying my third year at the Gnesin Academy of Music.
What was it like becoming a student again?

It was great to plunge myself into student life! It was a little scary because you’re surrounded by people 8-10 years younger than you, but on the other hand, their crazy energy energises and cheers me. Sometimes I just stop and smile because I am surrounded by such wonderful people.
Isn’t it difficult to combine your studies, operatic activities, and your own band’s concerts?
It is hard. Because they require very different deliveries. 20-30% of the songs in our repertoire can be sung supported by a big operatic sound. The others are in the speech register and this is tiring. I would never take a contract to sing on a normal stage and then sing opera the next day.
How are the guys in the band about academy music?

Each is at opposite ends: one really loves rock, the other – more melodic things. One prefers a more transparent sound, the flute, accordion; the other – fuller, where bright media of sound prevail. And this is all in the framework of our collective; there’s space for everyone and I’m very happy about that. Of course there is the odd working conflict, but on the whole there’s a good atmosphere, in which we try to listen to each other, which gives us the opportunity to experiment and take ourselves in different directions. My academy experience of working with a symphonic orchestra on the Gnesin opera course has also broadened my horizons; you begin to hear the orchestra, its surround sound, and it gives you an insight as to how you yourself should sound, it develops your polyphonic thinking. As a result we come up with many different things we want to try out and thus the music becomes more diverse.
How do you divide the creative process in your band? Are you at the creative core?
I come up with a rough idea for a song, I do a rough arrangement, then I show it to the guys and we finish it together. Some bits we change, other bits we refine, so the largest and most important part of the work is carried out as a collective. As a rule, the lyrics are mine but there are some that we have composed together; the two of us, me and Serezha Sokolov, have written several successful lyrics; or even the three of us – with Stas Mikhailov. Not a chansonniere though! [Laughs]. Since this was around eight years ago, you can tell that it was just young guys having fun and trying to make something.
Pete, what is your work to you? Is it something deeply personal, some kind of catharsis? Or is it simply a way of saying something to the world?

On one hand, it’s difficult to force yourself to sit down and write something, but sometimes you have to – and it works! It’s connected with certain mechanisms, which you simply learn to use. Catharsis comes at the moment you understand – bingo! It’s worked! The bit about ‘saying something to the world’ is not really me. If I manage to make it work, I do it. If people like it, I’m happy.
Have you ever thought you’d written a hit and then the listeners confirmed it? Or, conversely, have you thought that you were on to a good song but it turned out not to be so?
Usually if you get the feeling that a song is very catchy it will probably be echoed in the listening community. For example, take Gitar, or from the last album Zalotaya rybka and Not Fair. Although Not fair has a simple little motif, which I wrote with two fingers on the iPhone, it was very catchy and it was immediately obvious that it was a big hit. Some songs are at first less bright and require several listens before they catch on. There are songs that are more interesting to us musicians than listeners; that also happens.
Do you know that you inspire many people with your work? Your fans are starting to write themselves and edit videos, draw…

I can’t say that I know this but I’m very happy about it. It’s a completely natural development because my friends and I have always tried to do whatever we think is right and not cater to any market trends of the moment. Maybe we haven’t gotten some bonus or other but I am sure that we have gained the most important thing: understanding and the trust of our audience. This is what inspires people. They see that the road to independent creativity is possible and can put food on the table.
How important is it to you that you are heard?

On one hand when you write a song, it writes itself for you, so that brings you happiness. The next step is also important to anyone making anything: bringing it to the people. And of course it matters to me; it is very important whether people listen to me or not. Support always spurs you on. Concerts go better. If the atmosphere is sour then it affects you negatively.
And where are you best received? You have performed in many different cities and countries.

There’s quite a big difference between sitting in a hall and standing on the dance floor. If the audience is sitting down, then they are quieter. But generally I haven’t noticed any main differences, even if you divide the listeners into Russian-speaking and non-Russian-speaking. For example, once, at our biggest western performance, in Antwerp at the Sfinks Festival, there weren’t really any Russians there, just mainly Belgians and Dutch. And to our surprise, despite the fact that half the set was in Russian, people not only didn’t lose interest, but they knew many Russian songs better than the English ones. Obviously they were interested in the mood, the emotions we had put into the songs; they struck a certain chord.
Incidentally, why do you write some songs in different languages?

I don’t think that there is any special aim or message in it. It’s just that melodic, rhythmic patterns always involve certain phonetics. And it is not always the phonetics of my favourite, Russian language, sometimes it is the phonetics of English or Italian. We would also like to use Spanish, but I don’t speak a word of it. However, sometimes you think, “Spanish would go really well here” – it’s such a rhythmic language or, “the more melodious French should go there”. Sometimes you think, “If I only knew some Swahili, I should sing in Swahili here”. In these situations our own language, Babursi as we call it, helps us. Usually you come up with some motif, some musical fragment, you start to search all the languages and if not one is suitable, Babursi comes to our aid.
Are there any changes you would make to the world with your music?

I would want people to be good, to listen to each other more and to perceive each other negatively less often, especially in our country. In the nature of Russian people is a certain character trait: if a person does not belong to your social circle, then he is by default an enemy. We need to fight this. We should not hide from the world behind a high collar, as we all do, as I sometimes do, but be more open and trust each other.
As we say goodbye, Pete gives me an arresting smile and I, armed with answers to my questions, make my way to the dance area of the B2 club where in half an hour I will hear the music of my favourite band in a completely new light. I hear how strikingly organically they combine English with Russian choral songs in Is There Love in the World?. How easily they lay Russian folklore motifs in Baba Lyuba over the sound of the kobyz, an authentic Kazakh instrument. I see how heterogeneous their audience is by age, race and social status; here you find respectable elderly ladies, children and young people and imposing younger men with busy phones which they momentarily forget about at the first chords of Dachi. I get my usual kick out of the ineffably incendiary live performance and a month later I am still fondly remembering how they were called for an encore three times, and how, in for a change, they came out again even after Iz restorana, which is the song they usually end all their concerts with.
True music penetrates us through the heart chakra, not the linguistic chakra. It also finds a response in any soul, regardless of any borders, which are essentially just in our heads.

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