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Culture Reviews
Alexei Aigi & 4’33
Sixteen Tons 
By Neil McGowan
Alexei Aigi’s youthful good looks barely belive the ten solid years of gigging Russia and beyond that he clocked-up in May this year, as frontman and violinist of his own band. I asked him what a classically-trained violinist listens to for fun? “Mainly Frank Zappa”, he confesses readily, but a quick checklist of seminal C20th musicians has him happily nodding with enthusiasm on everything from the classical academic avant-garde of Philip Glass and Michael Nyman, by way of David Byrne and Laurie Anderson to John Zorn and Jim Morrison. It would be an easy but pointless game to play “spot the influence” in Aigi’s own music, but the more remarkable thing is the individual voice he’s carved for himself in a world where critics will tell you “it’s all been done already”. They definitely find plenty in Aigi’s music to enjoy in France – the band is just back from rave receptions at the Finistere’s Celtic Music Festival. Celtic, of course, is one thing they ain’t – but their repertoire now sports some Celtic numbers reworked into their highly original personal style.

“What I enjoy most is gigging itself” – as though the beaming joy on Alexei’s face when he says this could possibly mean otherwise? “But I dream of releasing a really amazing concert-album on disk too – that’s what I’d really like to do” – although the band already have more than a decent clutch of albums out. “No one knows where to shelve us in record-shops – we don’t fit a single standard genre” he admits glumly. “Here in Russia they put us in the jazz section” (a barely-visible wince crosses his face), “but in France they list us as Electro” (another wince). “But that’s absurd” I reply – “with a line-up of violin, cello, trumpet/flugel, trombone, and rhythm section, you’re the most acoustic band in town!” “I’ve played-around with electric fiddles, but – well, they’re just not expressive enough, the tonal range is like, nothing, compared to a classical fiddle”.

The crowd barely notice the concert begin… as the opening number just grows organically as an extended improvisation on the violin and cello tuning-up notes. Out of this Aigi plucks a terse-rhythmed figure with adrenalin-coated bite, and with a leap in the air whilst still playing, it’s suddenly clear we’ve been under way for a minute or two already. On the heels of this we’re suddenly in a different world, a pseudo-baroque across-the-strings scrubbing duel between violin and cello, soon propelled forwards by the super understated drumming and bass-lines laid underneath… like the Venus de Milo in Ray-Bans. Most of the material is originated by Aigi himself, and it then acquires shape and style in rehearsals and improvisations within the band. In its ten-year history the personnel has inevitably evolved – so the repertory evolves along with them. The next number illustrates this perfectly, a sumptuous flugel solo from horn-man Andrei, floating a marshmallow-soft melodic line over some decidedly Jarrett-sounding harmonies. The subsequent numbers maintain this dazzling eclecticism, with a rhythmic ostinato number that could easily be from the Californian world of Laurie Anderson - segueing quickly into a reworked Celtish dance number, “C’etait bon”, a souvenir from the band’s recent French tour.

Ten years of near-continuous creative output inevitably creates stylistic differences between latest work and earlier pieces – in “Loft” the insistent rhythms of minimalism blaze through in some energetic spiccato playing from Aigi and the cello… I’m not the only one to hear some homage to Michael Nyman in this - although when I ask Alexei about it afterwards, he says it owes more to Philip Glass?

Just when he has the audience in the palm of his hand, the technical limitations of seventeenth-century instrument-building double-cross him - and an e-string breaks on the fiddle mid-number. The band takes it in their stride, and an extended improvised cello solo covers the equivalent of changing a wheel whilst the car’s still moving. It’s a new string, and as we all know… it’s going to streeeeeetch for hours, but somehow Aigi keeps it all under control. The closing number features an enormous bass solo from birthday-boy of the evening Sergey “Begemot” Nikolsky, pitted against inventive drumming and sampled sounds from the synth – a carefully controlled “build” number that has the audience on its feet cheering by the end of its joyous frenzy.

Aigi’s performances aren’t just concerts, they’re happenings, with a cult following. Luckily for us, they happen reasonably frequently – you can hear the band in a program of many Zappa and Morrison at Central House of Artists on September 6th if you want to catch their next outing? But only if you want to have a really good time…

03.09.04
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