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Quiet Riot

Leo Svirsky melds radical ideas and refined music

Photo: Stewart Mostofsky, License: N/A

Stewart Mostofsky

Svirsky at the High Zero festival, 2011


Invoking the recent sentencing of Russian provocateur-punk outfit Pussy Riot, pianist and composer Leo Svirsky observes that protest has become almost fashionable prior to his performance at 2640 Space last Saturday night. He wasn’t belittling the idea of protest one bit. Svirsky is a compact 23-year-old from the Washington, D.C. suburbs, currently studying at the Royal Conservatory of the Hague in the Netherlands. Dark-haired, bespectacled, and clad in jeans and an IWW GENERAL STRIKE! T-shirt, Svirsky looks like any number of young idealists, and he speaks with the competent calm of a man whose idealism hasn’t given up in its ongoing wrestling match with pragmatism. Protest is good, yes, but “what we lack is the ability to see beyond that,” he says with a beguiling charm, “an ability to imagine what comes after protest.”

Svirsky’s Songs in the Key of Survival, his debut solo recording for Baltimore-based Ehse Records, is his attempt to explore the crisis of the utopian enterprise of getting by in the real world; the album’s release was the impetus for this recent performance. Taking place at the collectively run and radically leaning 2640 Space complements Svirsky’s politics, and the venue (and the St. John’s United Methodist Church with which it partners) has welcomed many a speaker, performer, etc., that embraces and promotes alternatives to how corporate, capitalist America operates. In Svirsky’s hands this evening, and on Survival, radical music and ideas are unafraid of beauty captivatingly personal and disarmingly moving—very much like the young man who created it.

Sitting on a couch in the venue prior to the concert, Svirsky almost vibrates in place. His fingers steadily tap in movements that look less like a nervous jitter than a conscious muscle activity to occupy a restless mind. He answers questions with a generous sweep, moving from recommending the essay collection Communization and its Discontents: Contestation, Critique, and Contemporary Struggles to the horror movie The Human Centipede with equal levity and earnestness. Svirsky understands that rigor and humor aren’t mutually exclusive, and he comes across as someone whose ongoing political education only bolsters his sense of humor.

Svirsky began self-learning the piano very young, taking up formal lessons at 7 and composition at 10. When he started playing in punk outfits as a teenager, he came to recognize the relationship between radical ideas and music. Punk helped him understand that DIY means “a community of people who are interested in finding something that’s outside of what’s just there in front of you,” he says. “It’s about having a group of people in a defined space. And that’s one of the things that’s shared with politics. It still comes down to bodies in a room or bodies on the street, bringing people together in a way that they can share something and talk.”

That understanding led him to what he’s working through on Survival. The album’s 12 tracks alternate between Svirsky’s minimal protest songs and piano improvisations, creating a tension between the composed and the supposedly free. He was first exposed to free music the way many are—it was something discovered and consumed on a CD or the internet, a bit removed and idealized from life as experienced.

“When I got to be in that world and see how it works, a lot of what happened was kind of disappointing,” Svirsky says. “There’s this utopianism that I felt very strongly about and [that] a lot of musicians [regard] as a relic of the ’60s, that the music exists beyond its utopian aspirations.”

Svirsky responded to the music and the ideas. Free improvisation “is the only form of music, at least in our society, that does function in this kind of anarchist structure,” he says. “There’s no composer, there’s no score, and it’s about spontaneous collective action, which is the same issue in revolutionary struggles—finding spontaneous collective action.

“Of course, the problem with utopian politics or prefigurative politics is one of co-optation. It’s the [same] issue of when you start a radical bookstore or a food co-op. Obviously the way you run it makes a difference, and you are providing something really positive, but you also have to coexist with the world as it is, and in a way, you’re just another small business. To ensure your survival within the current society, it’s a compromise—and that’s what I saw and see with a lot of free improvisers. This is the crisis that is at stake.”

Svirsky decided to explore an alternative to the spontaneous collective action and went entirely reductive, stripping music down the essentials so that “the drama of the piece happens aside from what’s in the score,” he says. He paired that with the public persona of the protest singer, to take ideas “that are really about collective struggle and apply them in a very private, very spare way where it’s entirely based on silence, on the instability of the chord as it is without any accompaniment.”

The result is an engrossing album and, at times, a breathtaking performance. Svirsky applies his piano virtuosity modestly, his improvisations seamlessly moving from leapfrogging keyboard runs to sustained, low-end chord clusters that create the rumbling of a coming storm, streaked with high, piercing lightning from the upper end of the piano’s register. As on the album, Svirsky moved from free improv to almost uncomfortably intimate songs, his voice softly sounding words of opposition.

“Internal Devaluation (A User’s Guide)” is practically a Fugazi song—“Sell yourself until you can afford to buy yourself back”—but Svirsky places them in a barely there melody. He sings the entire lyric exactly once, but he does it in sequential addition, singing “sell yourself,” “sell yourself until,” etc., with rests between each recitation. The approach gives the song the lyrical quietude of a John O’Hara poem, where white space on the page allows the mind to form associations among the text. In concert, Svirsky’s heart-stopping rests brought the room to a suffocating silence, music’s absence echoing the oppression implied by the lyrics.

This tension is what Svirsky is trying to transcend—how to combine the utopian and pragmatic in a way that goes past protest and into that something just beyond it. “I think that’s kind of what [the album] is about—this unresolved tension between approaches that still somewhat influence each other,” he says. “But it’s not quite clear, even to me. I just know something happens. The record is kind of a stepping stone out of it, but that doesn’t mean that the crisis is over.”

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