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Listen to the Russian DJ fusing Orthodox church bells with techno beats

Listen to the Russian DJ fusing Orthodox church bells with techno beats

In this month’s On our radar column we delve into the intriguing world of Philipp Gorbachev, the DJ making techno crowds jump to the sound of bells tolling.

6 December 2019

The sound of bells tolling reverberates against the concrete walls of a former machinery plant. We are in Mutabor, Moscow’s hottest techno club. The crowd is jumping and swaying to Philip Gorbachev’s Kolokol, a hypnotic album fusing traditional bell-tolling and industrial techno beats. In Russia, bell tolling is usually associated with the Orthodox Church. But when played in a club, the entrancing sound acquires a near-profane aura. Growing up in Russia, Gorbachev was captivated by the sacral connotations of Orthodox church bells. Now, the former Berlin-based techno producer is bringing his subversive fusion of bell-tolling and electronic beats to the techno club and the cinema screen.

Bellringer by day, DJ by night, in 2016, Philip Gorbachev moved back to Russia to learn the art of bell-ringing in the Church of St Nicholas in Aksinino, a village right outside Moscow. Guided by an Orthodox bellmaster, Gorbachev learned the craft of bell-tolling within the acoustics of the church. At night, he experimented in the night club. The climax of this spiritual and creative journey was Kolokol, Russian for ‘bell’, an LP featuring 11 hypnotic tracks. The titles are infused with religious references, including “Prayer to St Nicholas”, a techno tribute to his bell-tolling alma mater.

During his artistic journey, Gorbachev also embarked on a field trip across Russia with a small filming crew to collect footage and recordings, documenting his conversations on faith, music, and truth. The result of this journey was The Bell, a poetic, 17-minute documentary that premiered this summer at the Beat Film Festival in Moscow. The haunting, monochromatic depiction of the landscapes, edited to include sharp techno beats and mighty sacral sounds, transport the viewer to the hypnotic world of Gorbachev’s musical pilgrimage. The documentary project is still in progress, and you can follow Philipp himself or co-producer Denis Smagin for fresh updates on the film.

Gorbachev’s bell-infused techno is a fiercely unique take on a common leitmotif. The enigmatic, rhythmic sound of bells has been used to recreate medieval settings and fantasy worlds in film, literature, and music over the centuries. Take Russian writer Vladimir Sorokin, filmmaker Andrey Tarkovsky, or the Game of Thrones saga, where recurring visual and sound references to the instrument abound. Contemporary Russian bands, such as Oligarkh or Neuromonach Feofan, have also made waves thanks to their combination of Western electronic sounds and Orthodox influences, though so far only as an elusive cliche. In Gorbachev’s music, however, the sound of bells tolling is a meditative soundtrack of the present that loudly reverberates with his Russian reality.

Gorbachev’s generation, born in the late 80s and early 90s, is marked by a troubling reconciliation with the legacy of the Soviet Union. Beyond sprawling cities and complex architecture lays the semi-abandoned, semi-ruined spaces, both inviting and frightening. This inevitably shaped his creative vision, where the idea of emptiness, echo, and reverberation are essential to bell-tolling. In the present reality, characterised by disinformation, propaganda, and megalomaniac church reconstructions in big cities, religious pilgrimages and creative escapism are both ways to detach yourself from a reality that you can’t relate to. Gorbachev’s hypnotic bell-techno universe is a haunting ode to finding yourself in what seems like a situation of complete non-belonging.

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