Beyond The Dancefloor: A Brief History of Electronic Music in Tbilisi Photo: Jan Chudozilov

Beyond The Dancefloor: A Brief History of Electronic Music in Tbilisi

February 10, 2021

Written by:

Jan Chudozilov

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Electronic music in Georgia established itself as a lasting cultural phenomenon in the '90s. Today there is a growing, vibrant underground of electronic music that explores rhythms and sounds beyond the dancefloor.
In the Soviet Union the state had a monopoly on education and there were no alternative or independent institutions. Experimental and electronic music from the West, for instance, was officially discarded and therefore excluded from curriculum.

Up until the '90s

Natalie Beridze and Nika Machaidze. Photo: Jan Chudozilov
Natalie Beridze and Nika Machaidze. Photo: Jan Chudozilov
The first experiments with electronic music in Georgia were made in the '70s and '80s, when the country was part of the Soviet Union. As for today, only three composers are known to have produced electronic music within that period. Natela Svanidze composed her work “Georgian Lamentations” for acoustic instruments, voices and tape around 1974. During a stay in Moscow she composed the 6 and half minute long part for tape on an EMS Synthi 100, imported from England.

In 1982 Nodar Mamisashvili wrote the electroacoustic piece “Resonance” and several of his symphonies from the '80s were composed for “fixed media” and orchestra. Finally there was a tape-only composition by Mikheil Shugliashvili, yet it has since been lost. In 1995 he founded the first studio for computer music in Georgia, but sadly passed away shortly after. Several sound engineers like Gari Kuntsev or Temo Bakuradze produced sounds for Georgian animation movies by using electronic equipment and manipulation techniques. However, none of them seemed to have produced Electronic music outside of this context.

The '90s were the time when electronic music emerged as a lasting cultural phenomenon in Georgia. This mainly appeared in Tbilisi, as cultural life is very much centralized in the capital, where one fourth of the country's population of 3,7 millions lives. Although many musicians come from different regions, eventually almost all relocate to Tbilisi. Life in that decade was characterized by shortages of electricity, gas and food, as well as high criminality. This was caused by a severe economic collapse and a civil war, as well as secessionist wars in Abkhazia and South Ossetia that followed Georgia's declaration of independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. While the former state-run music industry, its infrastructure and state censorship ceased to exist, the disappearance of the Iron Curtain on the other hand enabled access to recordings, equipment and technical know-how from the rest of the world.

The main pioneers of the '90s were Bajoo, Natalie TBA Beridze, Dima Dadiani, Gogi Dzodzuashvili and Nika Machaidze; none of them being classically trained musicians. At the end of the '80s Dima made his first steps as a musician playing live experimental music. However, after listening to recordings such as Nitzer Ebb, Art of Noise or Laurie Anderson, it became his dream to produce electronic music. Since there were no shops in Tbilisi selling electronic gear, it was through his parents that he could obtain the desired equipment: on a trip to England his mother brought him a drum machine; when visiting Kiev where his father was working at the time, he found a shop where he could buy a sequencer and a sampler.

With this equipment he started to produce electronic music, which he describes nowadays as experimental, monotonous and hard. Although he would sometimes play live in his friends' houses, there were no other musicians doing the same, and even his friends didn't understand what he was doing musically. Eventually he would meet Nika Machaidze, a film director who started to get involved in electronic music by the mid-'90s. Nika made his first tracks using simply the windows recorder which allowed him to record, copy-paste, copy-mix-paste, reverse, speed up or slow down sounds. In the late '90s the two organized probably the very first public live concert of electronic music in Tbilisi called 'A Sweet Evening of Electronic Music'. As Machaidze remembers, “me and Dima played in a burned out bar. We brought a desktop computer and took the electricity from somewhere...”.
TeTe Noise aka Sandro Chinchaladze. Photo: Jan Chudozilov
TeTe Noise aka Sandro Chinchaladze. Photo: Jan Chudozilov

The 2000s

Soon Machaidze, Dzodzuashvili and Beridze, who all were part of the Artistic Collective 'Goslab', would often work together and contribute vocals on each other's tracks. In the early '00s they would all release their debut albums on German labels: as Nikakoi, Post Industrial Boys and TBA respectively. Nika recalls that upon hearing his music at a friend's place, the owner of Berlin based WMFRec Records invited him to play in the WMF club. After the gig Machaidze was offered a record deal. While his debut album 'Sestrichka' combined Breakbeats and melancholic melodies, later on he composed film scores, music for theater plays and directed music videos. Beridze's first solo album 'TBA' released on Max Ernst Records featured 21 short tracks with glitchy, percussive noises swirling above and below slowly moving melodies. Alongside releasing 8 more solo albums she wrote several film scores and recently started to collaborate with the Mondrian Ensemble, composing music for acoustic instruments and electronics.

Alongside ten other producers she was also featured on the compilation 'New Georgian Aesthetics - A collection of Georgian Electronic music' released by the label 'Komuna' in 2002. The short-lived label was run by Sergi Gvarjaladze, a musician and Radio/TV producer, who co-founded the Georgian Electronic Music Awards “Electronauts” in 2007. The other release on the label was the album 'Anidan Hoemde' by Nika Tsereteli and Mamuka Berika. While at that time there were several projects like Sameba combining Electronic music with Georgian Folk, Nika's and Mamuka's project combined electronics with folk music and instruments from further afield: the Caucasus, Middle East and India.

By the end of the '00s several new groups like Me and My Monkey, Kung Fu Junkie and Okinawa Lifestyle appeared on the scene, with the first two particularly drawing on both Electronic and Indie music. Their songs had in common the use of vocals, keyboards, drum machines, samplers/computers and electric guitar. Eventually all of the groups disbanded but many of the involved musicians would be prolific solo artists. The founder of Me and My Monkey, Sandro Chinchaladze, performs and records as TeTe Noise. His former band members Gacha Bakradze and Vazha Marr are both active solo producers. The latter noticed that in this decade many musicians started to explore more abstract soundscapes: “When I started the music was much more structured. Guitars and keyboards were used quite a lot. There was often a singer singing about his feelings. I think the music is more abstract now.” You can hear this change in TeTe Noise's music. For instance his epic 2017 album “Erase Me Form the Clusters” consists of one 45 minutes long lush cosmic trip created with a Mini Moog, synthesizer, drum machine and field recordings. In contrast Sandro's live performances can turn into a violent and abrasive noise storm. Or listen to his minimalistic Drone piece “Silence Shepherd” from 2014: it consists only of the sounds produced by microphones placed in front of active speakers and the use of a mixer to highlight certain frequencies.

Another good example of this development is the music of David Datunashvili, who played together with now techno producer and DJ Gigia Jikia (aka HVL) in Okinawa Lifestyle: only two of the 7 catchy and poppy tracks of the Okinawa Lifestyle EP “Underwater” from 2011 barely exceed the 3 minute mark. After releasing his solo album 'Composure' in 2014, he started to play and record with Irakli Abramishvili, after both discovered their mutual interest in finding new sounds and exploring the experimental direction of music. Using samplers, field recordings, electric guitar and other equipment, their improvised soundscapes draw on noise, ambient and drone music.

Also starting in the late '00s was Rezo Glonti from Batumi, who eventually relocated to live in Tbilisi in 2009, albeit he spends part of his time out at sea as a sailor. He distinguishes the music he releases under his own name and as Aux Field by comparing the first to a color movie because its more organic feeling and ambient/drone texture is created through the use of both synthetic sounds and field recordings; the second he likens to a black and white movie since it is based on synthetic sounds only with a greater emphasis on rhythmic patterns. His first solo album 'Diary of the Second Officer' evokes the feeling of being on the open sea surrounded by water and sky; Aux Field's pulsating, dense and claustrophobic atmosphere on the other hand reminds Tbilisi's inner city district Saburtalo, where Rezo has been living for some years.
Rezo Kiknadze (saxophone) and Tornike Margvelashvili (electronics). Photo: Jan Chudozilov
Rezo Kiknadze (saxophone) and Tornike Margvelashvili (electronics). Photo: Jan Chudozilov

Present

The present decade saw a considerable growth of the electronic music movement which is connected to the social, cultural and economic transformation Georgian society has been undergoing since its independence. With the Rose Revolution in 2003 and the following economic and political reforms, the overall living conditions improved compared to the '90s. Still, many musicians cannot afford hardware equipment for music production and access to it is difficult as it is not sold in Tbilisi. Another important change is the renewal of the educational system. In the Soviet Union the state had a monopoly on education and there were no alternative or independent institutions. Experimental and electronic music from the West, for instance, was officially discarded and therefore excluded from curriculum. Information and recordings were obtainable only by travelling to other countries or were passed on by friends. In the late '00s and in the '10s, both old and new institutions opened up promoting electronic and experimental music.

In 2008, the Ilia State University started a music center offering classes in composition, ethnomusicology and music history. Reso Kiknadze, a musician/composer (also of electronic music), former pupil of Mikheil Shugliashvili and now rector of Tbilisi State Conservatoire, was offered to teach electroacoustic music there. Several independent schools with alternative teachings methods arose: The Center of Contemporary Art Tbilisi opened in 2010 offering a class on Electronic sound production and history; CES (Creative Education Studio) a design, video and music/sound school was founded in 2012; 11th , a private initiative offering courses in sound production and DJing; Vertigo School is an alternative audio-visual school established in 2017. These institutions play an important role not only in teaching production/composition and history of electronic and experimental music, but also in offering networks. Last but not least, the emergence of the club scene early in this decade has been sparking the interest of many people in electronic music beyond the dancefloor.
Anushka Chkheidze. Photo: Jan Chudozilov
Anushka Chkheidze. Photo: Jan Chudozilov
In the past years several independent local record labels were established, releasing both physical and digital albums: CES Records, de re, Giraffe Tapes, Hanker, Hundred Tapes, Theosophy and Transfigured Time. While some musicians self-release their albums in a small edition on cassette or CD, most recordings are disseminated online through platforms like Soundcloud, Youtube or Bandcamp.
A special recent record is the 2LP compilation “Sleepers, Poets, Scientists”, released by CES Records, the school's own record label.



Alongside Beridze, who is also a teacher at the CES, and the school's founder Natia Sartiani, there are seven female producers featured who graduated from the school's Music Production course. One of them is Anushka Chkheidze, who started just two years ago to produce electronic music yet she is one of the most active live performers in Georgia. She grew up in Kharagauli, a village in the Imereti region, playing piano, singing in a choir and dancing in a hip hop group. After moving to Tbilisi to attend university, she felt the need to play music again and eventually enrolled at CES. Apart from learning how to use music software, most important was for her that the teachers believed in her music, encouraging her to express herself and to follow her vision.

Female producers, however, are still much less prominent in electronic music because families very often don't support women who wish to be a musician, as Beridze says: “Women in Georgia, or should I say in Tbilisi, are now slowly starting to rebel this feeling of being looked at as some sorts of complimentary subjects of men around them. I personally was raised in a family where sexism was not an issue and the power was equal, so I didn’t feel the pressure to be what I’m not.”
Scott McCullough. Photo: Jan Chudozilov
Scott McCullough. Photo: Jan Chudozilov

Obstacles

When it comes to live performances, musicians face several obstacles. There are only a few venues and many aren't supportive of electronic music. Therefore concerts have been taking place mostly in bars, restaurants, private places and art galleries: places usually free of admission. While in the '90s gigs happened maybe every other month in front of a small but dedicated audience, nowadays there can be a concert or two each week. As the acoustics of these places aren't always fully developed like in an established music venue, the musicians often adapt their live sets to the specific environment. As Datunashvili explained: “When we know in what kind of place we play, we try to adapt to it and its specific acoustics. In a small bar for example I don't use drums so much.” Another outcome of this situation is that musicians quite often collaborate in live settings. Scott McCullouch, an Australian author and musician living in Tbilisi since 2014 and who has collaborated with numerous local musicians, argues that collaborating is more of a necessity: “We collaborate because we need to and also because we want more music to be happening – so we seek out different places and set-ups and configurations and ways of thinking about performance to try and keep it interesting.”

Recently some venues and clubs started to include experimental electronic music into their program. The music venue Backstage 76 hosted several editions of an event called “Tbilisi Experimental Sound” featuring local and occasionally international performers. The Bassiani club launched its Zeenari series in 2018, dedicated to contemporary experimental music. Curated by Kuji Davituliani the event used to happen once a month, with an international main act and a local one.

Davituliani, a student of law and political science, was introduced to electroacoustic music at Kiknadze's course at Ilia State University in 2008, and eventually started to compose music in this style. In 2011 he joined Consilia Ensemble, a project established by students from Ilia State University and Tbilisi State Conservatory performing improvised experimental music using both acoustic instruments and electronic gear. Together with Nazi Chavchavadze and two additional musicians he recently formed the group Metastasis, creating experimental soundscapes with use of wind instruments, a cello and electronics. When asked how people react to her music, Nazi, a former student of Kiknadze, member of Consilia and featured artist on the 'Sleepers, Poets, Scientists' compilation, answered: “Around 2012 I played with Consilia Ensemble and people left laughing before the concert was over. But now they are more used to it and are starting to get interested in it.”

Dima recalls a similar reaction to his music back in the '90s: “Many people used to ask me, what is my music for? For listening! In the beginning my friends told me it's not music, it's a catastrophe.” He points out however that once they got used to it, they actually accepted it: “They didn't know this music, it was something new for them and they were afraid of it. Nowadays for them everything is music. They may think it's bad, but they accept it as music.”



For pioneer Natela Svanidze, the main problem – besides society's negative attitude towards forward-thinking music – was access to suitable equipment: “I have come early... I was born for electronic music, but with virtually no technical capabilities to create such music in my time...”. Her work gained more attention and recognition by an LP released by CES Records this past summer. Side A features part 5 of her “Georgian Lamentations” composition in two versions: one version is a live recording, the other one is the isolated electronic part itself. On side B three Georgian producers HVL, Tamo Nasidze and Mess_Montage re-imagine her recordings.
Vazha Marr. Photo: Jan Chudozilov
Vazha Marr. Photo: Jan Chudozilov
About the Author

Jan Chudozilov

A Czech-Swiss photographer who lives part time in Switzerland and Georgia.

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