Alexey Tegin: “In Fact, I’m Dead”
Phurpa founder Alexey Tegin talks Tibetan Bön rituals, collaborations with Sunn O))) and Romeo Castellucci, and freedom.
They call Alexey Tegin “a legend” and “veteran” of Moscow alternative art movement, and he’s worth the regalia. He started his creative experiments in 80’s and was one of the first in Russia to explore industrial and its cross and sub-genres. Together with Vladimir Epifantsev, he established the legendary “Cardinal Art Factory” in Faleevsky lane and, finally, have founded the choir band Phurpa performing rituals of Tibetan Bön tradition.
Tegin keeps disturbing the minds of any desirous one but now he does this not only in Russia’s underground scene. Today, Phurpa frequently tours the eminent world music and theatre festivals.
During summer 2015, two major events with Tegin’s participation would take place in Moscow. On 18-20th July in Electrotheatre Stanislavsky, Phurpa would be soundtracking the Russian premiere of Italian director Romeo Castellucci’s play “Human use of human beings”. On 11th of August in Arti Hall club, the band would act before American drone metal collective Sunn O))) who preach the loud, slow, viscous sound. The events are merged by similar mission: to rip the minds open with a razor of experimental, uncompromising and somewhat dark aesthetic.
— Phurpa’s gigs always go in a similar manner. The general approach, costumes, decorations all remain the same. The difference is mainly in a number of participants, and rituals. Will there be any peculiarities of your performance with Sunn O)))?
— We don’t plan anything. We choose rituals to perform depending on the intention, context, place, some inner moods. We never make a deal what we would sing, specifically. We literally see the hall, the audience, we feel the nature and so everything happens naturally. Each ritual has it’s own scheme. Some rituals require instrumental compositions, the other require only singing. In our case, singing can last long or not quite so — depending on the result we wish to reach. Sometimes it happens quickly. Sometimes it’s the opposite and I totally ignore the listeners and their comfort. For example, we have this 5 hour long ritual dedicated to the deity (or, in Tibetan, yidam) Phurpa, in honor of which the band is called. In one of the parts during the singing I have to reach deep uncontrollable condition in order feel myself this giant. But usually nobody complains, and even on the contrary — people voluntarily join our intention. I’m not a fan of the idea that the sound itself can influence the mind. The sound itself is an empty box with your message inside, some mood and intention, and the audience reveals it. Our general layout is constant, yes. Nothing has to draw the attention away from the sound, so we feel it’s important to keep some routine. We carry all the attributes with us — weak lighting, black rag we sit on, and, of course, the costumes and our usual “gentlemen’s set” of instruments. The number of participants really varies — sometimes two of us acted, sometimes ten. As experience shows, three people are enough for a good performance. I would gladly widen the main basis of band. But we tour a lot and for the inviting party, it can be problematic to have us all. Also, in a megalopolis it’s hard to find people who have certain inner power and who are not involved in some kind of business, money earning etc. Such people have no time for rehearsals. And those who lead this bohemian lifestyle, they usually have nothing to say. They barely breathe. It’s not about voice, I can teach anyone to sing. It’s about what would this person declare with this voice. If you have nothing inside, voice is just a senseless tool. Like submarine in Karakum desert.
— You’re not just warmind up Sunn O))). Phurpa takes part in Sunn O)))’s world tour, and this was the initiative of group’s leader Stephen O’Malley — they say he adores you. What unites both your projects?
— The modern man’s consciousness machine works too actively. The ancient people switched it off easily — it was just enough to interact with nature, listen to birdies, because the philomel’s song was already the volume. Now, it’s plenty of noise around and sending people into trance is a hard task. Both Phurpa and Sunn O))) are really loud, this is what unites us.
Once, from artist I turned into casual audience member and went to KTL (project of O’Mailley and electronic musician Peter Rehberg). There I got that if Stephen not just opened the physical influence of the sound as musical and aesthetic category but at least he made a huge step the research of this phenomena. It’s not a loudness perceived by ear drums but the microtonal vibrations, certain minimalism of sound perceived not mentally but with the whole body. In terms of feelings, it is reminiscent to underwater swimming. I don’t monitor modern musical culture but the pieces that reach me, they generally sound like the human monad reaction to the surrounding reality. That is, musicians just offer their feedback to the reality. Reactive music is not interesting. Real creators are rare. O’Mailley is the creator of this such sort, he has his own route.
— So what differentiates the real creators who can invent their own universes?
— First and foremost, courage. You have to be ready to the fact that no one will understand you and pay you. You’ll constantly be troubled by doubt if you are doing things correctly or wouldn’t it be easier to switch to some dark ambient, dissolve in the crowd of electronic musicians torturing their Apple gadgets.
O’Mailley gets one more thing: in 10-15 minutes of musical sameness, the audience starts to sense certain diversity in it. It’s like watching the flame or twinkling of the stars when many nuances reveal themselves gradually. If I’m an artist and I’m starting to explain you that we’ve done this thing here for this reason… And then we’ve made the sound softer here for that reason… — Thus I’m leaving you no space for own creativity. But O’Mailley, in some sense, is provoking us to be creative, even if we’re not capable of this as we haven’t experienced it before. We do something of a similar kind. If to take away all the surface features like “Sunn O))) are sorcerers and Phurpa are yogis sitting in lotus position” and to leave the pure essence of things, it;s becoming obvious that we share it. But Sunn O))) reveal it using guitars, and we use physiology, throat chanting and we play on Asian traditional instruments.
I suspect O’Mailley has some inner goal he’s not vocalizing. But he also has outer goal: after all, we’re not murmuring in the kitchen but we act before the audience. Bönpo tradition says: you can commit actions in outer environment. It’s not Buddhist meditation aimed at one’s self and therefore a bit egotistical. Bön is more like Carlos Castaneda’s teaching where you have to alter the reality first. When I am interviewed, sometimes I half-jokingly call myself “a terrorist”, because during the concerts I make the listeners shift their “assemblage points”. They ask me: “What would we get in return?”. And I respond: “I’m not interested what will you get. I’m interested that you’ll appear in the new place, and there one will take this, the other will take that…”. To appear on an uninhabited island is a tragedy to some, but the other person would find a long-awaited quietness and peace up there.
Once, after a collaborative gig in Manchester, a middle-aged black man bearing a resemblance to rapper Ice-T have approached me and started congratulating me insistently. I told him: “Wait, this is Bönpo, Tibet, all that”. And he replied: “Dude, I don’t care, I reached the sky on the sound that you make. You trapped me where I couldn’t trap myself in”. I think O’Mailley have chosen us due to such slight aspect of similarity.
— Would you admit that in this collaborative gig Phurpa, with its shamanic leaning and mantras, would function for purifying, and Sunn O))) for filling? In other words, would you be preparing the spectator for the universe of O’Mailley and his team?
— No, I don’t think so. I think we’re about similar things. But we keep these external distinctions and it’s interesting. I’m sure the guys have lots of stylistic followers, but it would be quite dull if one band would play something a bit worse, then other band would come out and play it better. That’s why he chose us. I didn’t speak with Stephen about this, but I would. He is very smart and nice.
— Phurpa is about 15 years old but it always kept itself undercover, which is quite natural for the band’s format. But today you’ve distinctly put yourself in a spotlight. Does it have something to do with the good old splash of interest for variations of esotericism and mysticism, in music as well?
— Yeah, certain mysticism is there in the world today. In music, noise, groove and other low-frequency stuff is very much in trend, once again. Lots of people, including artists, seek for some alternative to social adaptation, metrosexuals, all these waste products of the civilization that don’t carry something own and original in them, — and thus they dive into metaphysics that completely deny the state doctrine. There they find magic, and the need of personal power and initiative — things people are completely devoid of in society. Today, you don’t need more power than to push the laptop button, and as a substitute for magic, you have 3-D animation. All this is for the infantile mind. So when youngsters come to our concerts, they do it because…
— …they look for something real, if to put it lofty?
— Well, maybe only lofty, because this all is fake too. They get something, they thank us and they applaud. At this point, I prefer to stay carefree and I never ask if they liked the show or not. I always tell my musicians: “Hey guys, take all the excrescent things away — we just do our job well, the common detraining, nothing more than that”. The ritual executed in a proper manner requires full, unhuman output of energy. It has to be perfect — and apparently, this is what the audience reacts to. But I don’t position myself as some Shaman Shamanov with an enormously important enlightening mission. We’re ordinary folk.
— But I suppose people often see you as guru, and ask is there a kingdom come.
— Yeah, and I start speaking in a foolish voice, for a person to get disappointed and down the illusions. In Western world, people often want to make guru responsible and stay irresponsible by themselves. If something goes wrong, they blame guru. But guru is nobody and nothing, you have to take him as a catalyzer for own education. I used to socialize with monks and lamas, they are utterly modest and simple. They giggle as if they are airheads, no arrogance in them at all.
— So monks have passed teachings on to you?
— No, I’m self-taught. Once, I’ve found the ancient book in the scrapyard, I’ve opened it and the first word that I saw was “tegin”. I found out that in Ancient Turkic language it means “prince”. Soon, I started seeing those strange dreams and I learnt everything in them. In Bönpo traditions temples are mostly closed, I don’t know how to get there and I never heard of white people who ever got there. And most likely it’s impossible because the effectiveness of the learning depends on the knowledge of fine linguistic aspects. And temples are not colleges you can graduate from and receive a diploma.
They are to support the succession, so you have to stay locally to pass the torch. Just to come, to learn and to leave, it’s not working. If you leave, you loose control and can distort the teaching, it’s the worst. I think self-education is a good option.
— So if Tibetan lama hears Phurpa, he would feel that something’s going wrong up here?
— Yes, we sing in a more “low”, “massive” and exquisite manner. Monks were quite surprised when I’ve introduced them to my tricks. “What are you doing? You stand on your head, you drink sheep fat? Wow, that’s curious.”
— Is there any reason why such project as Phurpa have appeared in Russia, and not even in Kalmykia and Buryatia but in Moscow?
— The secret is, what they call Bön religion today, it has been the main religion on the terrains of Russia before the orthodoxy was adopted. It just had another name. Dazhdbog, Svarog and all those relics found in Arkaim… Same story. Bön is magic and it used to be the main practice for Russians. This is something this land is already inclined to. What we do is a very Russian thing, on internal level.
I love Russia for its neglectance of comfort, the wilderness that is on the edge but leaves the space for a movement. Maybe it’s about habit but in Western countries, local landscapes, people and comfort really make me tired.
— I think it pretty much sums up the paradox of Russia. So many people complain about lack of freedom up here, but for you, there’s enough.
— What is freedom? If to put it short, they mean things connected with the possibility to think that your own casual life melodrama is somebody else’s burden. I mean freedom of choice, but choice between Sony or Panasonic advertisement or what? Everything you call freedom and everything you choose is in fact just an imprint on your genes. You can’t do anything but accept what has been offered to you.
Fighting for this illusion of choice is fake freedom. Freedom is when you’re all alone and nobody offers you anything. In fact, everybody avoids freedom. Because staying on your own is quit discomforting. And there is enough discomfort in Russia.
That’s why I think here we have more metaphysical freedom than elsewhere. Rip the shirt on your chest, kill your wife, burn hata, sacrifice your life for something – in Western world, the freedom of such kind is practically impossible. But oh yes you can sip coffee on the street… (laughing). Yes, the material aspect is so much better up there. Sound and light engineers and all the other workers on the concerts do their thing in a perfect way. Releasing a vinyl is an easy task, in Russia you would have to suffer. But for me, the choice is obvious.
— Once, one French catholic organization… Which lacked this metaphysical freedom. of course, and so they accused Sunn O))) to be satanists and they tried to cancel the gig. Have you ever faced such an inadequate reactions on your shows?
— No, never. Even when we’ve been performing in cathedrals. Mainly they were reconstructed into art spaces, but once it was a real working cathedral in Warsaw. We were put to perform onto the altar and the abbot didn’t like it, of course, but I have to admit he struggled to the bitter end and behaved correctly. Accusations of satanism are just naive, of course. Lots of so-called religious figures defend the external form of their doctrine but they are not true conductors. Let’s remember Juan de la Cruz who’d been put in jail as religious oppositionist and in 100 years he was canonized. The paradox is, modern religion fights against people who unfix it, but they have to do it because the stagnation is much worse.
— So do you follow Bön tradition or it’s more that you interpret it in artistic way?
Artistic aspect is the result, and the cause is Bön tradition. And we follow it, yes. But Bön tradition has three types, ancient, formatted and modern Yungdrung Bön. We take the oldest one. Like most religions, this is a set of tools you learn to operate, and the teacher helps you to do it. Let’s take Castaneda, once again. Would you say that traditions of Don Juan and Don Genaro are different?
— No. Like tradition of nagual Elias, it’s all pretty much the same. But the style is different.
— Yes, each theurgist finds certain methods of his own. That’s what I call tradition, not just the blind following. So we perform traditional mantras, but I’ve created part of melodies. All the 203 of modern Bön temples are of Yungdrung Bön type, but the shamanic Bön is not connected with temples. Even the word Bön was invented by strangers, the ancient name is “gter” and at the same time it’s a name for bardo and for the singing. The system of spells is Bönpo’s main tool. The intention reveals itself through the sound, and in this way the numerous practises are being realized — changes, fortune-telling, attraction of good, appeasement, destructions… There are 12 practises and each one is mastered by a unique specialist, “shen”. So this is neither cultural doctrine of shifting the consciousness nor fitness yoga, this is the real, functional magic.
— Let’s get back to the things worldly and mundane. You’re soundtracking Romeo Castellucci’s new play, “Human use of human beings”. How did you start the collaboration?
— I asked Romeo why did he choose us and he answered he needed the voices of our kind. Besides us, he’d found only tho singers who act in same manner, in Canada and Australia, but they perform as singletons and not in the way Romeo wanted it to be. And we were just a perfect fit. He told us he has our CD and he uses it for meditation — such an honor! I was amazed too because I know him too and I’ve been at his plays in Moscow. Castellucci’s art feels intimate to me, it reminds me of my own dreams.
According to the plot, we appear when God dies and they bury him. That’s our metaphysical function, like in Jean Cocteau’s “Orpheus”, where the hero dies and gets where the judges are, so it’s not final death. We are the cosmic voices that are higher that human’s God, and our mission is the universal law. The whole history of the human kind dissolves and retracts into ine history of cosmos. I’ve described this interpretation to Romeo, he liked and approved it.
We’ve already shown “Human use of human beings” during theatrical festivals in Brussels, Bologna and Utrecht. After each show, I’ve been asking Romeo if he liked the play, and he was answering: “Everything is OK, people are content, they mainly arrived to hear you” (smiles). Yes, we’re not little boys and we have what to sing about. And the audience gets astonished how’s such singing possible when we use no sound regulators. That we just wear those simple headset microphones and do such things. And we received carte blanche from Castellucci. “Romeo, what do we have to sing?”, we asked. And he was like. “Oh sing what you wish.” “How much time do we have?” — “Just finish anytime you’d love to”. We sang for the first time, and he said: “Bravo, Phurpa, bravo!”. The only thing is that we act in European costumes. He likes it when we wear them like some mummers.
— Oh yes, it’s hard to imagine you in tuxedos after we’ve been seeing you in your regular black robes with covered faces.
— I’ve sewn all Phurpa costumes by myself. Everybody knows that you feel yourself the way you’ve dressed. Clothing is the continuation of intention. You wear armor and you become a knight. You really can’t see our grimaces in the costumes. When we sing, sometimes we close the eyes or just stare into nowhere, like somnambules, that’s what the fabric cover. Generally, the audience wants to stare at musicians as if they are actors. In our case the human manifestation interferes with the performance, so we neglect it.
— So the eyes are covered but what do you see when you fall into mantra trance?
— For me, the moment when I do a ritual is pure revelation. Brains don’t work, I just don’t get anything, I’m carefree. I can open my eyes and find myself in some other place and I won’t surprised. If to envision it, I’m getting into some dark green and grey infinite space which is structured and three-dimensional. At first I’m separated from it but then the sound carries me away and we become whole. And there I am not myself anymore.
— When you play, say, industrial music with your first band Corps, is this of similar kind or this is the other journey?
— The internal aim is the same, we just wear modern clothes and act in more contemporary manner. When I play industrial, I also try to turn off the “inner computer” and reach some madness. Not a controlled paranoia but the real one. To shift this assemblage point where I need it to, through the use of sound. The sound ends and I get “thrown” back. But during the performance I’m not here and I don’t try to prevent it, like, I don’t shake my head to sober up but I just fall into this dream.
— Do you dread you’d never come back from this state?
— There is this term, disengagement. First you can feel it as a flash, but then the state lasts longer. All amazed, you find yourself as an alien. After this there is no feat. How can you worry for the body of a stranger? In the end, fear is engagement. The categories are, when you feel fear — you feel the changes are coming. “Please, Lord, no!”. Horror is the encounter with some changes but they are still not there, in a total sense. When they start happening, you feel despair, and it’s impossible to step back. But what comes after despair, is a very precious product.
In fact, each fear is the fear of changes. “Hey dude, let’s avoid changes”. But the only thing that is really dreadful is lack of energy. This state arrives when you communicate a lot and plunge into social things. But then, you can align it with solitude and, if to put it puffy, meditation. Many years of spiritual practices have made my mind a bit stupid. It’s so hard to move me emotionally with some casual external things. Yes I can consciously afford myself some things, like cigarettes (inhales tobacco smoke). But in fact, I’m dead.