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Interview: COH
S is for COH

On the Thursday, April 13 edition of Rare Frequency I aired an extended interview with Ivan Pavlov, aka COH, who has long been a RF favorite (I opened the very first radio program with “Gearin II” from Mask of Birth). Pavlov has just released a beautiful new CD called Above Air on the Eskaton imprint, which we discussed at some length.

Below is an earlier profile that I wrote about COH/Pavlov, which first appeared in the Spring 2003 issue of Grooves magazine:

Perhaps no other artist on the Berlin post-techno label raster-noton is as purposefully enigmatic as Ivan Pavlov, aka COH. Beginning with releases such as Enter Tinnitus and the brilliant Mask of Birth (recently reissued on CD by Austria’s Mego), COH unleashed a torrent of pinpoint accurate, wrenchingly dense electronics, cryptically described in the liner notes for Mask of Birth as “new disco for the new human” (despite the fact that there is nary a floor-filler in sight). His biographical blurb on the raster website only adds to the mystique, alluding vaguely to Pavlov’s links to the Russian avant-garde and hinting at a pedigree outside the usual Western rock-pop tradition, even as he released records that explicitly referenced synth pop [Love Uncut (Eskaton)], disco [Mask of Birth (raster-noton/MEGO)], and heavy metal [Iron (Wavetrap)].

The pseudonym COH only confounds things further. The title of an early Coil-inspired track, “C is for Sleep,” provided the first clue. Pronounced “son” (the letters are Cyrillic, not Latin), the name means sleep as well as dream in Pavlov’s native Russian. Yet his music is anything but soporific, with its primal, churning electronics full of seismic rumbles and searing bursts of static. In a recent email interview, Pavlov posits a series of connections regarding the significance of his nom de guerre, all of which center on the notion of identity and the surrealism of the dream-state. “Well,” he writes, “COH is also “nose” spelled backwards! I’m sure one could speculate infinitely on the hidden meaning of the pairs “nose”-“sleep” and “nose”-“dream” and the possible connections with… hmm… let’s say, identity or intuition, but,” he adds slyly, “I’d rather not….”

Later, when more open to moniker-related speculation, he expands a bit on the COH-HOC connection and its absurdist, Gogolian connection to his own identity: “Apparently, I have a fairly prominent and slightly broken nose. The pun in that sense is also intended.”

As to his pre-COH-ic history, Pavlov grew up in Nizhnyi Novgorod, a city about 300 miles east of Moscow. As a child he studied classical piano and guitar, later playing in heavy metal bands as a teenager. A trained acoustical engineer, Pavlov moved to Sweden in 1991 both to work and to pursue his doctorate in acoustics and wave propagation. It was at this time that he began to experiment with using computers as music-making tools, but not out of an infatuation with electronic music as such — “I have no particular interest in electronic music,” he admits. “Electronic or not, it’s the music that matters, really.” The appeal of computer-based composition lay more in the interface itself, and the direct manner in which it allowed him to work with sound.

When asked about influences, after name-checking Coil (with whom he’s collaborated on numerous occasions) and late eighties/early nineties experimental music, Pavlov recalls his fascination with the oscilloscope projections used by Finnish sine wave specialists Pan Sonic in the mid-nineties. “Since my university studies, I was used to thinking of sound in the graphical terms of wave profiles and there it was — on the screen! In that sense, I think the computer suits me best – with the possibility of having a clear and detailed graphic image of the sound one works with.”

Over time, his basic set-up and working methods have not changed all that much since the early work captured on Mask of Birth — it’s always been computer-based, in spite of his own intimations to the contrary. “There’s nothing but a PC computer on that record,” he says. “The line on the cover “only electronic keyboards were used in this recording” is actually borrowed from Giorgio Moroder’s From Here To Eternity liner notes. Since computer keyboards are all electronic, it felt right to quote Giorgio on that!”

Though his basic approach may have remained the same, his music has shifted and evolved remarkably. The recent Seasons [Idea] EP, on which he works with acoustic instruments such as cello, guitar, piano and violin, is a particularly striking departure and is certainly his most organic album yet. The EP is a joint project with Pavlov’s wife, Nadja, whose paintings of trees in spring, summer, fall, and winter adorn the album cover. Each piece corresponds to a particular season. “The choice of instruments is not arbitrary,” Pavlov says, expounding on the concept behind the record, “I felt it needed “wooden” instruments, instruments “made of trees”, too. For me, this constitutes a stronger link, a deeper connection between all the participants: the suffering violin in the summer piece, where Janesse Stewart almost destroyed the instrument during her improvised sessions (with the painting of a tree burning in a forest fire, as if screaming for help) or the recording of rain in the “garden” made by Peter Christopherson of Coil.”

As for the future, he is in the midst of another collaboration entitled CHESSMACHINE with Baltimore-based microsound artist, Richard Chartier, inspired by long-distance chess games played via mail in the pre-digital age. “We are now exchanging our “moves”, he says, elaborates, “by emailing mp3 files to each other, responding to the previous “move” of the opponent, each of us somehow attempting to force his strategy onto the other, etc. Quite funny as a process, also humorous as a concept, pretty much like it used to be in the Cold War – a slightly political chess duel where two schools, two systems confront each other in a quiet clash: Richard is American – I’m Russian; he’s got a Mac – I’ve got a PC… He’s playing whites — me, blacks! (Obviously,” he jokes, “following political tradition…)”

While he’ll play with such stereotypes, Pavlov is loath to wear the mantle of enigmatic Russian exotic, and resists attempts to situate himself within an amorphous Russian avant-garde tradition. “I don’t particularly sense deep connections with ANY tradition,” he avers, “I do have a certain interest in the Russian avant-garde of the early 20th century, but it’s only one of many interests. Furthermore, in musical terms, it’s the western tradition that makes most sense to me — quite naturally, as I grew up with Western music, be it disco or heavy metal.

“I still do carry parts of that interest,” he admits, “say, Giorgio Moroder of the late seventies or funny early Slayer or Kreator records.”


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