Boundless EDM Build Your House Underground is bringing electronic beats to Russia's underserved psychiatric residential system
Build Your House Underground is an internationally successful EDM group whose members live in Peterhof, Russia’s Psychoneurological Residential Hospital (PNI) No. 3. The project was founded by a young teacher named Roman Mozharov after he started teaching classes in the PNI’s computer lab. Since then, Build Your House Underground has released multiple tracks with the German label Spheredelic, performed at Russian festivals, and seen their recordings pop up on playlists created by legends of the EDM world. The group’s success comes as major Russian health advocates have drawn attention to shockingly inhumane conditions in many of the country’s PNIs. Meduza asked music journalist Lev Gankin to review a few tracks by Build Your House Underground.
In the West, patients at residential psychiatric facilities have long used music therapy to compose and record their own creations. The results rarely fall into ordinary music lovers’ hands, but there are exceptions to that rule: American psychedelic record collectors, for example, are always on the hunt for drummer Stephen David Heitkotter’s lone album, which was recorded in 1971 at a psychological clinic near Fresno, California (the album features unstructured but strangely engaging vocal and instrumental improvisations in the power trio format — that is, backed by guitar, bass, and drums). Another, similar example is the American collective Hi Hopes, which was formed in 1970 at a remedial school. The group’s first record, a batch of somewhat unsteady-sounding, amateurishly performed covers of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s hits, drew somewhat well-founded comparisons to the cult group The Shaggs.
These two examples demonstrate on an instinctive level that the value of these kinds of recordings most often lies outside the realm of music. Heitkotter’s album is so in-demand not because it blows all other 1971 releases out of the water but for a different, rather uncomfortable reason: it’s a plaster cast of the consciousness of a person with a severe mental illness. At the root of the record’s cult popularity is the apparent possibility of peeking, safely and temporarily, behind the curtain of mental illness and seeing (or better yet, hearing) what goes on there.
Build Your House Underground has brought EDM music therapy practices to Russia. The residents of Peterhof’s PNI No. 3 do not only write music; they publish it: the group has released two tracks with the German label Spheredelic. Those releases, however, do not make apparent in any way that their creators were institutionalized in the severe pathology department of a residential psychiatric facility. That has something to do with the group’s choice of technology: unlike Heitkotter or Hi Hopes, Build Your House Underground uses computers and media controllers. There is no live music in their work, let alone vocals, and the musicians’ creative designs come to life in the dehumanized medium of electronic sound. In some sense, that allows listeners, at least at first, to evaluate them at a kind of distance, relying on musical merit alone rather than the context or the people who form the group.
That kind of evaluation reveals that Konstantin Salamatin (also known as Solomon Keys) is a noteworthy composer of ghostly, dreamlike ambient soundscapes. His tracks are rarified, cosmic aural panoramas in which waves of synthetic vibrations (whether barely audible or strong enough to test the integrity of the listener’s eardrums) creep onto one another, crash together, and break apart in a rhythm only Salamatin can fully understand. By contrast, Andrey Ryabov, another flagship musician at Build Your House Underground, creates inventive polyrhythmic IDM permeated with acidic synth squeaks and percussive images reminiscent of Amon Tobin.
Despite the fact that the project’s headliners produce very different music from one another, their works do have something in common: an unexpected and rather astounding sense of creative freedom. These tracks were not informed by textbooks or by hundreds of hours spent listening to other EDM tracks. On the contrary, they feel like a blank slate that an artist has filled with brushstrokes with nary a glance at the model prints available to her. At the foundation of the music produced by Build Your House Underground is the pure joy that accompanies grasping a new technology and exploring the world that technology opens up.
And only now, inevitably, the group’s context moves into the picture. Let’s imagine someone who has spent their whole life in a PNI (Salamatin, for example, is almost completely paralyzed from the neck down). Their reality is limited to the inside of the institution and perhaps the walled-off yard outside at best. Electronic music is, accordingly, not simply an interesting toy for an individual like Salamatin: it is an experience of transportation, practically the only such experience that is accessible to him. And for that reason, despite the fact that electronics might seem to be outside emotion, the tracks that emerge from the Peterhof PNI are unusually piercing.
Does that mean that, as with Heitkotter or Hi Hopes, it is an external, nonmusical context that determines this group’s reception? All in all, it seems not. Those earlier recordings gained a cult status in certain narrow circles precisely because their music was strange enough to fall outside accepted binaries like good — bad, professional — amateur, and talented — untalented. In addition, what is sometimes called a positive stigma was clearly at work in those cases, a stigma centered on the idea that people with mental illnesses are unusually talented in certain areas (in this case, music).
The tracks released by Build Your House Underground, in contrast, are absolutely normal from the perspective of sound, harmony, and rhythm. They can easily be compared to any other new electronic release, and they do not seem out of place at all among Spheredelic’s other tracks. In speaking about them, we inevitably engage our sense of empathy — such feelings are practically unavoidable for anyone familiar with the story of how this music was created. However, the music itself in isolation does not demand or even provoke anything of the sort from its listeners.
Translation by Hilah Kohen