Ilia Belorukov > Any sound can be music

Ilia Belorukov: Any sound can be music

Multi-instrumentalist Ilia Belorukov, from Saint Petersburg, Russia, is one of the not so few musicians and cultural actors who, due to the consequences of the war in Ukraine, changed their place of residence and settled in Serbia. While a number of new festivals and concerts with actors from the domain of alternative and avant-garde music (Changeover, Horizontalika, the upcoming Fields) are already taking place in Belgrade, which are organized and largely attended by the Russian emigration, Ilia Belorukov is quite active on the Novi Sad art scene. The writer of these lines noticed him at the end of last year at the opening of the Milky Way exhibition in the Museum of Contemporary Art of Vojvodina when he performed a sound performance, i.e. an improvisation on the saxophone.


From your arrival to Serbia last year, you were very active not only on music/improvisation scene here, but also on the scene of contemporary art in multi-disciplinary context. Did you have previous contacts in Serbia or did you start your work here from the „scratch“? How do you feel in Novi Sad during last months, both in general and in terms of music and producing art?

I had few connections before coming to Novi Sad, and I’m still amazed how it worked out. I played here in 2011 at the Improstor concert series, and I had a contact with the organizer back then, Vladimir Raskovic. I knew via online Marina Dzukljev, piano player and during covid years we were thinking that it would be great to play together someday, and this day came suddenly when we didn’t expect. I met Zoran Pantelic from in September 2022 in Switzerland, and he played a big role in my arrival to Serbia. He was one of the first persons, who asked if he could help somehow after we all read news about mobilization in Russia. Now I’m working with all of them and I met other people who are also helping and we’re working together. 

I have an interesting feeling that Novi Sad is quite similar to St. Petersburg, just the scale is much smaller. It’s calm, life is not very fast as in capitals, both cities have a rich cultural background. Otherwise the whole situation is still very new for me and my family. Lifestyle is different and we’re adapting to it, it takes time. 


Can you tell us a bit more about the programme you’ver prepared or planned for Festival-in-opposition in Novi Sad?

I'm involved in one discussion about sound engineering, and as a musician I'll be there to play and try to make connections between musicians and others. But because I'm working as a volunteer at kuda, I helped to make the whole program and I'll do some organizational things. Main goal is that we want to create a situation of discussion, not only between participants, but with the audience as well. We’ll try to find some answers and produce more questions that can lead each of us to new discoveries in our own paths. Every evening we’ll have music sessions when collaborations will be created on the spot. I’m excited to meet new people, share experience and play music, of course. 


This event is all about „the sound“, not necesserily in a musical sense. In sound, around the sound, about the sound.... how do you relate to this topic and what does the term sound mean to you? Do you think about it in a musical or wider context?

Any sound can be music as we know. Personally I’m always thinking about sound in the first place and after that about the context where I can put the sound, and then music can come.


Your primary instrument is/was saxophone. When you started playing, did you have some background in jazz maybe? What was your relation to improvisation when you’ve started playing music and performing on public events?

I studied saxophone in musical school only, it was classical academic music. I never played jazz, and after finishing school I already had an interest in free improvisation. I came to it through listening, all my roots in listening and analyzing recordings, from classic rock and progressive metal to contemporary academic music and field recordings. John Zorn and Tzadik were one of my first connections, and after that I discovered Derek Bailey and Evan Parker and so on. After some time I was thinking why not to try to play and find something that I can add to all the heritage of improvised music. Sounds a bit pretentious and a bit like utopia, but I’m still trying to do it. 


How did you develop your sound and ideas about music towards more „pure“ improvisation and thinking beyond genre borders?

Since the very beginning I was trying to find a place for elements of free improvisation in different genres. I collaborated quite a lot with metal/hardcore, noise/post-rock, electronic musicians, academic music composers and artists from other directions of art (dance, theater, poets, painters). All this experience between different genres I use in a pure improvisation context, where with freedom you also have many frames, just different ones. Another point is that I prefer to explore areas between known territories and try to provoke myself to get a new, fresh ideas. 


How do you see the saxophone as your instrument nowadays? How do you think about the sound of saxophone and the way you want to explore it? Do you think about concepts or wider ideas before your performances, beyond the improvisation itself?

Saxophone in improvised music is one of most popular instruments, and I think development of techniques is almost done, you hardly can add something else to this legacy. But what encourages me is how to use sounds in different contexts, how to find some surprises for myself and for listeners. I’m using only alto saxophone, this limitation makes me think deeper into the subject of the exploration of a particular instrument. 


You also play synths and electronic music - what do you like about this line of your work and experimentation?

Electronics was in my pool of interests from very early days as well as manipulations with the sound. Let’s say all started with a simple voice recorder and hi-fi system of my father, later came basic ‘experiments’ with guitar fx processors and computer software, then work with a laptop as a processing unit for saxophone sound, and after that pure electronic devices, and now it’s portable modular synthesizer in general. Also during these years I’m working as a mixing and mastering engineer, which also gives me skills and knowledge about sound and how it can work. 

One of the things that I've developed over the last few years is to play on synthesizer ‘quickly’, which means how to make synth playing as fast and reactive as playing on acoustic instruments. It’s not so easy, because I’m using quite a lot of feedback and uncertainty in patching the instrument, and at some point synth is becoming a real musical partner, it can apunds itself without action from my side. This makes me curious about collaborations, when I need to control what happens inside synth and react to sounds from other musicians. 


Can you tell us a bit more about the impro scene in St. Petersburg and Russia in general? In Serbia we are much more connected to western impro scenes, so avangtgarde music from this part of Europe is yet to be explored in a better way.

Improvised music scene is not that big in Russia and we don’t have big traditions of this kind of music. In the 80's there were some people who were influenced by western musicians from previous decades, but in the 90's times were very tough and development of the scene wasn’t really possible. In 2000s it started to grow again and at some moment we really had quite a lot of activities not only in Petersburg and Moscow, but in other big cities. Before February 2022 I was happy to notice that more musicians were starting to play abroad, and also more foreign artists were coming to Russia. I always wanted to create and keep these connections between musicians from both sides, and it’s why I organized concerts and still have a label, it’s called Intonema. Of course, now all this is destroyed…


Festival-in-opposition is in a way labeled as anti-festival. So, how do you feel about their concept and what do you think these kind of events should be like - where should be the focus (music, community getting together, contemplating the sound, something else...)?

We as musicians always try to speak with the help of instruments and their sounds. People from are making very important things that in most cases musicians are skipping: discussions and thoughts about how music, sound and improvisation can work not only in the context of music, but in a broader sense, in social context and life. 


Photo: Ilia Belorukov @Svetlana Selezneva

Ilia Belorukov (Saint Petersburg/Novi Sad)

He works in the directions of improvised, noise and electroacoustic music. He’s widely collaborating with local and foreign musicians and performers. Ilia practices an experimental approach of sound extraction on alto saxophone, uses modular synthesizer and electronics. He is a founder of Intonema label (from 2011) and was one of curators of Spina!Rec label (2013-2017). Organizer of events in Saint Petersburg and Russia, was co-organizer of the Teni Zvuka (2010-2014) and Spina!Fest festivals (2016-2017). He writes reviews and articles for Jazzist and notes about music in Telegram channel called musicworm, before he wrote for Contemporary Music magazine, GEZeta, livejournal and blogs. Working as mixing and mastering engineer for own projects and different labels and musicians.