a sofia story


KiNK – A Sofia Story

Under Destruction was manufactured in the concrete tower blocks of Sofia. Lenin said: “Communism is Soviet power + electrification of the whole country.” Now here’s a little history of late communist electrification and its unexpected transformations before it erupted onto the dance floors of the world – through the tracks of KiNK: An essay by Stefan Goldmann

When Bulgarian dictator Todor Zhivkov visited Japan in 1978, he was shocked by the rapid progress the Far-Eastern country had made in electronics. Determined to act immediately, in fact he did manage to strike quite a coup back at home: under COMECON, the trade network between the USSR and its allies, rural socialist Bulgaria was given the task of developing the leading computer industry for Eastern Europe.

todor zhivkov in japanAt its peak, Bulgaria supplied 40% of the computers in the Eastern bloc. The electronics industry employed 300,000 workers, and it generated 8 billion rubles a year (US$13.3 billion). Fueling production were thousands of scientists and engineers who in a national effort, a kind of socialist Arpa, acquired outstanding computer skills. Researchers were trained to take systems apart, discover their inner workings, and then reproduce them through backwards engineeringthey were trained to hack. The Pravetz 82 was born: the first mass-scale socialist micro computer, by socialism’s first and only centrally planned home-computer industry. Explicitly having no military or security purpose, school children were the main target of the machine and thus thousands where installed in schools … these were further spread to other socialist countries, especially the states of the now former Soviet Union.

pravetz 82(Pravetz 82 – note the Fujiyama theme)

The demise of socialism left an army of well trained engineers and IT scientists unemployed – and a whole generation of kids with access to hardware-hacked Apple IIs. Some of the former and the latter (engineers and kids) subsequently gained notoriety as hackers, virus programmers and pioneers of cyber crime. The first Bulgarian virus of world renown, “Dark Avenger“, greeted its victims with the line “Eddie Lives… somewhere in time.” A reference to Iron Maiden – which again hints at Bulgaria’s deep affection not just for computers, but also for heavy metal. The author of the Dark Avenger virus also published the two laws of computer security: “1. Never buy a computer. 2. If you did buy a computer, never ever switch it on.” The Bulgarian Academy of Sciences actually has its own Computer Virology Lab. In 1990 its founder Vesselin Bontchev formulated the two “Laws of Virology”: “1. If it is possible to create a specific virus, it will be created. – 2. If it is impossible to create it, it will still be created.”

With an economy in turmoil and adolescents facing an uncertain future, a computer and a dial-up internet connection soon became the most accessible gateway to explore the wonders of faraway places, cultures and people. That is, because the dial-up connection was connected illegaly and thus not charged for, more often than not. This is true of kids in Sofia, as in Odessa, Vilnius or Minsk (another socialist site that once housed a large computer factory). It was then rather through the internet that kids in these post-socialist metropolises discovered the details of electronic music – an aesthetic that resembled the grid structure of concrete tower blocks and the rough feel of everyday life. They would exchange noisy files of chicago house, Jeff Mills or the output of Warp from LFO to Aphex Twin – and like the engineers before them, they would backwards-engineer the sounds they heard, trying to emulate their details with the music software available on the internet.

pravetz educationK. Anders Ericsson’s “10.000 hours” theory of acquiring a skill says if you spend a couple of years of your time at “deliberate practice” of a specific skill set (playing the violin, learning law, programming code…) you then get it together at expert performance level – magically, almost automatically. That is, after 20 hours x 50 weeks a year, for 10 years = 10.000. Sure enough, computer kids all over Eastern Europe spent that time: hacking networks – or reverse engineering electronic music. By now, it might not surprise you that Soundcloud has outsourced their programming and digital maintenance needs to… Sofia.

Yet replication is only a first step. Even back in the 1980s computer engineers would deviate from original layouts: “For instance, we would get the latest IBM logic boards, and figure out how they worked. Sometimes we would find mistakes, and fix them” says Kiril Boyanov, one of the 1980’s IT gurus of Sofia’s Academy of Sciences, with a smirk. Bending inappropriate synthesis software to behave like a classic analog synth certainly spawns knowledge of all the sideways possibilities around the sound ideal aimed at.

That specific dent applied to an original, significant deviation springing off of analytical play, is not just KiNK‘s trademark, but also behind the music of other “Eastern” producers such as Stanislav Tolkachev: the Mills / Hood-type, poly-layered and constantly shifting grooves are an evident influence in his music, yet shuffles and timbres go totally elsewhere. Has a lack of easy access to pricy originals on Ebay played a role here? Is it by accident that most Eastern European producers who gained worldwide recognition share a love for a slightly tweaked, yet rough and analog synth sounds? Ukraine’s Vakula and Russia’s Nina Kraviz come to mind. Slick? Not really.

institute of robotics leningrad

nuclear kozloduy(above: Leningrad’s Institute of Robotics, below: control center, Kozloduy nuclear power plant, Northern Bulgaria, 1980s)

Lenin’s electrification plans were taken more seriously than he could have anticipated – even before techno. The Kozloduy nuclear power plant had the same reactor layout as Chernobyl. Throughout the 1980-90s, not only Bulgarians were afraid it could go the route of its Ukrainian sibling. You could get a slightly apocalyptic feel when your kitchen’s light bulb started blinking a little – totally appropriate for the “primitive technologies” approach of rough and dark electronic music from Detroit techno to UK drum’n’bass, which was experienced with a little twist in the South East. Suddenly this wasn’t just a soundtrack for a party, but something quite appropriate for the combination of urban decay, dilapidated industry and nuclear apocalypse.

Science on the edge of disaster, party excess and the architecture of brutalism were equal influences in early post-socialist techno. Similarly to what has been documented of Berlin’s early rave scene, the sites of techno in ex-socialist Europe were often the numerous industrial ruins and defunct representational complexes, searching for a new purpose. Sofia’s ‘Metropolis’ raves happened in conference halls, ice skating facilities, forklift factories… yet a regular party culture with all the rave frills was never really established, throwing those won over by the music back on the infinite torrents of mp3 DJ sets: acoustic fingerprints of parties elsewhere – just the music, stripped off the vision, sweat and haptics of the actual night. Thus, before Easyjet and visa-free travel, East of the border techno as a lifestyle remained a distant utopia.

car prototype(“Sofia” sports car prototype, 1980s)

10.000 hours of listening, taking apart, re-synthesizing, testing myriads of possibilities – the general analytic tendency of our time (ain’t we all hyperspecialists in the most narrow sense?) showed itself clearer on the fringes of access, not in the centers of dance music with their record shops, traveling DJ jet set, equipment stores full of blinking lights and expensive toys for middle class boys. Vinyl was prohibitively expensive, simply beyond reach. Thus techno’s real digital natives are not based in Detroit, Berlin or London, but in Varna, Kiev, Bukarest, Skopje, Novosibirsk… KiNK‘s first forays into DJing came through an organization he formed with a couple of other techno heads in Sofia. It’s name, Porno BPM, says it all: you can look at the details of a track in infinite precision, physically detached (you’re not in Chicago), yet with point-of-view closeness that’s rather a domain of porn than personal experience. A 303 line examined like a flic of the perfect blowjob. KiNK, the name – this guy’s music obviously can’t be just about standard beats, standard drums, replication of what everybody does at home or on the road. None of that, while it’s all there: the bass, the kick, the hihat, snares of doom. His pitches are heavily randomized, shuffled snares seem to fall out of the grid, yet end up closing a groove as unpredictedly as it turns effective, sweet pads get a distorted finish – there is beauty shining through unfiltered decay. We have learned to get warmth from the coldest of forms, the victory of humanity over functionality (it falling apart, rust dripping down the walls, strengthening the impression of rehumanization). So too, KiNK‘s sounds are all pushy, restless, full of love behind a rough surface, just like life behind the endless window rows of socialist concrete slab suburbia. ‘Ghost in the machine’, eventually, humanity’s free-wheeling spirit puts the enclosures it has been locked in to abuse – not vice versa. Even the irregular spelling of his name underlines this agenda. Deviation from the grid, loaded with excitement.

Tellingly, KiNK released his first records in the form of collaborations – and he did meet his collaborators online. He would exchange files with UK’s Eviljack and Neville Watson, but ultimately he would mix down the tracks in Buzz – a freeware sequencing software, whose developers later lost the original source code in a HD crash and which probably no one in the 4×4 world besides James Holden uses “professionally.” A few semi-broken pieces of hardware would be around too: an old East German Vermona synth, one unidentifiable Russian machine and a Japanese $30 toy named the Gakken SX150.

zone b5

Under Destruction was produced in Sofia’s Zone B5. Being an internationally performing artist, KiNK might move out of concrete city sooner or later – to an older part of Sofia. Yet he left the gear in there until production was finalized, “for the acoustics”, as he says. The album is all analog on its source-side, yet thin-sliced and tweaked in detail, rough and refined with all the side products of digitization: alias noise, bit crush, noisy FFT grains of sound. Layers of civilization, merrily bouncing off of each other. Nikola Mihov‘s cover artwork catches a moment in China’s Shenzhen right when the modern living promise of Maoism is demolished for the postmodern service-industries-creating-wealth-promise of late capitalism to claim the ground that has been lived on since beyond historic memory. When we threw out analog gear and opted for digital perfection, we soon discovered something went missing in the process. Is what replaces one undesired state really a desired “progress”? Don’t we attach our hearts to what we have “invested” huge parts of our lives in? Demolition leaves traces of what went before, and we build our lives on layers of culture. Sofia has layers above layers: from Roman to Byzantine, Ottoman to Communist, and whatever you call this now… ancient rites in tiled bathrooms, rakia distilled in a garage between blocks. Every gesture originates somewhere, yet in our lives it all forms a unity, through which we experience our individuality and our sense of belonging. Under Destruction – removing layers, we discover other aspects of ourselves underneath. And then we re-synthesize, build something of our own to live with. A cycle of destruction and renewal. Sofia, rising from the ashes.

(Kink & Rachel Row total improv dub techno fooling around live set on Bulgarian radio)

(Bulgarian synth guru Simo Lazarov in dialogue with philosopher Lyubomir Kavaldjiev)

(Elektro Moskva – Soviet electronic music documentary film trailer)

sofia(photo by Mihail Novakov)