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Liberation Musicology

An ex-Soviet pop musician builds a classical life in America.

By 12.7.05

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As a teenager in communist Russia, composer and pianist Sergei Novikov broke the top 40 charts, toured the Soviet Union and played his heart out in front of 50,000 screaming fans at Gorky Park with his pop band Little Prince. Yet he still packed his bags and headed off to America in 1990. Why?

"When I left the band was still going and successful, even if under communism we made no money," the pianist recently explained. "But I was looking for a better life. And I was right to leave, I have a good life."

Today that life includes extensive touring and recording his potently eclectic mix of classical, jazz and folk music in his adopted New England homeland and beyond. Since arriving in America, Novikov has released an astounding 11 albums in those 10 years on his own record label, Ultraclassica Records, including a uniquely engaging Christmas record.

The music bug bit Novikov at such an early age that he can't pinpoint the exact moment its teeth sank in, but by the age of six, he said, the infection was full-blown.

"As a child I was walking around singing all the time," he laughed. "At a very early age I had my orientation; I knew what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. I never struggled with that dilemma of who or what I was going to be like so many other people do."

Novikov's parents recognized their son's skill and passion and worked diligently to get him into the famed Moscow School of Art.

"It is a very different kind of training than what Americans are used to," he explained. "In Russia it was, 'Do it or else.' Here it is more, 'Do it if you feel like it, no one cares.' The teachers are like parents with tough love over there. I'm not necessarily advocating the old fashioned methods, but that intensity is why if you look at great classical musicians, so many come from Russia."

Even in the midst of studying those classics, however, Novikov was listening to the American pop music that would eventually lead him to Little Prince and, then, America.

"Of course, at that time, I kept that diversity to myself at school and played what I was told to play," he said. "Anything else but classical, my teachers had never heard of it. So at school I'd come prepared with Chopin and Mozart and outside of school I'd search for new sounds."

Still, none of that dreaming of American teenage culture prepared him for what he found when he finally reached these shores.

"When I first heard jazz in America, it was suddenly a whole new world," he said. "It was so exciting to me, I could hardly handle it."

Thus, it was not long before Novikov was enrolled at the University of Maine at Augusta -- the city boy going deep into the deep, silent country to find a school he could actually afford as a new immigrant -- focusing on American jazz studies.

"There everything was left up to the student and, while there were many excellent players, I think very few worked to their full capacity, which was fine because that was their choice," he said.

But Novikov happily worked to his full potential -- and then pushed even further. It's sort of Lenin's worst nightmare: The boy raised under Soviet communism has become not only a standard-bearing musician but also an American businessman.

"There are lots of musicians, but very few with business sense," Novikov allowed. "It is not the same as other professions. You go to medical school, you become a doctor. You go to law school, you become a lawyer. You go to music school and you better develop a niche. A successful musician needs to be very open-minded and be ready to fail and go again and again.

"Not so many musicians seem to understand this and that's where the idea everybody has of the poor musician comes from," he continued. "Well, I don't want to be poor."

Try to imagine such a sentiment coming from any one of the hundreds of thousands of spoiled middle class American arts students. It would be a rare find indeed. For those inclined to see that as the triumph of capitalistic avarice over some lost ideal, it is actually more a pragmatic map to independence.

"I am not rich today, but I am on my way to making sure I can make my way with music," he said. "That is what's important to me. I never take anything for granted. At my performances, I give something to people and they give something back to me. It's called synergy. That is what I'm searching for."

"There is more freedom in this economy than the one I grew up under," Novikov added. "But the system does not provide success. It provides the conditions for success or failure. In the end I make my own success the best I can within those conditions. That is all I am trying to do."

Shawn Macomber is a Boston-based freelance writer. He runs the website www.returnoftheprimitive.com.

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