Extreme-distorted metallic surfaces buzz on the surface, but there’s deep meditation beneath. Ukraine’s Kotra, aka Dmytro Fedorenko, returns to CDM to tell us how he’s coping with the invasion of his home country and how we can respond – starting with keeping our minds together.
When we last spoke to Dmytro, it was with his partner Zavoloka (Kateryna Zavoloka), imagining the science fiction worlds of Ukrainian author, philosopher, and dissident Oles’ Berdnyk in their duo project Cluster Lizard:
Here in a solo guise, Kotra’s disciplined, sonically adventurous 7-track goes somewhere entirely new, born out of a related live performance.
Let’s first forgo “industrial” as an image or association. For lovers of harmonically rich distortions and wild saturation, the motion and movement of Kotra’s new album can be deeply felt on an organic, spiritual level. So forget associations with factories or aggression that can superficially get attached to these timbres.
Kotra opened up about meditation forms as we spoke, including dynamic meditation – a technique that encourages physical movement. You can hear that motion throughout the upcoming LP Radness Methods, due April 7. I find myself getting deeper into each track with each repeated listen, like a mantra – almost as if the rhythmic rituals underneath unfold for your mind over time.
We need that focus, because I think we need to listen closely to what Kotra has to say not only about music making, but also Russia’s war on Ukraine and civilians, what it means for music, and a far-ranging set of topics. (Dmytro is based here in Berlin.)
So let’s first meditate on the music, premiering “Quantum Presence” here on CDM:
PK: You talk about this idea of ritualistic rhythms – what sparked that direction?
Kotra: The rhythms are always an interest for me – I was never good at making ambient, let’s say. For a long time, I was interested in different meditation techniques, including Sufi meditation techniques, and also some dynamic meditation techniques [with movements].
When it comes to rhythms, this album came out really, really fast. At the very beginning, I was not sure how it would go. And these rhythmic things, they just took me. And the whole process of making this album was like I was meditating – as if sitting with a drum and just beating it for days and days but with this groovebox.
My previous album, which took me almost two years to make, is complex and multi-layered — many sounds, many synthesizers. With this one, it was minimalistic, ritualistic, and meditative. And when I performed it live – it was a bit unexpected, but people started to dance to it. It was not these normal mechanical techno moves, as you can see anywhere, but it was like an explosion of devils, from the inside. When I saw this video, somehow I realized, I guess it worked.
How did you go about finding these rhythms or composing patterns?
I usually don’t like to talk about specific technical things, but this whole album was made only on one groove box, [Elektron] Model:Cycles. My wife gave it to me for birthday. And I was just playing with it, just to try it out and see what happens. I was quite skeptical, to be honest — this small box, what could it do? It was much, much stronger than my expectations. And basically, this whole album was made only on this one groovebox.
And that compositional process was related to meditation?
One of the things about meditation is to try to turn off your mind for some time. And with music, I’m in my best condition when I don’t really think in the moment about making new sounds or new patterns — when I don’t analyze logically what I have to do next. I can do that in editing, or afterward. I try to catch this flow so after three hours, I’ve just done something and I see I’ve already made 100 patterns. And it should be really moving as much as possible. When your hands and your ears are faster than your mind.
With Model:Cycles, the screen plays basically no role. Your eyes are almost not working. You have this kind of limitation with knobs that are all on the surface – you don’t have to do any menu diving. When you’re looking at what you’re doing, like using Ableton Live, you add this other layer of analyzing. When only your ears and fingers are working, then it’s completely different. It would be a different album if I were adding the visual editor to make tracks – which I also like, but in this case, I really wanted to get rid of it as much as possible. It was this minimalistic method of working with the album and tools – everything was simplified as much as possible.
It’s nice to do that on hardware. Do you find you can get the same level on a computer?
Well, I really like to make music on the computer, it’s really just a different level, just some different concepts. But if we talk about speed of making music and this getting into the flow, it’s incomparable, of course. On hardware, it’s really much easier and faster to jump in this state when you can hold this state for hours. And then just when you go out of it, it feels like, okay, I’m back to normality. And then I see how much is done. And then analyzing comes next.
Do you find that you tend to record a lot of material in one go, or how did the full work come together?
I made all these patterns, and the groups of patterns, which I saw as tracks — I made this album and then performed it live like three days afterward. And then I just realized it works well. And I understood that I have to record it live, as well. And then I sat for several days; I would play the same track over and over again until I felt that I was satisfied. So I had 10 versions of each track.
I told myself okay, maybe I could do vinyl, but then I would be thinking of time limitations. I thought I want to let it go. I don’t care about rules. So when I would record this one track over and over again, without looking at the timer, the duration was quite similar each time. So then that meant that it kind of has its right to exist in this form.
That sounds like meditation, too. Do you have a sense of blocks of time that are framed in some way – are you doing that with the music?
Normally, the traditional practice of meditation is limited in time. It’s like 20 minutes in transcendental meditation. In Sufis, it could be 40 minutes or one hour, but just as a beginning. But in this case, there is no teacher who tells you the rules. So I created my own meditation for myself in the end – the timeframe, the length of tracks. Since I made the music by myself, I told myself what to do with it. So it’s kind of a closed loop.
How did meditation come into your life – and what sort of meditation? You mention Sufism?
I have a good friend, he lives in the UK; he’s an immigrant from Russia. He moved there like 30 years ago – super, extremely smart person and basically he’s a white Russian guy who converted many years ago to Islam. And at the beginning, when I knew him through music, I didn’t know this about him — I found out during the crisis with refugees in 2015.
The amount of Islamophobic propaganda was overwhelming. So I thought, okay, I have a friend whom I can ask many questions about Islam in general. And so he would advise me which translations of the Quran to read, and [talk about] some aspects of Islam. And then he just kind of shifted towards the concept of Sufism, which was also interesting, because it’s not so ritualistic, it’s more about self-development.
And yeah, there was a period when I was also practicing Sufi meditation, and I even met some people. And there’s in one order a Sufi sheik from India specializing in artistic people from many, many countries — painters, musicians, poets. Some years ago, I spent about a week with this community, also meditating together. And it was kind of eye-opening on many levels to talk about the concept of Islam — what is true about Islam, how much propaganda there is, and so on.
My understanding of freedom, outer freedom — let’s say social freedom — always comes together with inner freedom. You cannot have one and not have another. Getting to know Sufism was combined with politics. I’m not in it as much as I was back then, when I was exploring this practice. But I come to it sometimes. And I’m still in close contact with my friend who is now also on a cultural and religious front against Putin’s Russia.
So you’ve talked to him lately, as well?
Of course, yes. There’s big drama for Muslims in many parts of the world – there are Muslims who are supporting Ukraine, not only in Ukraine. And there are also Muslim communities in Russia who were consumed by propaganda. So they have their own front at this moment. And so I’m also following this situation, and reading a lot from him, which is not so on the surface in the main media now.
What kind of meditation are you doing now?
At this moment it’s transcendental meditation. And also combined with Sufis. But this is really important in these extreme days, it’s even more important to keep your head and spirit and everything clean as much as possible – because of this emotional attack from everywhere, it’s really hard to stay clean.
Are you ever imagining visuals when you’re working in music?
Not while making music. I’m a movie maniac – I watched hundreds of movies since I was a child. For example, last year together with Zavoloka we watched nearly every movie from the New Hollywood period. At the beginning of this year, we wanted to research spaghetti westerns. We found all the Sergio Corbucci films. Now we don’t watch anything… but The Great Silence was the last movie we watched.
What would you recommend from Ukrainian cinema?
Now Oleg Sentsov – this film director who was in jail for five years – released his newest movie now, Rhino. And the main actor is an ex-Azov fighter. I would recommend this movie.
He’s a really good director. When he came back [from imprisonment in Russia], he was immediately super active politically in Ukraine.
And of course amazing Stop-Zemlia by Kateryna Gornostai. It’s shown now in Berlin.
I know how friends are dealing with this – how are you approaching your days over the last couple of weeks?
At the very beginning, I wanted to go to Ukraine immediately, and I contacted my friends who joined the territorial defense. And they told me that they don’t take new guys now – they were taking only people who are experienced.
So the main thing since the first day is to be useful as much as possible. The first week, the majority of things were collecting money. Everybody thinks of the Red Cross automatically, but I say we have activist volunteers in the field. Also collecting clothes for the border or food. And there were many interviews. And then there was even one event at Anomalie Club, and we managed to collect a couple thousand euros, which were also distributed.
Then came another period when refugees started to arrive at Hauptbahnhof. We started to work as a communication center – receiving so many messages, how to register, what to do, who to contact, and so on. And there were sometimes days and days just waking up, you have news on the screen all the time, and then on the computer. And yesterday came our friends with children.
It’s really day every day is something new. And somehow the good day is when you feel useful, that you really did something.
Are you able to extract from your experience anything that you feel might be useful to other refugee groups? I know there’s been a lot of discussion about whether Ukrainian refugees are getting different treatment, the extent to which racism motivates that…
I was in Vienna in 2015, and I saw how refugees were treated in Austria – Syrians. And well, badly. The attitude was completely different.
When Crimea was attacked by Russia – we also felt betrayed, because it felt like the world had eaten Russian propaganda. That we’re all Nazis in Ukraine and eating Russian-speaking babies and all this other stuff. In 2015, when Syrians were fleeing their country – in Ukraine, we had almost 2 million refugees, too, but they didn’t move abroad. Nobody would even talk about it. We already had internal refugees.
And now, even maybe one month before this escalation started in February, the feeling was that the world is with us. And the question is why now? And we have speculated a lot about it. But I don’t know why not then, but only now. It comes together not only with Javelins sent to the Ukrainian army, but also the attitude, treatment from German [authorities] to refugees is incomparable to what was happening to Syrians. And I don’t know why.
Again, Aleppo was bombed by Russians and erased and these Syrians with families, with children, escaped, I’m sure they have a question why it’s happening like this. So on one hand, I’m really happy that my people are treated really much better than I expected – in Poland, in Germany, in France, in Switzerland, even Austria. But I don’t understand many things if we talk about global scale. I don’t understand why are supported now and not then.
When we go to demos at Brandenburger Tor, and I see people with Syrian flags, I feel something is good happening. Because basically, we are all in the same boat, in a way. Syria was left to be destroyed.
When Syrians arrived to Vienna, families, at the same time in Kyiv, we had families fleeing from Donbas. My sister and my parents would also bring food, would meet people. When you see families, children, how can you say no?
I have a friend who is ethnic Russian, who escaped Russia more than ten years ago; he didn’t want to go to Chechnya war and he was supposed to go to jail for this. He lives in Ukraine since then.
About a month before this escalation, he was in the Ukrainian office for refugees. There were just a few Russians, some Belarusians who escaped Lukashenko. And the vast majority were Middle Eastern people and Africans. So it was bad. But nobody was talking about it because there was no conflict; there were no situations [in Ukraine] like in Western countries where right-wing people would attack refugees.
That’s telling, in that there is this European leftist narrative that wants to paint Ukraine as somehow right-wing – it’s revealing that there’s right-wing violence against refugees in Germany but not in Ukraine.
This argument about right-wing popularity in Ukraine … so, two facts. In the last elections in parliament all the nationalist parties, right-wing parties, took [about] 2%. In the last national election, it took less than 2%.
Secondly, our President Zelensky, he’s a Jew. And in 2019, when he became president, the prime minister was also a Jew. In 2019, Ukraine was the only country on the planet besides Israel where two heads of the state were Jews.
[Ed.: Wonk mode engaged.To be precise – in the 2019 parliamentary election, the allied right-wing/nationalist Svoboda party received 2.15% of the vote – representing the sum total of nationalist support in that election. Since that falls below the 5% minimum threshold for representation, it means they are not represented in the Ukrainian parliament. In the presidential election, Ruslan Koshulynskyi was the sole candidate of all nationalist parties – and received just 1.62% of the vote. You can read an analysis of that election, noting the wholesale rejection of nationalists in the results, by the independent DC-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). Or check the numbers yourself on Wikipedia – President, Parliament. Wonk mode disengaged.]
I know there are calls from many of your colleagues to cut ties with Russian artists, and wondered if you want to weigh in on this here.
It’s good that you mentioned that, because for the last two weeks, we have had problems. Somehow we started to receive – not only electronic music artists, but also the techno community, also theater, visual arts – we started to receive proposals from Germans, from French, from Danes, to do compilations of 50/50 Russians and Ukrainians.
Oh, not that.
In the name of peace and friendship. Or to make residencies – imagine now – residencies for Russians and Ukrainians in one place in the name of peace. Or to make exhibitions.
So when we talk about boycotting Russian artists – first of all for us, it’s important, we don’t want to be put in the same context with Russian artists now. We don’t have any time or energy anymore to think how many good Russian artists are there. It’s also an important moment. There’s a big discussion in Ukraine, in the artistic community, that no Russian artists are saying anything, speaking out. We didn’t even receive one message from the people we considered our friends in Russia. Nothing, nobody. It’s the same in the community of experimental music. We have friends in the techno community, they were completely shocked. They would invite Russians, they were friends – they were silent, they don’t speak out, they don’t communicate. The same happened with the film community. So then when we’re asked to do these collaborations 50/50 with Russians, we would say – think about it, why are they not contacting us directly?
We don’t say to the festival block anyone because they’re Russian; it’s your decision. It would also be weird for me to control the lineup of the festival. We don’t want to be in the same context, and we ask – please don’t put us on the same stage in the same night with Russian artists.
And then we’re asked what if they’re good Russians? Our answer is easy – it’s really easy to check the position of anyone today. I have several friends in Ukraine who are Russians, and they are among my best friends, absolutely honest people – they are fighting now. I have good friends in Berlin, Russians, who donated all their money to the Ukrainian army. So any Russian can prove their position within one second. Say something, be vocal. Don’t just be silent. Do something; it’s really easy. In this moment, there are thousands of things you can do.
We Ukrainians have suspicions about anyone now – but also for us, it’s really easy to see who is who. We released artists, we played concerts, we invited Russian artists – nobody wrote us even a private message, nobody. Many artists wrote in Russian on Facebook – hey, where are you? Why are you silent? Why don’t you write to us?
After this, me and many of my friends – I don’t care anymore. Our cities are destroyed. So this is a completely different level of caring about anything.
As we are trying to highlight more Ukrainian artists – anyone you’d like to call out or recommend?
For experimental music, Corridor Audio.
Muscút [Ukr. Мускáт] – they’re quite strong in doing research, hunting old archives. They have the sublabel Shukai [Ukr. Шукай – meaning “hunt”/look for] – completely devoted to bringing back old tapes.
Super old label – Quasi Pop [Discogs]. He would release Merzbow, true noise artists – I think this label is almost twenty years old.
Any Ukrainian pioneers that people should also be aware of?
[From comments] – from the modern Ukrainian academic composers I would recommend Alla Zagaykevych.
Do check out and preorder Kotra’s album and we remain tuned in:
Plus really pleased that Dmytro will join us for CTM Festival in May with his VARIÁT project – so see you in Berghain on Tuesday the 24th (ticketed event; you don’t have to look cool or something … I’ll be there, so that answers any fears about that):