Aleksei Gastev was one of the leading poets of the early Soviet Union; in 1922, Nikolay Aseev called him ‘the Ovid of miners and metalworkers’. He also became one of its key labour theorists, founding the Central Institute of Labour which trained over half a million workers in new methods of production, before being purged in 1939. In both aspects of his work, Gastev was obsessed with blurring the lines between human and machine, convinced that this was key to both creativity and productivity. The ten poems in Pack of Orders – the first five of which I have set – describe the creation and operation of what we now might call robots or cyborgs. The piece casts the four musicians as slightly malfunctioning androids, detailing Gastev’s vision with a mixture of cultish monomania and distracted confusion.
I began working on this piece in September of 2016. I had come across the text through my interest in filmmaker Dziga Vertov and composer Arseny Avraamov, who were both influenced by Gastev’s ideas; all three of these figures are pertinent to my research into music, mechanization and urbanization in the 1920s. But, with November’s election in the US, Gastev’s ideas took on a new relevance. The increasing capabilities of machines to do work more efficiently than humans, along with the deliberate weakening of unions, caused job losses and anger – anger redirected towards immigrants or ‘globalism’, with palpable consequences.
Gastev’s vision has not been fully realized – cyborgs have not replaced us – but a century of moving towards it has impacted every part of society. The blind, ruthless drive for increased productivity found in the early Soviet Union has some parallels in contemporary corporations and politicians. The human cost of the former was unspeakable; the cost of the latter, as it causes accelerating inequality and environmental destruction, is as yet undetermined.
‘Pack of Orders’ will be premiered at Kings Place on 16th February