Dr. Alexandrov or: How a Russian Folk Instrumentalist Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Jazz*

Alexey Alexandrov

Domra Player/ Founder of Ethno-Jazz Project/ Sound Producer

(Philadelphia, PA)

*The title was inspired by one of my favorite movies of all time, Stanley Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb”. It is a satirical comedy about a nuclear warfare between the Soviet Union and America during the Cold War.

Alexey with his acoustic domra

Hazel: How did you get started in playing the domra?

Alexey: I think, I can say that it found me. A music teacher came visiting my school (public, non-music kind) when I was a kid and introduced me to domra. I was actually able to try out both balalaika and domra but liked domra better because it had three strings with three different pitches, E, A, and D whereas balalaika made E, E, and A sounds in open string.  That is how I started taking domra lessons twice a week first from that teacher, and later from Irina Poleva, a student of Andrey Kugaevskiy, who would later become my conservatory professor. 

In fourth grade, I transferred to Children’s Music School #6 to study music more seriously. It is a great school, and many famous musicians studied there including a renowned violinist Maxim Vengerov. When I got there, I had to start over in learning techniques from Galina Grishchenko, a highly acclaimed domra teacher. She was also a teacher to aforementioned Andrey Kugaevskiy when he was a child. Playing domra has quickly become more than just a hobby, so after graduating from music school I went to Novosibirsk Music College to study music on a professional level. I then continued onto M. Glinka Novosibirsk State Conservatory for Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees in Music Performance and Doctorate Degree in Music Art History.  My dissertation was on Basics of Improvisation on domra.

Note: Nearly all music lessons in Russia are publicly funded and sponsored by the public education system. You have the option to study music as a supplementary education to your core curriculum. Also, Russian “school” is equivalent to elementary and junior high school education in the States.  Russian “college” is the same as high school education in the States but with a strong emphasis on a specific field, for example, music, in addition to the core subjects. Russian conservatory is the same as music college in the States.

To find out more, please read more on domra.

Hazel: Given the fact that you play a Russian traditional instrument, I’m curious to find out what brought you to the States.

Alexey:  People outside of Russian culture are mostly unfamiliar with Russian folk instruments.  Even in Russia, folk instruments do not get much spotlight due to many different reasons.  I would say that there is a tacit hierarchy in music in Russia. Well-established instruments such as piano and violin are at the top and Russian folk instruments are not always taken seriously. As a result, there are certain clichés about what should be played on Russian folk instruments, and they limit the opportunities for professional development.

Also, it became harder and harder for me to collaborate with musicians I wanted on my projects.  I wanted to explore new possibilities for my instrument such as playing jazz on domra. Unfortunately, often the musicians I would like to work with were very busy due to their involvement with other projects.

Due to these limitations, I felt I stopped growing as a musician.  Coming to America allowed me to collaborate with so many different musicians and be inspired by them.  It is truly special to be in America where jazz started.  Finally, there are more opportunities to make a living here in the States as a performer.

Hazel: Can you tell me how you came to play jazz?  Did you start playing jazz after you came to America?

Alexey:  Actually, I became interested in jazz while studying at the music college back in Russia. I realized that I would like to be able to express my own thoughts through music. The most natural way of doing that was to learn how to improvise, which brought me to jazz. Moreover, I have to constantly improvise as a folk musician. Jazz is also about improvisation. It felt natural to play jazz with the domra.

As a result of that, I started my own ethno-jazz project. The project involved about 4 to 9 musicians depending on a program. The idea was to arrange ethnic themes in jazz, funk and fusion styles as well as to play traditional jazz standards with non-traditional jazz instruments such as domra. I was fortunate to work with some of the best jazz musicians in Siberia, such as Igor Dmitriev, Evgenii Serebrennikov (piano), Vladimir Kirpichev (drums), Alexey Baranov (bass), Dmitri Averchenkov (double-bass) and many others in the framework of this project. When I came to the States, I signed up for jam sessions at various venues and joined in other jazz musicians to play at concerts. They were truly exhilarating!

Hazel:  When was your proudest moment in your career?

Alexey:  In February 2019, I was awarded First Prize Winner for Made in New York Jazz Competition. It was an international competition and included five categories: Solo instruments, Band, Vocal, Arrangement, and Composition. Many amazing jazz musicians from all over the world were participating, so I was pretty nervous when sending my application. Only three winners were chosen among these five categories. As the winner, I performed at the Gala Concert with legendary jazz musicians including Al Foster (drums), John Lee (bass), Bobby Sanabria (percussion), Alex Norris (trumpet), and Yaacov Mayman (saxophone). I also received a cash prize and a professional recording deal for album/singles. We are currently discussing the music selection and musicians to be featured in the recording with the studio.  I am so excited to take my ethno-jazz project that I started as a domra student in Russia to the next level!

It is worth mentioning that the winner was chosen through a video audition at this competition. I think, my ability to do professional audio and video recording was definitely helpful in creating a recording that represented clearly my ideas as a performer.

Hazel: Congrats! What an amazing achievement! This brings me to my last question.  I know you also do visual and audio recording as a side career.  Tell me more about that.

Alexey: I took classes in sound engineering as a conservatory student and had some basic idea about the process. I started learning it on a professional level after I had a disappointing experience at a recording studio while working on the debut album with my project. I did not like the results of that session, so I decided to learn recording myself. That is how I got into the field. From there, musicians around started asking to help with their recordings, and my side career developed. Since then I have been working with many production studios and was a part of a show on Russian federal television. Being a sound producer has not only brought stable income but more importantly has helped me train my ears to be more critical, which in turn has made me a better musician.  

To find out more about Alexey Alexandrov, please visit him at: https://www.alexeyalexandrov.com.

Alexey’s music portfolio is located at: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCSkMnl_1unyRqv4LoiIiu0w.

You can follow Alexey on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/AlexeyAlexandrovDomra/

You can also follow him on Instagram at: https://www.instagram.com/alex_domr/

It’s interesting to note that I actually met Alexey for the first time in spring of 2019 when he came over to my home to professionally record my daughter’s piano performance for a submission to a summer music camp. He is a well known audio/visual producer in Philadelphia classical music scene. I knew of his music career but I was thrilled to find out more about his successes and innovative musical experiments through this interview process. To find out more about his sound production career and see his portfolio in sound and video recording, please visit: https://www.rec.today.

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