Past Lives: Piotr Orlov

Jessie Shohfi
May 09, 2023

Past Lives is an interview series with School of the Arts Writing faculty, students, and alumni who began their professional lives on different career paths. In this series, we discuss the lives they led before they became artists—and how their work in other industries informs the creative work they do now. Here, we talk to Adjunct Assistant Professor Piotr Orlov about Saturday Night Fever, mixtapes, and music storytelling.

Piotr Orlov is a writer and editor. Over the past twenty-five years, he has worked as a music storyteller in many capacities, with numerous platforms and institutions. His writing has appeared in publications such as The New York Times, Rolling Stone, Esquire, Pitchfork, The Guardian, and Village Voice, among others. Orlov has spent time as director of special projects at AFROPUNK, a senior editor of content at NPR Music, and an editorial director at MTV, where in 2006 he helped launch one of the world’s first programmed streaming music services. In 2003, he co-curated the music program of The New Museum art exhibition, Black President: The Art & Legacy of Fela Kuti. In 2013, he helped produce the Red Bull Music Academy in New York. In 2019, Orlov co-executive-produced the 13-part radio program City.FM for New York public radio (funded by the Mayor’s Office for Media and Entertainment) about the city's local music culture; and most recently he's been producing and hosting the monthly interview + music radio program, Dada Strain Radio (on Sonos Radio), focused on rhythm, improvisation and community. 

During the Fall 2022 semester, Orlov taught a course called “An Open Window to the World: Writing about Music,” where students discussed work that emanates from non-traditional music criticism and journalism, fiction and creative non-fiction, essays, poems, and public talks. They engaged work that uses music as a muse and as a lens on society; that hears key metaphors and the future of language in it; that understands listening as a central device to our comprehension of the world; and that regards gathering around it as one of humanity’s crucial social ceremonial rites.

What first drew you to music? 

You can fully say I was born into it. My grandmother was a classical musicologist.

I'll take a quick step back. I was born in the Soviet Union, in Leningrad (St. Petersburg), which is partly how I got my name. The other part was that my grandmother was a head librarian at the archives of Tchaikovsky. I was surrounded by classical music; I got dragged to the ballet, got dragged to the opera. But my parents were very into Western music, Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald. My father was a sportswriter. So I had a grandmother who wrote about music, and my father, who wrote about basketball. 

We left and came to the United States in 1977, and instantly, music and sports were the two things I gravitated towards, the two things I thought would allow me to integrate. It was the summer of Saturday Night Fever. I got into disco. Seriously. I became a club kid. I was running around the streets of New York City in the eighties doing things that I should not have been doing, but have now informed a lot of [who] I actually am. I just loved music, whether it was The Beatles, Billy Joel, Michael Jackson, Aretha Franklin. I was a sponge. And at the same time, the writing never stopped.

When did you begin writing about music?

In eighth grade, we could do a big paper about anything we wanted, and I did mine on The Who. So this idea of writing about music has always informed who I am. I got my first bylines at the American University newspaper and the Washington City Paper when I was in college. But for a little while in the nineties, I felt like I didn't know what I was doing. I stopped [writing] for a few years because I saw people who were already doing it at a high level, and I felt like a fraud. I didn't have a point of view. Or, I had a point of view, but in the nineties… people were not into it.

What was unusual about your point of view?

I was a big Deadhead. But I was a big Deadhead who loved techno and rap music. One of the things about being an immigrant was there were a lot of borders and cultural delineations where I thought, “Screw this. All this music is American. It all comes from blues and jazz;” and people would say, “What are you talking about? How dare you talk about punk and disco in the same breath?”

When “Another One Bites the Dust” by Queen came out, I was already really into rap music and the Sugar Hill Gang. I realized Queen's song has the same baseline as Chic, which has the same music as the Sugar Hill Gang, except now it's being done by an English glam rock band. My take was, “This is rap music.” And people who were into hip hop were like, “No.” And people who were into Queen—“We Are the Champions,” “We Will Rock You,” all that stuff—were like, “No.” And I thought, I don't understand you people. For me, it was all fluid.

When did you feel you were able to share your perspective and see it be taken seriously?

In the late nineties as the internet came about, people were looking for content. They were looking for writers.So I started doing that. I started contributing to the Village Voice, and then these ideas about what storytelling means started manifesting a little bit more through my writing. I did a couple of curation projects with museums. At first I felt I didn't know what I was doing. A friend, who has since become a pretty big curator, said, “You do.” He helped within the institutional aspects, and then he said [to remember] it’s just me and my point of view. I liken a lot of these projects I work on to mixtapes, because I think a great mixtape will draw connections, some of them obvious, some of them not.

You describe yourself as a music storyteller. What does that mean to you?

I want to talk about history and I want to talk about community. I want to talk about culture. I hate talking about personalities—there are some folks that do incredible writing on personalities, but even there, the writing that I admire is about how personalities fit into a historical paradigm, or were affected by the culture and the community that they were a part of. These ideas of community and culture are really important to me. And, you know, it took a lot of therapy to realize why, and people telling me, “Oh, that's because you don't have a natural community.” I don't feel a part of the Russian community. I don't feel a part of any communities outside of music, really.

So I do a lot of writing about rhythm, improvisation, and community, and how they affect each other. Because I feel like when you're in an audience, the audience becomes a community with the improvisational musicians for however long they're truly improvising. For the music to be successful, whatever the hell that means, they really need to become a fluid community. I feel like those are really, really the greatest stories on earth. 

How do you approach these stories in your work?

It’s about doing the research, the work of digging, but also putting it together in a way that allows people to go, “Oh, if I listen to this mixtape, or I read the syllabus, I’ll get a sense about what's going on in the world.”

Obviously I'm affecting the narrative that I want to tell. It's not objective in the slightest. But sometimes I think, “Oh, shit, did I mean to talk about this?” I'll find things that allow me to [leave room for] chance. I hate the idea of the omniscient narrator because I don't believe in it, so I allow space for things to come in. Teaching my class, [which focused on writing about music, from non-traditional music criticism to fiction], I wanted to learn at least as much as I was teaching, learn from the people who were reading the things that I had already read, bringing their different points of view.

What do you think each method of storytelling—music, writing, curation—is able to accomplish? Do you find different types of stories come through more clearly depending on the medium?

You know, one of the things that deeply affected my teaching experience here was that a very dear friend of mine who was a musician passed away right before I started teaching. It was completely unexpected. She was a trumpet player, and one of the things that her trumpet playing manifested was the ability to evoke both joy and grief in adjacent lines. Great writing does that too, but music does it better. There's something about blue notes, worried notes, which do something in music’s storytelling that just utterly complicates it. 

One of the things that frustrates me about the work that I still do (besides the compensation or lack thereof) is that there's an expectation for written stories to fit into particular kinds of boxes, especially when those stories are articles for big, mainstream publications. Whereas in music, the storytelling can become so complex, where you're crying and you're laughing at the same time, because that is what the music is telling you to do through the notes and through the lines and through the rhythms.

What does it feel like to you when the music is telling you a story?

I had this experience at Jazz Lincoln Center last summer, with Jlin. She's an incredible electronic musician from Indiana. She was playing while a troupe of dancers was dancing, these little vignettes all on the theme of “Requiem.” Afterwards, I talked to my friend and I said, “Wow, those stories were great.” They said, “You got stories out of that?” and I said, “Oh, you didn't?”

I think when people are dancing on a dance floor for five hours at night, particularly between the hours of 11:00 PM and 4:00 AM, they're telling their own stories there. If they're that deep inside of the music, their movements are telling their stories. Maybe their stories are about freedom and exhilaration, maybe their stories are about trying to forget something. You look at it long enough and you engage with them long enough—you allow yourself to be open to whatever the story is.

With words, it's got to be linear. With other forms of storytelling, I think there's the ability to make it more complicated and less linear.

How do you then go about writing about music? How do you try to use words to describe these things that can’t be described with words?

I've done it enough that now there are formulas. I hate them, but they're useful to get to a deadline (which I still miss all too often). There’s that famous quote attributed to Brian Eno, “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” 

How do you write about music? Sometimes you evoke it directly, you just say, “Hey, this beat sounds like this, this beat sounds like that.” I try to teach my students not to do what I call subjective projection, which is saying things like, “This will always make you feel good.” Instead, you just use the facts, but then if you take a step away and begin painting with a very wide brush, things become a little wishy-washy. And so it's about finding what the music evokes, what it sounds like, what its precursor is, where it’s seemingly trying to go. 

When the work clicks like that, do you have a  sense that you've gotten closer in terms of connecting with the music you’re describing?

Sometimes. I wrote a story about a year ago about an artist named Joan As Police Woman, because she did one of the last sessions with Tony Allen, the Afrobeat drummer, right before he passed away at the beginning of the pandemic. Joan started writing music out of those jams that they did, and then Tony died, and all of a sudden the music that she was writing kept going back to death. New York in the pandemic—remember how empty everything was? She was biking from her home to the studio, and the only things she was seeing on the street were ambulances.

I already knew the story that I wanted to tell, and the more Joan and I talked, the more layers she was giving me of herself. Then suddenly I felt like I had an obligation to try to paint how this music was reflecting all of our precarity, all of our fears of, “Are we going to die? What is going on in this world right now?” We're always asking that question, but at that particular moment in time I realized, “Oh my God. I lived through 9/11 here, on thoroughly unstable ground. Now I'm on thoroughly unstable ground again.” 

I felt the obligation to go even deeper into the music, as the story was allowing me to do. The fluidity of what I'm trying to say about the music and the story that goes around the music, it takes on a heavier life. And I think I did an okay job with that. I'm sure if I go back and reread it, I would want to make it even richer. But at some point, the editor is going to say, “Bro, it's 2000 words, and I'm not giving you another 300.”

Are there any mistakes you see people make when writing about music?

 I don't trust writers who write about dance music and don't dance. You just can't do it. That's not the same thing as when people say you can write better about music by learning every scale, every chord. People who have that vocabulary, bless them, they are able to say things about the music that I personally can’t, with my rudimentary knowledge. But there's something about feeling. If you can't feel it…

What was it like during the lock-down, when you couldn't participate in this community or go to live shows?

My version of that pandemic only lasted a couple of months. My neighbor started putting speakers out every night and playing a couple of records, and people started showing up. By early June, when the protests were in full swing, there was a dance party [on my block] every night from seven to eight, and it became one of the greatest things on earth. At the same time, this community that I'm in, the community of improvisers, started playing in Prospect Park, and people started playing in Central Park, so I started going out to see live music. Then there was all the music at the protests.

So I started going out. A different kind of going out, but it was so much stronger in terms of community. It was incredible.