Thursday, 14 November 2013

Music of Full Communism? Early Musical Experiment in Soviet Union

[full text of an essay which appeared on Calvert Journal]

Around the same time that the Museum of Art in Lódz, Poland in 2012 and the Calvert Gallery in London now host Sounding the Body Electric, an exhibition of Eastern European sound experiments between the 50s and 80s, Andrey Smirnov, one of the most prominent researchers of the early Soviet era music, has finally published his magnum opus, the long-awaited Sound in Z, which will now be the definitive book on the subject. One of the most surprising aspects of 50s and 60s sound art in the Soviet Bloc for the Western audience might be its incredible scientific-cultural interdependency - its new inventions strictly tied up in parallel with the newest scientific inventions of the era such as cybernetics, a perfect combination of mathematics and electricity.

Yet this art didn’t come to us from nowhere. The relative relaxation in the mid-50s, after Stalin’s death and as a compensation after uprisings both in Hungary and Poland, meant in many cases a comeback to the buried and forgotten splendid inventiveness of the original Soviet artists – who, together with the Bolshevik Revolution which they mostly wholeheartedly supported, believed that now was the time humanity would undergo a great transformation. Smirnov calls them ‘the Z Generation’. Why? Partly because of the proliferation of the radio waves and electrical currents, which, together with other technological phenomena, was feeding the imagination of this era. Z signified the spark, the zigzag of the radio wave, lightning, electrical spasms of energy. In a way, this embodied the bodiless, the ethereal, esoteric energy, of something necessarily dematerialising in the act of dialectical transformation; and last but not least, all those energies mounted to some notion of cosmic energy. The intense development of scientific ideas among the generation Z could be compared to the Renaissance, and not only because artists were equally polymathic – also the more esoteric ideas resemble that period, replacing often a divine immateriality with more technological precision.

Divided by one crucial event – the Second World War - the inventors, scientists and artists creating under Bolshevik rule had already been working on most of the inventions which the later generation inherited, which in the later history of electronic music and cybernetic, kinetic 50s/60s art are not enough stressed or are even forgotten. And the comparison of the development of sound art and sound science and electronic music in those two eras is interesting, because it reveals a similar nature and similar history common to both eruptions of originality: first the beautiful rise and explosion, and then, politically motivated destruction. In the case of the post-war era, that came with the Brezhnev era of stagnation, beginning in 1968 with the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, and in March the same year, the anti-Semitic political crisis in Poland.

There was a similar “crushing” of the artists, but they weren’t similar in their convictions. Andrey Smirnov shows a technically detailed panorama of the flourishing of an art which could only have arisen in Soviet conditions, although the author remains skeptical of whether the Soviet rule was necessary. Yet Lenin’s passion for “electrification of the whole nation” as a necessary element of communisation, inspired a new art which, according to Commissar of Enlightenment Anatoly Lunacharsky, was to be from now on experimental, to match the politics. This led to the spread of a conscious ‘Art of the Future’.

While many of the post Thaw experimental artists who enjoyed support by the state probably did so pragmatically, so that they could continue or pursue their experiments, the artists of revolutionary Russia wanted their art to embody communism, an idea and ideal most of them strongly believed in. They were strictly pioneers, creating meticulous instruments out of now laughably primitive conditions, which also conveyed the rapid industrialisation of the civil-war destroyed country. Associations like Proletkult promoted projects such as “music of metal and machine tools”, which were to sledgehammer the former world quite literally.

For instance, Smirnov describes how the Symphony of Sirens by Arseny Avraamov, performed across the factories of Baku in 1922, was made with the sound of the following: hydroplanes, machine guns, factory sirens, the foghorns of the entire Caspian flotilla, the horns of steam locomotives and artillery fire, all denoted with coloured flags and field phones by the conducting composer. The same Avraamov was extremely enthusiastic at the presentation of the Theremin in 1927: “The prospects opened to music by Theremin’s invention are really boundless. His ‘Theremin’ is not a simple ‘new musical instrument’ as our musicritics [sic] are thinking, no, it’s a solution to a huge social-scientific-art problem; it’s the first big step into the future, into our future, it is a social revolution in the art of making music, its revival.” The “primitiveness” of Symphony of Sirens wasn’t a goal in itself, but a necessary means towards something more sophisticated. The future belonged to the ‘Radio-Musical-Instruments’, which could combine the overcoming of the traditional music with the ethereal sound and technology and in this way, dreamt Avraamov, inventor of the new tonal scales, it would reunite with the great alternative tonescale of music traditions of the East. Another inventor, the scholar and acoustician EvgenySholpo, wrote The Enemy of Music, a story of a fictional polymath-musician who is expelled from the circles of traditional musicians, so that he has to pursue his path of experiment alone. The absolute star of Sound in Z is Lev Termen aka Leon Theremin, author of the first electronic instrument in the world, the famous Theremin (and uncountable others), based on the electronic manipulation of air, who for his whole life had to balance his astonishing musical science with political pressures that stretched as far as being forced to help in espionage.

While the narrative of electronic music history often restricts itself to pointing to Schaeffer and Stockhausen as the great protoplasts, they were different in their approach to sound. Stockhausen treated sound matter in the end in an abstract way, as a thing detached from reality; for the Soviet pioneers sound never really lost its representational element, its connection to the social and material world. The later artists also had the luck to have instruments such as tape machines ready at their disposal, unlike our Russian heroes, who had to build their devices on their own, using what was available. Dziga Vertov, for instance, had a lifelong obsession with the special, rhythmic organization of sound. From his early experimental thoughts as a student of music, he got interested in sound editing, and only via this he came to film. His most startling work, Enthusiasm - Symphony of the Donbass, is a quite terrifying apotheosis of labour, that emphasized its toll and hardship, at the same time as it aggrandizes the workers. Vertov spliced sounds of radio broadcasts, and industrial clanging on his pioneering soundtrack, which is still striking in its monumentality. Apparently, after seeing it, Charles Chaplin was to call it “the greatest symphony I’ve ever heard”. Or maybe seen? The use of industrial noise in his Modern Times was probably inspired by Vertov.

All this was in turn connected with a wholly new science of the body and its movement. Inspired by the efficient employment of a worker’s body in a factory, the idea of “biomechanics” was established by the Central Institute of Labour (CIT) founded by the experimental radical thinker Alexei Gastev, and haunted the minds of Soviet intellectuals: with Gastev it resulted in a kind of labour psychology; it was adapted for the stage by theatre reformer Vsevolod Meyerhold. From there, it was close to the concept of the man-machine, androids, humanoids, robotics and even today’s anti-humanism – yet it was understood not as a hatred of the human, but rather of making the life supported by the machines and in symbiosis with them more pleasant, more creative and easier than before; creating a New Man, who could use technology to his advantage. Yet the ideas of mechanization, electrification and efficiency for everybody came about at the same time as the first conductorless symphony orchestra, PERSIMFANS (from Pervyi Simfionicheskiy Ansamb bez Dirizhyora), which represented similar musical radicalism - not because of the quality of sounds (they toured playing quite traditional music), but because the lack of a conductor actually embodied the idea of communism.

The richness of the book’s research is impossible to convey in a review. A basic synthesiser, graphic sound such as the so-called ‘variophone’, various kinds of proto recorders/players, variations on the pianola, ways of splicing, cutting and sampling sounds, all were invented or paved the way for then, in the 1920s or 1930s. Post war music was also much more international in its opening up of communication and collaboration between countries, even above the cold war divisions – suffice to mention Warsaw Autumn or the Donaueschingen festival, or the proliferation of radio studios, with Polish Radio Experimental Studio as especially key. Soviet artists created in isolation and weren’t emulating anyone – with the possible exception of a possible initial inspiration from the Italian futurists and Luigi Russolo’s Art of Noises. The really radical things at the time in the west were serialism, or the minimalism of Erik Satie or Paul Hindemith, and were very different from what the Soviets were doing.

Sound technology after the war was more advanced in its use of machines. Given the primitive conditions, the level of invention in Russia came from the incredible enthusiasm people felt about the new reality, trying to stretch technology to quite extreme levels, and it’s this that made eg. Vertov’s creations so noisy, as he was basically trying to do something then impossible. Stalinism gradually destroyed a lot of that, as the new leader wasn’t as tolerant to the futurists as was Lenin, who was so interested in the electric proprieties of the Theremin that he asked its creator to give him lessons. Some creators were still trying to do radical things under Stalin, like Vertov’s Three Songs of Lenin, which put together folksongs with more distorted radio signals and marches, still trying to retain the initial clash. Yet it’s definitely a lot calmer, much less manic and brutal.

As Smirnov had full access to the documents, we learn a lot about the sad endings of so many of the careers here: if they weren’t recruited as spies, like Theremin, who became a lifelong prisoner of the KGB, where he had to invent more and more sophisticated systems of wiretapping for their use, then they died in the Gulag or after being destroyed as artists, like Evgeny Sholpo, the inventor of variophone, or were executed, like Gastev or Meyerhold. Yet Smirnov goes as far as implying that the avant-garde Russian artists couldn’t really have believed in the system, as they mostly came from anarchic environments. Some of the avant-garde had been associated with anarchism immediately after the revolution, but they wouldn’t have seen that as anti-communist. There’s a certain anachronism in thinking that people from the time should have been equipped with the later knowledge, that they “should have known what would happen.”

What linked artists in both eras was wanting to make points with electronic sound using similar techniques: but in very different circumstances, and with very different equipment. Sound in Z makes knowledge about this hidden world of unimaginable inventiveness finally available, and also makes the reader melancholic over how many of those geniuses had the misfortune of trying their revolution in times that proved to be more than hostile. The world wasn’t ready.


  1. Symphony of Sirens by Arseny Avraamov, performed across the factories of Baku in 1922, was made with the sound of the following: hydroplanes, machine guns, factory sirens, the foghorns of the entire Caspian flotilla, the horns of steam locomotives and artillery fire, all denoted with coloured flags and field phones by the conducting composer


    Interesting that this happens almost exactly at the same time that the Michaelson-Morley experiment definitively puts an end to the idea of a luminiferous ether.

    You have this period of about 20 years from the beginning of radio and electronics, so the idea of an etheric fluid is suddenly tangible, to Michaelson-Morley, which kills it stone dead and also confirms much of relativity.

    From the scientists' side it starts earlier, back with James Clerk Maxwell's introduction of a unified electromagnetic spectrum or even Volta, but it needs Marconi making it into a technology that has actual uses to get everyone's attention.

    SF recommendation: Kipling's Wireless, which makes the point about radio as either a scientific explanation of or substitute for the supernatural domain, but better because you can spy on the navy:-)