Remembering Soviet pop

[From Global Voices website]

Vesyolye Rebiata” (The Jolly Fellows), “Krasnye Maki” (The Red Poppies), and “Siniaia Ptitsa” (Blue Bird)—these are just a few of the bands that dominated Soviet mainstream music from the 1960s to the 1980s. While the West twisted, discoed, and boogied, the people of the Soviet Union were treated to a bland but charming, state-censored version of Western music: the so-called vocal-instrumental ensembles (VIAs).

During the post-war era, Western pop poured across Soviet borders via European radio airwaves and record smuggling. Despite expensive jamming efforts, the government was unable to prevent unsanctioned, bourgeois music from garnering a widespread audience inside the USSR. The Soviet leadership was alarmed by the music’s popularity not only because of its promotion of “decadent” Western values, but also because its popularity seemed to undermine Soviet culture’s supposed superiority.

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The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes review – Shostakovich in fear

[from The Guardian]

Grim humour abounds in this deftly written fantasia on the life of the composer in Stalin’s Soviet Union

There’s a moment in this fantasia on the life of Dmitri Shostakovich when the composer recalls Stalin’s visit to his 1932 opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. Stalin’s box was placed above the percussion and woodwind, and the performers, presumably from nerves, played far more loudly than Shostakovich’s score demanded. The resulting musical imbalance was what drove Pravda to describe the opera as “muddle instead of music”. “A composer first denounced and humiliated, later arrested and shot, all because of the layout of an orchestra,” as the novel, imagining the possibilities running through Shostakovich’s mind, puts it.

This is the book’s mise-en-scène: the composer standing outside the lift of his apartment block, a packed suitcase resting against his calf, waiting for arrest. He waits there so that the NKVD do not disturb his wife and children. The terror of the Stalinist Soviet Union is not something that needs to be dwelt too much on: Barnes’s chief interest is how genius compromises under power, whether it wilts or thrives or finds some cunning means of survival and expression. But the reader, too, can feel a clammy sweat break out early on, when Shostakovich is summoned for questioning at the Big House (we do not need to be told what “the Big House” is) in Leningrad. The composer had been friendly with Marshal Tukhachevsky, a much-decorated military man and keen amateur violinist, now deemed due for purging by Stalin. Shostakovich is asked to supply details of the plot to assassinate Stalin that must have been discussed at the soldier’s home, but he can remember no such plot.

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Soviet Synthesizers: From Russia with LFO

[From Reverb]

When you think of countries that are important in the history of the synthesizer and electronic music, it’s easy to focus on the United States with famous inventors and manufacturers such as Moog, Buchla, Oberheim and many others. Or to think of Japan with well-known brands like Yamaha, Roland, Korg and even Casio. If you are up on your electronic music history, the Trautonium or theh Ondes Martenot might spring to mind as important early contributions by Germany and France respectively.

But you probably don’t think of Russia.

And yet Russians were involved in electronic music from the very earliest stages, and synthesizers were developed and widely used in the former Soviet Union – both officially and underground. And like most things Russian, the synthesizers of the Soviet Union were, for the most part, no mere imitators of their Western cousins, but had a style and sound all their own.

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A passion for Schnittke

[From Gramophone]

The violinist Roman Mints introduces his new album of Schnittke’s complete music for violin and piano

The first time I heard Alfred Schnittke’s music was at children’s music school: it was his Suite in the Old Style, a fairly easy piece to play and understand, notably the Minuet. I remember that one of the teachers, on hearing me play the Minuet, said: ‘See, he can write normal music!’ At that time I didn’t know what he meant, but a few years later, when I began to take an interest in dissonant music, the Soviet record label Melodiya started to release LPs of Schnittke’s symphonies conducted by Gennady Rozhdestvensky. I bought these records, my mother bought them, and I was also given them as birthday presents by my schoolmates. It never occurred to them that, as someone interested in this music, I might already have them. So I wound up with several copies of each record, and in turn gave them to my friends. People began to believe that Schnittke was my favourite composer. And even though that isn’t exactly true, I do still have a particular connection to his music. Although I stopped buying records of his music long ago, I have always found it easy to play – for me it is simple and clear, and it speaks my language.

Coming to London in 1994, I quite coincidentally discovered a fellow spirit in my professor, Felix Andrievsky, who had liked Schnittke’s music from his youth and was one of the first (besides its dedicatee Mark Lubotsky) to play his Sonata No 1. I studied all three sonatas, among other works, in Andrievsky’s class. I had read some studies of Schnittke as well as a couple of books of conversations where he discussed his music. But these were mostly about structural and other technical details, while Andrievsky was teaching me to think in terms of imagery. Unlike many other composers’ music, Schnittke’s brings to mind very definite images, a result I think of how much work he did for cinema. Naturally I got much more out of my lessons with Andrievsky than all the theoretical tomes I read, and I learned to hear the simple, graspable emotions in this music.


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War music: the humanity, heroism and propaganda behind Shostakovich’s Symphony No 7

[From The Guardian]

4899When Shostakovich played the first two movements of his Seventh Symphony to his friends in the besieged city of Leningrad in the summer of 1941, his performance was interrupted by a German bombardment. As the air-raid sirens began to blare after he had finished playing the gigantic first movement – music that dramatises, parodies and immortalises the German invasion – he assured his audience that he would return to play the second just as soon as the warning had stopped and he had taken his wife and children to the shelter. As one of his listeners that day, the critic and composer Valerian Bogdanov-Berezovsky, later wrote, the Seventh Symphony “is an extraordinary example of a synchronised, instant creative reaction to events as they are being lived through, transmitted in a complex, large-scale form, yet without the slightest hint of compromising the standard of the genre”.

The Seventh’s story is one of the most astonishing in the history of music. The first full performance in Leningrad (now St Petersburg) was given in August 1942 by a half-starved orchestra, whose emaciated state is symbolised by the drummer Dzaudhat Aydarov, who had literally been rescued from the dead. Aydarov was thought already to be a corpse, but the desperate conductor, Karl Eliasberg, went to the morgue to make sure – and discovered this supposed cadaver moving and breathing. Aydarov took arguably the most demanding role in the symphony, playing the side drum that beats the relentless rhythm of war at the heart of the first movement.

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When Rock Was Banned in the Soviet Union, Teens Took to Bootlegged Recordings on X-Rays

[from the Smithsonian website]

rock_on_bones1.jpg__800x600_q85_cropForget making mixtapes or burning CDs: if you were a teenager in the Soviet Union during the 1950s and you wanted to get your hands on the latest hot tunes coming out of the West, you probably picked up a “bone record.”

As the Cold War picked up in the years after World War II, the Soviet Union clamped down on any music or art coming out of the West that officials deemed decadent or culturally corruptive. But despite the lockdown, a subculture of Soviet teens called the stilyagi were able to smuggle and share banned records by making their own out of old x-rays. Because the homemade records often still had old images of bones burned into them, they were called “music on the ribs,” or “bone records,” Eric Grundhauser writes for Atlas Obscura.

The stilyagi, or “style hunters” were basically the 1950s Soviet version of today’s hipsters: mostly in their teens and 20s, the stilyagi, stood out with their trendy, often loud clothing. And of course, like their contemporaries in Western Europe and the United States, they wanted to listen and dance to rock ‘n’ roll and jazz. But while sharing music these days is as easy as hitting share on Spotify, the stilyagi either had to brave the black markets to get their fix of Ella Fitzgerald or Elvis or press their own copies on whatever vinyl they could scrounge up, John Brownlee wrote for Fast Company.

At the time, vinyl, like many other materials, was scarce and difficult to get a hold of in stores and markets. But the stilyagi stumbled on a cheap and plentiful source of vinyl: old x-rays from hostpitals. While the vinyl sheets used to print x-rays were much flimsier than records, bootleggers trying to find ways of sharing new music realized that they could make cheap copies using standard wax disc cutters to duplicate smuggled records.

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Meet Boris Grebenshchikov, the Soviet Bob Dylan

[From Newsweek]

0522borisgrebenshchikovOn Tuesday, May 19, hundreds of people lined up in front of the Webster Hall concert venue in Manhattan’s East Village, and most of them were speaking Russian. Expats, first generation immigrants and tourists, they all came to catch Boris Grebenshchikov on a rare American tour. He’s the man who essentially invented rock music in Russia, and has been one of the most respected and influential singer-songwriters in the country for several decades.

Grebenshchikov, 61, who started making music in the early 1970’s with his band Aquarium, is often described as the Russian counterpart to Bob Dylan. Though this label greatly oversimplifies both musicians’ legacies, certain aspects of the comparison make sense. A fan both of British and American rock (from Dylan to Marc Bolan, Lou Reed to Talking Heads) and the Russian literary tradition, Grebenshchikov – usually referred to as BG – synthesized contemporary Western culture with his native Russian one, interpreting the foreign sounds in his own way and creating a unique sub-genre with his brand of highly sophisticated and metaphoric lyricism. Essentially, since the mid-1980’s BG has assumed the role of the Russian Poet, an artist who put the nation’s spirit into song. Many of his lines have become their own kinds of proverbs in Russian, and hardly anyone who tries to write a song with a guitar there can escape his influence.

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