Red Noise

  • Andrey Smirnov. Sound in Z: Experiments in Sound and Electronic Music in Early 20th Century Russia. Koenig Books, June 2013.
  • Andrey Smirnov. Sound in Z: Experiments in Sound and Electronic Music in Early 20th Century Russia. Koenig Books, June 2013.

It’s often said that such and such an idea was ahead of its time. The expression calls to mind an image of culture as a progress bar, the zeitgeist loading ultrafast for a lucky few while the rest of us wait buffering.

Less of a commonplace is the notion that time has run ahead of our ideas, that our intellectual and cultural resources are inadequate to think about and feel our present circumstances. Such a situation requires us to revolutionize the artistic field—to produce work that would propel the rest of the culture around us forward. The Russian art world of the late 1910s and early 1920s aimed at just such a definitive break with the past. Though the young Soviet Union suffered from civil war and tremendous economic hardship, famine-level conditions did not seem to dampen artists’ sense of unprecedented political and cultural possibility.

This was the climate in which influential artists, poets, and engineers came to endorse Russian painter Solomon Nikritin’s philosophy of Projectionism: the doctrine that art could, by prefiguring the ideal culture, push society into the future. For the Projectionists, traditional art had expired. “Sculpture, architecture, music and poetry as art forms are already senseless,” Nikritin wrote, because they “can’t include the postulated image of today and consequently can’t be an art anymore.” The Austrian critic René Fülöp-Miller described a show at Nikritin’s Projection Theater in 1926:

There is no stage at all. The performance takes place in the middle of the hall, and all the appliances used are exclusively gymnastic apparatuses, the piece is accordingly nothing but a three-hour display of gymnastics, jumping, and running backwards and forwards, and as it is allied with the most extraordinary physical distortions, it makes an impression of complete insanity.

For the artistic revolutionaries of Nikritin’s time, this was the theater of the future, a cultural product for a society of socially engineered man-machines—a techno-anarchist utopia.

As it happens, Nikritin’s theater did prefigure the future, though in less grandiose ways than he intended. His use of film projectors and mobile scenery broke ground for the multimedia stagecraft of the later 20th Century. And without knowing it he obliquely pioneered a major advance in electronic music that would be reinvented by the Greek composer Iannis Xenakis in the 1950s, in total ignorance of the Russian precedent. Projection Theater performances featured unusual vocal accompaniments in which actors collectively uttered short nonsense syllables out of unison, their voices coalescing into a single stream of sound with a timbre that varied continuously as each actor made different noises according to a complicated score. This was a low-tech implementation of what today is known as granular synthesis, a technique in which tiny segments of sound are digitally spliced together and layered on top of one another, enabling musicians to slow down music without changing the pitch, to stretch the sustain of a piano note to infinity, and to create entirely new sounds.

From roughly the mid-1910s until the end of the 1930s, a handful of Russian engineers and artists took it upon themselves to remake the practice of music in the image of a revolutionary utopia. In contrast to the better-remembered Prokofiev and Shostakovich, these inventors were mostly outsiders to formal musical traditions, and they believed that the future of music lay not in new compositional styles, but in new technologies for the production of sound.

What they created was astonishing, not only in its novelty but in its quantity and scale. Many of their more outlandish ideas never saw fruition: an organ powered by an entire factory, an electro-acoustic orchestra mounted on a fleet of airplanes. But they successfully fashioned a great number of unprecedented devices, from synthesizers to proto-samplers, with technology that predated magnetic tape let alone the integrated circuit. Many of their conceptual developments—methods for synthesizing speech, models of the physics of musical instruments, theoretical descriptions of the idiosyncrasies of live performers—would have been at home in the technological landscape of the ’80s, ’90s, and ’00s.

But under Stalin their projects were shut down and denounced as “undemocratic” and “formalist.” Many of them were persecuted, imprisoned, or executed. Most died with disappointed ambitions, their papers and prototypes buried in the “Miscellaneous” files of inaccessible Moscow archives or discarded as trash. Andrey Smirnov has spent much of his life reassembling the history of these inventors and their work, sifting through correspondence and patent certificates, interviewing descendants and pulling strings to access sealed archives. Sound in Z is the first book to come out of that project, and the fact that at 281 pages it still feels like a cursory overview is a testament to the scope of his research. The book was delayed by two and a half years and nearly tripled in size because he kept uncovering more new material than he knew what to do with.

Because of the way so many of the inventions it describes anticipate later developments, Sound in Z, with its biographical sketches, technical diagrams and photographs, reads like a scrapbook inherited from a long-lost branch of the electronic music family. At the same time, Sound in Z’s protagonists seem to refuse assimilation into any musical tradition that exists today. They and their work were products of a particular political climate, which was wildly alien to the conditions of any musician now. Nothing illustrates this fact as dramatically as Arseny Avraamov’s Symphony of Sirens, perhaps the largest musical performance ever.

Symphony of Sirens was performed twice, once in Baku in November 1922 as a celebration of the fifth anniversary of the revolution, and again one year later in Moscow with the support of the State Institute for Musical Science. The instrumentation for the Baku production included “a cast of choirs, . . . two batteries of artillery guns, a number of infantry regiments including a machine-gun division, hydroplanes, and all the town’s factory sirens”—plus the foghorns of the Soviet navy’s entire Caspian Flotilla, moored in the town’s port. It also involved a special sound machine called the “Magistral,” containing fifty steam whistles played by twenty-five musicians. Avraamov conducted the performance with colored flags from the top of a purpose-built tower.

The Moscow production was even larger, with performers spread over such huge distances that coordination became extremely difficult. Avraamov wrote, “Because of the big area of distribution of the factory sirens it is necessary to have at least one heavy gun for signaling purposes with the capacity to shoot with live cartridges (shrapnel is not suitable for this, bursting off in the air is most dangerous and gives a second explosion sound, which can confuse the performers).”

That Avraamov pulled these performances off is a reflection of his prodigious ambition and ingenuity. But more than that, it speaks to the capabilities of an authoritarian state eager to uproot and re-make its own culture. Imagine what it would take to perform Symphony of Sirens today: to divert an entire city’s industrial works and a whole naval flotilla just to put on a concert, not to mention the perceived menace of bringing a huge military presence to an urban area. A concise expression of both the strengths and weaknesses of liberal society: we cannot make this kind of art.

While Soviet musical inventors did anticipate many later technologies, the diversity, conceptual extremity, and technical sophistication of their creations owed much to the fact that they were working in a very different mode from most music technologists. Though their work now appears to presage technologies that came later, it would be a mistake to see their advances as evidence of some kind of historical necessity.

As an illustrative metaphor for technological change in music, we could say that there are at least two ways to break a piano. Liszt regularly demonstrated one method: he played pianos until they fell apart. His style of playing involved an unprecedented level of violent banging, more than the wooden-framed pianos of that era could take. He would sometimes smash a piano mid-performance, and a new one would have to be brought out from the wings. Because Liszt’s endorsement was a big deal for any piano company, manufacturers competed to win his favor, trying to make a piano that he couldn’t break. They began to produce sturdier pianos, incorporating metal frames, which in turn prompted composers to come up with even more ambitious piano pieces for the new instruments. As a result, the young instrument developed rapidly, through a mutual reinforcement of aesthetic trends and economic pressures.

The Liszt case reveals one way that stylistic change can drive and be driven by technological change. Developments in music technology often fit this pattern, in which stylistic innovations push the capabilities of existing tools, prompting the development of new tools whose boundaries can be pushed even further.

Arseny Avraamov, however, planned to destroy pianos on a much more dramatic scale than Liszt. Avraamov reviled the piano because he thought that the traditional Western musical scale was irrational and even harmful. By restricting themselves to only twelve pitches out of a whole continuum of possible frequencies, Avraamov believed that musicians had dulled the perceptual capabilities of entire populations, preventing them from fulfilling their human potential. After the October Revolution, he made a proposal to Anatoly Lunarcharsky, the Commissar of Public Enlightenment, that all pianos in the country should be gathered up and burned. The proposal was fortunately unsuccessful, but Avraamov did go on to conduct extensive research on novel possibilities for microtonal music, devising his own “Ultrachromatic” tone system and inventing instruments to perform it.

In a similar spirit Leon Theremin, famous as the inventor and namesake of one of the first electronic instruments, undertook pioneering work on live concert visuals as part of a series of experiments aimed at improving viewers’ sensory perception thresholds. In 1923 he created a gesture-controlled multicolored light called the Illumovox, later teaming up with Albert Einstein in what we can only hope was the first ever VJ duo, showing test subjects geometrical figures accompanied by music.

The Projectionists and many contemporaries also shared Avraamov’s view that art had both a power and an obligation to transform society, specifically by using technology to break through old stylistic boundaries. They believed that a freer, more “rational,” more spectacular art could alter perception itself, opening whole new possibilities of experience and demonstrating better ways of life that had been closed off by the old oppressive culture—but that new tools were needed to make this possible.

The most striking elements of Sound in Z can appear paradoxical, as the reader is torn between marveling at the uniqueness of Soviet musical technology and at its resemblance to what came afterward. While reading Sound in Z I had the experience of learning that some of my own ideas were much older than I’d thought. In November 2011, some musician friends and I got together to work on a project. Each of us had recently moved to a different city, and we were all working through the early-stage disorientation of learning to get around a foreign place. We wondered what it would be like to listen to the experience of navigating our new streets if it were possible to hear such a thing: the tight regularity of New York versus Honolulu’s slow curves and wide spaces, London’s crooked alleyways or Maastricht’s nested crescents. And so we came up with a method for translating maps into musical scores. We wrote some software that would take a map, rendered as a network of white streets against a black background, and use it to generate a piece of music, the North-South axis corresponding to pitch and the East-West axis to time.

We prepared ourselves for the results to be completely unlistenable, but they turned out rather interesting. New York becomes a series of densely layered downward and upward glissandos; Honolulu alternates reedy trills and silence; London is mostly noise. The project, by our measure, was reasonably successful. Luckily the novelty of our technique wasn’t really the point, for as it turned out, we were building on a concept that had originated in Petrograd nearly a century before. Our particular image sonification method was already old in 1958 when it became the basis for the graphical score of the ANS synthesizer, named for the composer and occultist Alexander Nikolayevich Scriabin. The ANS is best known for its use in Eduard Artemyev’s 1972 soundtrack for Solaris, but it was actually conceived in 1938 by the engineer Evgeny Murzin and the painter-acoustician Boris Yankovsky. Shortly afterwards Murzin was sent to design artillery controls at a secret military research institute and only built the instrument twenty years later.

Murzin’s synthesizer had a unique interface: a sheet of glass covered in black tarry goop, which the composer could scrape off to etch a diagram of polyphonic music – the vertical axis corresponding to pitch and the horizontal axis to time. Propelled by either a hand crank or a motor, the glass sheet passed through a beam of light over a row of photosensors, exposing only the sensors under parts of the sheet where the goop had been scraped off. Each sensor drove one of 720 sine wave oscillators, enough to cover the entire range of human hearing with a resolution of 1/6 of a semitone, the smallest perceptible change in pitch.

This was the first interface to give composers immediate, tangible control over the realization of their music: if they didn’t like what they heard, they could scrape some more goop off, or smear it back on. It opened up a mode of working with music in which composers interact directly with their product as it takes shape. This tight connection between composer and composition is now practically universal in electronic production. In our age of digital audio workstations, it’s difficult to imagine how much of a paradigm shift this must have represented to a generation of composers accustomed to meticulous tape splicing, longhand calculations, and getting their bearings by plunking out approximate renditions on piano.

Soviet inventors’ anticipation of later musical tools holds some lessons about the way that new music technologies emerge. Advances tend to spread in fits and starts, beginning with semi-isolated pockets of practitioners often working outside the mainstream. Without central institutions to disseminate them, ideas follow indirect and obscure paths through the social graphs of musicians and listeners, and the same techniques and tools are often appropriated or reinvented for disparate purposes in different times and places. Thus Karlheinz Stockhausen and Daphne Oram, both of whom had visited Pierre Schaeffer’s studio in Paris, developed similar techniques for generating and manipulating sound in the 50s even though Stockhausen was composing high-brow art music while Oram produced television soundtracks.

But ultimately the sense of deja vu that pervades Sound in Z is misleading. If Schaeffer or Stockhausen had political goals, these were incidental, or ex post facto; even the anarchist piano-rigger John Cage developed his political thoughts well after his most important musical advances. Soviet musicians by contrast intended to have their music united with social change, heightening both their technical and stylistic radicalism. Their ideas have survived, but they are hard to recognize.

The Russian avant-garde ideal of performer-less music, embodied in the fine-grained control of modern production methods, has become something of a problem for today’s music technologists. Now a main goal is to reinsert a performer who has been all too effectively cut out. As usual, economic forces are at play: these days records don’t make much money; live shows do. But live performance options for electronic musicians have historically been restrictive. Painstakingly assembled studio productions are difficult to reproduce on stage, and while performers from Kraftwerk onwards have used synths, samplers and homebrew electronics in successful live acts, many more have stuck to DJ sets.

From the early 2000’s, a small tech industry has sprung up to help electronic musicians up their spectacle game. Companies like Ableton, Novation and Akai sell hardware and software that enables live de- and reconstruction of “studio” (laptop) produced tracks, while a handful of designers have made names for themselves building custom instruments and stage effects for a range of budgets. Daedalus plays in front of a wall of motorized concave mirrors, while Amon Tobin DJs inside a three-story pile of projection-animated cubes.

This technology is impressive to look at and adds a crucial element of dynamism and spontaneity, often making the difference between a concert and an iTunes playlist. New forms of audio hardware and software are also more accessible than earlier studio equipment in terms of both cost and usability, enabling many more people to create their own music. These are welcome developments, but Nikritin would have demanded more. “Prosumer” culture or no, electronic music performance is increasingly dominated by commercial raves and concerts that are rarely ever more than passive entertainment: fans show up, have fun for a few hours, and resume life the next day unchanged, bar an ecstasy comedown.

What’s been lost is the notion of the spectacle as a tool for radical transformation. Left-wing thinkers from Guy Debord onward have condemned spectacular performance as a device for pacification. Earlier avant gardes viewed it as one of their primary means of activation and engagement. Avraamov’s concept for the Symphony of Sirens was to create a performance so large that an entire city would need to participate rather than just look on, fostering a sense of civic involvement and inspiring hope for a bright common future. Whether the Symphony was successful or not, it reflected an awareness of its status as a political act, and it aimed at real goals that had nothing to do with turning a profit.

In any case, the Soviets came to think that their musicians were indeed too dangerous, outpacing their own revolutionary will, and support for the avant garde came to an end. After 1934 the Stalinist doctrine of Socialist Realism demanded popular propaganda music: accessible, folkloric compositions espousing Communism. Electronic music was branded undemocratic, unappealing, and unsuitable for the masses. Pravda’s notorious article demonizing the composer Dmitri Shostakovich after the premiere of his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtensk District set off a wave of persecution, ending the careers of many avant-garde musicians and technologists. Some, like the visionary polymath Alexei Gastev, were shot; others were marginalized and died in poverty. Smirnov enumerates the catalogue of jailings and deaths in a singularly deflating postscript to his book.

Leon Theremin got off relatively lightly. His international stardom ended in 1938 when, after living for many years in New York, he was secretly taken back to the Soviet Union on board the Starry Bolshevik. The circumstances of his return to the USSR are unclear. Many believe that he was kidnapped by the NKVD (precursor to the KGB), though that seems unlikely considering that he was allowed to bring along over a metric ton of electronic equipment, most of which ended up confiscated by Soviet customs. Regardless, in 1939 he was condemned to a labor camp “for participating in the counterrevolutionary organization,” whatever that may have meant. He was later released and went on to produce more musical inventions, but he spent much of the rest of his life working for the NKVD designing surveillance equipment.

Arseny Avraamov fared worse. By the end of his life in 1944, he was living in destitution in a tiny flat in Moscow with his wife and ten children. He had spent the years from 1934-38 trying to revive the folk music culture of the Caucasus Mountains, and returned to Moscow to find himself in the middle of the Great Terror with no stable employment. When the NKVD purged a number of his associates in the Caucasus, his documents, which he had left behind, were confiscated and never resurfaced.

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