Alan Lomax, Sovietologist

April 3rd, 2012

The entire recording archives of Alan Lomax went online recently. An ethnomusicologist, Lomax travelled the length and breadth of America recording music that we might call ‘folk’, ‘traditional’, or other similar labels. He was one of those rare obsessive heroes who believed that his mission to preserve changing and dying traditions was an important public good, and that his field recordings should be owned by all of us.

Not only did he travel across the United States, he travelled the world, and in 1964 he visited the Soviet Union to attend the International Anthropological and Ethnological Congress in Moscow. While there, ethnomusicologist Anna Rudneva helped Lomax access Soviet archives in Leningrad and Moscow, where he made copies of recordings from various Soviet nationalities and ethnic groups. He brought these recordings back and added them to his incredible collection, now public property. It’s a shame he didn’t get to travel to many of regions he archived, but perhaps the Cold War was so frosty that the KGB might have suspected he was on a spy mission.

Still, it probably stands as an interesting example of US-USSR co-operation during the Cold War. A sharing of cultural resources across metaphorical and literal walls in the name of common understanding.

Kreuzberg, 1979

December 16th, 2011

This footage, shot by Ingeborg Euler, gives a somewhat spooky glimpse of the Berlin borough of Kreuzberg in 1979, and was originally broadcast on 3sat. Kreuzberg — then part of West Berlin — was surrounded on three sides by East Berlin, and the film gives a sense of the enclave-like nature of Kreuzberg life at the time, including shots of the river and the Oberbaumbrücke — at that time part of the Berlin Wall. The music is by Brian Eno, from Ambient 4.

Metallica in Moscow

March 28th, 2011

One of the most noticeable effects of Gorbachev’s reforms in the Soviet Union in the 1980s was the emergence from underground of many previously-repressed subcultures, and alongside dissident poetry, modern dance, literary novels, experimental filmmaking and a whole gamut of cultural expression, one of the largest and most powerful cultural forces to be unleashed was metal. The Monsters of Rock festival in Moscow in September 1991 showed how large.

Although estimates vary, most accept that somewhere between 1.4 and 1.6 million people saw AC/DC, Metallica, The Black Crowes, E.S.T. and Pantera at Tushino Airfield, northwest of Moscow city centre; one of the largest concert crowds ever. Combined with a public infrastructure that had almost no experience in dealing with large rock concerts, the day seems to have been a chaotic experience, with crowd control carried out by police and Red Army units (including a helicopter unit) on a crowd who were, in most cases, seeing their first ever rock concert.

One of the persistent rumours about the concert is that Metallica were personally asked to play by Gorbachev. Maybe this was the sort of thing he was into:

The ongoing adventures of the Russian national anthem

March 20th, 2011

Sergey Mikhalkov, a Russian children’s book writer who died in 2009, had an unusual claim to fame — he rewrote his own national anthem three times. His strange experience is part of the slightly schizophrenic story of the Russian and Soviet national anthems in the twentieth century.

At the beginning of 1917, Tsar Nicholas II was enthroned as Emperor and Autocrat of All the Russias, and the ponderous God Save The Tsar! was the national anthem of the empire, as it had been since the 1830s:

By the end of the same  year (after a brief detour through the provisional government’s Worker’s Marseillaise) Lenin decreed that the Internationale would be the anthem of the new Bolshevik state (with the revolutionary lyrics tellingly changed from future to present tense):

And so it remained, until 1943. It was then that Stalin decided that a brand new anthem was required to inspire victory over Hitler, and so, taking the preexisting anthem of the communist party, he ordered the twenty-nine-year-old Mikhalkov (together with poet Gabriel El-Registan) to write new lyrics, literally overnight. The next day, Stalin made a few revisions to their words and declared himself happy (as well he might, seeing as the new lyrics exclaimed in part that “Stalin has taught us faith in the people, to labour, and inspired us to great feats”), and it became the official national anthem of the USSR on March 15th, 1944.

An English version of the anthem was also famously recorded by Paul Robeson, the black American singer and civil-rights activist:

As a result of the process of De-Stalinization that followed his death in 1953, the references to Stalin in the lyrics of the national anthem were now seen as a troublesome inconvenience, and so the heads of the communist party were caught in a familiar bind — how to deal with an embarrassing situation without having to admit having made any mistakes. Their solution was crude but effective: from 1955 onwards, all the lyrics were simply removed from the anthem, and from then until 1977, the piece was performed as an instrumental.

The soviet leaders finally got around to updating the national anthem in 1977, to coincide with the new constitution, and they decided to go back to Mikhalkov for the lyrics. For this, his second version of the anthem, he altered his earlier words to remove the mentions of Stalin and World War II, added in a couple of mentions of red banners and unbreakable unions, and had the whole thing ready in time for the 1978 Winter Olympics. This version of the anthem remained in use until 1991.

The early years after the collapse of the USSR in 1991 were an unclear and fearful time for most Russians, so it is perhaps unsurprising that Boris Yeltsin ditched the soviet grandiloquence and plumped for another instrumental as the anthem of the new Russian Federation. Patrioticheskaya Pesnya (The Patriotic Song) was a piece that dated originally from the 1830s, and remained the anthem in instrumental form until 1999 (when, briefly, words were added by the poet Viktor Radugin).

Radugin’s words only lasted a few months, however, as Vladimir Putin’s new administration decided to change the anthem yet again. Their solution was solidly in the tradition of Russian bluntness — they simply restored Stalin’s anthem. However, they again needed new words, and so Mikhalkov, now 87, wrote his third and final set of lyrics for the song. References to communism and Lenin were switched and replaced with mentions of God, seas and forests, wisdom and glory, and loyalty to the fatherland, and the new Russian anthem was debuted in December 2000.

For those keeping count, that’s nine anthems in nine decades, with seven sets of lyrics for five pieces of music written by thirteen different writers and composers. Mikhalkov, most prolific amongst them, died in 2009 aged 96. Additionally, each soviet republic also had their own anthem, and there were also anthems for the communist party and the army. Hear them all, with hundreds of variations, at Hymn.ru and Marxists.org. Perhaps there’ll be another new version soon enough. To finish, however, here is possibly the most rousing — or terrifying — version of the song, sung by over 6,000 Russian soldiers in Red Square in 2007, to mark Victory Day, as artillery fires in the background:

A.E. Bizottság

February 6th, 2011

It’s difficult to find much out about A.E. Bizottság. They were a band, an art project, a filmmaker’s collective, a state of mind, a threat to the existing order, a total mess and a bunch of losers, depending on who you ask. There’s a bare-bones Wikipedia entry for them which doesn’t give much away: “A. E. Bizottság was a Hungarian underground band formed by a group of visual and multimedia artists and amateur musicians in the early 1980’s.”

The ‘A.E.’ in their name stands for Albert Einstein, and the full name of the band is The Albert Einstein Committee. They had an equally surrealist bent to their album and film titles, releasing the album Kalandra fel! (Adventure Now!) in 1983, and the film (and accompanying soundtrack album) Jégkrémbalett (Ice-cream Ballet) in 1984.

From Kalandra fel!, here’s ‘Baad Schandau':

The band was formed in 1980 in order to enter a local talent contest, with the intention of making it as far as the semi-finals, which would be televised. They succeeded in getting on TV, and as a result they ended up being asked to play another concert, supporting three other popular Hungarian bands of the era (Beatrice, Hobo Blues Band and P. Mobil) to a crowd of 25,000 people. After this they released their debut album, the aforementioned Kalandra fel, and toured in Hungary and around the Eastern Bloc, dealing with the absurdity of petty officialdom (they were asked to change their name by the government) and bringing their surreal vision to the world.

They became successful enough to be able to tour in Western Europe in 1985, but broke up soon afterwards. Their dadaist, Zappa-esque avant-rock is unfortunately mostly unknown outside Hungary, though the 2007 compilation album B-Music Cross Continental Record Raid Road Trip (on Finders Keepers records) uses ‘Baad Schandau’ as a lead-off track. From the same album, here’s ‘Konyhagyelpo':

If anyone has any more information about this wonderful band, please share in the comments!