Watch Soviet Avant-Garde Composers Create Synthesized Music with Hand-Drawn Animations (1934)

The Russ­ian Rev­o­lu­tion not only rad­i­cal­ly reshaped social and polit­i­cal insti­tu­tions in the soon-to-be Sovi­et Union, but it also rad­i­cal­ized the arts. “The Romanovs, who ruled Rus­sia for 300 years,” com­ments Glenn Altschuler at The Boston Globe, used “cul­ture as an instru­ment of polit­i­cal con­trol.” As the Bol­she­viks swept away lum­ber­ing czarist elit­ism, they brought with them an avant-gardism that also sought to be pop­ulist and proletarian—spearheaded by such exper­i­men­tal artists as film­mak­er Dzi­ga Ver­tov, poet, futur­ist actor, and artist Vladimir Mayakovsky, and “supre­ma­tist” painter Kaz­imir Male­vich. While many of these artists were denounced as bour­geois obscu­ran­tists when the dog­mas of social­ist real­ism became their own instru­ments of polit­i­cal con­trol, for sev­er­al years, the nascent Com­mu­nist state pro­duced some of the most for­ward-think­ing art, music, dance, and film the world had yet seen.

That includes some of the first ful­ly syn­thet­ic music ever made, cre­at­ed by inno­v­a­tive meth­ods that pre­dat­ed syn­the­siz­ers by sev­er­al decades. We’ve like­ly all heard of the Theremin, for exam­ple, invent­ed in 1919 by Sovi­et engi­neer Leon Theremin. By the 1930s, oth­er inven­tive tech­nol­o­gists and com­posers had begun to exper­i­ment with oscil­lo­scopes and mag­net­ic tape, cut­ting or draw­ing wave­forms by hand to cre­ate syn­thet­ic sounds.

One avant-garde Sovi­et com­pos­er, Arse­ny Avraamov became inspired by the advent of sound record­ing tech­nol­o­gy in film. The process of opti­cal sound uses an audio track record­ed on a sep­a­rate neg­a­tive that runs par­al­lel with the film (see it explained above). After the devel­op­ment of this tech­nol­o­gy, writes Paul Gal­lagher at Dan­ger­ous Minds, Bauhaus artist Lás­zló Moholy-Nagy sug­gest­ed that “a whole new world of abstract sound could be cre­at­ed from exper­i­men­ta­tion with the opti­cal film sound track.”

Tak­ing up the chal­lenge after the first Russ­ian sound film—1929’s The Five Year Plan—Avraamov “pro­duced (pos­si­bly) the first short film with a hand-drawn syn­thet­ic sound­track.” One very short exam­ple of his tech­nique, at the top of the post, may not sound like much to us, but it pre­serves a fas­ci­nat­ing tech­nique and a look at what might have been had this tech­nique, and oth­ers like it, borne more fruit. Mono­skop describes Avraamov as “a com­pos­er, music the­o­rist, per­for­mance insti­ga­tor, expert in Cau­cu­sian folk music, [and] out­spo­ken crit­ic of the clas­si­cal twelve-tone sys­tem.” He was also the com­mis­sar of a min­istry set up to encour­age “the devel­op­ment of a dis­tinct­ly pro­le­tar­i­an art and lit­er­a­ture.” It’s not entire­ly clear how what he called “orna­men­tal sound” tech­niques fit that pur­pose. But along with inno­va­tors like Evge­ny Sholpo and Niko­lai Voinov—whose fas­ci­nat­ing exper­i­ments you can hear above and below—Avraamov showed that tech­nolo­gies gen­er­al­ly used to deliv­er enter­tain­ment and pro­pa­gan­da to pas­sive mass audi­ences could be manip­u­lat­ed by hand to cre­ate some­thing entire­ly unique.

The exper­i­ments of these sound pio­neers per­haps held lit­tle appeal for the aver­age Russ­ian, but they were enthu­si­as­ti­cal­ly writ­ten up in a 1936 issue of Amer­i­can mag­a­zine Mod­ern Mechanix. “Voinov and Avraamov,” notes Gal­lagher, “briefly formed a research insti­tute in Moscow, where they hoped to cre­ate syn­thet­ic voic­es and under­stand the musi­cal lan­guage of geo­met­ric shapes. It didn’t last and, alas, closed with­in a year.”

via @WFMU/Dan­ger­ous Minds

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hear Dzi­ga Vertov’s Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Exper­i­ments in Sound: From His Radio Broad­casts to His First Sound Film

Sovi­et Inven­tor Léon Theremin Shows Off the Theremin, the Ear­ly Elec­tron­ic Instru­ment That Could Be Played With­out Being Touched (1954)

Eight Free Films by Dzi­ga Ver­tov, Cre­ator of Sovi­et Avant-Garde Doc­u­men­taries

Watch Russ­ian Futur­ist Vladimir Mayakovsky Star in His Only Sur­viv­ing Film, The Lady and the Hooli­gan (1918)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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