Elektro Moskva

Il y a presque un siè­cle nais­sait l’étérophone, autrement appelé Thérémine, du nom de l’ingénieur russe qui le conçu. Ce curieux objet qui se jouait sans le toucher, grâce à un champ électro-magnétique, fut le pre­mier instru­ment de musique élec­tron­ique. Dans les années 60, Robert Moog com­mer­cialis­era le con­cept, après la ten­ta­tive échouée du sovié­tique, et le syn­thé­tiseur devien­dra un instru­ment pop parmi d’autres. C’est l’histoire du “Syn­thé chez les Sovi­ets” qu’ont choisi de racon­ter Dominik Spritzen­dor­fer et Elena Tikhonova dans leur doc­u­men­taire “Elek­tro Moskva”.

L’histoire de l’électrification de l’URSS, trans­for­mée en véri­ta­ble lab­o­ra­toire peu­plé d’usines et de villes nou­velles, la con­quête spa­tiale, la défense et l’effervescence sci­en­tifique, puis la péri­ode de décon­struc­tion et l’amoncellement d’outils, gad­gets et appareils élec­tron­iques devenus inutiles ou dépassés. Un voy­age cos­mique qui emprunte les lignes de chemin de fer, les routes, se rend dans des fab­riques désaf­fec­tées, des ter­rains vagues trans­for­més en bro­cantes, des centre-villes, des stu­dios de for­tune, … partout où le règne de l’électronique a fait des adeptes, qu’ils soient col­lec­tion­neurs, chercheurs, répara­teurs, musi­ciens noise ou sim­ples témoins. A l’image de cet ancien s’étant fab­riqué une antenne de télé avec des fourchettes (la télé exis­tait oui, mais pas les antennes !), le mot d’ordre de ces années de créa­tiv­ité fer­tile fut le suiv­ant : “rien ne marche, mais tu dois en tirer le meilleur !”.


Answers by Direc­tor: Dominik Spritzendorfer

How did you two meet ? Who got the idea of this doc­u­men­tary ?
Elena and I met back in 1997 as stu­dents of Moscow film insti­tute VGIK. I have been liv­ing in Rus­sia for 3 years, in 2000 we both moved to Vienna to live and work as film­mak­ers. Lena did some rather exper­i­men­tal short movies, I was always more into doc­u­men­tary. The idea came up, when we met Richardas Norvila aka Benzo, an elec­tronic musi­cian, philoso­pher and psy­chi­a­trist from Lithua­nia, who lives in Moscow and makes sound with old soviet syn­the­siz­ers and other gear. He has his own phi­los­o­phy about those instru­ments and loves their imper­fec­tion, which he claims to be due to the defi­ciency of russ­ian life itself. We got curi­ous and started to dig deeper into the story of those instru­ments and their ori­gin. And we found a lot of sto­ries that com­bined to a unique nar­ra­tion about how it felt to be cre­ative in the total­i­tar­ian soviet sys­tem and how this his­tory is influ­enc­ing con­tem­po­rary musi­cians in Rus­sia today.

Speak me a bit about the con­cep­tion of the movie. How much time did you spend tour­ing Rus­sia ?
We made this film dur­ing a period of 8 years! It was not easy to find fund­ings for such an ‘exotic’ story but due to our pas­sion and per­sis­tency we got a bud­get to cover the costs, pro­duced by our­selves. We just believed in it and wanted to make this film hap­pen. Over the years we did a lot of research, find­ing out more and more the story grew over the years, with some sen­sa­tional dis­cov­er­ies from both state and pri­vate archives. Finally we had 2 shoot­ing peri­ods in Rus­sia, both around a month long.
Form the begin­ning on, we wanted to make it a doc­u­men­tary with a fairy-tale-like atmos­phere, with a very sub­jec­tive point of view, which reflects the inner state of a per­son remem­ber­ing his­tory and com­ment­ing on it in a humor­ous, even cyn­i­cal way. that is a very typ­i­cal russ­ian man­ner.
“Come what may, for some­thing will come any­way. There was never a time when there was noth­ing!” is a say­ing from soviet times, which tells a lot about what is expected of the future to come. We have that in the film.

Are Sovi­ets the orig­i­na­tors of elec­tronic music ?
When Leon Theremin invented the Theremin in 1919 he was a pio­neer in elec­tronic music. His col­leagues in the insti­tute were jok­ing: ‘Theremin plays Gluck on a Volt­meter.’ His instru­ment was com­pletely outta space for that time. Of course, there were other inven­tions in this field in west­ern Europe and Amer­ica, too, but I dare to call Theremin the god­fa­ther of elec­tronic music. Though he spent most of his life as sci­en­tific pris­oner, being forced to invent for soviet secret intel­li­gence and war­fare. no music there.

Is there a lot of Theremin left today ? Do you per­son­nally know how to play ?
In the 20ies, the Theremin was expected to become THE instru­ment of the future and soon be found in every house­hold. This never hap­pened. Known mainly from sound­tracks of hor­ror movies, it is still a rather exotic, strange gim­mick instru­ment, but it still is magic.
There is the Theremin-Centre in Moscow led by Andrey Smirnov, which houses a huge archive of texts and instru­ments, there are lec­tures and courses on elec­tronic music and play­ing the Theremin. It is a meet­ing point for a young gen­er­a­tion of music mak­ers, too.
I tried to play it there and I own a lit­tle diy theremin from Japan, but it’s rather play­ing around with it, not seriously.

Did Robert Moog 1961’s inven­tion stole the Theremin con­cept ?
He didn’t steal it, he built licensed theremins for the amer­i­can mar­ket, mod­i­fied it with the time. Moog was a big admirer of Theremin.

Leon Theremin had an extra­or­di­nary exis­tence. He lived the 1917 rev­o­lu­tion and soon after cre­ated an instru­ment every west­ern pop icon of the cen­tury used, then he went to the US to assure and sell the prod­uct to RCA, and sud­denly came back in USSR to end up work­ing into goulag lab­o­ra­to­ries. What a jour­ney !
It is an amaz­ing life he had, so much linked to the mad­ness of the 20th cen­tury, the soviet exper­i­ment, the elec­tronic rev­o­lu­tion, the cold war etc. besides the film by Steven Mar­tin there is a biog­ra­phy by Albert Glin­sky on Theremins life.
For Elek­tro Moskva we used footage from Theremins last inter­view where he was 97 years old, talk­ing about his inven­tions and work for the KGB. This footage was stored under­neath the film­mak­ers bed for 20 years and has never been seen before.
By the way, this Novem­ber it will be 20 years since Theremins death. At high age, he used to men­tion that he might live for­ever since his name spelled back­wards was NIMEREHT, which means ‘never dies’ in russian.

Para­dox­ally, these peri­ods seemed more cre­atively free than today’s elec­tronic music under the con­trol of drum machines and syn­the­siz­ers. So, what went on since the last 100 years ?
Hard to say. In soviet times, there was a strict con­trol of every­thing. If musi­cians were not pub­lished on the one and only state record label ‘Melodija’, there were not pub­lished at all. Only excep­tion was music for films (Tarkovsky ‘s com­poser Edward Artem­jev used the once of a kind ANS syn­the­sizer for his films) and espe­cially ani­mated films.
Every­thing else includ­ing west­ern music was under­ground, copied from tape to tape of what was sneak­ing through the iron cur­tain. So there were a lot of dreams about the ‘other’ side of the cur­tain asso­ci­ated to mod­ern elec­tronic music. It was mostly a reflec­tion and imi­ta­tion of what was going on in the West, with a lag of some years.
Today, elec­tronic music is such a global phe­nom­e­non, that it is actu­ally impos­si­ble to mark local specifics. But there still IS great music made today! it only has to be found in the ocean of 99% of crap.

Could we say, with a bit of provo­ca­tion, Iron Cur­tain, at some point, post­poned the uni­formi­sa­tion of music, and cul­ture ?
Every­thing unique that hap­pened there was DESPITE of the cir­cum­stances, not thanks to them. Rather like a resis­tant flower grow­ing out of a crack in a rock.
On the other side some kind of soviet easy lis­ten­ing was used by the regime to pam­per the peo­ple and make them for­get their prob­lems. Num­ber 1 was Mesherin’s Orches­tra of elec­tronic instru­ments, they were aired through TV and radio around the clock. the soviet muzak of the 60ies!

How com­mu­nist author­i­ties man­aged to con­trol the pro­lif­er­a­tion of these ‘elec­tronic gagdets’ ? Lenin helped to pop­u­lar­ize the Theremin at first, but after ?
Lenin was never really inter­ested in the instru­ment, though much more in it’s and Theremins more prac­ti­cal qual­i­ties: the instru­ment is actu­ally a motion detec­tor, per­fect to be used for sur­veil­lance and con­trol, and Theremin was good for the role of spy­ing sci­en­tific inno­va­tions abroad.
Electr. instru­ments were never about to be widely pop­u­lar, even in the 80ies, when there was mass pro­duc­tion of syn­the­siz­ers, there was no struc­ture to obtain them.

What are the most incred­i­ble meet­ings you made dur­ing the shoot­ing ?
Meet­ing with Vladimir Kuzmin, the inven­tor of the Polyvox and a lot of other syn­the­siz­ers, in Eka­ter­in­burg was a great expe­ri­ence. But strangely, he was still very reserved about details of the syn­the­sizer pro­duc­tion within mil­i­tary facil­i­ties since he com­mit­ted to main­tain silence about these ‘mil­i­tary secrets’ back in the 80ies. That he still fears con­se­quences if he talked is a lit­tle absurd. It was not easy to get some infor­ma­tion out of him, which was use­ful for the film.
Another adven­ture was shoot­ing in sen­si­tive loca­tions in Moscow,eg. we shot a scene near a power plant with Benzo, after that our soundguy Yuri was detained by secu­ri­ties while record­ing some sound of the plant. For 2 hours the secu­ri­ties tried to get a clue out of the recordings.

Is ques­tion­ning elec­tronic devices col­lec­tors get bor­ing after some time ? How did you man­age to keep your research excit­ing ? And to pre­serve it from nos­tal­gia ?
We tried hard NOT to make a movie that is only inter­est­ing for the hard­core elec­tronic music nerd com­mu­nity. Nei­ther we are. We wanted to tell a story about liv­ing, invent­ing and being cre­ative in a total­i­tar­ian sys­tem, using the music and these awk­ward instru­ments as a tool to tell this story.
Prob­a­bly this film might be received as nos­tal­gic, how­ever we wanted to get beyond that. We are not say­ing: it was all bet­ter then. Of course it was a hard life that peo­ple from the west can­not even imag­ine. But we want to draw atten­tion to this kind of cre­ativ­ity that you need, when you can­not walk into a store and just buy what­ever you need, but have to use your brains to get what you want, how you make it. in our abun­dant soci­ety we loose those abil­i­ties. That’s not nostalgia.


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