INTRODUCTION, ANS & OPTICAL SOUND…
I am lucky enough to be in Russia for a month as ‘Musician in Residence’ as part of the British Council, UK-Russia Year of Music, in collaboration with PRSF and RUSH music. My main location for the residency is Kaliningrad, with some days in Moscow too. I will make a few blog posts about my experiences here…
I applied for this residency for a few reasons. Firstly, I have long been fascinated with the Russian exclave, Kaliningrad Oblast… Russia in the Baltics… I visited the other side of the border in Lithuania over 10 years ago to research the ‘Baltic Flyway’, which is an important bird migration passage. The ‘Curionian Spit’ is a long thin sand dune that connects Lithuania and Kaliningrad which provides a safe passage for migrating birds flying from Russia and further north east to western Europe (many birds dislike flying long distances over open water or large areas of land). This trip started an ongoing series of artworks connected to bird-migration, which I am still developing (also, my great grandparents migrated from the Lithuanian port, Klaipeda on the Curonian spit in 1904, which was my inspiration for this first trip). I was curious to return to the region, but from the other side of the border, to maybe continue this thread of research.
Secondly, also about 10 years ago, I went to a lecture by Andrey Smirnov in the UK, and consequently got his book ‘Sound in Z’ which documents the developments of early 20th century Russian experiments in sound and electronic music. Many elements of this history connect with my practice and interests, including the desire to fuse artistic disciplines, especially visual art and music, alongside the integration of science into artistic investigations leading to the invention of many innovative machines and the creation of the earliest electronic instruments. A fascinating read, I highly recommend it.
With my residency starting with four days in Moscow, Andrey Smirnov generously offered to meet me each day so I could learn more about his instrument collection and archive, which his book is based on. I also went on trips to instrument museums, art galleries, media galleries, studios and met a wealth of interesting artists, curators, researchers, lecturers, students, journalists and more. An extremely rich and fascinating time…
On day one, I visited the Glinka instrument museum, which houses the incredible ANS Synthesiser, invented by Evgeny Murzin between 1937 and 1957 (it took 20 years to finish). The method of composing on the ANS is by drawing graphics into a glass plate covered in a non-drying sticky black paint. This graphical score is then ‘played’ by scrolling the glass plate slowly into a darkened space where it is ‘read’ by a series of lights passing through spinning discs, to be received by photo detectors on the other side of the glass plate, and decoded into sound. Each glass plate ‘score’ plays approximately 3 minutes of sound. This invention follows the trajectory of experiments in optical sound (more on this later). The ANS is polyphonic and can create a wide variety of timbres by means of adding overtones (drawing them in). The rest of the museum was also fascinating and charted the development of folk instruments from many parts of Russia, and the rest of the world, early musical automata, a microtonal piano, and the early Ekvodin synthesizer. Below pics : montage of ANS Synth, Enharmonic Piano and Ekvodin
In the afternoon, I met Andrey Smirnov at the Moscow Conservatoire, where he showed me some documents from his archive connected to the optical sound techniques of synthesising sound from the 1930’s. It was incredible to see the discs used in Evgeny Sholpo’s variophone, having read about it, and to also see optical soundtracks created by various means – Arseny Avraamov’s hand drawn and Nikolai Voinov’s paper-cut soundtracks photographed onto film using a rostrum camera; Boris Yankovsky’s ‘vibroexponator’ (a modified rostrum camera for a similar method), and Evgeny Sholpo’s Variophone that used spinning discs with wave forms cut into them to create a graphical soundtrack exposed onto film. These synthesised, optical soundtracks were played back on a film projector and presented to the public in a cinema. Andrey showed me Sholpo’s patents, and concert tickets to see ‘a concert with no performers’. It was absolutely captivating to see the original documents. These methods are based on the fact that audio can be recorded optically onto the soundtrack of film, and it was discovered that the opposite is possible – to draw a sound wave onto film which then generates a synthesised sound when it is played back. These laborious methods and intricately invented machines were to first print the optical sound track onto the film. Hearing it played back came later in the process.
And finally – Andrey showed me a photo of a machine Leon Theremin invented to draw spectrograms of sound. He made it in one evening!! It uses spinning discs with lights and photodetectors to create a frequency ‘sweep’ to analyse a sound, that is then drawn as a spectrogram on a plotter. The story of Leon Theremin is huge and inspiring, he was enormously prolific and worked for many years under extremely difficult conditions and sadly much of his work was destroyed. There is not enough space to go into the details here, but, needless to say – he was a total genius.
And, to finish, a video of Sholpo’s variophone optical soundtracks in action… Interestingly, many scores made by the variophone were of quite conventional music, for example, laborious transcriptions of Chopin’s Nocturnes. This was due to the strict regime at the time, where all state funded activities needed to be justified to the authorities. No avant-garde experiments were permitted… but was anything happening in the underground with these potentially wildly experimental sound machines? We may never know.