Symphony of Sirens, Revisited

Roman: This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman: For the ancient Greeks, Sirens were mythical creatures who sang out to passing sailors from rocks in the sea. Their music was so beautiful, it was said that sailors were powerless against it. They would turn their ships towards these sea nymphs and crash into the reefs around them. In Homer’s Odyssey, there’s a story where Odysseus and his men are traveling near an area that Sirens are known to inhabit. Odysseus knows that if he hears the siren song, his ship is going to sink but he still wants to hear what they sound like, so he comes up with a plan. Odysseus has his men tie him to the mast so that he can’t take control of the ship. Then, Odysseus, has his men fill their own ears with beeswax, so they can’t hear anything. The plan works, Odysseus gets to hear the Sirens call and his men don’t, and they sail on to safety with Odysseus pleading with his crew to crash the boat the whole way. And for over 2000 years or so, that’s what a Siren was, a creature that made a beautiful sound.
That all changed in 1819 when a French engineer named Charles Cagniard de la Tour decided to call the artificial noisemaker he was working on, the Siren.

[siren sound]

Roman: This new mechanical siren became one of the signature sounds of the modern world. Sirens warned people about eminent bombing raids during World War I, sirens announce incoming fire engines and influences and police. Thanks in part to the siren the world of the early 20th century had become a lot louder than any time in human history. And we can probably assume that these sirens that people heard in cities all over the world, sounded nothing like the siren songs of Greek myth. At least to most people. One man, a composer, name Arseny Avraamov heard music and the cacophony of the modern world and he tried to create a composition at symphony from the clatter of the newly formed Soviet Union. In this little bit of a departure from the typical 99% Invisible program, Moscow based producer Charles Maynes investigated the legend of Avraamov and his forgotten masterpiece, and then we’re going to follow that up with a classic 99% Invisible about Soviet design. But first, this is The Symphony of Sirens, revisited.

Charles: Here’s what I know. November of 1923, a man named Arseny Avraamov would climb on to a rooftop in central Moscow. He will be holding two flags. But the day will be November 7 and the Soviet Union, the USSR will be celebrating its sixth anniversary, the birthday of the one and only, Bolshevik Revolution. This man Avraamov is a communist. He’s also a composer of music and there on this roof near the Kremlin, he will link the two with what’s might sound like a strange idea. He’ll conduct a symphony made up of an entire city. He will call this symphony, The Symphony of Sirens. Let’s be clear, this isn’t his first time, but it will be his most important attempt so far. Soviet big leagues so to speak. This is what I know about Avraamov. This is all I know and I know what I know from a different man, the man I’m going to see now. His name is Andrey Smirnoff. He is a man who studies these things, a man who writes about these things. He is a man who can answer what have clearly now become our common questions. Or so I thought, even Smirnoff said it was impossible to classify Avraamov. He told me Avraamov was from a Catholic family, and had worked for the circus. He was a fountain of ideas, a ladies man and if he couldn’t be pinned down in his personal life, it was even more so with this work.

Andrey: [foreign words]

Translator: In one sense, they call him a composer. Yes, he was a composer. He studied music for a few years. But I, like most people interested in Avraamov, know very little about his music because almost none of it survives. !o you could say there was this split between his experiments. His ideas about the future of music, music that was never written down and the music he made to survive, the music he made to make money. So to talk about what kind of music he wrote, or would have written if that music would have survived, well, we just don’t know. Yes, he’s a composer, but he’s a composer based on myth.

Charles: The myth in part was based on a flair for the dramatic early on he nicknamed himself Rev Ars Avra, the Revolution of Arseny Avraamov. He had friends too: poets, engineers, musicians, cinematographers. In the first decades of the 20th century, they dreamed up ideas about the future. With the arrival of the revolution, Avraamov and the other setup to turn them into reality, new art for a new world, with support, Smirnoff told me, from the Soviet elite.

Andrey: [foreign words]

Translator: He had very strong support from on high. He had support from Trotsky and as far as I know, Lenin supported him, or at least he tolerated it all. He tolerated this culture of praises as far as creating this new future, these artists, avant-garde deeds and poets would teach the peasants and workers about the future of art.

Charles: Along the way Avraamov would develop a far reach of theories who would sketch out the concepts of electronic music, biomechanics, early use of sound in cinema. Then there was the Symphony of Sirens, Avraamov’s music of the future, the reason I’d come.

[background foreign words]

Charles: Archival footage of parades on Red Square that day, November 1923 showed clear skies, cold fall day. It was the first time apparently the Kremlin had been filmed from an airplane. Going to the tape, I couldn’t find any evidence of Avraamov, but the irony, Smirnoff told me, was that the pilot may have been the only one who could make sense of Avraamov’s performance below.

Andrey: [foreign words]

Translator: This performance of the symphony went largely unnoticed because demonstrations were going on at the same time on Red Square. Airplanes were flying overhead and most people probably didn’t realize the sirens or their own event. Moscow is a big city but even for the people who were there, the song was so loud, it blew them off their feet. So the performers didn’t understand those who are there to listen, couldn’t hear a thing and nobody had even the slightest understanding of what was going on?

Charles: I’d learned one other detail that day. Although new recordings of the 1923 performance existed, a young composer in St. Petersburg at staged Avraamov’s symphony just a few years back. I bought a ticket and caught to first train out of town.

[background noise]

Charles: I tracked down Sergei Chmutov on the Peter Paul fortress where he played a recording of the sirens to an unsuspecting public. Chmutov told me that Avraamov believed every city has its own symphony. For St. Petersburg, Sergei had constructed his version according to Avraamov’s own notes from the 1923 score.

Sergei: [foreign words]

Translator: With a Symphony of Sirens, a detailed description remains. So we can read it and hear what it might have sound like now it is. It tells us the order of everything, went to turn on the sirens, when the cannons should fire, what should go after to what.

Sergei: [foreign words]

Translator: It’s all spelled out and written down clearly, and it’s obvious why Avraamov did it this way. So that the symphony could be played not only by musicians but by any person who knew how to read.

Charles: Chmutov spliced together sounds beginning with Avraamov so-called Magistral, a set of steam whistle sirens constructed to play the workers hymn, The International. Then he added revolutionary choirs and planes, horns, whistles, machine guns, more horns, soldiers, you get the idea. Collectively they formed a sort of industrial hymn to Soviet achievement with the city united as audience, performer and stage. In Avraamov’s telling, the siren call to work once so oppressive had become something to celebrate in the workers state. It was the music of the future signaled by the cannons roar.

Sergei: [foreign words]

Translator: During the performance of the Sirens. Afraamov was up on the rooftop with the flags telling the cannons when to fire. 1, 2 or 3 siren horns were the sound off after the firing of the first cannon, each siren a little different in turn. And then this triumphant siren was to ring out for another three minutes accompanied by bells.

Charles: It was loud, Chmutov conceited, and the siren scared the tourists. We continued our walk around Peter Paul fortress when unexpectedly we came across an exhibit for the American composer John Cage. An avant-garde artist who’d heard music in the sounds with the environment around him, to my mind Cage was Avraamov born a few years later and with the different passport. The coincidence was odd. We entered and found Elena Nicolaevna.

Elena: [foreign words]

Charles: “It doesn’t move me”, she said. In her view, Cage’s biggest defense was his most famous work: four minutes and 33 seconds, in which no notes to play for that duration. The song consistent whatever sounds around you at that moment.

Elena: [foreign words]

Charles: Elena Nikcolaevna had lasted four minutes before she gave up. “Better they pay me 150 rubles”, she said. I suggested there might be other American composers more pleasing to her tastes. “No, thank you,” she said, not if that meant more the likes of John Cage. But Cage’s ideas weren’t new, I mentioned. The Russian avant-garde explored the same ideas in the 20s.

Elena: [foreign words]

Charles: Chmutov told her about Avraamov’s idea, about the Symphony of Sirens, the symphony for every city.

Elena: [foreign words]

Charles: “Yes,” she said, “Petersburg sings, our city is a symphony” as if it was the most obvious thing she’d ever heard it.

[background music]

Charles: Back in Moscow I found myself reviewing the archival tapes from Red Square again. I still couldn’t find Avraamov, but this time I was struck by something else. A simple idea really, you can never go back to the beginning. The faces on Red Square that day were full of excitement for a new country. There were literally boys on bicycles but soon they would grow up, go to war and I couldn’t help but think that many wouldn’t return. For Avraamov, November 1923 was the last time he would attempt to Symphony of Sirens. He didn’t fall victim to the Soviet repressions, and he didn’t die fighting the Nazis. According to Andrey Smirnoff, Avraamov and others from the avant-garde, they were just forgotten. The country grew up and the wild ambitions of the 1920s gave way to Soviet officialdom, stagnation and ultimately, cynicism.

Andrey: [foreign words]

Translator: The problem isn’t just that the majority of the public doesn’t know about it. He said they don’t know that it even could exist. Russians were convinced long ago that the Soviet Union couldn’t produce anything, that everything good was in the West and all we could do was make bad copies of everything. But it’s not like that, and the history of the 20s and 30s really approves it. But this doubt that Russians have in themselves loom large. That’s how we were raised, hopefully, someday it will change.

[background music]

Charles: That night fireworks rang out over cities all across Russia. It was a holiday, I’d almost forgotten. Avraamov thought music was the ultimate communal experience and it was hard not to agree. Here we all were looking skyward at the dramas. But if I closed my eyes and listen carefully, I could hear a car line, steps on the pavement, laughter. Then I imagined other parts of the city chiming in, crowds gathered in protests, trains racing in the tunnels, Moscow’s never-ending traffic, just the hum and ding of an average day in the city. You didn’t have to like Avraamov’s music of the future to know it was happening. And if I couldn’t find the man, well, it was comforting to know the music that never left.

Roman: That was the Symphony of Sirens revisited by producer Charles Mains. That story was part of the global story project presented by PRX with support from the Open Society Foundations. In that piece, there was a mention of Soviet design and it brought to mind this early episode of 99% Invisible that I’m sure many of you haven’t heard, so we thought we just tack it on here for fun. The question you have to ask yourself is this, are you ready to bow down before the glory of Krugozor?

This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars. My friend Julia Barton….

Julia: That’s me.

Roman: Is in a New York City apartment with Michael Idov.

Michael: My name is Michael Idov, and I’m the editor of, Made in Russia: Unsung Icons of Soviet Design.

Roman: And Lawrence the parrot that sounds exactly like the buildings door buzzer, and no matter how hard we tried to cut out Lawrence.

Julia: His door buzzer imitation cannot be denied.

Roman: But maybe that’s okay because Idov’s new book on Soviet design is an homage to the stuff of ordinary Soviet life; Cigarettes, drinking glasses, subway token machines and it might be hard for outsiders to see what this seemingly random collection of Soviet consumer goods have in common.

Julia: But Idov’s believe there’s something that unites them all.

Michael: To define this esthetic you first need to realize that most of these items were ripoffs of Western sources, you know, of varying qualities.

Roman: They are imitations like the way Lawrence the parrot is imitating the door buzzer.

Julia: Shut up, Lawrence!

Roman: One look at the items in this book, even though they are shameless imitations you’ll see that the Soviet stuff is unmistakably Soviet.

Julia: Take your Soviet soda machine. In those, carbonated drinks came not in bottles, but straight into a communal drinking glass, something chained to the machine. The excruciating Soviet arcade games were designed by the Committee on amusement. Most Americans haven’t even seen these artifacts, but in a way, we’re responsible for them.

Michael: Basically, it all goes back to the kitchen debates. In 1959 there was this wildly successful American exhibit in Moscow.

Radio Speaker: The official opening of the American exposition counterpart on the Soviet trade show in New York and dedicated to showcasing the highest standards of life in our country.

Julia: Vice President Nixon showed Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev around the exhibit and they stopped in front of a model suburban home to address an audience before New American color TV cameras.

President Nixon: There are some instances where you may be ahead of us! For example, in the development of the of your… of the thrust rockets for the investigation of outer space. There may be some instances, for example, color television where we’re ahead of you. But in order for both us, for both us to benefit, for both us to benefit, you say you never conceive anything.

Roman: Michael Idov says that despite Khrushchev’s bombast and the recent success with Sputnik, the Soviets were humiliated by all of America’s stuff.

Julia: Khrushchev decided the Soviet people needed stuff, too. But it was a huge struggle for the Communist Party to switch Soviet factories from producing tanks and rockets to cassette decks and hair dryers.

Michael: Usually, the way it worked was some party guy would come back from a foreign trip and bring in a German radio, and give it to the engineers and say, “Make one like it.” And then they would just reverse engineer it, and then they would look around for, you know, the guy who draws well, and then like, “All right, well, can you draw? Okay, you do the logo” and that would be the logo that would last for the next 40 years.

Roman: The system produced a lot of strange stuff, but sometimes the Soviets did better than the original.

Julia: Take the unbelievably cool magazine Krugozor.

Roman: Everybody should just bow down before the glory of Krugozor.

Julia: It was supposedly based on something Khrushchev saw well in the United States, a magazine within a record in it. Idov calls it the original podcast. They actually sounds like public radio.

Michael: There would be an article in the magazine and then the contents of the vinyl disk would somehow illustrate the article. There would be the sounds of the forest or something like that or folk songs of some far-flung tribe.

Julia: Or this.

[music playing]

Michael: What started happening over time was, since the people who have made this magazine had access to something unbelievably awesome for the Soviet Union, which is vinyl repress. They started slipping in a little pop music in there.

Roman: It was, the round teradiscs in Krugozor that gave Russians their first non bootleg recordings of everyone from Barbra Streisand to Pink Floyd to Michael Jackson.

Julia: The main thing that unites the designs and made in Russia is that they’re often the only designs. Michael Idov didn’t pick from shelf loads of say, different cassette recorders. Most Soviets had one, the Visna. And the BK electronica personal computer probably made Russian speaking hackers the best in the world through its sheer awfulness. Nobody had any other choice.

Michael: Far be it for me to suggest that this is actually a good thing, but it’s certainly simplifies getting to know one another, because if you grew up in the Soviet Union, and you’re my age or older, I already know so much about here.

Julia: Including the song that puts you to bed at night.

Michael: If you grew up in the Soviet Union it’s just seared into your brain. I can sing it for you if you want.

Julia: Yeah, how does it go?

Michael: I think it goes… [singing Russian song]

Julia: This theme from a children’s puppet show aired every night at 8:15 on Soviet television. You can’t really call the crude animal puppets icons of Soviet design but Idov put them in his book anyway.

[music playing]

Julia: Because what they’re bright eyes and worn out for Krishna the pig and Stepashka the bunny represent a lost universe. 11 time zones closed off from the rest of the world making their own stuff in their own way. The tired toys are sleeping now, that’s how the song goes.

[music playing]

Julia: Good night. Roman

Roman: 99% Invisible is Sam Greenspan and me, Roman Mars. The Symphony of Sirens revisited was produced by Charles Maynes, and the unsung icons of Soviet design was produced by Julia Barton. We’re Project 91.7 local public radio KALW in San Francisco and the American Institute of Architects in San Francisco.

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