X-Ray Audio

IMG_2393Over the weekend I went to have a look at a very unusual exhibition, hosted by Vivid Projects in Digbeth. ‘X-Ray Audio: Forbidden Music Bootleg Technology 1946-1964′ explores the way in which bootleg music flourished in the Soviet Union during the Cold War. The exhibition includes a number of different approaches to distributing music, including beautiful flexi-discs and objects which look nothing like a record. The objects displayed were collected by musician Stephen Coates and photographer Paul Heartfield, and are, as the exhibition flyer points out, examples of the (often surprising) aesthetic of low culture. Most interesting, though, was the X-Ray discs. Bootleggers ‘repurposed used X-ray films to copy forbidden jazz, rock and roll and banned Russian music.’

The exhibition was full of images of bones: the X-ray discs have a ghostly, unexpected and rather Gothic appearance that is both disturbing and beautiful. In the context of this exhibition, the X-ray films become art, projected onto the walls, shown on slides, as well as displayed in cases. The exhibition information describes them thus:

They are images of pain and damage inscribed with the sounds of forbidden pleasure, fragile photographs of the interiors of Soviet citizens overlaid with the ghostly music that they secretly loved.

It’s a fascinating metaphor for the required secrecy of bootlegging that these discs contain images of people that are rarely seen. A broken bone here, a skull there, these are the secret interiors of people, and, though macabre, they are also strangely beautiful.

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Conference Announcement: Russia and Britain in the 19th Century

Cultural Cross-currents between Russia and Britain in the Long Nineteenth Century, a Conference hosted by Tomsk State University and Birmingham City University

Amid this life based on coercion, one and the same thought constantly emerged among different nations, namely, that in every individual a spiritual element is manifested that gives life to all that exists, and that this spiritual element strives to unite with everything of a like nature to itself, and attains this aim through love. (From A Letter to a Hindu by Leo Tolstoy)

From Tolstoy’s reading of Trollope and Ruskin, to the world-wide influence of Pushkin, the Western outlook of Turgenev and the influence of Dostoyevsky on James Joyce, Russian and English literatures influenced one another in the nineteenth century. This conference aims to explore these cultural and literary cross-currents, and welcomes papers on aspects of literature and history which explore this influence.

Two conferences will take place: one at Tomsk State University on Friday/Saturday 20-21 September 2013 and one at Birmingham City University on Friday 19th July 2013. Participants are welcome to attend either or both of these events. The conferences are organised by Dr Irina Gnyusova (Russia) and Dr Serena Trowbridge (UK).

We invite 250-word abstracts for 20-minute papers, to be submitted to culturalcrosscurrents@gmail.com by 1st March 2013. Papers may consider a range of topics, including but not limited to:

• The influence of Russian literature on English writers

• The influence of English literature on Russian writers

• Cultural links between Britain and Russia in the nineteenth century

• Literary, social, political or artistic movements

• Anglo-Russian relations, from personal friendships to national relationships.

All papers will be considered for an edited collection of essays on the subject, to be published in English and Russian. The final essays will need to be around 6,000 words, and more information will be circulated after the conferences have both taken place. When submitting your abstract, please let us know which conference you wish to attend.

More information can be found on the conference website: http://culturalcrosscurrentsconference.wordpress.com

The Cherry Orchard

Chekhov’s last play, The Cherry Orchard, is currently running at Birmingham Rep (until November 6th), in a new(ish) English version by Tom Stoppard. I’m a fan of Chekhov, and indeed of Stoppard, so I was really looking forward to this, and in many ways it didn’t disappoint. Josie Lawrence, as Liubov Andreevich Ranevskaya, was every inch the star – she (slightly self-consciously, perhaps) lit up the stage with an emotional performance as a troubled but ultimately courageous woman. Leonard Fenton (Dr Legge in EastEnders!) was humorous and moving as the elderly manservant, Firs, while John Ramm was suitably irritating as Lopakhin, moving the plot, and indeed the tragedy, if it can be termed such, along. The governess, Charlotta, played by Joyce Henderson, was probably my favourite part, though – with her unlikely background, she draws on magic tricks to deflect attention from her isolation, and embodies Nabokov’s comment that “Things for him [Chekhov] were funny and sad at the same time, but you would not see their sadness if you did not see their fun, because both were linked up”.

The set was perfect, if somewhat bare: it suggested, to me, the peeling decay of a house aware it was to be deserted and demolished, but it could have done with more signs of the still-present family, as the perceptive review in The Telegraph suggests. Stoppard’s script was often sparkling, sometimes a little slow and sometimes a bit too much of a departure from Chekhov (Yasha telling Dunyasha that she “got on his wick” was definitely a jarring note for me), but the performance culminated in the leaving of the cherry orchard in a genuinely moving scene that nearly had me in tears. Anya’s enthusiasm for a future free of the past, encouraged by Trofimov, was beautifully done, contrasting with her mother’s understandable reluctance to leave behinbd her family home.

Chekhov’s play demonstrates the insecurities of his time, and the coming of a new order of nouveau-riche as aristocratic families were forced to sell their ancestral homes. As such, it both looks to the future and reflects upon the past, and Stoppard’s text demonstrates this nicely. This isn’t a definitive performance of The Cherry Orchard, by any means, but it is a version that’s worth seeing.

From Russia with love…

I have recently returned from a lovely week in Russia. After visiting St. Petersburg on my honeymoon, I’ve been hoping for another chance to visit, and it didn’t disappoint. We had a few days in Moscow first, which I loved, and was very impressed by Moscow State University (picture right). A friend said that although Petersburg was beautiful, she preferred Moscow because it’s more Russian, and I agree, I think. The city smells of fuel and fried potatoes; it was unfeasibly warm when we arrived, and the traffic is appalling, but it’s just such an amazing city, and has an indefinable buzz about it – much as I find in London. We did the usual tourist stuff – the Kremlin (see photo left), the Tretyakov gallery of Russian art (which I’ll post seperately), the Novodevichiy convent, Red Square etc. I think the convent was one of my favourite places, actually: such peace in the heart of the city (yes, a cliché, I know, but it’s true) and the architecture and colours of the Russian Orthodox church, with the gilding, the icons, the faint smell of incense – to me it seems so utterly foreign and exotic, and very appealing. The Cathedral of Christ the Saviour is particularly beautiful, brilliantly-gilded and adorned with ikons inside, and is apparently where Medvedev attends services, yet there were young women in headscarves standing in front of the ikons in genuine devotion, ignoring the tourists.
The Russians certainly revere their artists and writers, which the cemetery next to the convent displays; there are extravagent monuments to Russian writers, artists, actors, dancers (see grave of Galina Ulanova, right), as well as politicians, surgeons and scientists. The reverence for Pushkin is also striking, and admirable – it seems less aimed at tourists than, say “Shakespeare’s Stratford” and “Jane Austen’s Hampshire”, as British tourist boards clunkily define them, and more about a deep local respect for their own. I read some of Eugene Onegin whilst travelling, since my knowledge of Pushkin is limited, and it’s incredible – the facility of expression, the sparkling, butterfly nature of the subject matter – and that’s reading it in translation, which I gather is almost impossible since Pushkin’s fluid use of Russian not only forged a new poetic sensibility in the nineteenth century but also made him extremely difficult to translate. I am working on my Russian now with the aim of one day reading himin the original! (On the left is a pic of a statue of Pushkin.)
St. Petersburg seems (as Jonathan Dimbleby says) to be more Western-facing, somehow superficial city – the facades of the palaces along the Neva seem to be part of the display put on for the tourists. However, I’m reluctant to see the city as only the playground of socialites (despite Onegin’s propensity to do so) because it has had a much more complex history than this; thousands of serfs died during the founding of the city; and more recently, as Leningrad it was besieged by the Nazis during World War II (or the Great Patriotic War, as the Russians term it). Our guide told us a great deal about the damage done to palaces and historic monuments by the Nazi occupiers as they attempted to close in on the city, and about the starvation and bravery of the citizens (“Some people froze to death but would not burn their libraries”, she said; “This is how they looked to the future, and preserved their heritage”.) Many palaces, such as Pavluvsk, Catherine’s Palace and even the Peterhof, are still undergoing restoration more than sixty years later. The staff at the palaces took photographs and hid artefacts before the Nazis took over, and from these they are still gradually rebuilding and restoring. Life is, perhaps, cheaper in Russia than in Europe, but heritage is precious, and highly valued. Holding onto the past for the sake of the future is clearly important, and not just for the tourist industry; Russians genuinely feel their history in a way that not even the British do, I think.

Anna Akhmatova

I’m reading the poems of Anna Akhmatova (in translation; I’m learning Russian, but not that quickly!) I don’t know much about Russian poetry (other than a little bit about Formalist criticism) so am trying to learn, and was very interested by the introduction which mentions that she was part of the Acmeist movement, or Guild of Poets, formed in Russia in 1910. Apparently the Acmeists had had enough of Symbolism, and wanted concrete images, bringing poets and poetry back to earth, as it were. Their aim was “direct expression through images”, as their manifesto, The Morning of Acmeism suggests.
Akhmatova’s poetry is enthralling – unlike anything I’ve ever read. I’m sure it’s partly due to translation issues (and I am planning to get my Russian good enough to read it in the original) but the poems seem to have a flavour of haiku, not just in their preoccupation with the natural world but also their conciseness and lack of high-flown sentiment. Acmeism seems to me to be a readily identifiable movement through this. (If “acme” means “the highest point”, I suppose their intention was that this would be the peak of Russian poetry).
The poem ‘The Guest’ (1914) is both terrifying (in a very Gothic way) and quite concrete in its images; amazing how Akhmatova creates a sinister atmosphere without symbol or surface emotion. Apparently she was attacked by the Soviet state who claimed that the “mists of loneliness and hopelessness [were] alien to Soviet literature”. Yet she created these mists from the materials of the world around her, like a sorcerer conjuring up a genie from a lantern. Both this and the haiku-nature of her poetry is illustrated in ‘Parting’, one of her many poems about love and loss:
Evening, sloping
path before me.
Only yesterday, in love –
he implored, ‘Don’t forget.’
Now only the winds
and the cries of the shepherds.
The cedars in uproar
by the clean springs.
(Trans. Richard McKane)

Jonathan Dimbleby’s Russia

Last week I went to hear Jonathan Dimbleby lecture at the Royal Geographic Society, about his book and TV series on Russia. He’s an entertaining and, I think, genuine speaker – he doesn’t seem pre-programmed and although he talked from notes he was engaging and off-the-cuff. Also, he didn’t just rehash the TV programme, but instead tried to give his listeners a different insight, which was fascinating. He thought twice when the BBC asked him to do the programme, as it was a new venture for him, but decided it would be interesting to see if he could unravel Churchill’s famous quote, “Russia is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma”. It’s a country of extremes, Dimbleby says rightly, not just extreme temperatures but extreme wealth and poverty, extreme emotions and extreme temperaments (this last he illustrated amusingly with tales of reckless drivers and sailors).

His newfound fondness for the Russian people shone through; a people that can initially seem cold turned out to be welcoming, tactile, entertaining and amusing, and, he emphasised, have a deep-rooted fondness for us, as their war-time allies, which the Brits sadly rarely display. Furthermore, Russia has such a complex and often tragic history that we cannot under-estimate the significance of it in understanding its people – while this is of course a truism for any country, Dimbleby explained carefully how this is particularly true for the Russians, still recovering from the scars of the past.
I won’t go into too much detail here, but he covered a multitude of aspects of Russian life – from politics (obviously) – he’s sceptical about Putin and Medvedev, and is surprised by how many Russians revere Stalin, and feel that Communism had more to offer them than democracy – to agriculture, history, and particularly literature, which he read on his long train journeys and includes discussion of in the book (which I haven’t yet read). In fact I even managed to have a brief discussion with him about Russian literature at the end of his talk.
I was impressed by how much ground (physically and metaphorically) was covered in the lecture, the series and the book; there are plenty of amusing anecdotes, but Dimbleby patronises neither his subject nor his audience, and takes his analysis very seriously, which makes a welcome change in the current “bitesize” media world. The Royal Geographic Society, of course, provided a wonderful setting for this; wonderful to think of all the lectures that have taken place there, discussing the world of which we once (and perhaps still) knew so little.