Soviet Electronic Music: A History

This article is a collaborative effort, crafted and edited by a team of dedicated professionals.

Contributors: Andranick Tanguiane, Fred Lerdahl,

This is a blog about Soviet Electronic Music: A History. You will find information on the history of electronic music in the Soviet Union, as well as modern day electronic music from Russia.

Early Soviet Electronic Music

Soviet electronic music is a product of the Cold War, a time when the Soviet Union and the United States were in a race to develop new technologies. In the early days of the Cold War, the Soviet Union was behind the United States in the development of electronic music. Soviet composers had to make do with simple electronic instruments, such as the theremin, and they were not able to create the complex and sophisticated music that their American counterparts were making.

Pre-electronic music in the Soviet Union

Pre-electronic music in the Soviet Union largely consisted of folk and classical music, both of which had been long established traditions. However, a new genre known as estrada was also popular during this time. Estrada music tended to be light and entertaining, and often dealt with themes of love and loss.

The first electronic instruments began appearing in the Soviet Union during the 1920s, but it would be several years before they began to find their way into popular music. One of the earliest examples of electronic music in the USSR is the composition “Electrical Impressions” by Georgi Vladimovitch Mossolov. Written in 1929, it was performed using a theremin, one of the first electronic instruments ever invented.

Mossolov’s composition were novel not only for their use of electronics, but also for their unconventional approach to melody and harmony. This playful experimentation with sound would become a hallmark of Soviet electronic music, which would go on to develop its own distinctive character over the next several decades.

Early electronic music machines in the Soviet Union

In the 1930s, the Soviet Union began experimenting with electronic music machines, which were used to create sound effects for movies and propaganda films. These early machines were called theremins, and they were played by waving one’s hands in the air near two antennas. The antennas controlled the pitch and volume of the sound, and the theremin became a popular instrument in movies and pop music.

During World War II, the Soviet Union acquired German military technology, including early electronic music machines called synthesizers. These new machines were used to create military training films and patriotic songs. After the war, Soviet composers began experimenting with creating more abstract electronic music using synthesizers and other electronic devices.

In the 1960s, Soviet composer Vladimir Ussachevsky built one of the first computers in the world specifically for creating electronic music. This machine was called a “sound calculator,” and it could create a variety of sounds by combining different waveforms. Ussachevsky’s compositions using the sound calculator were some of the first purely electronic pieces of music ever created.

Today, many popular Russian musicians use electronic instruments and computers to create their unique sounds. Russian electronic music has come a long way since its humble beginnings in the 1930s, and it shows no signs of slowing down.

The Leningrad School

In the late 1920s, the Soviet Union embarked on a radical experiment in social engineering. As part of this experiment, the government decided to promote the development of a new form of music, which they hoped would serve as a tool for propaganda and social control. The result was the Leningrad School of Electronic Music, which produced some of the most innovative and influential music of the 20th century.

The first electronic music studio in the USSR

The first electronic music studio in the USSR was opened in Leningrad in 1932. It was founded by Nikolai Ilyin, a leading figure in the Soviet music industry. The studio was equipped with state-of-the-art equipment, including a theremin, and was used for educational purposes as well as for creating new music.

Over the next few decades, the Leningrad school of electronic music became renowned for its innovative approach to composition and sound design. Many of the most famous Soviet composers and sound designers, such as Dmitri Shostakovich, Sergei Prokofiev, and Alfred Schnittke, worked at the studio at some point in their careers.

In recent years, the Leningrad school of electronic music has seen a revival, with new generations of composers and sound designers rediscovering its unique sound.

The Leningrad school and the international avant-garde

The Leningrad school of electronic music, sometimes referred to as the Soviet avant-garde, was a group of composers and sound artists who were active in the city of Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg) from the late 1950s to the early 1980s. The school’s members were united by their exploration of electronic and experimental music, and their commitment to avant-garde principles.

The Leningrad school’s influence was felt far beyond the Soviet Union; its members were in contact with leading figures in international avant-garde music, and several of them (such as Edison Denisov and Sofia Gubaidulina) achieved prominence in the West. While the school’s output was diverse, its members shared a certain aesthetic outlook: a fascination with noise and extreme sonorities, a rejection of traditional tonality, and a belief in the expressive potential of new technologies.

The Leningrad school was one of several important centers of electronic music in the Soviet Union; others included Moscow, Kiev, and Tbilisi. Its members made use of a wide range of equipment, including early analog synthesizers such as the Thereminvox and the ANS synthesizer, as well as more conventional instruments such as the piano and violin. Many of them also had training in traditional acoustic composition; some, like Denisov, were self-taught.

The school’s most important figure was Nikolai Korndorf, a composer who had studied under Dmitry Shostakovich at the Leningrad Conservatory. Korndorf was an enthusiastic proponent of electronic music, and his own work blended elements of traditional acoustic composition with innovations such as chance procedures and tape manipulation. He also had close ties to Western composers such as Karlheinz Stockhausen (with whom he studied in Cologne in 1963) and John Cage (whom he met on Cage’s 1968 visit to the USSR).

Other important members of the Leningrad school included Vladimir Tarnopolsky, who extended Cage’s ideas about chance procedures; Eduard Artemyev, best known for his film scores; Andrei Volkonsky, whose work often combined electronics with traditional Russian folk instruments; Nikolai Roselman, known for his use of unusual MIDI controllers; Dmitri Smirnov, whose work explored microtonality; Vladimir Ussachevsky, one of the pioneers of tape music; and Sofia Gubaidulina, one of the few women associated with the school.

The Moscow School

The Moscow Conservatory was founded in 1866, and its first electronic music studio was established in 1931 by Nikolay Obukhov. The studio was one of the first in the world, and its first composition was “Electronic Suite for Theremin and Piano.” The Moscow School of Electronic Music was a highly respected institution, and its influence can still be felt today.

The second electronic music studio in the USSR

The second electronic music studio in the USSR was set up in Moscow in 1966, under the direction of Nikolai Sidelnikov. This studio, like its counterpart in Kiev, was initially housed in a wing of the Institute for Theoretical and Experimental Physics (ITEP). The first composers to work at the studio were Vladislav Uspensky, Eduard Artemyev and Vladimir Martynov.

The Moscow school and Soviet pop music

The Moscow school was one of the most important influences on Soviet pop music. The school was founded in the early 1920s by a group of composers who were interested in experimenting with electronic music. Among the most famous members of the school were Dmitri Shostakovich and Sergei Prokofiev. The school’s influence can be heard in the work of many popular Soviet musicians, including Yuri Gagarin, the first man to go into space.

The Post-Soviet Era

Soviet electronic music underwent a radical shift in the post-Soviet era. With the fall of the Soviet Union, many Soviet composers were suddenly able to access new technologies and compositional techniques. This newfound freedom resulted in a wave of new and innovative music from the Soviet Union.

The fall of the Soviet Union and the end of state support for electronic music

The fall of the Soviet Union and the end of state support for electronic music brought about a severe decline in the production of new music. At the same time, however, a number of private labels and individual artists continued to produce and release music, often making use of new digital technologies. In the early 2000s, fan-based online communities began to form around certain artists and labels, providing a much-needed sense of community for producers and listeners alike.

This resurgence in activity led to the release of a number of compilations and albums in the mid-2000s, many of which were met with critical acclaim. These releases not only helped to raise the profile of Soviet electronic music, but also served as a reminder of its rich history and diversity.

The rise of the Russian underground scene

During the early 1990s, a new generation of Russian musicians came of age and began to experiment with electronic music. This underground scene developed in the shadows of the state-sponsored music industry, which was still dominated by socialist realism.

These young Russians were influenced by Western electronic dance music, particularly trance and techno, but they also drew on native folk traditions. The resulting hybrid sound was unique and electrifying.

The Russian underground scene remained relatively small and isolated until the late 1990s, when the internet began to connect people across the globe. Suddenly, Russian electronic musicians had access to a worldwide audience. The new millennium saw a boom in Russian electronic music, with artists like Kornél Kovács, Nina Kraviz, and Pavel Dovgal leading the way.

Today, Russian electronic music is more popular than ever before. Thanks to the internet, it has found a place on the global stage, and its influence can be heard in everything from club tracks to film scores.

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