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Studying the Soviet Space Programme Through Music

Music is important to people in many different ways. It provides a way to engage with the world around us, whether through listening, interpersonal activity, performance, or individual introspection. Gabrielle Cornish, a musicologist and PhD candidate at the University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music, has come to HSE on a research stay. She is looking at the role of music in the Soviet Union in the 1960-80s.

Gabrielle has long been a fan of Russian classical music, Soviet songs and the space programme. Her current doctoral research focuses on the unique role of popular music in perpetuating Khrushchev-era myths of the cosmonaut as the ‘Soviet Everyman’, which is also the subject of her upcoming lecture scheduled at the HSE Faculty of Economic Sciences in honour of Cosmonautics Day, which is celebrated on April 12.

As her mentor at HSE, Alexandra Kolesnik from the School of History, says, ‘Gabrielle’s research is very interesting because it focuses specifically on songs relating to space and the cosmos. It will enable a better understanding of the songs themselves, their significance and popular reception, and also their sources. After all, ’space songs‘ represent a major part of Soviet popular music seeing as the topic was actively exploited at the time by various media – a lot of space-themed films appeared, such as ‘Andromeda Nebula’ (Tumannost Andromedy) (1967),  ‘Teens in the Universe’ (Otroky vo Vselennoy) (1974), ‘Per Aspera ad Astra’ (Cherez Ternii k Zveadam) (1980), ‘Guest From the Future’ (Gostya is Buduschego) (1985), as well as numerous songs, novels and stories about space.’

Millennial Music Preferences

Gabrielle is fascinated by studying the way people interact with music in their everyday lives. According to her, what we listen to is part of a continuous feedback loop between who we are, who we were, and who we want to be.

Gabrielle Cornish

‘We trade songs and favourite artists, go to concerts with friends and strangers, and perform in ensembles’, she says. ‘This isn't limited to hearing, either—we often forget that deaf communities also perform and experience music. The rituals and practices surrounding music extend into other realms of everyday life—and vice versa. For many, music is one of the most influential ways in which we create meaning in the world.

As a millennial, Gabrielle is particularly interested in how her generation experiences music, especially classical music, which has been less popular among some millennials.

‘People often talk of a "crisis" in classical music’, she says. ‘A lot of this, I think, has to do with the programming choices that many modern orchestras make. There is all too often very little emphasis on premiering new works or diversity in much orchestral programming; rather, the focus lies with preserving traditional compositions and musical works. While this is a valuable endeavour, it can often be alienating to many communities who might not fit the profile of a typical audience member. I think more millennials might attend concerts of classical music were they not so often seen as being exclusively for older, wealthy, and racially homogenous classes of listeners’.

 The rituals and practices surrounding music extend into other realms of everyday life—and vice versa. For many, music is one of the most influential ways in which we create meaning in the world

Despite her concerns over how classical music is often positioned by orchestras, Gabrielle believes that we are at a point when music is more easily accessible than ever before in history, citing Spotify, Apple Music, and YouTube as examples that have appeal for every kind of listener.

‘I think that many people are being exposed to the "sounds" of classical music in film and television scores, and so even if they're not huge followers of Beethoven or Stravinsky, they're still listening to a varied repertoire’, she says. ‘Ultimately, I think it's possible that my generation tends to listen to a more diverse collection of musical genres and styles than our parents might have. It's impossible to say if this stems from increased access, greater pluralistic thinking, or (most likely) a combination of several factors’.

Soviet Pop, Rock, Jazz and Other Sounds

Gabrielle’s research broadly considers music and everyday life during the period referred to as ‘late socialism’ in the Soviet Union. When going about her research, she realized that if her ultimate goals were to consider local, ‘street-level’ interactions with music (rather than just canonical works), it didn't make sense to focus exclusively on a single repertoire.

‘My work actually deals with a wide variety of genres, ranging from what we call “classical” to popular, experimental to electronic, jazz and techno, and even just sound and noise more generally’, she says. ‘In particular, my dissertation looks at the ways in which music, technology, and material culture participated in the project of "socialist modernity", which began under Khrushchev and continued throughout the Brezhnev era before sort of dissipating during Perestroika. I look at how music could help to construct this modernity—Vyacheslav Meshcherin's Ensemble of Electromusical Instruments, for example, or the cosmic sounds of synthesizers in Soviet films. I also consider the ways in which sound diverged from the modernizing project. The "War on Noise," for example, which took place in the pages of PravdaIzvestiia, and other newspapers, showed that while many Soviet citizens in the 1950s and 1960s were happy about improved material comforts like consumer goods and separate apartments, they were disturbed by the "noisiness" of televisions, radios, cars, and urban construction’.

Gabrielle also argues that many of material and consumer advances in music technology, such as new forms of media, DIY recording, and personal instruments contributed to the deinstitutionalization and decentralization of music in late socialism. As consumer goods became cheaper and more accessible in the 1970s and 1980s, home recording studios, personal audio players, and even underground discos and raves gave ordinary citizens more opportunities to experience music outside of so-called ‘official’ contexts.

Space and Music

Gabrielle has been fascinated with the Soviet space programme for a long time, even outside of the context of music. To her, the Space Race represents a unique opportunity to gain insight into utopian lines of thought at mid-century. During the Cold War, space was in many ways the ultimate non-aligned sphere. It was untainted by earthly troubles, and so it represented a blank slate that made it rife for colonization, or what she terms ‘the perfect venue for the planting of both ideological and physical flags’.

‘The music around the Soviet space programme is really emblematic of this line of thought’, she says. ‘It was a repertory that ordinary citizens could sing alongside their cosmonaut heroes. As a participatory act, singing can be very powerful in the formation of identities, and so songs about the cosmos proved valuable in cultivating new ideals of Soviet citizenship during the Thaw. Plus, of course, it doesn't hurt that many of the songs are fun to sing and very catchy!’

Conveying Soviet song lyrics to Western audiences has proven to challenging, especially as it relates totranslation. When Gabrielle translates songs, she tries to make the meanings understood, rather than aim for a literal translation. Most of the time, she doesn’t translate songs in a way that they rhyme, for example, because it might mean transforming them too far from the original text, which results in something of a compromise between the text's meaning and the way the text sounds while sung.

 The music around the Soviet space programme was a repertory that ordinary citizens could sing alongside their cosmonaut heroes. As a participatory act, singing can be very powerful in the formation of identities, and so songs about the cosmos proved valuable in cultivating new ideals of Soviet citizenship.

References to Soviet-era acronyms, particular groups, and national projects are often unknown to most Western (and maybe even some Russian) audiences, which presents another challenge.

‘Some of these are easy enough to explain’, Gabrielle says. ‘Vano Muradeli's song "Cosmonauts", for example, mentions Komsomols and Pioneers in the chorus. Most Americans are unfamiliar with those terms but they're easy to understand. Intricate and particular lyrics about BAM or the Volga-Don Canal that mention specific agencies and institutions, however, can take more time to explain’.

Some of Gabreille’s favourite popular Soviet songs are chastushki, such as those often performed by Shurov and Rikunin on shows like Goluboi Ogonek. ‘These are really hard to translate for Western audiences, both because there are so many inside and specific references and because humour, which I think is maybe the hardest element of language to translate, is so important to them. I always have to ask my former Russian professors to double check my translations of these!’ she exclaims.

Sounding the Space Race

Motivated by her interest in the Soviet space programme, Gabrielle has been running a project called ‘Sounding the Space Race: An Interactive Story Map of the Sounds and Music of the Space Race’, which she says is coming along slowly but surely.

‘Engaging with a wider public audience is something that's very important to me in my historical research’, she says, ‘and so my goal for “Sounding the Space Race” is to take the academic work I've done on music and the Space Race and share it in a way that's accessible to many people’.

The project involves creating an online resource that allows viewers to read short blurbs about the history of the Space Race—important moments like Sputnik, Gagarin, Tereshkova, and the Moon landing—and listen to the many ways they manifested in sound. Some of these examples involve listening to old radio reports, the beeps of Sputnik, or the crowd cheering at Gagarin's return to Moscow. Others involve popular songs by both Soviet and American composers and musicians. The overall goal, though, is to encourage a broad audience to think of the Space Race not only as a geopolitical episode, but also as a cultural phenomenon.

‘I'm hoping to get this project out within the next year or so, but the online side of things is very time consuming. Hopefully soon though—stay tuned!’ she says.

Living and working in Moscow

Gabrielle will be based in Moscow until the end of October 2018. In addition to conducting research in the archives, she is carrying out oral history interviews with musicians, composers, designers, and listeners. She is also doing extensive work in the Russian State Library ('Leninka').

‘There's so much at "Leninka" for me to use, and it's been a lovely working environment’, she says. ‘I've also been able to interact with musicologists, historians, and other scholars here in Moscow who've provided thoughtful feedback and invaluable advice. I hope to continue to do so over the next nine or so months’.

Although she has already spent time living in Saint Petersburg, Ufa, and Chelyabinsk, Gabrielle has been excited to discover the music scene in Moscow. She mentions contemporary Russian bands and artists like Maria Teriaeva, Kedr Livansky, Buerak, and Glintshake as her favourites.

It has been a pleasure visiting through HSE! I feel very supported by both staff and faculty here. HSE is a fantastic scholarly community, and I'm fortunate to be able to take part in it.

 ‘I love Moscow!’ she exclaims. ‘I'm thrilled to be here and feel like I'm a part of the city. It's been exciting to live in such an active and diverse place. The music scene here is fantastic. There are so many new music ensembles who perform avant-garde and twentieth-century music that there's never an evening where I don't have something to do. And of course, I'm always finding performances at the Philharmonic, the Moscow Conservatory, and the Bolshoi Theatre. There's something for every kind of listener here, and I'm also hoping to try to find a few opportunities to perform. I love, too, all of the art museums and exhibits around town. Whenever I'm in Moscow, I always find time to go to the New Tretyakov, but I've also been lucky to see great exhibits at Garage, the Moscow Design Museum, and more since moving here’.

Gabrielle adds: 'It has been a pleasure visiting through HSE! All of the logistics have gone so smoothly, and it's a very vibrant university community. I feel very supported by both staff and faculty here. I've been fortunate, too, to attend different presentations by researchers through the School of History. My mentor, Alexandra Kolesnik, has been a great help with things as well. HSE is a fantastic scholarly community, and I'm fortunate to be able to take part in it.'

Anna Chernyakhovskaya, specially for HSE News service