Sound, Speech, Music in Soviet and Post-Soviet Cinema

Sound, Speech, Music in Soviet and Post-Soviet Cinema


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253011046
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 02/01/2014
Pages: 314
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Lilya Kaganovsky is Associate Professor of Slavic, Comparative Literature, and Media and Cinema Studies at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. She is author of How the Soviet Man Was Unmade.

Masha Salazkina is Research Chair in Transnational Media Arts and Culture at Concordia University, Montreal. She is author of In Excess: Sergei Eisenstein’s Mexico and has published in Cinema Journal, Screen, October, and KinoKultura.

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Sound, Speech, Music in Soviet and Post-Soviet Cinema

By Lilya Kaganovsky, Masha Salazkina

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2014 Indiana University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-01104-6


From the History of Graphic Sound in the Soviet Union; or, Media without a Medium

Nikolai Izvolov

Translated from the Russian by Sergei Levchin

Typically, the term cinema is reserved exclusively for moving images captured on a filmstrip by means of a photographic (i.e., positive-negative) process, capable of reproducing physical reality. Until now very little has been written about another, equally expressive and significant cinematic technique of the "optical period," designed to synthesize a new and wholly novel audiovisual environment. Perhaps the most widely recognized name in this field of drawn animation is that of Canadian animator Norman McLaren, though he was neither the originator of this technique nor its sole practitioner.

Notably, the possibility of this technique was never discussed in early theoretical writings on cinema. In 1945, one of the most insightful theorists of film, Béla Balázs, wrote: "Sound cannot be represented. We see an actor's likeness on the screen, but never his voice. Sound is reproduced, rather than represented; it may be manipulated in some manner, but even then it retains the same reality." Thus, the ontology of sound was equated with that of the voice or of music; no distinction was made between its acoustic and communicative aspects. One wonders whether Balázs's actor was actually represented on film or merely reproduced there. This attitude seems especially perplexing when we take into account that Balázs collaborated on at least two films that made use of drawn sound.

There has been some writing on the subject of graphic sound, however, including S. Bugoslavsky's chapter in the volume Mul'tiplikatsionnyi fil'm (The Animated Film) and a chapter in I. Ivanov-Vano's Kadr za kadrom (Frame by Frame): unfortunately, neither offers more than a technical overview of the basic principles of the synthetic soundtrack. My own article, titled "Moment ozhivlenia spiashchei idei" (A Sleeping Idea Comes to Life), represented one attempt to set out the philosophical principles behind the idea of graphic sound.

And so, who were the pioneers? Clearly, these could not be filmmakers—until the advent of sound, no one ever thought about sound theory. Instead, the most significant contribution to the invention and development of "drawn sound" was made by just four individuals: Arseny Avraamov (a composer and musical theoretician, and inventor of the forty-eight-tone universal musical system known as the Welttonsystem, or universal tone system; Evgeny Sholpo (an engineer and inventor who developed a device for the artificial performance of music); Boris Yankovsky (an acoustics engineer); and Nikolai Voinov (an animation cameraman).

Drawing directly on film stock opened up possibilities not just for the image track but for the sound track as well. The Soviet pioneers of graphic sound made the most significant contributions to the invention and development of this technique, also known as designed, drawn, paper, animated, synthetic, or artificial sound. With remarkable unanimity, all the early practitioners note the date of the invention as October 1929, even Yankovsky, who was not actually there to witness it. None of them claimed sole authorship of the idea, possibly because the first person to mention it casually in conversation was yet another cinéaste, animation director Mikhail Tsekhanovsky:

The three of us were sitting in the studio—myself, E. A. Sholpo, whom I had invited to be my assistant, and artist-animator M. M. Tsekhanovsky (the maker of the first Soviet sound animation film, "The Postal Service" [Pochta, Tsekhanovskii and Timofeev, 1929], based on the work of Samuil Marshak). With immense interest we were using a magnifying glass to examine the very first, fresh print of the soundtrack, still moist, which had just arrived from the lab.

Tsekhanovsky enthused about the beauty of the ornamental waveform traced on the film. He fantasized:

"Interesting, if you were to trace an Egyptian or ancient Greek design on the soundtrack—would we hear some hitherto unknown archaic music?"

Sholpo and I brought his fantasy back down to earth. As the ornament itself is strongly periodical in form, depending on its shape, we would hear only single tones of one timbre or another. Whether they would be "Greek" or "Egyptian" is hard to say, but there would certainly be nothing resembling a melody....

But the word had been spoken. The idea of reproducing a synthetic, "artificial" soundtrack on the film strip with all its brilliant possibilities—this idea had taken firm hold of us all.

After the film was finished, each of us pursued it in his own way.

With these words, an idea was born—that of writing predesigned phonograms directly onto a film soundtrack -opening up remarkable new aural opportunities, which all participants in the discussion would later realize.

Unlike his three colleagues, Arseny Avraamov was not particularly interested in the technical side of the invention. Rather, he was attracted by the prospect of studying how visual forms could be transformed into the sound of music and voices. The underlying fundamentals of this process were the basic shapes of Euclidean geometry—squares, triangles, and circles—from which all visual forms are constructed, including those found on the optical soundtrack portion of the filmstrip (figures 1.1 and 1.2). Using the standard animation technology of the day, in the summer of 1930 Avraamov became the first person to create drawn sound; he demonstrated the results of his experiments at a conference on sound in Moscow the following autumn.

Each of the three remaining creators of drawn sound invented his own original device designed to facilitate the drawing of sound on film. Evgeny Sholpo called his the Variophone, though his colleagues at Lenfil'm Studios invariably referred to it as the Sholpograph in their various memoirs (figure 1.3). This device enabled the cinematic capture of sound on the moving filmstrip. Templates for the sounds were prepared on disks with the appropriate patterns cut into them. Depending on the number and configuration, the cuts could result in single sounds or chords. By means of prisms, a ray of light would penetrate the cuts on the rotating disks, which was reflected onto the film, which moved continuously (rather than spasmodically, as is more usual in film cameras). The disk could rotate at different rates relative to the film, thus producing various tempos.

Interestingly, a mechanical television technology was also being developed at the same time: the Nipkov disk, which recorded and reproduced an image using a spiral pattern of holes. In response, Avraamov proposed another idea related to the reception of a television signal. If it was possible to transform an optical signal into sound, then the opposite must also be true: one could turn a sound signal into a visual representation. This hypothesis became the subject of his article "Sintonfil'm i Metamorfon" (Synthofil'm and Metamorphon). Though the "Metamorphon" proposed therein was never built, the idea of a rotating disk with openings through which light penetrates was nevertheless inherited from Sholpo's Variophone (figures 1.4 and 1.5).

Boris Yankovsky's device, the Vibroexponator, was devoted to creating sounds of varying timbres, a sonic aspect that had been largely underdeveloped in the other inventions (including those of Sholpo and Voinov). As a professional acoustic engineer, Yankovsky's work in this field is particularly interesting and significant. From 1930 to 1932, he worked alongside Avraamov in his laboratory, conducting a great deal of research that would later prove essential for the graphic representation of sound. In 1932, the ambitious researchers announced that they were preparing to synthesize the sounds of human speech. Avraamov wrote that all consonant sounds could be conveyed in four types of graphic representations and that vowel sounds could be conveyed in only two. But this "homunculus" (as the idea was called by Avraamov's colleagues) was not fated to be heard.

Nikolai Voinov, who also began his experiments with Avraamov, created a device to make a kind of paper "comb," which could serve as a standard template for fragments of future phonograms. His method was based on the traditional technique of paper cutout animation. The soundtrack would be photographed alongside the image, frame by frame. This was a practical but restrictive method, as it reduced to a minimum the rich set of acoustic possibilities available to drawn sound. In the credits of the film Vor (Thief, 1934), Voinov's method is credited as "paper sound," though obviously the templates could have been made of any number of other materials. In contrast to the other inventors, Voinov was not inclined to theorize his approach, and did not leave any written texts. But his four finished cinematic works with designed sound have been fully preserved.

Unfortunately, most of the works by the inventors of drawn sound have not survived to the present day. Arseny Avraamov's experiments were kept at his house and were accidentally destroyed. Boris Yankovsky's inventions never left the laboratory stage and may have existed only in single copies. Nikolai Voinov's films were much more fortunate. Some of them were released in theaters and exist in multiple copies. Four of his films are preserved in the Russian film archives. Probably the most well preserved archive is Evgeny Sholpo's. Several dozen of his movies, along with fragments of those by other inventors, were shown for the first time at the animated film festival in Utrecht in November 2008.

By and large, the pioneers of graphic sound maintained friendly relations with one another on the basis of professional camaraderie and goodwill. Debates, when they arose, were mostly over theoretical differences. Thus, according to one legend, when the article "Na avantpostakh tekhniki" (At the Vanguards of Technology) appeared in the May 1931 issue of the journal Izobretatel' (The Inventor) attributing the invention of drawn tone film (graphic sound) to Sholpo, and a few months later Soiuzkino recognized Avraamov's contribution to the development of "graphic animated sound recording" using Sholpo's technique, the composer was absolutely furious. On Sholpo's next visit to Moscow Avraamov sought out the inventor and demanded an explanation. Evidently, Avraamov believed that Sholpo intended to take full credit for the idea of graphic sound. Fortunately, the matter did not come to blows, and the two men parted as friends.

One assumes that it was the relative minimalism of Voinov's acoustic experiments that prompted the dismissive tone that is readily detectable in the writings of the ultra-sophisticated acoustic engineer Yankovsky. The group known as IVVOSTON (A. Ivanov, P. Sazonov, N. Voinov) was quick to respond in kind. The late A. Sazonov (son of P. Sazonov) told me about a decade ago that Yankovsky was an object of light mockery among the animators—though, having been very young at the time, he could not remember why.

He also recalled a remarkable incident: after finishing their very first film using Voinov's technique (Preliud Rakhmaninova, or Rachmaninoff's Prelude), the team of animators went to screen it at a theater where the Pushkin Theater now stands. The image came on, but—for the first second or so—no sound followed. To those who attended the screening, that second lasted an eternity: it was a violent shock, and it stayed with them for the rest of their lives. A moment later the sound broke in—they had not known about the nineteen-frames rule, or the frame offset required by the optical sound reader—and had printed the sound in sync with the image. The print of the Soiuzkinozhurnal (Union Cine-Journal) held at the Russian State Archive of Film and Photo Documents (RGAKFD), which includes the animated film, has preserved this error for posterity. The team learned their lesson, however, and the soundtrack was properly adjusted on their next film, Tanets vorony (Crow's Dance).

An earlier version of Vor, which was never released and therefore does not appear in any filmography, also made its way to the RGAKFD, where it was discovered a few years ago by film historian A. Deriabin. The script, written by the recently transplanted Balázs, grew out of one of Stalin's exhortations: "Let's keep the fascist pig out of the Soviet backyard!" The film features a suitably vile-looking pig, marked with a swastika, whose attempts at sabotage are easily thwarted.

In the final 1934 version of the film, the pig remains virtually unchanged; however, this time it menaces a kolkhoz (a Soviet collective farm) and meets resistance in the form of a young pioneer named Vasia and his dog Druzhok ("Buddy"). Balázs considered Vasia, his brainchild, to be the perfect Soviet cartoon character. (Recurring animated characters had become the norm in the United States at that time, but all efforts to fashion a Soviet equivalent, such as Tip-Top or Bratishkin, had failed to capture the popular imagination). According to Balázs: "This lad is armed with a pencil, which he uses to intervene in the action itself. By drawing he can alter the drawn world around him. (Wherever he must cross a river he will draw a bridge across it.) The boy draws all kinds of things directly into the film frame." Balázs reiterates this formulation nearly verbatim in 1934, at the time of the film's release, and again in 1945 in his book The Art of Cinema. Nevertheless, the young pioneer, drawn in Ivanov's characteristically grotesque style, was not a great hit with the audiences.

Another legend describes how Sholpo recorded the soundtrack for the film Sterviatniki (Vultures) on his own machine in the late summer of 1941. The sound department at Lenfil'm had already been evacuated, and only Sholpo remained behind to save the day. That recording, alongside several dozen reels containing Sholpo's experiments, is now held at the Cinema Museum in Moscow. The film itself, however, has not survived, and existing catalogs list its production studio as Soiuzmul'tfil'm (i.e., Moscow rather than Leningrad), an inconsistency that warrants investigation.

The creators of graphic sound faced considerable difficulties in realizing their ideas, as the Soviet film industry had little use for theorists, amateur inventors, and audio perfectionists. Indeed, the inventors of color cinematography encountered the very same problems, until a government decree was issued that required studios to produce films in color. The proponents of graphic sound, however, were less fortunate, since by the mid-1930s traditional sound recording was already well established in cinema. As a result, their work was mostly confined to research institutes, where they got by with minimal funding and the help of fellow enthusiasts.

Rumors and legends have obscured the actual events to such a degree that one finds fantastical distortions of the facts even in respectable publications devoted to music and cinema to this day:

Well before the first experiments with synthesizers and sound processing (or noise processing, in the case of musique concrète), just after the end of the First World War, we find the first efforts to generate sound artificially, by means of so-called "graphic music," i.e.[,] graphic representation of sound. These experiments were first carried out by L. Moholy-Nagy, followed, after 1930, by Ernst Toch and the Soviets—A. Avraamov, N. Zelinsky, N. Voinov, G.M. Rimsky-Korsakov, E. Sholpo, who founded an experimental studio at the Leningrad Conservatory; in Germany there were R. Pfenninger and O. Fischinger; in England—Jack Elliot, and later K.E. Boeckl; in Canada—N. McLaren.

Yankovsky was the first to trace a continuous stripe along the edge of the filmstrip, while the idea of composing a "soundtrack" out of discrete geometrical patterns belongs to Avraamov; this produced remarkably interesting audio effects. Using the same principle, Moholy-Nagy traced fingerprints, human profiles, letters of the alphabet, etc. along the edge of the frame; Oskar Fischinger did the same with geometrical drawings, etc. These patterns, "translated" into acoustic events, yielded wholly novel audio effects. The first of such films—i.e. animated with "graphic music"—was made in 1932 in Munich by R. Pfenninger and titled Sounding Handwriting. N. Voinov drew sound diagrams, corresponding to the traditional tonal system, and created musical compositions directly on the filmstrip. Thus, in 1934, he was able to reproduce purely graphically the whole of Rachmaninoff's Prelude. Similar experiments were undertaken in England in 1933 by Jack Elliot and later by K. Boeckl, and in California by the Whitney brothers.


Excerpted from Sound, Speech, Music in Soviet and Post-Soviet Cinema by Lilya Kaganovsky, Masha Salazkina. Copyright © 2014 Indiana University Press. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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Table of Contents


Note on Transliteration,
List of Abbreviations,
Introduction • Masha Salazkina,
Part I. From Silence to Sound,
1 From the History of Graphic Sound in the Soviet Union; or, Media without a Medium • Nikolai Izvolov,
2 Silents, Sound, and Modernism in Dmitry Shostakovich's Score to The New Babylon • Joan Titus,
3 To Catch Up and Overtake Hollywood: Early Talking Pictures in the Soviet Union • Valérie Pozner,
4 ARRK and the Soviet Transition to Sound • Natalie Ryabchikova,
5 Making Sense without Speech: The Use of Silence in Early Soviet Sound Film • Emma Widdis,
Part II. Speech and Voice,
6 The Problem of Heteroglossia in Early Soviet Sound Cinema (1930–35) • Evgeny Margolit,
7 Challenging the Voice of God in World War II–Era Soviet Documentaries • Jeremy Hicks,
8 Vocal Changes: Marlon Brando, Innokenty Smoktunovsky, and the Sound of the 1950s • Oksana Bulgakowa,
9 Listening to the Inaudible Foreign: Simultaneous Translators and Soviet Experience of Foreign Cinema • Elena Razlogova,
Part III. Music in Film; or, The Sound Track,
10 Kinomuzyka: Theorizing Soviet Film Music in the 1930s • Kevin Bartig,
11 Listening to Muzykal'naia istoriia (1940) • Anna Nisnevich,
12 The Music of Landscape: Eisenstein, Prokofiev, and the Uses of Music in Ivan the Terrible • Joan Neuberger,
13 The Full Illusion of Reality: Repentance, Polystylism, and the Late Soviet Soundscape • Peter Schmelz,
14 Russian Rock on Soviet Bones • Lilya Kaganovsky,

What People are Saying About This

author of Projecting History: German Non-Fiction Film 1967-2000 - Nora Alter

A fascinating study that will make a significant contribution to multiple disciplines.

author of The Imperial Trace: Recent Russian Cinema - Nancy Condee

An invaluable account of sound as a core cinematic modality. With contributions by leading scholars from six countries, this volume marks a new 'sonic turn' in both Slavic and cinema studies and will be a standard reference in sound studies.

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