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Andrey Smirnov. 2013. Sound in Z: Experiments in Sound and Electronic Music in Early 20th-Century Russia

Patteson, Thomas

The history of experimental sound technologies in the early twentieth century has long been standardized into a well-trodden tour of the same familiar highlights: Thaddeus Cahill’s Telharmonium, Russolo’s Art of Noises, the prophetic visions of Busoni and Varèse, the novelties of Theremin. In both general histories and specialized accounts of “electronic music,” these topics are generally treated as appetizers preceding the main course, which commences promptly after World War II with the emergence of the dueling schools of musique concrète and elektronische Musik. In recent years, this narrative has been questioned and extended in a number of important ways, and the previously unsuspected depths of early twentieth-century musical technoculture have begun to be sounded.This is not merely a matter of quibbling over whether electronic music began in the 1950s or the 1920s; broadening the historical scope to include earlier phenomena makes for a new image of electronic music, one that highlights the social and cultural contexts that are often written out of canonic histories.

Adding to this effort is Andrey Smirnov’s book Sound in Z, a thorough and thought-provoking study of sound technology and musical experimentation in Russia during the first decades of the twentieth century. Smirnov, Senior Lecturer and head of the Sector for Multimedia at the Center for Electroacoustic Music at Moscow State Conservatory, deftly combines lucid technical explanations of relevant artifacts with the broader cultural history of a uniquely turbulent milieu. His book illuminates how the technological experiments of Russian artists in the early twentieth century were integrally related to parallel developments in the arts and sciences, philosophy, and politics. Sound in Z traces a welter of activity that encompasses not only music in the conventional sense, but a seemingly centrifugal expansion of the art into fields both adjacent and far-flung. The book’s eight chapters comprise a comprehensive survey of technology and experimental sound in the young Soviet Union. Given the ambitious nature of his project, Smirnov’s book inevitably becomes something of an omnium-gatherum, but he succeeds in doing justice to the period’s musical ferment, one which was previously all but unknown outside of Russia.

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October 23, 2018