Arseny Avraamov: The forgotten Soviet genius of modern music

Arseny Avraamov: The forgotten Soviet genius of modern music

“We can say that with Symphony of Sirens, Avraamov pioneered the idea of using non-traditional instruments for both composition and performance,” adds Khismatov. In later works, Avraamov would go on to incorporate tools such as saws, grinding wheels, axes and sledgehammers into his music.

Instead of a traditional score, he used written instructions and musical notation so simplified that anyone could understand it. “Symphony of Sirens exemplifies a mode of music making in which virtuosity, notation or traditional methods of musical arrangement are dispensed with in favour of a more conceptual approach,” says Stubbs. “It’s about how you sequence and juxtapose elements. That’s as true for the most recent EP by [British electronic musician] Burial as it is for Avraamov.”

Symphony of Sirens was attempted just once more, a year later in Moscow, though at a much-reduced scale. Undeterred, Avraamov began plotting his next project: installing powerful electroacoustic devices on Zeppelins and flying them above Moscow. Not content with conducting a city, Avraamov now had the skies in his sights.

There were two problems though. Firstly, Avraamov was broke. Secondly, the revolutionary atmosphere in Russia that had fostered a radical, artistic avant-garde was coming to an end. “Symphony [of Sirens] represents what a lot of early electronic music represents – a utopianism, a lost future,” says Stubbs. “It was commissioned at a time when it was still optimistically held that the grand, revolutionary egalitarian prospect of the Soviet Union could operate hand-in-hand with the artistic avant-garde. Sadly, that was quashed in time under Stalin.”

The Zeppelin project never left the drawing board, and Avraamov died in poverty and obscurity. Interest in his work only re-emerged in the 1990s, and the first reconstruction of Symphony of Sirens, based on Avraamov’s notes and using samples, took place in 2008. The following year, Khismatov debuted his own reconstruction (under his preferred translation, Symphony of Industrial Horns) at a fort in St Petersburg. It later appeared at Documenta 14 and has gone on to influence a new generation of electronic, avant-garde and politically motivated composers. In 2017, Avraamov made an appearance in the BBC documentary Tunes for Tyrants, with presenter Suzy Klein heralding the Russian as one of the forgotten geniuses of music, and even performing her own tribute to Symphony of Sirens as she stood on a Moscow rooftop and waved two red flags from side to side. Long after his death, Avraamov is finally getting his due.

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