Wednesday, December 10, 2014

A detour to the labyrinths of memory with Tango Elmira

For a recent long tango road trip, I got an mp3 disk full of Elmira's old "tangotales" podcasts, to listen to on the road. Surprisingly, one of the series, which she called a "detour from tango", brought me to my own childhood memories of Russia and inspired me to retake Elmira's detour through the mists of memory. Elmira traveled to Boston to listen to Yo-yo Ma's performance of Piazzolla's music, but the sound of cello evoked something else in her soul. A flashback. 
A scarlet sunset in St Petersburg, from Vladimir Kezling's travelogue
A beautiful memory of a late sunset in summer Leningrad, flooding the hallway of her childhood home with scarlet light just as she walked in to the sounds of wonderful music emanating from the family radio - the sounds which made her realize the inevitability and poignancy of death. She was 5 years and 10 month old, she says, which puts it to June or early July of 1970. She remembered that it was a weekly 9 pm show, named, she recalls, "A reunion with the lost song". This memorable cello piece was the musical intro for the program, so young Elmira got to listen to it again and again - until they were separated by emigration - but never learned what it was. Only years later, a chance reunited her with her childhood memory, when she recognized that the music was the opening bars of Heitor Villa-Lobos's aria from Brasileira Bachiana Number 5, with its pizzicato and a wordless female voice. The memory of Bachiana got forever sealed with the sound of cello in her mind.

As I listened, I was having flashbacks to another room in Russia of our childhood, where the last twilight of a late-summer evening still made discernible the contours of my late grandfather's "spoils-of-war" German tapestry above the bed, and where radio played in the dark - yes, one can translate the show's name as "A reunion with the song" - but, wait a second, there was no cello in my memory. No way. No Bach allusions. The musical intro of my memory was folksy, back street village folksy ... and I even thought that the instrument was Russia's folk garmon, a type of a button accordion (pictured here on the right)
And then another detail didn't add up either - the dusk glowing scarlet at 9 pm. We are fell in love with the famous St Petersburg White Nights before. These are the nights of Summer Solstice, when the Sun doesn't even go down until after 11 pm, and the sky is ablaze with colors literally all short night long. As Pushkin famously wrote in the Bronze Horseman, the night is reduced to a mere half an hour.

А.С. Пушкин. Медный Всадник.    

...И ясны спящие громады
Пустынных улиц, и светла
Адмиралтейская игла,
И, не пуская тьму ночную
На золотые небеса,
Одна заря сменить другую
Спешит, дав ночи полчаса.

John Dewey transl., 1998

...Deserted streets huge buildings clearly 
Loom up, asleep; and solar fire 
Plays on the Admiralty spire; 
And Dusk directly (as if plotting 
To keep the golden skies alight) 
Hands on the torch to Dawn, allotting 
A brief half-hour to cheated Night.

The map of St. Petersburg in literary quotes,
by Yury Gordon. The Bronze Horseman verse
(highlighted) marks the location of the Admiralty.
So I had to check what people recall of that radio show my grandma used to listen in bed. It was a show people wrote letters to, imploring its omniscient host Victor Tatarsky to reconnect them with the songs of their memories, to the songs which perhaps never even existed on vinyl, the songs about which they often remembered preciously little. But it was always leading to the happy end - from a poignant life story from a listener's letter, through a hard-to-crack riddle of memory - suddenly, to the solution: the song they missed. The show was called "Встреча с песней" in Russian, literally "Get-together with song". And the musical intro was indeed an accordion record of the classic 1947 "Lonely Garmon". (It's a lot better known in the West as Yves Montand's "Joli Mai"). The clip below has Sergey Lemeshev's rendition, the one used in the radio show. The verse actually predates the song by a couple of years, and it used to be longer and more sad, too.

Одинокая гармонь
Михаил Исаковский, 1945

Снова замерло все до рассвета,
Дверь не скрипнет, не вспыхнет огонь.  
Только слышно на улице где-то
Одинокая бродит гармонь

То пойдет на поля за ворота,
То вернется обратно опять,
Словно ищет в потемках кого-то
И не может никак отыскать.

Веет с поля ночная прохлада,
С яблонь цвет облетает густой.
Ты признайся, кого тебе надо,
Ты скажи, гармонист молодой.

Может, радость твоя недалеко,
Да не знает, ее ли ты ждешь...
Что ж ты бродишь всю ночь одиноко,
Что ж ты девушкам спать не даешь.

The Lonely Accordion
Mikhail Lisovich, (with my extensive replacements)

Once again all is still until morning
Doors won't creak, not a fire alight
Yet alone in its soulful intoning,
An accordion roams in the night

Now wanders afield, to the meadows,
Then once more to the village returns
As if searching in vain in the shadows
Still unable to find whom it yearns

Gentle breeze of the night cools the air
Petals flutter from orchards in bloom
Who is she that you call in despair
Who can cure accordion's gloom?

Speak to her, let your secret be known,
She is here, your joy, your heart ache!
Don't wander at night all alone,
Keeping girls in the village awake!

But where does Bachiana Brasileira fit into this? The connecting dots seem to go like this: 

Victor Tatarsky, the host of my granny's radio shows also ran a succession of national radio shows for the younger listeners. They tended to be short-lived, often nixed after someone would complain that the programs paid to much attention to the popular Western music. One of the best known Tatarsky's "young" programs, "Record this to your Magnetophon" ("Запишите на ваш магнитофон"), started in December 1970 and featured foreign records unavailable in the USSR - say the Beatles if you can believe it - and its musical signature tune was, unbelievably, a rock music clip! (from "Ten Years After", a British group). Eventually the "Magnetophon" was shut down, of course - only to reemerge under a different name, and to inspire regional copycats. 

this looks like a cable radio set
we had at our place, where
my little sister listened to
"edutainment" programs and
musical fairy tales, sometimes
irritating her book-loving
brother so much that once
I cut the cable with scissors
(and then I had to patch
it up myself, having quickly
discovered that girls tears
are even more distracting
than their fav radio shows :) ) 
It turns out that in Leningrad, the post-Tatarsky's Magnetophon radio program was called "Your Tape Recorder" ("Ваш магнитофон"). Hosted by the local radio celeb, Rostislav Shirokikh, it featured whole albums of foreign groups, in 45-50 minutes segments. The show was truly geared to being tape-recorded, complete with a countdown to the "Action!" command, and "Cut!" in the end. "Your Tape Recorder" aired at 11:10 or 11:15 pm on weekends, starting in 1976 - and it was also available on cable radio (yes, wireless radio was kind of discouraged in the old country, and banned outright during WWII, lest the listeners tune it to BBC or some such unapproved station, but starting from the 1920s, all Soviet homes were wired for the cable radio broadcast, and in most city flats, the radio was on all the time in the hallways. The oldtimers still remembered the times when it was considered an unpatriotic offense to switch off this stream of audio propaganda). And its signature musical intro of "Your Tape Recorder" was ...  Brasileira Bachiana #5!

Rostislav Shirokikh grave,
at a leafy St. Petersburg cemetery
So it all falls in place, the time of the night (right after 11 pm), the place (a city flat hallway), the light, the sound ... only the age of the narrator doesn't fit. Elmira must have been at least 11!

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