Sunday, 14 May 2017

Musical visions and communist dictatorship

An interesting insight into the way in which "Western" music, and certain genres in particular, were censored, access controlled and ultimately accessed by fans in one of the most infamous communist totalitarian regimes, that of Ceausescu in Romania, occurs in Lehel Vandor's memoir entitled Ears (reproduced with permission):

"Chapter X: Soul

Despite all of the official attempts to restrict the importing of
contemporary Western pop & rock albums, we could get them from the so-called
copying studios. These would have been chronic insomnia-causing
horror visions for any copyright lawyer in the Western world. We used to
go to these studios-cum-shops with a few cassettes in our pockets, and
ordered from a huge catalogue of recordings; then, a few days later, we
walked away with 60 or 90 minutes of music copied onto those cassettes.

That is how we got our hands on pop and rock albums for our weekend
school bashes or house parties; but, more importantly, that is how many of
us got hold of entire catalogues of jazz, progressive rock and
electronic/space music.

The owner of the copying shop on the Kossuth street, located very
close to my home, was extremely passionate about his music; he had
immense amounts of LPs and reel-to-reel tapes. His wife used to sit at the
tiny counter of the tiny shop, and I could see bits of the larger recording
area behind her, with many blinking lights on the tape recorders.

I got hooked on “odd” music at an early age and I was a regular
customer at the copying shop. I was ordering a lot of electronic music and
progressive rock; the large, bearded shop owner was like a musical wizard
for me. After all, he could charm magnetic particles into a secret order, so
that they could bring to life glorious, and so hard to find, music in my room.

Usually, the process of discovering such music was tedious, but
extremely rewarding. I used to stay up late on Sunday evenings, so that I
could listen to Florian Pittis on the radio. He was one of the very few people
in the country who owned a huge collection of rock and jazz albums. I am
not sure, how he acquired it, how he managed to become the only person
who was allowed to have a radio show like that.

In his weekly hour-long program, he used to talk about some album,
and then played it in its entirety, ending the show just before midnight.
No wonder that many progressive rock and ambient music albums
were seriously augmented by one’s experience of hearing them on the radio,
in the dark, whilst one was floating right on the boundary between reality
and dreams... To this day, whenever I can, I listen to such records in the
dark – mostly due to those late Sunday evenings of musical wonder.

Whenever I heard something on the radio that I really liked, I used to
beg my parents for some pocket money. I used to put together enough to
buy a cassette and pay for the copying - then I ran to the bearded wizard
and his less magical-looking wife...

If I was lucky, he had the album in his catalogue. There were albums,
though that I only acquired many years later... Some were rare, so I had to
hunt for them via friends in other towns until I managed to obtain a thirdhand
cassette copy of the music, with not exactly awesome sound quality.

Quality did not matter so much after such a long quest… It was music that
used to hover above a gentle, wavy jungle of hissing and popping, the
results of vinyl-to-tape copying followed by many tape-to-tape copies...
Music - the breathing of statues”, as Rilke so wonderfully had put it.

Music – so mesmerising, that a kid could spend years trying to get his hands
on it. Years! An entire underground network of music fanatics existed back
then, and we used to help each other with tapes. The luckier ones possessed
LPs that had been produced in much more liberal communist countries like
Hungary and Yugoslavia.

One interesting side effect of all this was that we really only ever
acquired the music itself. In other words, we were often completely
disconnected from the visuals and the paraphernalia that used to accompany
the creators of, for example, progressive rock albums. While their
showmanship had risen to by now proverbial excesses, we only had their
music, without the hype and the decadent imagery. Therefore, I still firmly
believe that we had a unique chance to connect with the music, and not be
influenced by the persona or media image of a certain artist… This, in
today’s world, is inconceivable…

Another place of musical treasures was the so-called listening room of
the city library’s music archive. Latter contained tens of thousands of mostly
classical albums. As a magical coincidence, a bearded fan of electronic music
and progressive rock ran this department of the library.

I was about eleven years old when I discovered those dusty rooms,
which had a dozen or so desks; each desk was equipped with a turntable and
a pair of headphones. I used to spend hours and hours there, browsing
through the catalogue of small, alphabetically ordered cards, asking the staff
to bring the vinyl, and then giving it a spin. By the time I got to high school,
the bugs of electronic and prog-rock music had terminally infected me.

The opening of a listening room in an old building, which has been
hosting the huge library assembled by the late count Teleki, was pure joy for
us. On Sundays, the room was always empty in the morning; so, without
disturbing anyone, the administrator could play us one of his favourite tapes
or LPs on the huge speakers of the listening room. He used to enchant us,
musical pilgrims, with a sound quality that I could only dream about when I
listened to my portable cassette player.

Thus, many Sunday mornings became strange, but wonderful musical
journeys through space and time... Space, because the music always took me
to worlds, which I was inventing in my head as the sounds unfolded around
me. Time, because it was a wondrous transition from a walk through the old
corridors of the building, up on the loudly creaking wooden stairs, to the
futuristic electronic soundscapes that emanated from the speakers.

There, I had the opportunity to listen to some minor, but passionate
sonic experiments, too. The administrator took Jean-Michel Jarre’s
mesmerisingly fluid, otherworldly Oxygène LP, patched the turntable to four
bulky speakers via a quasi-quadraphonic setup. I could sit in the middle of
the room; he walked out, and left me there with sounds that turned my
mind and soul inside out in ways I could not imagine before. It was music
that sounded as if it had not been played by a person; instead, that music
was simply happening, it was floating in the air between the thick, old walls,
without human intervention, yet it was deeply human and vibrant.

That listening room was the space where I managed to travel to the
Himalayas, helped by Vangelis; to the thinking ocean on the planet Solaris,
helped by the Japanese magician of sounds, Isao Tomita… and to countless
hypnotic planetary landscapes, helped by Klaus Schulze and Jean-Michel

If I think back to the various “tribes” of kids in school and later high
school, to the groups of heavy metal, prog-rock, and electronic music fans,
it is clear to me now that we were not self-consciously choosing to consume
western pop tracks only as party music. I believe that it was something
subconscious: music that expressed something and works that had been
created based on elaborate concepts were vehicles that could take us away
from our often-nasty everyday reality.

We used to discuss without any inhibitions what we had been
imagining during our listening to such records. We used to get together, play
some record, turn off the lights and switch to some other reality - without
any chemical aids. Thus, without any snobbery, and via genuinely drug-free
escapism, by our late teens we built up a quite deep knowledge of rock, jazz,
classical music, and opera.

Nowadays, while I am clicking through some music mail order
website, I still cringe if I think back how I had spent many months,
sometimes even years, with the quest for some music that I had heard on

How could some sounds get one on the verge of a sweet obsession?
It is probably not an accident that we had chosen music, which was always
far removed from the world of everyday trivia. In my case, it was usually
space music or progressive rock, both highly addictive in their ability to
depict some fascinating and very different world.

I loved to be made to feel tiny by such music; however, that sense of
insignificance was not the nasty one, which the regime had wanted to create.
It was, well, some kind of cosmic insignificance, which made us, the
teenagers-turned-space-romantics, realise that none of the grand
propaganda speeches meant anything..."