Sheffield Doc/Fest 2013: Electro Moscow

Sophia Satchell Baeza

“Once upon a time, in Russia, a revolution happened…” And so, in the manner of a fairytale at bedtime, begins Electro Moscow: a story about Soviet synthesisers and electronic music under the Iron Curtain. From the Theremin to the ANS synth, along with stories of members of the KGB making electronica, Electro Moscow is a charmingly quirky essayistic music documentary that combines archive footage with modern-day fandom. But be warned, if the thought of men twiddling knobs and rattling on about the difference between the Amfiton M-02 and the Ritm-2 has you reaching for your Kalashnikov, then this film is definitely not for you. However, as a niche and eccentric documentary on the history of Russian electronica, Electro Moscow is a fascinating film, even if, like its characters, it sometimes gets stuck in the dust of Soviet nostalgia.

There seems to be two threads running in the film. One, an archival history of how these instruments came to be as part of the Russian defence industry and the country’s electrification under Lenin, offers an astonishing range of footage as a metaphor for life under the Soviet regime. Like those unpredictable musical gadgets, nothing quite works, and yet occasionally something incredible happens.

The story is narrated by the lugubrious voice of Andrey Andrianov, which adds to the fairytale motif running throughout the film. Wonderful footage of Leon Theremin in his last interview before his death in 1993 (yes, that’s the inventor of one of the first electronic instruments and a staple of 1950s sci-fi, along with various other dodgy bugging devices) is one of the film’s highlights. Directors Elena Tikhonova and Dominik Spritzendorfer used their friend Sergey Zezjulkov’s personal footage of an interview he made with the inventor, and which had been lying under his bed for twenty years.

The second thread follows various Soviet synth lovers in modern-day Russia, as they collect, swap, rework and perform with these often unreliable instruments. We meet interesting characters from circuit benders and synth collectors to old New Wavers like Alexej Borisov from the avant-garde Russian electronica band Notchnoi Prospekt. The camera suitably hovers on particular objects: not just the dusty relic of an old ANS synthesiser, but the quaint details of a person’s house – a lace curtain, some plastic flowers, old toys ready to be turned into circuit bending instruments. This pervasive sense of Soviet ostalgie for the relics of another era can be either fascinating or a little boring, depending on your interest in the topic.

At one of the characters rather prophetically says in the film, “if something is boring for a long time, it gets interesting”. Electro Moscow is at once boring and fascinating. For a film about music, this is a strangely quiet documentary – a trait which the directors observed in a Q&A as a conscious decision. And yet the film repeatedly defies your expectations of the electronic music documentary (which includes Steven M. Martin’s Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey (1994) and Hans Fjellestad’s Moog (2004)). By moving away from the stock music video or B-movie footage, Tikhonova and Spritzendorfer create a personal and very original story. This is an electronic fairytale about a very particular type of musical fandom, and of what happens when people are forced to get creative under a restrictive regime.

For more info on the film and its release head over here.

Follow Sophia on Twitter: @SophiaSB1

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