Among the most significant landmarks of the Documenta 14 art exhibition running this year simultaneously in Athens (8 April -16 July) and in Kassel (10 June – 17 September), one could mention the stand dedicated to Arseny Avraamov’s Symphony of Sirens at the National Museum of Contemporary Art in Athens.
Historically, the idea of creating the Symphony of Sirens is linked to the names of two great revolutionary poets: Alexei Gastev and Vladimir Mayakovsky. The actual implementation of the idea into practice belongs to Arseny Krasnokutsky (1886-1944). The latter was best known under his pseudonym Arseny Avraamov. Juggling his various roles as an experimental composer, musical critic, performer and artist, commissar for the arts at the Narkompros (People’s Commissariat for Education), he became known for his outstanding innovations in music. Avraamov studied with I.N. Protopopov at the musical school affiliated with the Moscow Philharmonic Society. He gradually became a respectable theorist, promoting the creative use of pioneering technologies in music. One of his famous innovations was the theory of microtonal ultra-chromatic music. Furthermore, along with Mikhail Tsekhanovsky and Evgeny Sholpo, he was among the inventors of the Graphical sound – a special technology of synthesizing sound from light.
Avraamov’s Symphony of Sirens premiered in Baku in 1922, where the whole urban space participated in the spectacular, if outlandish, musical performance. Subsequently, this work was also performed in Moscow. The principal goal for Avraamov was to create a musical work solely for the proletariat and exclusively with the sounds of the machines and working factories, marking the 5th anniversary of the October Revolution in 1922. The steam-whistle machines, bells and sirens, artillery, etc. participated in the first performance of the Symphony. The tunes of such revolutionary songs as Varashavyanka, La Marseillaise and The International were also incorporated into the piece. Remarkably, Avraamov did not compose his music to a conventional score, but worked on a simultaneous adjustment of all the noises and sounds. He wrote the whole set of instructions on how this should be carried out. The instructions had been published in Baku prior to the performance.
The space dedicated to Avraamov at the Documenta 14 featured some of his musical compositions re-constructed by Sergey Khismatov through electro-acoustical method. One could also explore some archival materials offered by Andrey Smirnov, author and curator of the research project Sound in Z: Experiments in Sound and Electronic Music in the Early XXth Century Russia. The whole space was arranged and designed by Zbynek Baladran. In addition, a special exhibition space at the EMST (National Museum of Contemporary Art), commemorating the Russian avant-garde composer, featured important photo-and-video materials, such as a compilation of scenes from Dziga Vertov’s Kinopravda No. 16 or series of photographs, documenting the creation and performance of Avraamov’s Symphony of Sirens.
The Symphony of Sirens at the Documenta 14 in Athens serves as a powerful metaphor, reminder of the revolutionary spirit of 1917. It also brings alive Avraamov’s own statement on hierarchical superiority of music over other art forms. Khismatov, who re-constructed the Symphony of Sirens, used old recordings of sirens, machines and mass choirs. If such material was absent, contemporary sound would imitate and reproduce the old sound: this way he succeeded in recreating the mood, the pathos and dynamics of this revolutionary musical performance. This also served as perfect demonstration of the inexhaustible potential of the avant-Garde music. This installation in Athens parallels the one in Kassel which is celebrating the legacy of another Russian avant-garde composer Ivan Wyschnegradsky (1893–1979), mainly known for his microtonal compositions. They both are significant landmark installations which aim to attract attention to the two forgotten composers and throw new light on the Russian and Soviet avant-garde music and its leading representatives.