Y. Steinholt, Rock in the Reservation: Songs from the Leningrad Rock Club 1981-1986, MMMSP, New York and Bergen 2005 (Sergio Mazzanti)
In our blog (Post) Soviet popular music the Norwegian ethnomusicologist David-Emil Wickström and I are compiling a list of academic publications on Soviet and post Soviet popular music (http://ps-popular-music.blogspot.com/2007/10/publications-on-post-soviet-popular.html): in the short list we have been able to create there are only three academic books and some articles about rock music. The situation is even worse in Italy, where I can only mention the short anthology I partigiani della luna piena, Salerno-Milano 2000 (see my review in eSamizdat 2005 (III) 2-3, pp. 561-565) and my article “Il concetto di ‘russkij rok’ tra storia e mito”, Percorsi della memoria (testo arti metodologia ricerca), Roma 2007, pp. 281-300. It is therefore quite amazing (and regrettable) that Yngvar Steinholt’s Rock in the Reservation: Songs from the Leningrad Rock Club 1981-1986, one of the best and most founded publications on Soviet popular music until now, has remained almost unobserved. Even though the book was published two years ago, I only found one short (non-academic) review on a Akvarium fan-site (http://www.dharmafish.org/s1018/stuff_show.htm?content_id=18654), written before the reviewer even finished reading the book.
Steinholt (1969) is currently an Assistant Professor in Russian at the University of Tromsø (Norway) and he is active in IASPM, the International Association for the Study of Popular Music (we met at the 2007 IASPM conference in Mexico City). Rock in the Reservation is a revised and corrected version of the author’s doctoral thesis, publicly defended in 2004 at the University of Bergen (Norway).
The task of reviewing Rock in the Reservation, on the one hand, is eased by the book’s structure, which the author explains very well and follows (the only complaint being the absence of a name index); on the other hand, the book provides so much material and raises so many questions, that it is very difficult to summarize the contents.
Like any good academic study, Rock in the Reservation begins with an extensive introductory part, which spans 22 pages (chapters 1 and 2). Chapters 6 and 7 are also theoretical, dealing with different approaches to Soviet rock and the role of lyrics in Soviet rock music; they serve as an introduction to the detailed analysis of four songs in chapter 8, the most extensive (pp. 113-187) and innovative chapter of the book. Chapter 3 contains a historical survey of rock music in the USSR up to the creation of the Leningrad Rock Club and provides the context to understand the situation of Soviet rock in the beginning of the 1980s. Chapter 4 “The Leningrad Rock Club” and chapter 5 “Band and songwriter biography” represent the compositive center of the book. The history of the first rock club in the Ussr is considered from a sociological point of view and four rock groups from Leningrad are analyzed (Akvarium, Zoopark, Kino and Televizor): the Rock Club is conceptualized as a “cultural reservation”, where Leningrad rockers lived in a parallel world, different from the outside one (p. 36). After the conclusions containing a general summary and a short account of the five stages of Leningrad rock, the book rounds itself off with a bibliography, a discography and three appendixes referring to the analyzed songs (scores, order of events and the lyrics of the songs). There is also a cd with musical examples included.
In the preface, the author outlines the four ideals Rock in the Reservation is built upon: interdisciplinarity, audiocentricity, academic honesty and “priority to insider opinions and reflections” (p. V). Steinholt considers rock songs “an aesthetic object” (p. 84), composed of both words and music and with a very important social component.
Since western researches prefer a primarily sociological approach (e.g. Cushman’s Notes from underground, 1995) and Russian scholars consider almost exclusively the lyrics (e.g. the anthology of articles in Tekst i kontekst published at the university of Tver´), Rock in the Reservation explores “a third way” with an audiocentric approach. Steinholt uses a semiotic model inspired by Philip Tagg, which helps non-musicologists analyze music. The British scholar has a central role in the book, being both one of the informants in the songs analysis (p. 117) and one of Steinholt’s advisors. The importance of performances (pp. 5-6) is also taken in mind, so that the researcher tries to include everything that is sung on the recordings (p. 117) (this is not the case with the second version of Televizor’s “Syt po gorlo”, where the recording differs in several points from the translated text; see p. 186-187 and track 99 of the cd).
Most of the publications on Soviet and post Soviet popular music are based on certain ideas, on prefixed stereotypes and models, usually binary (such as rock vs. the regime, underground vs. mainstream, and so on); then the authors look for proof of his/her “idea” in the sources. Rock in the Reservation breaks with this binary approach and follows an inductive method, where the analysis of a certain delimited subject precedes the synthesis, conducted on the base of what has been analyzed. This method is what Steinholt calls “academic honesty”: in the book everything is explained and demonstrated with interviews, articles, research, and so on. Steinholt does not always indicate where every single information is from (e.g. pp. 36, 68), but the main sources are scrupulously mentioned in the first paragraph of every section of the book.
The focus on insider opinions and reflections helps avoid western binary models, which do not grasp the complexity of the Soviet rock movement. The history of the Leningrad Rock Club shows that the relationship between the Party and rock cannot be reduced to the formula “rock against the regime” (see Ryback’s Rock around the bloc, Oxford 1990) and that Soviet society was more ambiguous than it appeared to the inhabitants on the other side of the iron curtain. On the one hand, “rock menedzhery and musicians and the secret police had a common interest in organizing a rock club” (p. 37); on the other hand, the Communist government had no consistent policies against the rock movement, the strategies were “not necessarily conscious, rational” (p. 94). Steinholt does a good job explaining the relationship the Soviet rockers had to the society they lived in (at least until the first half of eighties):
That rock fanzines did not engage in political issues is not to deny the fact that the rock environment was profoundly dissatisfied with many aspects of Soviet existence and cultural life. However, this dissatisfaction appears to have been an implicit part of the rock environment’s common experience, rather than a suppressed political programme awaiting implementation (p. 53).
Though the only available review of Rock in the Reservation, signed “Dji”, looks quite superficial, the author comments on some important aspects: the book is focused, “all about 1980’s Leningrad”; it gives a “decent account of the history of Russian rock”; it contains a “cd version of Borrowing” (see the link above).
Rock in the Reservation is focused in different ways: on Russian rock, on a limited period (1981-86), on a context (the Leningrad rock community), on four composers, on four songs (Akvarium’s “Aristokrat”, Zoopark’s “Drian’”, Kino’s “Poslednii Geroi” and Televizor’s “Syt po gorlo”). In the very rare cases when the author abandons his focus and tries to broaden the discourse to the whole Soviet Union the conclusions become less compelling, since the analyzed materials are almost exclusively about Leningrad.
Chapter 3, what Dji calls “a decent account”, provides a major contribution to the study of Soviet and post Soviet popular music: well-informed, based on the sources, this is probably the most complete and founded summary on Soviet rock (until 1986), collecting and organizing in diachronic order all the trustworthy information. Considering the current state of the studies on popular music in the Ussr, Steinholt’s historical survey represents the best point of departure for the study of Soviet rock until now.
Not forgetting that Russian rock, as other national rock movements, is strongly influenced by Anglo-American musical tradition, Steinholt looks for the peculiarity of rock in Ussr with respect to the international context; in other words, “how rock has changed through being recontextualised in a Russian setting” (p. 113) (e.g. he finds that the mixture of different styles is one of the characteristic of Soviet rock; see p. 191). In any case, the presence itself of a cd is a novelty in researches on Soviet and post Soviet popular music, expecially in Russia. As Steinholt wrote in a previous article: “Following the Russian saying, you can’t rid a song of its words, one might add ‘neither should you ignore its music’” (“You can’t rid a song of its words: notes on the hegemony of lyrics in Russian rock songs”, Popular music, 22: 1, 2003, p. 106).
Chapter 8 “Song analyses” which is very different from the rest of the book deserves a separate discussion. The author explains his approach, which is based on Tagg’s method (see above):
This method utilizes popular perception in order to understand musical structure. One of its key premises is the establishing of a colloquial dialogue about musical structure. The idea is to establish an IOCM (Inter-Objective Comparison Material) of songs associated to by a group of informants listeners (p. 115).
Steinholt uses 13 informants who listened to the four songs for the first time when participating in the study. The informants are involved in music in different ways and do not understand Russian (their comments are therefore only about music). The comparison between the informants’ comments (with some interventions from Steinholt) and the author’s very accurate analysis of the songs shows an interesting and very artistic interaction between music and words. The songs are considered “an aesthetic object” (p. 84), demonstrating that Russian rock is worthy of attention not only as a part of Soviet cultural history, but also for its artistic value (at least in its best expressions, as in the case of the four analyzed songs). Especially Televizor’s “Syt po gorlo” is profoundly analyzed, with its complex philosophy and intersections of lyrical meanings.
This part of Rock in the Reservation, as all experiments, is not as precise as the rest of the book. The author explains why he did not use Russian informants and criticizes his lack of not having reached a gender equilibrium (p. 115), but he fails to acknowledge that national composition of the panel is too homogeneous (9 Scandinavian informants, 3 Canadians and one from UK) and therefore statistically not representative. Sometimes the translations are stylistically and semantically not very accurate even if the author decided not to reproduce the rhythm and rhymes (p. 117-8), as in the case of Drian’s title (“Dirt”, instead of a more appropriate “Trash”; p. 142); if “repetition plays a dominant role in Aristocrat (p. 129), repetitions should be maintained in the translations (see p. 128). Metrical descriptions are in general very accurate, but there are some mistakes (e.g., the Russian adverb “no” is not pronounced “na”; see pp. 119, 158); some of the theoretical decisions, such as not to distinguish between soft and hard consonants (p. 119), cannot be accepted, since this distinction is a very important feature of alliteration. But the author himself is aware of the fact that in interdisciplinary research “some of the results will inevitably fail to match up to each discipline’s special standards” (p. v): to all extents Rock in the Reservation’s eighth chapter demonstrates very well how a song must be analyzed as a complex of different features. The selection of the four songs is very representative, the temporal succession of the songs (1982, '83, '84, '87) shows the technical and musical evolution of Soviet rock from Akvarium’s “Aristokrat” to Televizor’s “Syt po gorlo”.
Concluding, Steinholt gives both a substantial contribution to the study of Russian popular music and lays the foundation for a focused, academic study of such a complex and interesting phenomenon as Soviet and post Soviet rock.