Garrett (garote) wrote,

Russian Film Music

About fifteen years ago, while trolling the newsgroups, I came across a pile of MP3s that were claimed to be "Russian Film Music". I was intrigued, so I downloaded the whole set, and dumped them into WinAMP to see what I'd found.

It turned out to be quite a treasure. There were bombastic operettas, plaintive torch songs, moody stretches of piano music, and brassy, rousing folk guitarists and singers, all jumbled together with confusing or missing tag information. I suspected that some of the films had been made in the 1970's, because I found strange instrumentals that wove together light jazz with a humming chorus, strongly evoking an aesthetic of lounge-music, like what Ennio Morricone did for a while with his film scoring. Other pieces in the collection felt like an earlier era, the 1950's perhaps, with classy orchestral arrangements. Many of these had been produced with a lot of ghostly reverb coloring the singers, anchoring them far in the past, when sound engineers had intentions and standards very different from those of today.

I was transfixed - by the music, and also by the mystery presented in the collection itself. Where had these songs come from? What original movies, what vinyl records or CDs, what distribution channel? I didn't have a lot to work with. The few tags that came with the music had been inexpertly transliterated into latin, and since most filesystems at the time still used the restrictive ASCII character set, all the accent markers had been stripped off, or replaced with colons and apostrophes wedged sideways into the text. The tags and the filenames had also been truncated in places, and only a handful of the files had track indexes, so there was no way of grouping them by the track order of the original CDs ... if they were from CDs at all.

This was the mid-1990's, and automated translation services were still crude, and search engines didn't have a lot of scope, especially for foreign material. I remember searching for hours and coming up with absolutely nothing, and repeating the search every year or so, until after three or four years I gave up. In the meantime, I adored the music.

I made three large playlists, with my favorites at the head. They also made delicious contrast with techno and rock music in long-form mixes. The music was passionate and otherworldly, and I loved it even though I had no idea what the various singers were actually singing. In a way, that was better for me, because it did not penetrate all the way through the language centers of my brain, and I could keep programming or reading while it played. The music became part of my library, and fifteen years went by.

Yesterday I realized that perhaps after ten years, it was time to make another search. I started with my very favorite track, a lilting piece called "Gusi-lebedi", with an album tag of "Zjenshshiny". No artist, no track number, no commentary. The song evokes dark forests and fairy tales and cold winter nights, and the confined soundstage of the old mixing equipment and style gives it a constrained, secret presence, like a tiny voice in my head.

Here, have a copy of the mp3 and see what you think.

I knew that "Zjenshshiny" was a latin phonetic transliteration from Russian. My first boon from the modern era of search engines was that Google auto-suggested the more appropriate transliteration "Zhenshchiny". Google's language translation tool stubbornly refuses to translate the phonetic version of a single Russian word into English, so I couldn't figure out what it meant yet. But I dumped it into a search engine and came up with this article from the Moscow times, titled "The Essence of Russia: Devushki, Zhenshchiny, Babushki". Now we're getting somewhere. Even I could recognize the word Babushki. I dumped the whole phrase into the google translator to confirm my hunch, and got "Девушки, Женщины, Бабушки", or, more or less, "Girls, Women, Grandmothers".

That was interesting, but not helpful, because all it did was show me that the track I was trying to identify had been tagged with the word "women".

Okay, what's the other piece I have to work with? "Gusi-lebedi". Excellent. The third hit on that search phrase is a film on the Internet Movie Database. But wait, this is a short animated film from 1949. Could this really be the source of the track I love so much? The track is in stereo. Were they even recording soundtracks in stereo in 1949?

Googling with the name again plus the release date brings me to the film itself, hosted on a video streaming site in Russia. It's a remarkable film, for the production value and for the interestingly dark tone. The little girl's brother gets hauled away by enormous evil swans, and she plunges into the forest after him, and encounters a series of plaintive forest spirits in need of human intervention. Sure, this was 14 years after Disney's Snow White, but it somehow feels more authentic.

Watching this was interesting. In the end, the litte girl traps the evil geese in an outdoor oven, and the blackened geese spew out of the chimney and fly feebly away in defeat. I can't help thinking that in the original tale, the geese get burned to death. A variation of the story is collected in an even older book called "Народные Русские Сказки, - "Russian Folk Tales" - first published almost a hundred years earlier in 1855. In the earlier variation, the little girl childishly refuses to help the forest spirits.

The title of the cartoon was given on the page in Cyrillic, as "Гуси-лебеди". Searching with the original Cyrillic turned up some neat results, but no good leads. The Google translation of the phrase was "Geese and Swans". I suspected a more appropriate phrase might be "The Magic Swans", or "The Wild Swans", and trying those led me to a 1962 animated film called "Дикие лебеди", shot in widescreen and directed by the husband-and-wife team of Mikhail Tsekhanovsky and Vera Tsekhanovskaya.

A savagely edited version of the film was released for home screening in the US, and I found it posted on YouTube. A few minutes of that compelled me to find the unedited version. I lingered for a while, falling under the spell of the movie.

At the six minute mark it totally stole my heart, and impressed me at the same time, in one 60-second scene. The scene begins with all the young princes having a pillow fight in their room. They dive back into bed when they hear their sister coming. When she arrives, she sings them a lullaby that effectively ends their rambunctiousness. It's a sequence that conveys a multitude of important things very artfully: The brothers may be high-spirited but they all adore and obey their sister, and she in turn clearly adores them and has taken on some of the mothering role left vacant by the deceased Queen. Her song is accented by loving touches on the heads of her brothers and their blankets, woven into dancing moves that evoke a ballet while also conveying the improvisations of a small child. (The emphatic forward nod of her head to assert one syllable, the exaggerated lifting of her arms evocative of a doll, et cetera.) It's well-crafted and I can't think of any domestic (that is, USA) animation house that would do it in this straightforward, unironic way. Maybe Pixar, if you caught them in the right mood.

Watch it snug in bed with the lights off and some cocoa nearby!

This was all very good, but it wasn't helping me find my track, because that 1962 film didn't have any matching music. So I decided to get crafty. I did a web search for "Gusi lebedi" and "3:15", which is the length of the track. That eventually brought me to this page, where I learned that the track was very likely included on a compilation album called "Kogda vesna pridet, Pesni iz kinofil'mov". Dumping that into the translator gave me an auto-suggestion of "Когда весна придет: Песни из кинофильмов", or "When spring comes: Songs from films".

A direct search with the Cyrillic led me to a full title and tracklist for the album. According to that, the track I was trying to identify was from a movie called, simply, "Women", and it was performed by a "Soviet traditional quartet". Searching for the movie title alone was fruitless, but that plus the song brought me to an excerpt from the film itself. Entering "Женщины" straight into the search box on that site brought up another hit, for the entire film this time. The link went to YouTube, and the resulting page was blank due to a copyright complaint, but the metadata in the link gave me a clue: The film was made in 1966. Searching with that took me to the Russian wikipedia entry for the movie.

Directed by Pavel Lyubimov, music composer Ian Frenkel - or John Frankel...? The movie appears to be about the struggles of the women who are left behind to work while their men - husbands, sons - are called off to war.

Switching gears and searching for that compilation album brought me to a Russian torrent site, where it was being hosted in lossless format, with complete scans of the liner art. Hot damn! Time to download that sucker.

When the album arrived I transcoded it and verified that yes, this was the track. Now I had it in sweet lossless format. The liner notes were an even better reward: They contained lyrics for the song!

I fired up the translit website and began to transcribe the Cyrillic visible in the scan to actual Cyrillic characters, using the virtual keyboard. Rather than convert the entire song this way, I just did the first line, and then dumped that into Google. Sure enough, someone had pasted the text of the song into a web page, and now I had the entire thing. This is it:


Сказки попусту обещаются -
Принцы золушкам не встречаются.
Наши девичьи года были - не были,
Улетели в никуда гуси-лебеди.


По-над улицей и в чистом полюшке
Стайка тянется, белым-бела, -
Гуси-лебеди роняют пёрышки,
Чтобы сказка на земле жила.

Добрый сказочник много видывал,
Тот, что первую сказку выдумал.
И когда нам тяжело в были-небыли,
Подставляют нам крыло гуси-лебеди.


Further searching revealed that it was also a poem by a Russian named (roughly translated) Michael Tanic. I converted it into English with a few rounds of automatic translations and guesswork, and the best I could get was:

Swans and Geese

Fairy tales promise vainly
The princes of Cinderella did not occur
Our maiden years were, were not
Flown away on wings of wild swans ...


Po-nad the street and in the pure Polya
A flock of white-on-white stretches ...
Wild swans drop their feathers,
To live a fairy tale on the Earth ...

The good storyteller had seen much,
who first thought up the tale.
And when we were in a difficult-nebyli,
We substituted the wings of wild swans ...


If anyone wants to contribute a better translation (or maybe berate me for my crude sleuthing tactics), feel free!

I am not sure if the poem was written for the movie, or if the poem existed beforehand and was turned into a song for the movie, of if the poem existed as a traditional folk song already and was just performed for the movie. In any case, the lyrics accentuate the sad tone of the scene, recalling what I've learned about the fairy tale of the swans and geese, how they may carry our sons away, or how our brothers or princes may be cursed to fly away as swans.

I'm continuing the treasure hunt. So far I've discovered that I have tracks from Человек с бульвара Капуцинов, Сильва, Семнадцать мгновений весны, and Служебный роман (ripped from vinyl, so the mix is different).
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