|About this Recording
8.570316 - SHOSTAKOVICH: Odna (Alone)
Dmitry Shostakovich (1906–1975)
Shostakovich's first full-length film score, for Kozintsev and Trauberg's New Babylon (1929), was an infamous scandal despite some good reviews. Unknown to audiences, however, censors had forced massive cuts at the last minute and Shostakovich's desperate efforts to bring his music into line with the new version were compromised by copying errors and the musicians' animosity to the new and difficult music. Nevertheless the directors loved the music and asked him to score their next film, Alone. Inspired by a newspaper report about a teacher's difficulties in Karelia (they moved the action to the Altai on the Mongolian border) it looks at the rôle of education in bringing the distant republics into the twentieth century and under the Soviet umbrella. The Russian title, Odna, makes it clear that the protagonist is female and initially she was to be overcome by the difficulties and commit suicide but the directors cannily changed the ending.
The recently qualified teacher Kuzmina (the characters are deliberately given the actors' real-life names for greater realism) looks forward to getting a job in Leningrad and setting up home with her fiancé Pyotr (played by the real-life Elena Kuzmina's husband, Pyotr Sobolevsky). They go window-shopping, staring longingly at a tea-service (which sings to them), and play a crazy duet on cello and kitchen pots (though Shostakovich chose to ignore this instrumentation). Despite her protestations, however, Kuzmina is assigned to work in the Altai. The first thing she sees when she arrives is an ominous drying horse-skin, both a fertility symbol and a sign of a village in thrall to superstition. The Soviet is run by a lackadaisical leader, and Kuzmina's classes are thwarted by the villagers' insistence that the children tend sheep, though they enjoy their lessons. The villagers plan to leave Kuzmina to die in a snowdrift but "thanks to the Soviet state" (as the intertitle tells us) a plane is despatched to rescue her. The end is left slightly open as, though she is returned to Leningrad, waving cheerily to her happy charges, it is not clear that she has managed to institute much change: despite Shostakovich's deliriously positive music the plane makes its exit over the still drying horse-skin.
By 1930, after years of experimentation, synchronized soundtracks were becoming ubiquitous in the West. Shorin and Tager had been unsuccessfully developing rival Soviet systems since around 1927. Synchronization would avoid New Babylon-type catastrophes as well as demonstrating that the USSR was technologically equal to the West. Despite this, for several years slightly different sound and silent versions would have to be made and intertitles would continue to explain the action and report speech, as only a few Soviet cinemas were equipped for sound. In the meantime Alone was planned as the first Soviet sound film. In the event it was beaten to the tape in 1930. The documentary Plan velikikh rabot (The Plan for the Great Works) was little more than an assemblage of newsreel footage with an asynchronous soundtrack laid on top but Vertov used sound more adventurously in Entusiazm (Enthusiasm). Both were about Soviet industrialisation but also actually demonstrated it by having soundtracks. The recording quality, however, for these and Ekk's Putyovka v zhizn' (The Road to Life), 1931, the fictionalised story of educationalist Anton Makarenko, was execrable. Even in Alone, finally released in October 1931, the indecipherability of the words to the songs 'Kakaya khoroshaya budet zhizn'' (How Good Life Will Be) [Track 7] and 'Ostan'sya'(Stay!)  meant that gradually the texts were reduced to endless repetitions of the titles. In 1931 Shostakovich said that, despite the excellence of the orchestra and conductor, the recording quality made it seem that all the work was for nothing.
Elena Kuzmina herself claimed that Alone was shot silent, with the decision to add sound coming later. Her memory is mistaken, however, perhaps as the bulky recording equipment could not be taken to the Altai, so the soundtrack was added later. In fact, Shostakovich was always part of the team, though Sovkino explicitly told him to avoid the mistakes of New Babylon and his controversial opera The Nose. He was to be in charge of the entire soundtrack, which used some speech as well as mixing recordings of street sounds with his music. In one change from the usual way of working, a shaman was filmed and recorded at the same time, though he had to be brought to Leningrad and a technical failure meant it had to be reshot.
One lesson Shostakovich did learn from New Babylon was that large musical structures are intractable if a film is re-edited, and this may have influenced his decision to score Alone with a mosaic of smaller pieces that could be more easily edited, repeated or shuffled as the film progressed towards its final version.
A studio preview went well and Shostakovich's music was particularly praised but Moscow banned the soundtrack, saying that the repetitions of 'How Good Life Will Be'might "put audiences into an undesirable frame of mind". Changes were made, though the song remained, and the film was passed a few days later. Trauberg later claimed to have dictated the song to Shostakovich but, though the director was certainly musical (he wrote and directed operettas and wrote a book on Offenbach), his claim is currently unsupported.
As several critics noted at the time, Shostakovich's score does much to propel the action as there is not much synchronized speech, though many intertitles. The repetitions and variations bind the film together and throw ironic lights on different scenes. The Street  and Barrel Organ  are leitmotifs for Leningrad and versions reappear later, underlining Kuzmina's miserable fate. Similarly, when she lies in bed close to death she is visited by the children and a minor-key variation of music that had played during their lessons  and .
As Moscow noted, the song 'How Good Life Will Be'occurs several times and it charts Kuzmina's fortunes through the film: initially as she looks forward to her wedding; then when she receives her posting (will life in the Altai without her fiancé really be good?); as a bitter comment on the lazy village head (the chiming clock, tea-drinking and the same intertitle: "time to get up" underlining the ironic contrast with her own idyllic Leningrad morning), and finally when the words appear onscreen as she flies out. But is it her return to Leningrad or the improvements that she has brought to the village that are being celebrated?
During the wartime bombing of Lenfilm Alone was one of several films that were destroyed in total or in part. In the 1960s it was restored using prints from other sources but, sadly, the reel in which Kuzmina is lost in the snow could not be found in any archive and there appear to be no stills, despite it having been shown overseas. Nevertheless Shostakovich's titles and music score give an idea of dramatic flow and in live presentations of the film title-cards explain the action while the music continues. The young Shostakovich had a penchant for unusual instruments and here he evokes the desolate landscape with the eerie wailing of the theremin, an early electronic instrument.
Another post-release problem for the film was that the score itself lay unedited so that previous recordings have been incomplete. When the film was prepared for live presentation Mark Fitz-Gerald led a team that recreated the soundtrack from published and unpublished sources, filling in the missing parts by laboriously transcribing the music from the soundtrack itself. Discoveries included The Beginning (Overture) , a little fanfare-prelude which in the event was not used in the film, as well as Kreisler's Andantino , another example of Shostakovich's love of popular music. This plays over a tannoy, with a babbling crowd replacing Kuzmina's voice while she makes a desperate phone call to her fiancé, evoking her frustration but handily also avoiding the technical difficulties of synchronized speech, though it makes Kreisler all but inaudible in the film.
This makes this the first complete recording of one of Shostakovich's best film scores, one where he was able to develop his dramatic instinct while learning more about cinema technology. These were lessons that would stand him in good stead, not only in the thirty or more films he scored through the rest of his life, but also in his other music.
A Song without Words: A Note on Overtone-Singing
The change from teacher Kuzmina's familiar Leningrad environment to that of the Altai is a dramatic one. All of a sudden the camera offers a panoramic view of an utterly different landscape, that is characterized first of all by its emptiness. The sound that accompanies the transition is perhaps the most dramatic that could be chosen. It is a strange voice that intones a song, but which in fact does not sound like a human voice at all . It lacks words, that human trait that defines most vocal music. It even lacks the familiar colour of the human voice, carrying instead an ethereal flute-like melody across the steppes. What is that sound which heralds Kuzmina's new episode in her life as a school teacher in the Republic of Altai, the Soviet Oyrot Autonomous Region, as it was called at the time?
That voice is one of the unique sound-markers of the Altai area: an authentic piece of throat-singing, or kömey. Throat-singers produce two sounds at the same time. With the lowest, fundamental tone they create a drone most of the time. Above it, they produce a melody which they masterfully select from a wide range of so-called overtones or harmonics. These harmonics are present in any human voice, but are usually all perceived together, giving rise to the sensation of colour or timbre, or vowel quality. Singers living around the Altai and Sayan mountain ranges of Siberia and Mongolia have developed a wide range of techniques to make individual harmonics audible, thus taking advantage of a musical realm in the human voice that is usually neglected.
How do they do that? Throat-singing or overtone-singing requires very precise articulation with the tongue, the lips and the jaw. They also modify the basic sound of the voice by adding pressure on the larynx from the abdomen. The resulting guttural voice quality makes the overtones relatively strong, and suppresses the fundamental. During the actual singing in the film the singer is invisible. But in the end, when the aeroplane is taking off and the entire nomadic community rejoices in the saving of Kuzmina's life, we see the singer playing his lute, sporting that typical facial expression of a throat-singer, with strongly protruded lips.
In the Altai, the art of throat-singing was and is strongly connected with the bardic tradition of epic recitation, or kay, and through that link, perhaps, even with shamanic practices, of which Odna also gives us a short glimpse. In all of these performing traditions, singers create and express - in one way or the other - the non-ordinary worlds of the mythical, the supernatural and the spiritual. In addition, for nomadising herdsmen kömey throat-singing seems to have been a way of communicating directly with the real, natural environment, in a cyclical exchange of visual and sonic impression and vocal expression.
Odna was made just in time. Not long after the film was completed, traditional performing arts and religious practices of Russia's tribal peoples began to be either altered or repressed by the Soviet authorities. After periods of decline, the recent revival of throat-singing proves that the sound of aeroplanes can coexist peacefully with Inner Asia's archaic sonic arts.
Mark van Tongeren
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