By Nick Abadzis
It’s known I have an interest in things Russian. I was aware that there was a long tradition of animation in the eastern bloc, but when I was a kid a lot of the memorable material that got shown on British television came out of Czechoslovakia (as was), Bulgaria and Poland and I was unacquainted with the equally long tradition of similar in Russia.
During the Soviet era, aesthetic experiments of any kind were frowned upon. All art had to be distilled and approved through the filter of socialist realism, art in the service of party politics and the people – unenlightened officials deciding what worked, what was worthy and what wasn’t. (We have a similar system today here in the west called marketing). Of course, you can’t really keep human expression out of art, because that’s what art is for, even when it’s industrialized.
So when I was invited, along with several other Brooklyn cartoonists to attend a concert of Russian Cartoon Music played by the Brooklyn Philharmonic my curiosity was roused. The music was to be performed live by the orchestra, with the cartoons projected on a screen behind it. What would Soviet cartoons be like? Would they be rendered creatively sterile by the restrictions of the era in which they were made? Far from it (although a little research indicates that plenty of animators didn’t respond well to the strictures placed upon them and left the field).
Alan Pierson’s vigorous, joyful conducting of the program of music contained both the familiar and the unknown: who knew Shostakovich had written music for a Russian cartoon soundtrack? Funny animals are a standard trope of the medium and the first cartoon to be shown depicted a tale of farmyard misadventure. The rough edges of an anthropomorphic process that contemporary Disney would’ve rounded off remained present, the characters fanged and still retaining feral characteristics; not nearly as cutesy as their western counterparts might be. Another animation, appropriately called Doom and showcasing the deplorability of the dollar was set to a portion of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3. There were other pieces, all strange to western eyes and ears but somehow inspiring, including a Russian take on Winnie the Pooh known as “Vinnie Puh”. But my favorite has to be Boy as a Boy with music by Vyacheslav Artymov, an animation that evolves from simple black and white clear line to fully-painted color, the music blooming from small melodic refrains to full-on cascades of strings, woodwind and brass. The small company of singers and voice artistes who provided the live accompaniment to the orchestra should be commended for their charm and engagement with the characters whose tones they provided.
I went to the concert at the Millennium Theatre at Brighton Beach with my friends, Dean Haspiel, Jen Ferguson, Joe Infurnari, and Seth Kushner from Trip City and there were many other Brooklyn cartoonists present including Michel Fiffe, Kat Roberts, Josh Neufeld, Mike Cavallaro, Jessica Abel, and Matt Madden. Seated amongst many Russian immigrants who live in the area made me feel a slight cultural disconnect: I was conscious that, for many it was an exercise in glorious nostalgia whereas for me it was a glimpse through a window different from the one through which I usually study the Soviet era.
So here’s the thing I do when I go to concerts: I draw them. I spend a lot of time writing and drawing comics and illustrations, and I listen to a lot of music while I work, particularly film soundtracks. It helps me capture a mood I might be looking for. But when I go to a concert, I like to let the music dictate how I draw, to allow the flow of it help compose a drawing. The quick sketches of orchestra members and conductor you see here were all made in the low-lit arena of the Millennium Theatre during the Brooklyn Philharmonic’s performance of Russian Cartoon Music. I’d like to thank Richard Dare for the opportunity to attend the performance and make me aware of a whole new area of Soviet art.
You can find a few previous ‘orchestra sketches’ at my sketchblog: