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Photo: Routledge, Taylor & Francis.
Merryl Goldberg, Professor of Music, California State University San Marcos, and part-time spy
.

Do you like true spy stories? Here’s one about a mild-mannered saxophonist, now a music professor, who felt a call to help Jewish musicians in 1980s Russia.

Lily May Newman has the story at Wired.

“In 1985, saxophonist Merryl Goldberg found herself on a plane to Moscow with three fellow musicians from the Boston Klezmer Conservatory Band. She had carefully packed sheet music, reeds, and other woodwind supplies, along with a soprano saxophone, to bring into the USSR. But one of her spiral-bound notebooks, lined with staves for hand-notating music, contained hidden information.

“Using a code she had developed herself, Goldberg had obscured names, addresses, and other details the group would need for their trip in handwritten compositions that looked, to an untrained eye, like the real melodies she’d written on other pages of the book. Goldberg and her colleagues didn’t want to give Soviet officials details of who they planned to see and what they planned to do on their trip. They were going to meet the Phantom Orchestra.

“The group was a dissident ensemble that Goldberg describes as an amalgamation of Jewish refuseniks (Jews who were barred from emigrating out of the USSR), Christian activists, and Helsinki monitors—watchdogs who tracked Soviet compliance with the 1975 Helsinki Accords. The Americans’ trip was funded and coordinated by the nonprofit Action for Soviet Jewry (now Action for Post-Soviet Jewry), which works on humanitarian relief in the former Soviet Union and was focused on helping Soviet Jews emigrate to Israel and the United States. 

“The trip was a rare and special opportunity for American and Soviet players to meet in the USSR and make music together. It was also an opportunity for the American musicians to smuggle information about aid efforts and plans to the Phantom Orchestra, and for the ensemble to send updates out, including details about individuals looking to escape the Soviet Union.

“Goldberg and her colleagues, all of whom are Jewish, traveled to Moscow separately in two pairs to make it less likely that they would arouse suspicion as a group. They had received training on how to react to questioning and been told to expect surveillance, even run-ins with Soviet officials, throughout their trip. But first Goldberg needed to get her notebook past border control. 

” ‘When we arrived, we were immediately pulled aside, and they went through everything in our luggage, to the point of unwrapping Tampax. It was crazy,’ says Goldberg, who [presented] about the experience and her musical code at the RSA security conference in San Francisco [in June]. ‘With my music, they opened it up and there were some real tunes in there. If you’re not a musician, you wouldn’t know what’s what. They went page by page through everything—and then they handed it back.’ …

“Musical note names span the letters A to G, so they don’t provide a full alphabet of options on their own. To create the code, Goldberg assigned letters of the alphabet to notes in the chromatic scale, a 12-tone scale that includes semi-tones (sharps and flats) to expand the possibilities. In some examples, Goldberg wrote only in one musical range, known as treble clef. In others, she expanded the register to be able to encode more letters and added a bass clef to extend the range of the musical scale. These details and variations also added verisimilitude to her encoded music.  For numbers, Goldberg would simply write them between the staves, where sometimes you might see chord symbols. …

“While someone could technically have played the code as music, it would have sounded less like a tune and more like a cat walking across piano keys.

“ ‘I picked a note to start, and then I created the alphabet from there. Once you know it, it ends up being pretty easy to write things. I taught my friends on the trip the code, too,’ Goldberg says. ‘We used it in order to take in people’s addresses and other information we would need to find them. And we coded things while we were there so we would be able to take out some information about people and their efforts to emigrate, as well as details we hoped could help other people ask to leave.’

“The US musicians got their bearings in Moscow before heading to Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia. There and on their next stop in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, they successfully met members of the Phantom Orchestra, many of whom spoke some English. …

“During eight days of travel, the musicians were tailed constantly by Soviet agents and were repeatedly stopped for questioning. Goldberg says that members of the Phantom Orchestra, all of whom faced similar treatment in their daily lives, gave her and her colleagues advice and encouragement. When the Americans would express concerns that their presence was endangering the activists, Goldberg says the Phantom Orchestra members were resolute about the importance of spending time together. She adds, though, that some of the activists were later arrested and even beaten, because of the interactions.

“ ‘On the second night, we were playing together and the KGB came in and everything got shut down. The electricity was turned off; it was a scary situation,’ Goldberg says. ‘And yet, when we’re playing music no one can take away that sense of freedom and empowerment. Playing together and communicating with people through music is like nothing else. I was amazed by the strength it brought the people there. Music can be very comforting, but it also conveys a sense of feeling powerful.’ “

More at Wired, here. No firewall.

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