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BEHIND THE SCENES with Charles Maynes


What was it about Mescherin's Orchestra of Electro-Musical Instruments that particularly inspired you to make this piece

I have to admit the oddball factor held a certain appeal. Working on the Mescherin Orchestra story brought together that rarest of combinations -- serious Sovietology and sheer goofiness. And yet we're not talking about some obscure phenomenon; Mescherin's music was absolutely part of the vernacular, and anyone who grew up in the U.S.S.R. has heard this music at one point or another. I mean, I first came across it at a soccer game in Moscow. I'm in this big stadium full of soccer fanatics, who, like in a lot of places, can get pretty rowdy. After the game, as everyone's waiting to file out, these old Soviet cartoons start playing on the central monitor. Weird proletarian looney-toon type stuff, where the village fox keeps stealing chickens from the collective farm, the harvest is off, heads are going to roll, that sort of thing. Anyway, the cartoons were funny enough, but it was the soundtrack that got me. It sounded, I don't know, as if an army of synthesizer dwarves had commandeered the speakers. More to the point, these soccer skinhead types couldn't get enough. One second they're ready to bash skulls, next they're dancing in the aisles giggling like schoolgirls. So, to answer your question: Music to make skinheads giggle. As a general rule, that's always worth a second look

And what did you find

That the Mescherin Orchestra provided this quirky sentimental soundtrack to daily life in the Soviet Union from the 1960s on. Flip on the radio, there they were. Turn on the television, same thing. Head to the factory, and they're being piped in through the loudspeakers. They were everywhere, and of course, they were state-sponsored, as anyone would have to be to have that level of saturation in the Soviet Union

But for someone like me, who, let's face it, didn't get to know the country until the 1990s, I think what most attracted me was that, bizarre as his story may seem, Mescherin's experience after 1991 was utterly typical. He was a part of this whole mass of people whose lives were completely bound to the Soviet system. Some -- like Mescherin -- defended and thrived in that world. But, in a way, I think the same is true for those whose lives were dedicated to trying to tear it down. In that struggle, they were valued. And then one day the rules changed. Was it fair? Was it deserved? I don't know. I don't know the answer to that. But I do know that a lot of them -- writers, intelligentsia, engineers, Party apparatchiks, normal people -- they fell through the cracks. Mescherin included. What's the Brian Wilson line? "I guess I just wasn't made for these times?

Speaking of which, how is the Mescherin Orchestra perceived in Russia these days? For instance, will the new CDs be popular in Russia, or do you think they'll make more of a splash internationally

Well I think they could be of interest here, but for now the disc is only available as an import. Mostly, I think it shows just how quickly tastes change. Mescherin was completely forgotten by the time he died. Western music was all that mattered at that point. When he collapsed waiting for a train, there were no obituaries, no articles, nothing. But a few years pass, and now he's being marketed to Russian urban hipsters as the cool lounge music of their childhood. So things change very fast, and Soviet kitsch has found its place in the mix. I don't know, maybe it's that natural process of forgiving, "maybe my dead uncle wasn't such a bad guy after all," you know? The more distance between the present and the Soviet past, the more people look on it with a certain fondness. Or at least a sense of humor. For instance, the other day a Russian friend sent me this 1980s party memo listing western music acts of "dubious influence" on Soviet youth. Julio Iglesias ranked way up there. His offense? Neo-fascism. No wonder Mescherin lost out

Is there an American cultural phenomenon that's comparable to the Mescherin Orchestra

That was certainly one of the challenges of the piece, finding common reference points. I think Esquivel's stereophonic recordings certainly come close. Or if you're looking for more contemporary examples, so does Combustible Edison. But maybe Muzak is the better comparison. Mescherin was absolutely driven by socialist ideology. He wanted to bring culture -- and by that I mean Soviet culture -- to people, and his Orchestra played the strangest of places toward that aim: nuclear submarines, the Arctic Circle, troop garrisons in Afghanistan. Muzak has a bit of that as well, only its mission is to make you happy in the most ordinary of places: the supermarket, hotel lobbies, public restrooms. The difference is not that big

About making the piece: We're interested in the experience you had in putting it together/reporting from a foreign country

Well, I worked as a reporter out of Moscow for a couple of years, so it wasn't exactly parachute-in "where are my night vision goggles?" I mean I speak the language; in this case, I was reporting from Moscow, so I knew the town. I have friends and contacts. It was just a matter of tracking people down

And how did the people in the piece respond initially to your wanting to talk with them

Mescherin's widow, Lyuba, was a gracious and willing participant. She's clearly pleased to see renewed interest in her husband's work. But the other interview I ended up using was a bit trickier. Arteom Troitsky is a very well known music critic, and he's in the piece because he authored the liner notes for the Mescherin CDs. But he's also editor of Playboy magazine, and a general man-about-town. So it took a while before I finally caught up with him. When we finally met, it was at this rock club -- the walls are shaking from the bass, people keep coming up to shake his hand, it was a disaster. And that's why he sounds so thin in the piece. In the end, I had to take out every ounce of bass from his cuts. Come to think of it, I guess you could say I emasculated the editor of Playboy -- though it wasn't my intention

What does Russian radio sound like? Is the documentary/feature format popular there

I'd say the vast majority sound not unlike commercial radio here in the U.S. In other words, it's fast-paced with fast music, faster news, and lots of compression. On the other hand, there are definitely people doing interesting and different work. The Fund for Independent Radio, for example, produces radio dramas and distributes documentary series. They've also done a lot to promote interest in the radio medium among younger Russians. They hold competitions and run training workshops, some of which American journalists have become involved with

What has your experience been like, in pitching Russian stories for American radio? Are shows here consistently interested

In my experience yes, and not only because it's an important country in a cultural and geopolitical sense. I think there's something about the Russian story that Americans will always have an appetite for. Maybe it's part of craving to "know-thy-former-enemy," or maybe it's because Americans see the place as vaguely familiar -- like Europe, only with more mystery. Then again, maybe it's the accents. Whatever the reason, the interest is there

If given the chance to do so, what other Russian stories would you like to bring to the radio

You know it's such a vast country. There are 11 time zones, of which I've seen very few. So I'd like to do stories on places I haven't been, and try reporting on them in different ways. Then of course there are moments I wish I could revisit; you know, have another crack at the ones that got away. For instance, somewhere in Moscow there's this taxi driver whose English consists solely of "Dr. Brown" jokes he memorized for the 1980 Olympics. I caught a ride with him one night and he whipped off 20 in a row before I got out. I think he could have gone all night

Do you remember any

Husband says to Doctor-Brown: "Doctor Brown, wife is driving me crazy. She doesn't feed me. We don't make love . . .

You know, maybe this isn't the best idea

Couldn't agree more. Besides, I forgot the punch-line.