You Don’t Have to Be Dissident: Stephen Coates on Late Russian Composer Mikael Tariverdiev

This is the story of how a British musician stumbled upon one of the most prolific Russian composers of the last century and became determined to bring his music to a new audience.
Mikael Tariverdiev
Film Music
Earth Recordings

It’s 2011 and Stephen Coates of Great Britain’s the Real Tuesday Weld is sitting in a Moscow café with a friend. The Antique Beat originator finds himself drifting into the strange but appealing music playing in the background. “I became absorbed in it,” Coates says from the more familiar confines of his London home. “I’m surrounded by music every day but I felt that somewhere along the line I’d lost that ability to hear it, swim in it. I’m always analyzing it. Whenever I’m hearing something I’m asking, ‘What’s going on?’ What struck me was that this was the first time in as long as I could remember when I wasn’t doing that. I was just immersed in it.”

The music, though Coates didn’t exactly know it at that moment, was by Russian composer Mikael Tariverdiev, one of the most respected and prolific Russian film composers of the last century. What Coates was hearing was music from the 1964 film Goodbye, Boys!, a picture directed by Tariverdiev’s close friend and collaborator, Mikhail Kalik. “The track was very haunting, piano driven with elements of the film in it. So it seems to conjure up this kind of lost world, this other world,” Coates continues. “It’s not depressing or sad but it’s got a certain poignancy. There’s something quite magical about that. Also, I was sitting in Russia with snow falling outside so you can’t discount that.”

Coates continued to listen to this mysterious music and only later, after he’d returned home, did he discover who had composed the tunes he’d become so enamored of. Material about Tariverdiev was scarce, even this deep into the digital age, but Coates soon found a website dedicated to the great Russian and very shortly after found himself corresponding with Tariverdiev’s widow, Vera. She sent the younger musician some of her husband’s recorded work and when he was next in Moscow, Coates found himself at the former home of his new muse.

This was the place where Tariverdiev had done some serious writing and where Coates would begin work on the first major release of the composer’s work in the West, the expansive collection called Film Music. For a man who’d become quite famous in his native country, Tariverdiev, who died in 1996, lived in fairly modest trappings in Moscow.

“It’s surprisingly humble,” Coates says of the Tariverdiev flat. “If he’d been living in the UK, in London, he would have been living in Hampstead or a big house in a Surrey, one of the expensive parts of Southeast England. If he had been living in L.A. he would have been in the Hollywood hills in some posh house. In the Soviet Union he lived in a two-bedroom apartment.” Coates continues, “It was quite a nice two-bedroom apartment and it’s in quite a nice area but it’s remarkable that someone who was so well known, who did so much work, could live so humbly.”

Tariverdiev had of course lived through some difficult times in the Soviet Union. He was born in the Georgian capital of Tbilsi in 1931 to Armenian parents who soon realized the gift their son had for the piano. He eventually attended the Gnessin Institute in Moscow, where he studied under the highly influential film composer and conductor Aram Khachaturian. While still a student he began to write music for his friends, including Kalik, who was studying directing.

They collaborated on Kalik’s first film, Man Follows the Sun (1961) and, soon after, Goodbye, Boys!. “It’s a film about the inner life. It’s a film about nostalgia, it’s a film about lost childhood,” Coates says. “If we see it, we don’t think of it as a radical film. But in the Soviet Union at the time you didn’t make films about the inner life. You didn’t make films about the individual. All films were supposed to be about society and the great march forward. This was about something different.”

The picture is notable for Tariverdiev’s remarkable score but also for Kalik’s apparent sympathy for Jews in the post-World War II. The director, we should note, would earn a reputation as a subversive for making such films while Tariverdiev’s political alliances would remain largely unquestioned.

“From that time Tariverdiev’s life really went into the ascendency,” Coates says of the ’60s. “He became better and better known, he started to do more and more work until, by the time of his death, he was Head of Composers’ Guild of Soviet Cinematographers’ Union. Kalik, on the other hand, was on a slope downwards. He made films that were always getting him into trouble with the censor. Goodbye, Boys!, when it came out it was fine, then it was forbidden. It became impossible for him to work and he defected in 1971. He couldn’t work. So he went to Israel.”

Tariverdiev remained largely apolitical but that didn’t mean he wasn’t capable of voicing dissent. Coates relates a somewhat famous story of a trip to Paris that Kalik and Tariverdiev were scheduled to take. Met at the airport by the officials who were to issue the old friends passports, the pair were soon saddened to learn that Kalik’s passport had been denied. Tariverdiev insisted that he wouldn’t go without out his friend. The result?

“He wasn’t allowed to travel abroad for ten years,” Coates says. “He did get invited to America later on. He’d won a prize there [from the American Music Academy, 1975] and wasn’t allowed to go.”

Still, he flourished in the USSR, writing the score to The Irony of Fate, which Coates says “is probably the most popular Russian film of all time.” In 1977 he received the USSR State Prize and subsequently collected other awards and acknowledgements too numerous to list here. And he remained prolific, eventually authoring scores for more than 130 films, penning four operas and many, many more works of music.

Within that body of work, Coates says, there is great versatility, though the younger musician chose to focus on his muse’s work for the cinema on the expansive collection Film Music. “It’s not that I don’t like classical music it’s that I don’t know that world. So what I concentrated on was his film music. There’s a huge variety in what he did for film, from experimental and bebop jazz through to folk songs and easy listening,” Coates adds. “It was the breadth of it that really surprised me.”

One wonders if Tariverdiev was most content writing film music or if it just happened to be the medium that earned him the most work and most attention. Coates suggests that that was very much the case. “I think he was always grateful to have done that but really his ambition was to work outside of film and a lot of his later work was nothing to do with films,” Coates says.

“What he was really passionate about was setting poetry to music. They call it vocal cycles. We don’t really have them in the West. It’s the setting of words to music in a poetic, high culture way. He was also an amazing jazz improviser. I’ve listened to tapes that Vera’s got that haven’t been released of him with a quartet in a room. He’s playing jazz harpsicord and you can tell that he’s just loving it. He would go one for hours like that.”

There are many surprises across the three compact discs that comprise Film Music. Tariverdiev’s music is absent the normal clichés of film scores; the music can be sentimental at times but never cloyingly so, whereas one might expect music that is dramatic and overwrought there is a playfulness that exists within much of it. It often strives for the minimal rather than maximal and is lyrical and haunting without even trying.

Equally surprising is Tariverdiev’s adeptness at and penchant for jazz. Like many of his European contemporaries and successors, he plays that genre with a sense of playfulness and humor that is often lost on American audiences or even with American musicians. “Summer Blues”, which appeared in 1964’s Till Tomorrow is breathtaking in its simplicity and emotiveness. It as well as “All This Jazz”, and “Russian Ragtime” from 1968’s Small School Orchestra, demonstrate rather brilliantly Tariverdiev’s love of jazz.

With tales of an oppressive government rampant outside the USSR, one might wonder how Tariverdiev came across the music and how he was able to include it so blatantly in films. But Coates points out that the USSR had its glimpses of openness and even when jazz was frowned upon, Tariverdiev, who was not an openly political man, was still quite capable of negotiating the politics of art.

“As the sixties went by it became easier to get certain Western music,” Coates says. “Being a musician and doing quite well he would have had access to stuff that wouldn’t make a sale in the shops. There was a tradition of jazz in Russia. It got repressed at various times but there were jazz players. The way that they got away with it was because they were working in the film industry and the music could be presented as part of the film. ‘We’re not really playing jazz, it’s music for the soundtrack.’ He had his ways and means.”

He also had a knack for acquiring the unusual, as Coates would soon discover when visiting the late composer’s apartment and gazing upon a rather formidable piano with an equally formidable provenance.

“There is a Steinway grand,” he says. “This is not a big apartment so this takes up probably a quarter of the space in the living room. I said to Vera, ‘This is a beautiful piano. It’s a German piano and a very valuable piano. How come it’s here?’ She said, ‘Mikael exchanged it for his own piano.’ He had a small standup piano and a friend of his, whose father was a Russian general, had this Steinway and offered to swap it to Mikael because it didn’t fit in the family apartment. It was too big. I said, ‘That’s an amazing trade. Where did the Russian general get the Steinway?’ She said, ‘He got it from Goering. It was brought back from Berlin at the end of the Second World War.’”

Part of Coates’ time in Moscow was spent combing the Tariverdiev archives, or what stood as his archives, with the idea of bringing the music to a new audience. Working on the project that became Film Music became an involved task that, when completed, would introduce many Western listeners to music from films such as Irony of Fate and Seventeen Moments of Spring (both 1973) as well as The Premonition of Love (1982), Olga Sergeevna (1975) and Flight Through Memory (1989).

Coates was determined not to merely create another compilation or one that poached previous Tariverdiev compilations and in many ways the stars aligned in his favor. Vera didn’t have the master recordings to her late husband’s work and so the two went about finding material that had quite possibly not been heard by anyone before.

“I was quite keen to start from the best possible source. Vera said, ‘Why don’t you come over to the apartment? I’ve got all these tapes in the apartment. You can transfer whatever you need to.’ In the room that served as Mikael’s studio there is a 1972 Hungarian flatbed reel-to-reel. It was in really good condition. So, we set up with a friend and started going through the tapes with Vera. This is ¼ inch. We ran out new masters from the tapes that were there. That’s what forms the basis of this collection,” Coates says, adding, “We only went through a small portion of the tapes that were there. And even then we found versions of tracks that haven’t been released in Russia—famous tracks. So there are alternate takes. Quite often there were beautiful versions of these pieces which never got used.”

Coates says that he hopes there will be more Tariverdiev-related releases in the future and offers that The Real Tuesday Weld has been adding some of the maestro’s compositions to their live gigs. Reviews for the album have been almost universally positive and at the moment it seems as though Tariverdiev may get that second life that many composers can only hope for and that his legacy will not only endure but that his art will resonate with an entirely new audience. Coates relishes the thought of Tariverdiev’s work connecting with others the way it did with him but he cautions that just because the composer didn’t have a life filled with political complications and intense personal pain he shouldn’t somehow be viewed as a lesser artist.

“I don’t know about in the US but certainly in the UK, there’s been this kind of cultural misunderstanding about Russian culture, Soviet culture, which is this: If an artist or a writer or filmmaker was dissident, then it’s regarded in the West as great art. But if an artist from the Soviet Union wasn’t a dissident, then their stuff couldn’t be very good. That was a belief that I held. What I found out is is that is not the case,” he says, then adds, “Apart from Tariverdiev, lots of amazing films and amazing music was made in the Soviet Union, particularly in the ‘60s and ‘70s that we know nothing about. That Iron Curtain works in both directions.”

And, we might hope, that it also opens in both directions.