How a saxophonist fooled KBG by ciphering musical secrets

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In 1985 saxophonist Merrill Goldberg found herself on a plane flying to Moscow with three fellow musicians from the Boston Klezmer Conservatory Orchestra. She carefully packed sheet music, reeds and other woodwind accessories, as well as a soprano saxophone, to bring to the USSR. But in one of her spiral notebooks, lined with staves for freehand notation, there was hidden information.

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Contributed by Merrill Goldberg
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Contributed by Merrill Goldberg

Using a code she developed herself, Goldberg concealed the names, addresses, and other details the group would need on the trip in handwritten compositions that, to the untrained eye, looked like actual melodies she had written on other pages of the book. . Goldberg and her colleagues were reluctant to give Soviet officials details of who they planned to see and what they planned to do during the trip. They were going to meet the Phantom Orchestra.

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The group was a dissident ensemble that Goldberg describes as an amalgamation of Jewish refuseniks (Jews who were banned from leaving the USSR), Christian activists, and Helsinki watchdogs who monitored the Soviet Union’s 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), a humanitarian aid organization in the former Soviet Union that focused on helping Soviet Jews emigrate to Israel and the United States.

The trip was a rare and special opportunity for American and Soviet musicians to meet in the USSR and make music together. It was also an opportunity for the American musicians to relay information about relief efforts and plans to the Phantom Orchestra, and for the ensemble to send out updates, including details about people trying to escape the Soviet Union.

Contributed by Merrill Goldberg

Goldberg and her colleagues, all Jews, traveled to Moscow separately as two couples to reduce the likelihood that they, as a group, would arouse suspicion. They were trained in how to respond to interrogations and expect surveillance, even skirmishes with Soviet officials, throughout the trip. But first, Goldberg needed to get her laptop through border control.

“When we arrived we were immediately taken aside and they went through everything in our luggage right down to unpacking the Tampax. It was crazy,” says Goldberg, who talks about the experience and her musical code at the RSA security conference in San Francisco. “With my music, they opened up and there were some real tunes in there. If you weren’t a musician, you wouldn’t know what’s what. They went through it all page after page and then returned it.”

Goldberg says that although the code worked and Soviet officials did not confiscate their music, they interrogated all four travelers about what they planned to do in the USSR. “We were led into a room with a tall, burly guy who was banging on the table and yelling at us,” recalls Goldberg, now a professor of music education at California State University, San Marcos.

Musical note names are made up of the letters A through G, so by themselves they do not provide a complete alphabet of options. To create the code, Goldberg assigned the letters of the alphabet to the notes in the chromatic scale, a 12-tone scale that includes semitones (sharps and flats) to expand the possibilities. In some examples, Goldberg only wrote in one musical range, known as the treble clef. In others, she extended the register to be able to encode more letters and added a bass clef to widen the range of the musical scale. These details and variations also added to the plausibility of her encoded music.

As for the numbers, Goldberg simply wrote them between the staves, where the chord symbols could sometimes be seen. She also added other characteristics of the composition such as rhythms (halfs, quarters, eight notes, whole notes), key signatures, tempo marks, and articulation indicators such as slurs and connections. Most of these were made to make the music look more believable, but some were used as coded additions to the letters hidden in musical notes. Sometimes she even drew tiny diagrams that could be mistaken for graphs to remind herself where the meeting place was or how to get across.

While technically one could play this code as music, it would sound less like a melody than like a cat walking on a piano.

“I chose a note to start with and then created an alphabet out of it. Once you know that, it becomes pretty easy to write something. On the trip, I taught my friends the code,” says Goldberg. “We used it to get people’s addresses and other information we’d need to find them. And we coded things while we were there so we could get some information about people and their attempts to emigrate, as well as details that we hoped might help other people ask to leave.”

The American musicians settled in Moscow before heading to Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital. There and at their next stop in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, they successfully met the members of the Phantom Orchestra, many of whom spoke some English, and spent time getting to know each other, playing music together and even having small impromptu concerts. .

During the eight days of the journey, the musicians were constantly monitored by Soviet agents, and they were repeatedly stopped for interrogations. Goldberg says members of the Phantom Orchestra, who have all experienced similar treatment in their daily lives, have given her and her colleagues advice and encouragement. When Americans expressed concern that their presence threatened activists, Goldberg says the Phantom Orchestra members were determined to spend time together. However, she adds that some of the activists were later arrested and even beaten because of the interactions.

“The second night we played together, the KGB came and everything was closed. The electricity was out, it was a scary situation,” says Goldberg. “And yet, when we play music, no one can deprive us of this feeling of freedom and power. Playing together and communicating with people through music is nothing but nothing else. I was amazed at the strength with which he brought people there. Music can be very comforting, but it also conveys a sense of power.”

After their stay in Yerevan, the American musicians planned to travel to Riga, the capital of Latvia, and then to Leningrad, now St. Petersburg in Russia. Finally, they had to stop in Paris before returning to the United States. Instead, they were stopped and interrogated again. The musicians were to be placed under house arrest in Yerevan, but Goldberg says Armenian officials resented the KGB interference and allowed them to continue their journey. However, the musicians were eventually picked up and taken back to Moscow, where Soviet agents confiscated their passports. Goldberg says the group was driven around Moscow for several hours, possibly as a scare tactic, before they were finally allowed to stay together in a dorm room guarded by young Soviet men with machine guns.

Contributed by Merrill Goldberg

“At this point, you think they are going to take us to Siberia or something,” she says. “We were very excited. So we continued to play music for each other that night. And we played our favorite Russian folk tune, but out of tune, to annoy the young soldier outside the door. It gave us a sense of humor and strength.”

Finally, officials announced that the group would be deported to Sweden. They were heavily guarded and taken to a plane that had flown in from Sweden and was about to return without passengers. While officials ransacked their belongings again before letting them on the plane, no one ever marked the notes. Goldberg notes that she even got the film back from her cell, perhaps thanks to a sympathizer.

“They were not told the reason for their deportation, and US officials are still awaiting information from the Soviet Foreign Ministry,” Reuters reported in a telegram on the situation on May 31, 1985. meeting with… Georgian dissidents”.

Goldberg says that while she later learned that some of the Soviet activists faced the consequences of the visit, some of the people the musicians met on the trip were later able to leave the USSR permanently. She notes that while her musical code would not be hard to crack if one focused on it, the obfuscation served its purpose, turning it into an elegant and harmonious encryption scheme.


Credit: www.wired.com /

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