All in a Single String
August 8, 2012 | by Maria Konnikova
There’s a black-and-white photograph of me in my grandparents’ old Moscow apartment. I’m wearing a hand-knit wool dress, two white stripes down the front. My hair is a mess of tight curls around my head. A lopsided smile exposes my teeth. With my right hand, I’m petting a guitar that looks like it might be taller than I am. It is polished wood, dark around the edges, growing lighter toward the center, an intricate garland along its bottom edge. It’s my grandfather’s. It has seven strings.
“A guitar with six strings isn’t a guitar,” my grandfather tells me. “You can’t play on it. You can’t sing to it. It’s worthless. A guitar must have seven strings to be worth its name.” He stops. He closes his eyes. His voice takes on a new tone. “The seven-string guitar, that’s the real guitar. Its voice sings. That, that is the Russian guitar.” I don’t quite understand—to me, a guitar is a guitar—but I know enough to realize that the difference is real to him and that I should abandon my attempts, later, to get him to buy a regular guitar in any old American music shop. As much as he might love me and want to make me happy, he will never play a standard-issue instrument. He will keep searching for his lost seventh string—and if he doesn’t find it, I’ll never again have a chance to hear him play. The decision is final.
Some say the seven-string guitar, the semistrunka, was born with the Central European gypsies. A child of the lute-shaped torban, carried back by Ukrainian Cossacks from Flanders after their mercenary stint in the Thirty Years’ War. The torban, whose familiar bass notes distinguished it from other members of its family. Some say it came from the Turks, during their thirteenth-century migration from Abkhazia to Poltava—a descendant of the kobza, that other lute-like instrument that could have as few as three and as many as eight strings—and might not the number have been seven? Some say it is a child of the Renaissance, the flat-backed cittern—an instrument akin to the mandolin and the English guitar (the latter perhaps its closest relative). With its metallic strings, its popularity in song, and its quick spread over Europe, it seems not altogether unlikely—though the cittern had four strings or six, sometimes five. Not seven. The seven-string guitar has many creation myths. But the most accepted version is that, whatever its origins, it first came of age as a uniquely Russian instrument.
In 1801, Andrey Osipovich Sychra traveled to Moscow from his hometown of Vilnius. The son of a teacher, he had been trained in music from a young age and had risen to local fame as an accomplished concert harpist. In Moscow, however, he had a different agenda. He brought with him an instrument previously unseen in the capital: a guitar with seven strings. Five and six strings, yes, those were relatively common. But seven? This was something new.
Over the next few years, the story goes, Sychra would work to perfect the instrument’s sound and technique. Not only would his guitar look different from its predecessors, it would sound different too. In contrast to the classic guitar’s E-A-D-G-B-E tuning, with its mostly regular fourths, his would have a sound that was both tighter and more open, to the tune of an open G chord. It wasn’t just a guitar with an extra string. It was a guitar with a new voice. That voice, as it turned out, was perfect for accompanying the popular Russian romances of the time—and Sychra lost no time in starting to give concerts where he demonstrated that capability. The demand for lessons grew. Sychra’s fame spread. His methods, too, became known outside the capital, with the publication of his newly established journal, the Journal pour la guitarre à sept cordes. It was the dawn of the semistrunka’s first golden age.
Sychra was a talented teacher and a gifted and prolific composer. When he died in 1850, he left behind over one thousand compositions for the seven-string guitar and dozens of students who, in turn, would spread the techniques of the guitar to others. In that sense, the instrument’s stringed forebear is neither torban nor kobza, bandura nor cittern, but something else entirely: the classic harp, the instrument that had trained Sychra’s approach to both style and sound.
My grandfather was born in 1923. By that time, the golden age of the semistrunka had long since passed. The piano had eclipsed it as the must-have parlor instrument—and besides, despite Sychra’s prolific teaching, too few professional guitarists remained to continue to spread the art beyond a select circle.
But the instrument had held on. Especially, as it turns out, in St. Petersburg, or Leningrad as it was called by the time my grandfather called it home. After Moscow, Sychra had settled there—and it was also there that Ignaz Held, the other claimant to the title of the semistrunka’s founder, published his first notes and guidelines. And while in the rest of the country, the guitar’s popularity faded, in St. Petersburg a close coterie of aficionados remained.
My grandfather was not a professional musician. But he loved the worlds of music and art more than anything else. And in both realms, he was remarkably talented. He drew. He painted. He sang. He danced. And he played the seven-string guitar. It was, always, his instrument. The one he first picked up in his early youth, and the one he would play for most of his life. The sound, to him, of Russia’s past, of its romances and gypsy ballads, of the majestic arpeggios that accompanied the voices of the great classic singers.
In my earliest memory of my grandfather, he is playing me a song on his seven-stringed companion. The words are hazy. The chords aren’t clear. But the voice is unmistakably his, and the sound of the strings, unmistakably those made by his fingers. I listen, rapt. I don’t ever want him to stop playing. I’m not sure how old I am, but not more than two or three. I know that much with certainty because a year later, I’ll be gone, on my way to the United States. And he will stay behind, the guitar and the song with him. It will be another two years before he, too, will leave Moscow, to come join us in faraway Boston. And when he arrives, I will have forgotten most everything about him—except for his voice, his eyes, and his hands. To me, he will always be inextricably entwined with his guitar.
Vladimir Vysotsky didn’t believe in the word bard. I’m a poet who sings his poems, he’d say. A singer-songwriter. I don’t even know what a bard is, he was known to add. Neither did Bulat Okudzhava. Writers’ songs, he called them, “poetry with an accompaniment; real poetry with an accompaniment.” It’s kind of funny, this protest—especially if you stop to consider that Okudzhava and Vysotsky were, unquestionably, two of the most popular, most influential, most iconic of the Russian bards. They represented the very word they disdained. And protest as they might, the title stuck: the Russian bards. These were not bards in the traditional English sense, poets who commemorated great deeds of yore. They were instead precisely what Vysotsky and Okudzhava wanted people to understand: poets, who happened to strum a guitar to accompany their words. There should be no distinction between their poems and their songs, both Vysotsky and Okudzhava believed. They were one and the same.
But as true as that may be, we can’t forget that in the end, they didn’t just write their poetry down. They sang it. And those songs, those men with their strong words and their seven-string guitars became cultural icons.
The bard movement began in the late 1950s, in the guise of small gatherings among students, camping trips and late-night festivities, songs of friendship and idealism that didn’t seem as far-fetched or impossible after the death of Stalin and the arrival of Khrushchev and the so-called otepel, or thaw. Out of these small gatherings rose a handful of men who would dominate the cultural landscape through the 1980s—and whose fame and importance only rose as their political legitimacy waned and then disappeared altogether as the thaw turned once again to frost. (One summer evening, when Marina Vlady was visiting her husband, Vysotsky, in Moscow—they were never allowed to live together, and she had to take trips from Paris to see him—she remembers hearing his songs emanate from every open window. Even though no official recordings were issued, or indeed would be issued until after his death in 1980, everyone seemed to have one.)
Bulat Okudzhava. Vladimir Vysotsky. Alexander Galich. Yuli Kim. Sergei Nikitin. Each name a symbol of a cultural unity and resistance that would gather steam in the coming decades. Each man, a poet with a seven-string guitar in his hand—a guitar that became almost synonymous with the movement and everything it symbolized and that, with the rise of the bards, attained once more its vaunted status as a symbol of Russian culture and history—only this time, with connotations that took a somewhat different view of what that history meant.
My grandfather didn’t much like the bards, iconic status be damned. They couldn’t sing and they couldn’t play, he said. He was right, of course. But of course, that had never been the point.
In 1989, my grandparents left Moscow to join us in the suburbs of Boston. There wasn’t much they could take with them. And one of the things that got left behind was my grandfather’s guitar—the guitar that was practically the only thing I could recall about him with any clarity. I remember well the day they arrived. It was like a pair of strangers had suddenly descended on our tiny apartment. I was wary. Were these really the same grandparents I’d left behind? I knew how I could find out for certain. My real grandfather would be able to play for me. But this one couldn’t. He’d sing, he told me—and yes, the voice was the same—but he couldn’t play. There was no guitar. I was bitterly disappointed—and didn’t forget to tell him. For a few months, I wouldn’t talk to him. Instead, we’d write each other little notes, leaving them for the other to find. It was my retribution for the guitar. And it left us closer than ever before.
My grandfather never acclimated to life in the United States. In Moscow, he had been someone of note, someone to be reckoned with. For years, he had been an art dealer, moving around in the circles that made him feel a vibrant part of the culture of one of the most vibrant cities in the world. The sphere of art and music and thought was his home. He knew the artists of the day, and they, in turn, knew him. And that—all that, all that vibrancy and art and immediacy and life—became embodied by the missing guitar. The guitar that he couldn’t find in any music store or at any sale, that he looked for in vain for years and more empty years. He’d left it all when he came here. And what did he get in its stead? Suburbia and traffic and grocery stores and poor imitations of galleries with local art that made him cringe.
He tried to make do. He made friends with expatriate artists. He visited their shows. He tried to offer his opinions and reclaim some of his lost gravity. But it was never the same. How could it be? How could you live in a country where you couldn’t even find a decent guitar?
Today, in the “new” Russia, the semistrunka is a meager shadow of its former self. Gone is the heyday of the bards, the urgency of their songs and the intense community they engendered. Vysotsky and Galich have been dead for over thirty years. Okudzhava, for fifteen. Kim is still alive, but living in Israel—and, rumor has it, has even switched to a six-stringed instrument. Sergei Nikitin still performs occasionally, but his popularity isn’t what it once was and many of his performances are now for children, at a children’s club he founded some twenty-two years ago.
The cultural cachet is gone. It’s no longer a thing of iconic status, a symbol of underground unity and political subversiveness. It’s a relic of the past. Few play it. Few own it. Few remember how central it once was to Russia’s identity. Those who do recall its second golden age well are getting older—and for the most part, they were never musicians themselves; just fans. Many have left the country, their fight over for the moment. Their idols have disappeared.
It’s almost like the seven-string guitar never was.
This essay is much more difficult for me to write than I ever thought it would be. My grandfather died in 2001. But even now, whenever I picture his face or his gnarled, brown hands, permanently tanned from constant walks and hikes and mushroom- and blackberry-picking expeditions, when I try to remember the sound of his voice as he sang me some long forgotten Russian romance, I have to stop my hands from shaking. I thought it would be easy, to write about his music, his passion, his art, his guitar. A way of celebrating a greatness that shouldn’t have died as early as it did.
Instead, I find myself reading not one, but two Russian doctoral dissertations on the origins of the seven-stringed beauty in Russian history, flipping through pages of an 1854 article I never thought I would find, scrolling through online forums debating the fine points of guitar tuning, unearthing treatises from early twentieth century experts on why everyone is wrong and they alone, correct in their interpretation of the historical record. I’ve learned more about the semistrunka than I’ve ever wanted to know. It keeps me from thinking about the real reason behind this piece: that I still miss my grandfather terribly, every day. And that to me, the seven-string guitar will always mean (and can only ever mean) him. His voice. His eyes. His careful hands. His love. No other history matters.
A year before he died, my grandfather unearthed that thing he had been searching for ever since his arrival, more than a decade earlier, in the United States. It looked forlorn and neglected on some cheap folding table, surrounded by other unwanted knickknacks and trash at a local garage sale. He’d stopped by on a sudden impulse.
I remember the afternoon he brought the seven-string guitar home. It was old and cheaply made, desperately out of tune and with strings that wouldn’t do much of anything at all—some vinyl concoction instead of the solid metallic tautness that should have been in their place. Nothing like the beautiful instrument he’d left behind. But it was a start.
Over the next few weeks, my grandfather did his best. One by one, he replaced the strings. Painstakingly, he cleaned and tuned and polished and adjusted. And still, it was off. He complained about the cheap, thin wood that wouldn’t resonate as it should. About the poorly designed frets and the impossible neck. He waved a frustrated hand at the whole enterprise and said he’d rather forget it. All his anger and frustration were hurled in that guitar’s general—and not so general—direction.
Just one time, I begged him. Won’t you play? I told him I missed his voice. That I wanted to recapture the majesty of sitting in silence while his fingers coaxed sounds I’d never heard a guitar make. I started humming the old lullaby that I could still remember so clearly, about a young woman sitting in a tiny hut, an izbushka, in front of a dying light, weaving and waiting, her light hair newly unbraided and spilling over her shoulders. At the sounds of the melody, he at last relented. He placed the instrument on his lap and he began to strum. For a few magical hours, I was again three, again in his old Moscow apartment, again staring fascinated at the fingers that could do so much—the fingers that were the only part of the man I would later remember, when I saw him again for the first time in Boston.
That was the only time he ever played for me again. Perhaps he picked up the guitar in solitary moments, when no one saw and no one could listen. I don’t know. But I could never again compel him to recreate my Moscow memories. It’s no good, he’d say. That guitar is trash. It’s not a guitar at all. And yet, he never threw it away. It stood always in the same corner of the living room, to the left of the couch and beside the old floor lamp. And sometimes, I would pick it up and turn it over and try to strum a chord.
That October, my grandfather died. He never did have a chance to find the guitar that had taken a part of him with it when it went missing. In its stead, he had found a poor imitation. Just like everything else in the United States.
There’s a part of me that understands how unhappy he must have been here, that knows how much he gave up and could never recapture when he came to a country whose language and culture and way of life were all so different from his own. From Moscow to the Boston suburbs. From being at the center of cultural life, a known figure, a cultural force of sorts in his own right, to someone who could never again play the same role in a place that wasn’t and could never be his own. From the world of art to working at a local dry cleaner’s. He’d left it all for us.
I don’t know if he ever regretted it. I can’t help but feel he must have. All that anger hurled at the guitar. Everything aimed at its improperly thin neck.
Sometimes, I wish he could have remained in his world, happy to the end. Sometimes. But I know it’s an insincere wish. I would never give up the years we had together. And I will never forget that solitary evening, when for a few brief hours I had heard again the long forgotten music of my childhood.