Electronic Music under Communist Romania: The Sound of Resistance

Words: Dragoș Rusu
Illustration: Sorina Vazelina
February 2024

The cultural resistance in music during communist Romania was an important part of the broader opposition to the regime. While the government sought to control all forms of artistic expression, musicians found creative ways to resist these efforts and to express their dissent. Electronic music was a relatively underground movement that struggled to gain recognition from the state authorities. But some musicians established themselves in the scene and made immense contributions. I want to highlight some of these incredible sparks of originality, formed in the shadow of a totalitarian regime without access to technology or educational resources independent of the party’s doctrine. 

I was born a few years before the fall of the communist regime, so this article comes with a set of biases and risks, as I write about a time I did not live through. As an object of study, history is often dotted with ups and downs, ellipses of time, myths and legends, multiple versions of the same stories, or subjective testimonies appearing without factual and verifiable data. In this story – as in any other – the storyteller’s status is privileged by the present-past temporal axis, as we see past events through the lens of the present, constantly modified by our own social conditioning, education, or ethnocentrism. 

However, testimonies left by electronic music artists who lived through the communist regime indicate that the transgenerational circulation of ideas and ways of thinking in these communities was a fluid process. These elements belonged to a deep dimension of intelligence known as sonic thinking – a concept theorized by the Danish sound researcher and musicologist Holger Schulze – and had their own rhythm, passing through endless validation processes and ultimately evolving into an artistic form of resistance.

Underground Music

The Communist government in Romania controlled all aspects of cultural production, including music. The Communist Party sought to use culture to promote its ideology and consolidate its power, and it imposed tight censorship on all forms of artistic expression. The party’s direction was that a musician had to make music for the masses, for the proletariat. Much of this music consisted of mandatory propaganda songs about the supreme leaders of the country, designed to arouse enthusiasm for socialist and communist ideals. Despite these restrictions, some artists sought to resist the regime’s attempts to control, and in the realm of music, several forms of cultural resistance emerged during this time.

Artists used to gather in small underground circles and music scenes made of musicians who played music banned by the regime, including Western rock and punk. Since electronic music had no lyrics, it was harder to be censored. Nevertheless, all musicians from all genres were kept under strict state supervision. They often performed in secret, and their concerts were attended by a small group of family members, friends and fans. While these scenes were relatively small, they were influential in shaping the country’s cultural landscape. They served as a space where people could express their opposition to the regime. 

Romanian electronic music emerged from classical music, which, according to composers Costin Miereanu and Doru Popovici, had three precursors: Ioan Căianu, Dimitrie Cantemir, and Anton Pann. At the beginning of the 20th century, George Enescu became the first Romanian composer to synthesize folk music with the trends of his time’s classical formation. Enescu used modern musical language and experimented in several areas. He is now considered the most valuable Romanian composer of all time. 

With the advent of new technological means, the second half of the 20th century laid the foundations for electronic music through various sonic experiments made by artists and experts. Within two different generations, several Romanian composers, musicologists, teachers and theorists refined the contemporary music of their time. The first wave included (among others) Aurel Stroe, Ştefan Niculescu and Anatol Vieru. Octavian Nemescu was part of a second, younger generation of musicians experimenting with electronic sounds. In 1984, he was among the first to create one of Romania’s most important electronic music albums. The album was named Gradeatia/Natural and was released by Electrecord, the only Romanian label from the communist regime (many years later, in 2018, it was reissued by the Belgian label Sub Rosa).

The association between Romanian music and Electrecord is inevitable. The two grew up and developed together, lived in a strange and natural symbiosis, and experienced intense historical moments that influenced Romanian culture. It could be argued that Romanian music would not have existed without Electrecord – and vice versa. Electrecord was one of the most profitable state-owned companies during communism. It produced a considerable amount of records with Romanian folklore music, which sold hundreds of thousands of copies each year, reaching the most remote villages and contributing to the effervescence of patriotic and nationalist spirit, omnipresent in the political climate of the time. Besides folk music, Electrecord also released a significant amount of jazz, pop, disco, electronic, contemporary, and traditional Roma music. Like many brands that declined after the revolution, Electrecord’s life wasn’t easy: other record labels emerged, CDs appeared, and vinyl presses were sold throughout Europe. The cultural opening towards the West generated an increasingly free market, in which Electrecord did not survive. 

The Cultural “Big Bang”

The Romanian communist regime began in 1947, but between the ‘60s and early ‘70s it underwent a series of political changes, generated by the death of Gheorghe Gheorghiu Dej and the election of Nicolae Ceaușescu as General Secretary of the Romanian Communist Party (in 1965) and Head of State (in 1967). During that period, the regime experienced a cultural opening towards the West, denouncing the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 and the short relaxation of internal repression. Ceaușescu created a positive image in the country and the West. Composer Octavian Nemescu talks in his work History of Spectral Music about this period of ideological liberalization, which eventually emerged into “a real Big Bang, an explosion in all arts: music, plastic arts, cinematography; new artistic musical movements with a Romanian imprint.” 

This short period of relief didn’t mean total freedom. It was a more relaxed control from the state: artists manifesting ideas not following the Party’s doctrine were still risking being censored or persecuted. In a talk in 2017, Nemescu remembered that he tried to create a small resistance group in his college years with two other musicians, Corneliu Cezar and Lucian Metianu. The group was called OCL after the names of the three composers, and it was born under the “realistic-socialist-proletarian terror of mass culture.” Nemescu said that it was difficult to find books and magazines in those years about avant-garde directions that were popular in the West, and that he eventually found an echo in the Romanian cultural realm. “We were doing a certain type of music just to pass the exams and something different for ourselves. Sometimes, there were scandals during the exams, and we were threatened with being expelled and sent to work. That was the ultimate sanction. If you didn’t follow the instructions, you were sent to work in a factory.”  

Nevertheless, when this short period of liberalization manifested, new ideas emerged in the Romanian musical context. One of these emerging ideas was ecology. Art creators were no longer called painters or sculptors, but installation artists. They immersed themselves in nature and created music in the midst of it so that they could be charged with the natural energy of the surrounding environment. “We said: ‘Down with concert halls, art galleries and institutionalized museums, all these huts that came with the Renaissance!’ We campaigned to return to ancient rituals, where magic was the most important,” Nemescu recalled.

New Sounds, Old Equipment

The first electronic music studio in Romania was established around 1965. It was created following a collaboration between the State Committee for Culture and Art and the National University of Music in Bucharest, under the guidance of Tiberiu Olah, composer and professor at the university. The studio was equipped with modern devices, such as a Buchla 100 modular synthesizer – brought from the USA at the time – as a Moog synthesizer, a Philips sound generator, and a magnetic tape recorder. Students at the university were encouraged to explore electronic sounds and techniques, and many of them went on to create innovative works in this field. Corneliu Cezar was one of the firsts. Regarded as a pioneer of musical avant-garde in Romania – and described by Nemescu as “a kind of Jean Cocteau of Romania” – in 1965, he made the first Romanian electronic piece, Aum. The studio was rudimentary, still “imperfect,” according to Nemescu.

Working with synthesizers involved a relationship with people from the engineering field: those who built them. Outside of the academic walls, one of the first attempts of this kind was made in the ‘60s by Bibi Ionescu, the bassist of the rock band Sfinx. But the tradition of electronic keyboards did not begin with him. Although they circulated with difficulty in the hands of musicians (due to limited access), the piano or electronic organ (such as Fender Rhodes or Hammond) made its presence felt in Romanian music since the early ‘70s, even though they were not capable of producing the same sounds as synthesizers.

In an interview, Bibi Ionescu recalled a day in the ‘60s when he was listening to the album Pictures at an Exhibition (by Emerson, Lake & Palmer), when he found a picture of a Moog synthesizer with some abbreviations: VCO (Voltage Controlled Oscillator), TCF (Tunable Control Frequency), VCA (Voltage Controlled Amplifier). “Not only did I not know what I was reading, but I also had no documents to find out the application of those terms in audio. […] However, Freddy Negrescu, a sound engineer at Electrecord, helped us. He was a man with absolute hearing and a passion for electronics. He was also a radio amateur who told us that we needed a field effect transistor. In the end, we used the keyboard from a Romanian clavichord. After burning about three transistors, we managed to build an oscillator. Musically, it sounded absolutely strange, but this imperfection helped us terribly. We played with this oscillator for the first time at Casa Studenților in 1973. How can I tell you?! It was crap, but people saw and heard something new for the first time.”

Even though the state control was strict, some musicians managed somehow to buy (or sell) guitars and synthesizers. The secret police knew these and other instruments were circulating in the country (eventually creating a black market). Still, the situation was tolerated since some musicians, those not politically engaged – playing music with no lyrics – were playing abroad and bringing those instruments when they returned home.

Spectralism: Incredible Sonic Experiments

Although relatively unknown at the time, the spectral music movement, which originated in France in the early ‘70s, was also discreetly developing in Romania. It was considered more an aesthetic than a style, or as the American composer Joshua Fineberg puts it, a recognition that “music is ultimately sound evolving in time.” 

An ​​important group of early spectral composers was centered in Romania, where a unique form of spectralism arose, partly inspired by local folk music. This tradition, as collected by the Hungarian composer and ethnomusicologist Béla Bartók inspired several composers, such as Corneliu Cezar, Anatol Vier, and Horațiu Rădulescu, as well as Iancu Dumitrescu and his partner Ana Maria Avram, who said that his music “reflects the attempt to free that God who lives in every piece of matter,” and that this avant-garde period in Romanian music gave birth to incredible sonic experiments “of such a violence, intensity, and ecstatic tremor, that claim sound through a concentration of the basic sonic matter.”

Another isolated case in the history of Romanian electronic music is Costin Miereanu, a composer and musicologist established in France. Miereanu developed his style by combining Erik Satie’s techniques with an abstraction of traditional Romanian music. In 1981, he became the curator of the Éditions Salabert label, and in 1984 he founded Poly-Art Records, the label on which he released some of his most important electronic music records: Pianos-Miroirs, Carrousel, Jardins Oublies and Derives.

Besides the music recorded on discs, a significant amount of electronic music was produced in film studios to soundtrack animated films. Animafilm, the most important Romanian studio for animated drawings, emerged from the numerous international awards the Romanian artist Ion Popescu-Gopo won. The studio experienced its heyday between 1964 and 1989 (and after the fall of the regime, it suffered a similar fate as Electrecord, not being able to stay competitive). Much of this experimental music was created from the film industry’s need for sounds. Several Romanian producers contributed electronic pieces to this studio as animated and science fiction films required “strange,” exotic, and spatial sound palettes. Shortly after its establishment in 1964 and throughout the regime, Animafilm became a trusted international brand, producing 60 films per year during the good times. But it was not immune to censorship and control from the Securitate (the secret police agency): a series of valuable films, such as Victor Antonescu’s 1973 co-production Robinson Crusoe, were banned from being screened, on the grounds that the indigenous people presented in the film were cannibals. These films were seen by the Romanian public after 1989.

Some Romanian Electronic Music Heroes

Adrian Enescu contributed greatly to Romanian electronic music through the dozens of records he released on Electrecord and the music made for artistic films during the communist regime. Without him, Romanian electronic music would have had a different course. Evidence of this can be found in both volumes of the Funky Synthesizer album (released in 1982 and 1984), the Stereo music project (whose hit song Plopii impari managed to arouse a curious interest among today’s generations), and the soundtracks for about 65 titles of Romanian cinematography. Among these, Faleze de nisip (1983), Ringul (1984) and Pas în doi (1985) contain music that can be easily classified as electronic, with a touch of synth-wave, disco, and experimental sounds. Enescu also made music for theater and ballet throughout his career, reaching China, Australia, Japan, Canada, and South America. Although he was an electronic music pioneer, his modest personality never allowed him to consider himself as such.

After Enescu laid down the foundations, several prominent musical personalities arose. Most of their works include influences of Western electronic music. Mircea Florian, also known as Florian din Transilvania, was one of them. He started playing folk music in the ‘70s, later moving on to electronic and experimental music. In 1975, he released the single Pădure liniștită, La Făgădăul de piatră/ Cu pleoapa de argint, and a decade later, in 1986, he released Tainicul Vârtej, an album that marked new sound experiments in Romanian music. Throughout his career, Florian founded several concept bands and was interested in avant-garde artistic experiments, as well as combining various musical styles, from folk to Romanian archaic music, from electronic to progressive rock and new wave. According to Florian, the repressive system of the Miliția Police (the police forces in the Soviet Union) in the ‘70s succeeded in making regular people turn very eagerly against appearances: “Many friends of mine had their hair cut in broad daylight. Even if it was a minor thing, you were literally chased and hunted down. At one point, the Miliția obtained the right to chop ladies’ skirts if they were too short, or trousers if they were flared.” He remembers that private parties at people’s houses were the only safer place you could go. “I don’t remember having any scandals (in those parties). If they were called, the Miliția would usually come, but hardly anyone called them. Surely, there were problems if you got drunk. Let’s not forget that the strongest, most common drug in Romania was – and still is – alcohol.”

Another pioneer was Rodion Roșca. He was a unique case in the history of Romanian electronic music. His story dates back to the early ’70s. Even since high school, he experimented with the possibilities of generating unconventional and unusual sounds. The production technology was relatively modest then, but Rodion had enough creativity to experiment with sound. He initially used one, then several tape recorders to obtain a similar sound to a synthesizer through guitar overdubs. A graduate of the Cluj Music High School (playing the clarinet), Rodion recorded over 70 pieces in his apartment between 1970 and 1977. Rodion’s music (and that of the Rodion G.A group, founded by him and Gicu Fărcaș and Adrian Căprar) did not find an audience at the time, despite him being active as a musician and playing concerts with his band. National – and especially international – recognition came after the 2010s, when he was discovered by Ion Dumitrescu, a musician and manager from the record label Future Nuggets. In 2013, the renowned British label Strut Records released the compilation The Lost Tapes, an anthology of approximately 20 songs made by Rodion Roșca during the communist era. To learn more about his unique story, I recommend delving into the Imagini din vis project, a documentary film that compiles an archive of unreleased tracks and photos from the ‘70s and ‘80s. “During the communist years, my life was a nightmare because of the regime’s aversion to Western and decadent fashion, and I’m referring here to boys who wore long hair. But I didn’t have conflicts with the authorities because the songs were generally instrumental, or had lyrics by Romanian poets,” he said in an interview. More recently, at the Europalia Romania Festival in 2019, he shared these reflections about his career and today’s electronic music: “I am not modest, and I know my worth. In many articles, I have been called a sound tamer or a sound inventor because of the use of tape reels to produce unique sounds for those times. The sounds of the 21st century are fabulous and absolutely revolutionary. Their incredible diversity makes today’s music attractive and clean.”

Instead of Conclusions

Knowing our Romanian music precursors is essential, despite the limited and subjective information available today. Not to feed our sense of national pride or to shape a so-called national identity, but rather to understand that although we have suffered from a cultural inferiority complex over time – comparing ourselves to the West – we have also given rise to unique sparks. The course of Romanian music as we understand it today would undoubtedly have been very different without these pioneers. 

Although separated by entirely different times, with different regimes and ideologies, one can find an elusive link between the precursors of electronic music from the communist regime and contemporary Romanian electronic musicians. After the fall of the communist regime in 1989, with free access to the West and the development of technology in the past decades, producers and musicians of electronic music from our times have adopted their sound in a myriad of specific ways. Nevertheless, they inherited a particular history of struggles and experiments, a complex and complicated history of the Romanian sound.