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Seven Strings Over Iowa

How the center of a Russian-guitar culture ended up in the American Midwest, under the stewardship of its greatest enthusiast

Samantha Shokin
October 12, 2018
Illustration: Alexei Vella
Illustration: Alexei Vella
Illustration: Alexei Vella
Illustration: Alexei Vella

There are but a handful of Russian musical exports familiar to the average American. Among them are the classics: Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Shostakovich, Prokofiev. Next are the chestnuts: world-renowned tunes like “Ochi Chernye” (Dark Eyes) and “Korobeiniki,” more commonly known as the Tetris theme. Many have encountered the three-stringed, triangular-bodied balalaika. Worldly musicians might be able to tell you the difference between a piano accordion and its chromatic-buttoned cousin, the Russian bayan. But when it comes to one of the most storied instruments in Russian culture, the seven-stringed guitar, or semistrunka (seven-stringer), few but the most passionate and well-versed music nerds and Russophiles are even aware of its existence.

The seven-string was ubiquitous in Russia throughout the 19th century. Much romanticized in music, art, and literature, it was considered the quintessential Russian (or more aptly, Russian Roma) instrument, surpassing the six-string guitar in popularity for the better part of 200 years. One can find references to it in Pushkin, Tolstoy, Chekhov; as a folk tradition, its legacy lasted well into the Soviet era, immortalized by music legends like Vladimir Vysotsky. Even Russian-born Hollywood star Yul Brynner famously played it, first under the tutelage of Romani musician Alyosha Dimitrievich—pictured here in a seven-string duet with the actor, singing an iconic verse:

Will you at least still talk to me,
My seven-stringed companion.
The soul is filled with yearning, and
The moon is shining bright.

Despite this legacy, the seven-string’s popularity declined and eventually all but disappeared. In Russia today, it is a relic of a time long past; its secrets guarded by a shrinking community of dedicated practitioners. In fact, the seven-string is so estranged from modern Russia that the world’s only seven-string guitar festival is not in Russia at all. The International Annual Russian Guitar Festival and Seminar (IARGUS) has been held for the past 12 years in Iowa City, Iowa, the home of Oleg Timofeyev, who is the world’s foremost expert on the Russian guitar.

Like many other noteworthy figures in Russian history, Timofeyev lives in a kind of exile—only not in Siberia, but the American Midwest. He was among the first Russians permitted to leave the Soviet Union during the period of openness known as glasnost, due in part to his lifelong passion for music. But despite being born into a Jewish family with a long musical tradition, he was encouraged to seek another path. “By my family’s standards I wasn’t particularly musical, so they just decided that I’m not going to be a musician,” recounted Timofeyev recently, seated across from me in the study of his Iowa City home. Downstairs, a dozen of this year’s IARGUS participants were milling about, the air abuzz with conversation in English, Russian, and German. “My grandfather Mordechai (Mark) Shneyder was an architect who built the house in which I grew up, which was remarkable, because during Stalin’s era practically no new buildings were built. I grew up in the cult of my grandfather who died in the war, and the idea was that I would become an architect.”

An architect Timofeyev is not. But he has a certain measured knowingness about him, speaking perhaps more to his scholarship than to his illustrious career as a seven-string guitarist. Today he is a professor of Russian culture at the University of Iowa, but in his youth, he was an underground figure—one of the few Soviets partaking in the early-music revival at a time when it was marginalized by the state.

His first taste of dissident activity began in Jewish circles in 1970s Moscow. The plight of refuseniks galvanized a generation of young Soviet Jews who were determined to reclaim their culture through often-illicit means. As a teenager, Timofeyev clandestinely studied Hebrew along with his friend George (Zhora) Arutunyan, an aspiring bard who developed an interest in the forbidden songs of Shlomo Carlebach. Shortly after learning guitar, Timofeyev and Arutunyan formed a band with Timofeyev’s mother on cello, and began playing Yiddish-language kvartirniks—house concerts—in the private residences of refusenik friends.

Kvartirniks like Timofeyev’s took place all throughout the Soviet Union and were essential to bolstering the musical counterculture. In Soviet ideology, music was considered an instrument of propaganda. For decades, American bands had been regularly under fire. Even classical music was considered not immune to being proscribed for containing subversive potential. Instruments were scrutinized as well. Guitar (both six- and seven-string) was not taught in conservatories at the time, regarded as a folk instrument with limited classical application.

When Timofeyev started playing six-string guitar at age 15, he made a practical decision to attend math school and learned guitar on the side by studying with one of the best private instructors in Moscow at the time, a charismatic guitarist by the name of Camill Arturovich Frautschi, who obtained cult status with his unique method of instruction. “Frautschi was a wonderful teacher and the results were absolutely amazing,” said Timofeyev. “But in order to study with him you had to succumb to his theories and charisma. You basically were his puppet. I learned a lot, but at some point I realized that I could no longer study with him.”

Bored with classical guitar, Timofeyev began to search for other outlets to satisfy his expanding musical tastes. At that time, the early-music revival had been well underway in the West and was just starting to trickle into Eastern Europe. It was not unusual to find book stores occasionally stocked with rare treasures like early classical sheet music from East Germany, Poland, or Czechoslovakia. As Timofeyev discovered, many tablatures for Renaissance lute could be played on guitar by retuning a single string. This discovery was momentous: It took months of diligent practice, but by the time he laid hands on his first lute—a homemade model crafted by his friend, an aspiring luthier—he was ready to begin playing.

But even this was problematic. The fact that there were no Russian or Soviet composers for lute, or much of a Slavic baroque culture to speak of, meant that its repertoire was not sanctioned by the state. While rock music was guilty of promoting Western decadence, followers of the early-music revival were guilty on two other counts: promoting music of the Church, and performing that music on period instruments of the Medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque eras, which to the authorities signaled a type of anti-Soviet escapism. Students who were hardcore fans of early music and its aesthetic—organizing unofficial concerts and performing in costume, for instance—were therefore put in a rather ambiguous position. Timofeyev’s newfound interest would set him on a path that would eventually lead him to the United States.


“Chai?” offered a young man with a cascading blond ponytail. “Oh yes, thank you,” I responded, handing over my mug for some freshly brewed zavarka, extra-concentrated black tea that gets diluted with hot water for drinking. Like any proper Russian gathering, the heart of IARGUS HQ was in our host’s kitchen, conveniently oriented at the crossroads between all rehearsal spaces in the home. Out back in Timofeyev’s garage, a trio was vigorously preparing for that night’s opening concert, the theme of which was traditional Jewish music. The band boasted a formidable cast of characters: on clarinet was Mitya Gerasimov, artistic director of Kiev’s Klezmer Festival and founder of the Pushkin Klezmer Band. Beside him was Romani seven-string virtuoso Vadim Kolpakov, nephew of the legendary Sasha Kolpakov and former backing musician to Madonna.

While they were effortlessly weaving klezmer motifs into jazz Manouche, inside a trio of Scandinavian seven-string players—Stephan Wester and Marten Falk of Sweden, and Marko Edervicki of Norway—were toiling away at the score for an original composition. In the kitchen, German mezzo-soprano Anna Bineta Diouf sat with Ukrainian harpsichordist Olena Zhukova—both members of Timofeyev’s latest project, The Dashkova Ensemble, which debuted a program by 18th-century Russian women composers later that week. That night, the group was joined by Sergei Rudnev, one of the most popular guitar composers in Russia.

This motley crew of musician-folk were united by two idiosyncrasies: having earned the discriminating admiration of Timofeyev, and possessing special knowledge of what makes the seven-string so unique (beyond its extra string). Strangely, basic knowledge of the instrument is rarely displayed outside of its subculture, even among guitar aficionados. On a technical level, the seven-string’s tuning is somewhat unusual: It is tuned to a major G chord (DGBdgbd), which is most likely a quality inherited from the English guitar, a type of cittern that was popular in Eastern Europe in the late 18th century. This open tuning allows for notes to overlap and resonate, producing an airy, legato sound reminiscent of a harp.

The harp connection is not accidental. The most important seven-string composer, Andrei Sychra, was an accomplished harpist prior to devoting his life to the Russian guitar. According to Timofeyev, whose doctoral thesis explored the origins of the seven-string, Sychra’s active period defined the parameters for the Russian guitar’s Golden Age: 1800-1850. Decades later, the instrument fell in esteem and became associated with White Army officers, aristocrats, merchants, and most notably, Roma. As Roma choirs with seven-string accompaniment surged in popularity, Russian Roma musicians—though largely dismissed by the music establishment—emerged as the instrument’s foremost tradition-bearers, to such a degree that the seven-string became a metonym for Roma music in Russia.

Every year IARGUS shines a spotlight on Russian Roma music played masterfully by Vadim Kolpakov, former lead musician of Moscow’s famous Theatre Romen and a festival staple, having been featured for 11 out of its 12 years. (He had to miss 2009, the year he was on tour with Madonna.) Vadim is among many world-class musicians who have traveled to Iowa City to perform under the auspices of the International Academy for Russian Music, Arts, and Culture (IARMAC), the nonprofit run by Timofeyev and his wife, Sabine Gölz.

Though Iowa City might seem like an unconventional location for these activities, Timofeyev begs to differ. “The thing to realize is that this traditional Russian music is completely ignored in Mother Russia,” he explained. “So in this sense, Iowa City is a wonderful outlet. Americans are extremely open, and Iowans like good music. I think if this festival took place in Russia, cosmopolitan guitarists would scrutinize it and say that six-string-guitar music is better. Here we don’t have this problem.”

Reasons for the seven-string’s obscurity are varied and many, but the turning point in its history came in 1926—the year Spanish guitarist Andrés Segovia first visited the Soviet Union and launched his notorious anti-seven-string proselytizing campaign. Writes guitar historian Matanya Ophee:

During his seven-month stay, Segovia met with guitarists, played concerts, gave private and public lessons, and in general, was actively pushing the Spanish guitar, while at the same time putting down and often ridiculing the native Russian instrument. … After Segovia’s appearance on the Russian scene, a line was drawn in the sand and one could be either a sevener or a sixer, but not both.

Although guitars were generally disparaged in post-revolutionary Russia, negatively associated with minstrels of the aristocracy, Segovia succeeded in establishing the six-string as the de facto guitar of the Soviet Union. Later, in the 1950s and ’60s, the seven-string was briefly reclaimed by bards/singer-songwriters (most famously Vysotsky), but ultimately fell out of fashion. Today, Russian guitar culture has yet to recover from the damage wrought by Segovia—and amid all this, Iowa City has emerged as the unlikely seven-string capital of the world.


So how did an aspiring lutist with little interest in Russian culture grow up to dedicate his life to the Russian guitar? It started with some snide remarks from peers. “I started looking around and knew exactly how it happened,” Timofeyev recalled. “Somebody said that they need a musician for an early-music ensemble that was formed at Moscow Conservatory. Although I was an engineering student, they invited me.” He began attending rehearsals but was quickly disillusioned, feeling that among the ensemble members he was the only one really serious about early music. (Timofeyev added: “They just wanted to dress in some silly tights and pseudomedieval clothes. … Musically it was at a very low level.”)

Timofeyev left the ensemble after three months, but those months turned out to be pivotal; his interest in early music soon became the driving force in his life and ushered in a whirlwind four years of underground activity. He taught himself recorder and viola da gamba, was dubbed a guru by peers seeking his tutelage, became a conduit for the distribution of samizdat music manuscripts, and increasingly lost interest in material aspects of life. Like most Soviet citizens, he had a compulsory day job (at the Research Institute for Rubber and Latex Items), but was otherwise entirely consumed by music. At the same time, a dvizhnyak (movement) was taking place in closed quarters all over Moscow, with Timofeyev at its heart—until winds of change came under perestroika.

‘Traditional Russian music is completely ignored in Mother Russia. Americans are extremely open, and Iowans like good music.’

Having exhausted all local music resources, Timofeyev was determined to resume his studies abroad—a previously unthinkable option that had suddenly became possible. In addition to travel, Gorbachev’s reforms also opened tourism to Westerners, such that musicians began adding stops in Moscow on their world tours. No longer afraid of the KGB, Timofeyev found ways to personally introduce himself to his idols. Finally, a musicologist visiting from the United States showed up at Timofeyev’s apartment to give a harpsichord lesson. Impressed by Timofeyev’s spirit and “deep Russian soul” in his playing, the musicologist, professor Sven Hansell, offered him an invitation to spend a semester as an artist-in-residence at the University of Iowa.

Though the invitation was legitimate, the arrangement turned out to be something of a scam, according to Timofeyev. “The way I looked at it was that all of my efforts were finally paying off, my talent was being recognized, and I was coming to Iowa and it would be great,” said Timofeyev. In reality, he arrived in Iowa in August 1989 and was temporarily put up in the air-conditionless room of Hansell’s son. Enthusiastic to keep Timofeyev at the university, Hansell extended Timofeyev’s visa by a year, only to call off his assistantship just a few months later. Timofeyev spent the remainder of the year freelancing, taking advantage of his status as a Russian citizen abroad to meet some interesting people, including his soon-to-be wife, Sabine Gölz, then an assistant professor of comparative literature at UI. (Hansell died in 2014.)

Timofeyev found himself at loose ends that winter. Unemployed and weary of the Midwest, he applied and was accepted on scholarship to the University of Southern California, where he completed a masters in early music in 1993. In 1999, he received a doctorate in performance practice from Duke. Unexpectedly, however, his American university experience inspired him to shift his attention back to Russian subjects, and ultimately, to the Russian guitar.

“The beauty of the American education system is that you can actually take other classes, and I took a class on Russian Golden Age poetry at USC, and on Russian Silver Age poetry at Duke. Both were with wonderful professors, and I really understood to what degree I love Russian language and poetry. So in a way, that inspired me to sing and accompany songs from the time of Pushkin.”

Upon receiving his green card in 1995, Timofeyev returned to Moscow for the first time in years, to determine a topic for his dissertation. Despite the many naysayers among his Russian colleagues, he settled on the Russian guitar. With the seven-string so far down Russia’s musicological hierarchy, he was told that it would be a damning career move. But as a Russian musicologist living in America, it turned out to be anything but.

Once back in Iowa City, Timofeyev began offering university courses in Russian studies and continued his musicianship outside of academia. It was Gölz who had the initial idea for their nonprofit, which since its founding has served as a platform for the festival. Today, Gölz and Timofeyev, who have two grown children, run the festival and teach at the university. People continue trekking to Iowa City every year to celebrate the seven-string wonder known as the Russian guitar, the Gypsy guitar, the semistrunka—and perhaps, soon enough, the Iowan guitar.


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Samantha Shokin is a writer and musician based in Brooklyn.