Story of the saxophonist who deceived the KGB with a secret code

Story of the saxophonist who deceived the KGB with a secret code

In 1985 saxophonist Merryl Goldberg was on a plane to Moscow, in the then Soviet Union (USSR), with three fellow musicians from the Boston Klezmer Conservatory Band. She had carefully packed sheet music, reeds and other accessories for wind instruments, along with the soprano saxophone she would take with her to the USSR. In one of her stave notebooks for music notation, however, Goldberg had hidden secret information.

Using a code of her own invention, the woman had entered names, addresses and other details that the group would need for the journey, hiding them within handwritten compositions which, to an inexperienced eye, appeared as melodies transcribed on the pages of the notebook. Goldberg and her colleagues wanted to prevent Soviet officials from getting their hands on information related to the people the group intended to meet, or on the activities they had planned on the trip. Goldberg and his colleagues were about to meet the "Phantom Orchestra".

The orchestra was made up of a collective of dissidents that Goldberg describes as an amalgam of refusenik Jews (Jews forbidden to emigrate beyond outside the USSR), Christian activists and observers from Helsinki, who had the task of checking that the Soviets respected the Helsinki accords of 1975. The Americans' trip was financed and coordinated by the non-profit organization Action for Soviet Jewry (now called Action for Post-Soviet Jewry), which is involved in providing humanitarian aid to the former Soviet Union, in particular assistance to Soviet Jews who emigrated to Israel and the United States.

The journey of the musicians For American and Soviet musicians, the journey represented a rare opportunity to meet in the Soviet Union and play together. For Golderbg's group, however, it was also an opportunity to send information on humanitarian plans to the Phantom Orchestra, while the collective saw in the meeting the possibility of sending updates on the group, including the data of people intending to flee. from the Soviet Union.

Goldberg and his colleagues, all Jews, arrived in Moscow separately, in groups of two, to reduce the likelihood of arousing suspicion. They had received training in how to undergo an interrogation and had been warned that they would be monitored and met with Soviet officials during the journey. First, though, Goldberg had to get his notebook through border controls.

"When we arrived, we were immediately separated for baggage checks. They even opened the Tampaxes. It was crazy." says Goldberg, who spoke about his journey and the musical code at the RSA Conference, a series of conferences on security that was held in San Francisco last June. "They checked my scores, opened the notebooks and realized that there really were songs inside. If you're not a musician, you can't really understand what you're reading. They analyzed everything, page by page, and then they gave it to me. returned ".

Goldberg says that although the code worked and the group's notebooks were not confiscated, Soviet officials nevertheless questioned all four travelers about their plans during their stay in the USSR. "We were taken to a room where a massive, portly guy slammed his fist on the table and yelled at us," recalls Goldberg, who now teaches music education at California State University in San Marcos.

The Goldberg Code Since they are represented by letters ranging from A to G, musical notes in English alone do not provide a complete alphabet. To create the code, Goldberg assigned the letters of the alphabet to the notes of the chromatic scale, a musical scale of twelve semitones, in order to expand his possibilities of expression. In some cases, the musician wrote down everything in the treble clef (or clef of G). In others, she expanded the register to be able to code more letters by adding a bass clef to extend the musical scale. These details and variations also added verisimilitude to the music encoded in the notebooks. As for the numbers, Goldberg limited herself to writing them between the lines of the staff, where chord symbols are sometimes found. She also added other characteristics of the composition, such as rhythms (half notes, quarter notes, eighth notes, whole notes), keys, time and articulation markings such as slurs and slurs. Most of these elements served to make the music seem realistic, but some served as a coded supplement to the letters hidden in the musical notes. From time to time Goldberg also drew small diagrams that could be mistaken for tables, to remember where a meeting place was or how to deliver a particular object. In fact, if someone had actually tried to play the code on the scores, the result would have been more like the sound of a cat walking on the piano keys than a melody.

"I chose a note a case to start with and from there I created the alphabet. Once you know it, it becomes quite easy to use it. I also taught the code to my friends who were traveling with me - says Goldberg -. We used it to mark people's addresses and other information that we would need to find them. We encoded the data of many on the spot, so that we had the information needed to make them emigrate, as well as details that we hoped could help other people with the same intentions. "

The stages and the expulsion The American musicians had made a stop in Moscow before heading to Tbilisi. In the capital of Georgia and later in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, they managed to meet the members of the Phantom Orchestra, many of whom spoke some English, getting acquainted, playing together and even organizing small impromptu concerts.

During the eight days of travel, the musicians were constantly shadowed by Soviet agents and were repeatedly stopped for questioning. Goldberg says that members of the Phantom Orchestra, who were subjected to similar treatments on a daily basis, had given her and her colleagues advice and encouragement. When Americans expressed concern that their presence could endanger activists, orchestra members resolutely stressed the importance of spending time together. Some of the activists, Goldberg adds, however, paid for those interactions with arrest and beatings.

"The second night, while we were playing together, the KGB came and shut down everything. They cut the power. The situation. it was scary - Goldberg says -. When we play, however, no one can take away the sense of freedom and power. Playing and communicating with people through music is unparalleled. I was amazed by the power generated by the music; it can be very comforting, but it also conveys a sense of power ".

After their stay in Yerevan, the American musicians had planned to go to Riga, the capital of Latvia, and then to Leningrad, the current Russian city of St. Petersburg. Finally, they should have stopped in Paris before returning to the United States. Instead, they were stopped and questioned again. The musicians were supposed to end up under house arrest in Yerevan, but Goldberg reports that Armenian officials were opposed to the KGB intrusion, preferring to let them continue the journey. Eventually, however, the musicians were picked up and escorted to Moscow, where Soviet agents confiscated their passports. Goldberg says the group was taken around Moscow for several hours, perhaps as a scare tactic, before finally being allowed to stay in a dormitory guarded by young soldiers armed with machine guns.

"At that point, you think of being deported to Siberia or something like that, "Goldberg says." We were really scared. So that night we continued playing. We chose a popular Russian folk tune, but horribly out of tune to irritate the soldier outside our door. relieved, and strong too. "

Eventually, the officials decided to hijack the musicians to Sweden. They were monitored on sight as they were taken to a plane from Sweden that would return without passengers. The officials had ransacked their personal belongings before putting them on the plane, without anyone noticing anything suspicious in the scores. Goldberg recalls that his camera film was even returned to him.

“No reason has been given for deportation. US officials are still awaiting information from the Soviet Foreign Ministry - Reuters wrote on the matter on May 31, 1985 -. According to the spokesman, the expulsion seems to be linked to a meeting with ... the Georgian dissidents ".

Goldberg recalls having learned that some Soviet activists had suffered consequences for the visit, but also that some of the people met by the musicians during the trip had managed to leave the USSR for good. The musician notes that, although it would have been easy to decipher if anyone had paid attention to it, her musical code actually served its purpose, also revealing itself as a type of elegant and harmonious cryptography.

This article originally appeared on US.

Powered by Blogger.