On finding myself Cyrillicized (corrected)
This Substack newsletter from Blue Ear Books features occasional articles from authors of the books we publish. The previous version of this one from Dennis Rea included a small but embarrassing error introduced by me (Blue Ear Books editor Ethan Casey), so with your indulgence we’re sending it out again.)
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I take satisfaction in knowing that my most significant life achievements came about not through conscious planning but serendipity, a delightful word and concept that’s charmed me since childhood, when my father gave me the book The Three Princes of Serendip, a translation of a Persian fairy tale centered on a search for a lost camel “in the country of Serendippo” (today’s Sri Lanka), where the nominal princes divine the characteristics of said ungulate, which they've never seen, through ”accidents and sagacity.”
A confluence of accidents and – if not sagacity – curiosity, attentiveness, and a nose for a good adventure led, for example, to the adventures chronicled in my first Blue Ear Books title, Live at the Forbidden City: Musical Encounters in China and Taiwan, first published in 2006. Back in the late 1980s, having no particular interest in China, I chanced to meet and fall in love with a lady in Seattle named Anne Joiner (itself a serendipitous occasion) who happened to be a China scholar heading to Sichuan for extended work and study. After a time, she invited me to join her in Chengdu, I thought what the hell … and then all the rest, a book’s worth.
As unlikely as some of the experiences described in Live at the Forbidden City were, more implausible to me yet is that 30 years later, the book not only still has an active readership but was published in a Russian translation in 2021. Here’s how that serendipitous train of events played out.
In 2009, I place an online order for a new archival release by one of my lifelong favorite bands, the British psychedelic-jazz-rock outfit Soft Machine, from a small but highly reputable label called MoonJune Records, based in New York. A day or so later, I receive email from label honcho Leonardo Pavkovic, a larger-than-life figure in the more adventurous precincts of rock, jazz, and world music, who graciously informs me that the album is backordered. I’ve heard of Leonardo and thank him for the message, appreciating the personal attention. He sees and curiously clicks the website link in my signature and notices that I wrote a book about music in China. He writes back expressing interest in the book and we chat; it turns out that he’d traveled widely there several times, even earlier than I had.
I gladly send him a copy gratis, he genuinely digs it, and then he starts inquiring about my music, which I’d never mentioned up to that point, not wanting to solicit his patronage. As it happens, I had a new band named Moraine that had just completed a first album that I was pretty high on. We were looking for an outlet, so with his encouragement, I send it Leonardo’s way. He stuns me by offering to put it out on his increasingly influential MoonJune label. This automatically leads to global exposure and performance opportunities, since Leonardo sends large numbers of promotional copies to a select list of music journalists and other key contacts around the planet. Heck, the guy even runs a sublabel called MoonJune Indonesia!
One of many recipients of a MoonJune promotional CARE package is Iouri Lnogradski, a maverick music promoter and journalist based in metropolitan Moscow. Iouri is so taken with the first Moraine record that he immediately tracks me down and lets me know that he’s planning a six-page feature on the band in Russia’s top jazz magazine. Not only that, but he dangles the possibility of Moraine playing concerts in Russia under the auspices of his concert and tour production enterprise MuzEnergo. Far-fetched and tantalizing indeed; all that’s missing is the considerable lump of dough needed to fly the band over from Seattle.
A couple of years later, Iouri launches the audacious MuzEnergo (“Musical Energy”) bus tours, wherein dozens of international avant-garde musicians played concerts large and small across the vast breadth of the Russian landscape from Moscow to the Pacific. Making good on his earlier invitation, he finds a way to bring Moraine over after all, due chiefly to the improbable largesse of the U.S. State Department (!). Over the course of three tours I end up playing around 30 concerts in Moscow and all over Siberia – even remote and mysterious Tuva at the heart of Central Asia – which in prose form end up as my next Blue Ear Books title, Tuva and Busted. All of this followed from Leonardo’s reading of Live at the Forbidden City after I ordered the Soft Machine disc.
My friendship with Iouri deepens, and somewhere along the way he reads Live at the Forbidden City. In fact, he reads it multiple times, explaining that he finds the narrative as intriguing, as the book is valuable as a language-learning challenge. During a period of relative downtime, Iouri proposes out of the blue that he translate the book into Russian. I’m gobsmacked.
Thus commences a stimulating series of back-and-forth conversations with Iouri that reveal the endless intricacies and paradoxes of our respective languages and cultural perspectives – what fun! Never did I suspect that my prose would prove such a pill for a translator, as Iouri relates in his Translator’s Note:
The most problematic part of [working with Rea’s text] is the translation of the book and chapter titles. Prone (including on his music albums) to ambiguous constructions based on puns or references to the most unexpected phenomena and artifacts, Rea sometimes simply leaves no chance to convey this ambiguity in the translation process.
(Note to self: Go easy on the puns and wordplay if you hope for any future translations.)
But for serendipity …
Oh, and Moraine ended up opening for Soft Machine on their 2019 U.S. tour, I’m seven albums into my MoonJune relationship, and I’m currently at work cowriting Leonardo’s panoramic biography. Now about that lost camel …
Visit this page to purchase Live at the Forbidden City by Dennis Rea (in English) for $12.95 + $3.95 US shipping.