Towing the party line to earn a living whilst engaging in subversive acts to develop his craft, electro space-rock composer Stefan Elefteriu, speaks about plying his trade in the Socialist Republic of Romania, building his own synthesiser and his latest album Quantum Gates...
“All the time we were not very angry, but we were angry and for this reason we were against them, against everything they tried to push us to do and push us to think.”
Recounting stories of some very high hurdles he had to jump in decades gone by, Elefteriu demonstrates that it is his passion for creating music that means he is still in his Bucharest studio looking for new challenges. Poised to begin his next project, a soundtrack for a musical, his hunger to create engaging electronic music has been around from the start. Raised on the Eastern side of the Iron Curtain, Elefteriu’s musical journey commenced playing violin from the age of 7. Though he honed these skills, ending up playing in the Romanian National Opera for 12 years, during this time, his passion for all things sci-fi guided him away from this and towards his dream of making soundtracks.
Possibilities of escapism watching things on screen that were not based in reality allowed him to begin a journey and self-discovery. Elefteriu begun making cartoons for the state-sponsored studio Anima Film. “I made them around the 150 soundtracks in, I don't know, 10 years or something like this. So it was very interesting, I made also two to series with them. One was science fiction and then another one was some kind of Hollywood animation, like Mickey Mouse or something like this. But it was very interesting because I used the recreation of the of Mozart music.” Despite frustrations that were bubbling under the surface when asked how he felt working for the state he acknowledged his good fortune in doing something he wanted to do: “You want to work or not? So it was very simple. But I chose this because I like this kind of work.”
Elefteriu saw two distinct phases of the communist regime. His father was even friends with first leader of the communist party Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej. However, Elefteriu described Nicolae Ceaușescu’s time in power as “savage communism”. In his youth Elefteriu learnt that you could get away with a certain about of what the state deemed to be illegal activity if you knew some of the tricks of the trade. His rock band Blitz, that played Beatles and Queen covers, did not have freedom to play in the capital. “It was very difficult to promote this kind of music for the Communist Party. It was very difficult to swim between their ideas. They wanted in principle only things that has something to do with the communist ideals. So patriotic songs, patriotic lyrics, actions that had something connected with the communist ideology, but rock ‘n roll has nothing to do with the economy,” he continued, “we found some clubs that agreed to play this kind of music and I can say that we had a lot of young people crazy about what we played at the time.”
However, it was not all smooth sailing. One summer in an attempt to not be caught, the band played a season in a restaurant that happened to be in the place where the Ceaușescu has his holidays on the seaside. When the state got wind of this, they cut the power, something that would regularly happen to nightclubs across the country. Until, as Elefteriu puts it, “revolution was in the air” in 1986, the band only had one night of respite where they able to play freely in which they performed songs from Queen’s A Night At The Opera album at a theatre in 1980. That said, Elefteriu mostly lived a double life during this era. He was at the heart of the booming underground music movement, subversively sticking two fingers up to the government.
Asked how he managed to listen to his favourite bands such as Genesis, AC/DC and Led Zeppelin Elefteriu revealed the following “I was very young, and I had a tape recorder and I had the possibility from my friends to record all the Western music, all the rock. There was an underground possibility to have everything you can imagine. But it was difficult. There was an American radio station called Radio Free Europe, in Berlin. They were specially put there for the communist countries.” One of the shows was hosted by a Romanian DJ exiled in Germany who was trying to influence his compatriots back at home. He remembers the state scanning cars to see if they were tuned in to this channel, but reveals that he was fortunately never caught.
Perhaps the most rock ‘n roll move of all was Elefteriu’s decision to build his own synth. “I had a friend when I was in the Academy of Music, and he was a very good piano player who had a rock group in the academy. After that he went to play outside of Romania and he went to play in the restaurants. He played, I don't know, a few years and after he came back with an Korg MS-10synthesizer, for that time it was something very special, but also not very complicated one, it was a monophonic synthesiser and with a friend from here, a very good electronic engineer we recreated this synthesiser. We took out the block diagram and we made some adjustments and we did it. It was it took us around one year. It was very difficult. To find parts, spare parts for this, but with our sincere desire and ambition, we succeeded.”
As synthesisers were impossible to buy, Elefteriu was driven by the challenge. He felt desperate for the sound and reveals the emotion him and his friends felt when they first heard it working. That said, the Romanian acknowledged that it wasn’t the best quality. Laughing at the nostalgia of playing in bursts of 20 minute periods before having to tune it by ear using a screwdriver mid-concert due to the poor quality of the resistors. “We succeeded to do this for a season at the seaside and we escaped with our lives” he joked.
These challenges and difficulties, Elefteriu believes hardened musicians of his generation. “It's way easier these days. So you can have everything you want [in terms of music software], even the simple and cheaper things are good for you to do some music, I don't know if it is good or bad, but it's very easy to do this. I think people these days are lazy or lazier than we were in our 20s because we had to fight for very, very little things and this fight made us, I think, stronger than the young people are today.” He went on to say, “Having everything at your nose it's not so challenging. If it's not so challenging, your brain starts to be not so inquisitive. All the time we were looking to resolve the situation, the situation with the music, the situation with the parts for synthesisers, everything to do with finding a place to sing.”
The composer has brought this mentality into his work today. He compares even the most up-to-date music software with ‘air’ as he has an almost instinctive knowledge of what to do with this technology. In the production of his latest album Quantum Gates, he describes a long process after he begun in 2016, of battling with perfectionism to make sure that it was at a high enough standard. Inspired by the likes of Vangelis, Jean Michel-Jarre and Enzo Morricone he places a great emphasis on not remaining monotonous. Discussing artists with a more repetitive sound he said: “For me as a professional musician, it’s like somebody take a hammer and put it to my head…. I want to see something evolving in this. If in eight bars you don’t give anything new to the ear, it becomes boring. You have to develop something. You have to catch my attention and to go somewhere with my attention. It is not so easy to do this.”
The interesting and varied soundscapes perhaps peak at Lonely Island which one could even imagine being played on the rave scene. This is in stark contrast to some of his more ambient numbers. The first three tracks feel more like they are set on earth, however, Play Of Shadows already feels sufficiently space-age as Elefteriu bridges the gap between the terrestrial and the wacky alien feel. Almost at stages reminiscent of Andrew Lloyd-Webbers symphonic approach that can be heard in musicals such as Phantom of the Opera, the Romanian’s music similarly fulfils his intention of being evocative for its listeners. “I cannot make a separation between some images and music all the time for you. I think the people who listen to this, they will see something in their mind. They will see images. It's a movie that is not made, everybody will make the movie in their own head.”
He hopes that the album will be picked up and used on a film which in some respects was his first love and was responsible for the period of booming privatisation in the 90s that he profited from. “The VHS revolution ended with the real revolution, this is the story,” said Elefteriu. Though a black market of VHS tapes heavily influenced the minds of the public, according to the composer, his fascination with TV and film started slightly earlier, imparting this love affair onto his son, Gabriel, with whom he collaborates on two projects at film school many years ago. Elefteriu’s desire to make performances come to live is guiding his next project of which he revealed that although he has an idea “I like to leave the inspiration to come based on what I am doing, I don't force things”. We can look forward to seeing where Quantum Gates ends up and whether his dreams of writing for a musical come to fruition.
Below: Elefteriu in the 1980s in his almost-completely self-built studio