How a saxophonist tricked the KGB into encrypting music secrets

“When we arrived, we were immediately dismissed and they searched everything in our luggage, even unpacking the Tampax. It was crazy, ”explains Goldberg, who today presents the experience and its musical code at the RSA security conference in San Francisco “With my music, they opened it up and it had real tunes in there. If you’re not a musician, you wouldn’t know what it is. They have it all went through page by page and then they returned it.

Goldberg says that although the code worked and Soviet officials did not confiscate their music, they questioned the four travelers about what they planned to do in the USSR. “We were brought into a room with a big, burly guy who banged on the table and yelled at us,” recalls Goldberg, now a professor of music education at California State University, San Marcos.

Musical note names cover the letters A through G, so they alone do not provide a full alphabet of options. To create the code, Goldberg assigned letters of the alphabet to notes in the chromatic scale, a 12-tone scale that includes semitones (sharps and flats) to expand the possibilities. In some instances, Goldberg only wrote in a single musical scale, known as the treble clef. In others, she expanded the register to be able to encode more letters and added a bass clef to extend the range of the musical scale. These details and variations also added verisimilitude to his encoded music.

For numbers, Goldberg simply wrote them between the staves, where sometimes you could see chord symbols. She also added other compositional features, like rhythms (half-note, quarter-note, eighth-note, whole-note), key signatures, tempo marks, and articulation indicators like slurs and slurs. Most of them were there to make the music sound more legitimate, but some also served as coded supplements to the letters hidden in the musical notes. She sometimes even drew tiny diagrams that could be mistaken for charts to remind herself of where a meeting place was or how to deliver something.

While someone could technically have played the code as music, it would have sounded less like a melody and more like a cat walking on the keys of a piano.

“I picked a note to start with, then I made the alphabet from there. Once you know that, it ends up being pretty easy to write things down. I also learned code at my friends on the trip,” says Goldberg. “We were using it to record people’s addresses and other information that we would need to find them. And we coded things while we were there so we could get information about people and their efforts to emigrate, as well as details that we hoped could help other people apply to leave.

The American musicians got their bearings in Moscow before heading to Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia. There and on their next stop in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, they successfully met members of the Phantom Orchestra, many of whom spoke some English, and spent time getting to know each other, playing music together and even to organize small impromptu concerts. .

About Raymond Lang

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