How a saxophonist fooled the KGB by encrypting secrets in music

“When we arrived, we were immediately pulled over and they went through everything in our luggage, to the point of unpacking Tampax. It was crazy,” said Goldberg, presenting the experience and her musical code at the RSA security conference in San Francisco today. “With my music, they opened it up and it had real tunes in it. If you’re not a musician, you wouldn’t know what’s what. They went through everything page by page – and then they gave it back.”

Goldberg says that while the code worked and Soviet officials didn’t confiscate their music, they questioned all four travelers about what they planned to do in the USSR. “We were taken to a room with a big burly dude 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 include the letters A through G, so they don’t provide a full alphabet of options on their own. To create the code, Goldberg assigned letters of the alphabet to notes in the chromatic scale, a 12-tone scale that contains semitones (sharp and flat) to expand the possibilities. In some examples, Goldberg wrote in only one musical range, known as the treble clef. In others, she expanded the register to encode more letters and added a bass clef to increase the range of the scale. These details and variations also added truth to her coded music.

For numbers, Goldberg would just write them between the staves, where you sometimes see chord symbols. She also added other features of composition such as rhythms (half notes, quarter notes, eighth notes, whole notes), keys, tempo markers, and articulation indicators such as lasts and bands. Most of these were there to make the music look more legit, but some also served as coded additions to the letters hidden in the musical notes. She even occasionally drew little diagrams that could be mistaken for charts to remind herself where a meeting place was or how something should be delivered.

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

“I chose a note to start with, and from there I made the alphabet. Once you know it, it becomes quite easy to write things. I also taught my friends the code along the way,” Goldberg says. used it to record people’s addresses and other information we needed to find them and we coded things while we were there so we could get some information about people and their efforts to emigrate as well as details of what we hoped they could help other people leave.”

The American musicians orientated themselves in Moscow before leaving for Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia. There and at 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 playing small , to give improvised concerts. †

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