Symbolism in Sofia Gubaidulina’s Spiritual Music

Today’s program of FOCUS festival Alfred Schnittke’s World features a piece by Sofia Gubaidulina (b. 1931, Russia), In Croce (1979). Gubaidulina’s music is  symbolic and imaginative, employing unusual instrumental combinations and extended techniques. The symbolism behind the sounds often carries spiritual connotation; in 1998 the composer stated that all her works were religious, which in her understanding is not related to the church. This is one of the reasons why some of her music was unwelcome in the USSR and some works were not performed until its fall.

Gubaidulina is one of the most spiritually inspired composers of our time. The belief in the religious purpose of art has deep roots back to her childhood and was strengthened during her youth when she encountered the writings of Russian philosopher Nicholas Berdyaev and met one of the most brilliant pianists in the USSR Maria Yudina, who maintained her strong religious commitment despite political repressions. Gubaidulina’s first engagement with music-making in 1937 coincided with a spiritual experience of significant impact: at the age of six, when she began to play the piano, she came across an Orthodox Christian icon. As Michael Kurtz quotes her in his monograph: “Music naturally blended with religion, and sound, straight away, became sacred for me.”

The connection between Christian commitment and artistic creativity was further strengthened during Gubaidulina’s philosophical quest when she learned about Berdyaev’s idea of linking the inner and spiritual realm to the perception of time: “Creativity… is the flight into the infinite… [an activity] which transcends the finite towards the infinite. The creative act signifies an ek-stasis, a breaking-through to eternity.” The sacredness of art is a completely natural phenomenon for Gubaidulina, and her aesthetic statement is not that of a style, but of art’s relationship with religion through the re-linking of everyday life with vertical inner nature of human perception:

What is religion at all? For me this concept is literal, re-ligio – a ligature that connects horizontal line of our life and vertical line of our divine presence. Anyone who creates, for example a poem, enters this vertical realm. Such a person is capable of perceiving, at least a little bit, what exists in this dimension. (Interview with Aleksey Munipov, 2012)

Gubaidulina believes that daily routine may lead a person to lose the connection with the inner world, and therefore people need creative activity as an inspiration to get outside of everyday life: “Life interrupts this connection: it leads me away, into different troubles, and God leaves me at these times… This is unbearable pain; by creating, through our art, we strive to restore [the link between us and God] (interview to Vera Lukomsky, 1998). In the same vein, art transforms the horizontal time of everyday life into a vertical time of inner, spiritual existence: “A person may not be conscious of it, and creativity can be … of any sort, but the shape of the outcome turns out as a staircase, vertical.” (Interview with Munipov)

In Croce was originally composed for cello and organ, later arranged for cello and bayan, but tonight will be performed in its original version. The piece belongs to the period when Gubaidulina began to consciously construct her compositions on the basis of philosophical or spiritual symbols that shaped the form and the sound of the piece frequently requiring unconventional performance or extended instrumental techniques. In her biography by Michael Kurtz she explains the symbolism behind her choice of instrumentation and the form in In Croce:

In that particular combination I imagined the organ as a mighty spirit that sometimes descends to earth to vent its wrath. The cello, on the other hand, with its sensitively responsive strings, is a completely human spirit. The contrast between these two opposite natures is resolved spontaneously in the symbol of the cross. I accomplished this by criss-crossing the registers (the organ takes the line downward, the cello upward); secondly, by juxtaposing the bright major sonorities of natural harmonics, played glissando, and expressive chromatic inflections.

Erlena Dlu

 ©2014 Extended Techniques. All Rights Reserved.

Alfred Schnittke’s World

This year Russian-German-Jewish composer Alfred Schnittke would have turned 80. To celebrate his birthday, Julliard’s 30th annual mid-winter festival FOCUS! 2014 presents six concerts of works by Schnittke and his circle of composers, Sofia Gubaidulina, Giya Kancheli, Arvo Pärt, and Valentin Silvestrov.


Alfred Schnittke’s World begins today and will continue until January 31. Extended techniques will give a glimpse at his world and how it is related to his compositional techniques.

In his essay About Concerto Grosso No. 1 (1977), Schnittke disclosed the major goal of his creative path: “the aim of my life is to overcome the gap between “E” and “U” (Ernst – serious music and Unterhaltung – entertainment music), even if I have to break my neck. Schnittke wanted to find a “unified style where the fragments of “E” and “U” represent elements of diverse music space, instead of being merely facetious supplements.

The goal in itself was not unique, since many other composers in the 20th century combined several styles in their works; it was, however, less common to state the goal so explicitly. One of the reasons why Schnittke wanted to bridge the gap between serious and entertaining music, was his obligation (over the 20 years of his career) to compose what he called “applied music” and “pure music” simultaneously, since, living in the Soviet Union, he had to “divide his time between writing utilitarian film scores for livelihood and unperformable masterworks “for the drawer” (Richard Taruskin, Defining Russia Musically). In fact, the grounds for creation of a unified style go beyond the composer’s lifestyle, and it is worth looking at the origin of the means (his style and devices) and their pertinence for reaching the goal.

Timelessness (Polystilistics – all times at once)

One of the most enigmatic and intriguing views which Schnittke shared with the world, was his perception of time. He sensed that all the time periods may coexist simultaneously at any point of time, and that it was natural to travel between times:

… there is no absolute point in time. Any point in time is merely a logical abstraction.  In fact, it is, roughly speaking, a chord of points (moments) that embodies hours and days rather than a second… The way to capture this at once exists beyond the physical world. One can imagine a second that embraces everything – past and future. The whole world rolls up into one point. And then these countless times and places depart, diverge, and unroll. (Aleskandr Ivashkin, Conversations with Alfred Schnittke)

At first this idea may seem somewhat arcane; however, Schnittke found the way to simultaneously embrace many time periods beyond the physical world – in music, which for him was a “one-time chord.” Schnittke describes his vision of the universe beyond the “real (physical) world” in the following way:  in the “real world” time is a line consisting of points, i.e. it is only one-dimensional; in the “true world” time is a multi-dimensional space (of spanning lines); while in the “real world” only selected points from this space that form a line exist.

… I sense the existence of infinite forest of times, where every timeline is unique and each tree grows in its own way. Everything that emerged in the past, emerged on different trees, but was (and is) related to the trees that grow at present. Today, in reality, we forgot about them. … but they continue to live, these trees. This is why I don’t treat (things from the) past as museum exhibits. I sense that I go back to this ideal forest… and deem it possible to go back to anything from the past. (Ivashkin, Conversations with Alfred Schnittke)

It may take several readings of this passage to imagine this forest, and one can only hope that the vision reflects the image that Schnittke had in mind. It may, however, take just one listening to Concerto Grosso No. 2 (or Symphony No. 3) to discern the concept. In order to create the feeling of “all times at once” Schnittke used polysitlistics – a combination of several contrasting stylistic features in one composition, that involves musical borrowing (often from the past) of different degrees. Although Schnittke was definitely not the first to use the polystilistic method in his composition, his name is the most closely associated with the use of the term since he was one of the first to define it as such.

Polystilystic approach is also employed in Schnittke’s Symphony No 4 (1983) that will be performed tonight.

The Fourth Symphony also represents Schnittke’s lifelong search for a spiritual belief and his attitude towards political system.  The work draws musically on three main strands of Christianity – Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant, while underneath there is a three-note semitone interval motif symbolizing synagogue chant. In the Symphony tenor and countertenor soloists are employed at three key structural moments and a choral setting of the Ave Maria towards the end synthesizes all previous motives in a single diatonic mode. The text of the Ave Maria originally had to be suppressed because its religious nature would have disallowed its performance in the Soviet Union.  The composer believed that in order to preserve authenticity an artist should not react against the system, but rather act as though the system does not exist.

More about Schnittke’s colleagues during the upcoming week.

©2014 by Extended Techniques. All Rights Reserved.

The Art of Experiment: Magda Mayas, Tony Buck, and Nate Wooley

Experimental music demands a performer-composer to be both an artist and a scientist. An artist, who can reach musical integrity and full completeness on the spot “from scratch,” just being there, and a scientist who is in perfect terms with acoustics.  Both roles were accomplished perfectly during two performances of Magda Mayas and Tony Buck (Roulette, September 29th), joined by Nate Wooley (Ibeam, October 14th).

The gig in Roulette resembled an act of sorcery or shamanism. While Magda transformed the piano into a string and percussion instrument, the percussion itself became a cauldron, where Tony was cooking some mystic potion – with small boxes to sprinkle the spices, and a censer to spread the incense. When sounds become magic – are they still sounds? When we hear them as if emerging from the depth of the cave resembling sirens or stones thrown into our ears – are they music? When any sound of environment can be prepared on a musical instrument, should we go back listening to nature? But nature alone could not, as easily as this music did that night, take a listener onto a spiritual trip, with a singing bowl at the end leading to a final meditation that calmed elevated heartbeat.

In experimental music the minimal advance preparation of tunes or sounds plays a role of composition – material that initiates an act with unpredictable outcome. During the trio’s performance in Ibeam the timbral palette became even richer.  Percussion and string sounds coming out of a piano do not require obvious experimentation, but what about imitation of electronic noise? And what about same electronic noise, coupled with refrigerator drones and factory whistles produced by Nate’s muted trumpet blowing into a metal sheet?  The images of acoustic laboratory appeared in my mind, suggesting that a composer role had been taken by the role of a scientist.

A few words on the duo/trio’s audience. Slightly over twenty people in Roulette, which made the place look embarrassingly empty. Twelve listeners in Ibeam (just the right amount for such an intimate place), myself being the only woman. What I described as spiritual trip above, often felt like an almost physical one. It’s hard to say what exactly makes the magic work here – proximity of the performers, or exceptionally rich palette of timbre – but I felt that the sound was physically touching my skin, underneath it, crawling along my spine… Such experience is not rare, but it only occurs with involvement of improvised music, when several players are fully engaged and speak each other’s language, especially when exploring new sounds. Sometimes I wonder why the audience at such concerts is predominantly male. Why women deprive themselves of the pleasure to be touched and caressed in such an exquisite and pure way – by sounds – in the midst of the magic and art of experiment?

Getting rid of glue by means of stone walls – Okkyung Lee and Michelle Boulé at Issue Project Room

We enter the glass door of ISSUE future home – and there she meets us, sliding the endpin of her cello over the stone floor. That the quirky squeak and grinding notes born in the cello’s body are unusual is no news, but the way Okkyung literally gropes the air with sound creates the special connection within the space, placing the audience at the heart of mystic resonance. And we, startled, follow – become resonance ourselves – as all the listeners are a part of the sound, the echo of our footsteps is an element of the performance. Michelle with her conspiratorial wink inflates the air further, creates wind by running up and down the stairs, turning the revolving glass door, dancing the sound and playing it with her eyes.

As we (listeners and performers) enter the theatre space, the sonorous pallet becomes more abundant – acoustical landscape here is enriched with balustrades, Corinthian columns, and vaulted ceilings. More listeners – randomly scattered on the chairs around the place, laying on the floor, following the performers – each one’s experience is genuinely unique. It is the cello we came to indulge our ears with – its rich overtones, wide pitch range and sonorous variety in the body and strings. But not only the ears rejoice – our whole bodies transform into instruments, feeling how sound is born between the ribs.

With her sonorous explorations Okkyung Lee appears to be the truest follower of John Cage – “getting rid of the glue” and letting the sounds be themselves. This is the present history of experimental music.

September 25, 2011

Peter Brötzmann – the Artist of Focusing

Seen from a particular point of view,
music is simply the art of focusing attention on one thing at a time.
John Cage

Free improvisation is perhaps the most difficult to describe or evaluate, if one attempts to talk about music at all.  It is the easiest to be criticized for in essence is not meant to follow any standards. However, it is only music’s own duty to criticize itself, not the words’. Once you let it happen in its entirety.

Improvised music is the most difficult to praise objectively, for in order to enjoy it one must be able to enter the ineffable experience when time disappears or – becomes vertical. Enter is the right word. You enter the experience of music, or – you let the music enter yourself. Every word in this sentence can be questioned – experience, you, self, and even music, but enter is faithful.

Entering – you dissolve, or – the music dissolves in yourself once it enters you. But this only works when improvisation is genuine – when an artist attempts to listen to the eternity of music that exists out there – on the other side of the universe of sounds, and has the capacity to transcribe it for our human ears. Honestly delivering “out there” through the sound “over here.”

On Wednesday, June 8th, 2011 at 10 pm Peter Brötzmann (sax, clarinet), Ken Vandermark (sax), Mars Williams (sax), Kent Kessler (double bass) and Paal Nilssen-Love (drums) performed at Abrons Arts Center. It was the fourth set of the fourth day of the 16th Vision Festival, and the third performance of the day for Brötzmann, right after he was awarded “A lifetime of achievement” prize. The musicians have enjoyed playing together before, and the air was already electrified with the previous sets: such readiness to resonate topped with technical virtuosity allowed it to happen.

As genuinely honest improvisation, Brötzmann’s music allows the listener to achieve an almost palpable physical pleasure building up into complete cosmic love.  The closest possible image perhaps is a boundless immensity entering at perineum, sweeping away everything (in a pleasant way), walking up the spine from the inside as a glowing stream of light that hits the crown and finally knocks it up – into the sky, stars and the universe.

How does it work?

Music is magical, but it’s not magic. The musical experience just described is very similar to a deep state of meditation when an experiencer manages to achieve complete presence and keep attention at the image for a very long time. Extremely difficult in an abstract setting, it often comes easier with an appropriate music. Complete presence of the listener arises from the complete freedom of the sound that nevertheless has a center and a form – the attributes very characteristic of Brötzmann’s improvisation. This evening musicians started with sonorous cacophony resembling chaotic running about of ants that grew in intensity and chaosity, but never to an unbearable state, being intertwined with contemplative calming streams. This capacity for focused musical conception and the ability to carry it through with any group of good musicians from duo to tentet is what allows Brötzmann to hold the listeners’ attention, leading them to a height of musical pleasure. Losing the sense of time completely, the listener can wander in the complete unknown, while still being relaxed with no fear of getting lost, knowing that in the end she or he will arrive to the right place.

And the doors will open for them to enter.