Thursday, December 10, 2009

Sofia Gubaidulina

She's Russian, her name is pronounced "Goo-by-dull-EEN-a," and she is one of my all time favorite composers. I first heard her music in Russia, when I purchased a CD which contained one of her string quartets. (The same excellent CD also exposed me to two of my other favorite composers, Georgy Kurtag of Hungary and Witold Lutoslawski of Poland) Gubaidulina's music is different than any of my favorite composers, in that I have to brace myself whenever I listen to her music, as you might for medicine. And in this case, that's good thing. Read on!

Born and raised during the worst and darkest periods of Soviet Russia, (Stalin for one and WWII for the other, or "The Great Patriotic War" as they call it.) Gubaidulina set forth as a composer with a defined goal in mind, "I am a religious person...and by 'religion' I mean re-ligio, the re-tying of a bond...restoring the legato of life. Life divides man into many pieces..There is no weightier occupation than the recomposition of spiritual integrity through the composition of music." Her individualism met immediate conflict in the Soviet establishment, it was only through the personal involvement of Shostakovitch that she was even able to graduate from the Moscow conservatory. She found an outlet for her experimental and expressive music in the movies, which I think is an interesting point: a listener is willing to take almost no end of noise if the screen keeps them distracted...

On the face of it, you would think you might really like Gubaidulina's music. A religious composer (like me!) who believes that music should serve a higher purpose, who isn't afraid to go against the establishment to achieve that end. The truth is, listen to almost any of her compositions, and you will find music that is extremely hard to get into - and I have listened to a lot of modern music. What is it then, that causes me to like her as a composer so much that my wife even jokes about being jealous? (No fact there, born in the good ol' year '31 is a bit old for my taste!)

Reason one. The music of Sofia Gubaidulina is like a nut. Once you can crack it, you get a meaty, satisfying treat. What does it take to crack her music? Understanding. The pieces that I like best are the ones that I have been able to track down some kind of statement or information about the piece. (reading her biography and owning recordings with liner notes is a huge help) This is no small task, considering that most of what is written about or by Gubaildulina is in Russian or even German. But what I have come to understand and love about the music of Gubaidulina is that it is a music of contrasts, symbols, and deeper meaning. Contrasts could be dark and light, the physical and the spiritual, the real and the imagined. Often her works take a religious concept and interpret it musically. Understanding and listening for these interpretive elements in her music makes listening to the often thorny music not only palatable but rewarding.

Reason two. Gubaidulina's compositional philosophy is so close to the one I would like to practice that I can't help but want to hear how she embodies this concept in her music. For example, "true art, for me, is essentially religious. Art originates in man's spiritual essence, and it can return mankind to that origin." "Form has an influence on material, not vice versa...What happens in my conception of the end effects the beginning - a sort of simultaneous inner hearing of the compositional whole..." "A composition should, without a doubt, have a logical structure, a dramaturgically-considered build-up, and at the same time should disturb and stir up ruthlessly the listener's feelings."

On the last point I can't say that I agree with that the music should 'ruthlessly' stir the listener, I have found that more often that sort of approach will drive away all but the most dedicated listener. Gubaidulina is a good example of this - if I weren't persistent in trying to unlock her music, it would be a closed book. I do agree, however, that music should ask something of the listener, and I hope that my music can disturb and stir up the waters.

Don't read this and go out to purchase some Gubaidulina. Sample some, maybe, to get an idea of what I am talking about. But unless you are prepared to research, listen, and have both your ears and idea of what good music should be challenged, then I would say, just trust me. Its some tough stuff.

One final example of how I like Gubaidulina's music. In 2000 she wrote a 'St. John Passion' in the spirit of Bach. (So did another of my favorite composers, Osvaldo Golijov, whose music is much more easily accessible) Using text from the Bible in Russian, Gubaidulina brilliantly juxtaposes texts from the Gospel of John, describing Jesus' sufferings and death, with texts from the Revelation of St. John, with scenes of Christ's final triumph over Satan. Since Russian has, in my mind, become associated with sacred things (since serving my mission in St. Petersburg) it was an amazing experience to listen to this work and understand the text, much of which is sung in quasi-Orthodox style singing. With a familiar text, the musical symbols Gubaidulina used and repeated became increasingly clear and powerful. Musical moments like that in Gubaidulina's music make me wonder if she isn't sometimes reaching her goal exactly, 'returning man (or at least the dedicated listener) to his spiritual essence.'

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