During the Holland Festival of 1989 Reinbert de Leeuw was so captured by the music of Galina Oestvolskaja and Sofia that from then on he developed into of their most tireless advocates. That the Soviet Union would collapse not long after this ‘Russian’ Holland Festival was unforeseeable, but paved the way for a fruitful exchange between East and West. Under the title ‘Revolution, Russians, Reinbert’, De Leeuw will place their music alongside works from today’s Russia on Thursday 19 October.
Sofia Goebaidulina: shamanistic sound world
In Sofia Gubaidulina’s music, every note comes from her deep-rooted belief in man’s connection with the universe. This is immediately evident from the title Concordanza for five winds, four strings and percussion: it means ‘agreement’ or ‘harmony’. She composed this piece in 1971 and it was premiered that same year at the Prague Spring Festival.
Like a musical shaman, the Russian-Tatar composer weaves conjuring, magical structures out of fragile, often unprecedented sounds. With the help of subtle performance instructions, she is able to make instruments sound different from what we are used to. She herself says that she ‘weans her music from silence’; this varies from almost inaudible, fragile rustlings to fortissimo outbursts.
This is particularly true of Concordanza, which will be performed on Thursday by Asko|Schönberg. It opens with a delicate tone of the flute, which is taken over and played by the other instruments. They seem to merge completely, but soon the apparent harmony is disturbed by the wild antics of the woodwinds and pounding percussion. Just as suddenly the ethereal peace returns, with whisper-smooth unison of the strings, tinkling cymbals and lyrical solos of horn and bassoon.
Galina Ustvolskaya: pounding out ‘Divine grace’
Galina Ustvolskaya only composed if she was in a ‘state of divine grace’. Unlike Gubaidulina, however, she was not into subtle sound explorations, but preferred unadorned, straightforward sounds, often in a simple rhythm.
In her 1950 Octet for two oboes, four violins, timpani and piano, she takes us through a desolate, barren and boned moonscape. The piano places picket posts with sparse chords; the oboes stretch barbed wire between them with crisp sounds and abrasive dissonances; the strings blow an icy polar wind through the unapproachable plain in elongated lines.
The slow tempo, progressing mainly in quarter-notes, makes way several times for more lively, swirling lines, which create an agitated atmosphere. The whole is permeated with loud timpani strokes. They evoke the passionate, desperate heartbeat of a man who calls to God from the bottom of the abyss. This monomaniacal hammering was at odds with Soviet aesthetics; the Octet only premiered twenty years after its completion and caused quite a stir.
Dmitri Kourliandski: socially critical
The music of Dmitri Kourliandski doesn’t seek to please, either. In 2003 he won the Gaudeamus Award with Innermost Man for soprano and four instrument groups. ‘A new and unorthodox sound in contemporary music’, the jury wrote. Last summer his politically charged opera Trepanation premiered at the Holland Festival, about which I was not very enthusiastic.
Innermost Man for soprano and ensemble is also socially critical, but slightly more successful. Kourliandski chose lines from the satirical novels Chevengur and The Foundation Pit by Andrei Platonov written in 1929/30. The New Economic Policy introduced by Lenin is taken to task; in the grotesque Utopia only the murderous secret police seem to be efficiently organised.
The soprano spits out texts such as: ‘Man is not a spirit, but a body full of passionate tendons, blood-filled craters, hills, openings, pleasures and forgetfulness’. The instrumentalists ‘speak’ with her in fierce, percussive eruptions, the pitch of which is not even noted.
They regularly interrupt her with a deafening cacophony of the most improbable sounds. They beat their mouthpieces, rattle with valves, play screaming multiphonics full of microtrones, produce ominous roars and scratch the strings with their nails. Yet in the end the soprano seems to ‘win’ the argument.
Valery Voronov: windy quotes from lonely prisoners
A fine contrast to the hectic nature of Kourliandski’s piece is Aus dem stillen Raume (From the silent Room), which Valery Voronov composed in 2010. His piece is inspired by texts that Gestapo prisoners scratched onto the walls of their cells during the Second World War. Songs are often quoted, such as Lili Marleen; the title is taken from the opening line of the last verse.
The piece opens with this well-known melody, produced by a music box. The theme, however, is so disjointed that you hardly recognize it: the mechanical instrument stands on a timpani with the pedal depressed, which lengthens and distorts the tones. These are covered with hesitant sounds of violin and flute, while the pianist plays his strings with a tablespoon and produces barely audible glissandi.
Bouncing on the strings, the bows bows create mysterious rustlings and noises; short glissandi resemble restrained cries of anguish. In combination with woolly, plucked notes of a double bass and low thumping multiphonics of the woodwinds, a dark, angst-ridden atmosphere is created. Voronov explains that he takes us to ‘a kind of quiet room, from where you have to actively hear the melody yourself, as a listener’.
Alexander Khubeev: punishment for thoughts
Born in 1986, Khubeev is not only the youngest, but also the most radical composer of the younger generation. Kourliandski and Voronov highlight the abuses of the past; in The Codex of Thoughtcrimes for choir and ensemble Khubeev links up with current events. The title refers to people who are condemned for their thoughts. The lyrics come from historical figures such as Thomas More, Rosa Luxemburg and Alexander Solzhenitsyn, but Khubeev also quotes Edward Snowden. He moreover draws on recent posts on Russian social media, which led to convictions and imprisonment.
Khubeev won the Gaudeamus Award two years ago. With the prize money he composed The Codex of Thoughtcrimes for Asko|Schönberg and Cappella Amsterdam. The premiere during the last Gaudeamus Music Week evoked mixed reactions. No wonder, because anyone who looks forward to beautiful vocal lines or inflammatory lyrics will be disappointed. These are unintelligible because the singers hold cardboard tubes in front of their mouths that distort their voices.
The other instruments produce non tradtionals sounds as well: the wind instruments have bear whistles for mouthpieces; the stringed instruments have plastic rulers inserted between the strings; the piano strings are taped. We only hear unearthly sighing, grinding, squeaking and growling, which sometimes sounds creepily apocalyptic, as if we have been placed in the blacksmith’s of hell. After an enormous climax, both ensemble and singers gradually come to rest, panting and puffing ever more weakly and short-winded.
One question remains unanswered: have the ‘criminal’ thoughts been definitively buried, or are they again diving under the radar?