A Composer Who Does Not Write Works, but Cultivates Them: Sofia Gubaidulina
The concerto for percussion instruments and orchestra “Glorious Percussion” by Sofia Gubaidulina will receive its world premiere performance on 18 September in Göteborg. “The most important aim of a work of art,” the composer once said, “is, in my opinion, the transformation of time. Mankind has this other time – the time of the soul dwelling in the spiritual realm – within himself. But it can be suppressed through our everyday experience of time.” A typical feature of Gubaidulina’s production is the almost complete lack of absolute music. In her works there is almost always something that goes beyond the purely musical. It can be a poetic text underlying the music or hidden between the lines, a ritual or some instrumental “action.” Some of her scores bear witness to her occupation with mystical thought and Christian symbolism. Her literary interests are very broad. She has set ancient Egyptian and Persian poets but also poets of the 20th century (e.g. verses of Marina Tsvetayeva, to whom she feels a profound spiritual kinship).
One has to be very careful, however, with the interpretation of the titles of Gubaidulina’s works. Picturesque titles such as “The Dancer on a Tightrope,” “Sounds of the Forest” and “On the Edge of the Abyss” rarely relate directly to extramusical subjects. At best, they often serve to indicate a comprehensive idea or message concealed in the musical layout. A motivation with this kind of orientation certainly does not facilitate the understanding of Gubaidulina’s works. On the other hand, no limits are set by these thoughts essentially originating in the musical material. Indeed, the music makes its own effect and rests at its own centre.
The term “abyss,” for example – as Gubaidulina says about her work composed in 2002 entitled “On the Edge of the Abyss” – stands here for the zone between the fingerboard and the bridge of a string instrument. As far as the sound is concerned, this is the highest register of the instrument. The composer approaches this register with the most varied means, as if the idea were to encircle this sensitive region, tentatively testing the situation in order to finally make it graspable and more concrete. “The striving towards this area of sound also determines the musical development in this work,” says Gubaidulina. “First we approach the highest register through pizzicato double harmonics. These are transformed into ‘arco’ tremolo double harmonics. The highest register ‘arco espressivo’ is finally reached.”
Gubaidulina uses and abstracts experiences of this kind in the widest variety of ways. In her thoroughly composed works, sounds and sound distortions are also frequently used on traditional instruments which have a direct relationship to the music of foreign cultures.
The following quotation is indicative of her thinking: “As an ideal, I regard a kind of relationship to tradition and to new compositional means in which the artist masters all the means – both the new ones and the traditional ones – but in such a way as if he were not paying attention to either. There are composers who construct their works very consciously, but I am one of those who instead ‘cultivate’ their works. And this is why the entire world as I perceive it forms more or less the roots of a tree, and the work which grows out of it represents the branches and leaves. One can call them new, but they are nonetheless leaves, and from this point of view they are always traditional, old. Dmitri Shostakovich and Anton Webern had the greatest influence on my work. Although this influence has not left any apparent traces, it is nonetheless a fact that these two composers taught me the most important thing: to be myself.”
Occupation with percussion instruments has a long tradition with Gubaidulina, both in her function as a practicing composer and in relation to her improvisations.
Her work “Hour of the Soul” for percussion, mezzo-soprano and large orchestra was composed during the years 1974 to 1976, but extensively revised and re-orchestrated in 1988. This work, dedicated to the percussionist Mark Pekarsky, placed the percussion at the centre of the musical events through all the transformations taking place. In the extensive arsenal of percussion instruments at the soloist’s disposal, the timpani have precedence at first; later, at the end of the work, the exotic sound of the chang, an Uzbek mallet instrument related to the Hungarian cimbalom, appears by the side of the voice. In the complexly structured one-movement composition, there is a striking section in the middle in which music from Soviet cinema films and a Chaplin melody are quoted; drinking songs and street songs flash up, along with signal fanfares from the Soviet newsreels of the 1930s and 40s. This section curiously appears like an intrusion of everyday life into the individual’s inner world, in the sense of a hectic, busy superficiality. At the end of the work, after a section of resolution more or less collapsing into itself, the voice rises up with verses of Marina Tsvetayeva above a pedal point.
The second large percussion work by Gubaidulina is written for the unusual combination of organ and percussion. “Detto I” was composed in 1978. The designation Sonata for Organ and Percussion is to be understood as a direct indication of the inner structure of the work. The one-movement composition consists of three extensively constructed sections, in each of which static lines are gradually layered over each other. Each individual section, on the other hand, is tripartite, allowing one to recognise the outlines of a sonata form in which the idea of additive horizontal lines forms the first subject, whilst vertical chord formations represent the second subject. The final section brings about the “solution” of these opposites with the help of sonorous glissando clusters on the organ and tremolo bell clusters. There are, therefore, contrasting movement types (linear-chordal-glissando) in place of a thematic contrast as can be found in the traditional sonata form.
Other percussion works by Gubaidulina include the “Five Studies” for harp, double bass and percussion of 1965, the Sonata for Two Percussionists (in three movements, written in 1966 and also dedicated to Mark Pekarsky) as well as “Misterioso” for seven percussionists (1977), “Rumore e silenzio” (1974) “Jubilatio” for four percussionists (1979), “Descensio” for three trombones, three percussionists, harp, harpsichord/celesta and celesta/piano, “In the Beginning There Was Rhythm” for seven percussionists, “Even and Odd” for seven percussionists including harpsichord (1991) and “In Anticipation” for saxophone quartet and six percussionists.
In her theoretical writings, Sofia Gubaidulina has repeatedly pointed to rhythm as the pillar of her musical thinking. At the beginning of the 1990s she wrote to the musicologist Olga Bugrova, “When I thought about which of the three basic aspects of musical texture could form the roots in a sonorous space, I understood that it was rhythm. Harmony and sound material form the trunk and the melodic line is found in the leaves. Under the conditions of the sonorous quality, the melody can no longer serve the development of the material, as before. Instead, it must appear as the transformation of the material itself.”
The composer herself has supplied the following comments on her new work, “Glorious Percussion:”
1. The solo percussion ensemble consists of five players, some of whose instruments are placed to the right and the left of the orchestra (e.g. numerous gongs) and others of which are placed to the right and left of the conductor (marimba and vibraphone). Five bass drums are at the very front; these are only used at the very end during a large final intensification. The solo percussionists step in front of the orchestra to improvise at seven places during the work.
2. The orchestra is of normal size, whereby the composer uses many brass instruments and few woodwinds. The number of strings should be at least 12/8/8/8/8. In addition, there are two percussionists in the orchestra who make use of timpani, bass drum and tam-tam within the orchestra.
Two special characteristics distinguish this work from my previous works: A. The central theme here is the agreement of the sounding intervals with their difference tones. The structure of the form then results from this as well: the sound movement thrice comes to a standstill. Before this static background, only the respective pulsation caused by the intervals of the previous chord remains. Such episodes appear at particular structural points, thus subjecting the form to the law of the Golden Section. B. The solo percussionists have seven episodes in this work in which they step before the orchestra and improvise without a fixed note-text. This is more or less a reminiscence of a performance practice from a time during which only an oral culture existed.”