European first performance of Lera Auerbachs "Dialogue with Time" - the interview
On the occasion of the European first performance of Lera Auerbachs “Dialogue with Time” we met the composer for an interview.
1. A lot of works by Lera Auerbach have programmatic titles like “September 11” or “Serenade of a Melancholic Sea”. How important are non-musical topics to understanding your music?
LA: Actually, most of my music is not programmatic. After a work is fully written, I think of what to call it. The conventional titles such as ‘Fantasia’ or ‘Sonata’ or ‘Symphony’ are acceptable, of course, but they are also a bit dry and boring.
By giving a work a creative title I try to encourage the listener to be free to engage his or her imagination to the fullest, to dream, to be moved, to remember. The titles are nothing more than a point of departure for the listener’s imagination.
I don't think purely abstract music or purely abstract art in general actually exists. As a performer, I create stories and images and make different associations every time I play music of any composer, be it Mozart or Beethoven—and every time these images are different and their relationship with the work is different. This is what makes music—any music—alive and exciting and modern. As both a performer and a composer, I hope that music reaches the listener and connects to his soul in the most individual way, unique to his own life experience.
Malevich's famous painting Black Square, which became an early symbol of abstraction in art, is full of thought-provoking images, as is John Cage's silent piece 4’33’’. If something purely abstract could indeed exist, it would not be created by a human mind and it would not be able to touch us or connect to us, it would be entirely incomprehensible.
Perhaps giving a title to a work also creates some limitations, since it invites the listener to engage in a direction suggested by the title. However, I hope the process is more liberating than limiting.
2. “Dialogue with Time” was first performed in February 2007 in Chicago. What does the title mean?
LA: "My whole life is a dialogue with Time," I wrote in 1991 in one of my poems. This line became the title of my third book of poetry, published in Russia in 1993. Later it became the title for a chamber music program of my music and poetry. Tonight it is a title of an orchestral work.
Time is not a river, and it certainly does not ﬂow in one direction. According to the laws of any well-structured composition, be it a short story, a symphony, a palace, or a human life, the beginning apriori encompasses the end, and the end already contains the beginning.
Time has many faces. One face is the clock. Since childhood, I've been terrified by the lines of the clock. In my child's imagination I pictured time as a monster that eats up our lives; every second is one more bite, every second brings death closer. The other face of time is Time with a capital "T"; the word that means so many different things to each person; the word, together with a few other words such as Love, God, Fate, that is unable to express what it means, and yet there is no other way to open a door to it's meaning.
There is another face of Time that goes back to its origins. When did Time start? We may guess when the counting of time started in human history, but we do not know when Time itself started. Perhaps, Time was born when the Universe was created. But still - what was before? If Time and the Universe were born it means they are living creatures as any one of us, and therefore are also finite. And if Time was always there and always will be there, then it is of a very different nature than we usually think. And, at last, perhaps Time (and Space) only exist in our Universe; and outside of it, in other forms of reality, neither Time nor Space exist at all.
All of these philosophical faces of Time are not so abstract if we realize that Time is what allows our past and future to intersect in the present moment and, thus, creates every single point of our existence.
Perhaps Time exists. Perhaps it doesn't. In any case, it affects us. It makes us aware of Death. Death makes us aware of Life. Time makes us alive.
In my constant search for answers, I once asked an old Rabbi, “What is Time? How does one create Time? (Oh, the same segment of a minute can be so short or so long, depending on circumstances—haven't you noticed)?” The Rabbi thought for a while. Then he answered, "Time is action. The way to create Time is to fill it with action. It is like the relationship between a metronome and music: the same beat can fit one note or many. The more you do, the more time you create." I think the Rabbi was right, but I also think that sometimes staying still and observing or contemplating in silence maybe the greatest action.
Time reminds us of Death, of a finite point in Life when you no longer are. When I was very young, my nanny used to take me to the cemetery ‘to have some fresh air’. Daily, we would come to the city's cemetery to visit and to take care of her own grave. Yes, she had had her grave ever since the death of her husband, where, next to his stone plate, was hers with her name inscribed. She would take care of both gravestones and of the flowers and trees that grew around them. It wasn't a somber or sad activity at all. It was part of life, it was peaceful, and for me, it was my playground. Russian cemeteries are so beautiful—very green and full of trees, flowers, birds, stones, statues, poetic verses, memories, history… This is perhaps why my first song, which I wrote at the age of four, was about Death and Time.
3. Which ‘time’ do you mean?
LA: In a way, I answered this already in the previous question. But since this is such an important subject, I would like to illustrate it through an excerpt from my recently completed novel Mirror, in which I attempt to answer the same question.
“...And Time, awful Time, nonexistent Time will not overpower us.
In the darkness, in childhood, lying at night with eyes wide open and listening to the ticking of the clock on the wall. Second followed by second--and I knew for certain that those seconds would never return--they sank into oblivion.
Later this terror intensified and at age twelve I would stop the pendulum on the wall clock, I would remove it, I'd banish the clock from the room, but all the same at night rang out: tick-tock, tick-tock--that was my heart beating. And I had neither the strength nor the will to tear it from my breast.
From early childhood, from the age of six, the fear of Time passing.
Not just passing, but slipping away. Almost physically, visibly seeping through my fingers. This terrifying and inevitable feeling poisoned all my childhood and youth. And every day was a challenge to my invisible and indifferent rival. A successful day is like recaptured territory, a respite, a truce until the following day. And the despair and terror during the lost day. Life is an attempt to swim out of the sucking whirlpool, where Time bears our days. Because of this all my poems written as a child are variations on the theme of the passing day and interminable epitaphs on Time.
In my early infancy, before the age of six, this was not the case. The "Apple of Knowledge" had not yet been plucked (by whom and when?). The days were as long as eternity, and the clock was an empty knick-knack on the wall.
Interminable illnesses that were transformed into dreams, and dreams that flowed into days, and days into illnesses.
The world was wise and clear. It became overgrown, like seaweed, with fantasies and dream visions, but nevertheless it preserved some part of its original harmonious foundations. And the boundary between existence and nonexistence was fragile. The latter was too recent and close, the former too amorphous.
My Teachers, (Oh, I had marvelous invincible Teachers; in infancy while I hid in the wardrobe that smelled of mothballs, I would talk to them at length and there was nothing more fascinating than those conversations), my Teachers would tell me about how the world was organized. And these stories were as far away from that which I later learned by rote from textbooks and found in books, as that blessed time is far from me now.
Stars, leaves and music, the smells and sensations of past lives and all their accumulated experience found a place in their stories; they cast a spell over me and turned into dreams, and dreams into illnesses and again that fine thread separating me from my recent nonexistence quavered and broke. With age these conversations with my Teachers (with an ever-increasing and obvious switch in favor of existence) became more and more rare... It was a peculiar loss of ability to comprehend their voices. Or rather not even their voices, but feelings, since we communicated without the aid of words (words do not help, words separate, and any act of speech is nothing more than a translation from the original). But they are some place close by, my guarding angels. I know that. And Time, awful Time, nonexistent Time will not overpower us.”
4. You like the word ‘Dialogues’. I’m thinking of “Dialogues on Stabat Mater”. What kind of dialogue can we imagine in this case?
LA: Dialogue is an attempt to communicate. For a writer, composer, or any homo scriptus the act of writing is a form of dialogue, except it appears more as a lonely monologue. Writing, in general, is a lonely occupation. But any true monologue, like a prayer, in its attempt to communicate is really a dialogue, whether this communication is with God, or a member of the audience, or a future reader or your own alter ego.
In this particular work it is a dialogue between the material that sounds cold, steady and inescapable (for example, the repeated note G in the beginning), and more melodic material, with its human warmth and its search for freedom as it tries to break free from the cage of steady repetitions. This work is tragic, just as breaking free in life is only possible through death. Or through Art. But that’s a different kind of immortality.
5. Music and poems, life performances and audience. Do you mean this correlations as well with ‘dialogues’?
LA: Everything in this life could be seen as dialogues. Every person affects another being, even if we may not be aware of it. All human actions are attempts to communicate. And even in one’s loneliest hour, one is never fully alone, though it may seem so at times.
6. “Dialogue with Time” was first performed last year but written in 1997. What are the reasons for this long time between genesis and performance?
LA: Well, the real history of this work dates back much earlier to 1988, twenty years ago. I was fourteen at the time and one night, in my sleep, I heard this music in my dream. I woke up in the middle of the night and wrote the complete sketch of what you will hear in Dresden (minus specific details of orchestration, of course). This music was unlike anything I was writing at the time and unlike anything I ever heard. The entire experience was very strange, even terrifying, but also wondrous for me. I have always heard music in my dreams and still do, but this was the first time I was actually able to fully remember and notate it once awakened.
I did not know what to do with this sketch. Shortly after this experience I was asked to write a flute sonata and I decided to use this musical material for the slow movement. However, I was not satisfied and later removed this sonata from my catalog. Deep inside I knew that this material needed much larger forces than flute and piano, and that it was the orchestra that I heard in that dream.
So, when in 1998 I was commissioned to write a piano concerto, I decided to try this material again as the second movement. This time it worked. As I performed this piano concerto it occurred to me that this movement could really stand on its own as an independent orchestral work, and that this would be, perhaps, most faithful to the spirit of the original vision. So when I was asked last year for a short orchestral piece for a concert in Chicago, I thought this would be a perfect way to re-think this material as an independent orchestral work.
7. Your are a poet, a composer and a pianist, who plays your own works. Is it difficult for you to accept Andris Nelsons’ way of interpreting “Dialogue with Time”?
LA: For me there is nothing more exciting than hearing different interpretations of my music. It is only when the work is played by many performers, conductors and orchestras that it has a chance of becoming part of the standard repertoire. Once the work is written - it is no longer ‘mine’, so to speak. Just as a parent doesn’t ‘own’ his child, but needs to let him experience life, the composer has to let go of a work once it is written. It is almost as if the work becomes a real being with its own soul, its own life independent from me. And that makes me happy.
I do love performing my music. I keep revising and editing works as long as I feel they need my help. I love collaborating with conductors and performers, but its only when the work eventually takes on a life of its own, independent from my existence, that I feel fulfilled.
8. The Symphony Orchestra of the Chicago Center for the Performing Arts first performed “Dialogue with Time”. Did you change some details in your score after the premiere?
LA: No. In fact, I was not able to attend the premiere in Chicago. Dresden will be the very first chance for me to hear this piece played and to work on it with the orchestra. So for me this is the world premiere.
9. Have your heard the Dresdener Philharmonie at other concerts?
LA: This is my first collaboration with the Dresdener Philharmonie, both as a pianist and as a composer. In fact this is my very first visit to Dresden. I hope this is only a beginning.
10. In the April concert you will play Mozart’s “Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor”. Is it a favourite for you among Mozart’s piano concertos?
LA: Yes. I think it is perhaps the most powerful concerto Mozart wrote for any instrument. In many ways, it foreshadows his Requiem. And the choice of D minor is not accidental: Mozart used a special pedal piano to perform this work, as he felt that most instruments of his time could not give him the power needed to express his music. I wish he could hear a modern Steinway—I think he would like it a great deal.
11. We know performers have very different ways of interpreting Mozart’s piano works—for example, Mitsuko Uchida’s very transparent Mozart sound or Murray Perahia’s very strong Mozart on the other side. What’s your approach to performing Mozart?
LA: Both renditions you mentioned are beautiful. There is not one right way to play Mozart.
The interpretation can be transparent or strong or a combination of both, but the most important thing to remember is the essence of this work. It is one of the most personal compositions for Mozart, a work that reveals his deepest feelings, a fear of death perhaps, and his inner confrontations. This is one of the most passionate, tragic and powerful works ever written. One can discuss style or interpretations, but ultimately all the styles in the world are useless if the soul and essence of the work are not conveyed.
12. You wrote the cadenzas for yourself. What is their style? Are they more ‘music by Lera Auerbach’ than ‘cadenza for a concerto by Mozart?’
LA: They represent my relationship to Mozart’s Concerto. My challenge was to relate to Mozart’s Concerto from our time in a way that would also be organic to the tragic essence of this work.
The cadenza for the first movement makes use of the opening unsettling syncopations in the orchestra and the growling bass line. The cadenza proceeds as if in a dream sequence; the images from the first movement appear and disappear like characters in the opera, and the tension builds up to a climax in which the main theme is augmented and distorted.
The second movement of the Concerto, written in B-flat major, is enigmatic and beautiful. It reminds me of Mozart as he appears on the last family portrait by Johann Nepomuk della Croce—a smile on the lips, yet sad and troubled eyes. Mozart’s own title “Romanze” confirms its operatic nature. But who is singing? The stormy and completely unexpected G minor section only underlines the unreal, unearthly quality of this beautiful aria, as if suddenly his dream was brutally interrupted. Curiously, this middle section reminds me of Mozart’s “Klavierstück in G minor” (K Anh109b, No.3 (15p) from his London Notebook, written at the age of eight. The similarities are not only in the key and style, but also in the overwhelming weight of its character, so full of rage and protest. All the masks of elegance and proper behavior here are forgotten – this is the Child-Mozart at his best in his worst behavior; it’s the Artist-Mozart that refuses the polite practices of his time.
I felt it was important to bring back the theme of the second movement in the last cadenza, even if only for a brief moment. Instead of B-flat major, it returns in D-minor, thus emphasizing the chiaroscuro nature.
If we look closely at the opening theme of the third movement, it appears as a series of burning questions of a restless soul. Mozart, as always, frames his despair in an elegant and, at times, even playful manner. The form of a rondo only emphasizes this restless searching and at times pleading calls. The piano cadenza structurally appears at the peak of emotional tension – by now all hope is lost. This is why, instead of a regular virtuoso cadenza, I decided to write a slow and brief one. In life, when we are facing a death (our own or that of a loved one), when everything around has collapsed and all is lost, we are simply left with our own naked soul – all pretenses and ambition gone. The grand showcase of piano virtuosity would be inappropriate here. Instead I wanted to create a sense of timelessness, as if looking at the drama that took place in this concerto from the perspective of an outsider, from another time and another dimension.
The most curious and unexpected moment in this concerto is how Mozart ends this requiem for piano and orchestra. After the cadenza, followed by the grand pause (so often not held long enough in performances!), the orchestra returns in the most cheerful key of D major. It is as if, suddenly, an actor who is really dying remembers that he is still on stage and puts on a mask so that the curtain can fall to gleeful applause. The D major comes so unexpectedly that it reminds one of a carnival where one is not allowed to be oneself, everyone wearing masks, where nothing is real.
I should add that the cadenzas for this concerto were commissioned by Schleswig-Holstein Musk Festival, and were premiered by Gerhard Oppitz in performance with Jonathan Nott and the Bamberger Symphoniker.
13. In this concert with the Dresdener Philharmonic we will also hear the “Symphony No. 6” by Dmitri Shostakovich. You have a very close musical kinship with him, have you not?
LA: Oh certainly, he is my grandfather’s long lost half-brother. They even look alike. This makes him…hmmm… my half-great uncle I suppose? Is that right? (Just kidding).
14. In which way has Shostakovich had influenced on your own works?
LA: Life is tough. But it has its moments. So is Shostakovich.
15. How important is tonality for you. How important is it for the development of contemporary music?
LA: It is the future. However, that depends on what one understands under the word ‘tonality’.
There are lots of different definitions that refer to this so often misunderstood word. If one reads definitions of ‘tonality’ from Rameau’s “Treatise on Harmony”, to Friedrich Marpurg, to Fetis, to Schenker, to Schoenberg (who, by the way referred to himself as the creator of ‘new tonality’, and hated the word ‘atonal’ in reference to his music), we see that tonality means something very different to each of these theorists. And so, such discussions or questions often have very little to do with—or to contribute to—the actual musical experience in the concert hall.
As a listener, I really don’t care if what I am listening to is called ‘atonal’, or ‘tonal’, or ‘neo-this’, or ‘neo-that’, or even ‘post-this’, or whatever else it may be called. I am either changed by the musical experience, (perhaps troubled, perhaps inspired, moved, challenged, passionate), or I am bored and the whole experience leaves me cold. This applies in both composition and performance. As a musician, I am of course curious why certain music has a certain effect on me as a listener. But this would bring us to another topic and another long discussion.