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The Archaic Sources of Art - Elfriede Oberhofer talks to Sofia Gubaidulina

This year, at the Cannes Classical Awards ceremony at the MIDEM 2003, Sofia Gubaidulina received the Living Composer prize - another addition to the countless international awards and distinctions, among them the Swedish Polar Music Prize, which impressively document the international standing and significance of this Russian composer.

Since 1992 you have lived near Hamburg and you once described it as a paradise. Is this still true?

Yes, because, for me, living in paradise simply means having the possibility to work: living where it is quiet, being very concentrated and being able to look at a tree, that is paradise. And here, near Hamburg, I am lucky enough to be able to live in a special situation. In a small village, without a shop and with only a few small streets - for people today that is something special. These are very favourable circumstances and fit in very well with the life of a composer. I always wished to have a quiet life. I need silence to be able to work and I have it here as never before.

Your relation to Germany, however, not only to German music but also to the German language and literature, has existed very much longer and is also reflected even in the works you composed when you were still living in Russia. How did that happen?

It seems to me that I already had a relation to the German language and culture from childhood. It was my school that provided me with access to these, fortuitously and fatefully. I had my first and most important encounter with music, not with the Russian, but with the German composers: Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Haydn. It was then that I first fell in love with German music. Afterwards I discovered German philosophy and literature - another great love! I read a lot and studied the German language. These experiences were continued during my studies in Moscow. For me, even during my childhood, Russian and German seemed to be a fusion. In the Russian mentality I sense many female attributes, something dark, chaotic in the positive sense, in the sense of complex, of difficult to grasp. German, on the other hand, has male qualities for me, to me it appears clear and structured. I feel this connection as a dovetailing, a nexus of female and male elements wonderfully complementing one another.

Did you already have contact to German composers in Moscow?

Young German composers, Peter Michael Hamel, Hans-Jrgen von Bose and others, were visiting when I lived in Moscow. We worked together very well and with a great deal of affection for one another. What was also very fortunate for me was meeting the people from the Sikorski publishing company. This opened up new vistas for my work, and the contact also finally led to my living in Germany today.

How is your origin - from the centre of the Tatarstan Republic, at the border between Asia and Europe - reflected in your work as composer?

I come from a big, noisy city, and silence has always been my dream. As a child I was able to experience silence sporadically, during walks with my father. My father was an engineer, a land surveyor, who explored the landscape on foot. He took me with him on his long walks across the country and through various towns. My father was a taciturn man. Nature, this silence - that was what an experience for me. Unfortunately a rather rare one. And my normal life was lived amid the noise of the big city. I am very grateful to my father for teaching me to feel silence. This was a very intensive experience that it was my privilege to have even as a child. You see, silence is by no means empty, it is rather the other way round: silence is full of diverse occurrences and by concentrating you can try to hear the sounds and tones of silence. This opens up a completely different, new world where everything is full of sound. From very early on I felt a yearning to express this special relation to nature through music. Because this experience returns indirectly to people in the form of music. Despite these subjective external circumstances that did not especially favour my method of composing, I was lucky to be able to study the piano with Grigori Kogan at a very good school, at the Kazan music school in the Tatarstan Republic. Kazan is famous for its schools, colleges and its university. Amongst other, the mathematician Lobatchevski studied here and many other famous persons.

How would you describe the way you compose?

I have thought a lot about this. To start with I thought of myself as a gardener who cultivates her music. On the one hand making the form, the qualities, very precise and, on the other hand, bringing in the spontaneous element as improvisations, in other words, cultivating both qualities. But above all it is important to bring original things to light. I am an emotional person, I want to develop my spontaneity, but that alone, I feel, is not art. The form must be just as important. Combining artificial and spontaneous efforts is what is interesting.

Intuitive moments are especially difficult to formulate. If the composer is in this state, starts hearing in this way and then uses this experience to go on working at the form: What could be made of these acoustic processes? The work of refinement that has to be done is sometimes annoying, because it means cutting things to shape. But it is the true masterly achievement of the composer to be able to do exactly that and also to actually do it.

Along with new compositional means, traditional forms always also play a key role in your works. How did your experience of the instruments and rituals of your people influence your musical development?

I would not say that I consciously try to bring something together. I want to keep everything very natural. If ritual moments occur, they are also incorporated. But I actually want to forget all this. While I am composing I try to become absorbed in myself and to find something there that I really am. I emanate sound. I myself am sound. I have a high regard for this human characteristic of being able to sound and to hear one's own sound. And the moment one's own sound becomes audible, can be experienced, it might also be possible to hear how the world sounds. This is what I find most fascinating. I am convinced that all objects sound, all animals sound, all humans sound, that the whole world sounds. But people can lose this quality, which is a great pity. It is may be the noise of the big cities that does not allow us this very special way of hearing. If you appreciate this quality and allow it to arise, you can hear yourself and the whole world. And this is exactly the moment music is created.

In your compositions you work with techniques and compositional methods of the modern age. Where do you see yourself in the music of the present?

The technique of composing is the formal element, the other is spontaneous or intuitive access. What I am trying to do is to venture forward into the archaic patterns, to the basics, and from them to create something new. To pave the way for the archaic, to make these sounds audible and then to arrange them, this is how I see my task as a composer. Sometimes the composer hears spontaneously more and different sounds than can be realised by conventional voices and instruments. Of course the composer needs to know what possible realisations each instrument allows. Hearing more than can be realised is like a crucifixion for me. Sometimes sounds are so complicated and too mobile to be able to write them down or to realise them with whatever orchestra you have. But most of the time something else develops from this discrepancy and it is always something very valuable.

Can we also understand this as what you have described as the unwritten music that you value so highly?

What he or she has written down is one part of the composer's work. The other part is to find the sounds in the archaic. It is important to go to the origins and to discover the source. Only from there can a new world of sounds develop. Deep in an archaic consciousness lie the original sources of any culture and this is where art emerges and comes to life.

You often work with sound experiments and use archaic and traditional patterns and instruments. Do you look for sounds that match your ideas?

I have a great love for instruments, conventional and unconventional. And whenever possible I want to work more with the people who play those instruments. It is not easy but sometimes I succeed. For example, take the performance of my work Am Rande des Abgrundes (On the edge of the abyss) in Osnabrck, a work for seven violoncellos and two aquaphones, a completely new instrument. I had met the violoncellist Vladimir Toncha and we fantasised about what else could be done with the violoncello. He told me of a new chord consisting of natural sounds that sounds very quiet. This chord actually belongs to his teacher Kobarski, and I decided that I had to have these chords in my work. They are major chords, played on four strings. Vladimir Toncha showed me how to apply this; without him I would not even have been able to imagine these sounds at all. And then, when he finally played these chords at the premiere, they were not loud enough. But in Osnabrck Julius Berger was playing the violoncello. He did not succeed in playing these chords using the same fingering as Toncha. But he found a possibility to play these three chords using a different fingering and this way they were louder, exactly as I had imagined them. When it comes to the realisation of sounds there are always new and different experiences. The musicians are constantly trying something new, and getting involved in this is a very enriching experience.

Since the eighties your works have acquired great popularity in Europe. This is also closely associated with the names Gidon Kremer and Lockenhaus. What role did Gidon Kremer play for you?

Gidon Kremer is a wonderful musician. Whatever I imagine in terms of music he can even enhance with his incredible sensitivity on the instrument. He is an artist and I was lucky to meet him and to come to Lockenhaus. I received the first invitation to Lockenhaus in 1986 and it opened up my life and my creative work. In Moscow my works were rarely performed, often concerts only took place because of the help and commitment of a few musicians. What fascinated me most in Lockenhaus was the love for music that you can feel here and which unites both musicians and audience. It was wonderful to see how interested the audience is. The audience there loves and understands music and this was one of my most uplifting experiences.

How do you imagine your audience? Does the thought of who your listeners might be have a part to play in your creative work?

I want to have a talented audience! That does not imply a certain level of education or other preconditions, but simply the talent to listen. Recently, at a concert in Osnabrck there was a programme of Bach and Gubaidulina. The organisers thought that my works were too demanding and that was why only short pieces were selected. We talked about a solution because my works were being somewhat sidelined and I was not satisfied with the situation. But the real surprise came on the evening of the performance: the audience was enthusiastic and by no means found my works too demanding! It was a talented audience that listened and understood my works. Perhaps the organisers have more reservations about contemporary new music than the audience.

You say that the most important experience of your life is being yourself. Is music especially suitable for this process of self-discovery?

The most appropriate way for me to find this access is via music, because I have occupied myself with music since my childhood. Other people may create something poetic, may paint or conceive architecture. Whatever way he or she chooses depends on each person's needs and capabilities. The need to create something is what distinguishes human beings.

What do you wish your authors' society GEMA on the occasion of its 100th anniversary?

GEMA is a wonderful society! It is remarkable how exactly and correctly it works. GEMA's work is very useful for composers, for creators. I am very glad to be a member of this society and wish GEMA all the best for the next hundred years and the difficult tasks that lie ahead. But an institution that can look back on so much experience in changing times will successfully cope with future tasks as well!