A Russian Composer's Path to Freedom
Known for her originality, Sofia Gubaidulina talks about synthesizing intuition and spirituality
LENOX, MASS. — For the past 60 summers, the harmonious strains of the Boston Symphony Orchestra have been familiar sounds at Tanglewood, the orchestra's summer home in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts.
But each August for the past 34 years, the hills have come alive with the sound of a very different kind of music, as Tanglewood's summer academy for advanced training hosts the renowned Festival of Contemporary Music.
Perhaps the most remarkable highlight of this summer's festival (Aug. 9-14) was the presence of composer Sofia Gubaidulina, one of the most original, powerful, and highly respected voices in the world of contemporary music.
A lively, soft-spoken woman with warm but piercing eyes and a shock of dark brown curly hair, she is known for a uniquely personal and uncompromising vision. Her experimentation with folk and ritual instruments (as well as unconventional methods of sound production on traditional instruments and voices) combines with an overriding spirituality, the sense that music has the power to move and transform the human spirit.
"She is one of the extraordinary personalities of music today," says Reinbert De Leeuw, the festival's director. "She is a composer going her own path and creating musical worlds that are utterly fascinating."
Having toiled for decades in relative obscurity in Russia, Ms. Gubaidulina was brought to notice in the West primarily by the devoted advocacy of violinist Gidon Kremer, whose repeated performances of the composer's masterly violin concerto "Offertorium" catapulted her to international acclaim in the early 1980s.
Since 1985, when she was first allowed to travel to the West, she has become the recipient of numerous awards, commissions, and invitations. (She moved to Hamburg in 1992.) Her recent Viola Concerto, premired by Yuri Bashmet with the Chicago Symphony in April, was given significant critical acclaim, and she just finished a work for legendary cellist Mstislav Rostropovich to be premired in Paris in October.
Brought to the Festival of Contemporary Music as a visiting composer, Gubaidulina met with young composers and supervised the rehearsals of her works (an evening concert was devoted to her chamber music, and her landmark choral work, "Jetzt immer Schnee," was presented on another mixed-evening concert).
"Intensively working with a living composer is one of the great experiences for a performer," Mr. De Leeuw says, "to understand what the composer had in mind, a work's meaning, why it was notated the way it was. It is wonderful to have her around for that."
It is a role Gubaidulina has embraced with great passion. "Any contact with performers means a great deal, but especially with these young performers, who have been selected from the best from around the world," she says earnestly in Russian, speaking through the translation of Laurel Fay, her close associate at music publishers G. Schirmer Inc. "My role when I work with professionals is to help put the finishing touches on a work. Here, I have the opportunity to awaken something new in the soul of a young performer."
Gubaidulina also relished the opportunity to meet and hear the music of young composers. Her own experience as a young composer meeting an older, more established veteran was a formative one. She grew up during a time in which the role of the composer in Russia was to write music to the glorification of the political regime. It was officially sanctioned only if it adhered to a fairly strict system of tonality, and the password was conformity.
Gubaidulina's highly distinctive and often exploratory music did not sit well with Soviet officialdom. Yet after her graduation exam from the Moscow Conservatory, the great Dmitri Shostakovich had occasion to impart some valued words of advice: "I want you to continue along your mistaken path."
"I'll never forget those encouraging words," she recalls. "It is very difficult for a young person to hear only criticism. Shostakovich encouraged me to be myself, no matter what everybody else said, and I am very grateful for that."
For Gubaidulina, at the root of her quest as a composer was the fundamental issue of human freedom. "For an artist to be put in the position of restriction to what is 'correct' is terrible," she says vehemently. "For one to break free from those constraints and recognize one's own freedom is a fundamental goal in life.
"The big difference between a person in a totalitarian regime and one in a free society is the artistic task. In a free society, one feels absolute freedom as a danger. One has to establish one's own personal regulation to recognize innate potential. But in a totalitarian regime, we have the task of shedding the shackles of restraint in order to realize that potential."
Gubaidulina's path to self-realization has been distinctly personal. "I and others of my generation have tried to distance ourselves from politics, but the older generation in Russia didn't have that luxury. They had to relate to what was going on."
She once described herself as "an intuitionist hopelessly dreaming of becoming a rationalist." "It is important [as an artist] to know yourself very well. If you are a natural intuitionist, your task as an artist is to work hard at the intellectual side, and if you are an intellectual, you need to open up your intuitive side, to find the intersection, the balance.
"I pay strong attention to intuition. Art is a manifestation of intuition, a reflection of the wealth of humanity, which you don't encounter everyday. It arises only in the happiest moments of human life. If you are cut off from your intuition, there is too much intellectual baggage."
When asked where her inspiration comes from, she gestures skyward. "Heaven," she laughs, thinking the question a funny one. "I can't remember what I am thinking when I write. The process is so complicated. There are so many levels and layers and planes that the thinking process can't be controlled."
Divine inspiration aside, she finds the process of composing a monumental task. "Every composition is an enormous labor for me. That joy and inspiration at the beginning is like a vertical sound of colorful, moving, clashing chords, completely mixed up and jumbled. It is wonderful and beautiful, but it isn't real.
"My job is to turn that vertical sound into a horizontal line. Those two lines, horizontal and vertical, make a cross, and I think about that when I compose. It's still incredibly difficult. It hasn't gotten any easier, and it shouldn't be too easy. Otherwise, why do it?"
Gubaidulina believes music can and should be of significant spiritual importance. "The whole world is threatened by spiritual passivity, an entropy of the soul, a transition from more complex energy to a simpler form ... amorphousness. What puts the brakes on that process is the human spirit, and in part, art, and that is a matter for serious music."