Monday, February 19, 2018

Sofia Gubaidulina, Part 11

When I was an undergraduate in my first couple of years, I was at a university with an active composition department. I think the professor of composition was a Czech bassoonist. The students formed a kind of collective that were very active. The music department at that time was camped out in the back of a building largely devoted to visual arts. I think we had three classrooms and the use of an auditorium that sat a couple of hundred people. This was used for student concerts every Friday and a couple of times the student composers commandeered the room for a special concert. This provided, at least, a relief from the brass quintets and shaky attempts at lieder. I was responsible for one of the latter as, at the time, I was enrolled in a vocal techniques class and ended up performing a Schubert lied--"Heidenröslein" as I recall.

So one Friday the composer's collective took over the hall and delivered a "happening." One fellow (who now teaches composition in this very same department) delivered some French nightclub chansons over desultory piano accompaniment; another climbed a high ladder, I don't recall why exactly; another fried up some pork chops in an electric fry pan. There was some other stuff going on, but I don't recall the details. This was followed by a tribute to the French clavicinistes who were accused of a fixation on poultry. Someone might have played "La Poule" by Rameau. Here is a performance by Hank Knox, who teaches at McGill and was a fellow student of mine there in the 70s:

This was followed or accompanied by the rolling of eggs, both raw and hard-boiled, onstage, the tossing of chickens, both raw and BBQed, and the final entry of an indignant rooster who strutted out to mid-stage and proceeded to stare down the audience (who by this point were diminishing rapidly). The next year saw them form their own ensemble, the "Vegteband," consisting of hollowed out vegetables with mouthpieces from wind instruments like the clarinet and trumpet.

This all took place in the early 70s, probably 1972 or 73. I mention this only because in my reading of the biography of Sofia Gubaidulina, I have come to the chapter where a group of young composers in Moscow that included Gubaidulina, Elena Firsova, Dmitri Smirnov, Alexander Raskatov, Vladislav Shoot, Viatscheslav Artyomov and others came together. The last, Artyomov, was a percussionist and collector of folk instruments from Central Asia and the Transcaucasus. Artyomov, Gubaidulina and Victor Suslin formed an ad-hoc trio that improvised together using these instruments. It was a kind of research project in, among other things, timbre. Here is a photo of the group. From left to right, Artyomov on Tár (an Uzbek-Tadzhik plucked instrument), Gubaidulina on Georgian hunting horn and Suslin on Pandura:

They were attracted by the spontaneity of folk music as well as the unusual timbres which they explored in every possible way. They would improvise for hours at a time. Gubaidulina in particular seemed to be guided by an inner voice or "demon" that directed her path and even forced the others to follow her. They gave public concerts, sometimes with other musicians, that attracted the attention of the KGB who, frankly, had no idea what to make of these musicians. "Where did you come from?" and "What did you study?" they would ask. The group, that came to be called Astraea, had weekly sessions between 1975 and 1981.

The later 70s were very difficult for Gubaidulina from a financial point of view as commissions for film scores dried up entirely. At one point she was approached to write a piece combining popular and serious music for a music hall performance. The actual performance did not materialize, but she wrote her Concerto for Symphony Orchestra and Jazz Band for which she did receive a substantial honorarium. It was written in 1976 and first performed in 1978. I think I put this up before, but now we should hear it in its proper historical context. This version is for wind band and jazz ensemble:

It was also used as a ballet piece. In 1976 she also wrote a trio for three trumpets:

I find it fascinating that, during the same decade of the 70s, young composers in Canada and the Soviet Union were engaged in similar kinds of improvisatory work. The group in Moscow were older, of course, in their forties, while the Canadians were in their twenties. They also took different paths. The Canadians were probably influenced by John Cage while the Russians were reacting against the strictures of official socialist realism and the intellectualism of Westerners like Pierre Boulez.

I had no attraction to what my fellow students were doing for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I was simply too unsophisticated to understand what they were up to. But more importantly, I was on a trajectory from being a folk, rock and blues musician to being a disciplined classical guitarist. I had spent years doing free-form blues improvisations and what I was looking for was to get away from that! The transcendental austerity of Bach played by people like Andrés Segovia was what was attracting me. My fellow students were rebelling against the strictures of classical music, which is exactly what was attracting me.

Here is what I was aiming for back then:

Talk about being out of step with history!

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