Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Approaching Sofia Gubaidulina

Composer Sofia Gubaidulina
As I am going to do a number of posts on this composer, I thought I would mention a bit about how I approach the project. I ran across the concepts of fluid and crystallized intelligence in a clip of Jordan Peterson and they are useful ones. My training in fluid intelligence likely begins with the first philosophy course I took as an undergraduate. I also have several decades of crystallized intelligence beginning even before then and consisting of a lot of experience as a practical musician as well as a great deal of formal study which includes eight years at university plus a lot of reading and study since which included a doctoral level seminar on research methods (sounds impressive, but not as useful as you would think).

So the first thing I do when encountering something that I find very difficult to understand or contextualize is look for some suitable tools. In the case of a new (to me) composer like Gubaidulina, I want to know more about her context and training. Let me offer one caveat, though. I am not falling into the trap of thinking that biography explains or causes creative production as a lot of popular writers do. The context I want to know about is largely the musical one. I don't much care if the composer was mean to her brother or had a brother who was mean to her. But I am interested in what music surrounded her growing up and where and with whom she studied. There are not a wealth of biographical studies on Gubaidulina, but I have one on order. I won't have it for a couple of weeks, though. In the meantime, I discovered an analytical study with a chapter on Gubaidulina available on Kindle, so I am starting there. I have already read the Wikipedia article, of course, which is not terribly helpful with regards to the music, though it has a lot of information on Gubaidulina's spiritual development.

Includes a chapter on Gubaidulina
Quoting from the introduction to the essay by Judy Lochhead:
Gubaidulina began studying piano and composition at the Kaz├ín Conservatory, graduating in 1954. Any suspect tendencies in her music seem to have gone unnoticed until she applied for graduate studies at the Moscow Conservatory, whose composition professors deemed her music an unacceptable departure from the required style. She enrolled nevertheless, but would not have been granted her degree without the intervention of Dmitri Shostakovich, chair of the State Examination Committee, who defended her music and encouraged her to “continue on [her] own, incorrect way.”
Laurel Parsons and Brenda Ravenscroft. Analytical Essays on Music by Women Composers: Concert Music, 1960-2000 (p. 101). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.
In 1975 Gubaidulina formed an improvisation ensemble with the composers Viatcheslav Artyomov and Victor Suslin that experimented musically with Eastern European folk instruments along with those of their own invention, such as the “friction rods,” made of rubber balls attached to metal rods, featured in her String Quartet No. 4.
Laurel Parsons and Brenda Ravenscroft. Analytical Essays on Music by Women Composers: Concert Music, 1960-2000 (pp. 101-102). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.
Regarding her goals:
For Gubaidulina, “there is no more serious reason for composing music than spiritual renewal,” an ideal more important to her than musical innovation for its own sake: “The public strives for active spiritual work … Listening to a musical composition … helps people restore themselves, even though critics might give a negative evaluation because ‘there was nothing new in this music.’”
Laurel Parsons and Brenda Ravenscroft. Analytical Essays on Music by Women Composers: Concert Music, 1960-2000 (p. 102). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.
A note about the spiritual aspect: Gubaidulina's parents were of different faiths: her mother Russian Orthodox and her father a Muslim Tatar. It is also interesting that she eschews innovation for its own sake, with puts her at odds with the Western avant-garde. Due to the originality of her approach, she was already at odds with the Soviet musical establishment (though not Shostakovich!).

The analysis by Lochhead is of the String Quartet No. 2 and I am going to go over that analysis in a future post. She quotes from Gubaidulina's program note for the piece in her analysis, so let's look at that:
"This was the first time in my life I set myself the task of realizing a certain musical problem of great importance to me personally, not in a large scale form but in a small scale one. In the course of many years my attention has been persistently drawn to an idea I call “Musical Symbolism.” This means that what appears as a symbol (i.e. a knitting together of things of different significance) is not some sound or other, nor yet a conglomeration of sounds, but the separate constituent elements of a musical instrument or the properties of those elements. Specifically in this particular context, the discourse springs from the difference between the means of extracting the normal sound from stringed instruments and the means by which harmonics can be made to sound. It is possible to consider the passage across this difference as a purely mundane acoustical phenomenon and to make no particular issue out of it. But it is just as possible to experience this phenomenon as a vital and essential transition from one state to another. And this is a highly specific aesthetic experience, the experience of a symbol. It is just such an experience which distinguishes between everyday time and true essential time, which distinguishes between existence and essence. And this modulation, this transition between the two, happens not through “depiction” nor through “expression” but through transformation or transfiguration by means of an instrumental symbol. For this transition actually happens on the very instrument. In its acoustic self."
Laurel Parsons and Brenda Ravenscroft. Analytical Essays on Music by Women Composers: Concert Music, 1960-2000 (pp. 104-105). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.
And now, let's listen to the piece. Luckily this clip has the score. The performers are the Danish String Quartet:

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