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Sofia Gubaidulina, light and darkness

Today is the birthday of a composer who writes in a radically different musical style than many of us are accustomed to hearing on a day-to-day basis, as we sit on hold with the doctor’s office or hum along with the music piped into the aisles of the grocery store. Our composer today is one of those who writes in a language based more on texture and contour, much like you might hear in a dramatic film score; her name is Sofia Gubaidulina, and she was born 82 years ago today.

Raised in near poverty in Christopol, Russia, Gubaidulina has said in an interview that the bleakness of her childhood surroundings forced her to look up to the sky, which became for her a sort of playground for her imagination. Despite her beloved father’s staunch atheism and the communist antipathy towards religion, Gubaidulina formed deep religious roots at a very young age — she has said that she “recognized Christ” when encountering a religious iconic painting for the first time at the age of five. Her parents reacted strongly against this impulse, and, like many children, she learned to hide her “psychological experiences” from adults.

How should we expect the music of a person with this kind of background to sound? As a child who yearned for nature but whose yard contained not even a blade of grass, and whose spiritual tendencies became a treasured secret out of necessity, Gubaidulina became a composer who uses sound in distinctly unfamiliar ways to express powerful and lofty ideas. That is, out of hidden and transformative experiences came a musical voice that is anything but common. I mentioned texture as being part of her language, by which I mean both her emphasis on unusual combinations of instruments, as in this piece, Canticle of the Sun (1997), for mixed choir, cello, and various percussion instruments:

as well as her unconventional use of individual instruments to create certain sonic effects, as in the opening of De Profundis (1978) for bayan (a type of accordion):

I also mentioned contour, by which I mean the “direction” of the notes (this little video explains it pretty clearly), as in this clip of Gubaidulina’s Viola Concerto (1996), in which the violist jumps dramatically between low and high notes, gradually inching higher and thereby creating a sense of urgency before moving to the low notes and thereby slightly diffusing the tension:

All this to say that Gubaidulina, through the deft manipulation of texture and contour, as well as tone, rhythm, et al., has created works that communicate her “psychological experiences” in a way that can still be mutually intelligible to those of us more fluent in traditional tonalities: crunchy clusters from the bayan communicate a sort of primordial chaotic confusion, while rapid jumps between high and low in the viola communicate some acutely powerful emotional state. Much like abstract art, which can communicate a spectrum of ideas while eschewing recognizable forms, Gubaidulina’s music communicates to us the deepest reaches of her “intuition” (as she put it in this interview with Bruce Duffie) while eschewing recognizable musical constructs.

Blue and Green Music by Georgia O'Keeffe, 1921. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Blue and Green Music by Georgia O’Keeffe, 1921. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

With a career that has spanned over 50 years, Gubaidulina continues to be highly sought after for commissions, though I would like to see her music performed live more often than it is. Nonetheless, in honor of her birthday today check out my Spotify mini-playlist of her music:

Track listing (thanks to Onno van Rijen for detailed composition info)

“Light and Darkness” for organ (1976)

Duration: 5 minutes.
First performance on 21 May 1979 in Leningrad/St. Petersburg by Alexei Lyubimov (organ).

“Quasi Hoquetus” for viola, bassoon (or cello) and piano (1984/1985)

Dedicated to Mikhail Tolpygo, Valery Popov and Alexander Bakchiyev.
Duration: 15 minutes.
First performance on 16 January 1985 by Mikhail Tolpygo (viola), Valery Popov (bassoon) and Alexander Bakchiyev (piano).

“Glorious Percussion”, concerto for percussion ensemble and orchestra (2008)

Commissioned by Anders Loguin, Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, Dresden Philharmonic, Lucerne Symphony Orchestra and Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra.
Duration: 38 minutes.
First performance on 18 September 2008 in Gothenburg by the Ensemble ‘Glorious Percussion’ and the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Gustavo Dudamel.

Fachwerk for strings (2009/2011)

Trondheim Symphony Orchestra Strings, Oyvind Gimse, conductor, Geir Draugsvoll, bayan, Anders Loguin, percussion

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