The Mystical World of Sofia Gubaidulina – by Eugene Astapov

    “My desire is always to rebel, to swim against the stream” – were the words playing in my head preceding my first meeting with the grand dame of the contemporary music world – Sofia Gubaidulina. After taking one look at her, a fragile, modest woman, it was hard to imagine how difficult a life the composer had, carrying that mantra in her creative mind, before leaving her home in Moscow for the safe haven in Germany. And yet her desire to rebel earned her worldwide recognition as one of the most important musical minds of all time, which came at a cost: “Had I not left, they would have murdered me”, she quietly disclosed in a private meeting with a small group of young composers, “I had no choice, but to leave the country where I built a life for close to 60 years!”.

    I had the privilege of meeting and spending some time with Mdm. Gubaidulina at a new music festival in Paris in 2009 while still being a young student at the Eastman School. It was an extremely rare opportunity to get close and personal with such a great musical mind and gain a perspective on her compositional process and inspiration. Gubaidulina is an extremely private and secluded person – one of the last artists in the world who can afford such luxury of not being socially connected to the rest of the world, and therefore making her persona ever more so mysterious and enigmatic. To understand her music, one must grasp at the straws of her rare lectures, seldom program notes and ambiguous history of her life in the Soviet Union.

    In the lectures the composer gave in Paris, she talked about the use of Fibonacci series in her music – a tool found in the works of many artists, musical and visual, but it is hard to imagine that there isn’t a more meaningful subtext behind the notes she writes, one filled with deep philosophical understanding of the world around us, as well as acute personal suffering. In addition, Sofia Gubaidulina is a profoundly devout person, who turned to Christianity at a tragic point of loss in her life – her husband and only daughter who passed away way before she was ready to let them go.

     It is hard to grasp Gubaidulina’s music without spending time studying her prolific output, however, her piece Fachwerk, that Esprit will present on June 9, is an excellent example of her sound world and philosophy. The composer very often talked about the trajectory of darkness to light and if we listen carefully to many of her works that’s exactly what we hear – a journey taken by the main character presents the overcoming of hardships and reaching a higher, more enlightened state of being. The soloist in Fachwerk represents exactly that and the orchestra represents the evil forces causing the character to suffer. The piece opens with big sustained chords that the composer likes to describe as cosmic vibrations, and quite possibly these chords were derived from the Fibonacci series. This is quite similar to what the composer did in some of her other works including the percussion concerto Glorious Percussion, as well as her second violin concerto In Tempus Praesens. She often described her works not only as a journey within themselves, but also in the grand scope of things one work led to the next and to the next, in other words creating a ladder ascending higher and higher into the of artistic and mental bliss (one can call this heaven).

     Very telling is the use of D major in some of her works, including Fachwerk, a key frequently associated with divinity during the Classical period. Interestingly, Gubaidulina justifies the use of this key through the overtone series, for example In Tempus Praesens arrives in D major by the end, and this was the point where the composer indicated in her program notes describing the defeat of evil and triumph of good. In Fachwerk, the harmony brushes on D major, never fully establishing foot in the key, but rather opting to travel over more dissonant and sonorous harmonies. At certain points of the composition, the soloist travels through what feels like desolate, empty space, evoking an image of a voyage through the cosmos where the main character (the soloist) encounters various obstacles and challenges presented by the orchestra. The three works mentioned above create a triptych signifying the Holy Trinity, fulfilling one another with their similarity in content and yet each one is distinct and achieves a different musical and philosophical goal while existing in harmony with one another. At the point of my meetings with the composer she had just finished the 3 works and one could feel great excitement in her tone and see the sparks in her eyes when she described what she called a monumental lifetime achievement. Following the Paris lectures, I had the great privilege of attending the American premiere of In Tempus Praesens performed by Anne-Sophie Mutter with the San Francisco Symphony and speaking with the composer afterwards who seemingly felt great relief of completing this concerto cycle. To me, these works indeed create a turning point in the composer’s career, one where she was able to express all of her personal and musical experience of her entire life.

     Gubaidulina’s music is immersive, it is all-encompassing and engrossing, and is best experienced live. I would like to invite everyone to delve deeply into the sound world of this touching piece of music – a work of fine art – and feel affected by every sound and vibration so masterfully crafted by one of my most favorite, and one of world’s greatest composers.