From where I sit

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From where I sit
⧼written by⧽ Sofia Gubaidulina
Русская музыка/Russian music. Inrterviewed and translated from Russian by D. Smirnov-Sadovsky, 2001[1].


Here in Germany I sit on my sofa surrounded by flowers, looking at the lilac that I planted myself, at the blossoming rhododendron, at my favourite tree: all of these things are very dear to me. But having just returned from Russia I am filled with impressions of uniquely Russian problems. I feel a great pity for my country, for Moscow and for my friends. So I have a very contrasting perception of the world: on the one side, it is a light and elevated one, but inside I have a terrible pain. The situation in Russia is very complex and I feel so many negative emotions thinking about what has happened there and how the idea of freedom and democracy has been ruined.

Turning to music, I think that in the world today everything depends on the activity of separate individuals. I don't believe that one group or school will gain the upper hand and show the right way. But separate individuals can give an example of moral ethics and professionalism of a high standard. I rely only on this. And these individuals appear in every country, including Russia. But even if they unite socially, they reveal their creative substance independently. So I would say that for composers our past century and the new 21st are centuries of solitude.

I like solitude. I love it and dream of it, and it is my natural state. Solitude is the origin of inspiration. If nobody forces me to go somewhere, or asks for meetings and interviews, if they let me be alone among the trees, inspiration will always come. But socially I have many friends, whom I love. I love people and would be ready to unite with them in a group. I admire my neighbour, but I am sure that this neighbour is doing, in a creative sense, something absolutely different from what I do. For example I adore a friend of mine, Victor Suslin. Every work of his is pure gold. But he is totally different, even the opposite to me. So this is friendship by contrast.

Our so-called 'trinity' — Denisov, Schnittke and myself — existed only because all three of us had different personalities; we were separate figures united by a common destiny. We represented three different qualities: Denisov was a classicist, Schnittke a romanticist and I am an 'archaist': not in the Western sense of writing in old styles or using archaisms, but in the sense of trusting in intuition and striving for origins and roots. The essence of a classicist is in his musical material; a romanticist is 'above' his material. My truth is under the material, somewhere below, at the root of the phenomenon or inside the artist's self. This essence can show its worth in the material or not. The 'archaist' associates their self with a tree. This is why I so adore Rainer Maria Rilke who said: 'I love the night, and I love the darkness, everything grows from it.' Or 'in a shadow, under a tree/ there is darkness, there is a root/ I feel as a tree.' This is a typically 'archaic' consciousness.

The date of my birth as a composer was quite late: 1965, when I was already 34. At first I was interested mostly in instrumental timbres and different sound qualities. Then in the '80s I played with rhythms and numbers. Now I am more attracted to the idea of quartertones, in showing the difference between one tuning and another, to prove its importance and that it works. Because the equal-tempered 12-tone system and our systematic thinking have coincided, our musical material has become as clear as daylight - it is all structured in our mentality. We have reached a stage where all 12 tones participate equally in our musical system, and this is very bad for large forms in music, because there's nowhere left to go, and hence no reason to go. Luigi Nono, a sensitive artist who realised the cause of his musical pain, named one of his compositions 'Nowhere to go, but we must go on'. So I am trying to find a dark space or a night by doubling the 12-tone system with quartertones. This is a very important stimulus for me.

I don't want to limit myself within a particular circle of impressions; on the contrary I try to expand my horizons to include the whole world. I have been interested in folk music, not only Russian or Tatar, where I spent my youth, but also in Ukrainian, Yakut, Nenets, Tibetan, Indian, African and so on. I was immensely impressed by the music of African Pygmies. Of course I'm not going to pretend to compose like Pygmies, even if I wanted to. No, in any case I want to be myself. But all this music and its unfamiliar instruments give me great impulses and inspiration. I have a room filled with all these strange instruments: I like to touch them, to be with them tête à tête, as if no culture, tradition or repertoire exists — only the origin of sound and myself as a primordial creature. I like this position, which also reveals my 'archaic' character. But my musical language remains neither Western nor Eastern, but as universal as the musical culture I was nourished with: Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert are my roots.

Recently I completed a piece named ‘Risonanza’ for organ and ensemble, and have dedicated it to the Schoenberg Ensemble's conductor, Reinbert de Leeuw, a wonderful musician. I am now writing ‘St John's Easter’, which will not be a separate composition, but another part of my ‘St John's Passion’.

I've just listened to a new CD of my ‘Canticle of the Sun’, with Mstislav Rostropovich playing cello along with a choir singing texts by St Francis of Assisi. Slava also conducts Music for flute, strings and percussion. He is such a great musician and a really sunny man. He is 70, but what spirit, what musicality! I've also been enchanted with the choir, orchestra and the playing of the flutist Emmanuel Pahud. I enjoyed meeting these musicians very much.

What do I want to achieve with my music? The same as everyone else: to make present time last, something, which we are deprived of in life. In our lives we pass from the past to the future, not even having an instant of present time; this instance is possible to achieve only in art, when present time lasts through the means of musical form. And if we succeed, the goal is achieved. Why does Art exist? Something with no practical use, but it exists, and exists... Because the human being is not a one-dimensional creature, his time flows in two directions at least: horizontally and — in a different dimension — vertically. And this different dimension is everlasting present time. It exists only in art or in our dreams. How can we grasp our dreams? Only a piece of music or a piece of art leaves its trace — and to create this is a big task!

Telephone interview June 2001 from St Albans to Appen by D. Smirnov-Sadovsky


  1. Sofia Gubaidulina: From where I sit, Interview, June 2001 (English) "Gramophone" Magazine, September 2001,Volume 79, Number 944, p.23/ (Russian) "Muzykalnaya Academia" No4, pp. 10-12, Moscow, 2001 (Russian) ISSN 0869–4516

© Sofia Gubaidulina Text. D. Smirnov-Sadovsky, Interview. Translation.

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