Ian MacDonald: Raging Silence (The Wire)
by IAN MACDONALD
(Originally published on The Wire #190/191, December 1999 / January 2000)
During the late 80s, glasnost revealed a secret tradition of hidden meaning in Soviet music. Concepts like ‘shadow writing’, ‘writing between the lines’, ‘giving voice’ and so on became known outside the USSR. In the 1990 BBC2 series Think Today, Speak Tomorrow, a member of the Moscow scene, Alexander Ivashkin, put it this way: “For many years we weren’t allowed to speak or show what we thought. Consequently a strange thing happened. When something came out into the open, part of it stayed hidden – like an iceberg with only a small part above the water. So symbolism became very characteristic of Russian music – symbolism of the simplest kind. An interval, sound or rhythm became a symbol which the listener could identify. Music became the bridge to a thought or philosophical concept rather than an end in itself. It was never a mere sound construction.”
In effect, all nonconformist Soviet music was a protest against the stifling of spiritual and intellectual freedom under the Soviet system – a repression so petty and so total as to be unimaginable to Westerners. Since, until around 1986, such protest could lead to anything from loss of income to being locked up on a mental ward, it had to be discreet: hence the need for symbols. Merely spotting a symbol, however, doesn’t get us very far. To grasp the meaning of a symbol and a composer’s Intention in using it requires understanding of the feelings, thoughts or experiences for which the symbol stands.
Take the contemporary Georgian composer Giya Kancheli. Reviewers of his first Western CD release in 1990, which included his Third and Sixth symphonies (Olympia OCD401), made no attempt at interpretation, sticking to technical descriptions leavened with the usual allusions to the mysterious Russian steppes. So concerned were they to avoid ‘extra-musical’ speculation that they failed to report that the Third Symphony’s first ten minutes consist of a ploddingly sinister – and musically barbarically stupid – military march. To address this would have involved asking some awkward questions, such as “Who is marching?” And “Is the stupidity Kancheli’s, or is he pointing at something else?” In fact, the context of Kancheli’s music until around 1990 was the Soviet enslavement of the independent nation of Georgia. In the most immediate sense, the march in the Third Symphony symbolises the forces then constraining Georgia’s freedom. It also means a great deal more than this – but it signifies this to begin with.
Kancheli’s music dwells on a complex of interrelated themes – grief, fear, solitude, vigil, memory, nostalgia, innocence, intolerance, protest, longing – each news piece approaching this nexus from a different angle, as if determined to perfect a coded way of talking about something either unmentionable or otherwise difficult to express. The composer has said that “the mysterious silence that precedes the emergence of a tone” fascinates him most. Yet to suggest the silence in his Sixth Symphony is as much politico-cultural as transcendentally “mysterious” in no way depletes the richness of his music’s meaning. All that’s important is to not mistake such works for neutral landscapes – or rather to picture the right sort of landscape: a landscape peopled with threadbare figures menaced by impersonal forces (much as in Tarkovsky’s Stalker).
The local Russo-Georgian symbolism inherent in Kancheli’s work is, at the same time, globally universal. The essence of his violent Fifth Symphony, for example, can be grasped by anyone who has seen Saddam Hussein’s Victory Monument in Baghdad. This is protest music – the protest of the soul against soullessness, of the downtrodden against brute power. Forged, like Shostakovich’s work, in the crucible of Stalinism, it addresses the whole planet, pleading for the sympathy of those lucky enough to be free and well fed. Even here, though, we must beware of taking mundane specifics as defining Kancheli’s scope. In the widest and deepest perspective, his ‘silence’ is, as he says, mysterious: the eternal spiritual dimension beyond this transient world. It’s in his focus on the transcendental that Kancheli departs most radically from the generation of Shostakovich, and finds most in common with his post-Soviet contemporaries.
Born in Tiflis on 10 August 1935, Kancheli worked almost exclusively in Georgia until moving to Berlin in 1992. His music first stirred interest in the West when his Fourth Symphony – which was awarded a USSR State Prize – was played there by The Philadelphia Orchestra in 1978. The New York publisher Schirmer commissioned his Fifth Symphony and the DDR’s Leipzig Gewandhaus his Sixth, but the difficulties of travelling abroad under the Soviet system prevented him capitalising on such recognition. Devoting the early 80s to his opera, Music For The Living, he regained foreign attention when his cantata Bright Sorrow was performed at the Third International Festival of Contemporary Music in Leningrad in 1988. In 1990, Bright Sorrow, and his Third, Fourth, Fifth and Sixth symphonies, were issued on CD, revealing moving and imaginative music in communicative tonal style.
“MUSIC,” wrote Ilya Ehrenburg vis-a-vis Shostakovich, “has one great advantage: without saying anything it can express everything.” Kancheli has never denied an early influence from Shostakovich and it isn’t hard to deduce the aspects which must have impressed him: the funerary largo from the older composer’s Sixth Symphony (1939), the desolate passacaglia of the Eighth Symphony (1943), the megalomaniac noise blasts of the Fourth (1935-36) and the Eighth, the pathetic ‘broken’ endings of the Second Plano Trio (1944) and Third Quartet (1946). Yet if, like Shostakovich’s music, Kancheli’s symphonies at one level explore the experiences of defencelessness and self-denial under conditions of state terror, they do so in a very different musical language.
While some claim to hear echoes of Bartók in Kancheli, there are only two clear ‘classical’ influences in his work: allusions to the baroque (for instance. the chaste harpsichord in the Fifth Symphony) and, more pervasively, to early Stravinsky (The Petrushka reference in the allegro of the Second Symphony and the two near-direct quotations from The Rite of Spring in the Third Symphony). The most ubiquitous of Kancheli’s classical “influences” is the slow, seesawing three-note melody of the E flat processional at the end of Stravinsky’s Symphony Of Psalms (a favourite of Shostakovich’s). Transposed to C major, this appears in the second movement of the First Symphony, and completely dominates the Second Symphony in D flat. In fact Stravinsky’s processional, with its measured minim tread, pedal tonality and pale flute voicing may be the model for Kancheli’s entire mature style (The final minutes of the Third Symphony certainly bear this out.)
If Stravinsky IS the most obvious of Kancheli’s ‘classical’ influences, his work is as fundamentally shaped by non-classical idioms, including Georgian folk, the West Coast cool jazz of the 50s, and postwar European film music (such as Michel Legrand’s score for Losey’s The Go-Between and Nino Rota’s soundtracks for Fellini).
From Georgian folk music, Kancheli derives some of his most characteristic traits: modal melodies, bass drones, dynamic extremes, antiphonal groupings, and passages in which polyphonic lines rise to sonorous convergence on unisons. Folk instrumentation likewise shows in lute-like pizzicati, bagpipe effects, and the use of flute and harp. Much of Kancheli’s cyclical stillness and slowness comes from the Georgian folk tradition, which is especially intense in its obdurate sense of deep-rootedness. Here the Caucasian Mountains enter Kancheli’s music as a psychological foundation and framing horizon.
Expressive timbre a likewise a focus of Georgian music, and it’s this aspect of his American sources that draws Kancheli as an orchestrator. From his Second Symphony onwards, he adds an extra flute to the usual three: the alto – an instrument favoured by Gil Evans, whose spare, pastel textures Kancheli admires .Assuming a prominent role in the Fifth Symphony and dialoguing with one of the solo violas in the Sixth, the alto lends a melancholy air to ha flute quartet, which often plays like an independent choir within his orchestra (There are no brass solos in Kancheli’s music.) The alto flute and the viola, using similar tessituras, are often treated as close relations in the composer’s work, presumably for their tonal resemblance to traditional Georgian folk instruments.
Another American influence is George Crumb, particularly his A Haunted Landscape on New World. In parts of Kancheli’s Third Symphony, his wind players are asked to breathe through their Instruments without producing a specific pitch, while in the Sixth the piano’s strings are plucked and, in a loud passage towards the end of the work, electronically amplified. And Music For The Living (1982-84) introduced bass guitar, which has been a staple of Kancheli’s orchestra ever since.
Just as Kancheli’s explorations in sound depend on the ideas or emotions he wishes to convey, so his harmonic and dynamic designs reflect his paradoxical vision of intense feeling behind a frozen and fearful facade. Thus, tempos are mostly so slow as to give the impression of motionlessness, an effect sustained, even when short note values are in play, by the use of small and very simple circular progressions, tense pedal points and agonised suspensions. This brooding process – in which natural modulations are frustrated, thrust back on themselves, or cramped within the narrow confines of adjacent keys and the interval of the second – has been described as “dynamic stasis”, as in the “slow motion of musical material with sudden dynamic explosions”, as Luigi Nono put it.
Related to the cyclical folk idioms integral to it, Kancheli’s method also suggests parallels with the film editing techniques familiar to him from his work in the cinema. In place of orthodox modulation, the composer cuts abruptly between keys or slowly dissolves one chord into another by accumulating their pitches into blurred clusters. Since the tonic in most Kancheli scores is a disputed issue (often brusquely dictated by the interrupting orchestra), these arpeggio-clusters – which have their precedents in Hollywood melodrama soundtracks – also amount to significant polytonal ambiguities in themselves. With its politically sensitive connotations of change, tonality in Kancheli’s music exists at an extreme margin in which it is able to manifest only as hesitant suggestion or wistful hope. In no other composer’s works do the solo instruments speak so quietly, or venture even the most modest of pitch excursions so diffidently.
At the level of general design, Kancheli works with extreme contrasts between moments of hesitant delicacy and cataclysmic avalanches of sound. Piano, harpsichord, spinet, harp, flute, viola and voice converse gingerly beneath the overvaulting precipice of the full orchestra, aware that at any moment it might descend on them. Between these extremes, time hangs still for long minutes while, at the grave pace of a Tarkovsky film, the music mixes cinematically from key to key, as if gradually shifting viewpoint. Kancheli’s cellular orchestration is intrinsic to these gradual transitions, tone colour superseding tonality in what amounts to a cinematographic conception of orchestral timbre as light. In these moments, his chords hang in space, lit by the tonal qualities of the participating instruments in a manner suggesting the static painterly compositions of the Soviet director Vsevolod Pudovkin. Kancheli’s cinematographic sense of orchestral colour as light – best exemplified in his warmest work, the Fourth Symphony – further brings to mind Andrei Tarkovsky and his lighting cameraman Vadim Yusov (although the composer himself has spoken rather of film noir and such Hollywood products as The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca).
Typically, in most of Kancheli’s later symphonies, a small, fragile sound is symbolically confronted by the full orchestra. In his masterpiece, the Sixth Symphony, this role is taken by a pair of solo violas, which the composer asks to be concealed, behind screens, on either side of the rear of the orchestra. One viola plays melody, the other an accompanying drone – an imitation of an ancient Georgian two-stringed Instrument called the chianuri. This disembodied sound, seemingly sourceless, becomes an eerie symbol of the suppressed Georgian national spirit. At the same time, it signifies something deeper: the tenuous presence of a higher dimension – the realm of the soul, of mysterious tradition and ancestral voices.
The Sixth Symphony is the locus classicus of Kanchell’s style. Like most of his symphonies, it is in one movement comprised of four distinct sections. Beginning on a G pedal, the work announces its sparse complement of motifs, virtually all of which derive from a gradual tentative expansion away from the major third, as if nervously testing how far it’s free to go. An imperious downward rush by the full orchestra onto G soon puts a stop to this, and the rest of the work grows out of the resulting chord of E minor (with a characteristic tragically yearning movement to the major dominant seventh and back). The stages of this prelude are formally delineated by a dry, time-marking B major scale on the harp, the eternal sadness of the two violas meanwhile persisting in the distance.
Thereafter, the symphony segues to its ‘second movement’: a slow Tarkovskian ascent to a dolorous D minor climax, relapsing on a unison G: the work’s halfway point. This passage conveys a near unbearable burden of repressed grief and outrage (Those who know Tarkovsky’s Nostalgia may be reminded of the agonising scene of the crossing of the fountain pool.) Two further D minor crescendos, funereally paced by a tolling bell, raise this anguish to an almost intolerable pitch – whereupon a memory of the work’s tentative first steps ignites a hammering totalitarian scherzo of crushing power. Out of the debris emerges a quietly exhausted recapitulatory epilogue. After half an hour, the symphony has succeeded only in moving the elements of its opening section up a semitone, producing the effect of an unanswered question.
Although this music has a very definite point of view, it is not possible to say, in so many words, what the Sixth Symphony ‘means’. Kancheli contemplates not merely the evils of the Soviet world but those of the human condition at large. Although it is routine to state that his music is ‘spiritual’, no one has so far dealt with the nature of this spirituality or its relationship to the forces which play such a darkly antagonistic role in Kancheli’s work. For example, In Bright Sorrow – and, later, in both Morning Prayer and Night Prayers (from Life Without Christmas) – he uses boys’ voices “to remind us of the voices of angels we have never heard. Like Benjamin Britten (most schematically in the War Requiem), Kancheli sees the material world as a realm of lost innocence convulsed by a Manichaean struggle in which “a force of invincible beauty towers above, and conquers, the forces of ignorance, bigotry, violence and evil”.
This force is spiritual, and Kancheli’s ultimate references – like those of Arvo Pärt, Sofia Gubaidulina, and Henryk Górecki – are transcendental (although not, in his case, conventionally religious). Kancheli sees the violent, materialistic modern world as exiled from a deeper contlnulty – “a high dream of the past, present and future” which he calls “romanticism” and which amounts to the inner spiritual life from which flow love and charity. To him, our machine-driven, theory-ridden culture is a perilously deluded nightmare: a life without Christmas. Indeed, in the composer’s blackest page (Night Prayer), the world itself becomes positively demonic – an irredeemably benighted place ruled by dark forces. All of Kancheli’s music springs from this dualistic vision of light over darkness.
Kancheli’s refusal to adopt a Socialist Realist folk-national style turned his early career in Georgia into something of an uphill struggle. He received a state stipend for his studies at the Tblisi Conservatory and, in 1962, won a prize at the All-Union Young Composers Competition. Yet his supposedly ‘cosmopolitan’ interests (in particular his fondness for jazz) made enemies, and shortly after the competition, his Concerto For Orchestra was savagely censured in a leading music magazine. That he didn’t produce his first ‘official’ opus, the First Symphony (1967), until he was 32 may not have been entirely due to his scrupulously slow compositional method.
Kancheli’s comrades. Pictured: Stravinsky (second right) with Anseimer, Diaghilev and Prokofiev, London 1921
Though it’s the only one of his symphonies to be divided into two movements, the First is nevertheless played continuously like the others. It’s least characteristic section is its opening allegro. Its second movement, however, displays the familiar Kancheli style already formed in most of its elements: chordal thinking, slow minim melodies, abrupt modulations and arpeggio-clusters, voice-like flute chorales and unharmonised high register violins. As such, the First makes an effective prelude to the cycle without being very striking or inventive in itself.
The title of the Second Symphony (1970), Songs, refers to the impact made on its composer by Church Songs, the composer-folklorist Kachl Rosebaschvili’s 1968 edition of traditional Georgian polyphonic pieces. Not that Kancheli quotes these pieces directly. “What fascinates me in the polyphonic songs of Georgia,” he admits, “is that secret spirit inherent in them, which I am not in a position to grasp”. The symphony is built on song-like fragments of Kancheli’s own devising, contrasted with unusually colourful orchestration. Aside from this, the Second is a further logical step in his stylistic development. While not as concentrated or convincing as his later symphonies, it is very lively and will certainly interest those familiar with the latter.
Though well on the way to formation in first two symphonies, Kancheli’s symphonic style lacked a final constituent: a voice in the foreground which could serve as a focus against which the background could be contrasted. In his Third Symphony (1973), he takes this ‘voice’ concept literally, employing the sweet, ethereal tenor Georgian folk singer Gamlet Gonashvili. Here, the composer makes explicit his theme of a confrontation between spirituality (symbolised by Gonashvili’s sorrowful phrases) and brutal worldly might (embodied in the tramp of the marching orchestra). It’s as if a Soviet parade passes through a sullen town beyond which the mountains rise in mute symbol of something truer and less crudely tangible. With its simplified musical means and clearer design, the Third is a marked advance over its predecessor. At the same time, its material is uncompulsive next to that of its successor, the Fourth, while its dependence on Gonashvili’s inimitably tremulous tone may limit future performances.
Few Kancheli scores lack a piano, which he usually employs for its bell-like sonorities. His Fourth Symphony (1975) replaces the piano with actual bells – those of an imagined Renaissance city with many churches. Dedicated to the memory of Michelangelo, Kancheli’s Fourth, like Shostakovlch’s Suite On Verses Of Michelangelo, was written in honour of the quincentary of the Florentine artist-poet’s birth.
Shostakovich’s work is one of his most bitter, taking every opportunity to use the fury and longing in Michelangelo’s verses to point up parallels with his own situation and that of all dissenting intellectuals under totalitarianism. As the earliest example of the modern self-determining artist, Michelangelo experienced incessant clashes with the authorities and regularly provoked the betrayal of jealous rivals. Like Shostakovich, he spent much of his time evading the demands and petty vengeances of his employers. Like Shostakovich, he would pretend to be working on one project whilst secretly finishing another. Like Shostakovich (vis-à-vis opera), he felt that he’d been diverted from his true destiny as a sculptor into areas of secondary interest to him, namely painting and architecture. Like Shostakovich, he was held under financial and moral blackmail, cheated and informed on. And like Shostakovich, he was bitter and pessimistic in old age.
Since few Soviet artists would have failed to identify the trials of Michelangelo as an anticipation of their own, we can assume that Kancheli’s symphony contains resonances akin to those of Shostakovich’s work. These, though, are by no means apparent from the music itself. The symphony’s scurrying central scherzo, in which one may picture a pursuit through the sunshine and shadows of a medieval Italian city, may be associated with Michelangelo’s flight from the wrath of Pope Julius II in 1505. The rest is less concrete.
Like most Soviet composers, Kancheli regularly wrote for the cinema (around 30 soundtracks in all). More significantly for the Fourth Symphony, he became, in 1971, the musical director of Tblisi’s Rustaveli Theatre, collaborating with the director Robert Sturua (who later wrote the libretto for Music For The Living). During this residency, Kancheli worked with Georgian folk musicians, which may account for his choice of Gamlet Gonashvili for the Third Symphony. It would certainly explain the Fourth Symphony’s anticipation of the Sixth‘s symbolic pair of folk-ancestral violas (In this case using two gravely sawing violins and, later, a group of three violas). These instruments frame the more Italianate episodes in the Fourth, placing a suggestive Georgian proscenium around events peculiar to ‘another time’. A similar theatricality applies to the symphony’s nursery rhyme theme (a ‘muscal box’ simulated by two harps and a celesta). Implying a child’s eye view, this motif is comparable with later symbolisms, such as the harpsichord in the Fifth Symphony and the boys’ voices in Bright Sorrow. We know from Kancheli’s own remarks that, for him, the Child symbolises innocence and the presence, within the world of force and matter, of a higher, spiritual dimension. But how can this be reconciled with a symphony dedicated to the adult Michelangelo?
In his memoir Testimony, Shostakovich outlines the meaning of his opera Lady Macbeth Of Mtsensk: “It’s about how love could have been if the world weren’t full of vile things. It’s the vileness that ruins love. And the laws and proprieties and financial worries, and the police state. If conditions had been different, love would have been different too.” When Shostakovich harks back to childhood in his music, it’s less for the sake of sentimental nostalgia than for memories of a more decent and sensitive world. If Michelangelo’s struggles with papal and princely power foreshadow the struggles of dissidents against the Soviet state, it becomes less surprising that Kancheli should have added such a childhood symbolism to his Michelangelo symphony. For Kancheli, as for Shostakovich, love is confronted by power as childhood is confronted by adulthood.
The same symbolic theme carries over into Kancheli’s Fifth Symphony (1977), dedicated to the memory of his parents. Here, the background influence is no longer the Georgian folk tradition, but instead the soundtracks and dramatic structures of modern cinema. The most violent and most melodic of Kancheli’s symphonies, the Fifth, with its sharply contrasted groupings and ‘movements’, suggests a wordless screenplay, complete with flashbacks and dream sequences. The modulations of the work’s quiet second section evoke an imagined revisitation of the past in conventional cinematic terms, the music turning slowly through its changes as if through the leaves of a photograph album. Indeed, the desolate waltz here might have been penned by Nino Rota and would not seem out of place in the soundtrack to The Godfather.
Lack of biographical detail on the composer’s life prevents us from guessing how close to home are the experiences evoked in this unhappy work. Whatever the story behind the Fifth Symphony, it’s clear that Kancheli’s film and theatre work here confer a new dramatic immediacy and a more certain sense of form. Formerly cryptic modulations now feel right; not a note seems wasted. Only the last movement fails to convince as a natural development of the violent scherzo which precedes it, appearing instead as if transplanted from another score (possibly the andantino from Schubert’s Piano Sonata In A, D959).Not that this is anything but a fleeting handicap, since this section is enormously powerful in its expression of tragic grief, forecasting the catastrophic catharsis of the Sixth Symphony. The dark horse among Kancheli’s mature symphonies, the Fifth has immense impact.
Kancheli’s symphonic style reached perfection in the Sixth Symphony (1980). The Seventh (1986), which followed his next work, Bright Sorrow (1985), is a letdown. None of its myriad themes is memorable and its layout is chaotic, the impression being of a formula played out. This may stem from the work’s lack of a focusing ‘voice’ along the lines of its four predecessors. Yet that doesn’t account for the similarly lacklustre Vom Winde Beweint (1990) – nor everything so far recorded from his comparatively prolific Berlin period. The last Kancheli score to be animated with real conviction is Bright Sorrow – and even this lacks the spark of positivity (or, in the last resort, of anger). While Kancheli’s life in Georgia during the 80s seems to have been grim, this alone can’t explain the extent to which he’s gone off the boil since his Sixth Symphony. At heart, the issue is a spiritual one. Simple and stylised, his music has always depended on strength of feeling. Under Soviet domination, this was high, although melancholy seems to have preponderated over fortitude during the 80s. The ease of life in Germany in the 90s, together with deepening pessimism over the gloomy fate of post-Soviet Georgia, may have taken the protesting edge off Kancheli’s art. Only time will tell if this a permanent. Recordings of Giya Kancheli’s works are issued by the CPO, ECM and Olympia labels.