The music of dreams


Who is Valentyn Silvestrov? MICHAEL DERVANon a Ukranian composer of ‘memories of tragedies you’ve never experienced’

VALENTYN SILVESTROV is a composer of slowly decaying memories. He’s become something of a specialist in creating musical afterwords, statements steeped in elegy and nostalgia, often moving in slow, hauntingly smeary swirls.

He brings you evocative memories of tragedies and burdens you’ve never actually experienced. Virko Baley, the dedicatee of Postludium(1984), describes the experience as “the future of an event long gone”.

“A never-ending reverberation,” suggests critic Hans-Klaus Jungheinrich. “Precisely notated improvisation inspired by illumination in a wakeful state or a dream,” says pianist Alexei Lubimov.

For a visual analogy, imagine the colours spreading from a submerged painting, dissolving and dispersing in a slow-moving current, where the pigment forms dream-like images, familiar but not quite recognisable, the original tantalisingly obscured and modified by the products of its own dissolution.

Silvestrov’s music is still little known in this part of the world. All of the Irish performances I’m aware of have taken place in the 21st century, and all of them were in Co Cork. The Fifth Symphony of 1982, which was recorded by Sony Classical in the mid-1990s and in the Ukraine 10 years earlier, didn’t receive its first public performance in London until earlier this year, preceded, in 2006, by the Second Symphony of 1965. The bulk of what’s appeared on disc has not been from the biggest companies, but on the much smaller ECM and Megadisc labels.

The two symphonies that have been heard in London encapsulate key aspects of the musical journey Silvestrov has taken. He was a student when he tangled uncomfortably with the establishment. He wrote a short, 12-tone string quartet in 1961, and submitted his First Symphony, a “dialogue of sound systems”, as his graduation piece in 1963. The exam committee refused to accept the work, which he replaced with a ClassicalOverture.

The Second Symphony of 1965 is a work fully in the avant-garde vernacular of the time, though Silvestrov’s own descriptions of his works of the 1960s is rather more colourful – “spontaneous outpourings akin to medieval mysteries”. Parts of the spontaneity were achieved through the use of John Cage’s aleatoric techniques.

The 1982 symphony is from another world entirely, a world in which Silvestrov wanted not so much “to write something that is beginning” as to reply, rather, to “something that has already been expressed”. Ghosts of romanticism, including the Adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, haunt the landscape.

It was in the late 1960s that the composer came to distance himself from the avant-garde, reaching the belief that “composition seemed to be stuck in a one-way-street built by the avant-garde composers themselves. They were just searching for new methods, damned the old and created a kind of ‘musical Esperanto’.”

The conclusion he reached was that “the most important lesson of the avant-garde was: to be free of all preconceived ideas, particularly those of the avant-garde”.

He didn’t by any means ditch all the techniques or resources that had been opened up in his avant-garde years. And he doesn’t seem to have been deterred by his expulsion from the Ukrainian Union of Composers in 1970 for “disturbing the social order”.

His 1972 Meditationfor cello and chamber orchestra has players striking and extinguishing matches, and switching the house lights off and on. Yet it also includes what sound like direct quotations (or fabrications) of music from earlier centuries. This was a harbinger of things to come.

The String Quartet of two years later is recognisably the Silvestrov who’s writing today. It draws the listener straight away into a world that consistently mingles past and present, as if you might be listening to something in a dream, a work of not quite Schubert that’s always threatening to become something else entirely, and hovers hauntingly in a state of perpetual in-betweenness.

Arvo Pärt quoted him in a New Yorker interview in 2002. “We cannot know all the good people in the world,” said Pärt. “Not many of the good people are composers. Twenty years ago, my friend Valentin Silvestrov, one of the greatest composers of our time, said that nowadays great music isn’t made in concert palaces. Instead, it is created in lofts, basements, and garages.”

This Thursday, that list will include St Peter’s Church in Drogheda, where Ireland’s first Silvestrov portrait concert will include two world premières, Elizabeth Cooney and Elisaveta Blumina playing 5 New Pieces for violin and piano, and the specially assembled choir Louth Voices singing 5 Sacred Songs under Estonian conductor Tõnu Kaljuste. There will also be an opportunity to hear Silvestrov himself play a selection of piano pieces.

Louth Contemporary Music Society presents Sacred Songs of Valentyn Silvestrov, St Peter’s Church of Ireland, Drogheda, Thursday, 8pm