Bringing the divine to Drogheda


For Sofia Gubaidulina, music and spirituality are inseparable, with one informing her passion for the other. MICHAEL DERVANmeets the leading Russian composer as she prepares for her first performance in Ireland

SOFIA GUBAIDULINA was born in 1931 in Chistopol in what was then the Tatar Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic, now the Republic of Tatarstan. She grew up in the republic’s capital, Kazan, which is situated is some 800km east of Moscow, where the Volga and Kazanka rivers meet. Kazan provided her with the sort of music education you might expect in the capital city of any country.

The route she followed was quite conventional for a high-achieving pianist, though she was to discover to her cost that, for her, composing was a barrier to piano playing and piano playing was a barrier to composing, and she would have to choose between them.

She was young when she discovered spirituality and religion, though the way it came to her, she says, is still something of a riddle. “I believe that it came through the music as well. For me, music and religion can be regarded as the same, and the religion came out of the sounds of the music. This feeling for religion came spontaneously. There was nobody who took me to church or taught me the bible. It came out of myself.”

She can identify her first moment of awareness. “I remember quite clearly a moment, while we were on holiday, and there were icons in the house we rented. And when I first saw an icon of Jesus, I thought, ‘I know him, I’ve seen him before’. My parents were very fearful, because it was dangerous in those times to be interested in religion.

“At that moment I felt very clearly that there was a connection between the world of sound and something higher, something divine.”

The relationship between music and spirituality has remained a key understanding. “I know and learned that there are concert halls and making music on the one side, and churches and religious services on the other, that they exist separately. But for me there is always this connection between the two spheres, and it is especially important for me.”

Although her upbringing was entirely secular, her paternal grandfather had been an Imam. “He was a progressive Muslim. When I was born he was dead 10 years, so there was no direct influence. I spent my youth in an industrial centre, and in this kind of place there was no religion to be felt. Christianity existed, though nobody was seen to practise it, save for the older generations, the old babushkas went to the church, but young people, never.”

She doesn’t seem ever to have focused much on having had a religious figure for a grandfather. “For everybody, it’s important where you have come from. That’s natural. For me it’s more important to see what you are going to do. The most important thing is that you have to find your own potential, what you can do. The background exists, but you have to go in your own direction.”

Her own direction, she always knew, was going to be a problematic one. “I knew very early that my kind of music was not appreciated by the Soviet mainstream. The regime supported only music which was on their line. I knew I wasn’t on that line.”

The potential for conflict, however, doesn’t seem to have concerned her. “The career didn’t interest me. There was another problem, another conflict – getting news and information on international music affairs. We had a very good education in classical music, but to get information on new music was the main problem. We spent a lot of energy in becoming better informed about what was going on in the world.”

When she was still a student, she had an inspirational contact with Dmitry Shostakovich, who heard her play some of her music, and advised her: “Be yourself. Don’t be afraid to be yourself. My wish for you is that you should continue on your own, incorrect way.”

But Shostakovich’s influence was a spiritual not a musical one. She never thought of modelling her music on his work. “My early pieces were more influenced by Prokofiev. Prokofiev was a good pianist, and perhaps I could find his influence in some of my early pieces. But the tragedy of Shostakovich’s life is nearer to me.”

Gubaidulina is one of those figures from the former Soviet Union who emerged into Western awareness as a fully mature figure.

You might have heard her work at specialised festivals or in radio broadcasts during the 1980s. But the breakthrough came through a 1989 CD of her violin concerto Offertorium, played by Gidon Kremer, which was coupled with Hommage à TS Eliot, inspired by the “shattering” effect of reading Four Quartets.

One of the most obvious characteristics of both works is her interest in unorthodox sounds and colours. Her Garden of Joyand Sorrow, which will be heard in Drogheda and Sligo this weekend, features the instruments of Debussy’s Sonata for flute, viola and harp, but uses them to create a world that mixes sounds of east and west.

Her recent Repentance(Drogheda only) is scored for a singular combination – cello, three guitars and double bass. “The most complicated thing is to put the sounds you hear in the atmosphere on the flatness of a piece of paper.”

Some of the sounds she imagines don’t, and possibly can’t exist. “You have to translate from many dimensions. For me it’s nearly like a crucifixion every time.”

She enjoys the metaphor I offer, that it’s like dealing with the smell of freshly-ground coffee, an aroma which suggests a flavour more exquisite than any cup of coffee can ever actually deliver. Yes, she says, emphatically, in English, a language which, at the age of 79, she has only recently started learning – apart from a few phrases in English our conversation was mediated by a patient interpreter.

The nature of Gubaidulina’s musical interests was absolutely not a recipe for official success in the Soviet Union. Before the relaxations of the 1980s, Gubaidulina and her listeners would often meet in artists’ garrets or basements, in an underground culture that had to maintain an invisible existence – forbidden painters and poets found an audience there, too. The subculture, she says, was free of ideology and commercialism. There was no money to be made, no public success to be had.

And, paradoxically, she feels that was an easier situation for a composer than the current climate, where commercialism is a “more awful” threat. Her advice to young composers today echoes what Shostakovich said to her all those years ago. “Follow your own thinking and style. You don’t have to please the public. It is better to be straight, to be oneself.”

GUBAIDULINA TRACES HER pre-occupation with unusual sonorities back to her earliest years. “I love all kinds of instruments, exotic ones and normal ones and their different sounds. It began in my childhood, when I was improvising with my sister at the piano, not only using the keyboard, but also the strings inside the piano. We tried all kinds of sounds that could made without using the keyboard. From the beginning I loved a world of secret sounds that would be unusual for normal listeners. I used to sit under the piano while my sister played with the pedal down. The sounds underneath were so different I found them really exciting, and I find new sounds, sounds that you can’t really explain, exciting even today.”

In 1975 Gubaidulina and two fellow composers, Vyacheslav Artyomov and Victor Suslin, began the practice of improvising together. “Our style of music-making was a form of communication through the sound. It was a kind of spiritual study, a kind of sacred school. We forbade ourselves to use instruments we knew how to play, violin, piano, and so on.

“Instead, we collected all kinds of percussion instruments from around the world. We didn’t want to learn the traditional technique of playing these instruments. We started to touch them, and to talk to each other by touching the instruments. We always put a microphone and made a recording of this ‘conversation’, this musical talk. I loved those musical talks very much.”

It was initially a private affair, but the three composers were eventually persuaded to appear in public under the name Astraea.

She recalls one improvisatory moment in particular. “I was touching a string on an exotic instrument with the bow of a double bass, and the sound which came out, it was my soul. My feeling was exactly the same as the sound I was producing.”

You drank the smell of coffee, I suggest.

“Yes,” she says, again in English. “Absolutely right.”

Drogheda Arts Festival’s Gubaidulina portrait concert, The Fire and the Rose, is at St Peter’s Church, Drogheda on Saturday at 8pm, with a screening of a documentary film by Barrie Gavin at Barlow House at 5pm. Garden of Joy and Sorrowalso features in the Music in Drumcliffe Festival in Co Sligo on Sunday

Gubaidulina - Best Works

Offertorium; Hommage à TS EliotDeutsche Grammophon

Gubaidulina's breakthrough recording in the West, featuring Gidon Kremer as soloist in the violin concerto Offertorium.

Seven Words; Silenzio; In Croce Naxos

Three works with the sound of a bayan, the Russian button accordion, paired with combinations of strings

The Canticle of the Sun; Music for flute, strings and percussion

EMI Classics (download only)

Two works from the 1990s including The Canticle of the Sun which was written for, and is here played by Rostropovich