Darkness visible...

The music of a Georgian dualist

During the late 1980s, glasnost began to reveal a secret tradition of hidden meanings in Soviet music. Mysterious concepts such as "shadow writing", "writing between the lines", "giving voice", and so on, became known, if not exactly familiar, outside the USSR. Western musicologists who had spent the Eighties languidly pooh-poohing the "new" Shostakovich disclosed by Solomon Volkov in Testimony suddenly found themselves puzzling over the music of composers like Alfred Schnittke, wondering, as if perfectly used to doing so, what it all "meant". In Gerard McBurney and Barrie Gavin's BBC2 TV documentary series on modern Soviet music Think Today, Speak Tomorrow (May 1990), a leading representative of the Moscow music 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."

What, though, were these symbols intended to express? The answer is bound up with secrecy itself. In one way or another, all nonconformist Soviet music was in effect a protest against the stifling of spiritual and intellectual freedom under the Soviet system - a repression at once so petty and so total as to be almost unimaginable to Westerners. Since, until around 1986, such protest could lead to anything from loss of income to being locked up in a mental ward, it had to be discreet: hence the need for symbols.

Of course, symbolism has long been a staple of all religious music and it is no surprise to find it playing a part in the work of believers like Vyacheslav Artiomov, Arvo Pärt, and Sofia Gubaidulina. In the same way, a purely mathematical symbolism is often used for its own sake by modern serialists, and Westerners will readily see how it might concern post-Webernians like Edison Denisov, Dmitri Smirnov, and Elena Firsova. 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 the feelings, experiences, thoughts, events - sometimes even the actual people - for which the symbol stands. Without such understanding, Soviet music - some would say all music - is reduced to little more than an interesting, and occasionally obscurely moving, arrangement of noises.

Consider the contemporary Georgian composer Giya Kancheli. While favourably disposed, Western reviewers of his first compact disc release in 1990 (Third and Sixth symphonies, Olympia OCD 401) made no attempt to put any interpretation on it, instead sticking to purely technical descriptions leavened with the customary references to the mysterious Russian steppes. So concerned were they to avoid any "extra-musical" speculation that their accounts entirely failed to report that the Third Symphony's first ten minutes consist of a ploddingly sinister (and musically barbarically stupid) military march. Their problem was understandable. After all, to address this would have entailed such awkward wider questions as: "Who is marching?" and: "Is the stupidity the composer's or is Kancheli pointing at someone else?" Isolated from history and the other arts in the technical over-specialisation of modern musicology, they possessed answers to neither question. In the same fashion, a technical article in a learned contemporary music journal observed, almost shrewdly, that, in Kancheli's Sixth Symphony, "silence is clearly both the origin and destination of the music" - though the question of why this should be so was (correctly) deemed to be beyond the purview of strictly formal analysis.

The fact is that it takes far more than even the shrewdest formal analysis to understand a work of art; specifically, it takes sympathetic intuition guided by an acquaintance with that work's historical and cultural context. The historical and cultural context of Giya Kancheli's music until around 1990 was the enslavement of the independent nation of Georgia by totalitarian Stalinism. The stupid, strutting slow march of the Third Symphony can thus be seen - even if only in the most immediate sense - as symbolising the brutal forces then chaining Georgia's outer freedom and distorting its inner integrity. Beyond any doubt, it also means a great deal more than this. But it signifies this to begin with.

An era of whispers

In general Giya Kancheli's music dwells obsessively on a complex of interrelated themes - grief, fear, solitude, vigil, memory, nostalgia, innocence, intolerance, protest - each new 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.

Spiritually akin to the Largo of Shostakovich's Sixth Symphony (1939), the concern of Kancheli's Sixth (1981) with "silence" is as removed from merely formal interest as the tense, drained stillness of the earlier work. To understand Shostakovich's Largo, one must know the atmosphere of late Thirties Russia, described by many who knew it as an era of whispers - the whispers of women queuing outside prisons for news of arrested relatives, as portrayed in Anna Akhmatova's Requiem; of Akhmatova in her apartment, whispering the poem to her friend Lydia Chukovskaya, afraid of hidden microphones; of the hushed, crushed tone of Chukovskaya's evocation of the period, Sofia Petrovna; of the "genre of silence" adopted by the ironist Isaac Babel at a time when it had become suicidal to write truthfully. In this sense and in this instance, Kancheli's "silence" is both the personal one imposed on him by the system and the general silence of Georgian culture under Stalinism. Yet this is only one aspect of what has developed over the last twenty years into the unifying concept - and guiding ideal - behind all of his music.

The composer has recently said that "the mysterious silence that precedes the emergence of a tone" fascinates him most. Yet to suggest that the silence in his Sixth Symphony is, in essence, as much mundane as transcendentally "mysterious" in no way depletes the richness of the music's nexus of meaning. Still less does it travesty it (as technical critics often complain) by imposing politico-cultural "limits" on its resonances. Rather, it brings focus to it through an appropriate general description, guiding the newcomer to apply the right adjectives and similes (whatever they may be for him or her) in the right places. In general, individual symbols can be left to individual interpretation. All that's important is not to mistake such works, as they often are in the West, for harmless landscape pieces - or rather to picture the right sort of landscape: a wasteland sparsely populated with broken, threadbare figures distantly menaced by vast impersonal forces - something not dissimilar to Tarkovsky's perplexing "post-disaster" film allegory Stalker (1979).

Having said all this, it is crucial to understand that the local Russo-Georgian symbolism inherent in Kancheli's work is simultaneously globally universal. Though his violently eruptive Fifth Symphony is seemingly very personal on the immediate and local level, it can, in essence, be easily grasped by anyone who has seen Saddam Hussein's Victory Monument in Baghdad. Like Shostakovich's Fourth, this is music for those who exist in the spirit-sapping shadow of oppressive megalomania. Similarly, if one wishes to know what Bright Sorrow is about (beyond its inscription to the memory of children killed during the Second World War), it is legitimate to think of the millions of innocents dying of hunger, war, and neglect around the world today. This is protest music - the protest of the soul against soullessness, of the poor and defenceless against unfeeling intolerance. Forged, like Shostakovich's work, in the brutal 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, however well-founded, as defining this composer's scope. In the widest and deepest perspective, Kancheli's silence is, as he says, "mysterious": the final ground of being - the eternal spiritual dimension above and beyond the transient noise and contingent evil of the world. It is in this focus on the transcendental that Kancheli departs most radically from the generation of Shostakovich, and finds most in common with his post-Soviet contemporaries.

A communicating voice

Born in Tiflis on 10th August 1935, Kancheli worked almost exclusively in his native Georgia until moving to Berlin in 1992. His music first stirred interest in the West when his USSR State Prize-winning Fourth Symphony was played there by the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1978. Thereafter, the New York publisher Schirmer commissioned his Fifth Symphony and the Leipzig Gewandhaus his Sixth, but the difficulties of traveling abroad under the Communist system prevented the composer from capitalising on this success.

Devoting the early Eighties to the composition of an opera, Music for the Living, he finally regained foreign attention when his quasi-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 and it became apparent that here was something rare: a contemporary composer of stature writing moving and imaginative music in directly communicative tonal style.

"Music," wrote Ilya Ehrenburg when considering the work of Shostakovich, "has one great advantage: without saying anything it can express everything." It is in this sense, rather than any fundamental similarity of approach, that Kancheli may be said to be an heir of Shostakovich. Kancheli has never denied an early influence from Shostakovich and it is not hard to imagine the aspects of the older composer which impressed him: the Sixth Symphony's funereal Largo, the desolate passacaglia of the Eighth Symphony, the megalomanic noise-blasts of the Fourth and (again) the Eighth, the pathetic "broken" endings of the Second Piano Trio and Third Quartet. Yet, while his symphonies, like Shostakovich's, evoke and explore the experiences of defencelessness and self-denial under tyranny, they do so in a very different musical language. Kancheli may share Shostakovich's sense of the poignancy of childlike simplicity and vulnerability, but his expressive means are based on other sources entirely, and only in the final section of his Second Symphony do we hear anything remotely resembling Shostakovich's voice.

While some commentators have claimed to hear echoes of Bartok in Kancheli's music, there are only two clear "classical" influences in his work. First: his chaste predilection for Schnittke-like "polystylisms", such as the pseudo-baroque harpsichord in the Fifth Symphony, and what appear to be deformed fragments of the first movement of Vivaldi's Winter concerto (RV297) in many of his more recent fff outbursts. Second: the early scores of Stravinsky. For example, a passage reminiscent of the finale of Petrushka crops up in the central Allegro of Kancheli's Second Symphony (13:43 in Jurowski's version on CPO), while an almost direct quotation from Le Sacre du Printemps ("Danse sacrale") occurs during the "scherzo" of the Third Symphony (21:53 in Kakhidze's Olympia recording). Likewise, a passage immediately after the latter suggests that the march from the symphony's first section is formally derived from Stravinsky's "Augures printaniers".

However, both the deepest and most ubiquitous of Kancheli's Stravinsky "influences" is the slow, seesawing three-note melody of the E flat processional at the end of the Symphony of Psalms. Transposed to C major, this appears in the second movement of Kancheli's First Symphony (3:15 on Glushchenko's disc) and completely dominates the Second Symphony (e.g., in D flat at 8:06 in Jurowski's version). Indeed this passage, with its measured minim tread, pedal tonality, and pale flute voicing would seem to be the ultimate model for the whole of Kancheli's mature "slow" style. (The final five minutes of his Third Symphony offers more evidence for this - although this very Stravinskyian passage also features a few bars anomalously harmonised in Messiaen style at 25:42.)

If Stravinsky is the most obvious of Kancheli's "classical" influences, his work is even more profoundly shaped by non-classical idioms, among these being Georgian folk forms, the American cool jazz style of the late Fifties and Sixties, and 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 tunes, bass drones, wide dynamic extremes, antiphonal groupings within a larger whole, and passages in which polyphonic lines rise into sonorous convergence on unisons. Folk instrumentation likewise shows in lute-like pizzicati, bagpipe effects, and his use of flute and harp. (For an illustration of these traits, consult the Rustavi Choir's recital Georgian Voices on Elektra Nonesuch, 979224-2.) In the same way, some of the cyclical stillness and slowness evoked by Kancheli's compositional method (see below: "Dynamic stasis") is probably due to the general influence of the Georgian folk tradition which, apart from offering typical "music of process", functionally linked to working, ploughing, and eating, is unusually 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, too, is a focus of Georgian music and it is this aspect of his American sources that interests Kancheli as an orchestrator. From his Second Symphony onwards, he has added an extra flute to the usual complement of three: the alto - an instrument favoured by the late jazz arranger Gil Evans, whose delicate pastel textures Kancheli much admires. (See Evans' collaborations with Miles Davis - for example, At Carnegie Hall, Giants of Jazz GOJCD 53023. Note, too, the trumpet gliss at 7:39 in Jurowski's recording of the Second Symphony.) Assuming a prominent role in the Fifth Symphony and dialoguing with one of the solo violas in the Sixth, the alto lends a melancholy tone to Kancheli's flute quartet, which often plays like a small independent choir within his orchestra. (There are no solos for brass in Kancheli's music.) The alto flute and the viola, occupying similar tessituras, are often treated as close relations in the composer's music, presumably for their tonal resemblance to certain traditional Georgian folk instruments.

Another American influence is the texturally innovative work of George Crumb, an appropriate example of which can be heard in A Haunted Landscape (1984, New World NW326-2). In parts of Kancheli's Third Symphony, for instance, his wind players are asked to breath through their instruments without producing a specific pitch, while in the Sixth the piano's strings are plucked and, in a very loud passage towards the end of the score, electronically amplified. (Music for the Living, written 1982-4, introduced electric bass-guitar and this instrument has been a staple of Kancheli's orchestra ever since.)

"Dynamic stasis"

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 characterised as one of "dynamic stasis". (Luigi Nono: "slow motion of musical material with sudden dynamic explosions".)

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 at any given point in a Kancheli score is a disputed issue (often brusquely dictated by the interrupting full orchestra), these arpeggio-clusters - which have their precedents in the Hollywood melodrama genre - also amount to significant polytonal ambiguities in themselves. In Kancheli's music, tonality, with its (politically sensitive) connotations of change, exists at an extreme margin in which it is capable of manifesting 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 mainly 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 its viewpoint. Kancheli's cellular orchestration is intrinsic to these gradual transitions, tone-colour superseding tonality in what amounts to a quasi-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 and most immediate work, the Fourth Symphony - again brings to mind Andrei Tarkovsky and his lighting cameraman Vadim Yusov (although the composer himself has spoken rather of the film noir idiom and such Hollywood products as The MalteseFalcon and Casablanca).

The Sixth Symphony

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, for example, 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 Georgian national spirit, so long suppressed by Communism. At the same time, it signifies something deeper: the hidden, all-too-tenuous presence of a higher dimension: the neglected realm of the spirit, of mysterious tradition, and ancestral voices.

Kancheli's Sixth provides a classic illustration of his style. Like most of his other 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 is 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 Tarkovskyian 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 grief, outrage, and repressed expression. (Those familiar with Tarkovsky's Nostalgia may be reminded of the agonising scene of the crossing of the fountain-pool.) Only Shostakovich - and arguably Allan Pettersson in his Seventh Symphony - has composed music of such explosively overwhelming tragic feeling. Certainly only the 20th century has provoked art of such catastrophic intensity.

Two further D minor crescendos, funereally paced by a tolling bell, raise the anguish of the symphony's "second movement" 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.

A vision of light over darkness

Although it should be clear by now that his music has a very definite point of view, it is not possible to say, in so many words, what Kancheli's Sixth "means". An antagonism to insensitive power and domination by concerted cruelty and blundering dogma - that much is obvious. But where this vision of "darkness visible" ends is unclear. Evidently Kancheli here contemplates not merely the immediate evils of the Soviet world but those of the human condition as a whole. Yet, although it has become routine to state, rather vaguely, that his music is "spiritual" in aim and inspiration, no commentator has so far ventured an opinion on the nature of this spirituality and its relationship to the forces of violent disruption which play such a disturbing antagonistic role in the composer's work.

In fact, Kancheli has supplied ample explanation of what this aspect of his music consists of and how it relates to the anger and brutality which stand opposed to it throughout his oeuvre. For example, in Bright Sorrow - and, later, in both Morning Prayers and Night Prayers from "Life Without Christmas" - he introduces boys' voices "to remind us of the voices of angels we have never heard". Like Britten (most schematically in the War Requiem), Kancheli sees the material world as a realm of lost innocence convulsed by a perpetual Manichæan struggle in which (in his words) "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 Pärt, Gubaidulina, and Gorecki - are transcendental (although not, in his case, conventionally religious). Kancheli evidently sees the violent, materialistic modern world as exiled from a deeper continuity - "a high dream of the past, present, and future" which he calls "romanticism" and which amounts to the inner spiritual tradition from which flow love, charity, and all pro-social values. To Kancheli, our machine-driven, dogma-ridden culture is a perilously deluded nightmare: a "life without Christmas". Indeed, in the composer's blackest pages (e.g., Night Prayers), 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 - and, at its freshest, its expression is powerful indeed.

Part 2: A critical selection

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