Faulty Towers

From Art Under Stalin
by Matthew Cullerne Brown
(Phaidon Press, 1991):

"The Moscow Hotel is of particular interest because its facade, for no clear aesthetic reason, is asymmetrical. Legend has it that Stalin himself, when presented with a drawing that incorporated, on either side of a vertical axis, two alternative designs for the facade, placed his signature in the centre of the sheet, apparently approving both variants. No one dared tell him - whom the Union of Soviet Architects addressed as 'Chief Architect and Builder of our Socialist Motherland' - of his oversight, if oversight it was."

Lenin in a Hut

Excerpt from interview with Mstislav Rostropovich
by Douglas Kennedy
The Daily Telegraph, 4th November 1994

"In the brave new free market world of the Russian Federation, an entire generation of apparatchik composers (who were once supported by the state solely on the basis of their Party membership) find themselves out in the cold. And Rostropovich is caustically funny about the bad old days of the Union of Soviet Composers: 'For decades, a composer completely devoid of talent could go to the Ministry for Culture and say, "I have an idea for an oratorio called Lenin in a Hut", and they would immediately offer him a commission, because how could they refuse? So he was paid for his terrible music and as soon as it was finished it was buried in some basement. I would be fascinated to know where all this garbage is hidden today.'"

Sign Language I

Interview with Gidon Kremer by Robert Cowan
The Independent, 11th November 1994

...Cowan drew a speculative parallel between Schnittke and Shostakovich, both of whom, he felt, had, at one time or another, veered in the direction of parody...

"No, no, I wouldn't take it for parody at all, in either case," retorted Kremer emphatically. "Both composers used quotations as symbols, which in turn can be seen as elements in a collage. And yet these symbols can also have their independent meanings. If, for example, a composer quotes BACH or DSCH, or even fragments of Wagner and Rossini (as Shostakovich does in his Fifteenth Symphony), these are like so many playing cards used to develop an idea. It's not just a gimmick or a question of parody; it's more a case of provoking something in us, challenging us to look at things differently.

"Even the 'pleasing' quotations in Schnittke's music could be interpreted as a sort of alarm, warning us of all the nonsense going on around us. Schnittke isn't suggesting that his 'backward glances' recall Good Music and that all the rest is bullshit. He's reminding us that when these older styles existed, we dealt with different values - and that, nowadays, we're in a big mess.

"Take, for example, the Tango from Schnittke's first Concerto Grosso, which might initially seem like a sort of musical accident. And yet, viewed within the drama as a whole, it's as if we're suddenly looking down at the street, seeing some fool dancing there...

"The very idea of making it all seem even more ridiculous, to exaggerate things terribly, to distort something into a state of utter nonsense - sometimes that helps us to understand that a basic idea is wrong."

Sign Language II

...From an article by Polish composer Krzysztof Meyer describing his meetings with Shostakovich. This - excerpted - visit took place at Shostakovich's Moscow flat in March 1968 when Meyer was a somewhat bewildered 25-year-old...

"Suddenly, Shostakovich turned to me with a low, almost apologetic voice: 'And you have promised to play your sonata for me?'

"I sat down at the piano. When I'd finished, he remained silent for a moment, and then said: 'You play the piano very well.' He reflected for a while and added in a low as if surprised voice: 'Really marvellously.' Then he took a look at the score, browsed through it, and added: 'Such a good sonata, a pity that it's over.' And unexpectedly he became roused: 'Why didn't you write some more, some more?!' Once again he opened the score on the last page. 'The sonata should be completed here' - he browsed through some empty pages at the end of the manuscript, moving his finger across them - 'Or here you should complete it... Or, better, here' - he moved his finger a couple of centimetres upwards - 'Or here' - he showed another spot. 'A splendid sonata, you play the piano perfectly.'

"I was in a good mood again. Meanwhile, Irina Antonovna asked us into a generously-set table in the next room for tea. Shostakovich quickly poured some wine and at one gulp emptied the whole glass. He emanated great joy and soon I found out why, when, as if incidentally, he mentioned that several days before he had finished his Twelfth Quartet. 'I was working over it at Repino. Such marvellous countryside there. It's a pity you didn't come there; we should have met there - not in Moscow but at Repino.'

"I asked him about the opus number of the new quartet. 'It's so difficult to say, so difficult. But my sister in Leningrad knows all my opuses, so I have to ask her. Oh, by the way,' he interjected, 'do you know how to say "take off the mute" in Italian? - because I have to put it in the score. Not "play without mute", but "take off the mute". Can you tell me this?'

"I wanted to find out more about the new piece, but gathered only that it was 'much more complex than the Fifth Quartet' before another subject was brought up. Shostakovich spoke faster and faster, and from time to time stopped eating and tapped a rhythm with his fingers on the table or played with a bottle-cork, tossing it from one hand to another and rolling it among plates. Then suddenly he almost burst out: 'I can't look at this lamp over us!' (It was a beautiful crystal chandelier). 'I'm always scared some part of it will fall on my head. It should be protected!' And more and more nervously he tossed the cork about on the table..."

A Movable Jest

...An Iranian critic - and Shostakovich fan - who, for reasons of prudence, wishes to remain anonymous, comments on the Russian word 'yurodstvo' and its Central Asian equivalent 'ketman', as invoked in The Captive Mind by the Polish writer Czeslaw Milosz...
"I prefer the Arabic word 'tashbih'. They all mean the same thing - a way of talking that sounds orthodox whilst secretly mocking orthodoxy. This is an ancient Asian tradition linked with oriental despotism, a system founded on autocratic control of irrigation systems. This despotism exists in the 'spirit' of nations like Russia, China, and Iran, irrespective of historical period, viz., Stalin, Khomeini, or the political happenings in China in 1989. The reaction of artists has always been connected with 'tashbih' and is still usual in contemporary Iranian poetry."
...The following extract, being a straightforward political joke is not, strictly speaking, of the 'yurodstvo/ketman/tashbih' type, but inasmuch as it originated in Russia - for Rafsanjani and Khomeini substitute any pair of consecutive Soviet leaders - it illustrates the international nature of satire and the universality of the despotic experience...

From "Love the revolution, shame about the reality"
an article on political corruption in Iran
by Robert Fisk (The Independent, 5th June 1995)

"President Rafsanjani is so worried about the collapse of the Iranian economy that he decides to telephone the Ayatollah Khomeini in Heaven for advice. But when he gets through to Heaven, God tells him that Khomeini is in another place. Mr Rafsanjani phones Hell, finds the Imam and chats to him for two hours about the state of the nation.

"Three weeks later, the phone bill arrives: $100 for the one minute call to Heaven, $10 for the two-hour call to Hell. Mr Rafsanjani calls the post office to query the bill: 'Why so much for a short call to Heaven and so little for a long call to Hell?' 'Simple,' replies the Iranian post office accountant. 'Heaven was an international call. Hell is local.'"

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