Sofia Gubaidulina, “Offertorium,” Part I

Sofia Gubaidulina, Offertorium (1980), concerto for violin and orchestra

This is the first installment of a two-part exploration of Sofia Gubaidulina’s “Offertorium.” This piece became a favorite of mine several months ago, and between the piece itself and what Gubaidulina has to say about it, there is quite a lot of fascinating ground to cover. Part II will follow in two weeks.

Part I

Some have described Sofia Gubaidulina’s unique sound as “polystylism” or “eclecticism.”[1] These are convenient, catch-all labels that attempt to explain Gubaidulina’s eccentric blendings of diatonic and fully chromatic elements, occasional Bach quotes, and timbres and forms that could only be imagined in the 20th or 21st centuries. In agreement with the composer’s own view, however, I would argue that works like “Offertorium” remain resistant to stylistic labels; Gubaidulina’s music is better understood from the perspective of the Christian mysticism that shapes her understanding of musical materials and forms.[2]

As its title implies, “Offertorium”  is the result of Gubaidulina’s contemplation of surrender, sacrifice, and the narrative of suffering and redemption (or death and resurrection) that is central to her Christian faith. A conversation with some of my colleagues in composition seminar last year made me realize that this type of suffering-redemption narrative is deeply engrained in Western culture, and particularly in the way humans have traditionally organized narrative structures in the Western world. In “Offertorium,” Gubaidulina seems to ask what this ancient narrative means in the 20th century, and how this story can be retold in a language unique to the era of the piece.

The suffering-redemption narrative shapes Gubaidulina’s compositional choices on the most basic levels of pitch, dynamics, and orchestration. Gubaidulina explains that she chose to use the royal theme of Bach’s “Musical Offering” (stated at the opening in an orchestration reminiscent of Webern’s orchestration of the Ricercar) not as a reference to a stylistic past, but “to symbolize the idea of sacrifice.” [3] In this work, as in other Gubaidulina works, diatonic materials generally represent light (redemption), while chromatic materials represent darkness (suffering). Register and dynamics also appear to be endowed with symbolic significance in this concerto; very high sounds are often paired with primarily diatonic material, soft dynamics, and thinner textures (at 3:29, for example), while the lower register is most often combined with fully chromatic material, harsh dynamics, and dense orchestration. My favorite sounds in this piece are the loud, dramatic downward sweeps –representations of suffering – that Gubaidulina creates through string glissandi, rapid descending lines, tam tam and bass drum rolls, and other percussion (1:20-1:39 is an early occurrence; the most dramatic instance appears at 37:00).

My next post will examine how the suffering-redemption narrative influences form in this piece.

[1] Vera Lukomsky, “Sofia Gubaidulina: ‘My Desire is Always to Rebel, to Swim Against the Stream!’” Perspectives of New Music Vol. 36, No. 1 (Winter, 1998), 26- 27.

[2] Ibid., 27. Gubaidulina expresses somewhat amused impatience with musicologists who impose stylistic labels on her music. She explains that “in my case, it is never a stylistic issue. Musicologists do not know how to describe my music and just attach inaccurate labels to my music!” The composer goes on to remark that similar labels are imposed on the music of Bach: “…I protest against the label ‘eclectic,’ which musicologists pin on Bach…Bach did not care about style at all. He thinks about God, he talks with God in his music!” It can be inferred from these remarks that Gubaidulina sees her own music in a similar light.

[3] Ibid., 26.

The Long Way Round

Alexander and Darius

by Nathan Cornelius

I recently heard a well-known composer talk about his strategy for writing melodies in his vocal music.  He explained how he searches for intervals and contours that make the melody singable, without carrying tonal connotations. I immediately thought back to various times in composition lessons when my teacher suggested I change a certain note or chord because it suggested a tonal function at that moment.  These reflections brought up an issue I’ve long puzzled over: What’s the big problem with tonality that modern composers are so intent on avoiding it? Surely no one would argue that tonality is bad in itself; after all, composers created masterpieces for three centuries within that framework. Do many composers today simply consider novelty and freshness so important that they automatically steer clear of anything once considered the norm?

In a previous post, I compared composers in search of innovative sounds to explorers charting unknown lands. Perhaps new-music audiences today, then, are like the soldiers of Alexander the Great, carried further and further eastward as their visionary leader conquered one distant kingdom after another. What of those soldiers unwilling or unable to settle down and begin a new life far away from their families and their homeland? Must they simply mutiny as Alexander’s armies did, marching back to tonality via the more comfortable provinces of neoromanticism, postmodernism, and the like—and giving up hard-won territory in the process?

The writings of German composer Helmut Lachenmann suggested another alternative to me. Lachenmann, never one to shrink back from new sound worlds in his music, nevertheless warned against merely creating “music that laments the sorry course of world events through scratching sounds.” [1]  Instead, in his essay “Listening is Defenseless—Without Listening,” Lachenmann describes the goal of new music as “… deactivating and locking out the dominating listening habits and listening categories preexisting in society.”[2] In other words, audiences are so used to listening to music in certain ways that they don’t actually listen to the sounds they are hearing. After hearing hundreds of tonal works, our collective ears became so familiar with tonality that we became unable to hear it for what it was. Now, instead of listening to three distinct pitches, each in different octaves, we just hear a “minor chord” and are content to leave it at that. Of course, this phenomenon reaches far beyond tonal harmony. Composers such as Tristan Murail would argue that often we don’t really hear the partials because they make a timbre, we don’t really hear the timbres because they make a harmony, we don’t really hear the durations because they make a meter, and so on. In other words, we don’t see the trees, just the forest.

Composer Chaya Czernowin agrees that audiences can only truly appreciate familiar sounds when they break out of their tired old listening habits and hear them for what they really are. “Instead of the masks of musical styles,” she writes, musical sounds must be “liberated from past uses, constructs; in that state, the material unloads its past baggage, but gains more physicality as sound.” [3] Czernowin offers an analogy from human experience: “Underneath the dress of tradition, culture, habits, etc., people are people.  When one is able to… get rid of the masks, which differentiate us, there is a level where a person relates to his fellow human as a human, going beyond nationality, culture and history.”[4] Just as we must appreciate any human being as an individual first, without merely reducing him or her to a member of any class or category, we as listeners must strive to hear the sounds purely as sounds, resisting our impulse to group them into familiar patterns.

Until we achieve this breakthrough of listening, it is the duty of composers to nudge us toward it by continually presenting us with sounds that challenge our habits of hearing. This, Lachenmann writes, is “not a question of an excursion (or escape) into ‘new,’ ‘unfamiliar’ sounds in the sense of new acoustical worlds, but of discovering… a new sensibility in ourselves, or a newly changed perception. This new perception… rediscovers the intimately familiar as something new, as a world that suddenly sounds unfamiliar.”[5] Like the Magi, we can return to our own country if we wish, but not by the way we came. We have to go the long way round, an arduous route which takes commitment and determination to set out upon. Like the student who gains a truer perspective on his or her own culture by studying abroad for a month or a year, composers must dissolve the familiarity of “familiar” musical styles by immersing listeners’ ears in many other possibilities. As musical cosmopolitans, citizens of the world, we will still hold a special affection for our home country, not because it’s all we’ve ever known, but because it is the one from whence we set out and to which we may one day hope to return. Unless… who knows if, on the way, we might discover a new land we desire to adopt as our home?

Either way, I’m up for the journey.

[1] Helmut Lachenmann, “Hearing [Hören] is Defenseless—Without Listening [Hören]: On Possibilities and Difficulties,” translated by Derrick Calandrella, Circuit: Musiques Contemporaines 13, no. 2 (2003), 49.

[2] Ibid., 29.

[3] Chaya Czernowin, “The Other Tiger,” lecture given during the Réseau Varèse Conference, Berlin, March 17, 2007.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Lachenmann, 30.

How do you hear new music? Three lessons in creative listening from St. Thérèse of Lisieux

St. Thérèse rosesby Sarah Perske

Sometimes insights turn up in the most unlikely places; I’ve stumbled across intriguing ideas that apply to new music in the writings of poets, novelists, philosophers, and – in the present case – the autobiography of a 19th century nun. Consider the following odd story about the act of listening told by St. Thérèse of Lisieux:

“For a long time I had to kneel during meditation near a Sister who could not stop fidgeting; if it was not with her rosary, it was with goodness knows what else…I wanted to turn around and glare at the culprit to make her be quiet, but deep in my heart I felt that the best thing to do was to put up with it patiently, for the love of God first of all, and also not to hurt her feelings…In the end, I tried to find some way of bearing it peacefully and joyfully…I even tried to like this wretched little noise…so I turned my whole attention to listening really closely to it, as if it were a magnificent concert…”[1]

This story contains three ideas that I find inspiring:

  1. Listening is a creative act

Listening is a creative act, as intentional and generative as composing itself. In this story, the way St. Thérèse listened to the sounds was more important than the sounds themselves. Ordinary noise was transformed into “a magnificent concert” through her imaginative listening. It’s easy to find examples of composers whose works have been influenced by listening creatively to their environments; Messiaen’s extensive use of bird song and Xenakis’ bullet-inspired ideas in Metastasis come to mind. Lately I’ve been trying to listen to my daily environment more creatively, taking note of dishwasher noises, paper rustling, the wind moaning through an open window…and so on. I have also found it valuable to spend extra time listening imaginatively to the work of other composers, especially if I don’t respond to a particular piece with immediate admiration. The most noticeable result of these efforts so far is that I’ve been dreaming about sounds with greater vividness and variety than I have ever experienced before. I’m beginning to think there is no such thing as “ordinary noise;” every sonic event is a miraculous event with infinite value…if I choose to hear it that way.

  1. Intentionality is key

An attentive, open-minded audience member once told me that she occasionally feels some young composers do not really “mean what they say” in music. In other words, this audience member feels that committed, authentic creative intent is sometimes missing from a given composer’s choices. In St. Thérèse’s story, the sounds became musical through the efforts of the listener, but there was no discernible creative intent behind the actual production of the sounds; the Sister with the rattling rosary was presumably unaware of her own noise-making. As a composer, I want to be sure that I’m meeting listeners halfway in terms of my own sincerity and commitment to the kind of music I write. How can I be certain that the music I write is ‘intentional,’ that my compositional choices are choices I really believe in, and that my decisions are not merely guided by default responses to the difficulties I encounter?  If I succeed in writing ‘intentional’ music, will this necessarily translate into ‘good’ music? I’m still looking for answers to these questions…I would be interested in hearing what others think about this.

3. Music is the result of collaborative listening

Finally, this story made me realize that only when someone decides to approach sound with sincere creative intent do we cease to call it “noise” and begin to call it “music.” I think this transformation of “noise” into “music” is only complete when at least two or three people – a composer, a performer, and an audience member – make a commitment to perceive sound in a creative, intentional way. This makes the creation of music a collaborative effort in which each participant’s contribution is indispensable. It seems to me that the participants achieve this collaboration by listening with an awareness of one another as well as an awareness of the music itself. The production and reception of the sounds are, after all, products of human choice, and I think we always approach music with a consciousness of and appreciation for the human minds, hands, ears, and vocal chords that cause it to exist. For this reason, no concert is commonplace; a concert is an active exchange of ideas with very little reliance on words, a mysterious communion of intellects that is found in few other settings.

[1] St. Thérèse of Lisieux, The Story of a Soul, trans. Michael Day (Charlotte, NC: Saint Benedict Press, 2010), 147.
I found this story inspiring enough to make it the subject of an electronic piece a few years ago. If you’re curious, you can hear it on my YouTube channel:



Who Needs Compositional Structures? or, Escaping the Sea Monster


by Nathan Cornelius

In listening to composers talk about their work, I’m often struck by the amount of importance and meaning they attach to form or structure in their music. By “structure,” I mean any schematic or systematic element of a piece, from rules for what chord progressions it may use, to an overarching design in the order of the sections, to a complex algorithm generating non-retrogradable rhythms. On the other hand, a so-called “intuitive” approach to composition, relying on what “sounds right” to the composer’s ear, is often looked down upon as naïve.

The problem I see is that the structures are often so deeply submerged beneath the surface of the music as to be virtually unperceivable to someone without inside knowledge of the composer’s intentions. Someone has quipped that Pierre Boulez’s Structures Ia, which has strict rules governing the exact placement of every note in the piece, sounds more random than the music of Iannis Xenakis, who used statistical distributions to simulate randomness, or of John Cage, who literally rolled dice to determine the notes. To be sure, Boulez’s rules succeed in preventing any note or rhythm from taking precedence over the others. But if a composer can create the intended effect of the rules serendipitously, without working through an elaborate system, can you say that the rules play any role in making the music “good music”? I would answer that they actually do, but before I offer a theory as to why, I want to consider two imaginary composers.

Composer A had no interest in classical music until her early twenties, when she attended a memorable new music concert and immediately decided to become a composer. Such a composer would begin her compositional career as a musical tabula rasa, without developed tastes for or allegiances toward certain styles from the tradition of Western art music. Were Composer A to compose according to her intuitions, the results would be unpredictable, since she would have no reservoir of experience to guide her intuitions. Yet, once she began composing in any given style, she would begin to develop intuitions within it. In this way, her initial choice of direction for her style could become a self-reinforcing cycle: experience with a style begets familiarity with it, and familiarity facilitates further experience in the same style.

While few composers begin their careers as suddenly as Composer A, the narrative of Composer B is perhaps more common. Growing up in a musical household, he played piano from a very young age and developed a passionate affinity for the music of Brahms. Like Composer A, he did not become a composer until early adulthood, but unlike Composer A, he brings pre-existing musical preferences to his work. What “sounds right” to Composer B would, to some extent, be what sounds like Brahms. Were he to write a piece in the style of Brahms, Composer B’s preferences could become even more self-reinforcing than Composer A’s, as he would now be familiar with that style as listener, performer, and composer.

Is composer B then doomed to become a Brahms imitator, with the only question the quality of his forgeries? History shows that this is clearly not the case, as many 20th- and 21st-century composers nurtured a love of classical music from a young age, yet found ways to move beyond their influences and create new and distinctive styles. We have been assuming all along that both composers A and B were writing music purely based on instinct, following whatever ideas their imagination, conditioned by their experience, suggested. But what if they were aware of this and constructed a system of rules to keep themselves from falling into the well-worn patterns of the familiar? By forcing themselves to write according to an unfamiliar set of rules, even awkward or constraining ones, composers can begin to realize possibilities beyond those suggested by blind instinct.

If they reject their musical instincts as a guide, composers still need some point of access into the terrifying blank space on the map marked Terra Incognita Musicalis (guarded by the menacing sea monster Writer’s Block). I would suggest that this is, in fact, the main role of musical structures—not as a well-marked path to escort listeners on a tour through the music, but as a compass to orient the composers themselves on their explorations into it. Or, to use another metaphor, composers who resist the temptation to build solely on the old foundation of their experiences still need some sort of scaffolding to hang their musical thoughts on until they can construct a new building of their own. It is not important whether the scaffolding is still visible once the building has been built; as long as it enables the composer to structure his or her ideas in a coherent yet innovative way, it has served its purpose.