Sofia Gubaidulina

First, the parts of her Biography that I find most interesting: 


Gubaidulina was born in Chistopol, Tatar Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic to an ethnically mixed family of a Volga Tatar father and an ethnic Russian mother. While studying at the Children’s Music School Gubaidulina discovered spiritual ideas through Judaism and found them in the works of composers such as Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven. Gubaidulina quickly learned to keep her spiritual interests secret since the Soviet Union was against any religious ideas. These early experiences with music and spiritual ideas led her to treat the two domains of thought as conceptually similar. 


During her early conservatory years, Western contemporary music was banned nearly entirely from study.Raids even took place in the dormitory halls, where searches were conducted for banned scores,  Gubaidulina and her peers procured and studied modern Western scores nonetheless. 

For Gubaidulina, music was an escape from the socio-political atmosphere of Soviet Russia.[11] For this reason, she associated music with human transcendence and mystical spiritualism, which manifests itself as a longing inside the soul of humanity to locate its true being, a longing she continually tries to capture in her works.[12] These abstract religious and mystical associations are concretized in Gubaidulina's compositions in various ways, such as writing in bowing directions that cause the performer to draw a crucifix in the seventh movement of her Ten Preludes For Solo Cello.

She associates the indeterminate nature of percussive timbres with the mystical longing and the potential freedom of human transcendence. In an interview with the modern British composer Ivan Moody, Gubaidulina provides an explanation for how percussion is utilized in her works to show spiritualism. She says,


". . . percussion has an acoustic cloud around it, a cloud that cannot be analyzed. These instruments are at the boundary between palpable reality and the subconscious, because they have these acoustics. Their purely physical characteristics, of the timpani and membranophones and so on, when the skin vibrates, or the wood is touched, respond. They enter into that layer of our consciousness which is not logical, they are at the boundary between the conscious and the subconscious".


A profoundly spiritual person, Gubaidulina defines "re-ligio" as re-legato or as restoration of the connection between oneself and the Absolute. 

Melodically, Gubaidulina's is characterized by the frequent use of intense chromatic motives rather than long melodic phrases. She often treats musical space as a means of attaining unity with the divine, concretely manifest by the lack of striation in pitch space. She achieves this through the use of micro-chromaticism and frequent glissandi. This notion is furthered by her extreme dichotomy characterized by chromatic space vs. diatonic space viewed as symbols of darkness vs. light and human/mundane vs. divine/heavenly. Additionally, the use of short motivic segments allows her to create a musical narrative that is seemingly open-ended and disjunct rather than smooth. Finally, another important melodic technique can be seen with her use of harmonics. When talking about her piece Rejoice! Sonata for Violin and Violoncello, Gubaidulina explains, "The possibility for string instruments to derive pitches of various heights at one and the same place on the string can be experienced in music as the transition to another plane of existence. And that is joy."

Valentina Kholopova, Gubaidulina's close friend and colleague, outlined the composer's form techniques in detail. In addition to using the Fibonacci among other number sequences, Kholopova describes Gubaidulina's use of "expression parameters"; being articulation, melody, rhythm, texture, and composition. The name suggests the immediate effects of the each parameter on the listener. Each of these exists on a scale of consonance to dissonance, together forming the "parameter complex". For example, she describes a consonant articulation as legato, and a dissonant one as staccato, but each of these can change from piece to piece.


These stylistic aspects of her work are present in all of her guitar repertoire. Her handling of Harmonics, rhythmic and melodic associations are all in line with her general philosophy. It is not uncommon for a composer to constrict themselves when working with guitar because of a lack of understanding in regards to the instrument. 




Repertoire for guitar:


Serenade 1960: This is by far her most popular guitar work. In this period of her life her works are typically short solo works. She's still studying with Nikolay Peyko at this time and she's paying homage to her great 18th and 19th century role models by taking on this neo baroque aesthetic. 


Toccata 1969: Her second solo guitar piece which is much less known. It lacked a western edition till 2016 when David Tanenbaum together with the Sikorski Verlag published the complete guitar works by Sofia Gubaidulina. This piece also carries a typically 18th century title, this time probably in homage to Bach. Her chromaticism vs diatonicism (light vs darkness) aesthetic is very present. When one listens to the Musical Toys written in the same year one can see the over arching patterns that were occupying the composer at this time in her life. 


Repentance: I'll let David Tanenbaum do the heavy lifting for this piece. 

Repentance (2008) for three guitars, cello and bass, was commissioned by the San Francisco Symphony and was premiered in San Francisco on February 22, 2009. It is the latest and seemingly final version of a piece written a year earlier, Ravvedimento (2007) for cello and guitar quartet. Later in 2007 she created the version called Pentimento for bass and three guitars, dedicated to the bass player Alexander Suslin. Ravvedimento and Repentance are dedicated to the cellist Ivan Monighetti. Although Gubaidulina is deeply religious, and all three titles refer to repenting, this repentance is secular: at long last it is the delivery of a promised piece to a cellist who was an early and long time champion of her music.


I included the video of Gubaidulina coaching the Pentimento quartet becuase as the composer get's older such events will become ever more seldom and one must treasure what one has. And a little tip: She wants a Friction Mallet at the end. You can make your own, but there are plenty of options to buy.


Sotto Voce: PEOPLE MUST PLAY THIS PIECE MORE!! THIS PIECE IS SO COOL!  The rhythmic variety, the dynamic range, the interplay between the instruments, the toys! 


David Tanenbaum again:


Sotto Voce for viola, double bass and two guitars was written in 2010 and then revised in 2013. It was also written at the request of Alexander Suslin. Gubaidulina writes: ʻA constantly repeated motif is played on the three lowest (wound) guitar strings. It contains the mystery of a purely acoustic phenomenon: if you move the soft fingertips along the strings, pianissimo, the result is sonorities that are very quiet, muted, dark and totally irrational in pitch. But if you press harder on the strings or run a plectrum across them, then behind the note that remains steady on one pitch, a space opens up for glissando; this can be exploited to achieve the greatest possible expressivity. Behind the steady note-pitch the string possesses an entirely different dimension! During the course of the piece, this motif is repeated countless times, encouraging each of the other instruments to develop its own possibilities of musical expression, as if responding to the urge to reply to the acoustic mystery that the motif constitutes.ʼ The Sotto Voce score calls for each guitarist to have a round drinking glass – ʻas slim as possible and at least 10.5 cm highʼ – to be used on the guitar strings. As with the Repentance ball, they produce a glissando sound unlike any slide or other device. In over forty years of playing new music, with many a drinking glass at my side, I had never before taken a drinking glass to the strings.


This, my friends, is why buying CD's is better than Spotify. You LEARN things about the pieces! We spent just as much time on our Mundus Novus booklet as we did on the recording itself. I know these details will only be important to the super nerds in the future. But if you want to know about the process and person behind the music you're listening to; buy the CD, and READ THE BOOKLET! 


I ordered some fancy slides, but apparently they're not tall enough. I have to get a Kölsch glass, I guess. I'll post my version of the Toccata when it's ready. Hugs and Happy Learning!

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