Beata BAUBLINSKIENĖ | Life Comes with Change. An Interview with Anatolijus Šenderovas

Anatolijus Šenderovas (b. 1945) and his oeuvre stand out in many respects within the context of Lithuania’s new music, yet they are also very close to it. As somebody who grew up in Vilnius and lived there before ‘discovering’ in 1990 his cultural and family roots in Israel when, after the fall of the Empire, its former citizens were allowed at last to travel to the distant West (as well as the East) and, more importantly, to come back without facing consequences, Šenderovas combined in his later works the arsenal of Western compositional tools with the intonations and taste for improvisation characteristic to the archaic music of the East. He acquired the former by digging into the specific field of the new music which existed in Eastern Europe in the second half of the 20th century while studying in Vilnius with Eduardas Balsys, one of Lithuania’s most prominent modernist composers at that time, and in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) with Orest Yevlakhov, a student of Dmitri Shostakovich; in addition to that, he attended concerts of the Warsaw Autumn Festival which became the venue for his post-graduate tutoring. He ‘collected’ the second – oriental – set while embarking on ‘live cultural studies’ and during composition courses at Samuel Rubin Israel Academy of Music in Tel Aviv. The amalgam of these cultures or indeed civilizations contributed to the distinctive sonority of the music Šenderovas has written over the recent decades, the sonority that speaks to listeners with flamboyant emotionality the structure of which rests on a sturdy dramaturgy of his music, while its specific modal colour and the composer’s taste for growing a piece from one thematic motto are often the reasons why his music bears an almost magical power to impress. Šenderovas is a prolific composer whose oeuvre includes three ballets (all staged), seven concertos for various instruments, almost thirty orchestral (both symphony and chamber) pieces, around forty chamber opuses and dozens of vocal, instrumental and choral compositions. He has been popular among performers many of whom have become his long-time partners, the Vilnius-born world famous cellist David Geringas being probably the most outstanding name on the list. It is no wonder then that performances of Šenderovas’ music have long ago crossed the geographical limits of Lithuania and Europe. Musicologist Beata Baublinskienė interviews the composer Anatolijus Šenderovas.

Your compositions are regularly performed onstage. How would you explain their popularity?

My pieces are usually performed because musicians want to. Take the most recent opus, the Third String Quartet, which premiered in April 2015 in Vilnius. I wrote it for ArtVio, the young and ambitious quartet the first violinist of which, Ingrida Rupaitė, asked me to compose a piece that would provide space to reveal the unique timbres of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century instruments made by French masters donated to the quartet by an arts philanthropist, Jonas Žiburkus. That is why the piece features, for instance, an air for the second violin that otherwise never plays solo, a toccata for the cello and a monologue for the viola.

Simultaneously, I was able to bring to life my personal creative aspiration of writing a quartet par excellence, i. e. following all the canons of the genre set by Bartók and Shostakovich. Not a composition for four instruments since there is no lack of such pieces in our contemporary music; but rather a multifaceted musical building comparable to a symphony in terms of its dramaturgy and inner evolution. My task, however, was a more complicated one because all I had was the four instruments instead of a full orchestra, yet the effect induced by these four had to be much more powerful. The Third Quartet turned into a contemplation of life that should be dominated by beauty.

The question about what is beautiful is still open, since today beauty is one thing, tomorrow it is another. However, despite the fast transformation of contemporary art, it is always perceived through a human being. ‘I like it’ and ‘I don’t like it’ are the two extremely dilettante concepts, yet they are very significant since a person usually stops being interested in a piece of art if s/he does not like it. Harmony, melody and rhythm are the things that music gradually gets rid of, but they still exist anyway as the human psyche picks rhythmic pulse and melodic turns out of chaos and other things that are part of music as well. It is impossible to get away from that.

Have you ever tried to? Who is the addressee of your music?

No, I have never tried to escape from the beauty, and I consider this kind of attitude natural. I am writing with a performer in mind; for me, a performer rather than a listener is at the forefront. Performers have to fall in love with your music gradually, and we should not be afraid of the word love here, since performers have to adopt your music little by little. Whenever a new piece of mine is rehearsed, I take part until I can tell the performers: now you do not need me any longer as the piece has become yours. That moment arrives when the performers cease asking questions such as how long a note or a pause should be; they begin to feel the flow of music from inside and they then shape it accordingly. I always tell them: at the beginning, you should listen to what a composer has to say about his vision. Whether it is acceptable or not is a different matter; I am a composer who knows why my music is this or that and I am sometimes capable of explaining my ideas. On the other hand, are my ideas and visions always justifiable? Music is a living organism. Performers know one joke of mine. They tell me: yesterday your instruction was to play fast and loud, today you are asking us to play slow and soft. Then I reply: the sun was shining yesterday and today the rain is all around – just look out of the window; how can you expect to repeat the day that is gone!? The joke is somewhat serious because the change means life; it is as if you are moving on together with nature. The character of performance is in one way or another influenced by a concrete environment and the mood of the moment which may command a difference between forteff or fffff – which is huge! Such nuances might be dictated by a number of factors, including the original score, the instruments that produce sound differently, the venue of the performance, and the audience because a huge crowded hall is one thing while a chamber environment is another. All that has an impact on the intensity, and the music changes. A piece therefore will sound differently every time. And that is why we want to have a huge number of records, yet eventually we are very reluctant to listen to those never changing versions of music... (smiles)

In other words, a lot depends on particular performers

Performers are always shaping a great many things. A special case is of course David Geringas, whose artistic intuition is extraordinary. A fruitful collaborative friendship has also bonded me for many years already with another cellist, Rimantas Armonas, and his wife the pianist Irena Uss-Armonienė – to the Armonas’ family I wrote my Third concerto for cello and symphony orchestra (2012). A top-class percussionist Pavelas Giunteris is yet another of those whose creative partnership is of a particular value to me, one of those performers who suggest a great deal of professional subtleties during the course of writing a new piece of music. Lately, I have worked a lot with the quartet ArtVio and the piano trio FortVio, and their input into the creative process is truly exciting.

For instance, when I presented the music of my Third Quartet to the members of ArtVio for the first time, I told them that was just the initial vision of the edifice that should be built; I did not know its final proportions at that moment, neither was I sure if the musical material at the beginning of the piece was enough for it to be comparable with the stuff in the end; I was not entirely certain about the culmination, the timing and the texture. What I brought with me that day was my initial vision written sitting behind a piano, definitely not the Quartet; the piece did not even have a name then lest anybody treat it as an ultimate instance, something the composer has written. No, the composer has just offered something. Then I would listen to them play and some of my mistakes became evident. That is like a laboratory and I was immensely happy working together with the performers who were not checking time and were eager to achieve the same things I was seeking. We were discovering things. Why have you put a legato here? Let us try to play without it. Why mezzoforte? Let us have a pianissimo here or perhaps a con sordino. Some things we rejected: that is not appropriate here, so let us forget it. That is how the process of colouring gradually takes shape: your initial sketch was black and white only, and you are adding colours over time. Well, about the timing. Performers felt the piece should have included more music, and that is when they suggested repeating part of it. But repeating is always ‘the best evil,’ as they say. It is better to add developed musical material instead of repeating it. The performers offer their ideas and the composer, who possesses a considerable arsenal of different possibilities, is able to respond. That is when the experience of your entire life can help, since the composer not only gets older, he or she also assembles an arsenal of compositional tools of considerable quality.

As a result, in about three weeks we – and I mean ‘we,’ not ‘me’ – developed another vision of the Quartet based on the same foundations but not identical to the initial one. By the way, I am always writing sequentially, from the beginning, and I never know what the end of the piece will be like; the music leads you but sometimes you can resist its dictates. With regard to that particular Quartet, I did not wish to employ the kind of ending I had used so many times, when the music slowly fades away. Some eighty per cent of my compositions end in exactly this way as if the music dissolves in the sky; that is such a beauty... The older I get, the more I am attracted by energy, joy and fortitude. Already the very first version of the Quartet featured a fortissimo in its finale, while the last edition called for fffff. I also included certain elements that appear at the beginning of the piece to make the composition a hundred-percent arch.

Are you always so attentive prior to the performance of your pieces?

I am happy because performers choose my music regardless of when it was written. Every month I receive news regarding new performances; some of them arrive post factum but sometimes I have a chance to take part in rehearsals. The example is my Poem for chamber orchestra, the piece I wrote fifty years ago, the second premiere of which took place last year in Klaipėda. The programme also included my First Cello Concerto written at about the same time, so both compositions had been laid ‘to rest’ for half a century.

These were the revised versions, of course. Even if a piece was played just once five or fifty years ago, the second performance will never be the same. As long as I live and my piece is with me – well, the piece is always with me if it is to be performed – I always do my best to improve it. There are many who consider this a waste of time, arguing that I should rather write something new. Maybe. But I wish to take care of my older works too. I do not regard as meaningless the process of rendering some contemporary spirit to music written earlier.

That was the case with all of my compositions, including the ballets. My first ballet, The Girl and the Death, was staged at the National Opera and Ballet Theatre of Lithuania in 1982. After the premiere and all subsequent shows the chief conductor Jonas Aleksa and myself would make ourselves plenty of coffee and go through the entire ballet, from beginning to end, singing its music and even dancing in order to evoke the inner sight and hearing to help us understand what was good and what went wrong, why the sound of trumpets, for instance, was poor in certain episodes and was an inappropriate texture or wrong dynamics to blame? These are the nuances that initially remain invisible, yet every performance helps reveal them and continuous communication with performers begins which is vital if the piece is to live a full-blooded life as we understand it today, not one week ago.

Or take Desdemona (Šenderovas’ third ballet which premiered at the National Opera and Ballet Theatre of Lithuania in 2005; his second ballet, Mary Stuart, was first staged in 1987 in Tallinn, Estonia) the first ten performances of which included a number of alterations we made together with the conductor, Robertas Šervenikas.

I suppose, such an unpopular attitude to my own music gives it an up-to-date sonority. I am not the one to judge whether that is relevant or not, yet performers are interested in my music, they play and sing it – and that is what music is for.

The famous cellist, David Geringas, has for many years been your creative partner and you have dedicated several of your compositions to him. He is your friend too.  

I do not think friendship is the base of our cooperation, although we have known each other since he was six and I was seven. My father, Michail Šenderov, was his teacher. And I did not become a cellist because of Geringas! My father tried to teach me as well, yet unsuccessfully until once he said: “My students are having a concert tomorrow, so come to see how the boys of your age play.” He meant Geringas, Augustinas Vasiliauskas, Albertas Šivickis and Saulius Lipčius – they were already playing like gods then. I realized after the concert I would never be able to match them. I was quite hysterical back home that evening and said I was quitting the cello. My father took the instrument to the store room and that was the end of my cello career.

Geringas later became a great musician; he studied with Rostropovich in Moscow and won the gold medal in the Tchaikovsky Competition. He eventually emigrated from Lithuania but I gave him my Sonata for Cello and Percussion (1972) before he left.

Ten years followed over which his name was completely erased from the Lithuanian cultural space: no television and radio broadcast, no recordings. But all of the sudden – that was during a concert of avant-garde music featuring Mark Pekarski and his percussion ensemble on the outskirts of Moscow – Herr Koch representing the German publisher Sikorski approached me: “Mister Šenderovas, here is a poster for you.” The poster was about a concert of contemporary Russian music and carried the names of Viktor Suslin, Alfred Schnittke and Anatolijus Šenderovas, my Sonata for Cello and Percussion beside my name! I did not know anything about that performance in Germany. Much later, perhaps in 1989, I was in Israel and telephoned Geringas; that was our first conversation after ten years. Later still he began giving concerts in Lithuania and our contacts became closer.

I have to admit, however, that he would have quit with my music had he not enjoyed success playing it. Sometimes I give him some of my music but he ‘forgets’ it. I know his brain works as a computer, but I never dare to remind him if he keeps silence. Sometimes it can take up to fifteen years for him to ‘recall’ the piece, yet in certain instances that may never happen.

Are Geringas’ remarks particularly valuable to you?

It is simply impossible not to listen to his opinion, as David is a real genius, and I am using this term with the utmost responsibility. It is not so, however, that our views never differ. I will tell you about the Concerto in Do, the piece commissioned in 2002 by young.euro.classic, the music festival in Berlin. Geringas recommended me to them and he was the first to perform the composition, together with the Symphony Orchestra of the Lithuanian Academy of Music and Theatre conducted by Robertas Šervenikas. The piece earned me the European Composer Award, the prize I consider among the most valuable in my life which ranks for me at the same level with the Lithuanian National Culture and Arts Award I received in 1997.

I wrote the Concerto in Do by developing the entire piece out of just one motif, the method I so often employ. The musical motion is created by that sole theme, repeated and modified every time. I had sent the music by the agreed time and was calm before the first rehearsal at the end of which Geringas asked me: “Could you perhaps write another concerto? This piece is that same theme repeated several times.” I got deeply offended since I felt like I had composed a fairly good work, while counting repeated motifs, in my opinion, reflects an extremely formal attitude. I made several changes, though, as I cannot ignore the things a performer considers inappropriate. Then again, the reason behind the performer’s discomfort is not necessarily the one he is pointing at. Here I have to make a short detour. I remember a conversation with Rimas Tuminas, the famous theatre director, after the preview of his Smile at Us, oh Lord. He said, smoking: “Look, everybody says the performance is too long.” I replied: “You know, Rimas, the many viewers who say it is too long might be right in a way, yet being ‘too long’ is not necessarily the issue of duration as the problem might lie in dramaturgy.” In other words, the issue is the apprehension rather than the timing. “Should you try,” I went on, “inserting a kind of break.” That is Balsys’ teaching, the management of dramaturgy.

In other words, repeating the theme several times in the Concerto in Do does not mean every time it appears unaltered since these are the sixteen different visions of the same thing. “You are not even trying to understand that,” was my rebuke to Geringas. He replied: “So are you refusing to write the piece anew?” I refused because the time, just one month before the premiere, was very short and not because of my stubbornness. Finally I told him: “Dodik, it is too late now.”

And here we were in Berlin. I arrived the day before the premiere and was greeted by Geringas and his wife Tatyana. They showed me around the city and, while telling me something about Berlin, Geringas dropped as if incidentally: “You know, if the audience goes boo after tomorrow’s concert, please do not worry, things happen. Schnittke has gone through that as well.” I was overwhelmed by his words as if my head had been hit with a club. I was not able to continue the conversation with Geringas and his wife as I had already began preparing myself for the scandal although I knew my piece was not bad at all, and Geringas played it well, and the music was appealing. And then, all of the sudden, such was his reaction.

Let us move now to the concert and the very end of it when chimes tinkle and the music fades away, and I was already beginning to hear those ‘boo, boo’ inside me. It took several additional seconds and, instead of applause, my ears caught ‘bravo!’ which, by the way, can be heard in the recording too.

The performance was truly stupendous with the students’ orchestra with Šervenikas and Geringas in the fantastic hall of the Konzerthaus with superb acoustics playing at their very best. Geringas and his wife congratulated me after the concert: “Tolechka, bravo.”

Three weeks later, I received a telegram saying I had been granted the European Composer Award. The festival had commissioned about ten compositions, including the Symphony, an excellent piece, by Valentyn Sylvestrov. It was very well received by the public, yet my Concerto in Do bore a certain appeal, perhaps through the proper dramaturgy of the repeating theme which, I believe, was behind all the magic and may have enchanted listeners.

I was invited to Berlin again. I received the European Composer Award in the town hall and gave my acceptance speech during what was an exceptionally solemn moment for me. I am the sole winner of that prize in Lithuania and the award is extremely valuable to me. On the other hand, that was the experience that moved Geringas and me even closer in terms of creative cooperation.

Translated by Darius Krasauskas
COMPOSER IN FOCUS | Lithuanian Music Link No. 18