Wednesday, August 11, 2010


One of the many things the musical 20th-century has taught us is that the symphony can be anything. In the mid-1800s, writing symphony at the top of a score implied a certain set of conventions. Even before the birth of modernism, composers began brazenly defying genre norms, inflating the form to encompass worlds of sound; naturally, others rebelled against the notion of the symphony-as-omnipotent, writing intimate, classically-refined aphorisms. A century of upending expectations led to the term symphony as almost entirely meaningless. When Glenn Branca can write a post-minimalist grunge symphony for guitars and percussion, and John Corigliano can write a symphony for gigantic wind band and shotgun, what does it really mean anymore?

I think that there is still something that the symphony has left over from the days of Haydn and Beethoven. It indicates a public musical statement, something meant to be heard by a large audience---whether this means it is filled with grandeur or intimacy, whether it upholds tradition or throws away the past, is up to the composer. This is what makes Galina Ustvolskaya's Symphony No. 5 such an uncanny delight. I haphazardly loaded it onto my iPod before leaving for Israel, fairly sure that I hadn't heard it before. I had only a passing familiarity with Ustvolskaya's bizarre music, and wanted to hear more.

It's immediately apparent that Ustvolskaya takes from her teacher and possible-lover Shostakovich. The sound world of the Fifth feels like hyper-distilled Dmitri: a wandering, errant oboe; a jagged violin; an inwardly trilling trumpet; the meandering knocks of percussion. Ustvolskaya subtitles the work "Amen," and the text is the Lord's Prayer recited in Russian, but there is nothing particularly soothing to it. Somehow, as I rode the bus across the granular Israeli desert, with its sharp juxtaposition between stark blue sky and rocky, orange terrain, the soundscape seemed to complement the unchanging landscape.

This music resembles nothing like a symphony, in any of the term's meanings. The instruments wander in circles. The man whispers the prayer without direction. There is no sense of progression, no concept of development over time. How could a symphony clock in at under 14 minutes? (Ustvolskaya's Fourth is only seven.) And how can the instrumentation consist only of violin, oboe, trumpet, tuba, and a wooden cube? It feels fruitless in the same way as Sciarrino's La porta della legge. Does the rapping of the cube represent a judge's gavel? Are there political overtones to a work written in the year of the fall of Communism? In Soviet Russia, the musical boundaries between private and public were clearly defined. Shostakovich learned the hard way that the the symphony should represent a form for public governmental worship. He sought his solace in his string quartets and songs, where he could shape his political and musical voice without intrusion. Ustvolskaya's work feels like a defiance of this notion, carefully mixing the private and public to create a disturbing alchemy.

After eleven minutes of aimlessness, a series of forceful smacks on the wooden block alternate with grief-stricken oboe. The repeated episode turns fiercer, the trumpet trilling more angrily, the man's voice almost weeping. Finally, the spell seems to break with a tuba groan, but the oboe returns for a final lament. We are back exactly where we started: no key modulation, no progress, no result. I am still in the bus, and the desert has not changed. The inconsequential, though, feels monumental.

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