courtesy of Universal Music Group
My encounters with the music of Ukrainian composer Valentin Silvestrov seem to have been few and far between. “First contact” apparently took place right around the time that I was beginning to focus on writing about music. It came from an album entitled Bagatellen und Serenaden released by ECM New Series in the fall of 2007. It was probably a good way to start, since the “Bagatellen” part of the title involved Silvestrov himself playing those works on piano. However, according to my records (which may not be thorough, thanks to the inadequacies of the Wayback Machine), I did not write about Silvestrov until the release of the ECM New Series album entitled Sacred Works.
This happened to come around the time that George Benjamin was serving as composer-in-residence with the San Francisco Symphony; and I had put a fair amount of effort into preparing for the performances of his music in Davies Symphony Hall. The result was my first venture into exploring the idea that the logic, grammar, and rhetoric of a composition could be organized around the properties of what I called “the sound itself,” rather than the usual conventions of melody, harmony, and counterpoint. Silvestrov did not so much abandon those conventions as relegate them to the background; and I realized that the priorities of his Sacred Works album could also be found in that earlier Bagatellen und Serenaden album.
All this should serve as background for the fact that Silvestrov turned 80 this past September 30. ECM honored the occasion with the release of its latest all-Silvestrov album, Hieroglyphen der Nacht (hieroglyphs of the night). The album consists entirely of compositions for either solo cello or cello duo. The “lead” cellist is Anja Lechner, who is joined by Agnès Vesterman. To some extent Silvestrov’s retrospective account of what he has been doing over the past decades seems to mesh with my own initial impressions.
He is clearly interested in that idea of “the sound itself;” but he seeks it in places I had not considered. Thus, he has said, “My own music is a response to and an echo over what already exists;” and he calls his accumulated catalog a series of “codas” to music history. On Hieroglyphen der Nacht, “what already exists” can be found in the works of Robert Schumann, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, and Tigran Mansurian, another composer whose works have been released on ECM New Series recordings. The “codas” for both Schumann and Tchaikovsky are actually three-movement suites, whose titles are dates, those of Schumann’s birth and Tchaikovsky’s death, respectively. However, the presence of both of these composers is, for the most part, implicit, thus contrasting noticeably with the far more explicit presence of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in “Der Bote” (the messenger) on the Bagatellen und Serenaden album.
Philosophy aside, what makes this new album particularly interesting is the capacity of the cello to explore a wide diversity of sonorities. Even more interesting is that Silvestrov focuses almost entirely on pitched sonorities without turning to more percussive techniques such as col legno or knocking on the body of the instrument. On the other hand the “Elegie” that he composed in 1999 requires the cellist to play two suspended gongs of different sizes (in addition to the cello). This brings me back to my own focus on “the sound itself” and the act of making that sound, without necessarily trying to establish a connection between that sound and “what already exists.” Drawing upon my past experiences with linguistics, I would venture to say that, while Silvestrov seems to take a highly “context-dependent” approach to what he composes, I see no trouble with advocating a “context-free” approach to listening to what he has created.
For those who have not yet encountered Silvestrov’s work, I have no trouble recommending Hieroglyphen der Nacht as a “first contact” experience. Given that they require a rather intense approach to focused listening, it is to the listener’s advantage that almost all of the tracks are less than five minutes in duration. (Anyone with experiences involving the music of Anton Webern should have no trouble fitting in with these structures.) The exceptions are the last of the three movements of “Elegie” (which is where the gongs are added), which is about eleven minutes long, and the 2003 “Augenblicke der Stille und Traurigkeit” (moments of silence and sadness), which Silvestrov wrote for Lechner. This is music that benefits from cumulative experience; and, whether or not those accumulated experiences amount to “echos” matters less that whether the sympathetic ear is attuned to the immediate present.