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Sofia Gubaidulina: I Care About Universal Human Values, not Eastern or Western Values

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Sofia Gubaidulina: I Care About Universal Human Values, not Eastern or Western Values

23.12.2017

Sofia Gubaidulina is 86 years old. She is, without exaggeration, one of the most influential composers of the second half of the 20th century. For over twenty years Sofia Asgatovna has lived in a small house in Germany and doesn’t make very many public appearances. Our colleagues, reporters for the German Russian-language publication Russkoe pole, met with her and discussed her life in Germany and connection to Russia, current developments in music, and whats happening in the world.

Sofia Asgatovna, how are you getting along in this place, where there are just a few houses among the forests and fields? Do you get along with your neighbors?

I have many friends, but I have always met with them only for very short periods of time because Ive chosen such a profession for myself from the very beginning. This profession is too difficult for one to find time for human interaction. Something has to be sacrificed. And for the most part, this is the sacrifice I make: I have to limit myself. In this sense, I have very limited interactions with people. And when I came here, I didnt befriend any of my neighbors, with the exception of my friend and his family, who live nearby.

In essence, Im alone all the time. I need to be alone for a very long time. In order to achieve certain…lets call them insights. One needs very great concentration, much greater, as I understand it, than for other professions. Ive compared with people who work in difficult sciencesmath or physics or biology. Compared to them, a musicians work has greater need for spiritual concentration.

When I look around at my friendsmathematicians, physicists, medicsalthough they make very difficult calculations and experiments, they havent lived their lives the same way we musicians do. Musicians go to such lengths to preserve their time for practice and immersion in the world of sounds. But this depends on what art a person takes up. Light music is a totally different art; it may be that a light genre doesnt demand such intense concentration. But I really care about the serious genreit requires concentration. So something needs to be sacrificed. Therefore, Ive been living here for almost twenty years, longer even, and I havent learned how to speak German, because I dont interact with anyone. Im alone all the timealmost all the time. And if I get together with my friends, they are Russian.

So I cannot say that Ive made friends with my neighbors, but they are all very nice people. And when my neighbor Catherine comes to see me, especially if she brings her kid, I get the feeling that the world does have roots, that its standing on something, because everything else its as if a volcano will erupt tomorrow.

The general state of things is so explosive that I really derive hope from the family relations I observe.


I havent adapted at all! I get the impression that nothing has really even changed.”


You have lived here more than twenty years, since 1991. How have you adapted here? What has helped you?

I havent adapted at all! I get the impression that nothing has really even changed. Only my situation has changedI have the chance to get some peace and quiet. So I chose this village, two streets in all. No stores at all, not even for bread. Relative quite, relative peace, and this is the greatest blessing for me. There are a great number of worldly concerns, but there is also the opportunity at certain moments to get away from everything and walk out into the fields. And here it is possible to go into the fields, unlike Moscow and Kazan, where I livedforty years in Moscow, and my first twenty years in Kazan. In both placesmore in Moscow than in Kazanthere is the danger of someone attacking you. If someone goes out into the forest alone, for instance. But all the same, I have gone out into the forest until very recently.

Because its only there that I can achieve a total state of concentration, and when I was in Moscow, it turned out to be completely impossible. Criminal activity had grown so rampant that it wasnt possible any more, and I was without grounding. Precisely in the sense of composition, but here Ive gained it. Strangely enough, this grounding was the ability to walk around in solitude, to be among the trees and not be afraid. It would seem a simple thing, but only this makes it possible to do what I would like to do. To engage in composition.

I havent confronted the question of adaptation at all. It was during the nineties, when the political situation was such that there was a favorable attitude toward Russia and Russians. One might not consider it an emigration. I also didnt perceive it as a move that would prevent me from returning to Russia. I never lost Moscowmy books and piano remained there. I didnt lose anythingI didnt lose a homeland, didnt betray anyone, but I moved where I was given an opportunity.

My inner feeling wasnt that I needed to adapt or be torn away from anything. Nothing changed for me, except the fact that I received what one might call a gift from Germany: the opportunity to buy a house here, this small residencemodest, but luxurious according to my tastesjust what I need.

A little garden, a little house. The piano was given to me by Mstislav Rostropovichthis Steinway piano. What else does a person need, really? A desk for writing, a piano for playing as much as you wantthats the most one could wish for. And strolls that are safe because the locals are very friendly. I like the people here. I dont like these people any less than Russians. In this sense, I never made any leap.


And have you formed relationships with colleagues here? With German musicians and composers?

Ive met some people here who totally astounded me. For instance, one of them is Manfred Bleffert. He was once part of Stockhausens circle. But he went his own way: bought a smithy, also settled in the village; it all gives off an anthroposophic impression. And he started making instruments, casting them himself, and achieved completely astounding results. I simply became friends with him. This too was an experience of concentration. One time I went to his smithy and he held a little concert. You can imagine the array of instruments that hed made himself: tom toms, various metallophones. In a word, I would say hes doing some kind of alchemy there (laughs).

The smithy is dark, but the windows are painted. The light comes in multi-colored, a suppressed illumination, but colorful. And here we were, just a few listeners, and he was improvising on those instruments of his You know, Ive never achieved such concentration while listening in my life. Ive never achieved it at any concert, even during the most perfect performance.

Another matter is my friendship with the composers I befriended in Moscow. Composers from all the Soviet republics would gather in Moscow, and it was a unique community that remains to this day. Weve all scattered among various countries, to various parts of the world, but even this is good: each of us concentrates on work. But when we meet we can feel that the threads connecting us remain.

The year before last I went to Kiev and saw Valentin Silvestrov therewe are like brother and sister. Now I get together with Arvo Pärt or with the conductor Andres Mustonen, and we are like siblings. To this day, the connections we had in Moscow remain. Incidentally, each of us has a totally different aesthetic orientation. Or not long ago Alexander Knaifel visited me from LeningradWere all siblings.

And no one promulgates an artistic doctrine that must be followed or else. Each of us independently develops our own artistic conception, and despite this, there exists a certain inner layer that holds everything in its hands. This layer cannot be defined, but its very dear to me.


I see this pressure, especially on young composers the world over.


Do you follow current musical developments in Russia?

Here and there Of course, its hard for me to say that I follow it since this also demands a great deal of time. But I come to Moscow very often. And I meet with composers, some of whom let me look over their scores. People like Alexander Vustin, for instance, are very dear to me But they have a very hard time. Things are hard for everyone now, but in Russia especially, it seems to me, art is in a very tough situation. Perhaps more difficult than Its very hard everywhere.


What difficulties do you see your colleagues in Russia as having?

The main difficultynot only for Russia, but for the whole worldis financial pressure. In this sense, its worth comparing the pressure that we experienced during the Soviet Unionideological pressure, which was also very hard to endure. I can conceive of both of these because Ive experienced them directly. And now I see this pressure, especially on young composers the world over (including Russians, I think)financial pressure. Accommodating this pressure immediately lowers a composer a few degrees If were talking about universal human values.

I see this greatest difficultyI think this pressure is harder than ideological pressure. For comparison, we must also look at what our fathers experienced, the generation of Prokofiev and Shostakovich. Our fathers were the most unfortunate people, living in the most difficult circumstances. They were simply pulverized Broken. Some of them resisted, but it was hardest for them. They were threatened with jail if they didnt submit to the dictates of ideology.

Our generation experienced this pressure only in the sense that we wouldnt be performed. This was very difficult, since one can only become a professional if their works are being performed. Otherwise, you cant achieve the necessary level. And this is very insulting. And one very often had to hide ones composition in the desk, not to show it to anyone. This is very harmful, but it didnt threaten our generation with jail. It was only a threat in the material sense; one could live a half-starved existence and still continue ones work as one judged necessary. And thats what we did. Essentially, we were people who agreed to a half-starved existencethere was no other option. But half-starved isnt starved, only half-s One could stick it out in the end.

But the contemporary situation of financial pressure doesnt allow for very much. And a person simply cant stick it outYoung people are in a very difficult place right now. And many, the majority, make compromises, and thats no good.

All the same, I dont think you can say that the situation is entirely negative. We are undergoing very great difficulties, but I see the young composers I meet all over the world: in Moscow, somewhere in Norway, or in China I have a lot of experience meeting with composers, with the young people, whenever I arrive somewhere I make sure to meet with musicians of the younger generation.

And I can make judgments and comparisons based on their questions. I took a trip to China, South Korea, and the Netherlands. And every place has young composers who have fantasies unconstrained by any doctrinesI find it veryiridescent that nobody submits to any aesthetic doctrines, but they fantasize and distribute their conceptions at their own peril.

This makes me happy. But many, many composers are primarily concerned with their careers. And you can hear this right away in their productions. They want to accommodate, make money, and that somehowlowers their level.


Id be very frightened if Russia turns its back on me


Sofia Asgatovna, did you change your citizenship? Have you rejected your Russian citizenship?

I was allowed to retain my Russian citizenship. I would be very happy if nothing changes on this front. And Id be very frightened if Russia turns its back on me (Laughs.) That would be very scary for me. Of course, the best thing would be to have Russian citizenship because Im Russian. Not 100% Russian, but Russian nonetheless. I speak Russian, therefore Im a Russian.

It would have been terrible for me if they deprived me of citizenship. Fortunately, the German officials allowed me to keep citizenship in both states. This wasnt so simple, but in any case I feel like a citizen of the world and not any individual country. That is the best thing for an artist. But I dont know what will happen in the future. All the latest events and their further development are so uncertain thatthere are questions everywhere.


My soul is in a lot of pain, mainly because I sense a massive injustice toward Russia.


We have been dancing around a subject. Like everything you talk about nowadays, you end up bumping your head against the present situation, which is very upsetting. You speak about whats most important to you, about creativity, and what upsets you the most. And all the same we arrive upon the subject of what is happening around us What are your thoughts on this count?


My soul is in pain. My soul is in a lot of pain, mainly because I sense a massive injustice toward Russia. Especially lately. I cannot at all acknowledge as just any position that views Russia as an aggressive force. I primarily subsist on German information. I dont have Russian television or Russian newspapers. I can evaluate only from the point of view of what I read in German newspapersand I see a massive injustice vis-à-vis Russia and the Russian population of Ukraine.

I think that Russia has actually taken only a defensive position. Shes only defending herself. And Im very insulted, in fact, because it was Russias initiative that brought an end to the Cold War. Russia removed her troops from Germany, and this was a sign that an end was possible.

At the time, Sakharov made a great impression on me with his statements about convergence and the possibility of a rapprochement. I remember that this made a great impression on me back then, when I was still quite young, and do this day it is very dear to me.

Conversations about Eastern or Western values mean much less to me. After all, Im an artist, and universal human values are much more important to me. And from the perspective of universal human rights, Sakharovs speech was just the platform I could stand on. And even today this is the most important thing to me: universal human values.

It was Russia who, in essence, made the world an offer to end this pure stupidity of building up weapons that could bring death to the whole planet. This build-up might have been explainable from the point of view of the political interests of individual countries. But for me as an artist, universal human values are more important. And from that point of view the Cold War is pure stupidity.

Therefore, I think we can thank Russia for making an offer of peace. Political scientists can explain what happened later better than I can, but it turned out that this was an idealist position; it couldnt succeed because the other side didnt take this offer. In recent days, its clear that the condemnation of Russia for having imperial ambitions is unfoundedshe is only defending herself.

This situationIt is my great pain.

The most recent events, when Russia offered alimentary aid to Eastern Ukraine so that people there wouldnt die of hunger. I think this fact will be recorded in the annals of history: a state forbids giving a piece of bread to the hungry. This is a fact that one cannot imagine, and this follows from a doctrine that considers itself to be devoted to Western values. And are these Western values? Then, I have a very great doubt about Western values Is giving a piece of bread to the hungry an invasion? Then the second convoy went And again the response to giving a piece of bread to the hungry was another round of sanctions against Russia.

This is so obvious now that I cant just close my eyes to it, like many other people do. And when a truce is offered by the Russian president no less, and this is happening, there is at least hope In response we are seeing another round of stricter sanctions. Well, this will be recorded in the annals of history: these are the facts and you cant hide from them.

And so theres a great pain in my soul.

You know, I have my ownnot a position per se, but a spiritual state I feel bad for everyone. I feel bad for Ukraine. I feel bad for Russia. I feel bad for America. But I feel the worst for Europe which is now destroying itself. I feel bad that after Ukraine offered itself and its state as the location for a new world war, Europe followed in step, offering a foothold for a new world war. I feel very bad for Europe

It would be a very good thing if someone actually formulated positive values. Now one gets the impression that they destroyed themselves. But why they did this is a totally different question, one to be analyzed by political scientists. But as an artist I cant have any other positionI care about universal human values, not Eastern or Western ones.

And heres the result. Misery, which arose atop this rejection of Western values: the creation of the Islamic State. In the same newspaper, Die Zeit, I read that not only Asiatic countries are joining the Islamic State. They say that 500 people have been identified in Belgium who want to live in the Islamic State. They counted 400 people in France. In Great Britain also

That is, Europeans themselves are suddenly confronting Western values with some other values, but what kind? Aggressive ones

You understand, this isnt just a face-off between Russia and America. Now its all mixing together, and the situation is becoming much more complex and tragic than those who set it off would have wanted.

In any event, Russia occupies in this situation a strictly defensive position. She simply cannot stay out of it. A Russian person just cannot refrain from going out and helping the Russian population in Ukraine because they are threatened with elimination

Its as if people have closed their eyes to the genocide that is taking place. And the people who tell this population that they have Western values are closing their eyes to this. Its unbearable, unbearable.

And I think that the only thing that gives one relief is the fact that the political elites of Europe, Ukraine, America, and Russia are one thing, and the position of the people is another. In both places.

Therefore, the only thing that can keep me from total pessimism is the fact that its all ambiguous. I know that many people here say that they are dissatisfied with one-sided information and that people are closing their eyes to obvious things: that from the very beginning, that is, since February, a doctrine of destroying the Russian population in Ukraine has been declared. And this doctrine is in effect in the Crimea, Odessa, and eastern Ukraine.

Of course, not all of Ukraine is like this. But the nationalist segment is very strong, and they have declared the doctrine: destroy all Russians, Communists, and all Jews. The language is painfully familiar And it wasnt just words, there were actions as well.

Of course, the Russians got scared and started defending themselves. And of course, they wouldnt have defended themselves if there wasnt Russian support. A great number of volunteers went there, which is well known and no one can deny. But these volunteers arent the official army of Russia.

Russia nonetheless supports this effort. But its very complicated Now we cant brag about clarity, like everything is black and white. In Maidan there were already a great number of groups that directly opposed each other and were inimical. But a very powerful group was the extreme nationalist movement, people full of hateits a very infectious disease.

Why do I have so much pain in my soul? Because I see that humanity is gripped by hatred, this virus, and its very difficult to escape from it.

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