Sunday, 27 September 2015

Russia Diary: I

The Tchaikovsky Composers’ Academy
—and the delicate art of composition teaching

Chaykovsky city
Recently I was fortunate enough to land a place on the Moscow Contemporary Music Ensemble Academy—as I write this, I’ve just returned to London, after spending nearly a month in Russia. This was a residential course, well-known to quite a few apparently but something I myself stumbled on, after hearing the Ensemble on the record label Fancymusic, and writing about some of it. 

These days, the contrast between the instant availability of music—on the internet—and the confinement of that music to a particular geographical location is pronounced. It was great to meet and talk to the amazing bunch of Russians working now, whose music I’d only heard recordings of, on the internet and on CD. Plus, experiencing music in person, and the personalities making it, has to be the only way to gain a more complete feeling this work.

Here, I will write about two, separable but also interlinked things. The first part will concern the activities associated with the Academy itself: specifically, composition teaching, something that I had not encountered in any significant depth until just now. The second will discuss the broader situation of new and experimental music in Russia, young composers and musicians, which is forthcoming. Although the pedagogy of the Academy was fascinating in its own way, I think it’s this broader musical context that I was most excited and inspired by when I was there.

Composition pedagogy and the Academy
(The mix of composers—‘pedagogic anxiety’—Ablinger—Furrer—Cendo—Kourliandski)

Nicholas Moroz in a lesson
Don’t get me wrong, good company is solidarity. Company is fortifying. Company is stimulating. But I’ve not been a student at a conservatory composition department; composers are people I usually have met at the pub after gigs. Of course, pedagogic environments also encourage the ordinary kind of mutual relaxation (read: drinking)—but there’s a difference: you’re not with these people because they all just turned up to the gig and the pub afterwards. These people are here because of a selection process. 

Now obviously, concert audiences also are self-selecting according to aesthetic preoccupations. But the idea that a group of people represents a ‘deliberate mix’, of nationalities, styles, approaches, deliberate because selected, all within a single discipline (composition) was a new one for me. In the same way, the composition tutors—on this occasion, Peter Ablinger, Raphael Cendo and Beat Furrer—represent a similar, deliberate mix. 

The mix of composers represented a cross section of younger Russians, with a few non-Russians thrown in for spice. Some of the more experienced Russians—Marina Poleukhina, Vladimir Gorlinsky—had had music performed at Gaudeamus, Darmstadt, Witten. Similar things could be said about the German composer Benjamin Schauer—a veteran of practically every residential course for composers going. Others were less experienced. 

In the context of this mix several things—embarrassments—fell into my head. One was: that I hadn’t had any extensive individual composition teaching. Apart from a few occasional meetings with people at Cambridge, I didn’t have regular supervision. When I was a Junior at Trinity (whilst still a school student) I had some individual composition teaching as part of my A Level—limited to, if I remember, a term or so of weekly half-hour morning sessions. 

The second was: I’d never to date received any money to write music for anybody. Either in the form of a prize with a commission attached, or a straightforward commission. I think all the other composers, many of whom were still below 25, had enjoyed such things. 

To be honest, I’m not sure these things are especially significant. The point though, is that the company of a bunch of young composers—however amiable they might be—will always reinforce such ‘career-anxieties’. Indeed the whole Academy was really a lesson, a personal lesson, in anxiety-management.

In fact, one could say that the entire enterprise of composition teaching is fundamentally an exercise in anxiety-management. The teacher is presented with a student who slides a piece in front of them. In my case—but I expect this is greatly generalisable—these portfolio pieces represent things which the student has a rather conflicted relationship with, things that on the one hand they may be proud of, but on the other they are desperate to be rid of. Such things can’t be written off as juvenalia—they are the very pieces submitted to ‘land’ selection on the programme. They’re also set in stone—there’s nothing ‘to be done’ about them any more. They are, often, personal failures, personal embarrassments—but the student is well aware that they needn’t be (and usually aren’t) seen as such. The teacher has to manage this situation—delicately, or indelicately, depending on how they think the student should be treated. 

I think I felt this kind of ‘pedagogic anxiety’ very acutely—in that I had not been prepared for it—such that a few people mentioned that I was rather intense in lessons. Other people, who’ve had a bit more teaching, might be better at using their work as a defence mechanism; but I found that difficult, not least because I was not particularly happy with much of my portfolio even before criticism.
Peter Ablinger
One thing that struck me during the Academy was the various tutors’ differing approaches toward these pedagogic problems. Peter Ablinger had perhaps the most straightforward approach, the kind of approach one would expect or desire. Each student had essentially to be ‘given’ something. Ablinger would suck the end of his spectacles, and some relevant detail from the back of his mind would at once issue forth, something that would turn out to have great but subtle significance. Some small, but careful piece of advice: that the student should really listen, to the environment say; or make sketches, or line drawings. Some of these things were little lessons he no doubt gives to many others (‘draw what you see, not what you think you see’). I suspect Ablinger’s tendency was to try to find out what sort of piece the student is ‘writing over’ (i.e. writing over and over again), and uncover some internal inconsistency latent within it. In doing so, inevitably, he would betray his own priorities. A recurrent—one could even say favourite—topic of his, was rhetoric; that the music could often find itself hoisted by its own rhetorical petard. Or that the student had not fully anticipated the rhetorical effect of some gesture or other. Or that—in my case—the presence of an historical reference, even accidental, coloured the music rhetorically in a way to made it less subtle, less ambiguous. 

I think Peter generally has a desire to, at least, be some kind of revisionist of musical rhetoric. That whilst rhetoric is always present in any performed art, it can, and perhaps arguably should, be rearranged or externalised, such that the moment-to-moment ‘happening’ of the piece does not form itself out of rhetorical duty; but rather that the entire piece, or indeed, the entire series should be seen as a kind of rhetorical entity. ‘Post-rhetorical’ entity, even. In some sense this is related to his wanting to be linked to conceptual art; that while he is reluctant to call himself an artist (he is a composer) nonetheless, the pieces find themselves having deliberate family resemblance to Beuysian vitrines or installations. In the sense that Lippard and Chandler write of ‘dematerialisation’, one could think that Ablinger’s essential project is ‘demusicalisation’, or ‘remusicalisation’. Thus the presence of ‘music’ as an unreconstructed topic is one that, if it is present at all, has to be abstracted through some materiality essentially external to any immanent ‘musical’. (One might think of Quadraturen V: Musik, where the sound of a cassette tape of Eisler’s East German National Anthem is analysed, quantised, refracted and set for orchestra. One could even hypothesise that a method for ‘composition beyond music’, his choice phrase, would be to take the essentially ‘immaterial’ abstract of musical language and ‘materialise’ it in some way—via environmental or objective sound, speech, recordings, data—before recombining it (back) into some explicitly musical medium.)

Ablinger’s wish to align with conceptual artists sometimes led him to make slightly strange statements, about how music had not yet experienced a ‘conceptual’ moment, in the way that the visual arts had. This is sketchy at best. I think it’s clear that music has had multiple conceptual moments, but because of institutional differences (notably the lack of an equivalent to the institutional ‘white cube’) music and the visual arts have developed differently. It’s more difficult in music to create an Danto-esque self-reinforcing artworld; an institutional support structure into which anything can be put and made into art. But this isn’t to say that since the 1950s and ’60s, many musicians and artists haven’t tried. 

Anyway, Peter is somebody I ally with despite these quibbles, though perhaps I’d be less inclined to side so straightforwardly with Harry Lehmann and the younger crowd of Konzeptmusik enthusiasts. It might also be worth pointing out at this juncture that the present situation of contemporary art is really, pretty ‘fucked up’, so attempting to ape it, or encouraging students that it might or ought to be, might not necessarily be the best thing to do either.

Beat Furrer
Beat Furrer’s approach was different. Ablinger said that Furrer was terribly Swiss—in his habit of taking exactly as long as needed to say anything. Furrer’s English was good, generally, but it was his little hand gestures—of things stratifying, or being joined, or interleaving, or splitting—which were most salient. Furrer is clearly a conductor at heart, and in his music one can explicitly ‘feel’ his dirigent-ish temperament (think of the opening of Nuun, or moments from Wüstenbuch). 

Furrer’s approach felt more—perhaps—aristocratic. I don’t think he felt he needed to ‘give’ anything, or had any kind of paternalist ‘duty’ in teaching; rather, talking to him was closer maybe to the ‘and so, what do you do?’ of ceremonial exchange. I don’t mean to say he was lofty (though he’s clearly a bit sheltered), or that he didn’t make good observations when they occurred to him. But if they didn’t occur, I don’t think he would attempt to ‘construct’ an observation (Ablinger might feel he would need to—though I should say, not always). Furrer would instead just keep asking questions, perhaps even to keep the exchange going.

I think this may relate to a conductor’s common rehearsal situation; that there are passages, sometimes rather lengthy, that one can pass over without too much comment. They’re played through, maybe even a few times for clarification, and the rehearsal can move on. 

I found Furrer something of an enigma. One of the things that has always puzzled me about his music is how certain things keep recurring, certain gestures or bits of material find their way into piece after piece, dramatic and instrumental. If I were in a good mood, I would attribute this to some sort of self-similar musical world, language, extensibility. In a bad mood, I’d see it as formulaic, repetitive, tautological, even cynical. I don’t think even Furrer himself has a good explanation for this. But I think it is also true that, while many things crop up still in his music, in recent years his music has morphed quite a bit. His new opera, La Bianca Notte, which he showed an extensive passage from, was very interesting—his largest opera to date and notably, his first setting of Italian, which had a very considerable effect on the music. This was much more outwardly ‘romantic’ than any other of his pieces. His harmonic control in the piece is also absolutely exquisite, much of it developed from the Shepard-Risset tone, orchestrated for ensemble. Furrer’s writing is much more intuitive than Ablinger’s, though I’m sure he would be loath to admit it. As is his wont, musical material and structuration must be modernistically justified. Perhaps Furrer is an unreconstructed modern living in a postmodern age; his detachment from the multi-polar musical world of today would imply as such. (There was a revealing exchange when one student asked him about the presence of film music as an inevitable connotative musical language amongst listeners. No matter how much structural listening one applies to a piece like Nuun, one can’t escape the image of Batman being chased. Beat skirted the question.)

The generational difference between Furrer and Raphael Cendo was quite marked. Cendo too comes from a European establishment avant-garde (he rarely writes music without commission). But his style is intensely intuitive—while it has a specified aesthetic language, it isn’t interested in ‘structural ingenuity’. In fact before the Academy his music was entirely alien to me. I’d spent so much time immersed in Anglo-American experimentalism that, when I first heard some of it, its artificial ‘saturation’ and reliance on extended technique after extended technique, were completely lost on me. I found it obsessed with spectacle, immersion, overload and overdrive; it was lacking in subtlety; it was full of spectacular noises, but lacking in any true mystery. It took me a while to remember just how much I did love French music—but in particular, meeting and ‘witnessing’ Cendo, this enormous overgrown teenager, was the best thing I could have asked for, in terms of understanding his music. Cendo’s music sees as positives all of the things I initially regarded as negatives. Spectacle, overdrive, overload, hyperactivity, immersion, and Cendo’s own buzzword of choice, ‘saturation’. His music has a kind of adolescent aesthetic, which once you see it is charming in its way. He also detests the prettification and sparkle of other French music (notably Murail) which he labels ‘bourgeois’. Cendo sees timbre as something of a be-all, a natural progression in musical material from Stockhausen to Berio to Lachenmann, thence to ‘saturation’. But he hates the historic impressionistic ‘pretty’ or ‘delicate’ French timbres, which I suppose he thinks are sickly, like fancies, bon-bons. What he likes are his own vigorous, fervid, dark-coloured, pungeant timbres, layered in layer-over-layer, which can often overwhelm the listener in a energetic and sometimes violent wave of intensity. His is music which one does not ‘lean in to’. His music comes at you with the force of a truck, with a cowcatcher and flames painted on the sides. 

Because for Cendo there is a rather straightforward institutional story to the history of modern music (he was trained at IRCAM after all), there’s no problem for him to say, as became something of a catchphrase, ‘I like it. You must to continue with this recherche.’ For him, there was no problem with the idea of composition being research, it’s plainly self-evident. It’s ‘searching’, it’s what all artists do. I’m not sure what he would make of that famous Picasso line, ‘Je ne cherche pas; je trouve.’ He probably would think it was bourgeois.

I think though, one of the strongest impressions was left on me by Dmitri Kourliandski. He is the true hero of the Academy—which when you stop and think about it, is an extraordinary thing. Here we were in a small, provincial Russian city in Perm. A backwater, save for the fact that it had an important regional music conservatory, and was close to where Tchaikovsky was born. Somehow, and for some reason, for the past few years, the leading lights of European new music had been attracted here. The previous tutors included Pierluigi Billone, Antoine Beuger, Jean-Luc Herve, Frank Bedrossian, Philippe Leroux, Klaus Lang. Dmitri has to be one of the reasons for this—his charisma and connections, and talent as a composer and ambassador, as well as his talent at teaching. As Sergei Nevsky was stuck in Berlin, Dmitri took the masterclasses Nevsky would have taken. Kourliandski’s teaching was incredibly natural, generous, but not ‘soft’. He was unafraid to confront students with the inconsistencies at the heart of what they were doing. And Dmitri was extremely capable of seeing past whatever musical surface—of noises and commotions, of subtle notation—might be there to bamboozle the listener or teacher. For Dmitri, it was the music, whatever, wherever that is to be found, if not ‘beneath’ the surface than just ‘behind’ it. Dmitri also asked all the right questions—questions beginning ‘why’, whose answers were not expected to be justifications of some technique. They were more basic than that; ‘why this music’, as opposed to some other music? These deeply aesthetic questions Dmitri had careful control over—they weren’t fielded ‘lightly’. In a way, the student had to be presented with everything else first, all the technical niceties, before they could fall away and a real discussion of the music could be arrived at. 

This is a brave thing to do with students. It’s much easier to focus and ask questions about the surface, about notation and technique, about compositional procedure, about orchestration and colouration. It’s hard to ask those aesthetic questions to which no one has decent answers—but it is those questions (‘what exactly is this music?’, ‘what does this music mean?’, ‘what does this music tell us about music in general?’) to which we spend our entire lives trying to find answers.

Kourliandski is like so many of those teachers who easily can become invisible. Because he was always there—always on hand to be asked about small things, always asking how you were doing, sending you the odd message on facebook, always there at every student presentation, always with some comment or other, always humble and never making a big deal about his attendance, never attracting attention to himself—one could easily forget about him. But safe to say the Academy would not exist in the richness it does without him. 

Part II to follow shortly, in which there’ll be more depth of discussion of some of the young composers active in Moscow alongside Kourliandski, such as Alexander Manotskov, Alexey Sysoev, Alexander Khubeev, Vladimir Gorlinsky, Sasha Elina, Kirill Shirokov, Marina Poleukhina, Mark Buloshnikov, Alexey Zaitsev, Daniil Pilchen, and others.