I Can’t Go On, I’ll Go On

Galina Ustvolskaya is, in her small and unique way, one of the most mysterious and compelling composers of the 20th century, differentiated even from the likes of Harry Partch, Giacinto Scelsi and Karlheinz Stockhausen. We know little of depth about her life, and what we do know, and possibly could know, offers no insight into or explanation of her music, which stands on its own. Last Saturday at Miller Theater, Chicago’s Fifth House Ensemble presented the latest Composer Portraits concert, dedicated to her rigorous, unsparing and uncompromising art.

She was born in 1919 and died at the end of 2006, but had essentially stopped composing in the early 1990s, shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union and at the moment when her work was first being heard in the West. She studied for a period of time with Shostakovich, and one early work on the concert program, the Trio (1949) for clarinet, violin and piano, shows the influence of her teacher, but her coherent, mature methods are one of a kind, taking advantage of basic features of musical composition but using a method with no comparisons to anything else. What can be heard as the key connection to Shostakovich is the accident of their births, that they were citizens of a totalitarian system for the duration of their artistic lives. Professionally, they each wrote music specifically for public consumption and music that was a more personal, and problematic, expression. The works were problematic in the sense that their style and supposed content could be enough to get the composers shipped off to the Gulag, possibly forever. With Shostakovich, this problem is finessed through riddles, music which sounds like it is conveying a quality we are familiar with through many generations of similar gestures signifying similar things – the finale of his Fifth Symphony is an example, music which seems to be triumphant but is also forced and brutal. With Ustvolskaya, we get something different, not sleight of hand but complete impenetrability.

A concert of her music leaves one thinking of Beckett. Beckett uses words we recognize to make statements that are absolutely clear and completely bewildering:

“Where now? Who now? When now? Unquestioning. I, say I. Unbelieving. Questions, hypotheses, call them that. Keep going, going on, call that going, call that on. Can it be that one day, off it goes on, that one day I simply stayed in, in where, instead of going out, in the old way, out to spend day and night as far away as possible, it wasn’t far. Perhaps that is how it began.”

Ustvolskaya uses familiar pitches in similarly disorienting ways. She builds phrases, but no real melodies, she uses chords, but eschews harmonies and harmonic structures. There is no counterpoint nor rhythm in the sense of a pattern of beats which underly other musical activity. Her music speaks with one voice, no matter the number of instruments, and that voice says something briefly, then repeats it determinedly. Her sense of form is made up of further sections of repetition. In terms of technical construction the music is as simple as can be, but the technique is superfluous. She said of her work “all who truly love my music should refrain from theoretical analysis of it,” which seems defensive. Such an analysis produces few results, but the music remains and speaks to us regardless.

It speaks to us with force, insistence and determination. It repeats its points, sometimes louder, sometimes softer, but it repeats its points, it repeats its point, it repeats its points. This may seem boring, but the experience is anything but. It’s actually fascinating and also unsettling, the assertive, relentless argument never overbearing, making the case for itself and never interested in winning us over through persuasion. We accept it or we don’t. The quality is dark but not malevolent, grim but not defeated, more limited in means than any music I know, even that of Morton Feldman or Arvo Part, but never ascetic. She said that all her work was “‘spiritual’ in nature,” and one can hear the idea of the soul buffeted by impossibility and futility, alone in existential angst but somehow finding enough belief in the immaterial to keep going on. She uses religious subtitles for her work, Composition No. 3 (“Benedictus Qui Venit”) and Composition No. 2 (“Dies Irae”), and the monophonic repetition is a radically Modern updating of liturgical, ritualistic chant, but what her actual faith was is impossible to determine. In that, she is on par with Bruckner in conveying the ambiguous complexity of faith through music, expressing the necessary feelings of doubt, isolation and almost terrified awe that one must feel to truly grapple with the subject of the divine and unknowable.

Within the works on the program there is an aesthetic divide. Two of her six piano sonatas were given compelling performances by Adam Marks, who featured in every work, and these come closest to a sense of familiarity. The Sonata No. 4 has passages which are almost conventional, with identifiable phrases and some accompaniment to the music in the right hand. The Sonata No. 6 is fast, powerful, rigorously placing notes in place in time, but those notes come to us in smashing tone clusters, some played with the forearms. It is bracing and exciting. She writes powerful lines in the bass registers and they maintain a solid center of gravity in all the works and a handle for the listener to grasp amidst her bizarre instrumentations – the Octet for two oboes, four violins, piano and timpani; the two Compositions for four flutes, four bassoons and piano and eight basses, piano and a percussionist striking a wooden box with hammers, respectively. The box is perhaps a descendent of Mahler’s hammer blows of fate in his Sixth Symphony. This is not technically challenging music to play, but requires a concentration and commitment beyond that of more familiar music. There is no standard style, no sense of familiar gestures heard through epochs which connect musical traditions. The Fifth House Ensemble and musicians from the Yale School of Music played with the sense that this music is meant to be heard, and their assured advocacy kept the music just at the near edge of overpowering the audience. This is music for Beckett, the music of mean little rooms and their solitary occupants, music of people seeking hope in the grimmest of circumstances. It is a rebuke to the utopian ideals which threatened to overrun the last century. It strikes me as more than coincidence that her creative output ended after 1989. Soviet composers were not only kept from us but the music of the West was kept from them. Her compatriot Alfred Schnittke made similarly dark music that is a riot of the elements of the rich musical history he discovered later in his career, while Ustvolskaya, perhaps having used her work to maintain her existence in the same circumstances, found that it was time for silence.

The Composer Portraits series continues Tuesday night, November 17, with the music of New York City favorite and charmingly abrasive American composer Ralph Shapey.


I'm a composer and musician, and I write about music—I do that here, for the New York Classical Review, at the Brooklyn Rail (I edit the music section there) and any place else that will have me, like New Music Box and Music & Literature. I also wrote the Miles Davis' Bitches Brew book in the 33 1/3 series.