February 13, 2012

Pacifica Quartet, eighth blackbird to perform works of first composer to receive UChicago honorary degree

By Jessica Tobacman

FEBRUARY 13, 2012

Composer Shulamit Ran describes the music of Russian composer Sophia Gubaidulina as having the power to stop time and put the listener in another world. “She is a legendary and very great composer of our time,” says Ran, the Andrew MacLeish Distinguished Service Professor of Composition and artistic director of the University of Chicago’s Contempo ensemble.

In June 2011, the University of Chicago presented Gubaidulina with an honorary degree, the first ever given to a composer. Martha Feldman, professor and chair of Music, says Gubaidulina was awarded the honorary degree because of “her music and her lifetime of achievement.” Gubaidulina’s creativity and musical vision made her an ideal choice for an honorary degree, says Feldman. “The precedent has now been set.”

Continuing its mission to share with audiences the music of living composers, Contempo will celebrate the creative vision of Gubaidulina with a concert entirely dedicated to her music on Wednesday, Feb. 15, at the Harris Theater in Millennium Park. UChicago’s ensembles in residence, the Grammy Award-winning eighth blackbird and Pacifica Quartet, will perform three of Gubaidulina’s works.

The concert this week will feature The Garden of Joy and Sorrow, In Croce, and Perception. The Garden of Joy and Sorrow has two contrasting literary influences: Iv Oganov’s biography, Sayat-Nova, about the singer and Eastern storyteller; and verses written by Francisco Tanzer, a 20th-century German poet.

“Both of these works had significant inner similarities: their contemplativeness and refinement,” Gubaidulina wrote in her composer’s note. “And, on the other hand, all this ecstatic flowering of the garden was expressed naturally in the sum reflections of F. Tanzer about the world and its wholeness. At the basis of the musical rendering of the form of this piece is the opposition of the bright, major coloration of the sphere of natural harmonics against the expression of the intervals of minor second and minor third.”

Unlike the other two works being performed, Perception includes guest vocalists. The majority of the texts come from Gubaidulina’s correspondence with Tanzer, with the two vocal lines in Perception demonstrating contrasting sensibilities. The lower voice evokes a sense of forward movement while the higher repeats. In this final piece, the composer also refers to the golden ratio and explores the intersection of art and mathematics.

“The programming of Perception was clearly very important to the composer. It will make for a beautiful, contrasting and representative [presentation] of her music,” says Ran. “It is both mesmerizing and gripping. I feel very strongly that people of all generations, all walks of life, can experience and be deeply moved by it,” says Ran.

Berthold Hoeckner, associate professor of music, notes that the 80-year-old Gubaidulina worked in relative isolation in the Soviet Union and composed for film scores to maintain an income. “She’s an important voice in what is called unofficial Soviet music, caught between official sanctions and subsistence,” says Hoeckner. “This type of music was tolerated by the regime, but wasn’t chosen to represent the Soviet regime in ideology.”

Feldman says, “Her work is unhinged musical modernism. She invented her own tonal language and sound world, which has a kind of urgency and sense of inevitability combined with deep, inner spirituality.”

“It enables [listeners] to enter a different world, to move beyond the thin strip of reality in which we live,” says Feldman. “It feels like a world beyond that, giving listeners the sensation that they’re moving into these astounding soundscapes. It can be emotionally shattering, but always with an exquisite beauty and poetry.”