We hear fascinating fusions of almost any kind of sound available to us. With so much choice, the challenge now is how the creator will assemble the elements to make sense to both himself and the listener.
Georgian composer Giya Kancheli, who received the İstanbul Music Festival’s Lifetime Achievement Award on June 11, is an example of someone who uses very traditional musical elements but structures things in a different way than what our ears might expect. At a concert of exclusively his own music in Aya İrini played by the Borusan Philharmonic that night, we heard the world premiere of “Lingering,” which was commissioned by the İstanbul Foundation for Culture and Art (İKSV). The young cellist Benyamin Sönmez was originally scheduled to be the soloist for Kancheli’s “Diplipito” for cello, countertenor and orchestra. Unfortunately, Sönmez unexpectedly passed away late last year, so “Lingering,” which was in the process of being written, dramatically changed its shape and intention.
Upon receiving his award from Festival Director Yeşim Gürer Oymak and İKSV Chairman Bülent Eczacıbaşı, Kancheli uttered humbly, “Thank you very much; I tried to express my gratitude through my music.” And from that point on, we could hear throughout the performances of “Diplipito” (with cello soloist Giedre Dirvanauskeite); “Lingering” for orchestra; and “Styx” for viola, choir and orchestra, a sense of hanging on to a solemn, unfinished destiny.
The cello’s sensitive contributions in “Diplipito” were not written to be a showy centerpiece, but more of a voice of commentary alongside the orchestra, as was the countertenor’s role (sung from backstage by Mamuka Gagnidze), which for the most part was wordless and more like hearing the sounds of someone in solitary confinement. The fact that he was miked, however, put him at the forefront sonically, so the effect was much more dramatic than the cellist’s. The piece was very deeply mournful, although it had sudden outbursts of alarm from the piano (also miked) and percussion. It was slow but not turgid; funereal but not morose. Its spiritual energy seemed to be the life force that continually kept death at bay.
“Lingering” featured the harp and miked keyboards (piano, harpsichord, and celeste) in prominent roles in this 38-minute threnody that expresses a kind of urgent despair. Repeated single notes and lengthy sustained chords were the hallmarks of the language here, the architecture of which included a series of climaxes that seemed to resemble the seven hills of İstanbul. Like Arvo Pärt, he uses spare elements but constructs a different kind of building with them. Whereas Pärt hitches a ride on passing clouds above the rooftops, Kancheli dwells in stone houses that have active ghosts.
“Styx” was performed by violinist/violist Gidon Kremer (last year’s recipient of the festival’s Lifetime Achievement Award), the beautifully modulated Warsaw Philharmonic Choir (who sang in Georgian) and the orchestra in a piece whose title referred to the magical powers of the river Styx in Greek mythology. After a startling blast in the beginning, the textures returned to the same sustained, suspended textures we heard in the previous two compositions. Occasional outbursts were followed by more placid plains, punctuated by silences. These silences are often noticed by observers as one of his compositional tools. In my opinion, a well-placed silence, especially within repeated sequences, is an extremely effective psychological device to rearrange the listeners’ attention patterns. It’s also dramatic in its ability to command instant attention. He’s no fool. When music is so slow as to be bordering on somnolence, one needs an alarm clock. But here, the Styx’s transformative properties, encoded in little points of sound, rhythmic sibilant utterances from the chorus and the violist’s bow miming its activity into infinity at the end, becomes the bewitching alchemy that inexplicably remolds our reality.
The heaviness of much of Kancheli’s music might be the overriding ingredient that many people object to in listening to “classical music” which doesn’t exhibit the lightness and superficiality of early eras, like the styles of Haydn and Mozart. Many living composers dwell within less cheery moods because they more easily evoke subtlety and shading. The bright happy mood of the major mode feels like eating too much sugar. Kancheli’s suspended, somber music isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s a modern voice out of Georgia’s complex and troubled history that still retains a smidgen of folk color, even though he denies that aspect. “I try to keep a certain distance from folk music,” he revealed in his pre-concert chat. “But I respect Georgian folklore ... and if someone senses those folk sources, I’m pleased.”
The orchestra was conducted by Andres Mustonen, a long-time colleague of Kancheli, who spoke in the pre-concert chat with Oymak and Kancheli. In response to her question about how it feels to lead the premiere of this new work, Mustonen said: “As the first-time conductor of this work, each new phrase, each direction in the score is like gold to me. It’s not simply music for an occasion, it’s for the heart -- to touch our souls.” Then he added a critical factor that connects to the genius of the creative process, saying, “We must recognize that we are not the same people before the concert as after.”
So the composer’s way of organizing sounds into a language that expresses or creates response inadvertently possesses transformative powers. In Kancheli’s case, the transformation isn’t so much the result of the metamorphosis; it’s the state of slowly evolving within the chrysalis. It’s the limbo between life and afterlife.