Interview with Edisson Denisov


Roman Yakub


Edison Denisov (1929 - 1996) was one of the most important figures in Soviet and, later, Russian music of the last quarter of the century. Besides being a prolific composer and theorist, he influenced and often electrified musical life in the musical circles of the former Soviet with his uncompromising artistic positions. Denisov himself, and his friends and colleagues (among them the late Alfred Schnittke, Sofia Gubaidullina) were writing music with the use of new techniques; they were performed and welcomed in the West and they refused to collaborate with Soviet authority in terms of composing pseudo-patriotic works. Of course, some of their success may be attributed to their political dissidence in the totalitarian country and the willingness of their Western publishers to make profit on it. But serious researchers and, especially, performers all agree about the scale of their talents.

Denisov's output is huge and ranges from opera to incidental music. His language is a rather recognizable century chromatic and complex polyphonic texture, with very distinctive personal melodic idioms and a strong gravitation towards a type of impressionistic lyricism. Denisov taught orchestration in Moscow Conservatory for more than two decades, but until very late was not allowed to teach composition. That is why he influenced a great deal of young composers, but probably only Yuri Kasparov can be claimed as his student.

Denisov's energy was amazing: besides composition, he wrote articles as a critic and theorist, revived the Association of New Music, worked in the Composers Union as an active board member, traveled all over the country and abroad with the lectures and presentations on his own and others' music. I met Edison Denisov personally for the first time in 1986 or 1987. He was invited to the Voronezh (Southern Russia) Headquarter of the Union of Soviet Composers for one of such presentations on his music. I was struck at that time not only with his music - profound and colorful - but also with his speeches, full of bold and unusual criticism of the famous Soviet composers and the system as a whole. In July of 1988 I met him again, at that time in Ruza Composers Colony near Moscow. I told him that we are going to put together a new independent new music newsletter (which, unfortunately, never happened), and asked him for an interview. He quickly agreed, and asked me to bring my scores with me. I called my close friend, composer Dmitri Capyrin to come from Moscow with the tape recorder. As it turned out, Capyrin's recorder didn't work, and Denisov offered to use his. This interview triggered a relationship for the whole group of young composers (besides myself and mentioned earlier Dmitri Capyrin, there were as well Alexander Schetynsky and Alexander Grinberg from the Ukraine), relationship that is hard to overestimate. Denisov laid out for us few very important principles in terms of an approach to the process of composition. Spirituality, sincerity and professionalism were probably the most important ones. The same ones he tailored for himself. The following interview was taken by Roman Yakub and Dmitri Capyrin in summer of 1988 in "Ruza" Composers Colony.

RY: Edisson Vasilievich, what does your creative work mean to you?

ED: The question is a bit strange, because if it [creative work] were something unimportant to me, I would simply not engage in it. Now, if I do not work for a long time, I feel sick. Work to me is an obligatory condition of existence. Besides, I have a need to put on paper what I see or hear inside [of me]. Like anyone else, I have my own ideas, my own standpoint about life. In the informative opportunities that it affords, music is to me a broader, richer, more far-reaching branch of art than even words, not to mention other branches of art.

RY: In connection to this, what is your attitude to the fact that at previous times music carried concrete information, certain ideas that stood behind various musical phrases? How do you regard present attempts to revive music charged with more determinate contents?

ED: It seems to me that one of the greatest values of music is its spiritual power, its ability to carry a great spiritual charge. Music carried this charge during pre-Bach and Bach epochs, as well as for some time afterwards (Mozart, Brahms). In the 20th century, this charge was, to a considerable degree, lost. During our lifetime, for a long while, the loss of spiritual values has progressed, - or their leveling, or even a negative attitude to them revealed by the growth of so-called atheism - a phenomenon very dangerous to mankind. I remember Shostakovich telling me a few times a year or two before his death: "Earlier, there were ten commandments: 'thou shall not kill;' 'thou shall not steal;' 'thou shall not seduce your neighbor's wife;' etc. But now we have just one single commandment - 'do not violate the purity of the teaching of Marx and Lenin.'" A lot of artists perceived the leveling of spiritual values and their replacement by false values. In music - both in academic and in new - there is a lot of what we may call bluff. Currently, even some prominent names, experiencing intense professional scrutiny closely follow all the slightest changes of fashion - and, since they possess a certain technique and skills in the application of cliché, they often deceive the audience. Take the great artists of the past - Mozart, Bach, or Brahms; from Russian music, take Mussorgsky, Glinka, Tchaikovsky. Those never cheated the audience, never fooled anyone - they were always honest and sincere. At present, unfortunately, the idea of honesty often disappears from art. Even significant composers, and to a much greater extent, artists, often indulge in bluffing, whereas the audience, having lost the criteria, takes this bluff at face value.

In our society, false art has often substituted true one. There was a long period when the true art was suppressed, whereas false art was hailed, presented as true, and the entire mass media industriously persuaded the people that this was true art. This was how, in particular, they managed to fend the people off the concert hall. When before the war, Soviet music was played, people went to listen to it. In the 20s, concert halls were packed. Nowadays, one has to "organize" the audience; there is even an expression, "filling groups." Once there was an author's concert of some secretary-composer, related to his nomination for the Lenin award. I asked a clarinetist from the State Orchestra: "How was the concert?" And he told me: "It was wonderful - one to five." - "What do you mean? - "Fifty people on the stage, ten in the stalls." This is a standard picture. Here also lies one of the reasons for the fact that opera houses, especially provincial ones, stay empty. For a long time, all had been done to divert the public from art.

RY: And what does this problem look like in the West? Do you think that there as well, indifference to culture has prevailed?

ED: No, but the danger is great there, too. In the West, there are somewhat different problems about concert halls. In some countries, first of all in FRG, the modern manner of writing has become a certain cult that has created large groups of snobs - entire castes of them. I do not very much like this audience - those who consider themselves extremely enlightened in modern music but do not attend other concerts. These musical snobs have lost the very perception of music, the original idea of it. But I like it when my music is performed at ordinary concerts together with classics, because in that case the people come not because of curiosity, not out of snobbishness or some other considerations, but to listen to music. Then you can really see how a broad and varied audience appreciates your music. As for snobbishness, the anti-spiritual drive - this is the illness of the entire world. In our society, it has its own face, in the West it has a different one. To me, art, especially American art exhibited at the Pompidou Centre, is a specimen of complete anti-spirituality. I cannot appreciate painting that has no painting in it; I cannot judge about music that has no music in it. Unfortunately, there are plenty of such works - this is a plague of many modern festivals. When some festivals started, people were full of enthusiasm, were striving to know what their colleagues were doing. But a few years would pass, and festivals would become less interesting; they became filled with "festival outwork" and clichés. At principle, though, festivals are necessary, because they provide an exchange of information, because one can meet his colleagues there, can get acquainted, talk to them.

RY: Do you think that your musical language has changed considerably during the last 25 years?

ED: Of course, it has changed. For about ten years after my graduation from the conservatory, I studied very thoroughly the music of those composers whom I did not know. A lot of music was then banned and was not studied at the conservatory. On the other hand, Shebalin - and he was a very good teacher for many reasons - did not like some music (he did not, for example, like or recognize Bartok). After conservatory, I wanted to understand which composers I could accept, who I could learn from. This was my second conservatory - approximately, from 1959 to 1969. For ten years I had not written anything for the orchestra - just chamber music, - but I analyzed others' works a lot; I searched and experimented. During those years, I learned serial technique; I experimented with aleatorics; I applied collage technique. Although, I do not think of collage as much of a technique, and I do not very much like to quote from others' music in my works. If I have citations, they have not the sense of collage, but rather are analogous to the citations in the music of the past centuries. Citations in my violin and viola concertos are roughly in the same context as Bach's choral has in Berg's Violin Concerto. At principle, I do not like quoting and use it very seldom.

My first piece in which I tried to find a synthesis of what I had been looking for, was my Painting for a big orchestra, written in 1970. This is my first piece for the orchestra, if we do not count those that I wrote as a student. Then, there was a number of concertos for various instruments. And if we compare the language of the 'Cello Concerto written in 1972, to the two latest ones - the oboe and viola concertos - then, of course, there will be a considerable difference in language. Besides, I have always faced the problem of integrating modern musical means and the so-called tradition - not in the primitive sense of the word, but in the true, basic sense. A particular problem for me was the integration of the elements of tonal music - without collage, without so-called polystylistics, and without overemphasizing the functional. I think that I succeeded in doing this in some pieces - in the Requiem, in the opera The Foam of Days, in the Ballet Confession.

When you live, the manner of writing starts to change by itself. But I have never had such drastic breaks and changes in style as, for example, Stravinsky. I have never had moments when I would reject everything extant so far, and would start from scratch. Particularly, this is true concerning serialism. All over the world nowadays, it is fashionable to curse this technique, as well as the period when all composers used it. I think that this is incorrect, and that many best pieces are written in this technique. I think, the best piece of Nono is his Interrupted Song that was written exactly in the technique of quite strict seriality. To me, one of the best pieces by Boulez still is his Marteau Sans Maître, as well as the second book of Structures. I absolutely do not accept what Stockhausen has been doing for the last ten to twelve years, but I think that his pieces on the verge of the 60s are very good music - like Gruppen, [??] (1) and others. I do not stand for "absolutizing" a single type of technique, but rather I would like each composer to find his own technique using this or that type of synthesis of what the others have mastered so far. I was striving for this myself: to find my own technique on the basis of such a synthesis, and to try to combine new types of writing with the tradition.

RY: Do you think that one may talk about certain "Denisov intentions"?

ED: Unlike some other composers who got carried away by serialism, I have never rejected intention, because purely abstract reasoning deprived of any intentional content, makes music more superficial. One may compose a lot of good pieces, but they will be, so to say, beautiful musical architecture with very little spiritual content. For example, I appreciate Xenakis's music, but objectively speaking, it is very superficial - it has almost no psychological content. In a sense, this is "objective music." If we attribute Xenakis to French music, he will appear to continue the tradition of Roussel and Varèse, but in no way is he even close to Debussy's tradition. To me, other things are more appealing. In my opinion, Debussy is one of the greatest composers of the twentieth century. I think that he is even more innovative, if we use this word, than Stravinsky or Webern - but Debussy's innovations do not lie on the surface. In Stravinsky's music, the new immediately strikes you; whereas one initially takes Debussy as very traditional. However, when you start to analyze, you see that he was a much more daring thinker than many of his contemporaries. In this respect, Debussy's music, in his best pieces, like Pelleas and Melisande, is to me as promising as Mussorgsky's music - which was really appreciated almost one hundred years after [his death], or possibly has not yet been appreciated even today.

RY: Your negative attitude to the term avant-garde is well known. Why don't you like it?

ED: It is superficial and does not explain anything. Any composer who does something that has not been done before, who has a personality, already is in the avant-garde. Prokofiev, for example, who did little new preferring to restore the old, could in his yearly years be attributed to avant-garde. In general, if a young composer wants to become somebody he should engage in avant-garde. One cannot do without that. I have been listening to music by Khrennikov's pupils who - it happens, for the second or third time - try to get a membership in the Union of Composers. Last time, almost all of them failed. You simply cannot write like that when you are 25 or 26. They are more conservative than the most conservative "elders," they are not in search for anything. It is some sluggish music - even not sluggish - I would say, "rotten," devoid of any initiative, absolutely apathetic. It is just sad when a young man writes like that. Because the search can move in any direction, the important thing is to try. Or, it may be the other way round when they use so-called "aleatorics" - but the result is not organic, for they just try to be modern without having elementary technique. It has always been my view that one should receive an elementary academic education, to learn so-called musical technique, before one starts to really compose. When this is behind you, it is time to do something that you have not been taught, something anti-academic. To strive to build your own work on a totally different logic. Some can do so while at the conservatory, others do it afterwards. Unfortunately, at conservatories they do not teach the principal things, rather, they teach you schemes. It is not necessary to teach that a sonata necessarily has to have a main [theme ,secondary theme] and [development]. One should teach a different thing - the sonata principle. If it is there, we may have neither a [main theme nor a secondary theme], but it will be a beautiful sonata. One cannot learn much from schemes. Hershkovitz, a pupil of Webern, told me that Webern's lessons had consisted of his analysis of Beethoven. And he did the right thing. Maybe one must take not just Beethoven but really analyze, show how all this was "molded" together, help penetrate "the kitchen" - different "kitchens." Due to the fact that I studied Bartok's quartets for several years, I was able to discover a lot there. The technique of the Third and Fourth Quartets is just extraordinarily interesting - on the one hand, it has Beethoven's intentions, on the other hand, there is non-standard thinking and links to the national factor, without speculating on the latter, though.

RY: What is your attitude to the fact that many composers borrow others' stylistic models, often from the music of the past?

ED: To me, this is a sign of conformity, nothing more. There are many composers in the world today who, so to say, have bad influence on the youth. One of them is Pendereki, another one is Wolfgang Rim who has no great talent but a lot of energy. I prefer other composers who sit quietly and do not try by all means to be ahead of progress.

RY: How will you regard various informal musical unions and associations that we will surely have?

ED: I think this is very good, if only this will not be imposed but rather will come out of the need and the wish to do something good. Before, no one established, say, the Association of Modern Music from above - it emerged on its own, because people united together. Later, the association was defeated, destroyed by RAPP activists led by Belyi and other rascals, even though all notable composers were its members.

RY: Probably, the new associations of musicians should revive forgotten names and pieces?

ED: Of course, they should. There is a lot of good music written in the '20s that was not simply unjustly forgotten but rather deliberately crossed out of history. The same was in literature, where the names of Bulgakov and Platonov were deliberately hushed down, and all Soviet literature was reduced to a few names - Gorky, Alexei Tolstoi, Sholokhovà. Such composers as Roslavets or Mosolov whose talent was by no means smaller than Shostakovich's were just "eaten up." Mosolov's widow Nina Konstantinovna Meshko showed me her husband's letter to Stalin. It is an awful letter, on the brink of complete despair and hopelessness. He asked to give him a slightest opportunity to write, so that he could earn his living, or give him a chance to leave. Roslavets had to leave Moscow for Tashkent but came back here to die. In Tashkent, they burned his manuscripts - they were checking the archives and burned the manuscripts so that they would not take up space. Still, something survived. His Symphony is, in many of its parts, wonderful music; as is his Violin Concerto, I consider it the best after Berg's Concerto. Some pages of the Symphony are lost; the [??] of the Concerto has also been destroyed, but the [piano score] got published. This music needs to be saved until it is finally [discarded?] ; one should discover it and bring it to the people. Take Lurie - he was also a very interesting composer, Lunacharsky's closest aid - he was the head of the Board of Music in Lunacharsky's Narkomat. There is a wonderful portrait of Lurie in the Russian Museum, painted by Altman. Lurie worked with Mayakovsky, Kamensky. He has been long since stricken out of the history of music, even though many of his pieces were published and re-published abroad. He was one of the most interesting Soviet composers.

The fates of these composers were different. Roslavets managed not to miss his genius. Mosolov practically ceased to exist as a composer after 1932-1935, when he got in the habit of drinking. He wrote terrible music then - symphonies and romances, bad beyond all standards. I have seen him a few times in my life, but we did not pay attention to him - no one knew his name then. He was a composer of exceptional talent, but they broke him down. Not everyone had an opportunity to adjust. Prokofiev and Shostakovich did, and they used it a lot - especially Prokofiev who wrote such horrible pieces as the Eulogy in Stalin's honor; Tale of a Real Man, Stone Flower, and other very weak pieces - in order to stay on the surface by all means. Shostakovich also wrote Song of the Woods, as well as the song "Lanterns", and later on spoke about them with his typical cynicism. As for Mosolov, he just could not stay on the surface.



Roman Yakub

April 2, 2001

Amherst, Massachusetts