Lady Russia: Program Notes

Enjoy these notes on Sofia Gubaidulina's "Fachwerk" (written by the fabulous Kathryn Bacasmot) and Olga Bell's "Krai" (written by Olga!) 

See you at the Gardner for this stirring show. 


Having experienced suppression and censorship in the Soviet Union (having being temporarily blacklisted), Gubaidulina made her way to German and settled in Hamburg in the early 1990s. Her oeuvre is largely influenced by her Orthodox faith, as well as her interest in Eastern tonality stemming from her Tatar heritage. Reflecting on her style, Gubaidulina has also commented, “Dmitri Shostakovich and Anton Webern have had the greatest influence on my work. Although my music bears no apparent traces of it, these two composers taught me the most important lesson of all: to be myself.”

Fachwerk teeters on a razor’s edge between beauty and terror, and employs the sound world of the bayan in blisteringly inventive ways. The accordion (a cousin of the Russian bayan) virtuoso Geir Draugsvoll had once approached Gubaidulina about writing a concerto for his instrument, and eventually, she penned Fachwerk. While not a concerto in a formal sense, the bayan has a starring role against the orchestral backdrop.

The title comes from the world of architecture. Fachwerk, the composer reveals, “can be traced back to my enthusiasm for the architectural style of timber framing. This is a highly specialized, unique style in which the constructive elements of a building are not hidden behind the building façade, but, on the contrary, are shown openly. The constructive elements which are indispensable for such a building, such as wall struts, window and door latches and beam ceilings, form different kinds of geometrical patterns which become an aesthetic phenomenon. And at times, a still more profound phenomenon shines through from behind this beauty, an essential, intrinsic phenomenon. Thus one distinguishes, for example, between the strut types ‘Swabian man,’ ‘Swabian woman,’ ‘wild man,’ and ‘standing St Andrew’s cross.’”

She continues, “I imagined that one could also show something in music reminiscent of [the Fachwerk architectural] style, i.e. compose in such a way that the construction of a certain instrument would become visible and transformed into something of an aesthetic nature...A musical instrument does in fact exist which makes it possible to realize this idea. It is the bayan, on which one can switch the keyboard from the melodic mode to the chordal mode. In one and the same row of buttons one has the dynamics of a melodic line above or below and, at the same time, the stasis of chord sounds in the middle of the sound area at one’s disposal. In this structure, in principle, there is a dominant (the melodic line above), a subdominant (the melodic line below) and a tonic (chords in the center of the system)—three aspects that determine the essence of order in the universe.” 


In the opening moments of Krai, an avalanche of low notes from the piano drops the listener into the middle of a vast, icy C Major chord. I like to think that this sound has been going forever, like Russia’s vast Western steppe, or its endless taiga forests in the Far East. The same harmony returns in the final seconds of the last movement, underscoring a quote of Nikolai Nekrasov’s poignant epigram: “You are bountiful! You are mighty! You are powerless — Mother Russia!” 

For some, this kind of irreconcilable paradox has come to characterize Russia more than anything else. Like many émigrés (we left when I was seven), I’m conflicted about the place I left behind. I romanticize it wildly; I’m unfamiliar and uncomfortable with what it is today. If this sentiment is experienced in some capacity by people everywhere, perhaps it becomes uniquely Russian in a climate of extreme distance, cold and emptiness. The great Eurasian landmass––much of it inhospitable, some portion always in dispute––underscores everything, and the pageantry of human existence here becomes a feat more miraculous and more delusional than anywhere else in the world. 

Krai (край) is the Russian word for edge, limit, frontier or hinterland. Present-day Russia is divided into a myriad of 'federal subjects', including nine krais. In this capacity the term is a political designation, like 'territory', but for the earliest Russians these places represented both the promise and terror of the vast unknown. While much has been written about Russia's major cities, Krai is concerned with the rest of the map: the wilderness, the towns, the inhabitants and their stories. From the Cossack melodies of Krasnodar Krai in the West to the Chukchi drumming of Kamchatka Krai in the Russian Far East, Krai is a journey across the Eurasian landmass in forty minutes. The texts of Krai are a mix of traditional, liturgical and original poetry assembled with tremendous of guidance and direction from my mother, a former Radio Moscow broadcaster. 

This is the world premiere of a new arrangement of Krai for solo voice, string orchestra, piano and percussion.