Siege Diaries 10/10/2020


I have decided to return to the practice of writing daily.  This has been prompted by three realizations.  First, I miss it.  I miss the joy of working with words every day in my life in a structured manner.   It’s not as if I’ve stopped writing altogether–I’ve certainly poured time and passion into posts on Reddit in recent weeks, whether they are about history or Shostakovich or another topic–just that I’ve stopped, more or less, “crediting” myself with what I’ve done there as part of any kind of daily regimen.  And that leads to realization #2:  The siege is ongoing.  When I started writing these thoughts, I mentioned the “900 days” of the Siege of Leningrad.   Well, I’m at day 210 since I consider this siege to have started for me.  Since the “900 days” was actually 872 days, we’re almost 1/4 of the way through that period–and there is no clear picture of when and how it will end.  And other events have only enhanced the feeling of besiegement for me.   That leads to the third realization:  Reading the odd quote over the past few weeks, and running across The Daily Stoic Facebook page, I’m realizing that if there is a single philosophy that comes closest to inspiring me to seek courage, justice, and wisdom in my life, it’s Stoicism.  As a young classics student, I read Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations at a crucial point in my life, as I was starting to find less and less of what I needed in the religious practices I grew up with–not so much in the teachings, but in the beliefs.  But it’s been so buried in my foundations for many years that it took seeing those regular quotes on the walls of friends to remind me of just what I had found so valuable in it many years ago.  So I’ve decided to purchase The Daily Stoic Journal and to start incorporating it into my daily writing.  Some days, I expect, this will be the only thing I write.  Other days, I’ll append my thoughts on music or history or other ongoing events.    I should have the Journal in my hands tomorrow, along with a new copy of the Meditations (mine disappeared long ago).

In the meantime, I’ve been spending some time over the last couple of weeks starting to expand my focus on Dmitri Shostakovich’s works outwards to encompass some of those who he influenced or who influenced him.    The first one of these is Galina Ustvolkskaya, who will probably haunt me from beyond the grave for even intimating that her works were at all influenced by her teacher and most probably, her sometime romantic partner.  In her later life, she not only proclaimed that he had not influenced her at all (nor she, him), but that he had actively hurt and hindered her.  This was nothing personal, to be sure.  Ustvolskaya became increasingly eccentric, inscrutable, reclusive, and unbending in her later life.  She refused to listen to works by any contemporary composer, focusing on her own unique compositional style, which in her mature works might be described as intense, harsh, wintery, unyielding, and challenging to hear.  She is absolutely correct that in this later period, her approach is unique.  In some ways, she’s a minimalist, but not in the Western minimalist tradition of, say, Philip Glass.  There’s a great deal of spiritualism undergirding her work (in fact, she considered composing to be an active work of spirituality), but her compositions are the opposite of dreamy.   There’s even a more decided dichotomy between her public compositions–which in later life, she tried to search out and destroy–and her private work.  The former was the kind of “Soviet Realist” stuff that kept her employed as a professor at a Leningrad music school.  The latter was rarely performed at all until years after she had written it–and then only by performers she personally approved of and worked with (and her standards were unyielding).  Not for nothing is she known as “The Lady with the Hammer,” for the unrelenting hammering feel to her later compositions.  As Guardian writer Tom Service writes, “It has the ‘narrowness of a laser beam which is capable of piercing metal’; it’s a ‘voice from the “Black Hole” of Leningrad, the epicentre of communist terror, the city that suffered so terribly the horrors of war’; it ‘burns … with an inhuman intensity and a spiritual strength, as though it his broken away from musical substance and exists independently, like radiation or gravity’. Composers Viktor Suslin and Boris Tischenko are describing the power of the music of  Galina Ustvolskaya, the Russian composer who died in 2006 having created one of the 20th century’s most brutally, brilliantly uncompromising corpuses of work”

But in her earlier life, before her break with Shostakovich, the two of them most definitely influenced each other’s work.  Shostakovich quotes her Clarinet Trio in his String Quartet no. 5 and then again in one of his last songs, and it’s been argued that the two of them trade another quote from his original, discarded draft for the Symphony no. 9 back and forth in their work.  There is also something about Ustvolskaya’s early works that places them in a similar sound landscape as Shostakovich’s.  To use a language metaphor,  it’s as if they are speaking different dialects.  I will write a bit more tomorrow, but to start with, the first piece of hers I encountered:  Composition no. 2 (Dies Irae), scored for piano, eight double basses, and wood block, and by “wood block,”, we’re talking something more akin to a coffin, which the percussionist pounds with enormous hammers during the work–as if either waking the dead or trying to nail them securely into their tomb.  The piece dates from 1972/73, and made me immediately think of Shostakovich–not because anything in the piece sounds remotely like him, but because of the use of “percussion” in his String Quartet no. 13 a couple of years earlier.  Turns out, there’s a twist to that, which I’ll talk about tomorrow. 

So for now–into the Black Hole we go.  We’re not meant to like this music. But it is incredibly successful at evoking a universe that simply does not care what your feelings are.