Classical: Slow but sure

Back home in Georgia, Giya Kancheli used to think big. Now based in Germany, he spreads his music more thinly, but covers much the same spiritual ground. By Robert Cowan
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The Independent Culture
The music of Giya Kancheli suggests a world where tragedy is remembered but where a serene, non-denominational spirituality holds sway. And yet the man himself is endearingly immediate. The composer's demeanour is spry and wise, his kindly face animated by a fox-like inquisitiveness. He is a proud Georgian. "I would ask you not to make the same mistake that so many other journalists have made," he insists earnestly. "Please do not say that I have `emigrated'. This is not true. We return to our own country regularly."

Kancheli and family moved to Europe during politically unsettled times back home, first to Berlin, then to Antwerp, and now to Munich, where Manfred Eicher's ECM label has begun an impressive run of Kancheli recordings. As well as the much-praised, four-part cycle Life Without Christmas (comprising Morning Prayers and Evening Prayers, released on the 1995 CD Abii ne viderem, and Midday Prayers and Night Prayers, included on ECM's latest release Caris Mere) and other works in similar vein, Kancheli has composed seven symphonies (all available on CD), although he seems temporarily to have abandoned symphonic form. I ask him why.

"Just today I attended a rehearsal of my Seventh Symphony, which the Bavarian Radio is putting on in its Musica Viva series. And while listening, I thought, `My God, how many sounds have I written, how many notes? So many tutti and such a big orchestra!' Most of my current commissions are connected with chamber or string orchestras, and if, in the future, I have the opportunity to write again for a large orchestra, I suspect there will be fewer sounds, fewer notes. When you are 60, you are less attracted to the huge, mounting layers of sonority that you favoured in your forties; you become interested in a different scale of sound."

So at what point did Kancheli forsake the crowds for a less cluttered landscape? He shrugs meaningfully. "Let me not agree with you," he replies, "because I don't think that the period connected with my symphonic works differs so much from what I'm doing now with chamber music. Even with the symphonies, I tried to solve the same problems of silence, of space. Unfortunately, I don't belong to the category of people who can change. I think of Miles Davis, who changed all his life, then of the drummer Chet Baker, who didn't change at all. And me?" He laughs. "Me, I change in my dreams, but I cannot feel such a big difference between what I did before and what I do now. Our lives start as a sort of crescendo and then, at some point, quieten to a diminuendo. At the present time, I feel poised at poco a poco diminuendo, at the stage where the poco a poco - `little by little' - first starts. But then there could always be a sudden explosion. Who knows?"

So is change a good or a bad thing - at least in terms of composing music? "It depends on the nature of the personality. When I was speaking about Miles, I meant that, even in changing, he was still very much Miles Davis. Stravinsky also `changed', but his was such a huge individuality that he remained instantly recognisable. Mahler is obviously Mahler from the first bar; Arvo Part too. But I can't say that when music isn't recognisable, it's necessarily a negative point. For example, sometimes I might hear a piece that I cannot recognise, then find out that it's by Boulez or Stockhausen. They are of course very big personalities and maybe, after several years, this music too will be recognisable - if it is really art. Today you can always identify the music of Berg, Schoenberg and Webern, three very different composers; but, then, they are already part of our musical lives."

Kancheli's current predilection for spacious musical vistas, nostalgic echoes of folk-song and painfully disruptive climaxes has found a hugely appreciative audience. It is a profoundly private music that turns no one away, yet virtuosos will find little in it to challenge their fingers. Could Kancheli ever conceive of composing a "virtuoso" concerto? "No. I never have, and I can't imagine that I ever will. In fact, I sometimes think of myself as a sort of `sinner', writing such simple, horizontal lines when these great performers want to show what they can do with their instruments. And yet all my music really needs is a culture of sound, or timbre; an ability to draw a gradual diminuendo..."

In other words, the same genuine virtuosity, except that the notes are slow and long, not short and fast. The lines need to be sustained. "Of course - and it really is very difficult, because when orchestras see the scores for the first time, they are often a little bit upset! Sometimes they think that I have given them music for a third-grade student; but then they start to rehearse, and the problems start, too!"

Even so, a number of Kancheli's works have been composed with great players in mind; think of Mstislav Rostropovich, Gidon Kremer, Kim Kashkashian and Jan Garbarek. Does he think in terms of their specific timbres when he composes for them?

"In the case of Garbarek, I don't think I would have dared write for him had Manfred Eicher not suggested it." It was Eicher, of course, who engineered the match between Garbarek, the Norwegian saxophonist, and the Hilliard Ensemble on ECM's best-selling Officium CD. "But yes, I had always admired his very personal sound and I bore his individuality in mind when I arranged my Night Prayers for him. When it comes to Rostropovich or Kremer, I try to think primarily about the music, although their personalities are always there subconsciously."

Both Rostropovich and Kremer (who premieres Kancheli's new Time... and Again at the Barbican in April) are feted for their readings of post-war Russian repertoire, and of Shostakovich in particular. Kancheli inhabits a parallel world, although he doesn't seem to share their penchant for musical humour. Or perhaps that is a lack of perception on my part. Kancheli smiles: "Maybe you can't feel the humour in my music, but you certainly couldn't say that it lacks irony. And yet it's an irony that wears a smile. Actually, I have written a new piece called Boston Waltz that really does have humour. It was composed for a string orchestra with piano, and I would only agree to accept the commission from a conductor who would conduct and play the piece simultaneously. So it is also, in a sense, my answer to the problem of virtuosity."

Future plans include a Piano Quartet for Seattle in 1998 and, more tentatively, a Requiem for the 1999 Gaudeamus Festival in Holland. When we spoke, Kancheli had not yet decided whether to undertake the Requiem, but I was still curious to know how a man who once wrote an opera to texts that had no meaning (and "nearly no sense"), and who habitually avoids pinning his faith on a specific liturgy, might handle what is, after all, a profoundly ritual concept. "My first idea was to suggest a non-vocal piece," he says, "because the name `Requiem' will in any case have the same associations for all listeners. I would not imagine that it is forbidden to write a big orchestral work and name it Requiem; I have already written a symphony, my Second - which has no vocal part - and called it Chant."

Britten's Sinfonia da Requiem sets a kind of precedent, and Kancheli greatly admires Britten's music. So, might this Requiem offer much-needed musical balm for a troubled world? Giya Kancheli is sceptical. "Beethoven wrote wonderful quartets at the end of his life, and it seems that only a very small quantity of people needs them," he says. "This is a very difficult and complicated problem. Dostoyevsky once said that `beauty will save the world', and yet even with a mass of great music available to us - from the pre-Bach period through Beethoven until today - we must admit that, truthfully, nothing changes"n

`Caris Mere' and `Abii ne viderem' are available on ECM New Series (CD 449 810-2 and CD 445 941-2 respectively). Kancheli's new `Time... and again' has its world premiere on 7 April at the Barbican, London EC2 (0171 638 8891)