When Yuri Gagarin became the first man to orbit the earth in 1961, he decided to mark the occasion by singing Shostakovich's "The Motherland is Listening". Today, his choice carries Orwellian overtones that Shostakovich, with his biting sense of humour, would no doubt have appreciated; but for millions of proud Russians watching Gagarin from Earth, his extraterrestrial performance merely echoed a perception that the modest composer had created the most important soundtrack of their generation.
Far from being flattered by this gesture, however, in private Shostakovich angrily denounced the space programme. In Elizabeth Wilson's biography, a friend relates how he fumed: "Think of the villages where old women have to walk a kilometre to fetch water from freezing wells and lug it all the way home. The State wastes money on its space programme, on propaganda and political contest with the Americans – none of us need it."
The story demonstrates the essential contradictions in a man who was tortured in the most subtle way possible, first by Stalin, and then by Krushchev. Most people know that Shostakovich never went to prison, nor – unlike many of his friends – was he "disappeared", but instead he was subjected to a schizophrenic relationship with the dictators in which his music was alternately denounced or proudly displayed as nationalistic propaganda. Many have never forgiven him for his own ambivalent stance, especially after he signed a document decrying Andrei Sakharov and Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Given the continuing war fought over his reputation, it comes as no surprise that elucidating details in his life is like chasing a bobbing apple: one moment you think you've got your teeth into a historical fact, the next it's bounced below the water.
Elusive, contradictory, richly creative, and tortured – perhaps it was inevitable that at some point, someone was going to look at his life and say, "This sounds like a job for Theatre de Complicite". And initially you might think that the company would go for the good-looking bespectacled young man with auburn hair who glares out from his early photos – the man who worked with theatre directors such as Meyerhold, and played the piano in cinemas; the man who had such clear images in his head when he composed that you could see the soldiers marching or hear the crowds in his symphonies.
Far from it – rather than taking such an obvious theatrical route into Shostakovich's story, Complicite has decided to focus on the older man. Worn out by the stresses of living under a dictatorship, ill with polio, heart disease and lung cancer, Shostakovich's compositions became increasingly preoccupied with death. His final piece was his one and only viola sonata, but in 1974 he produced the prime inspiration for The Noise of Time: the profoundly philosophical Fifteenth Quartet.
The seeds for this challenging idea came from Philip Setzer, violinist with the Emerson String Quartet, which has produced what many would deem to be the definitive recording of all 15 of Shosta-kovich's string quartets. The Emerson Quartet has been identified in a recent article in The American Prospect magazine as one of the prime forces in rehabilitating Shostakovich's memory. On the phone from the US, Setzer evokes the moral contortions anyone had to go through in Russia, especially under Stalin, saying: "It's very easy for us to sit here and judge. If he hadn't co-operated to an extent, he would have been shot."
Shine this more forgiving light on to his biographies, and there is plenty of evidence of private resistance – whether it was musical (in his Eleventh symphony, supposedly a celebration of the October Revolution, many could hear a condemnation of the Hungary invasion), or more personal (as when he wrote to the author-ities demanding the release of Meyerhold).
But why the Fifteenth Quartet? As a musical experience, it looks daunting on paper: five movements crawling along at Adagio, and the penultimate Funeral march even slower, at Adagio molto. Setzer relates that Shostakovich told one musician, who asked him how to approach it, to "play it as if all of the flies in the room die and fall to the floor out of sheer boredom". This, however, is typical of Shostakovich's drier-than-dry humour: on one occasion, an over-earnest state sociologist interrogated him on how he viewed himself next to Stalin, and he replied, "I'm a worm, a mere worm", as his first wife doubled up with silent laughter on the other side of the door. In fact, the more you listen to the quartet, in many ways his non-religious requiem, the more intensely it yields layers of painful emotion, caught in an echo-chamber of his own and other people's past works.
I go to visit Complicite's artistic director, Simon McBurney, at the studio where he and the cast are reworking the piece for the London opening. It's a hot day, so the interview takes place outside, on a strip of land beside a railway line. In a conversation punctuated by the noise of trains, McBurney explains that he sees the piece not as a drama, but as a meditation. He tells how, "when he died, the Borodin Quartet played it again and again with hundreds of characters littered over the stage, so it became like a dramatic seance."
Appropriately for Shostakovich's mem-ory, the music will not be reduced to a mere theatrical accompaniment. As in a traditional classical concert, the Emerson Quartet's performance will be central to the event – but by circumscribing them with a stage rather than a concert platform, McBurney automatically raises questions about the way the audience perceives them. Much of the initial preparation investigated the ways in which people listen to music – including an experiment where the cast lay down and the quartet played from separate corners of the room. McBurney assures me that Barbican audiences won't find themselves horizontal, but says that he wants "to subvert people's expectations, literally make them think about something else, and then hear the music. So that rather than simply listening to a concert quartet – you approach them after you have reprocessed your mind".
While Complicite's last project, Light, received mixed reviews, those who were dazzled by the brilliance of Mnemonic – a virtuoso exploration of memory – will be on tenterhooks as to how the company deals with listening. Especially as the interpretation of music is associative rather than literal. Gerard McBurney, Simon's brother, is a music academic and broadcaster – and partly through his friendship with Irina Shostakovich, the composer's third wife, brought a wealth of material for the company members to gorge their memories on. Previously unseen photos, letters, and chunks of the literature that Shostakovich loved have all been fed into the Complicite machine, along with Simon's more tangential suggestions of radios, puppetry and space travel.
All of which will help explain the elegiac desolation felt by Shostakovich at end of his life. Perhaps unfairly, his has proved one of the most conflicted musical reputations of the 20th century. In Shostakovich's entertaining yet much disputed memoirs, he makes a comment about dealing with Stalin that could well apply to the whole of his existence. "If you are smeared with mud from head to toe ... don't even think of wiping it off. You bow and say thanks, say thanks and bow."
'The Noise of Time' is at the Barbican, London EC1 from Friday (020-7638 8891)Reuse content