In Present Time

Russian icon of the Holy Wisdom of God, 17th century. Source from Wikimedia Commons.

holsthousezoom      By Simon Brackenborough

Time is the canvas on which music is written. A composer must decide how to use its space, and how to shape its perception – how to make it rush forward, slow it down, or suspend it completely.

A composer might also be interested in a larger sense of time. The age in which they live, the baggage of its past, its hopes and fears for the future.

And some composers are concerned with the nature of time itself. It seemed an appropriate coincidence that I discovered Sofia Gubaidulina’s violin concerto In Tempus Praesens (‘In The Present Time’) around the recent New Year, when this topic is given extra symbolic significance.

I was drawn in by the compelling mysteriousness of the music. But its title also intrigued me. If this work is about the present time, why is it written in Latin, a language of antiquity?

In her programme note, Gubaidulina offers some clues to her thinking.

In ordinary life we never have present time, only the perpetual transition from the past to the future. And only in sleep, in the religious experience and in art are we able to experience lasting present time.

We can understand that the ‘present’ here is not simply chronological, but a special kind of consciousness – of being present. Gubaidulina is well known for her works on religious and spiritual themes. Born in 1931 in the Soviet Tartar Republic, she developed an interest in religion at a very young age, at a time when Soviet Union policy was officially atheist.

Though a member of the Russian Orthodox Church, Gubaidulina is also the granddaughter of a Muslim Mullah, and Ivana Medić has noted an ‘idiosyncratic pantheistic synthesis’ of diverse religious influences in her output.

Her first violin concerto, Offertorium, helped to establish her name in the West in the 1980s. It took as its starting point the theme from Bach’s Musical Offering. And it is Bach too that underpins In Tempus Praesens, completed in 2007.

A documentary film about the composition, Sofia – Biography Of A Violin Concerto, gives insight into her craft, and her personality. Filmed in her mid-seventies, Gubaidulina has a certain grandmotherly kindliness, but her conviction in her methods is undisguised. She explains the importance of using both intellect and intuition. We see a plan for the piece’s structure, annotated with numbers taken from an analysis of Bach’s final chorale, combined with the Lucas sequence – a version of the Fibonacci sequence that is found in various guises throughout nature.

That there is mathematics underpinning the structure of In Tempus Praesens is not something a listener would notice – it is more the foundation to its architecture. But for a composer of such avowed spirituality, this esoteric method comes across as an act of faith in itself, like a divination tool. And the choice of Bach’s final chorale, written shortly before his death, is surely charged with an extra symbolism too – as a memento mori. 

We can also see a concern with the passing of time by looking at her orchestra. There are three Wagner tubas – a rare relic of the nineteenth century – and a harpsichord, emblematic of the Baroque. Then in the large percussion section looms an ancient presence: an immense gong, which marks out key points in the work with an earth-shattering roar.

But perhaps the masterstroke of her scoring is in a surprising absence. The violins – normally the orchestra’s largest cohort – have vanished completely. Both literally and sonically, the soloist stands apart.

The clues to this peculiar arrangement can be found in another coincidence, one with particular significance for the composer. Gubaidulina was commissioned to compose the concerto for the German violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter, and she was struck by the shared root in their first names – Sophia, the Greek for ‘wisdom’.

The concept of Sophia as ‘Holy Wisdom’ has a long and complex history in Eastern Orthodox traditions, running right back through early Gnosticism to the Old Testament. In Russian iconography, Sophia is sometimes shown as an angel with wings, while other depictions illustrate a passage in the book of Proverbs: ‘wisdom hath builded her house, she hath hewn out her seven pillars’.

Statue of Sophia, in Sofia, Bulgaria. The owl on her arm represents wisdom. Cropped from source by Mont-Joli, shared under Creative Commons License.

Drawing on this shared heritage embedded in their names, Gubaidulina decided to represent divine wisdom through the violin, its silvery and often mournful voice set against a larger ensemble – a society, perhaps – in which she is notably absent.

Part of my fascination with this score is how the orchestra is used in small pockets of colour, casting the solo line in strange shadows, and moments of visionary intensity. But then in the central section of the piece, this changes with frighteningly violent effect. The orchestra comes together and relentlessly pounds out a savage rhythmic figure, while the violin writhes and struggles against it.

In the documentary, an interviewer asks Gubaidulina about this passage. She explains that Sophia ‘appears in our reality with risks’, and that this episode is inspired by the fact that some philosophers have understood her as a whore, and someone who must be punished. In her programme note, she calls it a ‘ritual sacrifice’.

Besides a whore, Sophia has also been interpreted at various times as a bride, or a consort. If she carries a sexual aspect, then Gubaidulina seems to be revealing the danger attached to that in any culture that is built upon structures of male power – even a spiritual culture. This brutality can be heard both as an assault on divine wisdom by a savage society, but also as a reflection of male hostility to female sexual freedom.

Sophia’s sexual potential stands in obvious contrast to the more familiar embodiment of divine womanhood in Christianity – the Virgin Mary. But it is interesting how Sophia now flourishes in obscure corners of the internet, a perhaps more relatable icon who appeals to many with spiritual or even New Age interests. Among the more thoughtful blogs on the topic, Cynthia Avens makes the case that Sophia offers a better model of the Christian divine feminine, by expressing ‘the full range of her creative energies’, including sexual passion.

Sofia Gubaidulina in 1981, by Dmitri N. Smirnov. Cropped, shared under Creative Commons.

Gubaidulina appears in the West with a slightly exotic aura, a figure who not only emerged from behind the Iron Curtain, but from a seemingly more spiritual world too. In an interview for her 80th birthday in 2011, she expressed dismay at the secularity of modern life: ‘people are becoming one-dimensional, since we are losing religion. This lost spirituality is dangerous for art.’

It’s fair to say these sorts of sentiments are not to everyone’s taste. But in the case of In Tempus Praesens, there is perhaps a more timely relevance that is worth exploring, one that lies in another chance connection. In 2007, the same year that this work was premiered, Apple launched the first model of the iPhone.

In the decade since, smartphone technology and social media have transformed our consciousness in ways we are still struggling to come to terms with. The addictive stimulation of constant connectivity has led many – even tech leaders themselves – to express unease about diminished concentration spans, feelings of anxiety, and disrupted sleeping patterns.

As something of a Twitter addict, I often find my attention divided between laptop, phone, and the TV or radio. The stream of updates and notifications can give a colour and pace to the experience of time, but leaves it with a shallower depth too. It is hard to know where to draw a line over the opportunities this technology gives us, and how best to maintain some mental perspective.

So when Gubaidulina said that in art we can experience a ‘lasting present time’, she was perhaps being unintentionally prophetic. In a world of connectivity exhaustion, it may be that the most valuable currency a composer can trade in is the experience of time itself.

To that end, I’ve recently been challenging myself to take time out to listen more deeply to music, without distractions. For a rich and complex work like In Tempus Praesens, the rewards are inarguable.

In the documentary, Guabidulina notes an important passage in the transition to the final episode of the piece. Having cruelly assaulted the violin in ritual sacrifice, the orchestra now unites with it, and all instruments come together to meet at a single pitch.

This unity, she explains, is a metaphor for Sophia herself. And perhaps in that brief moment of oneness there is a model for a better kind of listening too. As the score moves towards its triumphant close, the orchestra descends to a low growl while the violin soars to a transcendent high, fading to silence among an ethereal tinkling of chimes.

This strange and fascinating work seems to be reminding us of something important – that our attention is a powerful force.  If we dedicate it to music’s singular purpose, we can find our consciousness widened to new heights and depths. We can leave the experience of ordinary life, and perhaps even catch a glimpse of lasting present time.

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