On the Azerbaijani composition school
FB: You were born at the time when the Soviet art school in Azerbaijan was already on the rise. The centuries-old tradition of Oriental music interacted with European art music. What memorable impressions of those years could you share?
FG: The 1950s were the heyday of symphonic music in Azerbaijan, Gara Garayev, Fikret Amirov, Sultan Hajibeyov, Niyazi were creating their most spectacular works. Conductor and composer Niyazi became very famous as a performer of Azerbaijani music: having such an excellent interpreter of their music, Azerbaijani composers wrote for him specifically. It was an interesting symbiosis, mutual enrichment.
At this time, attempts were made, with varying degrees of success, to combine the classical traditions of mugham (one of the main genres of Azerbaijani traditional music, a multi-part vocal and instrumental composition—F.B.) and symphonic music, Fikret Amirov composed his symphonic mughams. While they sounded rather interesting and progressive at that stage and were popular, this direction did not develop much further. This was a way of quoting folk melodies.
Gara Garayev followed a different path. Even if they do not quote certain intonations or mugham, Azerbaijani composers who grew up under the sun of Azerbaijan, breathed the air of Azerbaijan are still recognizable as Azerbaijani composers.
FB: What music was the most popular with the audience at that time?
FG: Philharmonic concerts were quite successful at that time. The audience thirsted after music. The Opera Theater was well attended. Many productions, such as, of course, Hajibeyov’s Koroghlu, Seven Beauties by Gara Garayev and many others, were momentous events and remain milestones in the history of Azerbaijani musical culture.
FB: What other milestones in the history of Azerbaijani musical culture would you single out?
FG: First of all, Uzeyir Hajibeyov himself, a unique personality in Azerbaijani culture. He studied at the St. Petersburg Conservatory for only one year, because he could not afford to continue his education. He did not study either instrumentation or harmony…
FB: In one of your recent interviews, you mention your father’s notes about Hajibeyov’s opera Koroghlu.
FG: My father had a high regard for Koroghlu. Although Hajibeyov’s teacher, professor, composer Leopold Rudolf helped him a lot with the orchestration and with the opera in general. Hajibeyov did need help: talented as he was, a year at the conservatory is not nearly enough. Nevertheless, Father writes that one should never refer to Rudolf as Hajibeyov’s co-author. Yes, he edited the opera, yes, he “cleaned up” a lot, but he is by no means a co-author. That was Hajibeyov, only Hajibeyov and no one but Hajibeyov. All the gaps in his education notwithstanding.
FB: Back to the question of milestones in the history of Azerbaijani musical culture. What other phenomena would you highlight?
FG: Everything that was done in the decades before the 1960s is of great importance. Many innovations were achieved at this time.
Yesterday, absolutely by accident, I listened to Rauf Hajiyev’s Violin Concerto, a piece that was considered a great achievement of the 1950s. This is most likely the first violin concerto in Azerbaijani music. Was it a milestone? It was. Was it a successful one? All in all, yes, it was. The form is well built, the violin sounds organically. However—we can say this with certainty today—this music is significant and interesting only for the Azerbaijani audience but not particularly important in the context of world musical culture: we already have, for example, Brahms’s Violin Concerto written a hundred and twenty years before this piece.
After the 1960s, Gara Garayev took a left turn, breaking many traditional canons. His Violin Concerto and Symphony No. 3 were written in a completely different musical system, Schoenberg’s 12-tone system was already used there as a means of expression.
FB: How did composers compromise with the audience during these years? Was most of the audience traditionally inclined?
FG: Gara Garayev never said that compromise was the only possible way. But in order not to “scare away” the traditional audience, there are echoes of ashug music (in the cultures of the peoples of the Caucasus and the Turks, ashug is a bard singing epic stories, his own and folk songs accompanying them with a string instrument, such as saz, tar or kamancha—F.B.) in the second part of Symphony No. 3, although even there the music is written strictly, without the slightest compromise, according to the Schoenberg system. The 1950s audience was quite conservative. Once I asked my father why he used such traditional music in his ballet Seven Beauties. He reminded me of Adagio in C major, where the melody begins with a B, with a large major seventh chord, and said that for the audience in Baku it felt like such a grand event, as if the ceiling had collapsed above them. Everything that happened with a historical delay in Azerbaijan was very important for its culture. But now, when communications are expanded, when any music is available, you can study anything, a lot has already been done on a par with Europe.
FB: Don’t you find the classical European temperament much simpler and, in a sense, narrow, in contrast to mugham?
FG: Tar has a 17-step scale. The musical world developed in such a way that it was the 12-step European system that became universal. In his work Principles of Azerbaijani Folk Music, written in the 1940s, Uzeyir Hajibeyov brought Azerbaijani modes to a 12-step scale. It was progressive and bold for that time, as it opened up the opportunity for folk musicians to play by sheet music. In the 1980s, theoretical works appeared that questioned the correctness of this system. Nevertheless, this system still exists, and Hajibeyov’s work is still a handbook for every Azerbaijani musician.
FB: I find one of the most remarkable, but particular cases of you resorting to mugham, in your piece “Xütbə, muğam və surə” (“Sermon, mugham and prayer”), where the second part is entirely based on mugham.
FG: This opus was commissioned by an ensemble from Holland, and an Azerbaijani folk instrument had to be present there—I chose tar. Of course, I consulted with folk musicians. Our tar player Mokhlet Muslimov played excellently by note, because he a conservatory graduate and had experience performing in the conservatory orchestra. Dutch musicians were amazed at how perfectly he could play in Webern’s texture, hitting every note so accurately and, at the same time, he could improvise mugham perfectly in the second movement. This is the Soviet conservatory school. I remember one of the authors having to explain to the Arab pianist, who could not read sheet music, what he needed to play.
FB: What is the specificity of this “Oriental form” of composition? What means did you use to achieve a synthesis of the written European and oral-professional Oriental traditions?
FG: I got a specific commission to write a piece in which an Azerbaijani folk instrument would play solo, and I did exactly that. Tar is the king of Azerbaijani musical instruments and it has to be the soloist. I believe it is completely unnatural if it does not play solo in mugham. This is why I included mugham in the composition in full. The soloist for whom I wrote it, Mokhlet Muslimov, played his own version of this mugham for me. Elmir Mirzoev, a composer with a great ear, my former student, transcribed the audio recording into sheet music, and I took the opportunities I was given: the mugham sounds in full, the orchestra accompanies, complements it at times. In other parts, the tar sounds like an ensemble instrument. In the third movement, it does not play solo at all: its role is the same as all other instruments’. In the first movement there are solo moments, but the center of the entire composition is mugham.
FB: Do you like listening to Azerbaijani oral-professional music?
FG: Since I have lived far from the land where I was born for a long time now, of course, I get nostalgic too. Sometimes I watch Azerbaijani films, some programs. I have 7 or 8 CDs of Azerbaijani folk music.
When I make a piano score, I have complete freedom: I should orchestrate it as if it were my own music.
On teaching and instrumentation
FB: In one of your interviews, you say that between teaching composition and instrumentation, you are more inclined to teaching the latter. Moreover, you prefer teaching musicologists, who are less prone to “unwillingness to learn”. I would like to ask a question that has been asked many times in your class: what does orchestration mean to you?
FG: Orchestration is part of my profession, perhaps even my favorite part. However, I am more inclined towards some things than others. For example, orchestration for a brass band is completely alien to me. It requires a very good knowledge of the brass band. As for jazz—and I love and play jazz—I made sure to show all my arrangements to colleagues who are good at it in order to get some practical advice.
Orchestration is part of creative work. It all depends on the composer’s objective. For example, I re-orchestrated Schoenberg’s Erwartung and Berg’s Violin Concerto from a full orchestra to a chamber one. What was my objective? The author’s music should sound the same as in a full orchestra, without any “adlibbing”, staying in the channel of the author’s intention. However, when I make a piano score, I have complete freedom: I should orchestrate it as if it were my own music. Here I can give two examples from musical literature that an orchestrator should always remember: Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition arranged by Ravel and Bach’s Fugue (Ricercata) arranged by Webern. They both approached the piano score as if it were their own music. It can be tempting: “I will do it like Scriabin’s.” Or the opposite: “I will do exactly what Scriabin would not have done.” And that would be wrong! Do it as if it were your own music!
Here is an example from my own experience. I had to arrange Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire for expanded orchestra. However, a listener who knows the composition well should not be shocked that it sounds completely different from what they are used to. It should sound the same, but in a completely different texture. This work was commissioned by the renowned Austrian classical music publishing firm Universal Edition. I sent them the score, and it turns out they sent it to the Schoenberg family. Universal Edition forwarded to me a letter from Schoenberg’s son. It said that he had listened to it: on the one hand, he found a lot of unexpected things there, but on the other, the music was quite recognizable. He welcomed the new score and wanted the piece to be recorded in this arrangement.
FB: A question from the opposite angle then. If you had to write a piece to be orchestrated by another composer, what would it be? And assuming that you know in advance: would the orchestration be for an ensemble of traditional Azerbaijani instruments?
FG: If I needed it, I would first of all make a detailed piano-conductor score, then talk to the orchestrator. I would share my feelings, ideas, in order to avoid antagonism where I wanted one thing, but it turned out completely different.
FB: What does “studying” and “knowing” a musical instrument mean to you?
FG: I’m not sure that it is possible to know an instrument completely theoretically without mastering it practically. To study something and to be able to do it is not two sides of the same coin. The amazing Six Caprices by Sciarrino is dedicated to the violinist Salvatore Accardo. Let’s ask ourselves: isn’t this dedication a sign of gratitude for the communication that the author may have received in the process of working on the piece?
The conductor of a symphony orchestra knows the possibilities of the instruments, but, not being a string player by education, with the classics they trust the finishing strokes to the concertmaster. The great Yevgeny Mravinsky had Lev Shinder.
To my young colleagues who try to study an instrument in the hope of creating something “prize-winning”, I would remind the old Chinese saying: “Make haste slowly.” Or: “Serving the Muses bears no haste.” I will admit, however, that these quotes sound rather archaic in today’s verrückte Welt (“mad world”–F.B.).
FB: It is important for you that scores and sheet music in general are neatly handwritten. Is there an influence of the Arab culture with its love of calligraphy?
FG: I don’t think so… My father, who taught me, was very demanding. If the notation was sloppy, there were no nuances, or the accent marks were not properly placed, he would send the student home, demanding respect both for the student’s own work and for the teacher. Maybe his own scrupulousness did have to do with calligraphy, because in the last years of his life he became interested in the Arabic language, bought a self-study book, and wrote in Arabic script at the basic level.
On Azerbaijan’s cultural ties and the Kazan experience
The Union of Composers of Azerbaijan today is headed by people who, in my opinion, are not particularly interested in anything other than promoting their own work.
FB: In what directions is modern Azerbaijani art music developing today?
FG: The Union of Composers of Azerbaijan today is headed by people who, in my opinion, are not particularly interested in anything other than promoting their own work. But there is a small group of talented masters, relatively young—over 30, who have studied in Europe or America and graduated with flying colors, who now write wonderful music and win international competitions. At the same time, there is also a middle-senior generation, which includes my students, who make me feel proud.
FB: Azerbaijan borders Turkey on one side and Iran on another. Do you feel this closeness of cultures? Are there many contacts between contemporary Azerbaijani and Turkish music, between Azerbaijani and Iranian music?
FG: Soviet Azerbaijan and independent Azerbaijan were much more developed musically than Turkey and Iran. So, it was rather our foreign neighbors who were influenced by us than the other way around. There are folk tunes and songs that exist both in Iran and Azerbaijan. The melody of the “Persian Chorus” from Glinka’s Ruslan is the Azerbaijani folk song “Qalanın dıbində” (“At the foot of the fortress”—F.B.). How it reached the composer is another story. More than 35 million Azerbaijanis live in Iran. There are East Azerbaijan and West Azerbaijan provinces in northern Iran. The cities of Tabriz, Rasht, Ardabil are Azerbaijani cities. While cultural contacts with Iran were somewhat difficult in the Soviet era, they have been revived in recent years. As for Turkey, any symphony orchestra there has several musicians from Baku. Azerbaijanis have done a lot for the growth of the musical culture of Turkey, both in terms of education and in terms of orchestra performers. My sister and her family have lived in Turkey for 35 years. Her husband Elshad Bagirov was the chief conductor of the Istanbul Theater, and Rauf Abdullayev was the chief conductor of the Ankara Opera and Ballet. One of the best orchestras in Turkey is the Bilkent University Orchestra. Just the day before yesterday, I was talking to my sister on WhatAspp: her husband has concerts there now. I called him and several musicians from the orchestra were visiting him at that time—and they are all from Baku. I know some of them, some of them are even children of my students and colleagues.
FB: Is there a similar closeness between Azerbaijani music and that of other neighboring countries?
FG: Probably. But it was a surprise to me that, for example, the music of Tatarstan with the center in Kazan does not have much in common with Azerbaijani music—we do not have the pentatonic scale. The music of the Crimean Tatars, on the other hand, has some common points with the music of Azerbaijan. And the Crimean Tatar pop music scene is as unlikeable as the Azerbaijani one (jokingly).
FB: You worked at the Kazan Conservatory in the Republic of Tatarstan from 2003 to 2005. What circumstances made you choose Kazan?
FG: I didn’t choose it, I received a job offer. I knew Alexander Maklygin (professor at the Kazan Conservatory—F.B.), and he invited me to work in Kazan. I had good students and, most importantly, the staff welcomed me with open arms: Anatoly Luppov, Alexander Maklygin, the rector, and my colleagues… Then it became a little more difficult for me to travel to Kazan, and there was an accident at the conservatory, everyone was assigned to other colleges and schools. So I asked Rubin Abdullin to stop this experiment for a while.
FB: Did you work with any musical ensembles in Kazan?
FG: No, I never had the chance. I attended Fuat Mansurov’s last concert. He was very old and hard of hearing. And then about a year later, I went to Alexander Sladkovsky’s concert, and it was great. I heard the details, what he did was truly revolutionary…
FB: But there were different opinions of him. For example, he came to Tatarstan at that time, not being particularly familiar with the Tatar repertoire. Although the common belief is that with discipline, he achieved great results over time…
FG: Of course, it was his responsibility to get to know all this, although I don’t know how it went afterwards. And is discipline a bad thing? The orchestra itself was healthy under him. There were problems with the orchestra in Baku at the time, and I wrote in the Baku press that they should take a leaf out of Tatarstan’s book.
FB: If you had to briefly compare Baku, Moscow and Kazan, what differences and what similarities would you focus on?
FG: Moscow cannot be compared with anything; Moscow is a state in itself. Beautiful orchestras, theaters… it’s like a small country. As for Baku and Kazan, these are two beautiful European cities that have their own national face. They have more in common than differences. Perhaps this is why it was easy for me to live in Kazan. But Baku is quite far from Europe: there is Russia, Belarus and Ukraine in between. In this regard, Tatar musicians have a purely geographical advantage, so these are the differences.
FB: What contemporary composers from the neighboring regions can you name?
FG: I am barely familiar with Iran. In Turkey, the composition culture is mostly at the level of the 1950s Azerbaijani composers. I cannot find anything interesting musically for myself there, although there were such wonderful composers as Ahmet Adnan Saygun. I remember Father telling me about attending a production of Koroghlu in Ankara. He said that the final scene of Ahmet Saygun’s opera was written very interestingly. At the end of the opera, the orchestra imitates Koroghlu’s departure into oblivion. The music becomes quieter and quieter, the drums imitate the stomping of Gyrat’s hooves, the hero’s horse… It was a magnificent, mesmerizing ending.
On creative principles
Everything that could be invented has already been invented. It is impossible to come up with something new, just as it is impossible to truly combine folk music with symphonic music.
FB: I heard a quote from the Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet in your class once. And this invites my next question: what literary work means the most to you? Do you think the word “inspiration” is applicable in this context?
FG: Inspiration, as Tchaikovsky said, is a guest who does not willingly visit the lazy. Like a clerk who goes to the office every day, I go to my grand piano. Of course, this is an ideal situation that does not always work out: I have been feeling my age in recent years. For me, this is work, I don’t even want to talk about inspiration.
It is another matter when some line from a book can push, or prompt, or just give you an idea. For example, a very long time ago, I was writing an opera at my dacha back in Baku, and one evening at dinner—I like to read while eating—I accidentally came across Byron’s line: “I love this sweet name.” This line prompted me to write a sonata for two performers. I put the opera aside—I had written 1.5 acts of the piano score by that time—and in one night I came up with the form and concept of a new composition. But this is not inspiration, this line only gave me an idea, somehow spurred me on, gave me an impulse. Inspiration is a mirage…
FB: I see a “Book of Concerns” among your various texts on your website. Why do Russian and German languages prevail both in it and in your other texts?
FG: Russian is the language in which I speak and think, and I happily communicate in Azerbaijani when I come to Baku. When we started to study Deutsch at school, we had an excellent teacher, Ksenia Grigorievna Galich. Thanks to her teaching talent, I fell in love with the German language. So, the foundation was laid at school, and, for example, three basic forms of irregular verbs that we were forced to memorize are still firmly engraved in my mind: nennen – nannte – genannt, brennen – brachte – gebracht, denken – dachte – gedacht. Or separable prefixes… Today I read German literature in the original: Ernst Jandl, whose poetry I appreciate, or reread with great pleasure Erich Maria Remarque’s old novels—All Quiet on the Western Front, Three Comrade, keeping a dictionary nearby, of course (jokingly). I don’t speak English and this is probably why I dislike it, especially its American version. This is the reason these languages prevail in my texts.
FB: Do you think the word “gold standard” is applicable to music?
FG: There can be no standard in music. Beat can be one, but it has nothing to do with music. For someone, the “gold standard” is a song, for someone else, it’s a symphony. And their “gold standard” in symphony is Beethoven’s 6th or Tchaikovsky’s 4th. The word “standard” doesn’t work here.
FB: In your interviews, you often say, “All music has already been written.”
FG: Everything that could be invented has already been invented. It is impossible to come up with something new, just as it is impossible to truly combine folk music with symphonic music. How stereotypically and unconvincingly it was done in the 1940s and 1950s! Those compositions had a progressive moment at a certain stage in the development of Azerbaijani symphonic music, but, as I sometimes joke, we have folk music playing in one ear and symphonic music in the other from childhood. And when one of us synthesizes the two together, the result is the same. A composer has to come from another planet, from Mars, to perceive both components as absolutely new—only then the combination will be unconventional.
FB: Musicians sometimes find themselves in a situation when they have to listen to music that is unpleasant to their ears, for example, while walking down the street or riding the metro. Are you usually calm about it or do you try to block it out as much as possible? Do you often feel the need for silence, living in a noisy metropolis?
FG: Life has taught me to adapt to uncomfortable surroundings. Over the years, I have developed the ability to turn off my attention and ears for everything that interferes with my focus on a sheet of music paper. Odd as it may seem, a working TV helps me to concentrate, as it mutters something quietly and doesn’t disturb me in the least. Or Radio Jazz on 89.1 FM. When “my” music plays, say, Bill Evans or Miles Davis, I practically don’t hear it, but the invisible presence of the Great Ones makes me feel calm and comfortable. But once something I hate begins to play, for example, Piazolla, my ears turn on of their own volition, and I have to turn the radio off immediately. I don’t often listen to classical music while working, but when I do, it’s mostly Brahms, rarely Bach and Beethoven. I would gladly listen to Ravel or Debussy, but this is almost impossible, this music distracts me from work utterly and completely—I involuntarily begin to listen closely, my focus shifts…
Once I joked that I could work even on a railway platform, without noticing the bustle of the station, the rumble of trains, nothing… As long as you have a worthwhile idea, nothing else matters. And as for the vulgar and untidy, if I may say so, music that plays everywhere, from metro to loudspeakers on the street, to the apartment next door, I easily tune it out. As of late, I live far away from the bustle of the city… which I occasionally and suddenly find myself missing.
FB: Is it difficult for you to have a connection to two countries at the same time?
FG: I really want Azerbaijan and Russia to always remain not only strategic partners, but also good friends. This is true of their musical cultures. It was for his educational work that Dmitri Shostakovich was awarded the title of People’s Artist of Azerbaijan. It has always been emphasized in Baku that the Azerbaijani composition school branches off from the trunk of the Russian school. Steinberg was Rimsky-Korsakov’s student, Shostakovich was Steinberg’s, Gara Garayev wash Shostakovich’s, and Garayev had about 50 students, he is the founder of the Azerbaijani composition school.
Interview by Farhad Bakhtiyarov (Stravinsky Online)