Faradzh Karaev: a life in music
By Allston Mitchell
Faradzh Karaev is one of the leading composers of the post Soviet era — composing, teaching and conducting between his native Azerbaijan and Moscow where he currently lives. He discusses his own musical career, modernism, the musical avant garde and new developments in teaching.
What are you working on at the moment?
I have recently completed Postludio XI for piano, string quartet, and chorus behind the stage, as well as Terminus II for six cellos. The Postludio was performed on 9 December, last year at the XIII International Festival MOSCOW FORUM “Russia-Italy: the Art of Perspective.” A performance by the The Studio of New Music ensemble and the new production of Terminus II has been scheduled by the Ensemble Reconsil Vienna for 2 March 2012 in Vienna.
In addition, there are some plans that I hope will come to fruition this year. However, I won’t discuss them now (although I am not a superstitious person!), as many times I have found that the premature disclosure of plans hinders their realisation.
I will only say that one of those compositions will be based on absolutely new musical material, for an ensemble of 8-12 performers. Another composition will be an arrangement of a symphonic composition for a chamber orchestra. I always like this kind of work, the re-orchestration of my own previous works, as well as the re-orchestration of compositions written by others. It is creative and interesting work… if you treat somebody else’s composition as your own.
Could you cite an example?
For example, a composition with an ironic title schnell zu/g vergangenheit oder ist eine alte musik schon/auch k/eine musik based on the text of Ernst Jandl, with a no less ironic dedication (Helmut Lachenmanns Epigonen gewidmet) is founded on freely used musical material of the previously written Drei Bagatellen for piano and five/six instruments. Only the vocal part has been written anew (although in a rather traditional manner). However, this simplicity is explained in the author’s notes as follows:
“Ernst Jandl’s text provides vast opportunities for a composer’s imagination. Therefore, one could expect that the singer will not sing but instead she will exploit the achievements in the field of musical innovations made in last decades, and use melodeclamation, cry out, semi-whisper, wheeze or moan. However, alte musik is no more than alte musik, and if the author deprives the singer of this opportunity, she will just sing.”
By the way, that is the key to the irony of the dedication…
However, I felt a certain satisfaction in terms of creativity when doing the orchestration of the “foreign” Synthéses, written by Arthur Lourié, both at my desk and after the first night. It seems to me that I managed to expand it beyond the author’s text, disclose something that was withheld, solve some puzzles that were hidden deep inside the musical material and… make myself perceive the music that did not look attractive to me (it still does not attract me and never will do), as if it were my own. That’s the paradox…
Stravinsky reportedly spoke well about Arthur Lourié’s music in the friendly correspondence between the two composers.
Arthur Lourié’s manner of expression (I cannot force myself to call it a “musical language”) seems to me “superficial,” “empty,” with an unjustified claim to novelty. Once, Nikolai Korndorf, a musician and composer of great talent and erudition (unfortunately now deceased) told me in one of his letters about his attempts to understand the immortality of music written by classical composers from Vienna. To this end he listened to a lot of compositions that were created in the mid-18th — early 19th centuries by composers who are now completely forgotten, and tried to build parallels between the music which he had known from his childhood and the music that he had heard for the first time. He came to a definitive conclusion: the music written by many contemporaries of Mozart, Hayden and Beethoven disappeared over time quite deservedly.
That’s about parallels… with Lourié’s music.
Faradzh Karaev with his father Kara Karaev
When was your last recording made of your own music? Do you have any plans to record in the near future?
The list of my own dedicated CDs is not long. There are only two of them: An Introduction to Faradj Karajev that was recorded by the Belgian Megadisc in the early 1990s, and Nostalgia that was issued several years ago by Melodia in Moscow. However, the Belgian firm financed the recording while Melodia used available material for recording the double CD. In addition to these solo CDs, there are several CDs that include my compositions among others.
There is a kind of contradiction between the present and the past. In the Soviet Union one had to overcome a stubborn censorship in order to record one’s music with Melodiya, the only recording firm at the time, and issue a record. Preference was given to the classics or world-famous performers. My Sonata for two players had to wait more than two years for mass distribution — if my memory does not fail me.
It is different now. There is no censorship as such, but there is an insurmountable barrier of a different kind: the financial factor. If previously Melodiya’s mission was to publish the best examples of world classics, now the motivation of any recording company is profit. In order to make these profits, companies have to invest heavily in PR campaigns, or the trivial promotion of the CD. However, even in this case success is not guaranteed. The academic avant-garde is démodé nowadays, and charity and non-profit initiatives are pretty rare too. There is no sense in fighting against this situation, as it is a sign of the times. C’est la vie.
For that reason, I am not making any plans.
CD cover of "Nostalgia" by Faradzh Karaev – Melodiya
Are you travelling a great deal presenting your own music or working on other projects?
My sign is Sagittarius, so I live the life of a traveller (that of a person who lives outside his house) and this gives me a significant impetus for creation when I travel in Russia and abroad, participate in composers’ meetings or judge composition contests. Here is an outline of my recent travels: Russia (Kazan, Krasnoyarsk), Azerbaijan, Belarus and Vienna, London, Netherlands (Amsterdam) where I attended the performance of my composition Outsider. Reinbert de Leeuw, Asko|Schönberg and Nederlans Kamerkoor were magnificent!
It was interesting for me to participate in projects that in one way or another are related to my father such as the project entitled “Face to face with time” that was launched by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism of Azerbaijan. The idea behind it was to lay the foundations for new music in Baku. During the 2008-2009 and 2010-2011 seasons, the Azerbaijan Chamber Orchestra named after Kara Karaev performed a lot of compositions that had never been staged previously in Baku, ranging from the Neue Wiener Schule to Stockhausen and Schnittke.
Also, on 2–8 April 2011, the IV International Festival of Contemporary Music named after Kara Karaev was held (see http://www.karaev.net/t_4_qaraev_fest_r.html) at which I was honoured to become its artistic director. In addition to orchestras from Baku, ensembles and soloists from the UK, Austria, Germany, Switzerland, Russia, Ukraine and Georgia participated in the Festival. The halls were full which proved that our artistic and creative goals were right as we aimed to stage the first ever performance of new music in Baku. The range of compositions at the Festival was very wide, with very varied music being performed, such as that of Iannis Xenakis and Steve Reich, Bruno Maderna and Salvatore Sciarrino, Olivier Messiaen, Witold Lutoslavski, Toru Takemitsu, in addition to the French school of La musique spectrale. Of course, there was the classical music of the XX century represented by composers of the Neue Wiener Schule.
I would like to ask you about your family and musical upbringing and early training. Was your father a major influence on your musical beginnings?
My parents were musicians. So that part is self-explanatory.
… One of my first childhood memories is 1946, a small room in a shared Moscow apartment, where we all lived. There was a piano on the left and a sofa on the right, on which my parents slept. In the middle of the room there was a desk, full of sheet music (my father was working on the Second Symphony, he was a Conservatory graduate). There was a window opposite the entrance and the German Grezer radio receiver… So, this meant I could tell which march was from Aida and which from Faust.
What profession should I choose? There was no such question for me. In the house, where the piano (and later — a Bechstein grand piano) was a normal piece of furniture like a bed or a table, it was impossible to start one’s adult life without musical training.
Of course, the role of my father was decisive one.
When I realized in the seventh grade that I would not be a Richter, I decided to quit music. However, my father managed to persuade me that one can graduate from 11-grade as a musical expert, while a knowledge of music or the basics of classical harmony would not be excessive for a would-be doctor or oil engineer.
At the same time, I suddenly felt the urge to compose. When small society-oriented pieces à la Chopin and Grieg became the visiting card of the under-age scribbler, my father took a stack of notation papers from the bookcase and gave it to me, saying: “There are a lot of things in music that would be interesting for you to know.” The acquaintance with the music of Ravel, Debussy, Hindemith, Casella, Prokofiev, and Shostakovich toppled all my musical sympathies and changed the direction of my composition activities, as there were now new benchmarks for me.
Surprisingly, up to this day I feel anxious when I hear Grieg’s music. My Postludios contain the quotation from the Eg vet ei lite Gente (I Know a Little Girl), melody for piano, which is performed behind the scenes, while the theme for variations in the third part of Konzert fuer Orchester und Solo Geige was based on the Longing for Home.
How young we were! Student years at the Baku conservatory.
Up R.Efeniev, standing from left to right I.Mirza-zade, FaKa, O.Felzer,
down L.Veinshtein (Л.Вайнштейн).
…1961, at the Baku Conservatory, my studies of “Composition” were in the class of Professor K. A. Karaev. The professor always treated students strictly and exactingly. I was the only one to finish the first year with a “good” mark. The rest of the group received excellent marks. He strictly checked homework on “pure” polyphony. After he checked all my “compositions” on this subject, he insisted that the education department tell us to study the subject for one more year. He had reason to argue that the practical skills in doing “pure style” tasks was a step in learning the basics of dodecaphony, though he explained this to me much later.
My father never taught me composition at home. He wanted me to develop self-management and self-control. However, after the third year he “slackened the reins,” probably thinking that the period of apprenticeship was successfully over, and set me free. The result was Sonata No. 1 for piano, as well as a diploma in dodecaphony Music for Chamber Orchestra, percussion instruments and organ (excellent mark) and a diploma certificate cum laude with the proud word “Composer” on it.
However, there was eternity ahead before truly achieving this status.
Was your father’s music an example for you?
Put it this way, I think that only my Sonata No.1 corresponds to his Symphony No. 3, and maybe The Shadows of Kobystan in some way relates to In the Path of Thunder.
Coming from Azerbaijan, many presume that you will have strong eastern influences in your music, is this true?
It is a superficial opinion, which is commonly found in musical experts of the past century! The idea of the presence of “strong oriental motifs” in my compositions only raises an ironic smile with me. Such treatment of folklore is nothing but the cruel exploitation of the top layer of the fertile soil. After a couple of years it will yield no crops. It also can be compared to mining dead rock, with zero content of precious metals. It is a deadlock.
There are different components that characterize the national affiliation of an author such as temperament, internal energy, ways of thinking and many other things. The dodecaphony of a Frenchman is quite distinctive compared to a German one, take, for example, Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen. By the same token, the music by Luigi Nono can never be mixed up with the compositions of Edison Denisov, who is Russian. Of course, the era of “pure” dodecaphony is over, however distinctive national features can be found even in the newest music.
Nevertheless, in the art of Azerbaijani composition there are authors who want to achieve success fast, and for them the “strong oriental motifs” remain attractive still today. An extended second, an imitation of the kamança through using violoncello, dancing rhymes, i.e. all that hypnotizes undemanding music fans who are mesmerized by that “Orient” and groan in ecstasy, being convinced that they are listening to something genuinely national, original and great.
This endless exploitation of earlier lucky discoveries is used to make stellar careers that are primarily based on the favourable attitude of the authorities. As a result, a golden rain of regalia, medals, prizes and official positions pours on to them. And if the author is an oriental woman, it can ensure the lifetime glory of a “naked king.”
However, in your compositions Xütbä, mugam ve sura and Babilonturm one can easily hear some eastern motifs
The treatment of the Orient here is quite different. The composition Xütbä, mugam ve sura was ordered by the Nieuw Ensemble for a performance at the Tokkel Festival in Amsterdam. The mandatory condition was the use of an Azerbaijani instrument. I chose the tar.
This composition which consists of three parts is based on a quite different approach, with no quotations or imitations of oriental motifs. The Xütbä [the sermon] is based on the musical balance of an eight-sound row of the Azerbaijani tune shüshter: cis-d-e-f-gis-a-h-c and the row of twelve tones (that stems from the eight tone tune): cis-es-d-e-f-gis-fis-g-a-h-b-c. In Mugam, the tar is played in a solo. The tar player performs all of Mugam shüshter! The role of the ensemble is limited to brief comments to the solo.
In the Sura, the musical fabric is torn apart, a quasi- Western material is put together through reading Quranic Surah 75 (The Resurrection), that was recorded on the CD.
According to the code of the composition, a solo on the grand piano summarizes the evolution of the seven-step shüshter into a twelve-tone dodecaphony that is spread over all registers. No flirting with folklore!
From left to right — Composer J.Clark, wife M.Vysotskaya, FaKa,
son Azhdar, sister Zulejha, conductor,
sister's husband E.Bagirov, tarist M.Müslümov.
What about Mugam Shüshter?
… I quote, or rather “quote!” Jahangir Selimkhanov, a brilliantly educated Azerbaijani musical expert, a very smart man and erudite, wrote about this composition: “a parallel example of the new architecture, a project of Bernard Tschumi, in which a complex of buildings that were constructed in 1920’s, was not re-built but underwent restoration and covered with an ultramodern façade and a roof… ” Sic!
The Babilonturm project was launched and performed by the Atlas Ensemble from Amsterdam. If in the original Xütbä [the sermon] the tar was the only instrument that represented the “Orient,” the new score included Turkish, Iranian, Arabic, Japanese, Chinese and other instruments, in addition to European ones. The Azerbaijani instruments included the tar and the kamança. Here, the orient wore a different mask, the composition was based either on a solo or a group of performers improvising on folk instruments, emphasizing on the D (re) tone. The European instrument plays the same role as in the Xütbä: they supplement the “oriental” instruments, conduct a dialogue with them or “enter into conflict”.
You mentioned ballet “The shadows of Kobustan” that you created when you were 26, and then Kaleidoscope. Can you tell me about these two projects? Is there a strong Stravinsky influence?
The strong influence of Stravinsky? No question!
Compared to Shadows of Kobystan and The Rite of Spring where some analogies that can be traced in the general construction, Kaleidoscope was created aprés Domenico Scarlatti, exactly like Pulcinellа was produced aprés Gianbattista Pergolesi.
It was a very interesting time! All of us were young, and we cooperated closely with each other: the choreographers Rafiga Akhundova and Maksud Mamedov (with unlimited imagination when it came to producing something new, unusual and special) on the one hand, and the composer on the other hand. The choreographers had their own vision of the ballet performance, but they did not impose their will, the author was not pressed into following the tradition of accommodating the music to the dance.
The first performance of The Shadows of Kobystan that was attended by Yuri Algarov, the outstanding French dancer of Russian origin, was a success. Yuri Algarov took the initiative of inviting the ballet troupe of the Baku Opera Theatre to perform in France. The first night of the ballet took place at the same Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, the same stage where Nizhinsky turned off the lights to try and calm the public down during the first night of The Rite of Spring. It is one of the more interesting analogies that links The Shadows of Kobystan to the Rite of Spring.
Kaleidoscope was met by the Baku audience with greater calm, which was due to the fact that the strictly neo-classical language of the «après» ballet could by no means be compared to the distinct, I would say, visualized music of the Shadows.
Were these non-recurring works, or do you have a special affection for ballet?
It was an experience that had no continuation. Only a lucky coincidence, i.e. the meeting of the like-minded choreographers gave the impulse for the work on the music for the ballet performance.
What was the subsequent fate of these compositions?
The line of their fate was downward. Although the public was willing to go to the both performances that were money-making and toured abroad several times, they have not been staged in Baku since 1996. Fate ruled that Polad Bül Bül ogly, author and performer of questionable variety songs, was appointed the Minister of Culture of Azerbaijan. A tough and authoritarian leader of the Soviet type, he expelled talented artists from the Baku Opera House, ousting people who were brave enough to insist on their own vision that differed from his. So, the ballets were immediately removed from the repertoire.
ACM with Pierre Boulez in 1991
You spent many years as Artistic director of the BaKaRA Ensemble in Baku, can you tell me about the work you did in this period?
First, a bit of history.
From late 1970s, a crisis of sorts hit Baku. Musical life in the city was dying out, the Philharmonic hall was empty. The repertoire of the State Symphonic Orchestra and the Chamber Orchestra was very scant: Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, a few Rachmaninov performances, a couple of compositions written by Azerbaijani composers of the older generation and that was about the full repertoire of the Symphonic Orchestra. And there was nothing to say about the Chamber Orchestra at all. The public had just forgotten the way to the Philharmonic hall!
My father was very upset about this collapse and decided to counter it, using energy, drive and the endless optimism of young musicians. When he came to Baku another time (he resided mostly in Moscow at that time), he invited his three friends who shared the same musical tastes. They were Rauf Abdullayev, conductor-in-chief of the Baku Opera House (by the way, he brilliantly conducted The Shadows of Kobystan in Baku, Paris and Monte-Carlo), Oleg Felzer, composer, conductor and musical expert, and myself. My father suggested that we should take the initiative and create a new team in the Conservatory with the aim of transformong it into a Chamber Theatre, and decided that we should begin with creating an orchestra. The repertoire policy of the new orchestra was supposed to cover mostly the XXth century. This was the main and key condition. He promised his all-out support for us and assumed the duties of our art director. In practice, these duties had to be performed by myself.
The first concert of the orchestra was a great success, like the subsequent performances. It could not be the other way round! In the most gloomy period, when the new music was not, to put it mildly ‘encouraged’, Stravinsky, Hindemith, Cage, Malipiero, Schnittke, Baird were performed in Baku. Lutosławski’s Preludes and a Fuguewere performed for the first time in the USSR, like Gesta by the Italian composer Paolo Renosto, all conducted by Oleg Felzer.
Faradzh Karaev (right) with Rauf Abdullaev (left)
The compositions by Denisov and Gubaidullina were no exception. In his speech in November 1979, T.N. Khrennikov subjected them (along with seven other composers, the so-called Khrennikov seven) to tough criticisms which was followed, as expected, by an official boycott. Our concert tours in Moscow, Alma-Ata and Lvov were a success.
However, right after the death of my father in May 1982 the Orchestra ceased to exist. We had no art director anymore, whose authority protected us like a stone wall. We faced the bureaucracy one-to-one and were defeated.
This is the pre-history of the BaKaRa ensemble. By the way, the name of the ensemble is my invention and stands for “Baku-Karaev-Rauf Abdullaev.”
In 1984 Rauf Abdullaev was appointed the principal conductor and art director of the State Azerbaijani Symphonic Orchestra named after Uz. Gadjibekov, the leading orchestra in Baku. Following this, practically all the team of the Chamber Opera Theatre (later — the Chamber Orchestra of the Opera Studio of the Conservatory) joined the orchestra that he led. Essentially, all those instrumentalists made up the Ensemble of soloists of the State Azerbaijani Symphonic Orchestra named after Uz. Gadjibekov in the early years of Gorbachev’s Perestroika — BaKaRa ensemble.
In the ensemble I had to perform the same job as in the Orchestra of the Chamber Theatre: I worked out programs, organized tours, negotiated with foreign partners, searched for musical scores and orchestra voices — which was rather difficult at the time. All this made up the list of my duties that I volunteered to perform. In addition to concerts within the Festival of Contemporary Music (held in Baku in 1986, 1988 and 1990), we participated in the Moscow Festival “Alternativa” at which we performed Kammerkonzert by György Ligeti for the first time in the USSR. Several times we toured Germany, visiting Frankfurt-am-Main, Bonn and Moers.
One of my best memories is linked to our tour in Switzerland. Aargau, Lugano, Zurich, Basle, Bern – we performed in the best concert halls full of friendly, interested people who were clearly erudite, always playing with great success. Heinz Holliger paid us a great honour by attending the concert in Basle that was held in the Museum of the Contemporary Art. The Maître greeted us kindly and appreciated the artistic talent of Rauf Abdullaev who performed at his best that evening. Heinz Holliger said a lot of kind words about us that day. He clearly did not expect such an interesting program from the provincials who came from the East. He pointed to the high performance standards of the musicians, especially, the free and masterly play of the bass-clarinetist. The following is my conversation with him, quoted almost literally:
H.H.(enthusiastically): Great clarinetist, with brilliant technique and an exceptionally beautiful sound! How many years has he been playing the bass-clarinet?
F.K. (calmly): A couple of months.
F.K. (with feigned indifference): He is the first clarinetist of the State Azerbaijani Symphonic Orchestra and he mastered the bass just before the tour, as we had no opportunity to take two clarinetists on the tour.
H.H.(even more enthusiastically): I would gladly invite him to Switzerland! With whom should I negotiate in order to put together the contract?
F.K. (horrified, as we lived in the USSR): It is impossible! He is a 2nd year student and he needs to study!
During the difficult 1990s the ensemble ceased to exist. Rauf Abdullaev had a lot of things to handle in the Symphonic Orchestra, Oleg Felzer emigrated to the US, and I lived in Moscow on a permanent basis. However, a pretty unexpected performance by the ensemble took place in 2007 in Baku at the Festival “25 Years Without Kara Karaev” conducted by the Ukrainian conductor Vladimir Runchak, who is a great interpreter of modern music. The BaKaRA name was not mentioned on the posters, as the musicians were performing as the Ensemble of Soloists of the State Azerbaijani Symphonic Orchestra named after Uz. Gajibekov. However, I had to do the whole above-mentioned job again.
Could you tell me about the Outsider (2002) which you have already mentioned?
In 1999-2004 I worked on Konzert für Orchester und Solo Geige. The work took a lot of energy and time, so in order to have an occasional rest I switched to compositions that proved to be relatively easy. In this way, Ton und Verklärung and Verklärung und Tod for orchestra and taperecorder were written, as well as Сancion de cuna for soprano and the ensemble based on Lorca’s lyrics, Stafettefor the percussions ensemble, Babylonturm, Drei Bagatellen and several more compositions, including The Outsider, a small performance based on Akhmetyev’s text.
The composition was written “in one breath,” i.e. in ten days. Surprisingly, the work came very easily, with eagerness, although life at that time was far from comfortable. In the end, we had a piece in the spirit of the instrumental theatre, something like a tragic comedy, thanks to the text, which to give you a taste:
“I am sorry semi bit by bit don’t bother
There are so many of you, semi by myself I am not at all… ”
plus myself semi part of the company
What happens on the stage during the performance of The Outsider?
The hero is a lyric tenor. He appears on the scene after the music has already started. He wears a long raincoat, a muffler around his neck (its hangs almost touching the floor) and a wide-brimmed hat. He does not start singing right away. He simply cannot due to the electronic noise coming from the loudspeakers and the music of the Ensemble. However, he, nobody knows why, apologizes. Although all his actions are totally ironic he behaves indecisively, with no confidence. He shrugs shoulders, makes helpless gestures, tries to sing separate phrases and always stops. Behaving like a clown, he takes off his hat and throws it into the auditorium… then he puts on a red clown’s nose, produces a bell… A melody from Schubert’s Fantasy, played by an accordionist who accompanies the Outsider to the exit from the hall, gives a surrealistic tone to the performance. The last touch: the silence of the surprised auditorium is broken by the bell sounding from a hand that appears in the doorway.
Is it a farce? No doubt! But at the same time there are torturous attempts (hidden under clownery) to conduct a dialogue with the modern world, where any attempt to conduct a dialogue is destined to fail. I want to emphasize that the departure of the Outsider is not an existential surrender but the conscientious exit from the game: departure with the aim to relieve others of his comfortless heterogeneity.
The music of the performance is based on the 12-tone harmony that consists of three diminished seventh chords that are one tone away from each other. This 12-tone harmony is maintained throughout the whole play that consists of three parts and in fact turns into continuous sonorous complex.
I cannot get rid of the idea that it is my most “Russian” piece. One may ask: “Why?” Neither the musical material, nor the quote from Schubert or the electronic accompaniment suggest this. Maybe the choir? I don’t know…
Faradzh Karaev in Baku 1999
You are now living in Moscow. Are you still dividing your time between teaching and composing — are you still teaching?
Teaching and composition are the only things that I can do, or think that I can do. The teaching in the conservatory ensures my relative financial independence. By composing I gain internal independence.
I intentionally distanced myself from teaching composition. There are several reasons for that. The teacher of composition always assumes a tremendous responsibility, i.e. the responsibility for the choice of the right profession, or the level of skills of the young composer upon his graduation. Today (with the average level of composing reaching record highs, no boundaries in the information space, with everybody capable of doing everything) this responsibility has increased exponentially. So, I have neither the moral nor physical capacity to carry this burden.
In addition, we have a situation in the Moscow Conservatory in recent decades where students-composers have more freedom in choosing the means of their musical expression than, I think, required. I am rather conservative as far as this question goes. So I am quite comfortable with teaching instrumentation to musical experts and lately to composers (I had to make this concession to myself), as it gives me the bit of satisfaction, without which the teaching makes no sense.
As for composing…
Many years ago I wrote in my note-book: «Alle Musik ist schon geschrieben» (All music has already been written) which I still believe. Nevertheless, I continue composing, though… much less than before, but I spend a lot more energy and feel more responsible towards myself. I also wrote the following in the same notebook: “Music is composed by those who are not brave enough to abandon it.”
So, should I have quit after the completion of Konzert für Orchester und Solo Geige (my best composition ever)? How should I answer this question that I ask myself? Repeating oneself is frightening when it becomes the only form of expression, likewise, it is frightening when the death of a creative person does not coincide with his physical death. Tell me, whose heroic deed is more outstanding: Rossini or Beethoven, Ives or Schoenberg?
Faradzh Karaev Moscow concert poster
Reading about your work I have seen many different descriptions of your work for example that it is rooted in the absurd but at the same time inspired by some of your favourite poets (Lorca). How would you describe your music? I have seen a variety of words used: pointillism, collages, neo-romanticism, postmodernism and jazz to name a few. Are all these words useful or meaningless?
Believe me, I don’t know! These terms like “pointillisme,” “collage,” “neoromantisme,” “postmodernism” or “absurdism,” if applied to my music, are no more than empty sounds for me. Let musical experts decide: contemplate, draw assumptions, make conclusions, as this job is both their profession and hobby.
What I do is just scribbling small black flourishes on the white lined paper, and I try to do it as neatly as possible. As Brahms defined it, composing music is about “organizing separate elements.” So, I “organize” them in the way I feel, I write in accordance with my capabilities, thus confirming my professional skills.
Lofty talk of super-prolific composers, their deep thoughts about the sources of their creativity and immortal opuses have always scared me. Some impressionist artist (maybe Degas?) said that some people talk about painting and others do it. These words determine my position: philosophizing about my own music makes no sense for me – like waiting for inspiration.
Avant-garde has political overtones for many people. Is avant-garde music always revolutionary in spirit, or is it just eliminating boundaries? How long does avant-garde music remain avant-garde before it becomes “classic”, or is avant-garde music a genre unto itself and remain forever avant-garde?
It is not for sure at all that such an evolution will take place. In fact, it is impossible. Avant-garde is not a peak to be reached through a continuous and inevitable musical development. Avant-garde is just one of many stages of musical development, one of the steps on the endless ladder that leads to the ultimate goal, which is, paradoxically, not achievable, nor knowable.
Yet I want to ask you: are you avant-garde or would you say just contemporary or just “Karaev”? Do you see yourself as a part of a large family with others like Philip Glass and Steve Reich or even Harrison Birtwistle? Or are you treading different paths?
In the framework of the academic avant-garde, the tag that has been attached to me and my like-minded colleagues from the Moscow Association of the Modern Music, I feel that I am a “modern” composer, as I live in the modern world and remain myself, i.e. Karaev.
However, I feel that this answer might not be complete, as there seems to be some incompleteness and a sense of dissatisfaction. Let me try to sort this out…
Maybe, it is worth introducing the term modernism into our discussion. Avant-garde and modernism are two sides of the same coin, the front and the opposite side of the “new,” alpha and omega of contemporary art that, nevertheless, should not be mixed. What avantgardists and modernists have in common is the search for new forms, while the main difference is that the former are pragmatists who aim more for external success, therefore, they lean towards épatage and self-advertisement. The avant-garde compositions do not always have great depth of content, however, their behaviour is always authoritarian and aggressive (the “Genius of Insincerity” is Salvador Dalí). Despite similar aesthetic aspirations modernists are more isolated in their artistic life. One can hardly imagine them hoisting a manifesto on barricades, delivering épatage to the audience — the Genius Bourgeois is René Magritte.
The same applies to the music…
So if you need to choose between the front and back side of the coin, linking my music to the alpha or omega, then you can stamp or tag me, saying: “FK is a modernist… that’s all.
You have spent many years teaching in Azerbaijan, what is the current state of contemporary music in the country? Are you optimistic about the new generation you are teaching?
Modern Azerbaijani music is developing both along its individual path and within general trends as part of the international process. There have been achievements and victories on this path, as well as regrettable defeats, hopefully, of a temporary nature.
I have taught musical composition in Baku for almost forty years. Today I can confidently say that the switch to the Bologna system has inflicted disastrous damage to musical education in Azerbaijan, as in many FSU countries. I am so embittered about it because I happened to teach in Baku Muscial Academy in those years, when the course length was cut from five to four years. The most frightening thing for a student composer in this situation was that he was not ready to write a diploma work, a full-scale symphonic composition, when completing his studies. It is very important after the fourth year that a young composer gains the necessary experience to write a chamber opus and can show, say, a String Quartet at the exam. A Symphony should follows after the fifth year, for which he has four years of experience. The fifth year of the full-scale study, another year of communication with the professor who guides him from the first year is of vital importance!
Moscow, Saint-Petersburg, Kazan, Nizhny Novgorod, as well as Tbilisi and Erevan, the closest neighbours of Baku, managed to resist the pressure of adopting European educational institutions that stick to a two-stage system of BA/MA. In my view, the system that is based on the possibility of changing the core specialty to an adjacent one, would not work in a musical institution. Maybe, in a technical college such a novelty would look progressive (I am no expert in these matters). However, a young man, who has studied to play the violin for 10-11 years, is unlikely to switch to the bassoon, piano or contrabass.
The Bologna system treats all educational institutions as the same, explaining that any graduate with an academic diploma can be hired for a job in Europe without additional certification. It is absurd! Young Alena Bayeva and Denis Matsuev graduated precisely from the Moscow Conservatory where the Soviet and Russian educational traditions have withstood the Bologna nonsense.
Baku has not withstood it!…
Faradzh Karaev with the fragment of Sonata for two players (1976)
What about contemporary music in general, who do you see producing good music at the moment?
The Moscow composer Vladimir Martynov, an author with a surprisingly unique musical profile, described the late nineties as “the end of the era of the composer” Although I don’t agree with this statement at all, I have to admit that it is basically viable. If so, willingly or unwillingly, I have to ask myself a question: “Aren’t all of us writing a common epitaph, or, if I may, an obituary for Music?”
The time of the Big Names in music has passed and nobody can say how long this marginal period will continue. Pierre Boulez has completely devoted his life to conducting and Witold Lutosławski and György Ligeti—the last “Edisons” of music of the XX century—are no longer with us.
Let me say something, for which I could be ostracized both by my enemies and, probably, friends: it may make sense to prohibit composing music on pain of death for a historically short period by a special global law, as well as to close musical composition departments everywhere: in “Bologna” academies, all conservatories and universities.
When the world runs out of composers, the End of Time will be over, and the vacuum will attract new Big Names with New Ideas. This will definitely happen, as those who have the heavenly blessing will topple fate and become Creators.
However, joking aside, I think it would make sense to reduce the number of institutions that teach musical composition, and toughen admission rules. All experimentation with musical expression should be prohibited during the early stages of education that, instead, should be devoted to classics, as Schoenberg taught. Non-standard chamber structures should be avoided, while the classical tradition should be favoured. Students should be taught to love notation paper, and to reject (at least in the beginning) Sibelius/Finale and Printer.
Only after students master the basics of the profession, should the teacher prompt the talented ones to experiment, cautiously controlling the explosive process which at any moment may turn into an uncontrolled thermonuclear reaction. The new things should be taught through mastering the old ones!
This would help to reduce the tremendous number of composers-ignoramuses, who have proliferated all over Europe including Russia. In this case the profession of the composer will again become an elite one, while intellect, professionalism and talent will become the ultimate measure for evaluating a composer.
What about the future, where do you see Russia and Azerbaijan going musically and socially?
The Azerbaijani composing school is an extension of the Russian school; the two make up one line: Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov— Maximilian Steinberg—Dmitri Shostakovich—Kara Karaev. In Baku they not only remember this fact to this day but are still proud of it.
The links between Russia and Azerbaijan are traditionally strong both in the socio-economic and human perspective. The Russian language still holds its niche, although it has lost its “first among equal” status compared with Soviet times. A lot of Azerbaijani nationals master the Russian language. It is especially true for Baku, where the Slavic University was set up. There is a number of Russian-language newspapers and a Russian-language TV channels. Studying in Russian institutes and universities remains prestigious for Azerbaijanis. Several Azerbaijani nationals study at the Moscow conservatory. The stages of the Bolshoi, Maly and the Rakhmaninov Hall of the Conservatory are the dream of any instrumentalist.
Russia and Azerbaijan have a lot in common when it comes to the education of the younger generation of musicians. The successful implementation of this objective has been, and remains, a key life goal for me, to which I have dedicated all my energy, both in Baku previously and now in Moscow.
You have seen the Soviet Union and then Azerbaijan and Russia go through dramatic changes over the last 40 years, what are some of the most remarkable events that have stayed with you from this period?
The collapse of the country in which I was born, educated and which made me the person who I am now, where I lived a big part of my life, was a hard blow to me that I withstood with difficulty. For five long years I could not make myself approach an instrument or my desk. I could not set my mind to thinking about music or composing. Of course, this feeling is over; however, a vestige (like a scar as a result of infarction) will probably never vanish.
It does not in any way mean that I am an apologist for the Soviet system. Not at all! However, a person can only be born in one country, just as a person can have only one mother. This is a law of nature. Am I old-fashioned?
Translation by Vlad Chorazy