We met with Nikita in Paris in December 2019 and, although the conversation seemed light and friendly, it touched upon many philosophical issues related to music, as well as anthropology of it: the role of the audiences, the relationship of the orchestra and the conductor, the message of the composer and what could be called a musical composition, the primary role of sounds in human nature, and many others. To guide you through this interview, I took a liberty to re-organize our talk along particular topics: you can pick and choose the ones that interest you:
- LEARNING TO UNDERSTAND MUSIC: FIRST STEPS
- MUSIC AND OTHER ARTS
- MUSIC AND THOUGHTS. MUSIC AND TIME. MUSIC AS A MESSAGE
- LEARNING TO UNDERSTAND MUSIC: FIRST STEPS
Yulia Savikovskaya: Nikita, please tell me, how does one get connected with the heritage of music? Is it through listening and reading scores? Is it possible to truly hear through reading only?
Nikita Sorokine: Actually, listening is very important, but I think it’s not quite the same as making music. In other words, you need to be a part of the process. There are music lovers who listen to it a lot and can distinguish different performances by ear. In France where I study now a lot of attention is paid to what is called «auditory commentary» when you put a record on, and you need to write what style it was, what instruments were played, what its rhythmic organisation is, and so on. It seems to me that it will be easier to hear these things if you had had some tactile connection with music.
YS: So just listening is not enough to understand music?
NS: It may be enough for some people, but it’s definitely not enough for me. Composers themselves had to have a tactile connection with the material. For example, it is often obvious when the composer used piano chords: in orchestral music there is such a phenomenon as «piano texture» when the composer transfers what was invented at the instrument almost directly to the orchestra. Composers can generally only compose either in their heads or using the piano (if we don’t take new technologies into account).
YS: Coming back to your biography, how was your musical culture formed?
NS: I studied at the Glinka Choral School, or Capella, the first musical educational institution in Russia. It has existed from the moment of the foundation of St. Petersburg. It is an institution where musical subjects are mixed with general education, and children spend the whole day studying music. This is a very special experience, because in this institution we were engaged in making music every day and it was a boys-only institution. Our choir took part in very important concerts. Mahler’s Third Symphony is one of the first impressions of my childhood. Its fifth movement begins with the chorus entering: “BIMM-BAMM”, and it is the boys who should sing it. Maestro Yuri Temirkanov conducted this concert. If you sing it at 9 years old, it changes your life forever, it’s dizzying, unbelievable, opening a new sound world for you. Not to mention my participation in Mozart’s and Verdi’s Requiems, Shostakovich’s Thirteenth Symphony, and other works. We sang a lot of things with the orchestra, and it was immense. It is difficult to overestimate the significance of this experience.
YS: How important is the role of teachers in shaping a musician’s personality? You have taken part in various masterclasses. Do they limit your independence or reveal something you wouldn’t necessarily have found?
NS: The teacher is always of monumental importance. A child’s interest is not enough to master music: you need to maintain and develop this interest, and the teacher plays a huge role here. A teacher is a guide to the world of music.
If the teacher is a good one, he or she will try to teach his student to think independently. When a person graduates from the Conservatory, he or she should not have questions like: «What am I going to do now? I don’t know how to play music at all» when nothing happens unless the professor advises something. My teacher Igor Rogalev, a Professor at the Conservatory in St. Petersburg (I wrote a dissertation on Mahler with him) first of all tries to teach his students to think independently. When we think about music, when we reason and analyse, it is very important to use our own active perception. Passive one, when a teacher gives you some ready-made cliches and schemes, is no good. No, you must find your own meanings, structures, and connections.
As for masterclasses, they differ from one another. There are commercial ones where a business idea of making money is prevalent. The musician doing it is not really very interested in the development of his students, and it is superficial. But there are masterclasses where the teacher’s input is no less, or even more, than that of the participants. Such was the masterclass of Tugan Sohiev in Toulouse with his orchestra where he conscientiously worked with detailed elaboration. I learned a lot of things there that I would not have understood myself, because I perceive some things differently. I could also mention Yuri Simonov’s courses, where we all worked tirelessly for almost two weeks on end. Is it possible to lose your independence there? Certainly not. There is nothing wrong with copying someone, learning from someone by imitating them. If you have talent and ideas, you will still have a chance to express them later, when you master the methods and tools of work. And if there is no talent — then what difference does it make?
- MUSIC AND OTHER ARTS
YS: What did music give you in childhood and adolescence compared to literature, paintings, and other forms of art?
NS: I sometimes take a word and start saying it many times in a row so that its meaning disappears and the word becomes just a sounding object, a vessel of sound essence. I guess that’s what attracted me to music, too – that there is a certain sound substance that you can interact with. Well, in terms of emotions, she always gave me a lot. Music has been primarily about emotions for me, not to do with a detached perception. I have never had a view of music as a construction.
YS: So music is free from meaning and gives emotions, correct?
NS: Yes, but emotions are not a verbalised entity. There is a famous case when Tchaikovsky described the fourth Symphony in a letter to von Meck, outlining the literary plot, and then reread the letter and was horrified by what he had written. Music is always broader than any literary interpretation. Tchaikovsky also believed that music almost always has a literary basis, but there are many composers who did not share this view. It cannot be both: music connected with literature or not.
YS: And in your opinion is music somehow related to architecture? There have been works dedicated to some buildings and structures.
NS: Yes, there are those of Iannis Xenakis works, for example. It’s embedded in the music itself. The musical materials used by the composer are different in nature. There are very economical ones who don’t want to use new material again. They will make the most of one found thing. I’m not even talking about minimalists, it’s obvious in their works, but Stravinsky also did it very often. Although it may not seem so, as he had many different styles, but still his thinking involves drawing maximum benefit out of a single idea. In «The Rite of Spring» there is one chord that he constantly repeats, as he admired it. There are composers who do the opposite: there is a type of musical dramaturgy called «frame construction». It involves a sequence of episodes, and each subsequent episode should overdo the previous one, constantly maintaining our interest. Endless novelty is very difficult, but some composers have examples of this approach. I see this quite often in Prokofiev, in his concerts and symphonies.
YS: Music always has a tangible, physical aspect, as it does not exist until it is sung by a voice or played by instruments, would you agree?
NS: Exactly. There is such a concept in German «musik für die Augen» – music for the eyes. It is music that was originally composed to be seen on paper, not to be listened to. The beauty of the score, the beauty of the way it is written sometimes exceeds the actual sound beauty. When I look at the score, it’s very beautiful, and can appreciate it afterwards, but without visual perception it does not immediately happen. Different types of music suggest different approaches.
- MUSIC AND THOUGHTS. MUSIC AND TIME. MUSIC AS A MESSAGE
YS: Considering various types of music, you will find different types of thinking embedded in each piece. You can even trace the composer’s thoughts if you know how to do it, what do you think?
NS: It’s very difficult, as we are not taught to do it. It seems that the musical event that occurs in a certain work is often overlooked. How to figure out what exactly is going on in the music? Leonard Bernstein understood the importance of these matters and always explained them in his lectures: they are remarkable as he does not forget about it. I think that it is necessary to continue the education of the listener in this direction nowadays. The way you listen is important, and this point is linked to the question what the music is.
YS: I am trying to collect views of musicians on the subject…
NS: Opinions are very different, you can write the whole book about definitions of music. I think that no one will ever come to an agreement. I also always think about it. I think every musician has some thoughts about it. I don’t think that everything that sounds can be called music, while some think it can and this is a well-known point of view. It was shared by John Cage and Berio. Then you can say that the coffee grinder is also music, if you hear it like that. But I would like to follow Tatyana Bershadskaya in calling it a «timbre», but still not music.
YS: Or you could call those sounds noise, perhaps.
NS: The art of music for me is primarily in intoning. However, even the musicologist Asafiev does not have a clear definition of what intonation is, as it is a very complex concept. It is so multidimensional, it includes so many things. You can say that intonation is a life experience expressed in sounds. Intonation is not a combination of intervals, it is something meaningful. So the concept of music for me is very much related to intonation. Intonation cannot exist by itself outside of our thinking. The coffee grinder does not think, and therefore it cannot produce intonation. You may not agree and say: «Yes, but can we hear it in our heads and perceive it as intonation». Yes, but we are not composers.
The idea that everyone can be a composer prevailed in the twentieth century after all the those terrible consequences of the war and dictatorships. This democratic idea prevailed at some point, and Cage was in some way involved in its popularity. You can listen even to silence after 4’33’’. And, in fact, it is not difficult. Anyone can be a composer. But in my understanding, this is only a reaction to constraints I mentioned earlier. Today this approach is outdated, deceptive. I can see why in the States it could take root and draw attention: at the beginning of the twentieth century many composers were essentially amateurs in the USA. John Cage and Charles Ives did not have a professional education. Composers who took private lessons from Nadia Boulanger are one thing, and composers who have passed through the academic schooling are another.
YS: According to semiotics, we impose our own meaning on texts – you could suggest we are able to do the same in music…
NS: We are talking right now, but if we listen to the recording of the interview later, we will perceive it differently. And we can find different word constructions, differet syntax in the way I speak and you speak. But as we were talking, we were not thinking about it. The same goes for composers. Of course, composers think their works through in great detail, those are living organisms for them, they know everything about each of their notes, as they are flesh of their flesh. But there are many things they just don’t think about when they write, these are revealed later. The degree of ownership of the material during creation is so high that the composer simply doesn’t notice how he achieves an incredible thing, while we discover it later. When we analyze Beethoven’s works, we find something new – maybe Beethoven didn’t think about it. In the meanwhile, even when he or she breaks the mould, the composer works with pre-existing models – perception models, genre models – and that is very important. There are uniform genre models, such as a waltz. There are rhythmic formulas that everyone can hear. The composer works with them. And when we are aware of it, this is when we begin to see something new, when we look at composer’s works using these optics of context — some things immediately become clear. And whether these new things came about consciously or not for a composer – Mozart, Beethoven, etc. – no one knows. And when you show such things to a listener, it helps a lot. One must treat music as speech, as a particular utterance. Not just labeling it as “beautiful”. Well, it’s beautiful, but what’s next? What’s the point?
YS: This is probably what I am trying to do in my research: to combine linguistic, anthropological and musical understanding, to understand how we perceive music, because for the brain speech is related to meanings, thoughts, ideas, while I want to understand whether music is also such a language of meaningful expression and whether we could agree on its meanings. For many people, music is a kind of Chinese language that sounds very good and beautiful, and that is it.
NS: Yes, unfortunately, because now, with the development of many visual things, such as YouTube, Instagram, and others, the visual side dominates, and music moves into a subordinate position. Because nowadays music is always written for something. For a movie, advertisement, role, performance, and so on. And the fact that music is a force that does not need any props, has not really taken root in mass consciousness. It should take more space in our consciousness as a powerful individual force.
YS: Don’t you think that it happens because we have forgotten how to concentrate? It takes time to understand a piece of music, you need the ability to engage in the listening process for 40-50 minutes at least? It seems to me that people switch off every 5-10 minutes and do not train their attention nowadays.
NS: This is indeed a very serious issue. Listening to music is an intellectual activity, not a recreation. It is clear that people work, they have a difficult life, and they want to relax at a concert, this is normal. But these are works that need repeated listening, not just a single seating. Just as good books need re-reading and good paintings in museums need to be seen again, so music needs to be listened to carefully. Yes, nowadays there is not enough attention and concentration, and it also happens because people find themselves in an unfamiliar environment. In a concert hall there is only food for the ear and there is nothing for the eye, and this is an unusual situation for most people. This is a situation where something needs to be done. You want to look at the programme or look at the orchestra or do something else in terms of visual perception. On the other hand, concerts do not take place in complete darkness. Although Richter said, “Don’t look at me, I’m playing in the dark,” the image of the performer-artist affects perception. I’m a conductor. The conductor is very important for the process also because people perceive music differently when they see different conductors. Let’s imagine hypothetically that the same work is played two times by two different conductors. I’d bet anything that people will proclaim these pieces “different,” even though they were the same from a physical, mathematical point of view. But music isn’t about math, and that’s the whole point. Music is about how we perceive it. This is very important. Some composers treat music as an exclusively sound construct, while I am sure that our perception means a lot, and it is not only through ears. The composer, first of all, works with our memory. Without memory we would not have been able to listen to music, because we would not have been able to remember what happened before a certain moment or some time ago, while music unfolds in time.