Today's blog post is about Alfred Schnittke. Before I start, I want to write a little bit about why I do these blogs and how they fit into my creative process. I treat all creative activity the same way one would approach physical exercise. I always begin with a warm-up of some type. This actually first came about when I began seriously practicing guitar. I would sit with my guitar plugged into a headphone amp and begin with something to get my fingers moving and to achieve a sort of suppleness in my hands (scales, chords, Slonimsky’s chromatic patterns, a brief improvisation, etc). The blogs often serve as a warm-up for various creative activities, I do not always post my warm-up journals, sketches, or improvisational recordings, but I do make a point of doing something before every session. These entries on composers and musicians are actually written rather quickly, with very little editing. This accounts for the content of these entries, the mixture of autobiographical memories and reflections on how the music has inspired me and influenced me throughout my life. They are important to my creative process. I think that the contemporary cross-disciplinary artist is blessed to live in an era where so much of one’s creative process can be laid out and exposed, the artist can be rendered vulnerable in a way that was not possible in previous generations. I express sincere gratitude for this luxury. I also intend to do a series on filmmakers, artists, and writers. I imagine this will be an ongoing process into the next decade of my life.
I would say I was about 15 years old when I first discovered Alfred Schnittke. I had thumbed past his work in the compact discs at Rare Bear for the past year while I was looking for works by Stravinsky and Shostakovich, both of whom I idolized and imitated to the best of my adolescent abilities. The first disc I purchased was a Naxos release, which contained Stille Musik and his Cello Sonata from 1978, which was written around the age of 44 or so. I had recently noticed that his releases suddenly contained his birth year but also his death year (1934 - 1998). Naturally, this intrigued me that he had died since I first noticed his name and Naxos releases were not significantly expensive, as I often left with as many as four at a time -I decided to purchase one of his discs, which did not include his death date.
When I returned home and listened to the recording, I was blown away! This was a different type of modernism from what I was familiar with, it was maybe even postmodernist in its own way, but Schnittke was living under Soviet rule and I imagine his exposure to culture outside of Soviet Russia was rather limited, which would limit the influences he was absorbing. The music was constantly shifting between extremes, between dichotomous textures and sounds (soft/loud, tonal/atonal, slow/fast, etc.) What was even more striking was that Schnittke seemed to favor rather slow tempo markings. In fact, between the Cello Sonata and Stille Musik, the tempo markings were Lento, Largo, Presto, and Largo!!
I had played this music for a girlfriend and she was really into death metal and punk music and I recall her response to the Agitato from his Second String Quartet as she brushed her faded-green mohawk out of her face, “Jesus. I thought my music was hardcore.” I think that just about says it all. She loved Dying Fetus and Cannibal Corpse! Schnittke achieved intensity without any electricity! His electricity was organic and achieved by utilizing elements of dissonance, volume, polyphonic density, and quick pacing. He was definitely a neo-classical composer in his own way, as he was working with sonatas and symphonic form, but he was also very much so a postmodernist, working with what he termed polystylism.
His work also encompassed film scoring and he worked with some legendary directors, including Shepitko and Askoldov among others. One can run through his catalog of work and find the influences of jazz music, Bach, Mozart, Stravinsky, Gregorian chant, Shostakovich, the Darmstadt serialists, and folk songs of various countries. He was entirely eclectic and eventually shed modernist pretensions of complexity in favor of a haunting and obsessive emotional content at the end of his life’s work, I almost get the sense that he was basically writing the same composition for the last 8 years of his life.
I have created a playlist that includes his Second String Quartet performed by the Kronos Quartet, and his work Stille Musik and the Cello Sonata from 1978, taken from the Naxos recording I purchased towards the end of 1998 and listened to when I was supposed to be at school that day.