Dmitri Kourliandski: “Composing Music Means Composing What Music is Every Time”
6 June 2019
Photo by Andrei Bezukladnikov

Dmitri Kourliandski's opera Octavia. Trepanation, staged by Boris Yukhananov, premiered in 2017 in Amsterdam at the Holland Festival. The libretto is based on Lev Trotsky's essay about Vladimir Lenin (1924), and on fragments of a play attributed to Seneca about the Roman emperor Nero. The stage is dominated by an enormous head of Lenin, and centaur skeletons. It is a complex, multivalent work, in which the theme of tyranny is projected onto the contemporary world. The Russian premiere, for which the Electrotheatre has announced an audition for volunteers to participate as soldiers in a Terracotta army, will take place on the stage of the Stanislavsky Electrotheatre on October 17 to 19 as part of the Territory festival. Dmitri Kourliandski speaks about his dissection of the revolutionary song “Varshavyanka,” and about the trepanation of tyranny.

During a talkback following the premiere at the Holland Festival, you and Boris Yukhananov were asked questions about this opera. At the time you said there is no time in this opera. Have the two ensuing years changed anything for you?

Nothing has changed, in fact. But in referring to “no time” I evidently had in mind the nature of the musical material. It is open-ended material that, essentially, has no beginning or end. That's probably the way to put it. Plus nothing is pegged to a concrete, historical era. 

By “no time” do you mean it is looped?

I would say it is infinite. The starting point of this project is the initial bars of “The Varshavyanka.” It's just a few seconds that I stretched electronically to 90 minutes. The resulting material is passed through living electronics algorithms, and at the output we have an infinite presence inside the iridescent spectra and granules of the first bars of the dissected “Varshavyanka.”
Here is another particular moment related to time. It is clear that the opera's theme and the presence of Lenin on stage led me to “Varshavyanka,” the most famous recording of which is by the Soviet Army Chorus. When I first began working with this recording, that terrible tragedy happened – the entire ensemble crashed into the sea en route to Syria (65 participants of the Alexandrov Russian Army Song and Dance Ensemble died in a plane crash on December 25, 2016 near Sochi.  Ed.). This, of course, made me stop and think seriously, but it did not stop me. I do not write about this in the program, but to some extent we can say that this opera is a gesture of sorts, a tribute, to this event. This is all bound up with tyranny and political issues, of course.
In general, work on an opera – at least in my experience – generates a life context and influences it. Some life events become part of the material, and the material, in turn, unexpectedly imposes its reflections on the life context. It begins to seem that you are not merely writing music, but life itself. That's quite metaphysical, but that's how it goes.
In fact, it is difficult ,and to some extent dangerous, to work with history because it comes back at you. The very idea of Octavia is to exhume the layers of tyranny in the broadest sense (not only in a political sense) and to try to dissect them. In this we have the tyranny of the text, the tyranny of sound and space, the tyranny of the visual, and the tyranny of beauty. Boris and I call Octavia an opera-operation, which (this is our utopian idea) will result in the removal of the tyranny tumor from a tyrant's brain. But I will not reveal the secret about how this enterprise ends.

Alongside your opera at the festival in 2017 there was a documentary performance that touched on the theme of Brexit, but the global context surrounding this theme has changed significantly. Do you think your opera will be perceived differently two years after its premiere?

The context in our country has changed little. The knots are tied, and the historical processes – seemingly dead ends – will lead us through these dead ends, no matter what. If you believe in the life-giving power of art (with or without quotes), then all the tumors will have to recede after the Moscow premiere.

Will the Moscow production differ in any way from the one in Amsterdam? Has anything changed?

First of all it's a different theatre. The opera was written for the Muziekgebouw in Amsterdam, a very big hall. Our head of Lenin was nine meters high there. There we had 80 Terracotta warriors standing at a height of 2.5 meters each. Naturally that won't fit on the stage of the Electrotheatre. But we planned from the very beginning to transfer the opera to our stage. As such the set design allowed for such a version. The new stage conditions dictate new mises en scene, so I would not call this an adaptation, but rather a full-fledged new version. 

But nothing has changed in the music?

It has changed in part. Primarily, the smaller space has its influence on the manner of vocalization. It was a very open presentation in a large hall, but here I plan to soften it, make it more cryptic. Furthermore, the duration of a few segments may change in connection with the new mises en scene.

Many artists are now turning to the topic of the Soviet Union. Why do you think that is?

It is probably a response to attitudes in society, to what is happening around us. The unveiling of some monuments, the justification of some historical figures... This is the context in which we exist, and artists are naturally involved in it one way or another. Even if they resist involvement, that is a kind of reaction.

But I would not want to tie the Octavia to the Soviet era alone. Obviously, the starting point of the commission was a festival in 2017, the centenary of the revolution. It is obvious that we put a famous head on stage. But that's not all. Nero is also on stage, as it a Terracotta army. These themes are as important in the opera as Lenin. These are three critical moments in history when tyranny was the principle of the existence of power. In fact, there were many more than three.

Why have you decided now to perform the opera in Russia?

Following the premiere in Holland, we had several negotiations on various levels. Incidentally, there were four more performances in Italy where a new version arose (once again, due to the parameters of the hall). This is a very big project, and our big theaters apparently are not ready to take on any risks, including those having possible political nuances. But the risks are financial too - because this is contemporary music, for which there is little trust in our country. And this production is expensive. I finished the orchestral part for a Moscow premiere that was under discussions last year. The implication was that this would be an enlarged version. But in the end we postponed the possibility of such a large performance. This version is still waiting for its stage. I don't  even know if it will be in Moscow.

I understand that Lenin's head appears on stage in connection with the notion of trepanation. But how did the idea of trepanation arise?

Having conceived the opera, Boris Yukhananov and I met with Stepan Lukyanov (Octavia's designer.  Ed.) and we shared the main ideas. The very next morning, Stepan sent his head. And it is a very big head, it takes up half the stage, so, consequently, it must become a stage itself. If the head is a stage, then the head must open up. Everything is quite logical.

So the head opening up came first, and only then the notion of trepanation in the title?

Precisely. And what's important is that we came up with all of this at the very beginning of my work on the music, simultaneously. As a composer, it is very important for me personally to understand the origins of the work, what context feeds it. Everything must be permeated with connections. It is important to discover and formulate the world in which the work will be born. Composing music is not merely composing sounds and rhythms: it is also composing what music is, composing the environment of its sound, composing its perception, reconfiguring the listener to new principles of reception. Ultimately, to compose the listener. In the case of theatre and opera it is a collective work in which all the creators are equal and necessary to one other. The music, the text, the direction, the architecture of the space, the work of all the theatre's workshops - these are all branches of a single organism.

It would seem that this work contains an unthinkable number of unrelated layers. How is the score constructed?

Speaking of the music, it is worth returning to the issue of trepanation, because it is applied not only to Lenin's head and not only to the phenomenon of tyranny – that is, not only in conceptual and material terms, but also in the music too. The idea of stretching out the original sound material by electronic means leads to a very granulated recording. It is broken down into granules and sound molecules. This also is a kind of operation. And, as I operate on «Varshavyanka,» I extract material from it for all of my arias. You might say this is found music. As we say there is found art, found literature, found poetry.

How does the search process happen?

As a result of the work on «Varshavyanka,» I received a rather complex sonorant cloud, to which I listened carefully in order to reveal my own principles and connections. So, Seneca appears first from this listening, then Nero, then Agrippina. The result was a system of keynotes, wherein each character has its own melody. It is interesting that Octavia emerges as quite melodic, which for me is rather atypical.

So this is precisely what became a reflection of the theme of tyranny?

Yes, the main characters sing music that is strictly prescribed. The very idea of strict notation, absolute fixed notes, is essentially a totalitarian idea: the author, determining all the parameters of the sound fabric, dictates to the performers everything they must do, thus subordinating them. The soloists exist in that same totalitarian musical paradigm. Everyone, that is, except the women. The notes for Agrippina and Octavia seem to blur. In fact, this floating material is a lamentation, weeping, sadness, farewell. Octavia goes to his death and the ghost of Agrippina sings from “the other world.» All our women were either at the limit of existence, or already beyond it. Eventually it turns out that the lamento is the material of death for each of our characters.

How does the Terracotta army figure into all of this?

It is a separate layer. The chorus is the people. The people who, in our interpretation, are chained in the uniforms of the Terracotta army. They don’t hear well in these costumes and they see practically nothing, as if they were in coffins. Therefore, I could not write complex verticals for them, they simply could not be synchronized. Special instructions are written for the chorus: they are asked to listen and repeat the sounds that reach them from outside. You hear a sound – grab it and stretch it out to the end of the breath. As soon as you finish singing that bit – you listen for the next sound, pick up on it, and so on. So, the chorus, the people, in fact, receive their material from outside, they do not have their own material.

That's what's written in the score?

There are textual instructions how to interact with the sonic environment.

As I understand it, there will be an open casting for the Terracotta army in the Moscow performances.

Yes, but in the Moscow version it is more likely to be a ballet than a chorus; it will have its own tasks and functions.

Do the electronics also have their own symbolic function?

Absolutely. The material I extracted from “Varshavyanka” is not performed in an unadulterated way. Collaborating with Oleg Makarov, our sound artist, we developed a program that subjects this initial material to spatial and spectral manipulation. It is granulated, scattered across the spectrum, and scattered across space. Moreover, this program works randomly.

This layer for me symbolizes the climate, the elements. After all, no one can affect the clouds, they change their shape arbitrarily. Someone recently tried to disperse them for some famous holiday, but they failed. Of course, this layer exists within certain limits that I assign, but we don't know when the climax will occur, where the texture will be denser, and where it will be sparser. Accordingly, when the chorus responds to the “climate” around it, it reacts to these clusters in its own way, while the soloists exist independently. The “climate” is not  law to them, they themselves are the law.

All these descriptions are very difficult to understand, but no one needs to understand or distinguish among them (unless one really wants to). This is the contextual database that allowed me to reveal the material and begin to navigate it. It is enough for listeners to listen and watch - and to build their own connections and meanings.

At the talkback following the premiere you were asked: “Where is the conductor?” and you replied: “What conductor? The conductor is dead.” So where is the conductor?

In this case the director plays the role of the conductor regulating the vertical of action. The characters» entrances  are determined by their actions and positions on stage.

You once said that this opera revealed the meaning of revolution for you and that it revolutionized you. Did this really happen to you?

Absolutely. But if you look at my other works, you'll see that each opera for me is a pivot that takes me beyond my accumulated experience. That's how it was with Asteroid 62, with Nosferatu, with Octavia, and with Nekiya at the Voznesensky Center. Parasomnias probably takes me farther from myself than any other work. And Drillalians, of course. I don’t know why, but for me, chamber and instrumental music is my composer’s laboratory where I consistently develop ideas from previous works, while opera is always a journey out of myself.

I'm constantly in waiting for the next foray into completely new territory, where I don't know where I'm going, and what I will like about it.