Piano Sonata No. 6, Galina Ustvolskaya

In just a blink of an eye, Xu Zhen
The reclusive Russian composer's final piano sonata grasps at a reconciliation of the human body’s physicality with a desire for religious transcendence.

When Milan Kundera writes in The Unbearable Lightness of Being that “Shit is a more onerous theological problem than is evil”, it’s likely he means to be taken at least semi-literally. For, Kundera’s “shit” is a stand-in for the entirety of the human body’s base naturalness, a state of existence that perpetually curtails the religious impulse towards transcendence. And it’s likely Galina Ustvolskaya would’ve sympathised with the Czech author, but without arriving at the same atheistic conclusion. Ustvolskaya’s music is, after all, profoundly religious, with many of her small collection of published works bearing Christian titles or centring on the recitation of scripture. But if the Russian composer’s music describes an experience of the divine, then it’s an encounter that’s as messily material as it is spiritual.

One of Ustvolskaya’s last compositions, completed in 1988, Piano Sonata No. 6 is inextricably bound to the physical actuality of its creation, its churning clusters of dissonance shot through with all the pain of arms and fists hammering away at the keyboard. It’s music that sounds almost pre-linguistic: instead of clauses and sentences traversing a structured framework of meaning, the piano’s notes and chords are singular, impossibly dense objects pointing nowhere beyond themselves. It’s a black hole, a dark well, and at the bottom there’s no logic, no rationality, only objects compelled to clatter together to produce this ungodly racket. For Ustvolskaya, then, it seems any experience of the supernatural is necessarily sensed, felt, indeed lived, by an irreducibly physical body – and that’s a body that shits, that sits at a piano and furiously pounds and pounds with no clear sense of why.

But that body also thinks and loves, and certainly Piano Sonata No. 6 isn’t just a jarring exploration of the animalistic. Lean in and you’ll catch the maniacal procession of chords open out into a fleeting dialogue between two voices – declarative, yes, but mutually receptive – or the uncompromising volume abate to reveal an instance of crystalline stillness. So perhaps the lucidity, the spiritual release, towards which Ustvolskaya strives is latent within the chaos; but it’s destined to remain that way, as the sonata’s obsessive exploration of the extremes of volume and register, noise and dischord, continually pull us back to earth in all its tangibility. And it’s in this failure – this vain grasping – that Ustvolskaya’s final piano sonata finds its tragic aura. Where composers of the “new spiritualism” like Arvo Pärt or Henryk Górecki have tended to sublimate the fleshy stuff of music-making in their pursuit of a benign, idealised religiosity – weightless melodies adorned with chiming, bell-like sonorities – Ustvolskaya’s music thrashes with and against an inescapable physicality. In Piano Sonata No. 6 the promise of transcendence is glimpsed, but only as it simultaneously recedes from view.

Listening notes: In the most relentless section of the piece, from 2:20 to 4:10, listen out for Ustvolskaya’s use of pauses in the otherwise uniform barrage of bassy dissonance, seeming to betray a well-masked hesitancy within the piece’s strident march. Following this section there’s a return to the two-voiced theme first introduced at 0:28: beginning almost as a call-and-response, this passage draws to a close as the music spirals slowly downwards into blackness (5:20). A fleeting moment of placidity is soon shattered by a return to the crashing chords of the sonata’s opening at 6:05.

Image: In just a blink of an eye, Xu Zhen (2007)