by Jill DeGroot
Grief is compounding. Each new grief carries the loss that came before it. So when met with new loss we drag the stuff along, bearing an unbearable conglomerate. The weight of it all invisible to the naked eye of friends, colleagues, and strangers. With this new loss, I let the music of Galina Ustvolskaya swallow me up.
Though Ustvolskaya disliked the epithet, Dutch musicologist Elmer Shönberger called her “the lady with the hammer,” not only for the intensity of her compositions, but because she devised an instrument called “the cube”- a wooden box constructed to be struck by two large mallets. “The cube” was described by many journalists of her time as “coffin-sized.” She disliked this verbiage as well, no surprise.
I listen to her Composition No. 2 Dies Irae as if I can hammer the burning sensation of absence back into its hidey-hole. As if I can wedge pieces of the loss between intervals. Of this second composition, Ustvolskaya has said that nobody’s ever gotten it right, and so it is with grief, too. Written for 8 double basses, cube, and piano, this piece requires a brutalistic intensity. It is not easily performed or consumed. She writes triple fortes that crescendo to quadruple fortes, quarter note rhythms to be played exactly precise and evenly across the entire ensemble. She requires consistently strong bow pressure from the double basses, piano clusters comprised of notes struck simultaneously from the pianist. She marks “expressive,” “profound,” and “meaningful” above the quarter notes hammered by the percussionist into the cube. The result is an uncompromising force of sound, at times soft and solemn, at others deafening and thunderous.
Ustvolskaya’s music exists outside of traditional genres of classical compositions. She belongs to no formal school of training or thought. Her compositions received very little support from the Soviet regime as the USSR considered “problematic” music unsuitable for the concert hall. She lived in isolation, and rarely left her hometown. She described her compositions as deeply spiritual, though non-religious. Still she preferred her work to be performed in a church. When I read about her, or watch videos of her talking about her work, I wonder if she ever felt lonely.
Some days the loss feels so large, I turn to one of Ustvolskaya’s final compositions for respite, her Piano Sonata No. 6. I watch a video in which Chicago pianist Andrew Rosenblum presses so hard on the keys his body lifts into the air. The force of his fingers and wrists act as a mallet. He slams an entire forearm down onto the bed keys with the weight of his entire body. You can hear the sound of his breath sucking in before the pressure of impact creates clattering tone clusters. And then Ustvolskaya shifts to a delicate pianissimo section, so gentle you forget what you just witnessed. Then Rosenblum is pounding into the piano again, swinging his arms in recoil to balance out the forward momentum he’s driving into the keys.
For several minutes, my pain is lost to his pain. I imagine the sensory nerves in his fingers, wrists, and arms firing signals to his brain. The emptiness I feel is displaced by the sound- the dampening and release of the piano’s string innards reminiscent of a wheezing accordion belly.
But still, Galina Ustvolskaya’s pieces are not grieving. They seem to exist outside the threshold of human emotion altogether. Listening to her music I am reaching out, trying to touch an inexplicable place where the sound transcends absence, sorrow, loss- these invisible things that I’ll carry throughout my lifetime. A place where I am able to leave behind the aspects of life that make me so unfortunately human.