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Sofia Gubaidulina: A Biography.

Sofia Gubaidulina: A Biography. By Michael Kurtz. (Russian Music Studies.) First English edition, revised and expanded. Edited by Malcolm Hamrick Brown, translated by Christoph K. Lohmann. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2007. [xviii, 335 p. ISBN-13: 9780253349071. $39.95.] Illustrations, bibliographical references, index, list of works.

Indiana University Press's Russian Music Studies series, founded by Malcolm H. Brown, continues to do an important and unique service in America by publishing translations of significant texts on Russian music, both new and old (the only contemporary equivalent is Ernst Kuhn's series Studia Slavica musicologica in Germany). The English translation of Michael Kurtz's "authorized" biography of Sofia Gubaidulina, originally published in German in 2001, is one of the most recent of these (Michael Kurtz, Sofia Gubaidulina: Eine Biografie [Stuttgart: Urachhaus, 2001]). This version of Kurtz's biography provides a useful, readable introduction to Gubaidulina's life, especially for those without knowledge of either Russian or German, and helps establish a good basis for future study of the composer. However, though an important--even indispensable--document for those wishing to learn more about Gubaidulina's life, times, and music, Kurtz's biography is not without its own limitations, chief among them its lack of critical engagement with many of the topics he raises and his insufficient scholarly apparatus. Furthermore, Kurtz does not treat Gubaidulina's music in any detail, providing only capsule descriptions for most pieces (there are no music examples in the book save for a page from Viuente non viuente).

The virtues and problems of Kurtz's biography both stem from the fact that, as he notes in the introduction, Gubaidulina "authorized this biography and read the entire manuscript" (p. xviii). Not surprisingly, throughout there is an absence of objective perspective on Gubaidulina. As Nigel Osborne remarked of Kurtz's earlier, generally well-received biography of Karlheinz Stockhausen, "It is less a critical biography, than a partisan appraisal" (Nigel Osborne, review of Michael Kurtz, Stockhausen: Eine Biographie [Kassel: Barenreiter, 1988], Tempo no. 171 [December 1989]: 38; the book was later published in English as Stockhausen: a biography, trans. Richard Toop [London: Faber, 1992]). That being said, Gubaidulina was Kurtz's primary source for the book, and her imprimatur doubtless proved crucial for facilitating the countless interviews Kurtz conducted with her family, friends, colleagues, and acquaintances that form his most important layer of evidence. Kurtz tirelessly tracked down seemingly every major figure (and many minor ones as well) associated with the composer, both in Russia and other republics from the former Soviet Union as well as in Europe, the United States, and Japan (as someone who has done his own share of interviewing in the former USSR, I can imagine how difficult this was logistically, financially, and intellectually). The results are invaluable for the light they shed on Gubaidulina's personality, creative process, and the compositional history and reception of specific works. Particularly illuminating are those reminiscences that reveal Gubaidulina's personal and creative "determination, ... strength, and ... calmness" in poet Gennadiy Aygi's words (p. 100; see also Mark Lindo's remarks on p. 30, Valentina Kholopova's on p. 46, and Kalevi Aho's on pp. 181-82). Interesting too are details about Gubaidulina's brushes with the KGB because of her second husband Kolya (Nikolai) Bokov's samizdat activities (pp. 107-09, 62-63, 68, and 88), and her self-proclaimed "Party loyalist" father's poignant rejection of her music after Tikhon Khrennikov denounced it in 1979 (pp. 145-46).

Most of Kurtz's interviews are cited properly (with date and interview location), yet only once in his entire endnotes (p. 296, chapter 2, note 10) does he directly refer to one of his "many conversations" with Gubaidulina that reportedly took place between 1990 and the present translation, although in this specific case no date is given (Kurtz discusses his interviews with Gubaidulina for the book on p. xvi). Moreover, at least twice the indication "As quoted by Sofia Gubaidulina" is provided in the endnotes without any date or other identifying marks (see note 7, p. 306, and note 10, p. 307). (Similarly Pyotr Mesh-chaninov's and Victor Suslin's interviews with Kurtz are undated.) Suggestive of the intertwining of Kurtz and Gubaidulina, his virtual co-author, is a typographical error on page 21 where the second half of the indented, block quotation beginning "It's now difficult for people to imagine" is not set off properly (neither indented, nor in a smaller font size). As a result, it reads as if these are Kurtz's words, when in fact they are Gubaidulina's. Correctly indicating the specific dates for his conversations with Gubaidulina, if only for direct quotations, would better distinguish author from subject, and help readers begin evaluating the composer's own many modes of self-construction in her statements, an important topic left unexplored by Kurtz.

Kurtz surveys Gubaidulina's life chronologically starting with her birth in Chistopol and her childhood in Kazan (both located in Tatarstan, or Tatariya, at that time the Tatar Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic), and moves fluidly--albeit some-what episodically--through the major landmarks of her personal and creative life. The biography is clearly organized throughout, with helpful subsections to guide the reader to specific topics. Along the way we learn intriguing details about Gubaidulina's many interests, ranging from the worldly--her award-winning prowess at gymnastics, for example (p. 43)--to the spiritual, including her own ecstatic accounts of her religious awakening as a child (e.g., pp. 13-14) and her 1970 baptism under the encouragement of pianist Maria Yudina (pp. 86-87). It is unfortunate then that Kurtz is unable to resist tired stereotypes, in particular about Gubaidulina's Tatar ethnicity, as on page 51, where he refers to "the fiery and explosive rhythm of her Tatar temperament," as well as her gender, as on page 65, where he describes "her more delicate and sensitive feminine nature" (to complicate matters, some of this is derived from Gubaidulina herself; see the subsection "About male and female" on pp. 69-71). Some historical topics are also glossed too quickly (with resulting inaccuracies), as is the case with the very general account of the 1948 Resolution on Music (pp. 19-21), and the description of the adoption of twelve-tone techniques in the post-war USSR in which, among other things, Kurtz ignores the effects of the 1958 Declaration of the Central Committee that officially rescinded the 1948 resolution (pp. 63-64).

On a more fundamental level, the book's scholarly apparatus contains numerous errors and insufficiencies. Kurtz's bibliography has not been updated since its original publication, meaning that a number of recent salient sources remain untapped. This oversight seems odd given that major events in Gubaidulina's life have been updated (up to 2005) for the translation, and several more contributors have added new reminiscences to Kurtz's English text (these updates are all enumerated in Kurtz's "Preface to the American Edition," pp. xiii-xiv). Many of the sources cited in the endnotes are not listed in the bibliography, which is emphatically not a list of works cited; sources are absent for numerous statements in the text that warrant documentation (e.g., the account of Luigi Nono's 1963 visit to the USSR on p. 61); and there are many typographical errors in both notes and bibliography. For example, the editor for the important collection Drugoe iskusstvo, cited only in note 3, chapter 5 (p. 298), is "Talochkin" not "Talokin" (nor does this citation include the relevant page number in the volume: 79). There are a significant number of typographical errors in the main text as well, including the "Great Patriotic Par [i.e., War]" on page 19, "Andrei Zakharov [i.e., Sakharov]" on page 73; and the composer's own name in several places, among them page 74 ("Gubaidilina").

Other citations are unclear. For example page 38 of Kurtz's text includes a quotation by Gubaidulina (the full text reads: "When I arrived in Moscow in 1954," Gubaidulina commented later, "they had lifted the prohibitions and stopped searching the dorms at the conservatory."), yet chapter 4, page 298, note 2 credits Kurtz's interview with Andrey Volkonsky as its source. Is this an incorrect citation, or is Gubaidulina's remark in the text a version reported by Volkonsky (hence a quotation two times removed from its original source)? If the latter, it should be indicated as such in either the text or a note (this same ambiguity is also in the original German, see p. 365, note 39, of Kurtz, Sofia Gubaidulina: Eine Biografie). Such cases diminish the book's usefulness for scholars and students alike. In fact, after perusing Kurtz's authoritative "List of Works" (pp. 275-93) and his helpful bibliography of published Gubaidulina interviews (pp. 313-15), students might be better off moving to the bibliography for Gubaidulina's entry ("Gubaydulina, Sofiya Asgatovna") in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (2d ed., ed. Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell [London: Macmillan, 2001]) by Russian musicologist Valentina Kholopova, supplementing this when applicable with Kurtz's endnotes.

On the whole, the English translation by Christoph K. Lohmann reads well, although I have found at least one inaccuracy that might suggest others. In the original German edition, Kurtz wrote that "Wolkonsky broke off his studies just after a year's leave of absence 'for medical reasons'" ("Brach Andrej Wolkonskij gerade nach einem Jahr Urlaub 'aus medizinischen Grunden' sein Studium ab," p. 66). The English translation omits almost half this and incorrectly reads: "Andrei Volkonsky quit 'for medical reasons'" (p. 37).

Kurtz's biography gives a good, thorough account of Gubaidulina's life that is more immediately accessible and less vexing for general readers than for specialists. Yet specialists will find it necessary reading due to the many significant details uncovered thanks to Kartz's interviews with Gubaidulina and her associates, although they too may often come up frustrated by problems in Kurtz's documentation of his sources.


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Author:Schmelz, Peter J.
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 1, 2008
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