In the late 1990s, Victoria Polevá abandoned her successful career as an avant-garde composer of polyphonic music, challenging and ultimately transforming her aesthetic ideals—and in the process, her spirituality—in pursuit of the “absoluteness of renunciation, the pureness of experiment.” Interweaving sacred and secular texts and musical traditions from a wide variety of eras, Polevá has since set herself apart as one of Ukraine's and Eastern Europe’s most original composers, one whose works are routinely performed by leading ensembles and soloists around the globe. In 2005, violinist Gidon Kremer included Polevá’s “Warm Wind” in his concert cycle Sempre Primavera. Speaking here “completely unarmed, impoverished, down to zero” from amid the burning tumult of Kiev, Victoria Polevá, in her first English-language interview, addresses her daring evolution as a composer, the origins of her passion, her collaborates with Kremer, and sorrow as a creative act. Music & Literature is honored to present Victoria Polevá.
Taylor Davis-Van Atta: You underwent a dramatic transformation as a composer in the late 1990s. You’ve described this crisis to me as a “dam break.” What pressures initiated this transformation?
Victoria Polevá: It was a paradigm shift. I had been preparing for this transformation for a long time; it didn’t happen overnight. But, by and large, I merely realized at some point that the road I had taken—of an avant-garde composer—was too successful. Everything that I was doing was immediately accepted. I would succeed in all of my professional relationships and my career would keep growing. Sure, that kind of music had its own aesthetic truth—and I liked it—but it didn’t contain the absoluteness of renunciation, the pureness of an experiment. There was too much comfort. I needed something more, something that would impede this kind of smooth progression. And yet, a simple triad in my circle bordered with obscenity. Switching in this direction meant completely undoing the established milestones. It was a feat for me—to do what was “indecent,” what would perhaps never be appreciated or accepted by anyone. But I felt that only this road, this type of music was exposing true things in me. I needed boundlessness with no limits.
TDVA: For Arvo Pärt, who underwent a somewhat similar early crisis, it was as much—if not more so—a personal and spiritual transformation as it was a compositional one. Was this also your experience?
VP: It was certainly a spiritual transformation. Before the break I was overcome by a world of powerful elements, which I materialized. I wrote compositions comprising huge layers of dark, rather ambiguous matter. I wanted to recreate the forces of chaos. I felt how they passed through me, and I enjoyed that. Then I felt a need for purity, like donning the Schema after having reached a high level of spiritual excellence. A need to let go of the tumults of life, to soothe myself. Was this connected with my spiritual rebirth and discovery of the church? Certainly. Although, generally speaking, I felt the presence of God long before I learned about the existence of religion, as I grew up in a completely secular environment.
TDVA: I want to ask about your upbringing, but first I’d like to learn more about the development of your artistic ambition. The Slovak composer Vladimír Godár has written that “young artists tend to use every artistic and creative means at their disposal, but as they mature each finds a road that leads from this youthful richness to the selectivity of older age, when they tend to use only a section of that rich palette of their youth.” Has a similar process of selectivity contributed to your evolution as a composer over the years?
VP: I think that my way of progression has been somewhat different. I was never driven by the idea of capturing everything or conquering the world. From the very beginning, the tasks were set rather narrowly. There were certain points of orientation, the first being polystylistics. This was primarily due to the fact that we had two pianos, a TV, and a record player in my family, and they always played simultaneously. It was tremendous; it evoked the sense of delight from the union of sounds that in reality are irreconcilable. It was delightful to see how they passed through each other—the uncontrolled mysterious interpenetration, which occurs in the moment of their meeting. A certain kind of control without control.
Then I turned to intuitive automatic writing. I know it is often used in a bad sense, as something rather unrefined, but there is still some truth in it. The idea is that you are recording what emerges from an inner ear as if without a conscious realization. You channel through yourself a current that glimmers somewhere inside. Of course, you go through preparations somehow before this happens. But in the moment of composition you are just a medium. All of my old works from the Conservatory period were written in this fashion, without the help of a piano.
But then it became incredibly difficult to compose “simple” music. I had to recreate my very own self. You need to play this kind of music incessantly, listen to it, get tuned in. You are not using the natural forces that swirl around you, you just lift your pen and everything streams out. No, you need to make a huge effort for the crystallization of something that is necessary, for the cleansing, the severing, the birthing of a new quality. This is necessary for passing through the “narrow gate.” And you cut through this thicket by yourself, using your own body.
I entered a territory where I had not a single point of orientation, where I basically had to storm in, breaking a new path for myself. There had to be nothing from the past. In Russian fairy tales the hero is always given a choice at the crossroads, which appears in the form of a writing on a prophetic stone: “If you go right, you will find your wife; if you go left, you will lose your horse; if you go straight, you will perish.” And he always chooses to go straight. This is important. A warrior is a warrior, because he must take such a perilous road.
TDVA: In a conversation Music & Literature published between Pärt and Jordi Savall, Savall claims, “It is no longer possible to work completely divorced from all early music, from all of history.” Savall suggests that works of art dating from the Middle Ages and before can provide sources of inspiration for modern composers and “allow them to give their work new dimensions.” You seem to draw a lot of creative energy from texts of all ages—you’ve set works by Simeon the New Theologian, William Blake, John Donne, and Joseph Brodsky to music—and you are clearly a student of early music . . . Do you believe that, in a sense, everything that can be written already has been written?
VP: I have always been strongly drawn to medieval music. Nothing is comparable to the pleasure of hearing and singing this kind of music. And, of course, I often rely on the culture and figures of the past. It is difficult to imagine creative work without such encounters. What really occurs is the transfer of spirit from one mouth to another. A continuity of the fire.
Regarding the notion that everything that can be written already has been written . . . Everything has been said, of course, through the divine Word, which contains all and everything. The energy of the world’s creation in a single super-concentrated, thick mass. Humans recognize it, unroll it, straighten it, and read from it. How was the Apocalypse represented symbolically? The sky was rolled up like a scroll. Whereas the world is the unfolding of the heavenly scroll. It is the reverse process; it offers the possibility for humans to return home.
TDVA: One of your compositions I find most moving is “No Man Is an Island,” a cantata on the text of John Donne. What drew you to this particular text? How did this piece come about?
VP: I was first introduced to John Donne through Brodsky’s “Great Elegy for John Donne”—through his poetic prism of Donne’s melancholic image. There he was represented more as a handsome, noble character, rather than a deep persona. Then, in 2005, I was reintroduced to Donne when I was in England—I was presented with a wonderful nineteenth-century edition of his poetry (mostly courtly poems). My hosts even proposed that I learn English by reading him.
As I returned home, I was able to get a hold of his Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, and severall steps in my Sicknes. This was a time when I was in a great deal of personal pain and despair. And the feeling of being one with humanity—the main message of Donne’s work—helped me to mute the pain, to sublimate.
TDVA: I’d like to talk about Friedrich Schiller, whose verses are the basis for your cantata “Ode an die Freude.” I’ve read elsewhere that you began writing choral pieces because you are attracted to the idea of “a great many people taking a single shape.” This is a lovely thought, and seems very much in line with Schiller’s philosophy. Can you talk about Schiller’s influence on your compositional evolution?
VP: I wouldn’t focus on Schiller only. We are all united through Adam and we are scattered across the world through our fall. This phenomenon of falling, scattering, collecting, and returning into the womb is the basic idea of human culture. Christianity made it absolute—the conscious passage through death, descent into hell, and gathering of the fallen. We are all striving to recreate our unity with God through this passage. This is the foundation of all human civilization. Simply before the memory of the fall was much fresher, much closer to humanity. Returning to the ethics of Schiller, I can say that at one time I felt close to his idea of humanity coming together in a single creative act. But only partly, just as I was fascinated with Scriabin’s Mysterium. “Transforma” and “Ode an die Freude” belong to that period.
But now I am standing closer to the state of being completely unarmed. Impoverished, down to zero. I think it’s much closer to the idea of philanthropism or “love of humanity.” As Confucius said, “If a man be without the virtues of humanity, what has he to do with music?”
TDVA: There is definitely a strong humanistic current to your music, largely I think because your compositions are often based, like Faust or Hamlet or countless other great pieces of art, on primal moral conflicts. Do you agree with Schiller’s sentiment that beauty is not merely an aesthetic experience but a moral one as well? Do you compose music with a moral message in mind?
VP: Honestly speaking, I have never tried to formulate the idea of beauty. This category has always circumvented me. Beauty and morality—these are not quite my concepts. I live as if outside of them. In any case, I am not on such a spiritual level where I must consider moral perfection as a form of beauty. And if something in my work prompted you to such a question, it is because I have tried to do something in music that I have not been able to accomplish in my personal life.
But perhaps now the idea of beauty as empathy toward something fleeting, as pain from a disappearance, from the fragility of beauty is closer to me. It is the Japanese concept of “mono no aware” (literally “the pathos of things” or “a sensitivity to ephemera”)—the sad charm of things that pass. But this is pure pain without bitterness or regret, an endless feeling of sadness and an endless feeling of joy simultaneously. This is a very deep state, the core of personal life, “the soul of the soul,” and I cherish it very much. Although this is how I feel today, and tomorrow, perhaps, I will have to swing my sword again!
TDVA: I am thrilled and very moved by your work with Prostopenie, a Russian Plainchant that is composite chant system with a complex history dating back many hundreds of years. What attracts you to Prostopenie as a form and as a tradition?
VP: I wanted to move on to another idea after the fairly complex forms of my first choral compositions (for example, “Let God Be Ressurected”). It had to come, on the one hand, from liturgical songs and, on the other, from the common folk. A kind of singing from a blissful desire to sing. That is not to create mental constructs, which in their essence are analogous to the “towers of Babel.” And when one sings from a spiritual wholeness, “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.” That’s it: an abundance of the heart and simplicity of expression. This is where the name Prostopenie came from. Later I learned that such a tradition and the word itself (Prostopenie) have existed for a very long time.
TDVA: You have said elsewhere that your music based on liturgical texts should not be experienced as church music and is best heard outside the church setting because the setting brings too much unintended meaning to the music. Along these same lines, doesn’t the composer’s personality and personal history threaten to bring unintended ideas and meanings to a composition? A musical composition is at once an expression of the total author and yet must be totally free of authorship, no?
VP: I am a living person, and that means that I am changing. Although I still believe that liturgical music requires a complete effacement of the author, I am not so categorical in the belief that composers should not write songs for Liturgy. I myself have made this step and this greatly changed my attitude to life in general. Self-effacement and humility are the starting points of spiritual life, and how can a composer refuse such things . . . One should strive for oblivion, because it is the blissful state which envelops all the singing of the spiritual world. It is an existence in sacred time—inside the Liturgy that flows through you. According to Dionysius the Areopagite, “The purpose of the word is to sing, because this is the only way to express the ineffable.”
TDVA: Let’s go back and clarify this idea of “minimalism,” which I very reluctantly alluded to early on . . . The so-called “sacred minimalist” tradition, which so conveniently groups Pärt, Tavener, Górecki, Godár, Polevá, et al., under a single banner, seems more of an effective marketing tool than a helpful means of thinking about the work of these composers. Do you relate your music to “minimalism,” or is this phrase pointless to think about?
VP: I completely agree with you about the marketing tool. There are some elements of minimalism (for example, repetition) that perhaps are inherent in a couple of my works. But what I am doing can actually be called “maximalism.” It is extremely rich content in very laconic forms. The maximum is expressed in the minimum, as if everything in nothing.
TDVA: The future of a new composition depends on how a musician first performs/interprets it. Did Gidon Kremer bring new ideas about “Warm Wind” to you and to the first performances and recording of that piece?
VP: Many of the processes that occur within the composer are very similar to the processes of conception, gestation, birthing, and feeding. At any rate, this is very much what I have been experiencing. You sometimes feel sparks from meeting a great musician and the seeds of excitement are sown in the heart of an admiring human being. And then it could take years until the music is fleshed out. And yet, music is composed in this manner, and I must keep waiting for its birth without forcing anything. And this is exactly how I have been with Gidon Kremer—still waiting, shielding, listening.
TDVA: You have said elsewhere that your creative life began essentially with your first moments of consciousness, that “writing music was what I knew as life” and that you have fought to “stay in this children’s world.” Are there forces that threaten your creative life?
VP: As a child I was completely unrestrained, I was practically left on my own. Time was boundless—nothing was structured. Books and music were my protection, the point of recovery that enters into the anarchy of a child’s life like some kind of firmware. That keeps you from insanity, and gives some internal reinforcement. Otherwise the world would be absolutely imageless. Like an abyss (bottomless). Maybe this happens to all children in infancy. In fact, I have changed very little since then. I still need milestones; I am very obedient and strive for growth. I think that the same forces that motivate me to move and grow carry a potential threat of destruction. They must be exhausted in order for childhood to end.
TDVA: W.H. Auden once wrote that “the so-called traumatic experience is not an accident, but the opportunity for which the child has been patiently waiting—had it not occurred, it would have found another, in order that its life became a serious matter.” It’s a beautiful idea to consider, that we create our own personal catastrophes and yet there are inbuilt creative forces that bring about these life-altering transformations, that inspiration is always lurking, waiting for an opportunity to rise. You once said something just as lovely: “There is a great void within; now and then I try to fill it, but after filling it I start missing it again.” Is sorrow a creative act for you?
VP: Auden is one of my most beloved poets . . . He is very dear to me. In essence, there are only two possibilities to feel the flow of life—the pureness of pain and love. There is also prayer—and yet, the experience of prayer is not so intense and direct. Everything is subtler. Whereas love and pain are the most important creative inspirations. Each artist summons these forces, feeds on them, and makes sacrifices to them in his or her own way.
The absence of pain during a certain period simplifies the relationship with the world. But I cannot write when I am not in pain. For this reason I need, over and again, to recreate situations that lead to suffering. Only through suffering, as Marina Tsvetaeva said, do we feel in our body “the sharp sting and claws of truth.”
Emily Dickinson put it more accurately:
The Martyr Poets—did not tell—
But wrought their Pang in syllable—
Although, while living life, you realize that pain may be the Other. It may be a “No-thingness,” like the thin gap between inhalation and exhalation. Muteness, silence, with a pure light inside. Maybe this is the only thing to which I aspire.
This Lunar Beauty
This lunar beauty
Has no history
Is complete and early,
If beauty later
Bear any feature
It had a lover
And is another.
This like a dream
Keeps other time
And daytime is
The loss of this,
For time is inches
And the heart’s changes
Where ghost has haunted
Lost and wanted.
But this was never
A ghost’s endeavor
Nor finished this,
Was ghost at ease,
And till it pass
Love shall not near
The sweetness here
Nor sorrow take
His endless look.
Ms. Polevá's responses have been translated from the Russian by Shushan Avagyan.
Shushan Avagyan is the translator of Viktor Shklovsky's Energy of Delusion: A Book on Plot, Bowstring: On the Dissimilarity of the Similar, and A Hunt for Optimism (Dalkey Archive), and I Want to Live: Poems of Shushanik Kurghinian (AIWA). She currently teaches at the American University of Armenia.
Taylor Davis-Van Atta is the publisher and co-editor of Music & Literature.