One of the things that consistently blows my students’ minds is the fact that there are still classical composers living today. After being taken through the pantheon that leads into the cerebral intensities of, say, Stockhausen or Xenakis in the 1970s, students tend to think that classical music must, at that point, be done. Where else could it go? How much more experimental could it possibly get? More practically, given the Dead White European Male bent of nearly all symphonic performances and recordings now (an old joke is that DG, the acronym for the classical publisher Deutsche Grammophon, secretly stands for Deceased Germans), why would anybody want to become a classical composer at this point in history, writing pieces to be performed hardly ever to critically vanishing modern music fans?
With these questions thick in the air, I assure my students, that, yes, classical composers do still walk the Earth, and here is why. At which point I play them selections from the music of Lera Auerbach (b. 1973), the polymath phenomenon whose mixture of tonality, atonality, storytelling, and visual unease answers at once the question of why composers still exist in a way that all of my yammering never could. Even in their most abstract moments, her pieces still tell tales of time and conflict, loss and desperation, in a way which fuses different traditions of classical music while showing a way forward that avoids both the pitfalls of intellectually exciting but emotionally austere experimentalism and richly pleasing but overwrought sentimentality.
People seeking to explain Auerbach’s ability to make classical music speak again in manners that people are willing and eager to hear sometimes come to the conclusion that it has something to do with her disjointed relation to time, to how asynchronously the events in her early life line up with the ordinary trajectory of youth. Born in 1973 in Tscheljabinsk, in the Ural Mountains near the border with Siberia, she was from a young age taken by her nanny to the local cemetery and watched as that nanny cheerfully set about sprucing up her dead husband’s grave, and preparing the plot next to it where one day she would rest. That brute fact of death, then, which is often so carefully hidden from the eyes of children, was a fact regularly placed before the young Auerbach, but in a manner of comfortable anticipation rather than one of shrinking dread. Little wonder, then, that Auerbach’s first song, written at the age of four, was about death.
Trained by her mother, her artistic development took on a dizzying pace after that. She gave her first concert as a pianist at six, performed with an orchestra at eight, and wrote her first opera at twelve, which was also the age she began writing poetry in earnest. Exposed to the realities of death as a child, and the very adult pressures of composition and performance when barely an adolescent, in some ways Auerbach lived her life backwards, inducted into the Heideggerian anxieties of life at an age when most are simply worried about how their new pencil box will go over at school. Listening to her music now, it’s easy (perhaps too easy?) to come to the conclusion that this is music written by somebody who has pierced through the maddening veil of earthly existence and come through the other side capable of laughing about the whole beautiful triviality of it all, while still understanding the pains of those caught in its clutches.
By seventeen, it was time for Auerbach to tour, and her family saved up for a year to send her at last to New York in 1991. While there she had a sudden revelation, that Russia had taught her all that it could, and that for the sake of her future development, she would have to remain in the United States. She made hasty arrangements to join the Manhattan School of Music to solidify her position, and ultimately attended Juilliard for both composition and piano. She developed a reputation not only for delivering piano performances that eschewed tradition in favor of deep textual analysis of the composer’s options and intentions, but for composing pieces that avoided all possible labels as they borrowed from any tradition that would provide the sounds she needed to tell the stories she had created.
Commissions from world class performers came her way as she attempted, and by means I can’t possibly understand succeeded, in juggling a career as a performer, composer, visual artist, and poet. In the United States she became one of the country’s first rank composers while simultaneously in Russia becoming one of that nation’s first rank poets. Her over one hundred compositions span all scales and styles, but she has come to be known primarily for two extremes: solo and duet compositions, and large scale operas or ballets. The reasons for this are, I suspect, largely practical – small scale works are cheap and relatively easy to record, so there is less risk on the part of the publisher, while operas and ballets, particularly Auerbach’s, are so rich in visual content that they resonate with a wider audience than, say, a modern piano concerto or symphony.
I think there is nobody living who empathizes as well and turns that empathy into art as deeply as Lera Auerbach.
Whatever the reason, if you are looking for Auerbach’s pieces on cd or dvd, you’ll tend to find works on those two parts of the spectrum. Of her small scale works, her cycles of preludes for piano, piano and violin, and piano and cello, represent a form that continually attracts and challenges her. Preludes traditionally are series of 24 compositions that feature a piece in every possible key, major and minor, and while the most famous are doubtless the Chopin Preludes of the 19th century, the form dates back further than that and represents a marvelous opportunity for a composer to tell short, dramatic tales that utilize each key’s unique textures and potentials. For a composer with the dramatic sensibilities and particularly deep relation to sound like Auerbach, it is a perfect medium for composition, and represents the most regularly recorded of her works.
On the other end of the spectrum lie the dramatic, large scale works. Glancing at one of Auerbach’s libretti, for the opera Gogol (well, technically for the play Gogol which she wrote as a preparation for producing the libretto), one sees the amount of thought Auerbach puts into not only the drama, themes, and music, but the visual impact of the experience. Her scenery descriptions are tailored to create feelings of unconscious unease, of making the audience feel Not Quite Right without being able to put their fingers on why. That unease feeds into the dramatic thrust of her stories, of the self-torment that Nikolai Gogol underwent in his later years at the hands of insidious religious beliefs (Gogol), of Hans Christian Andersen’s heartbreak at the marriage of his beloved friend (The Little Mermaid), of blind humans alone in a forest praying against death that must come (The Blind). Disjointed, archly comic, brutal when needs be, and marvelously ambiguous as regards what hope there is to be had, these works are surely not for everyone, but for those looking to encapsulate the fears of creative existence they might feel, I think there is nobody living who empathizes as well and turns that empathy into art as deeply as Lera Auerbach.
Auerbach is coming up on the completion of her third decade in her adopted home, a time that has seen her grow from a talented Soviet prodigy to a multi-faceted compositional master whose work is of such a compelling nature that it is able to push against the mighty inertia of classical programming and make a case for why the works of living composers can and must continue to be commissioned and performed. Her music poses questions we are often afraid to ask, and offers answers that are profound in their ability to leave unresolved our greatest conflicts and tensions, and that is the living essence of art, without which we perish in antiquarian longing, delusional speculation, or, worst of all, a satiation that says only the easy is worth digesting.
FURTHER READING AND LISTENING: There is a nice collection of essays about Auerbach, fragments of conversations with her, and samples of her work in Music & Literature No. 7: Paul Griffiths, Ann Quin, Lera Auerbach (2016). Otherwise you’re left to glean what you can from the handful of interviews and articles floating about, of which in particular I like this one (in German), and this one (in English).
And now, the excerpts!
The Blind. A collection of blind travelers, lost in the woods, come to the realization that the person who led them there has died, and that death will soon come for them as well. Bleak but speaking deeply to the condition of modern self-aware humanity, the combination of a-cappella opera with unsettling imagery is one to watch on a day when you’re feeling very centered in your skin.
Prelude Op. 41, No. 13 in F-Sharp Minor. For some reason, nearly all of my favorite preludes by Auerbach are in F-Sharp Minor. Do I just naturally like that key? Does Auerbach particularly bring her A game to F-Sharp Minor? No way to know, but this one reminds me of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition in a way that makes it a double treat, as if you watch Auerbach performing that piece (which you can here), and particularly the Grand Gates of Kiev at the end, which this piece has some rhythmic resonance with, it seems like Mussorgsky’s sonic world has particular meaning for her.
Speak, Memory. Another neat case of multiple resonances happening simultaneously. First, this is a performance featuring Hilary Hahn, the international violin superstar who has been consistently a proponent of Auerbach’s work. Second, the title is a reference to Vladimir Nabokov’s memoirs of youth, with their particularly evocative sense richness which resonates so particularly with Auerbach’s themes of time and our experience of it. Third, it’s just a damn great piece.