Composer  Giya  Kancheli
გია ყანჩელი

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Born in Tbilisi on 10 August 1935, Giya Kancheli is Georgia's most distinguished living composer and a leading figure in the world of contemporary music. Kancheli's scores, deeply spiritual in nature, are filled with haunting aural images, varied colors and textures, sharp contrasts and shattering climaxes. His music draws inspiration from Georgian folklore and sings with a heartfelt, yet refined emotion; it is conceived dramaturgically with a strong linear flow and an expansive sense of musical time. A man of uncompromising artistic integrity, Kancheli has been called by Russian composer Rodion Shchedrin, "an ascetic with the temperament of a maximalist -- a restrained Vesuvius."

Best-known as a composer of symphonies and other large-scale works, Kancheli has written seven symphonies and a "liturgy" for viola and orchestra, Mourned by the Wind. His Fourth Symphony ("In Memoria di Michelangelo") received its American premiere with the Philadelphia Orchestra, Yury Temirkanov conducting, in January 1978, shortly before the cultural freeze in the United States against Soviet artists. The advent of glasnost brought growing exposure for and recognition of Kancheli's distinctive musical voice, leading to prestigious commissions and increasingly frequent performances in Europe and America. Dennis Russell Davies, Jansug Kakhidze, Gidon Kremer, Yuri Bashmet, Kim Kashkashian, Mstislav Rostropovich and the Kronos Quartet are among his passionate champions. In recent seasons, world premieres of specially commissioned works have taken place in Seattle (Piano Quartet in L'istesso Tempo by the Bridge Ensemble, 1998) and New York (And Farewell Goes Out Sighing... for violin, countertenor and orchestra by the New York Philharmonic under Kurt Masur, 1999). North American premieres of major scores by Kancheli have been presented by the Philadelphia and Chicago Symphony Orchestras and at the Vancouver International New Music Festival. In May 2002, he returned to these shores for the eagerly awaited premiere performances of Don't Grieve, a commission by the San Francisco Symphony for baritone and orchestra, with Dmitri Hvorostovsky as soloist and Michael Tilson Thomas conducting.

Kancheli's compositional style owes much to his work in the theatre. For two decades he served as Music Director of the Rustaveli Theatre in Tbilisi. His opera, Music for the Living, which has won considerable praise in the former Soviet Union and Western Europe since its June 1984 premiere, was written in collaboration with the Rustaveli's director Robert Sturua. In December 1999, the original collaborators restaged the opera for the Deutsches National Theater in Weimar. Among Kancheli's other recent scores are Diplipito for cello, counter-tenor and chamber orchestra, Time... and Again for violin and piano (1997), Rokwa for large symphony orchestra (1999) and Styx for viola, mixed chorus and orchestra (1999). After electrifying performances of Mourned by the Wind at the Brooklyn Philharmonic in the fall of 1993, critics raved: "superb," "there is no denying the powerful sincerity of this music and its riveting hold on the imagination -- a grip that doesn't relent until the consoling conclusion in which the individual and his turbulent, unpredictable universe arrive at a reconciliation."

The biography (above) is from the Schirmer website, and presents the details of his life and work thus far.  His ideas, however, and his reactions to my questions appear in the interview below.  Links refer to my interviews elsewhere on my website.

I was privileged to speak with Giya Kancheli by telephone in 1995, and presented portions of the chat along with recordings twice on WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago.  Now, I am pleased to be able to share the entire conversation on this website. 

The composer was thoughtful throughout our chat, and his daughter (who translated for us) was careful to render his ideas into English.  She often checked to be sure that what he said, and what she was saying, was clear and made sense to me.

Here is that very special conversation . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:  First, just let me thank you for coming to America, and for bringing your music.

Giya Kancheli:  Thank you.

BD:    You are from Georgia.  Should we refer to it as Georgia, or should we refer to it as the Old Soviet Georgia?

GK:    Old Pre-Soviet Georgia.

BD:    [Laughs] Right!  I don’t want to get into political discussion, but is there any major difference between music of Georgian composers and music of European and American composers?

GK:    No.

BD:    None at all?

GK:    It’s the same difference that exists between French and American, or German and English music.  The language that Georgian composers use is common to Europe, common to the entire world, the musical language.

BD:    You taught at the university there.  Is there any basic difference in the method of teaching?

GK:    No, I don’t think so.

BD:    Can we say, then, that music is truly a universal language?

GK:    Of course.

BD:    Is it very special for you to be dealing in this very special language?

GK:    It’s a special privilege for all composers.  And for me it’s a double privilege, because I don’t speak English, German, or French.

BD:    So then it’s special for you to be communicating with everyone?

GK:    With everyone, because we can’t communicate any other way.

BD:    I was reading in one of the notes that you use the word
astonish.  You say that music should astonish the public.  Are you, as a composer, ever astonished by what you see looking back at you off your own page?

GK:    Not at my music; it doesn’t astonish me, but other people’s music does.  For example, yesterday I was listening to Petrouchka by Stravinsky, at Lincoln Center.  It’s a piece that I knew by heart when I was a student.  Nevertheless, I am still surprised at it; it still astonishes me.  Four days ago, I was listening to the Fifth Symphony by Shostakovitch, which I also knew by heart and which I loved in my youth.  Nevertheless, it astonished me; it caught me off-guard.

BD:    Is it the interpretation of the music that caught you off-guard, or new revelations of the music itself?

GK:    It was the music itself.  I’m very, very often astonished, or maybe caught off-guard by this music, especially when I listen to pre-Bach period music — such as Frescobaldi, or Gabrieli.  But I also am astonished by music of Ligeti.  Pretty much I am being astonished my entire life!

BD:    There seems to be a special connection of the very early music with the very new music.  Does that leave a gaping hole in the middle, of classicism and romanticism?

GK:    It’s simply that I feel much closer to that music, to pre-Bach and modern period, but I don’t think that there is any kind of gap.  Late romantic music is not very close to me, but it doesn’t mean that I don’t like it.

BD:    Is it good that your music is played on concerts for audiences which have been spoon-fed a diet mainly of late romantic music?  Does that make any difference to you?

GK:    No, no.  It doesn’t matter for me what kind of audience is there.  The only important thing is that there is audience, but what kind doesn’t make a difference.  I’m also indifferent to how the audience receives my music.  What matters to me is how they listen to it — not if they like it or not, but the actual process of listening.

BD:    Does it please you that there are more and more audiences for your music?

GK:    Of course I’m pleased.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    When you’re writing a piece of music, are you always controlling the pencil in your hand, or are there times when the pencil guides your hand across the page?

kancheli GK:    No, I’m always in control of the pencil.  Usually it’s considered that geniuses are being led by the pencil.  First of all, I don’t consider myself a genius, and second, I don’t believe this myth of being led by a pencil.  Maybe there are some rare moments when the pencil leads you, but I think for the most part, it’s the person who is in charge and in control.

BD:    At the very beginning when you start writing a piece, are you aware of when and where and how it’s going to be completed?

GK:    I have a very vague, approximate idea.  In the process of working on it, things can change and you can end up in a completely different place.

BD:    Are you pleased that things change, or is it frustrating?

GK:    I don’t even know if it’s pleasant or not; it’s just the process of work, and that’s how it is.  Always when you follow some emotions, you have to control yourself at the same time.  You shouldn’t lose the critical attitude, the critical eye towards whatever you’re working on.

BD:    Where is the balance, then, between the technique of writing things down and getting things right, and the inspiration that comes from your heart?

GK:    This is something that is being balanced from above.  If by this sort of balance you mean the final outcome of what emerges in a piece, I think that’s being decided by something from above, some kind of higher forces.

BD:    Speaking of things from above, many of your pieces are of a religious nature.  Is it safe to assume that even the non-religious pieces are religious to you?

GK:    Yes, it’s safe to assume that, because, in a way, I’m always writing the same piece.  The religious elements should be felt both in those pieces where it’s not so obvious, not so apparent, and also in the pieces where there’s text that indicates the religious context, or if the music has a more religious nature.

BD:    You say you’re always working on the same piece.  Does each new piece explore different aspects of your large life’s work?

GK:    When I said that I’m writing the same piece, it’s a very broad idea.  Of course, I’ve written many pieces that are very distinct, but maybe I would clarify it by saying that everything that I write somehow serves one ideal; that I serve one ideal, if that makes sense.

BD:    Is there a way of verbalizing that one ideal, or should we just allow that to speak for us in the music?

GK:    It’s actually impossible to describe this ideal.  There are subconscious processes over which we have no control.  They’re being controlled by time.  When you’re twenty, you have one kind of attitude towards the world, and when you’re thirty it’s changed and when you’re forty it’s changed again.  Depending on how the outside world changes, the inside condition of human beings changes, and this internal condition is expressed differently at different time periods.  It’s very complicated.

BD:    Then let me pursue it a bit.  In your music, how do you balance the internal that you feel and the external which is imposed upon you?

GK:    For example, when I lived in Georgia ten years ago, it was a different country, and now it has become different.  It’s the same Georgia, but it’s a different country, and of course this drastic change in the situation in my homeland is reflected in my internal condition, in the way I feel.  I think that has, in its own way, found reflection in my music, in the way my music has changed.

BD:    Are you pleased with this change?

GK:    I don’t know because again, it’s out of my control.

BD:    Let me ask the big philosophical question...  What is the purpose of music?

GK:    That’s a very difficult question.  At least one thing I know for sure, that it’s not here to save the world or save the beauty, as Dostoyevsky said.  Unfortunately, art develops in its own way and lives in its own way, and life exists parallel to that.  The worst lessons of history, the most tragic moments of history, as we find out now, don’t have any meaning for humankind.  In other words, nobody learns from them.  These huge tragedies repeat with small intervals.  Of course they have meaning, but they don’t change the world for better, and the best art, the most beautiful art, can’t do anything about it.  Not poetry nor music nor art — nothing — can change the flow of life.  Art can’t change thinking or the world view of people, of masses.

BD:    Would you be happier if it could?

GK:    I can’t even imagine that.

BD:    What advice do you have for younger composers coming along?

GK:    To be honest, not to be ashamed, not to be afraid of anything.  Even the most banal or simple can carry the most beautiful things in itself.  The most important thing is how to transform it and how to pass it on; how to express it.  But in general, I don’t like to give advice to the young, because I still consider myself young and still learning.

BD:    Of course.  Are you pleased with where you are in your career, as you approach your sixtieth birthday?

GK:    Yes, I’m very pleased.  Yes.  I’m very pleased that in a country like Germany, I have been able to live and survive with my work and my music.  I’m very happy to be in New York now, which for me is such a unique, remarkable city.  But I wouldn’t want to live here.  I would rather have it stay in my dreams all the time, because if this dream comes true, then I won’t have anything else to dream about.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    The music that you write—is the music that you write for everyone?

GK:    I would like it to be for everyone.

BD:    Are you optimistic about the future of music?

kancheli GK:    Music in general?

BD:    Yes.

GK:    I have not looked into that department yet.  I haven’t thought about it yet.

BD:    [Laughs] Gaze into your crystal ball.

GK:    I think yes, I am optimistic.  I think that it will be connected to silence, at least I would like it to be connected to silence.

BD:    Obviously you write music and you can control the sounds.  Are you also trying to control the silences?

GK:    Yes.  Yes, because I consider that the silence which comes after some music is also music.  And the silence itself then gives birth to music that follows.  

BD:    If the silence gives birth, are you the composer, the mother, or the midwife?

GK:    I think I’m the father.

BD:    The father-creator, rather than the deliverer?

GK:    No, the father would deliver.

BD:    Are you generally pleased with the recordings that have been made lately of your music?

GK:    Do you mean the one that has the Sixth and Seventh Symphonies, or the one that has Abii ne Viderem?

BD:    Well, there are several recordings.  Are you pleased with the recordings in general?

GK:    I have to answer this question by distinguishing some of them, because I’m not happy with all of them.  I would like to point out the ECM. recordings because these are the highest quality recordings.  By this I don’t mean the technical side of it, the quality of the sound, but I mean the quality of the process that happens while the CD is being recorded.  I also mean how it looks, the cover and the text that goes into the CD, and of course, then all the technical things.  So in a way, it’s perfect in all aspects of it.

BD:    Perfect?  Do you really mean to use that word?

GK:    Yes, I really mean that they’re perfect.

BD:    It seems that you have a particular affinity for the viola.  What is it about the viola that grabs you?

GK:    I don’t think that I have a particular affinity to viola.  I like it, but I don’t consider it to be special.  What matters more to me is the personality of the performer.  When I was introduced to Kim Kashkashian, when I heard how she played, when I felt the tempo and richness that she has, I had the desire to write something for her.  But I can’t say that I like viola more than alto flute.

BD:    So we just happen to have a couple of recordings of your music for the viola.  That’s just happenstance?

GK:    Yeah, it’s just a coincidence.

BD:    One last question:  is composing fun?

GK:    The biggest tragedy is to write music.

BD:    [Surprised]  The biggest tragedy???

GK:    I really envy those for whom it’s fun.  It doesn’t work for me.

BD:    In the end, though, is it all worth it?

GK:    [Ponders this a moment]  Sometimes, when there’s a very good performance.  When Dennis Russell Davies is conducting, I feel that then it is worth it.  He understood and interpreted my music very correctly.  He feels my pauses very well and feels the slow tempos very well, and that’s very valuable to me.  But sometimes there are some performances after which I feel like it’s perhaps not worth it.  But that’s how life is.  Sometimes you feel good, sometimes you feel worse.  But so far, with Dennis and with Kim, I’ve only felt a lot of pleasure.  It’s been very rewarding and satisfying.

BD:    Good.  I’m very glad you’ve been able to have those feelings.  Let me thank you for all of the music that you have given us, and I will continue to look forward to the music still to come from your imagination.

GK:    Thank you very much.

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© 1995 Bruce Duffie

This interview was recorded on the telephone on February 27, 1995.  The translation was provided by the composer’s daughter.  Portions (along with recordings) were broadcast on WNIB later that year and in 2000.  The transcription was made and posted on this website early in 2009.  

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.