Great composers do not need fifteen minutes of Twitter fame

That is the Ukrainian composer Valentin Silvestrov (b. 1937) in the photo. I could plead that he is a scandalously neglected great composer, because his music has never been played at the BBC Proms. But one important lesson I have finally learned over the sixteen years of writing On An Overgrown Path is, as Aesop's Fable tells us 'be careful what you wish for, lest it come true'. Great composers do not need fifteen minutes of social media fame generated by the relentless advocacy of the classical influencers. Today the obsessive pursuit of social media metrics means that popularity is, quite wrongly, interpreted as a measure if merit. So in recent years I have watched despondently as my wish has come true, and the second-rate has been elevated above its station in the name of equality.

But, mark my word, there is nothing second rate about Valentin Silvestrov. In fact he is arguably the composer for our conflicted time. His haunting Requiem for Larissa, written following the sudden death of his wife, musicologist and literary scholar Larissa Bondarenko in 1996, could also serve as a requiem for the global victims of the terrible COVID-19 pandemic. But Silvestrov's music has a contemporary relevance beyond the current Kali Yuga. Yesterday's classical audiences were sonically literate in the upper and middle registers. But today's coveted new audience is bass literate, and Silvestrov's musical language has a contemporary relevance because it leverages the lower registers of the symphony orchestra with judicious enhancement from a synthesizer.

The opening bars of ECM's recording of the Requiem for Larissa with the National Choir and Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine conducted by Volodymr Sirenko announce that this will be a deep musical experience both emotionally and sonically. While the lower frequencies captured on Sony Classical's disc of Silvestrov's signature Fifth Symphony for David Robertson and the Deutsche Symphonie-Orchester Berlin in the Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin would not be out of place at a trance music festival. (The Jesus-Christus-Kirche was the venue for many great Karajan sessions with the Berlin Philharmonic and also Barbirolli's profoundly moving 1963 Mahler Nine with the same orchestra.)

When my recent listening felicitously juxtaposed the Requiem for Larissa with the ambient electronica of Mercurius Presence from Steve Roach's live The Sky Opens album I realised that, yes, classical music can break through the electronic glass ceiling. Jonathan Harvey explained that 'music and the world, everything is oscillation', while the Sufi master Hazrat Inayat Khan taught more than a century ago that "spirit descends into matter by the law of vibrations. Subsequently Einstein's theory of relativity explained how mass and energy are closely linked, while quantum field theory has identified how vibrating subatomic particles interact. This means our bodies are tuned to resonate with frequencies, as sound ecologist and composer R. Murray Schafer explains:
I conducted a interesting test years ago. While working with students around North America and Europe I would ask them to lie on the floor in a quiet, darkened room and hum the tone of celestial unity. I was surprised when I noticed that in North America the tone was generally B natural, 60 cycles, while in Europe it was G sharp, 50 cycles. They were humming the sound made by electricity in their particular part of the world - the sound that a light bulb gives off etc. Somehow we carry a memory imprint of this sound with us. We're never oblivious to the environment around us, even if we're not paying attention.
That experiment predated ubiquitous mobile technologies by many years. Back then our bodies were tuned to the low frequency of mains electricity. But today have they become deleteriously tuned to much higher frequencies? I am now on dangerous ground, but that will not stop me proceeding. It was quite right of the UK Government to condemn the sabotage of 5G phone masts as dangerous vandalism. But it is wrong to dismiss the possibility of links between high frequency mobile technologies and health, as a European Parliament briefing paper spells out:
Whereas researchers generally consider such radio waves not to constitute a threat to the population, research to date has not addressed the constant exposure that 5G would introduce. Accordingly, a section of the scientific community considers that more research on the potential negative biological effects of electromagnetic fields (EMF) and 5G is needed, notably on the incidence of some serious human diseases. A further consideration is the need to bring together researchers from different disciplines, in particular medicine and physics or engineering, to conduct further research into the effects of 5G.
The defense that COVID-19 is hitting countries where 5G technology is not deployed is perfectly valid. But the possible impact of all high frequency mobile tecchnologies is not yet fully understood. The success of external beam radiotherapy as a cancer treatment shows how high frequencies can affect the human body beneficially. However a 2013 research paper by Stan Szmiglielski of the Military Institute of Hygiene and Epidemiology, Warsaw chillingly observed, with my emphasis, that:
The incomplete knowledge of RF/MW-related cancer risks has initiated searches for biological indicators sensitive enough to measure the "weak biological influence" of RF/MWs. One of the main candidates is the immune system, which is able to react in a measurable way to discrete environmental stimuli.
Albert Einstein's famous equation E=mc2 showed that energy and matter are two sides of the same coin, and the health risks associated with high frequency energy from mobile technologies are neither proven nor unproven. But shouldn't new technologies be assumed guilty until proven innocent, rather than vice versa? And yes, this post has wandered a long way from Valentin Silvestrov's music and indeed classical music. Or has it? At the beginning of the post I proposed that Silvestrov is a composer for our conflicted time. During lockdown I have found it very easy to resist the self-indulgent YouTube outpourings of the classical music community. Instead I have found solace in the great music in my CD collection including Valentin Silvestrov's, and in the stimulating books on my library shelves. One of those books is Ian Marchant's A Hero for High Times. So instead of concluding with a YouTube selfie of me playing Bach badly, I will leave you with a quote from that book addressed to the author's granddaughter:
Just like every other human in history, you have been born into a world that is broken. I don't know if the world can be mended. On the evidence of what I've seen, I almost want to say it can't be. But I still believe with all my heart that the world is worth trying to mend. The thing is to try. It is always hard, so trying may be your only reward.
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mathias broucek said…
Kudos to Jurowski for his anniversary box set on the LPO label which included Silvestrov 5 alongside other worthy but neglected music such as Enescu and Denisov
Pliable said…
Mathias, thanks for pointing that out. I was not aware of that Jurowski box; which is a comment on how with the elimination of bricks and mortar record stores the digital age has failed to deliver the promise of raising the profile of the repertoire long tail.

For the information of everyone here is a link to the Jurowski anniversary box -
mathias broucek said…
It's VERY cheap to download on 7digital (less than a tenner...)
Pliable said…
The price differential between the download and CD set can, sadly, only serve to hasten the demise of physical media.
DLW said…
Has anyone recorded Silvestrov's 7th and 8th Symphonies yet? I haven't found any available anywhere.

I stumbled upon the ECM recording of his 6th years ago in a long-since defunct record store, and that was my first intro to Silvetrov, who quickly became one of my favorites.
mathias broucek said…
I think the download price is an error in this case.

Without it I might not have discovered Silvestrov (at least until your post)

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