Virtually every religious person has an idea in his mind of what awaits him after he dies. Maybe he’s not exactly sure in which afterlife he’ll find himself, but he has an idea of what each possibility would be. But Sofia Gubaidulina, an intensely devout Christian, seemed unsure at least at one point in her life – when she wrote her String Quartet No. 2. In an 8-minute, single-movement piece, she paints a vivid picture of what it would mean to be wrong. It is a thing for any faithful person to fear, that you have found yourself unexpectedly in the unknown. This is a powerful and deeply enigmatic work.
The piece begins with a long solo G lying in place, unhappily unable to move. The note, the soul and the heart of the sound, is pinned in its place, lingering, calmly returning from its storms to our consciousness, and it’s all that the other sounds can do to change the character of that one note, as they come in and out with different force, tone and vibrato. The strings use every trick they have, every possible effort to break free: the strings play over the fingerboard, over the bridge, with ultra-wide vibratos and with fast tremolos. They don’t succeed. The note does not change beyond a small range; the music is here, in this one time and place; bed-rested, but with all the color of life, vivacious, forceful, and conscious, and captive.
We know this world. We experience the frustrations and satisfactions - the condition of life is that our desires aren’t always realized. They are the normal, everyday rules of existence, and so reflects the music: it is at heart predictable and understandable, pleasant or not. We know this struggle. And this is why the next events are so important.
By the third minute of the piece, the intensity and need for freedom becomes unbearable, and something shocking happens at 2:50 – There are suddenly different notes! The G hasn’t escaped; these are outsiders. And it’s not only the notes themselves, but also the sound: they’re played with the beautiful sustained string sound one expects to hear from a professional quartet, instead of the more abrasive tremolos and accents. The agitation only gets worse, and the need for escape is now desperate. That half-step is long gone, and one might wonder if it was ever heard at all, but it was, and it is a harbinger.
That last minute-and-a-half strikes me so directly that I can only think that someone, Gubaidulina herself perhaps, has died after the long, bed-ridden struggle we witnessed. The pained last gasps end at 3:12, and when the old light finally goes out, a new one alights.
At 3:20, everything changes. We find ourselves standing lower than we did, on the D below the old G, a few seconds later, that half-step appears again, in the cello. It starts on F-sharp, the major third above D, and changes to F-natural, the minor third. Traditionally, these are loaded intervals that can signify happiness and stability in the former, and darkness and uncertainty in the latter.
We can’t be sure what that interval means. But how calm it is! Events are happening slowly, so they aren’t frenetic; even the tremolo parts seem more relaxed. The events themselves are at ease now, but the careful listener is not. At 3:32 did you notice the long slide up the cello strings? Or the pizzicatos at 3:40? Or what about the first violin playing a perfect fifth, and then a high tritone, above the D-floor? And a harmonic in the viola at 3:48! We’ve only been in this new reality for 30 seconds, and already these sounds are unlike anything we heard in the beginning, in life. What is going on?
A thought occurs to me: maybe that half-step we heard earlier was an angel, a vision of what would come. The thought is dashed when even that half-step sound we heard earlier becomes corrupted; it’s not what we thought it was, or what we were led to believe it would be. And remember the sustained notes? Now there are two of them right on top of each other. That is not stability, and it is not a firm grounding in the physical realm. To make matters worse, the “ground” we were standing on, flimsy as it was, is now moving! Vertigo takes us in full force now.
At 4:46, we get a break, a nice breath of the fresh air that is the major third. It takes a bit, but it resolves to its minor third the way it was supposed to happen. Maybe we were overreacting earlier. Yet the relationship between all the string instruments is changing: listen to the ghostly wails of the strings, beginning at 5:07 – they’re speaking to each other in a language we can’t understand. It’s beautiful, and it’s unnerving.
I don’t know where we are, do you? Still, everything is fairly calm. It doesn’t really feel like we’re in imminent danger. And we do recognize one feature of the landscape, since we’ve seen it a few times now: that half-step. It’s never quite the same, and we don’t know what or who it is, but at least it’s a familiar face.
At 5:50 the ground begins to move again, taking us with it against our will. The lines just rise, for no obvious reason or motivation. And they’re speaking to each other again. We’re strangers here, without any bearings.
But we can step back and admire this strange, incomprehensible beauty. Listen as at 7:10 the harmonics come out like stars in the night sky. Still calm, still changing, still different from the world we knew, but it’s beautiful in its way, and the differences are at least becoming more familiar, maybe even pleasant. Wherever we are, it’s alright. Right?
I hope so, because the next and last thing we hear is fate pounding the nails into our coffin and sealing us here for eternity. And I feel a breeze that chills me to the bone. I’ll bet you do, too.