Detailed Discussion: Ustvolskaya: Piano Sonata #6

This is a detailed discussion of Ustvolskaya, Piano Sonata #6 (1988)
The discussion is based on a performance by Marino Formenti,  at Monday Evening Concerts, Los Angeles, 2009

This is a work which is spectacular and gripping in a good live performance; on YouTube it is still effective, but not as effective.
Here are two good performances on YouTube:  [a]   Frank Denyer, with score     [b]  Alexei Lubimov, live
The best recorded performance we have found to purchase/download is by Marino Formenti

The discussion which follows was developed with the aid of an OMS Profile,  see the following .
OMS Composite Score is:  567

Galina Ustovolskaya (1919 – 2006) was a supremely gifted and accomplished composer, and a fascinating human being. Declared by Shostakovich to be a better composer than himself , Ustvolskaya dedicated herself to a 50 year career as a composer, with an emphasis on quality over quantity (only 21 works completed, but these are very great works!). Her music is focused, direct, uncompromising, and gripping. In my experience, listening to Ustvolskaya can be like listening to late Beethoven.  Website resources: [a]  Wikipedia  [b]  Official site

[1] Introduction: This is not a pleasant or popular work; but its OMS profile shows that it achieves greatness. The purpose of this essay is to elaborate on its OMS profile – to elucidate what is great and distinctive about this work.

This essay will focus not on detailed compositional technique, but rather on the effect(s) of the work – how it stimulates or acts upon the listener. Consult the attached OMS profile for a detailed analysis of this.

[2] Summary statement about Sonata#6: This work is serious, intense, and commanding to the utmost, even evoking a fear/danger response (”Will the piano break?” “Will my psyche be altered?”). Very broad range of stimuli, but masterfully integrated and focused into one Mega-Stimulus, which goes far beyond what is ordinarily accomplished by a piece of music. Life-altering and unforgettable.

Because of its extreme nature (mainly tone clusters, mainly very loud, monolithic rhythm), some listeners have negative reactions. More about this in section [5] below.

[3] Sonata#6 is “classic” in some ways, but in another way it is a major innovation

In many ways Sonata#6  is “classic” in its compositional style:

[a] Motives, phrases, melody, architecture, dramatic/narrative. Highly integrated in these respects. Tight, condensed.
[b] Organized, comprehensible, fairly transparent in much of its design
[c] Not tonal in a classic sense; but there is a degree of “tonality”.
[d] Incorporation of materials that are non-pleasurable or unattractive, to achieve “higher goals”.

However it is different from “the classic” (e.g. Beethoven) in the following respects:

[e] Classic works typically use a small amount of base material to achieve a variety of effects (which are unified by compositional technique).
Sonata#6 produces not so much a variety of effects, but rather what seems to be a single effect (the “Mega-Stimulus”) . The materials in the work are all unified and focused on this single effect (or rather are all part of this single effect). This is a radical innovation.
[f] Because of this, the effect is much more powerful than in typical Western music. The effect is felt not just as sensation or experience, but as a direct action upon a listener’s nervous system and being.
One reason the effect is so powerful is that the composer utilizes a wide variety of materials/stimuli to produce the effect. Although the listener may have an initial impression that this is just a “loud piece of obsessive music”, there is actually great variety in the stimulations produced – in a highly organized manner, and highly focused.
[g] Classic works typically impart significant pleasure. In Sonata#6 pleasure is almost entirely absent.

[4] How can the “Mega-Stimulus” be described?

(Advisory: In general, there are limits to what can be said about any stimulus. E.g., if sugar is placed on the tongue, there is a stimulation of “sweetness”; while there are certain things that can be said about this sweetness, there is no way to describe completely what sweetness is, what it feels like, etc.  The same applies for the Mega-Stimulus. So the comments below are inevitably only a partial description of the Mega-Stimulus.)

In what follows, we will provide a few comments about the “Mega-Stimulus” of Sonata#6:

[a] It involves extreme repetition: Long sequences of quarter notes at the same dynamic; phrases repeated many times almost identically; and more. Psychologically/aesthetically this repetition is a powerful effect on a listener; it is retained by a listener, perhaps permanently. Extreme repetition makes primitive, profound effects on a listener.
[b] Mainly very loud, pounding, pulsating.
[c] Increasing in intensity almost continually during the work (about 7 minutes long).  Almost no letup.
[d] The above naturally arouse a reaction of fear/danger. Not just an association, but an actual fear or sense of danger (Will the piano break? Will the pianist fail? Will there be some bad audience reaction? Will I have some bad psychic reaction?).
[e] The music is not pretty or pleasurable; it is unpleasant. Combined with the above, this results in a feeling something like “dread” (a feeling that something “bad” is happening, and that it is getting worse)
[f] But there is also an opposite reaction, based on the high degree of organization and richness in the work: Phenomena that are highly organized and rich are generally perceived as being beneficent.
[g] The intense organization and “energy” of the work stimulates a strong reaction or response, something like “elation”
[h] Because of the distinctive “sound” of Ustvolskaya generally and this piece specifically (harmony, melodic patterns, structural patterns, …), the speech-like patterns, and other factors, the work comes across as a personal communication, intensely personal.

So the nature of the Mega-Stimulus is (in part) that it is a personal communication that embeds deeply in the listener; it conveys fear, danger, dread, but also an opposite reaction of beneficence (perhaps a strange beneficence); and it stimulates an energized reaction from a listener, even elation.

[5] Some listeners report negative reactions to Sonata#6. Some typical negative reactions, and our comments:

[a] “Too noisy”: Sonata#6 is not noisy like a tree falling on the piano; rather Sonata#6 is a highly organized work that incorporates something like “noise” as one of its many elements. That being said, individual perception this piece – or any piece of music – can vary considerably.  Perceptions will depend a great deal on the performance, the environment, and the listener’s orientation and attention. So some listeners will find Sonata#6 more “noisy” than do other listeners. But the sound that is produced is not crude, unvariegated noise.
[b] “Too repetitious, monotonous”: Same comments as [a]
[c] “Bombastic, over-the-top”:  This is a common reaction to various kinds of contemporary art. Following a comment by Jung, we believe that frequently this kind of reaction is not a an aesthetic judgement, or even an expression of personal taste; rather it is a natural and rather primitive reaction to deep and novel creative materials. (Jung’s comment: “Archetypes speak the language of high rhetoric, even of bombast”).

[6] Concluding remarks:

[a] Sonata#6 is almost in a class by itself for its extreme single-minded focus and power. This is achieved through a remarkable innovation in form (see [3e] above) and great compositional skill. This is truly a great work, a masterful accomplishment.
[b] To be effective, the work needs a very good performance – otherwise the necessary effects are muddied or diluted. For instance, there is considerable melodic and harmonic material; if this is not heard, the overall effect is diminished a lot.