Oleg Karavaichuk
© Stas Levshin

I’m destined to punch people’s faces. This is my playing; I’m punching faces.

Oleg Karavaichuk

in conversation

Composer’, ‘pianist’, ‘musician’—you should forget all these words, as soon as possible, when speaking about Oleg Karavaichuk. I think anyone who’s been lucky enough to attend his concerts or, at least occasionally, hear his recordings will agree with me. In his case, even the words ‘music’ and ‘genius’ are improper because they don’t embrace the whole Karavaichuk phenomenon. Karavaichuk is larger than music, and he’s definitely more than just a genius musician. He’s a sacred lunatic, a holy fool of music—though in conversation, he may sometimes identify with a certain musical trend or musical figure. ‘I’m also a minstrel’, he declares, but you immediately understand that he’s only saying this to maintain the greatest possible distance from his audience, since, according to his convictions, ‘when you’re among other minstrels you’re not afraid of the public’. Freedom from the public is the first and ultimate condition for producing ‘that absolute note’. Supporting Schoenberg’s idea that the audience is music’s primary enemy, Karavaichuk admits that he envies ‘those ancient composers who could do without the public’. Genuine music can only be born in unbroken solitude. ‘After all, to produce a note at home, having no money […] is still more pleasant than to play in public. Your hand can’t produce that absolute note while the public is sitting around. The hand somehow feels it: “I, the great hand, in the midst of this humankind, here—can you see me? Look at me! Here I am—coming down.” Because we’re weak, we’re super-scum, we love ourselves. And without it, you’re staying at home… And there’s nobody around; only rats run past you.’

But what is it then—music born from unbroken solitude? What is an ‘absolute note’? Karavaichuk gives the following explanation, ‘I’m not writing music; I, rather, reflect the void between one music of mine and some other music of mine. While it’s suspended in the void, it’s absolute; it can’t be played normally with hands like these. It’s impossible.’ But then you might ask: Why is it impossible? According to Karavaichuk, what matters here is the inner motion that gives birth to everything. It’s very difficult to keep inside because it’s being obliterated. And the reason it’s being obliterated, says Karavaichuk, is because ‘we are alive, normally alive. And if it didn’t get obliterated, we wouldn’t be normally alive and we wouldn’t even be spirits; we’d be some amazing windflaws. My music is a windflaw. I’m not a spirit. I negate spirituality. Totally. I mean, religious music isn’t music. I am a windflaw.’ Karavaichuk is a paradoxical figure. On the one hand, he is, sort of, ‘normally alive’, and, on the other hand, he is, sort of, ‘a windflaw’ that’s no longer ‘normally alive’, not even a spirit, but something that precedes both life and spirit, an ethereal gust of wind taking Prophet Elijah to the heavens. And of course, he’s something that precedes culture, though when he plays the piano, he appears to belong to culture. This pre-cultural ‘windflaw’-gust intruding into the settled realm of culture creates an amazing situation that Karavaichuk describes as follows, ‘It isn’t Bach’s strictness. It isn’t cultural strictness—it’s a sacred hernia. It broke through and immediately healed. What a miracle.’ It is indeed a miracle, and Karavaichuk himself is this very sort of miracle. A sacred hernia—a windflaw.

Vladimir Martynov

Oleg Karavaichuk (28.12.1927–13.06.2016). Photo by Stas Levshin
Oleg Karavaichuk (28.12.1927–13.06.2016). Photo by Stas Levshin

The din of the railway is so loud in Komarovo that it’s impossible to sleep. You have to either plug your ears or store up earwax. I’ve chosen to store up earwax. Otherwise you will die, totally.

Who are you?

I’m Uldis from Riga.

Get closer.


And speak up; I’m not hearing properly today.

(Loudly) I’m from Riga.

(Cheerfully) Ah, you’re from Riga… And Tanya for some reason told me you were from Moscow.

No, I’ve come from Moscow, but I live in Riga.

Aaah, I see. But you’re interviewing me for Riga, a Riga audience?

For Riga.

And Tanya said you would go for a walk with me.

I’d willingly go for a walk with you, but the main idea is for us to have a chance to talk.

Ah, you even speak with the Riga accent. (Laughs.)

I do. I don’t know whether or not that’s a compliment.

Sure it is. I had an absolutely magical happening in Riga. Absolutely magical. I was writing music for Gogol’s ‘Marriage’… You can record this…

I will, thank you.

for Riga. I arrived there, at the seaside, and I wanted to stay somewhere—not in a hotel, but in a private house—so there I was, walking along and asking, ‘May I stay at your place?’ There are people staying there, right? So I kept asking. No spare rooms here, no spare rooms there, here a Russian has already settled in, ‘What’s up, scarecrow?’ Me, a scarecrow? Me, a scarecrow! At last I come to a wooden house, rather far away, very remote, and this old woman is coming out. I ask her, ‘May I stay at your place?’ And she’s looking at me like, ‘You look so rundown. Here, take the key; I’ve got a flat in Riga, it’s empty.’ Can you imagine that?

What year was it?


People were different then.

Yes. Different people. ‘It’s empty—go there, have a rest; I’ll come round in the evening.’ And the flat was next to KGB headquarters, in Karl Marx Street. Right?

Yes, that’s right.

That’s it. And next to it there was a bakery. Right. Further along? A big one?


You see! (Beaming.) The ground floor; I come in, and I see a huge beauty of a flat. And I was told, ‘Go to such-and-such room, take off your clothes and sleep.’ In the evening the old woman comes and brings a bunch of strawberries. Well?

Sounds wonderful!

Well, and here I am already coming back from their country house with her grandson, and I’m like their kin by then, right? And when we’re getting on the… Such an amazing thing, can you hear me?


when we’re getting on the train, there are lots of people—Russians have come on a shopping tour; they’re carrying away sausages in candy boxes. And I’m travelling with the grandson. And he’s looking at them like, ‘God, such scum!’ I say, ‘How do you mean?’ He says, ‘All of them are Russian.’ I say, ‘So what?’ He says, ‘Not everywhere, but here they come on shopping tours.’ And after that they got to love me, assigned me a permanent room so that I could come to Riga and just live in it. Like this… So Riga to me is a really magical thing.

I’m happy for Riga and for you.

Speak up, please.


Oleg Nikolayevich, if I were an alien and I asked you, ‘Music—what is it?’ what would you answer?

My, what a question… If an alien creature really… It’s a genius question. It’s a genius question.

A certain creature—not a human with his psyche, his acquired points and islands. Yes, right? We already have everything structured: here—such and such, there—such and such. We don’t think; we just move these places. And he suddenly turns to me like this…

With a pure mind. A grand question. A very pure one. Actually, he isn’t a man; he’s a microbe, a particle of the alienness per se, that is, as a creature, he doesn’t exist, understand?

I do.

It’s a certain something, and it asks me, ‘How are you, music?’

Yes, ‘What is it—music?’

Music is something inferior to you, and it will never be you, however hard it tries. But still it’s exerting itself, with all its might. And this overexertion, this pseudo-state of musicality is taken for music on Earth. In fact, it isn’t music, as music is only what angels do, or chance does. Someone who is already a man—even when he asks what it is—can neither do it nor question. The most tragic thing is that a human doesn’t even have the right to ask. And if he feels that he has no right to ask, to some extent, he deserves to live on Earth. And if he has the right—the feeling that he can—not on Earth, but there, from there, he can, then such and such and such a thing.

On the whole, it has a lot to do with Plato. In a way, he’s already answered this question. He said that the main, the grandest thing God created was chance, that is…there (points outward). But there, there are no chances, no available chances; nothing is being created there, chaos. But chaos creates harmony due to chance. And man creates due to being aimed. And this being aimed somehow makes him… That’s where music performance comes from. These hands, the conservatory; the little hands play because they’re being aimed, while they think that they’re playing Wagner. And Wagner is an alien or chance… (Humming, conducting.) O-o-o, ho-ho-ho-o! Here they are, playing me like an instrument.

And, you see, man and all of history are in the Bible, in its logic, which is very narrow and comfortable. (Conducting.) Clear?

No, not quite. Tell me, is music a part of the world?

It isn’t. Though it is part of the Universe. Ceasing to be a part of the world now. The world is ousting the Universe. That’s the exact answer. Worlds are swarming, while the Universe is maybe walking, maybe flying, maybe playing, maybe folding its wings. There aren’t even eagles there. Because eagles are also a manner of moving. Birds are a movement on the air. They only seem like birds to us, but they’re not birds; they’re the same sort of philistines. Don’t think that birds are superior. This is still that; this is already a hen. That’s why it’s made a hen, the easy way. That’s why there’s just a short distance between an eagle and a hen.


Do you agree with Wittgenstein’s saying, ‘Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent’?

What saying?

Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.’

And why not just punch them in the face?

Why not?

As I see it, just punch them straight in the face, right in the mouth. Especially in the mouth, so that it wouldn’t… And then in the face.

Have you ever hit a man?

No, I guess not. I’ve been hit very hard: look, I have a scar, here. I was punched with a flail [old tool for threshing grain] in the street; they had to stitch my nose back on. It was quite a horrible story. In a school not far from my house, a schoolgirl had been born, and I didn’t know about it. And this one boy was in love with her. And he learnt that there was this concept, that is, me, walking up and down that street. And she was in love with me—as a concept. And this boy hired a worker with a flail, and he smashed me all over with this flail. Blood gushed out. I ran. And there was a hospital nearby, a children’s hospital. I ran into it. Blood was gushing terribly. I ran into the hospital so that the nurses in the admitting department would put something on it, bandage it somehow, because blood was gushing out horribly. And they said, ‘We’re a children’s hospital; go to the emergency department.’ So I ran to the emergency department; I signalled to some cars, but none of them stopped. I got to the emergency department, and the doctors fixed up my nose. Put it back, did some stitching. I left. 

So, all of this answers, all of this is aimed there, at that essence. Ah? (Pointing to his nose.) Well?

Tell me, music is a form of what?

Right. You asked about the face before, right?


Could you repeat that?

I asked if you had ever hit a man in the face.

No. never. I’m not capable of it. Well, you see, that’s not exactly true. Man now… You know, in this era… If I live to be over 90, by then there will probably be a man who… It’s just that I’m destined to punch people’s faces.

To punch people’s faces?

Yes, yes, precisely. To stop making music and to go around playing those mugs. I was intended for that. From above, from the heavens. And I’ll conduct with this periscope. And then I’ll never miss, absolutely never miss. Here I am—wham! Here! This is my playing; I’m punching faces.

This is your playing?

Yes, it is. In a way I’m punching people’s faces.

Tell me, if you would, do you distinguish…

As for Lithuania and Latvia, they’re still different. After that old woman, I have such a non-material feeling for Latvia that I guess I’ll never be able to punch anybody in the face there.

© Stas Levshin

Tell me, if you would, do you distinguish between the dead and the living?

Oh, bro, to me that’s a cynical question. I… Man has no right to focus on thinking about that. It’s just like a moment when your hand is playing—it isn’t thinking of it. You’re playing it. They say I’m good at playing funeral marches. In the moment, I don’t see all that. It’s like: (solemnly) there’s a man in his coffin, this is this; here I must… I must be humbled. Actually, man isn’t sincere; just between the two of us, he doesn’t actually consider death a disaster for his body, his spirit, his fate. And it’s a great mystery, the fact that people bury their kin, their nearest and dearest, in way that is quite right, that they take death in a way that’s right, that everything is going on in a way that’s right.

On the whole, everything in human life is going the right way. It’s just that man is a super-puppet. It’s just that a puppet has the beauty of being desired; it’s a puppet, and this is already wrong, even if it’s doing everything in a way that’s right as a puppet. But it’s so graceful, overly stunning, puppet-like, that it’s wrong. That’s what puppet theatre is. The most right and the most wrong. Just like that.

Can music return a man to life?

Oh, this…you know, this is the most overly stunning question. Beyond nature there are angels and gods and devilry and what not, which means that we’re broader than nature. And broader than space: broader, broader than space in terms of depth, and broader than space slantwise. That’s why, in nature, there’s such a large number of living dead, who immediately become super-alive shapeshifters; that is, they catch fire, but not like gunpowder. That’s where gunpowder or quicksilver come from, but they’re simpler things. And beyond this, right beyond this, there is, most likely, timelessness; it’s all timelessness. So when it exists like this, it’s forwards and backwards at the same time. That’s what music is. You produce a note and you… Well, what do you think distinguishes talent from the sphere of genius?

I don’t know.

The fact that he feels the time of a note. He goes (humming, conducting), ‘Too-too-too-too’. In the meantime he’s feeling, and thanks to this feeling his hand is becoming… Understand? See? And going down, see? That’s what conducting is. What does a conductor rely on? On time, on rhythm, and on the orchestra becoming infected with his feeling. His particular sense of time, man’s sense, not an eagle’s sense. And human sense of time infects music makers. He’s a music maker, and you’re a music maker. That’s where the difference between Wagner and Wagnerites lies. Wagner is a rare case where this isn’t at all present: he doesn’t feel time. Wagner, in particular, at all, and me… I don’t feel time. This terrible tragedy without any tragic feeling, without a feeling of pain, tragedy, doom, epos, history of culture as it developed; culture is developing in an awfully tragic way. It doesn’t exist anymore, it’s been devastated. And Wagner isn’t susceptible to it. He’s simply beyond it. He goes (humming, conducting) ‘Yee-e-e-u-u-uhu-hu-huu…’ He’s beyond rhythm, but he is conducting. How he’s conducting is impossible to understand. All conductors feel only time, and measure it with their hands. And how does Wagner do it? He goes ‘Uuuuuu-uh-huuu…’ And here comes a cantilena; here it is, the orchestra is playing, while the conductor does the opposite. They have a hand, and he’s stretching it… But it’s me; I play—wham, wham! And then…

Tell me, if it’s possible for music to elevate the tomato, can it elevate people too?

You know, I’ve just had another idea. Wagner conducted in Riga.


He was the principal conductor.


Then he fled.


Because they had some contract, and he survived an awful tornado. You know the story, right?


It was after he returned there that he became Wagner.

He found himself in London.

Yes-yes-yes. So, I think, ‘What if I go and stage an opera by Wagner in the opera house in Riga?’ Wagner’s hand is the closest to mine. I play just like Wagner.

Shall it be ‘Rienzi’ then?

Yes-yes-yes. I’ve just had such an unexpected idea. Yes, it could be ‘Rienzi’; it could be. Yes, they definitely need this opera there, the one where he learnt how to render storm, ‘The Flying Dutchman’. (Humming, conducting.) Like this… Wagner, everything of his is like this. Now…what’s next?

© Stas Levshin

What’s your relationship to music?

What a question, good grief! I must feel it. Oh, you know, none at all; it varies. Because in my case, the music doesn’t continue. Actually, that’s what distinguishes a composer. Or, he has individuality from the very beginning, like Prokofiev. At the age of fourteen he was already adding his own chords and unexpected modulations when he played Mozart. In other words, he was already doing what he would do later, throughout his life. In fact, what is Prokofiev? It’s classical music through unexpected modulations. Themes, yes. Everybody knows them; what innovations, right? This one girl he was in love with positively hated it. ‘You’, she would say, ‘have made me tired of Mozart with your chords.’ But you see, the audience had gotten used to it and found it very cool. And indeed, it is very cool. It’s a special job, to travel like this… That’s why it’s the most difficult question. Repeat it again.

What’s your relationship to music?

Oh, I don’t know. You see, music is a totally, absolutely living thing. Apparently. It’s quite possible that sounds are angels. After a sound impulse, a clot forms in the sphere. It forms from various volts and incomprehensible things in the sphere, not only oxygen and things like that. Vice versa. Vernadsky says that the sphere is… Right? Though I haven’t read a lot, I created music for Vernadsky, so I know a bit…it’s a thinking sphere, right? But of course, it doesn’t think in a psychological way. Otherwise, we would have died. If psychology was adequately present in both the sphere and in us, there would be a regime, and an absolute one. We would die without feeling death: now we’re walking along the street, then we’re dead, walking around like some airy puppet. We’re walking around like this: we don’t exist anymore; we’re like airy puppets, something rotten. And the sphere would be rotten, smelly; all the ants would start dying in those hills of theirs. In fact, for animals, man’s death is a very dangerous thing. Thank God men are buried. Everything else can just be left lying about—birds, eagles, they can. But a man is different.

Is there some connection between music and the thought of death?

In the hour of our death?

No, the thought of death.


Thought, thought.

The thought of death… Oh, I think this question is wrong, because even ordinary people, mediocre ones…each has his absolutely personal thought of death. That is, there is no adequacy in people here; it is some personal simplified agony. It isn’t a thought. To him it seems like a thought, but it’s some particular sort of…quicksilver… Well, it’s stored in your blood, in blood cells. Not here (pointing at his head). It’s in your blood, in the most extraordinary parts of the blood cell. And not just one thought but a whole chord. And genius people perceive it. When they write about human death they write absolutely abnormal music which is also absolutely simple, naive, even primitive. Take Chopin’s march. (Humming, conducting.) Chopin has answered you here, so I don’t need to.

Tell me, please…

By the way, Beethoven has also answered. (Humming, conducting.) Beethoven has written such a simple thing, but it’s genius. People can’t do that, nothing like Chopin’s march: they all play regularly, mournfully. They could play like Beethoven wrote it, like I’m singing it now (sings), ‘Too-too…’ But they play like (humming, conducting). Can you see how full of sorrow I am? Do you understand what’s been done to me? I’m all, you know, like sorrowful decay.

Where does this sorrow come from?

That’s how a philistine feels Beethoven.

You—a philistine?

I don’t feel like this. I’m showing you. I’m showing you how a man feels Beethoven, and what man is, in general. Man is decay after Beethoven.


Yes, decay, after Beethoven. Because Beethoven is a certain human reference point. He is a very regular composer. A German. That’s what Beethoven is. Deutschland über alles. That is, an absolutely regular breed. (Humming, conducting.) This is Beethoven. A German’s energy. Here is a German going, now he has stopped. Klemperer can’t take him; he’s a Jew. (Humming, conducting.) This is a Jew. (Humming, conducting.) He played for a while and went on his way. And this is a German über alles. (Humming, conducting.) Hitler’s march. (Humming, conducting.) A German’s nerve is one of a kind. And Chopin. Chopin is… That’s why Chopin didn’t like Beethoven, hated him. He just felt it, what I’ve shown you, he could see it. Hated him. And hated Scriabin as well.

Though I played Beethoven marvellously—but I play him my way.

Tell me, what does it mean, to play music in a way that’s right?

Today it’s like this, and tomorrow it’s different. It’s absolutely impossible to answer a question like that. It’s just absolutely… It will be just the opposite. This is the question most and best answered at the Conservatory: the Conservatory will explain everything to you, will deliver a four-hour lecture. And teach you how to do it.

Can your music be played by somebody else?

That’s why everything’s become so flat now: it’s at a historic level of mediocrity, understanding what right music is. The curtain has come down on art. It doesn’t exist. That’s all, that’s all…in art. God save me from proving what’s right and what’s wrong. (Laughs.)

They say Arvo Pärt is now busy describing his music so that it’s performed the right way.


Arvo Pärt.

Describing? In what way?

I don’t know. Well, he might be writing on the score: here, play like this; here, you must do that. And so on.

Well, you know, Arvo Pärt is a very talented, probably even genius, composer. And I just have no right to think about it—let him do whatever he pleases. If he wants it, if he believes in it. What right do we have to discuss him? (Laughs.) I, for example, don’t believe in it, but I believe that if I stand next to the musicians, they’ll play my music the right way.

And if you don’t they’ll play it in a wrong way?

I don’t really believe in sheet music. Well, he might have found the key. Nowadays there’s technology, there are additional methods of recording. Stravinsky believed in it. 

Believed in what?

In something like Pärt. Stravinsky conducted his last pieces himself, attached the recording and said, ‘Study it in detail, follow my recording in every little detail, copy it.’ That is, put on the record of his performance and while it’s playing the conductor must get in synch, learn it and spurt it out.

Does the motion of stars correspond with music?

Ah, motion of stars… You know, it does—for the worse. Even I—or Jesus Christ—will see the motion of stars as more banal. As determined by the mind and a certain psyche. Because the motion of stars may be called and considered the motion of spheres, when it is totally detached from understanding the regularity forming, from understanding it as a spherical orderliness. That is, in the motion of spheres there is no… Why do you think a musician gets worn down? At 45 everybody cries about a crisis. Beethoven—a crisis, Tchaikovsky—a crisis, Stockhausen—a crisis. This recently departed famous French composer, what’s his name?


Boulez. Crisis, crisis, crisis again, always a crisis. By the age of 45. Just because of that thing.

What thing?

The one you asked me about. The motion of spheres. Motion itself, all that. They enter, they’re going on, but it starts to get obliterated. Why? Because we’re alive, normally alive. And if it didn’t get obliterated, we wouldn’t be normally alive and we wouldn’t even be spirits; we’d be some amazing windflaws, these gusts of wind. My music is a windflaw. I’m not a spirit. I negate spirituality. Totally. I mean, religious music isn’t music. I am a windflaw. So I’m telling it from my own exact experience.

Tell me, if you would, what spirit gives birth to music? Nietzsche talks about ‘the birth of tragedy from the spirit of music’.

Ah, you mean literally? To do with Buddhism, Christ and the Muslim one?

No, not literally. That isn’t interesting.

How then?

What spirit gives birth to music? The spirit of what?

Well, I need to make it up for myself first, then I’ll tell you.

You know, it has to be individual. You can’t speak for everyone here. And you’re asking about music. If you were only asking about my music, that would be different. Then I would have the right to speak, but only for my music. I have no right to speak for everyone.

Then say it for your music.

In my case it’s constantly changing. That’s why I don’t know myself. I think, for me it comes from some abyss, from a pause between music and music. I think…I’m not writing music; I, rather, reflect the void between one music of mine and some other music of mine. While it’s suspended in the void, it’s absolute; it can’t be played normally with hands like these. It’s impossible, you’re bound to miss it. While it isn’t yet music itself. Music is, after all, a sound object for sale. A particular celestial object for sale. Yes, an object for sale, yes. As it exists there, in the heavens. 

And who’s supposed to buy it?

(Laughs.) Who’s supposed to buy it? Well, anyone who needs a helping hand when it comes to time. It helps a person survive longer than a dying man would. He’s already destined to die, but he lives longer. Thanks to the music. When he reaches the point of certain unconsciousness or even clinical death…and he comes round. Such things happen. My mother was dying when I was nine, and I was awfully, terribly distressed. And at that very moment, the man survives. They say, ‘Oh, he was on the verge of dying…but survived.’ This is music helping him. Astonishing things like that happen. Well?

© Stas Levshin

Can we say that you play the void with your hands?

With my hands?


Could I possibly play with somebody else’s hands? To me, that’s just pure philistine scholasticism. Of course with my hands, nobody else’s. Another question is, whether they are entirely my own. They…

It’s a very strong question, the most bewitching kind. Because, you see, Richter told me about me, when I was playing for him. He, well…when I finished playing, he was in such a state. On top of that, I was improvising on his theme—a very difficult one—because he hadn’t believed I would be able to. Then he suddenly said, ‘You should only play Chopin and Mozart. As for me, when I play Mozart, I’m actually playing Haydn; when I play Chopin, I end up playing Schumann.’ That’s the answer. That’s the full answer.

I have a lot more like that. And imagine Richter saying, ‘Your playing will never get worse. Summoned from your bed or from your grave, you still won’t play worse.’ Moreover, when I was improvising, ‘My Lord, such form; most genius composers would have to gestate for several years, and you have it at once.’ Understand? That is, I can’t create anything without a form.

And what is form in music?

I don’t have a sketch for an improvisation. It comes right away. And I wouldn’t say… You see, now you’re asking questions that are rather prosaic, but the problem is that the form of real music is the tragedy of the millennium. Because around the 1600s, theoreticians created the forms that were designed to please the emperors, the forms of salutatory music. Bach later wrote music according to those patterns. And so did Mozart. Bach is the prelude that has a full tonal plane and comes to the tonic. It is followed by the fugue, after a modulation. In fact, it stays on the tonic, this way (humming, conducting), and then descends, then stays on it again, then descends again, then stays on it again for a while, then ascends. In the end, you have a graphic prelude—with the help of tones. That is, people significantly inferior to musicians managed to understand the graphism of tones—their ability to attract certain modulations and the like. And they managed to create a convenient form for the courtiers making their grand entrance. And after this stoicism of the existence of the high, the so-called high, they created the vulgarism of the high. Simplified. Music history took the most simplified, banal course, the course of man-made vulgarism of the high. That’s clear, right? And sonata is just the same: first an exposition is given, then comes an intermezzo, and then a certain secondary thing. So it goes on and on. And then comes a very good coda to it, giving it completeness. Baroque. Then there was a pause, and then they started to develop it, breaking it crosswise, making motifs out of melodies—all those strettas and sequences. They build up sequences of the same motif. Like Tchaikovsky does (humming, conducting). And—he’s come to the end. Then comes an avalanche and a recapitulation. And that’s the most comfortable box for man’s silly feeling, for the law-making of his psyche. A box, a box for music. He’s making both, the candies and the box, simultaneously. Both, candy and cardboard. That’s what musical form is: an ability to make both, candy and cardboard. Simultaneously, at the same time. After that, the majority of composers in history become proficient in this technology; they form a habit of sorts, because modulation is becoming habitualised, and sequences are also becoming habitualised. And now that the technique has appeared, you don’t even need talent anymore. That’s why Tchaikovsky used to say that Germany was filled with composers creating symphonies who didn’t even require talent. Technique. In Tchaikovsky’s lifetime all composers in Germany en masse created music, symphonies, while composing without talent. Understand? That’s it. He put Brahms in the same category, but it’s a mistake. Though Brahms is quite close to that. After all, Brahms is neither Tchaikovsky, nor Wagner. Wagner, for one, also hated Brahms; to a certain extent it must be Brahms’ fault. You understand, right? That’s what I meant to tell you by all this.

Once you said that the main thing about Flaubert’s prose was the style rather than the content. Does style matter in music?


You said that the main thing about Flaubert was his style. About Flaubert.

Really? When did I say that?

Three years ago.

Really? Say that again.

Three years ago, you said that the main thing about Flaubert was his style.

And not the content?

Not the content.

You know, in my case the main thing is the style, not the content (Laughs.) And for Gogol the main thing is the style, not the content.

What do you mean by ‘the style’?

Dead Souls’ is absolute style without any content. But only Pushkin understood that. It’s pure beauty. The stench he took for its basis is not in it. He turned this stench into the purest astronomical smell. It’s both under and above the ground. Understand? Gogol is written like this. He needed it for his absolute style. That is, he was playing with this style like Khlebnikov with his verse. He’s also Khlebnikov in a way. Gogol is Khlebnikov’s prose. Nobody could do that. Blok has a lot of pain. Pushkin, thank God, has stoicism; he knocks out excessive sensitivity. But Gogol has nothing at all. Even Pushkin didn’t understand how it worked. A total mystery. There is no one to match him. 

And what is your style like?

Oh, I don’t have any style at all. You see, I can be recognised by the impossibility of it. They normally recognise me by the fact that ‘it isn’t characteristic of this man’. He can’t do that. Take Richter, he told me that he couldn’t play it like that. As for me, summoned from my bed or from my grave, I wouldn’t play worse. ‘You should only play Chopin and Mozart. As for me, when I’m playing Chopin’, he says, ‘I end up with Schumann, but I’ll still play Beethoven better than you.’ Richter told me that. Because he has to break the habit first. Such a genius answer: first break the habit, then play. As for me, I don’t know myself what I was doing at the start. And he understood that. Summoned from my bed or from my grave, understand?

What’s the most important thing you’ve come to understand in life?

That the most awful thing is the haplessness of power. No poison is worse. If you understand that it’s poison, you’re free. And if you don’t expect anything from poison when it is poison. Poison is poison. Just take it for granted. You’ve gotten onto this square, Malevich’s square. That’s what Malevich’s square is. He wanted to depict this dead end with his square. You get there—and you’re stuck. The haplessness of power. The square is power. Geometrically speaking, what does it mean, squared? Eh? The bird isn’t seen through the window but squared? Eh? The haplessness of power: you’re stuck. Now, don’t blame God. He isn’t to blame. It’s the public who’s to blame. You play to the public: here it is, sitting over there and applauding. And you reap its creations. You give it your creation, and it gives you its creation. It is power. That’s

And what about you, do you need the public?

If somebody could arrange my life without concerts I would consider it divine intervention. Of course, I have my public. Moreover, during a concert the public pulls you down; you have to somehow rehabilitate yourself after it. Which means, after a concert, for two or three, or even four days, you suddenly can’t work—like this or like that. You are crashed and simplified. In other words, I do envy those ancient composers who could do without the public. But, you see, here I am again…my thought is very vivid…but only if I was in a minstrel troupe, not on my own. And I know the Middle Ages perfectly, really well. I’m also a minstrel. It’s not because I know their music—I don’t know much of their music. It’s more like I mysteriously feel that I belong there—both here and there. Understand? I’m more of a minstrel. And certainly, when you’re among other minstrels you’re not afraid of the public. You see, I need such an adequacy: a circle dance. Folklore is built on circle dance; it protects itself against man. That’s why it became folklore. And if it was close to the public in the way professional artists are, it wouldn’t be folkloric, it would only be folkloric-like. That is, there’s some natural folkloric wild soul in it, a sort of licentiousness and a certain fragility, so… (Humming and conducting.)

It isn’t Bach’s strictness. It isn’t cultural strictness—it’s a sacred hernia. It broke through and immediately healed. What a miracle. This is folklore. A hernia. And it immediately gets over there. You see, my music is close to that too. By the way, there’s this actor who’s noticed it. The actress Neyolova’s husband. His surname is Vasilek, if I’m not mistaken. Yes, he said, ‘Your music is folklore.’ It was after ‘The Gambler’. I have an organ playing there.

Oleg Nikolayevich, are you a happy man?

Am I happy? (Laughs.) I guess I can consider myself the happiest man in the whole world. The only one. I think I’m the happiest man. Why not? I have the perfect protection—I don’t have to buy anything, don’t have to do anything; now it’s small, and then it’s immediately big. (Sings.) Here goes, can you see what it’s like already? That’s why I’m perfectly contented with my childhood. I need… But, I’m not quite happy because in my youth I was surrounded only by rascals. They weren’t just rascals in relation to me. I’m a composer and I’ve survived as a composer. They were rascals in relation to the time and its code. One of the most important. I didn’t enter the Moscow Conservatory. When Gauk, Anosov and Sveshnikov were leaving, they were talking about me in the cloakroom, ‘A real genius came in.’ The cloakroom attendant told me that, when she was passing my raincoat to me. And then I was applying for a trainee position at the Philharmonic. I was on the list, but another day I showed my upbeat to Raevsky; he jumped back from me and said, ‘That’s it, one day you see an upbeat and you know that you’ve lived your life in vain.’ And he crossed my name out. I didn’t become a trainee. Otherwise I would have become their godfather; I would be Wagner. I would conduct them, play the piano and write my symphonies, conducting at the same time, understand? Then it got even worse. I played an intoxicating concert in this auditorium in 1961. After that I was banned because the students were running around the conservatory crying, ‘What rubbish are they teaching us?’ Like that. Well, right, I had played beautifully, marvellously. And there were Tishchenko…and Gavrilin. They were crying that too. Tishchenko was very fond of me. But after that, Serebryakov, the director of the Conservatory, ran to the KGB, and they banned me, put an end to my public performances. Then this ban was communicated to Leningrad’s management board for culture. And they suspended me, despite the fact that Bondarchuk, Strzhelchik, Gorbachev—who was a director—interceded for me. Everybody interceded for me. One by one. And Skvortsov, who worked in Leningrad’s concert organisation, said, ‘I heard him at his final concert at the Conservatory; I’m still impressed. That’s that, but I’d lose my place—I won’t let him perform.’ Can you imagine? Like that.

Now I see that I’m the luckiest man because if I had been performing music I wouldn’t have composed so much. I wouldn’t be myself as I am now. Because playing for the public is still publicising yourself, which is, whatever you are… Rachmaninoff was right in saying, ‘When I play I can’t compose.’ That’s why, if you take me as a composer, erect a monument to Skvortsov. Right there, in Nevsky Prospect. So, I am the happiest man. After all, to produce a note at home, having no money—sometimes I have no money at all—is still more pleasant than playing in public. That’s it. Your hand can’t produce that absolute note while the public is sitting around. The hand somehow feels it, ‘I, the great hand, in the midst of this humankind, here—can you see me? Look at me! Here I am—coming down.’ Because we’re weak, we’re super-scum, we love ourselves. And without it, you’re staying at home… And there’s nobody around; only rats run past you.

What did you mean when you said once that your music was very feminine?

Well, you know, my compositions are very different. If you come and hear how absolutely different they are, you might possibly ask, ‘And who is the author?’ Often, I don’t converge at all. And composers normally aren’t like that, hardly ever. I remember Prokofiev playing in front of me in this Conservatory; he has his special Prokofiev style at the piano, he plays everything the same way. While I—no bloody idea, what I… It’s all very complicated. Well, that is enough!

Thank you very much, Oleg Nikolayevich.

Fine. Was it any good?

It was very good.

I am so glad that you’re from Riga, and you have such a sweet little face. I just like you.

Thank you. I like you too.

Give my best wishes to Latvia, to Lithuania. 

I will.

I might come there, after all.

I truly hope you do.

Yes. I will play there. There might be some sense in making a utopia. I could conduct all of Wagner’s operas. Because, you see, only Nikish conducted Wagner geniusly. And Nikish died. And then, he had to be paid well. Tchaikovsky would pay him all his money to conduct his Symphony № 6 on a holiday. He wrote to Nikish, ‘I love you and so on, but I’ve written a viscous, droning symphony.’ A normal man can’t do this droning quality. It can only be done by some enigmatic creature from there. In fact, the most difficult thing in music is this musical droning. It creates a human soul in the shape of a sustained note. (Humming, conducting.) This is—human. And this (humming, conducting)—that’s what we’re like. (Humming, conducting.)

Wagner had this Nikish of his. And the orchestra doesn’t understand. It’s this comprehensibility that maintains the incomprehensibility without comprehending, this very impenetrability of pre-comprehensibility. It provides this droning. You need to involve it in a shamanic trance. It doesn’t come from the hands, it doesn’t depend on the hands; I can do it this way, but if I immerse it in this shamanism, then (humming, conducting)…what a phrase. This is Wagner. This IS Wagner. And this is not Wagner any more. (Humming, conducting.) Understand?


That’s what I’m going to conduct, and they will play it this way. The way I’m singing it. Do you know what it was? Something like this, go and learn for yourself. And after Wagner I will immediately become young.

Wagner is the youngest. That’s how he lived; like Tchaikovsky wrote, ‘Wagner rushed past on a horse at the age of 68. At full gallop.’ He saw Wagner on a horse! At the age of 68! At full gallop! Eh? That’s what he was like—young. And I’m young. It’s just like me now. (Sings.) Eh? So young. Right? Wagner rejuvenates you. My music is also rejuvenating. Definitely.

And what music makes you old?

Shostakovich’s! The most frightful composer. Shostakovich. Mahler. The most frightful composer, because it’s an impure sphere falling through some immediately generated icy chutes. Through gutters. It’s a gushing torrent when music forms both—a fall of sacred water and the sacred block of ice. And there’s already a rainbow and all the nature and fir-tree patterns on that chute. Wagner is a fantastic phenomenon. These chutes in the Universe in which all the plants are reflected like in a mirror, but they still let water flow through, understand? A gutter from the Universe of worlds. Beyond it there are stars, then angels, and after the angels are ordinary people. A wanderer, a satellite, that’s me (humming, conducting). Understand? 


Well. Like this. OK—enough! Here, I’ve conducted for a while (humming, conducting), ‘Pum-pum-pu-pum!’ Did you see? Like this. And these aren’t hands anymore; this is quicksilver. That’s how it works with me: when I’m moving, I don’t feel that I’m gestures and hands; I don’t understand it myself. At my sides are free-flowing liquids, not hands—quicksilver, not those things, just that big liquid, a kind of wing. OK, that’s enough, coo-coo!

Questions by Uldis Tīrons

Translated by Arina Volgina

From Summer 2017 issue

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