Prityazh_Opera: Composer Nikita Sorokin on Music’s ‘Dimensionality’ & ‘Digital Opera’By John Vandevert
“What is opera, and what does ‘operatic’ mean to you?”
I lead with this inquiry in every interview. No longer bound by antiquated regulations, artists can now use the “opera” to make a statement. It is my goal, through interviews with all manner of people involved in the multifaceted world of “opera,” to examine projects and works through the lens of figuring out just what, exactly, it means to do opera in the 21st century: what is the statement that modern opera makes?
Born in Leningrad—now Saint Petersburg—Russia, a year before the collapse of the Soviet Union, and having began his musical training at the young age of five, facing down a daunting repertoire, Nikita Sorokin is a composer, conductor, and prime example of a musical polymath. Sorokin, when asked about his early experiences with music, explained the reality of his first musical education: “Where I first learned music was a special school because we studied for 11 years in the same place, and you studied music all throughout as well. You started with piano, solfège, choir, of course, each day. As a little boy, you also did concerts. It’s a very English tradition if you think about it.”
He reminisced on the repertoire of his youth—something which had influenced him through to this day.
“I remember the third symphony of Mahler. You sing it at 10-years-old, can you imagine? Being inside of the orchestra, it changes your perception of music very profoundly. We also performed “Gurre-Lieder,” by Schoenberg, as well. These experiences formed the ground of my musical interests.”
Sorokin explained that following these 11 years, it is common for students to pursue choral conducting rather than music theory, musicology, or other, non-conducting, fields. As he shared, his decision to pursue further education in musicology, from St. Petersburg State Conservatory—his thesis being the analysis of Mahler’s symphonic repertoire—rather than go directly into choral conducting studies was a decisive choice.
“I realized I was more interested in symphony conducting, but similarly it was clear that it was groundless to pursue this without any experience. That’s why I chose to study musicology and analysis: because I thought this would serve as a good background for conducting. For me, it was important to have this wide knowledge of music and its processes.”
When asked if this was a conventional journey for a conductor he humbly—yet without ambiguity—stated, “It’s hard to establish any maxim for one’s journey to conducting; but for me, it was very clear that just conducting was not enough.”
Experience with Music
Given that Sorokin is very much in the first phase of his career, I was curious if he had developed an artistic philosophy or worldview which has colored his compositional aesthetic. As it turns out, he certainly has. He is greatly influenced by conducting—specifically movement’s kinaesthetic relationship with music—as opposed to just the music alone.
“The conducting I do, and the study of it, influences my compositional style because, at times, the pure gesture influences my musical thinking in terms of musical line and gesture. Sometimes, the gesture alone can precede the music and the music comes from the gesture. Normally, the music is the leading figure in this.”
He explained that, due to his Parisian education, he had to become very aware of avoiding aesthetic mimicry in his own compositional style.
“Because I basically grew up in the Paris Conservatory, [surrounded by] the styles of Boulez and musique concrète, of course I know it: but I consciously avoid copying, and build my compositions only around certain composers and techniques and styles,” he noted.
Moreover, it seemed that finding one’s authentic compositional voice, amidst the manifold techniques and devices available, is one of the most important tasks for him as a composer.
“I think the second half of the 20th century was a huge laboratory for composers. But now, we can just choose what is suitable for a composer’s musical idea. You’re not obligated to build it, however, on one stylistic pillar.’ In unambiguous tone he explains that the composer must be his own artistic person,” Sorokin said. “The main difficulty is figuring out what is needed for your musical idea, because certain ideas require certain techniques and procedures in order to develop. The composer must understand, [must] feel this. If you don’t and you use random techniques that don’t match the idea, for me the idea is less impactful.”
For Sorokin, alongside finding their individual voice, the composer must also let the music speak for itself. They must choose the musical process and aesthetic that most aptly correlates to their musical idea. ‘The musical idea dictates the techniques that you need to use. This is what the hardest part of composing is—at least to me. To maintain your material’s potency and avoid breaking it because you want something. It’s the material that wants something, not you.’
‘For you, what is music and what does it mean?’
The question can often push many to silence, confounding even the greatest of minds. When asked, however, Sorokin was very clear in his thoughts.
“Music is connected with emotions, and the idea of the sublimation of emotions into auditory experiences. Music gives freedom to the emotions to flow in a direction which a composer may choose,” he noted. “Music is a particularly self-sufficient force. That’s our priority now, as musicians. We must continue this line; otherwise we forget to listen to music. Generally, we have forgotten how to listen to music, as it occupies every space nowadays.”
For Sorokin, music has an autonomous quality, able to thrive on its own accord. He also notes that the composer has an equally weighty and particularly Orpheic mission, however: to heal the ruptures and polemics of our very broken world.
“The function [of music] is to connect different cultures and worldviews; nations too. If such relationships aren’t formed, hate will inevitably grow. That is where music and the composer comes in. They are able to diminish the hate and replace it with something much more loving and beneficial to our world.”
He added, “Music is one of the only art forms today that still holds the possibility of sparking the imagination of its observers.”
For Sorokin, the way someone becomes knowledgeable about the interiority of music is by truly understanding the music itself. Through analysis of the music, as Sorokin explained, a composer’s many experiences can be found.
“My analytical experience with music influenced greatly my compositional process. Whether or not you know the intentions of the composer is irrelevant, because it is in the music itself. It’s not important so much to know how the thought appeared, necessarily—although it’s interesting—so much as how the experience is described in the music.”
As part of the 2019 “Creative Industry Festival,” dedicated to bringing the projects of contemporary Russian artists from a broad range of creative mediums to the fore, Sorokin’s first “opera” is a testament to the pliability of the genre and the distance we have come from the stylistic epochs of opera seria, opera buffo, dramma giocoso, bel canto and grand opera.
“Prityazh_Opera” resulted from an open call for a humorous text to be set to music. The poem “Old Women Falling Out” (1936-37), an absurdist tale by Soviet poet Daniil Ivanovich Yuvachev about six old women’s death-by-falling due to their endless curiosity, was the piece ultimately chosen. “Prityazh_Opera” is an extremely short, animated video with a sprechstimme-like voice over orchestration—a string quartet with woodwinds, and on occasion a ping-pong ball—which feeds upon the sardonic language of Stravinsky and Prokofiev, with some Shostakovich in the mixture for good measure. The music is sporadic, yet understandable in its humor.
When asked about the choice of story, Sorokin was quick to answer.
“Kharms (Daniil Ivanovich Yuvachev) is one of my favorite writers, and I’ve read practically everything he’s written. His background is very tragic, and this story, while funny, is not only a joke, because this extreme level of curiosity eventually kills them all. This is typical for Stalinist poetry, of course. Not that simple at all. It’s obviously absurd but everything was absurd back then.”
Sorokin’s history with this poem is deep. He discussed this relationship, and the poem’s suitability for a musical setting.
“I knew this text for about twenty years, and thus I used it because it was a good amount of text to set in a short amount of time, as well as the text was good for singing, as text must be suitable for singing… You can’t take any text and set it to music, however. Some text just doesn’t work with music.”
The musical language he used is quite idiosyncratic in its nature, which he aptly explains.
“I composed this music directly for this ensemble, and I knew who could play the music. The only requirement from my side was a ping-pong ball, to mimic the old women falling out of the window. It’s also used as a thematic arc. I also used an expanded technique for the french horn.”
The music’s relatively simplistic, yet well-formed, design was just as much a pragmatic choice as it was aesthetic, however.
“I also wrote it in such a way as to help them because they only had a short time to rehearse.”
Given that the “opera” is only two minutes and 36 seconds in duration, I raise the question of whether this even counts as an opera. In his characteristically humble yet affirmative manner, Sorokin replied, “To be honest, it’s not a pure opera. There are elements of opera, transitions from declamation to vocalization. It’s on the edge. It could be described as just a piece for voice and instrument.”
He noted that the digital element on the work played a significant role in the project’s development.
“I am cautious to the word ‘opera’ as the only way to describe this work. I think it’s ‘digital opera,’ if you want to call it that, as the voice is treated to digital means, and it will lose its form if the digital element is taken out of the work. So, it’s a digital opera and not opera at the same time.”
Thoughts on Opera
What is and is not opera is difficult to ascertain. Depending on who you ask, the components that constitute an opera will be different. When asked what the principle parts of opera were to him, Sorokin gave quite an unambiguous answer.
“It’s difficult to state in one way but, basically, there must be text and singing which creates the temporal movements of dramaturgy. Musically, there must be harmonies and whatnot. But it’s a quality of music and text together which create some relationship and development in time. But it’s not just auditory, as nothing happens outside theatrical movement. It requires a theatrical dimension as well… Many operas require love stories, although some just don’t have one, like “Boris Godunov” by Mussorgsky.”
More important is opera’s connection to the world it inhabits, however. As Sorokin stated, ‘The opera is connected to the problems and topics of life. That’s why each time composers like Rossini and Mozart composed operas, [they did it] without thinking too much about their shelf-life. Their operas were tied to a certain time period and the thoughts within them.”
Yet the opera is not a homogenous form. It is made up of many parts, all of which can be molded and changed around with ease. Sorokin highlighted the reality of how opera is now a malleable frame for experimentation.
“The opera can be considered a flexible laboratory where composers are experimenting with different configurations. It gives a life to the genre by using many non-trivial options because it’s connected to the theatre. And sometimes the dramatic idea dominates the musical idea.”