Cheryl North :: Interviews

Cheryl North Interviews Victor Kissine prior to the world premiere of his composition, Post-scriptum, by the San Francisco Symphony on March 4, 2010.

Material from the Classical Music Column in the Preview Section for the Bay Area News Group for publication February 26, 2010

by Cheryl North

When American composer Charles Ives, 1874-1954, composed a piece he called The Unanswered Question in 1906, he couldn't have dreamed that a Russian composer born in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) in 1953, would, if not quite "answer" his question, at least posit a tantalizing musical meditation on it more than a century later.

This new piece, called Post-scriptum by its composer Victor Kissine, will receive its world premiere by the San Francisco Symphony, conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas, in concerts scheduled for March 4, 5, 6 and 7at Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco.

Kissine, who currently makes his home in Belgium where he is a Professor of Music at two of its important conservatories, writes that he was a student at the Leningrad Conservatory when he first discovered Ives' piece. Considering it a "revelation," he assiduously studied the details of its score, noting that Ives utilized a trumpet to repeatedly intone his so-called "Perennial Question of Existence." The piece continues as a series of other instruments offer comments on his question, but cannot "answer" it.

In his Post-scriptum Kissine engages a series of five different sounds, each of which evolves into either a major or minor pitch interval of a third to deal with "the question."

During our recent e-mail exchange, I asked Kissine if, in his judgment, an average listener would consider his music in general, and Post-scriptum in particular, to be "beautiful," "pleasing," "interesting" or "shocking" following a first hearing.

He replied, "If the listener finds my music 'beautiful,' I'd be overjoyed. I have nothing against 'pleasing' or 'interesting,' but if he is 'shocked,' I'd be disappointed, because this wasn't my intention at all."

Kissine has written a great deal of film music, as well as both chamber and orchestral music during the course of his career. However, his approach to composition departs significantly from the assertive, agitated, and often ear-grating styles issuing from the Fin de Siecle era surrounding the beginning of the 20th century. He explains that his musical language expands to include elements of classical Western-style tonality, 20th century atonality, minimalism, aleatory sounds, and 12-tone techniques, adding that he also utilizes micro-intervals (notes that fall "between the cracks" of notes on the piano). Further elaborating on his style, he wrote that beyond the four basic parameters of music - duration, pitch level, intensity, and timbre - there is yet another. This fifth parameter, he asserts, is silence, which he uses to great effect in his compositions.

"Silence," he says," does not stop the music. It's part of the music. It's the flip side of music. Sound without silence wouldn't exist."

In his e-mail, Kissine asserted that he can't imagine being anything other than a musician and composer. "I started music when I was five," he wrote. "So, it was the first language I learned to read. And, the first score I sight-read by myself was Sonata quasi una Fantasia, Op. 27, No. 2 by Beethoven (the famous "Moonlight Sonata"). I remember having had enormous problems with the left hand octaves."

Since his family lived near the Philharmonic Hall in Leningrad, he was taken to musical performances from a very early age. "I especially remember a recital by Sviatislav Richter which made a great impression me," he wrote. "He was playing 'my' Beethoven sonata!"

He is the father of a boy and a girl and has a four -year-old grandchild. Kissine, now a citizen of Belgium, lives with his wife in Court-Saint-Etienne, a suburb of Brussels.

Victor Kissine and his wife backstage with Cheryl North at Davies Hall following the
world premiere of Post-scriptum,
which received rave reviews in San Francisco
and subsequently in New York following the San Francisco Symphony performance
of the work at Carnegie Hall

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