Raging Bulgakov out now

Simon Nabatov has undertaken one of the most unusual projects in contemporary music, an intense scrutiny and setting to music of modernist Russian literature, much of it taken from the years of Stalinist censorship, repression and imprisonment. For 25 years, beginning with Josef Brodsky’s Nature Morte, he has set text in partially improvised settings, including excerpts from Isaac Babel’s grim Red Cavalry and poems by Daniil Kharms and the Gileya group. Along with that largely poetic enterprise, Nabatov has had a distinct relationship with the novelist Mikhail Bulgakov, beginning with a purely instrumental account of The Master and Margarita, one of the 20th century’s greatest novels. It’s joined now by similarly instrumental versions of Bulgakov’s earlier, shorter satires of the 1920s, The Fatal Eggs and Heart of a Dog. It’s as if Nabatov is turning the Bulgakov novels into a different order of text, a musical code that liberates, reenacting the novels in a radically different form.
The Master and Margarita is a metaphysical drama in which Satan, terrifying though he is, seems more sensible and likable than the state minions of 1920s Moscow. Here the various orderings of the world – the metaphysical, the diabolical, the administrative, the insidious – can only be neutralized by love and escaped by death. In the novellas, the enemies are the incompetence of the bureaucracy, the venality of an exalted lumpen proletariat and the compound arrogance of science and the state, both actively liberating themselves from the limits of the world as it is.
The scientists are Dr. Frankenstein’s spiritual sons. In The Fatal Eggs, Professor Vladimir Ipatievich Persikov discovers a ray that causes rapid cellular multiplication. Inadvertently focused on snakes and crocodiles, the ray creates monsters. In Heart of a Dog, Professor Philip Philipovich Preobrazhensky operates on a dog, imagining he will create a superior dog; instead, he creates a terrible imitation of a human being. Brilliant men, in opposition to both the bureaucratic absurdities of the state and the proletariat, create even more suffering than already existed. Nature itself revolts.
In the opening scene of The Fatal Egg, “Morning in Moscow”, Nabatov’s gifts as a composer are already apparent. The music is at once elegant and turbulent, an idiom reminiscent of Charles Mingus’s great social music. It’s a special, almost impossible compound that introduces us to the dialectical collisions of Bulgakov’s world. It’s an idiom to delight that also portrays the hopeless, a clear-eyed look into the abyss, from the close-voiced abstraction of “All Gone” to the voice of Josef Stalin on the rhythmically insistent “Obeying the Rules”, speaking four days after Lenin’s death, deifying Lenin and insisting on international revolution. “Idyll in a Sovkhoz” is light dance music that grows subtly toxic, “Monster Parade” a junkyard jam session, “Requiem” and the linked “Peaceful Reprise” are elegy and peace achieved. So broad and seemingly natural is Nabatov’s compositional methodology, that the orchestra is itself a breathing, ruminating, alien intelligence that struggles and ultimately achieves pastoral.
In Heart of a Dog Bulgakov takes on the totalitarian dream of man transformed into an agent of the state’s will, here represented by the scientist Persikov transplanting the hypophysis of a deceased criminal into a stray dog, hoping for a superior dog. Instead, he gets an inferior man, combining qualities of both dog and criminal. Nabatov constructs a series of distinct idioms that stretch from a street dog’s anguish through the operation in Persikov’s apartment. From dog thoughts and muffled voices, Nabatov develops an extraordinarily flexible palette, one that throughout the work can represent conflict, quandary and introspection with extended passages that mix composition and improvisation in ways that flow from the chaos of terror to the chaos of ecstasy, aided in no small part by an ensemble able to move fluently from one methodology to another.
Nabatov’s work speaks to us through the resemblance of Bulgakov’s world to our own, and the writer’s ability to turn messy horror into structured farce. Nabatov’s music is a language of dreams created to explore the quotidian, just as were Bulgakov’s novels. With these themes, the music will dream inside and outside itself; forms, melodies, bodies of meaning then drift into and through one another, whether toxic winds or fluffy clouds, recombining in revelations. Nabatov’s music transmutes historical time, embracing narratives that move back and forth between reason and absurdity, science and farce, good and evil. His motifs and materials are fluid, assuming a life of their own, perfectly apt for a literature of double talk, constraint created to escape censure.

Stuart Broomer