Rahilia Hasanova : bridging the two seemingly disparate worlds of Eastern and Western cultures

In the world of contemporary classical music, Rahilia Hasanova is known as a brilliant and prolific composer with a unique and powerful voice. The strength of her music is in bridging the two seemingly disparate worlds of Eastern and Western cultures. By combining the essence of her native (Azerbaijani) culture and traditional music that represents the East with the contemporary classical music traditions of the West, Hasanova creates unparalleled music forms and materials that are as diverse as they are unforgettable. Composer Krzysztof Meyer wrote: “Hasanova’s music is phenomenal; she is a great master.”

Hasanova grew up in one of the post-Soviet republics, Azerbaijan – a country with millennia of rich cultural background and improvisatory music tradition. Hasanova’s music, being deeply rooted in this tradition, strikes an intricate yet natural balance with Western composition techniques. Hasanova acquired these techniques in part through the Shostakovich composition school. As a student of this great school, Hasanova became one of the most progressive composers of her time. She was the first to create ethno-minimalistic compositions in her native country. She was also the first to introduce the aleatoric approach. Musicologist Zumrud Dadashzadeh wrote: “Hasanova’s works are rich in unique intonations that fit into the macrospace of her compositions as self-sufficient microcosms.”

Hasanova’s compositions cover a wide range of music genres and instrumentation from chamber music and symphony compositions to opera and ballet. Musicologist Anna Amrahova wrote: “One of the prominent characteristics of Hasanova’s creations is reaching dramatic register culminations that are expressed through modal-meditative development.”

Hasanova’s music was performed at international festivals and concerts all around the world, including Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Switzerland, Italy, Belgium, and Austria. In the Netherlands, her music was commissioned twice by the Nieuw Ensemble (‘Sema’a’ in 1994 and ‘Pirebedil’ in 1996.) Her Sema’a was featured on the radio show in Israel and the director of the Israel Contemporary Players, Zmira Lutzki, wrote: “In Sema’a, Hasanova found an ideal realization of form and content. In this piece, everything is circling as in a ritual dance, as in the Universe. I’m a big fan.” Hasanova had solo profile concerts in Azerbaijan, Poland, Germany, the UK, and the US.

In 2009, Hasanova permanently moved to the US to continue to grow her music career and widen the frontiers of her audience. She quickly became actively involved in the organization of concerts and since worked with many performers and ensembles. Her recent commissioned compositions include chamber opera Pendulum Clocks, Pazyryk, and Flying over Canyons (2014); Plasma Clusters, Dance of Water, Yurt, and Eos-Helios (2013); Dance of Fire, Rainforest, Zilli, Khazri-Gilavar, and Zoom in – Zoom out (2012); and Fugues and Postludes (2011).

The polyphonic cycle Fugues and Postludes (for solo piano) is a dramatic realization of the composer’s life-long inspiration with the old polyphonic forms and her extraordinary improvisatory talent based on mugam traditions. This cycle is phenomenal in that it organically incorporates traditional elements of Azerbaijani music (scales, rhythmic patterns, and intonations) into the classical forms of Western music. The Fugues and Postludes are multi-dimensional and each piece carries its own unique emotional character. The cycle was performed at Hasanova’s profile concert at the contemporary music festival Livewire-4 (UMBC, 2013) and had a great success with the audience. In the words of composer Linda Dusman, “this cycle is fascinating; each detail has a calculated effect; and, the music development is extraordinary growing from a short intonation and filling an entire form.”

Hasanova’s CD recordings include her albums Tetraksis (Azerbaijan, 2007) and Dervish (Germany, 2005), as well as featured recordings in Kara Karaev’s Circle (USA, 2006), Music in Verse (the UK, 1996), Fusions (Azerbaijan, 1994).

Hasanova’s music is published and distributed by I Resound Press, NEUMA Records & Publications, and Da Vinci Publishing.

THE QUESTIONS

What is your earliest musical memory that, in looking back, has proved to be significant regarding your career as a composer?

As long as I can remember, I wanted to be a composer. From my first steps I was surrounded by music because of my parents’ passion for music. They weren’t musicians but they loved to sing and listen to all kinds and genres of music that emanated from our enormous radio. Music sounded in our two-room apartment from morning to evening. My uncle was a professional singer of Azerbaijani traditional music – mugam. He knew Eastern poetry perfectly. And that is not surprising: mugam and poetry are closely related. Often, when my uncle came by we enjoyed our improvised “home concerts”. No doubt his singing, narratives about music, art and poetry inspired me. He explained to me what is the art of improvisation, how to accent words and phrases, how to highlight them musically, and more.

I started my formal musical education when I was five years old. At the beginning, of course, I didn’t know music theory enough to write down all sounds I had in my mind but I was trying to do that by putting black dots on manuscript paper. Even today I still keep my early manuscripts and my first vinyl record that my father presented me. The record contained music of Bach, Marcello, and Corelli. Many years later when I asked him why he had chosen this record, he said that he heard something that gives him the feeling of the beauty of this music. I precisely remember the day when he took my hand and singing together we went to the school for my first musical talent examination.

Are there composers who have been influential or relevant regarding your own work? Has this changed over time?

Luckily, I had great teachers and went through a very professional education system. I had an opportunity to listen to a wide spectrum of music from classical to contemporary, from traditional to jazz. Many composers influenced my development and through analyzing their scores. I learned a lot: how to develop musical material, how to build musical forms, how to measure and balance dynamically the whole composition. But three of them, J.S. Bach, Stravinsky, and Bartok, became the stars of my creative journey, and that hasn’t changed over time.

Thanks to their unique methods of composition and musical heritage I found my own composing style and personality. I wanted to combine and mix together all the “gold” they shared with humanity: from Bach – the passion and mathematical preciseness; from Stravinsky – ability to invent and modify rhythms; and from Bartok – importance of a deep knowledge of the specifics of traditional music.

How do you approach the question of “form” especially for longer works?

I can’t imagine how to compose a music piece without the vision of its form. These formal components are firm in my understanding. When I start to write down a new work I know exactly how I will form my musical material, specifically created for this work, and according to my present idea. At this point the duration of the composition doesn’t matter. The form has to represent the idea. And any idea usually has a form from the outset. The musical material includes the rhythmical, emotional, dramatic, etc., content of my compositions and serves to make my ideas audible. For me, the idea, music material, form are not different qualities. They are a monolithic unit.

My composition Maral (2001) for tape, was commissioned by the Baku Dramatic Theater for a staging of the famous drama by the Azerbaijani writer H. Javid. It is almost seventy-five minutes of music for the continuous action on stage. To mirror the culmination and climax of the stage drama I conceived the music as a single movement crescendo, from pppp to ffff. I can’t name this form according to the traditional models, but would compare this form to a pyramidal form.

Would you mind speaking a little concerning your working process, i.e., do you have a regular schedule for writing; do you use a computer for composing (either for creating pre-composition materials or notation), if so, do you find that it inhibits your process? What other technology, if any, do you use?

I try to keep to my writing process on a daily schedule. Especially if I have several commissions, I work regularly and more intensively. Sometimes my family issues interrupt my schedule. Then, I am trying to makeup for skipped hours or days using night time.

Preparations of a new project take more time than the writing process itself.

First, I get an idea and mostly create my future compositions in my imagination. I would say I am composing virtually. I almost hear the sounds of my idea inside of me. When I am ready to form my composition on paper I start to notate it. Sometimes I need to have sketches, or graphics, or diagrams to remember important nuances or specific elements. This is more common when I am working on a multi-instrument project, but everything depends on the idea.

For me, the writing process is never the same. For example, I was working on my composition Monad, 1993, for solo piano, over almost three years each time revising and re-composing it in my mind as well as on paper. I created many versions. The difference between first and last versions was similar to the difference between different compositions. I realized that my idea changed significantly during the writing process.

I use the notation software Sibelius and often also use Garage Band.

Please describe a recent work.

Usually I am not enthusiastic to describe my works. I like to think that my music contains what I wish to say to listeners. I find it difficult to express the feelings and thoughts in my music with words. Therefore, writing program notes is hard work for me.

For this example, I will describe my recent work Penetrations, 2016 for solo Bass Clarinet. I dedicated it to the brilliant performer and composer Gleb Kanasevich and who had commissioned it.

The main idea of this work I would describe as related to my interest in psychology. I have always wanted to understand the process of perception. The perception of simple or complex matters pushes us to dive into something that we are trying to understand and possibly concentrate on. In other words, we penetrate through symbols and meanings, from big to small, trying to understand the order and rules of the Universe, the nature, and multiple forms of social and personal relationships.

According to the Social Penetration Theory scholars have been operating with the “onion model”. I don’t know why such an ordinary model interested serious scientists but I would use this metaphor to explain not just society, but also the existing world. At first sight, all layers of the onion band tightly together, but at the same time they are separated by thin transparent ones. You would see rings and parallel lines simultaneously. To penetrate through the upper level, peel, and slice all layers demands time and the taking of actions, while expecting unknown but certain reactions.

Dynamics of the positive reactions brings about the greatest rewards and benefits. Dynamics of the negative reactions multiply a sense of lost time, disappointment, anger, and anxiety. On the other hand, all these actions and reactions multiply our experience and understanding, providing satisfaction and insight. I believe all these thoughts helped me to form my musical idea, shape the character, emotional tension, and dramaturgy of this composition for Bass Clarinet.

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