December 29, 2011 at 3:20 PMOf the composers on my debut album, I first got to know the music of Dmitri Shostakovich. His story is an incredible example of defiance. Like so many other artists, social leaders, and ordinary individuals in mid-20th century Soviet life, he was sidelined by his unwillingness to adhere to the establishment of strict communist society. What is even more amazing is that Shostakovich was personally singled out by Stalin as a social rebel. Shostakovich was a pain in his side. In hindsight, it’s quite fascinating to think that a quiet, demure man such as Shostakovich could provoke such a passionate hate from a giant, powerful autocrat such as Stalin.
But in reality, life for Shostakovich was extraordinarily difficult. For much of his career he composed in fear: fear of losing income, fear of ruining his career, fear for his family and friends (many of whom were arrested or killed), and fear for his life. As Stalin and his associates began to shake up all of Soviet society, they directly attacked all art that was perceived to be “not for the people.” One of the most direct blows that Shostakovich experienced was the now very famous denunciation of his opera Lady Macbeth. This was a major turning point for Shostakovich that put him directly in the cross-hairs of Stalin’s sights.
Music became a sort of secret outlet for Shostakovich, perhaps the only outlet available to him. He struggled with the score as he composed; trying to appease authorities while expressing his true emotions. The expression is utterly pure and raw. So many of Shostakovich’s works convey honesty and plead with the listener to hear what he’s saying; it is brave. The fact of the matter is that he was writing music and pushing a boundary that could have easily cost him his life. It is the ultimate defiance.
Defiance seems like too severe a subject matter to base one’s first album on. Yet it is something we can all relate to, in our own individual way. We’ve all at some point defied authority, reality, and life to get somewhere else, to be in a different place. This is certainly true for my family. When we left the Soviet Union in 1989, we did so to escape the tremendous and unfair pressures placed upon us because of our beliefs. Like so many other Jewish families in the USSR, life was filled with an ever-present stigma associated with being Jewish.
Although we could have continued to get through life like this, it dawned upon my parents that it would only be right to give my brother and myself the opportunity to grow up free from these pressures. To believe whatever you wish, to say and do whatever you want, and the ability to truly forge your own path are things too many of us today easily take for granted. But this is something my family had to fight for. That defiance towards authority and the status quo, and belief in progress is something that continues to inspire me every day.
Although many of us can be grateful that we do not have to fight for our lives and freedom of expression quite like Shostakovich did, we can stand to learn a lot from his life and music. This is one of the reasons I have made defiance the theme for my first album. Together with the equally powerful music of Alfred Schnittke, Arvo Pärt, and Joseph Achron, this album is a tribute to their stories and the power of the human spirit.
You can learn more or purchase my album here: Sounds of Defiance by Yevgeny Kutik
It ships on January 31st in the United States.