Viktor Suslin: Grenzübertritt “Crossing Beyond

Program Note

Viktor Suslin (1942-2012)
Grenzübertritt “Crossing Beyond” (1990)

Viktor Suslin was born in Miass, Russia, where he studied piano, composition, and music theory as a child. From 1962-66 he studied composition with Nikolai Peyko and piano with Anatoli Vedernikov at the Gnessin Institute in Moscow, and starting in 1966 became an editor at the Moscow music publishing house Musyka, in charge of the first Russian edition of the stage works of Richard Wagner. Together with composers Vyjacheslav Artyomov and Sofia Gubaidulina, Suslin founded the improvisation group “Astreya” in 1975. Suffering from increased performance bans, Suslin and his family emigrated to Germany in 1981. There, he worked as an editor at Sikorski Music Publishers and as a lecturer at the Lübeck Music Academy near Hamburg.

Violinist Gidon Kremer, cellist David Geringas, and percussionist Mark Pekarski were committed to the performance of Suslin’s works, making sure his music was regularly represented at festivals of contemporary music in Paris, Cologne, Tokyo, Salzburg, Lockenhaus, Zürich, Moscow, and St. Petersburg from the 1980s onwards.

Grenzübertritt “Crossing Beyond” is a symbolic work in Suslin’s output. Its title has nothing to do with the composer’s politically motivated decision to “cross beyond” the border of his own country of origin, i.e. to emigrate. Suslin remarked: “It is about a purely musical border—crossing from the well-tempered system to a diatonicism beyond that system.” In other words: to a microtonal system for which Suslin saw forerunners in musical folklore and in the music of some European Renaissance composers, for instance Nicola Vicentino and his archicembalo, a 16th century harpsichord built with many extra keys and strings, enabling experimentation in microtonality and just intonation. In Grenzübertritt this is reflected in particular by an unusual resolution of the sharpest dissonance of all, the tritone: instead of the usual thirds and sixths, we find the so-called “pure” or “perfect” consonant intervals of a fourth and fifth. Their “purity” is constantly being “corrected” by vertical arrows pointing towards the next quarter-tone. The composition unfolds like a labyrinth in which hearing, the composer explained, “wanders around in a ‘diatonic land beyond the looking-glass’, before returning to our ‘sinful’, well-tempered earth.”

—Tatjana Frumkis