Ðóññêèé • English
- AN INTERVIEW
Robin Harris with Konstantin Zhigulin on May 29, 2005.
For the first time I met Konstantin Zhigulin in the house of my friends in the city of Novosibirsk, when I was flying from St.Petersburg to Yakutsk. Before we met each other in person we had been corresponding and had begun our cooperation. Konstantin’s reputation as a unique Russian composer writing spiritual music spreads for at least six time zones of Russia and further: his music has been performed in America and Germany also. His internet site is www.strannik.altnet.ru. At this site one can find the information in the Russian and the English languages not only about his music, but about poetry and different music projects of the composer.
Konstantin composes music in different styles both secular and spiritual. Apart from his many church songs, he wrote several compositions for a chamber orchestra and a choir, several works in the style of chamber music as well as some pieces for different musical instruments. The idea of an interview with this unique Russian composer was discussed over the phone. It was also recorded over the phone on May 29, 2005. This is a concise version of the interview, a short biography of the composer and his thoughts about music in Russian churches, his view of how the songs based on the Holy Scripture, hymns to the Lord may correspond to the Russian music aesthetics, how the aspects of faith and culture can blend.
A short biography of the composer.
Konstantin Zhigulin was born on June 23, 1972 in the Siberian city of Barnaul (Russia). His mother, Maria Maryanovna, was a music teacher so she encouraged her son to play music in every way. His father, Nicolas Stepanovich, a pilot by profession (and this profession is not void of romanticism) also agrees that music could be his hobby. Thus Konstantin began to study, beginning from seven years in a music school and then at a music college. He received good education, studying to play the piano and the flute. Though Konstantin didn’t attach much importance to his music classes, he always found joy in composing music; this never looked like work for him, but was as natural as breathing. Gradually, almost imperceptibly this “hobby” turned into the work of his life.
He didn’t receive any religious education. Like the majority of people living in the Soviet Union, his family didn’t go to church, so spiritual music didn’t influence him. His music resource was the classical piano repertoire, which he studied at music school. He also liked listening the representatives of English rock-school and the Russian group “The Aquarium”, known for its lyrics, expression of feelings and deep thoughts. At college he became familiar with other kinds of music, including the music of the Russian Orthodox Church, which, as he says, is very close to a Russian person and uniquely combines with the ideas of modest and respectful worship of God.
Konstantin has always been fond of poetry and its connection with music. He says, “The connection between the text and the melody of the song is especially important.” It is difficult to separate one from the other. The words of a song without music are not so important, as well as the melody without words loses much. The text and the melody are the wonderful complement of one another.
About Russian Christian music:
Q: What do you think God thinks about music in general?
A: Music is one of the biggest gifts God gave people. To some extant, in this wonderful gift God Himself is reflected. It is a unique connection of feelings, thoughts and emotions jf the whole person for the sake of his self-expression. You must know a verse from the Bible: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.” (Mt. 22:37). In this verse we can see a wonderful example of one of the goals of music. Music allows a person to participate both in listening and in performing.
Q: What do you think God thinks about music in your culture?
A: I don’t know…this is a difficult question. Music in itself is only a form. You can put into this form anything you like. An axe, for example (this is, of course, a rude example, but a bright one) – one can take an axe and hit someone with it on the head, but we can cut wood with the same axe to start a fire – to warm ourselves – this is joy. Music in a way an instrument which expresses ideas and a condition of a person who uses it.
Q: What composers influenced you especially?
In spite of the fact that I am Russian, western European composers had the greatest influence on me. I don’t know a more distinguished composer than Bach. Chopin, of course, Hendel. Mozart’s requiem is a wonderful composition… in a word – classics.
Q: How do you write songs?
A: First of all I want to understand completely the text, I think a lot about it.
Q: And how do you choose texts for songs?
A: Most texts from the Bible which I used in my compositions were suggested by a friend of mine Jeff Matteson. He said, “Look at this wonderful verse.” When all this was only beginning, my knowledge of theology was not as profound as it is now, at that time I just trusted Jeff and my own intuition. Jeff showed me passages in the Holy Scripture and I thought about them – in this way songs appeared. Much had to be rephrased, made more poetic and more musical – here it is important to understand the gist of a phrase, to understand the idea, the mood, the depth. Actually, this is a rather natural process; some texts even didn’t need rephrasing. But sometimes it was necessary to make “poetic translation” of the Holy Scripture so that words fit musical dimension and rhythm of the music.
Q: How did the process continue after this?
A: Have you ever heard a legend about a boy who could fly?
One boy could fly. Scientists were very interested in his ability. They invited him to a consultation so that he could tell how he does it. All he was saying was thoroughly recorded so eventually they had a complete picture about the process of flying. “Now, please, show us” – said the scientists. Ever since then the boy has been trying but he can’t fly. I don’t want to be a boy like him! This is what I feel with regard to spiritual music. In any event the most important thing in Psalms, on which I write music is to spread the Word of God. In reality the process of music writing is a mystery, a miracle in which a person participates. This happens like a prayer. You pray and a song is being born.
Q: How did you find out about Christianity?
A: My first impression which urged me to think about God was a painting of a famous Dutch painter Ieroniomus Boskh “Carrying the Cross”. When I first saw this painting something happened to my soul. In this painting the Christ, carrying the cross is surrounded by the people who are absolutely hideous. If you have ever seen that painting, you will understand what I mean. It is difficult to find the words which would explain what was going on in my heart, the only thing I can say is that this painting deeply touched me. You know that God shows Himself to people in different ways; some people find Him in art, others in music or nature. I don’t know why this happened to me through the painting. Before it had never impressed me very much. That painting kept appearing in my life at some important moments. I saw it now in magazines, now somewhere else.
Q: How old were you then?
A: I was about 16 -18 years old. A friend of mine invited me to the classes of an Orthodox priest, which I attended for about three months. In the end I understood that it was serious, the emphasis of the classes was on the hell and the suffering which await the sinners. The condition I was in was awful, it seemed to me that I was on the verge of death (perhaps it was true). Thus I understood the necessity of baptism, but I wasn’t baptized in the Russian Orthodox Church but in the Church of Christ. At that time it was not important for me who exactly baptized me; I understood that “it is God who baptizes not people” and God forgives sins. After this much changed in my life of course. I made friends with Jeff Matteson and began to write music, which reflected my spiritual life. For me music has been a gift from God, through which he helps me to grow spiritually. I realize that my music has touched other people as well and I am very glad about it, but at the beginning it helped me, perhaps because of this it becomes valuable for others too.
Q: How did music help or hinder the evangelical Christianity in Russia?
A: This is a very difficult question; I know that when I began to attend the evangelical church and listened to music which they sang, I was scared. It was awful; the music which I listened to did not conform to any model with which I had been familiar before. It was not connected with anything in the Russian culture, let alone “the high Russian culture.” In the songs no attention was paid to the Russian lyrical tradition. Those were translated American songs. Unfortunately, the translations were far from perfect.
Our understanding of God and religion in general is formed on the basis of culture and upbringing. In Russia the Russian Orthodox Church has an incredibly strong influence on the thinking in that field. This, of course, influences our understanding of what “real” spiritual music should be like. Irrespective of the content of the texts, the musical form modeled by Russian Orthodox Church is the form that corresponds to our faith.
The translated songs, however, seemed to me strange because from time to time they were just ridiculous, looked like a march instead of making you well disposed to peace and thinking. At that time I began to understand that it was just because of lack of understanding on the part of the people who brought the Good News to us. They shared with us what they had out of good motives. And those who heard and received the Good News were, naturally, very thankful for this. It is just because of this that I accept these missionaries; it is difficult to overestimate the work they did for the Kingdom. Of course, if today we went to some tribe with the Good News, we would teach them Russian music, the music that corresponds to our tradition and perhaps they would react like I used to react because they are accustomed to hitting the drums! One must be able to understand the difference between the gist of the Good News and the traditions of the believers. Nevertheless I should say that there are a lot of American and European songs that sound wonderfully in Russian too. For example such songs as “Silent Night”, “As a deer”. These are wonderful songs which are somehow close to the Russian soul. They are loved in Russia very much.
Q: How do you see your role in the development of Russian spiritual music?
A: I think that the songs I have written are useful for the church and I’m glad about it. Music could become one of the ways to mutual understanding of the people of different denominations in Christianity. There is a lot of misunderstanding among Christians everywhere, but irrespective of the fact whether a person is a Baptist or charismatic, he is somehow connected to our culture. Music can become something in which we can find the points of contact. For example I saw how this happened recently when my small singing group was invited to a meeting of a charismatic church. Remember, in Russian society, people have a very good understanding what spiritual music can be like and what it cannot be like. When these people began listening to our songs, this worked for us, they even thought that we were Orthodox, though we didn’t sing in the Old Slavic language, but my songs, in my own poetic translations. When they talked to us later there was an incredible level of respect, not because they thought that we were Orthodox, but because they heard in the songs something special, something that corresponded to their own understanding of what spiritual music should be like. Their souls responded to such a way of worshiping God.
Q: I know Russians don’t like answering such questions but still; what would you like to do in the near five, ten years? What is your view of the future?
A: You are right; this is not a question which I can answer. Frankly speaking I am not sure what will become of me tomorrow. The only thing I can say about my hopes for the future is that I would never want to lose what I have found – my faith in God. This is the only thing I can rely on. Every day people try to deceive us; we even try to deceive ourselves that God doesn’t see us, we push him to the side of our lives, in such a way we sin. Most of all in life I want to remain with God. If I cannot do this, nothing else is worthy. Nothing else matters.
Q: What were the hardest times in your life? How did music help you?
A: You know I like the following saying: “If you want to know the doctrine of the church, look at the songs they sing”. When I experienced hard times in my life, the first thing that helped me not to be at a loss was songs. Sure, verses also occur to me, but often it is a song or a phrase from a song which helps, pulls me out of a pit. For example the psalms that I wrote last year were a great help to me.
When music is composed for the psalm they become closer to my heart. Interestingly, that until I started writing music for the psalms it was as if I hadn’t heard them. When I wrote the music to the text of one of the psalms “In the Shadow of Your Wings” those words entered my heart. Such wonderful words: “My King and God, my heart sings admiring You. Like a bird that finds a shelter by your altar.”
Q: What is the role of the Russian and the Ukrainian songs and Prokhanov’s songs? And what makes you unique among other Russian Christian composers?
A: In general they are understandable and simple. You know people value simplicity in Christian songs. They really want for the songs to be simple. I must admit that when I write songs I cannot always make them simple. I seek “simplicity” but my songs are a little more complex than those that are sung in the church. Some of my songs are simpler and people always appreciate this. Some of Prokhanov’s songs are absolutely wonderful (for example “The Great God”). I am different in my approach to the songs: there are songs about God (what He is like, what He did, etc) This approach is from the third person singular, but not an appeal to God directly. This is a very important distinction, because you can sing about God all the time – about His love and His mercy – and never sing to Him.
In the music of the Russian Orthodox Church and in my music the text is usually addressed directly to God and because of this I use the texts of psalms and some texts from the gospels. I believe this is an important aspect of what is to happen during the church service. In other words I am speaking about the prayer. I think that songs should be prayers – a song for me is a way to pray to the Lord.
Q: What distinguishes Russian Christian music from western Christian music in terms of the sound and the form?
A: This is a very difficult question, because there are, of course, strong associations that connect us with the tradition of the Orthodox Church; but there are other styles which are part of our spiritual heritage. For example, Prokhanov’s songs which are linked with Baptist and evangelical churches as well as other musical trends.
One of the observations about Russian Orthodox music is that in many cases those songs were written by incredibly gifted composers like Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov. They were men of genius, their songs were real works of art. On the other hand, this music is linked so closely to the Russian Orthodox church and its doctrine that a question arises to what extant this music is close to the spirit of the gospel. For example, how suitable is this music for congregational singing? From these small questions thousands of other questions stem. Of course, there should be “high ideals” of the spiritual thought in music and painting used in the church. But there should be simple things too.
Talking about music and art I should say that in the Russian Orthodox Church music is “a singing icon”. And this is a unique idea because it reminds us about the One whom we should worship. But the problem is that although emotions are turned on, reason is turned off. This kind of worshiping is based on spiritual experience, emotions and feelings but not on understanding. I don’t say that reason is completely turned off but the emphasis is clearly not on it. If we return to what I was saying at the beginning of the interview “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your mind.” (Math. 22:37), then we shall see that this music does not completely correspond to the faith. So I believe this is not an ideal…
But if we consider western music, for example some American songs, then we can see the opposite. Everything is clear and understandable but something is lacking “in the soul”, something that hits off the heart. I do not say that all American songs are like this but many are.
Music that I began to compose about ten years ago is the music that lies between these two trends. I want to compose the music that will be clear and understandable, the music that challenges and appeals but at the same time addresses the heart and the soul. I think this is what we need in Russia today