Georgian Composer Giya Kancheli, 1935–2019

By Greg Cahill

Georgian composer Giya Kancheli has died in Tblisi. He was 84. A highly original musical thinker, Kancheli often attributed his artistic independence to his early listening. It was a love of jazz, firstly, that brought him to the composition classes of the Tblisi Conservatoire with dreams of writing for big band after the manner of Duke Ellington and Stan Kenton. A performance of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring turned his world upside down, as he put it, as did exposure to the music of Bartók and Webern. “If everything had happened in logical sequence,” Kancheli once said, “my scale of values would have been different, and I would, correspondingly, have written different music.”

Violinist Gidon Kremer is one of the most loyal interpreters of Kancheli’s music, first appearing on Lament, which was recorded in the composer’s homeland Georgia with the Tblisi Symphony Orchestra. On Chiaroscuro, Kancheli’s most recent ECM release, Kremer played together with violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja. Other string works include Mourned By the Wind, a liturgy for viola and orchestra. Further musicians and friends who served Kancheli’s wide musical oeuvre are violist Kim Kashkashian, cellist Thomas Demenga, the Kronos Quartet, Oleg Maisenberg, the Hilliard Ensemble, Dino Saluzzi and Jan Garbarek.

A performance of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring turned his world upside down, as he put it, as did exposure to the music of Bartók and Webern.

Coming late to the full scope of contemporary composition, hard to hear in the Soviet Union of the 1950s, he looked to Shostakovich’s work for guidance: “His symphonies were almost my only models of contemporary art under the conditions of my information isolation.”


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Lasting friendships were gradually formed with other composers of his generation, composers with whom he felt a spiritual affinity, including Alfred Schnittke, Arvo Pärt and Valentin Silvestrov. Kancheli’s music, however, is its own universe, often distinguished by extreme dynamic contrasts, from a whisper to a thunderous roar. At all volume levels a yearning, deeply melancholic quality resonates in its timbres.

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In 1991, Kancheli moved to the West, first to Berlin and later to Antwerp, always remaining resolutely Georgian in spirit. Kancheli’s moving song cycle Exil, conducted by Vladimir Jurowski and released on ECM New Series in 1995—with settings of verses of Paul Celan and Hans Sahl—was interpreted by some critics as an autobiographical work, a view Kancheli strove to dispel: “Nobody expelled me from anywhere. If I had left in Soviet times, when you couldn’t go back, it would have been an entirely different matter.”

He travelled frequently to his homeland, where he was a revered figure, widely known for his writing for film and theatre as well as for his orchestral works.

Kancheli’s music was first heard on ECM New Series in 1992 with Vom Winde beweint, performed by his long-term supporters violist Kim Kashkashian and Dennis Russell Davies, who was also the conductor on Trauerfarbenes LandCaris Mere (including clarinettist Eduard Brunner), Abii ne viderem and Diplipito.

Mstislav Rostropovich who appeared together with conductor Jansug Kakhidze on Magnum Ignotum, said: “I love this composer for his independence. Olivier Messiaen revealed for me the limitlessness and endlessness of time, and the same is true for Kancheli.”

Watch an interview with Kamncheli. And view a performance of Kancheli’s elegiac Angels of Sorrow, featuring violinist Gidon Kremer and the Kremerata Baltica (featured above).