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Separating the ‘real genuine’ from the ‘unreal artificial’

Sofia Gubaidulina’s String Quartet No. 4 will be played by the Lydian String Quartet.
Matthew Cavanaugh for The Boston Globe/file
Sofia Gubaidulina’s String Quartet No. 4 will be played by the Lydian String Quartet.

On Nov. 10, the Lydian String Quartet, in a concert at Boston Conservatory, will perform Sofia Gubaidulina’s String Quartet No. 4. Composed in 1993, the piece puts a live quartet in conversation with two prerecorded duplicates; optional, detailed parts for multicolored lights add the possibility of visual counterpoint as well. Gubaidulina conceived the work as a manifold exploration of “real” and “unreal”: standard string sounds and extended techniques (including bouncing a ball off the strings); the live players and their recorded counterparts; the play of colors opposed to the “unreal” extremes of total, white light or total darkness. All is in service of the work’s basic idea — as Gubaidulina put it, “the birth of the ‘real genuine’ from ‘unreal artificial.’ ”

Born in 1931, Gubaidulina is one of a fertile generation of composers from the former Soviet Union who, while spurned by official musical institutions and bureaucracy, carved out some measure of creative space between the country’s Khrushchev-era thaw and its corresponding Brezhnev-era retreat. Intrigued by avant-garde trends outside the USSR but limited in their access to such artistic cross-currents — Gubaidulina said that they were so late in gaining familiarity with then-prevalent trends in atonal modernism that the techniques became, to them, just another tool in the historical box — such composers absorbed experimental tendencies into their own, idiosyncratic paths.

For Gubaidulina, that path eventually took a deeply spiritual turn. She was baptized into the Orthodox church in 1970, an influence that, for reasons both artistic and political, would not fully bloom in her music for years. In that light, it is interesting to compare Gubaidulina’s fourth string quartet with her first, composed in 1971. The earlier piece is similarly theatrical, but in an opposite direction. The four players, by the end, move to the far corners of the stage, each recapitulating isolating sounds from the work’s opening, unsynchronized and incommunicative. Gubaidulina likened it to the retrenchment in Soviet society at the time: “a metaphor of the impossibility of being together,” she explained, “of the total deafness of people.”

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Gubaidulina’s first quartet ends in diffusion; the fourth seems to open in an equally disorienting multitude, the prerecorded music occupying the space before the players even lift their bows. But it is the live quartet around which the various strands finally coalesce: out of the bristle of engagement comes illumination. As a literary influence on the work, Gubaidulina acknowledged the poetry of T.S. Eliot — in particular, his “Four Quartets,” a similarly polyvalent meditation on the temporal and the divine. If Gubaidulina’s first quartet illustrates the unraveling of a world without spiritual sense, her fourth restlessly conjures up, as Eliot famously put it, “the still point of the turning world.”

The Lydian String Quartet performs music of Sofia Gubaidulina, Sergei Prokofiev, and Ludwig van Beethoven, Saturday, Nov. 10, at 8 p.m. at Seully Hall, Boston Conservatory. Admission is free; 617-536-6340; bostonconservatory.berklee.edu.

Matthew Guerrieri

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@gmail.com.