All of Alfred Schnittke's music thrives on violent oppositions -- between the real and the false, the present and the past, the here and the hereafter. Perhaps one the composer's more novel dichotomies is that between the "strict" and the "free." In itself, this tension is nothing new in music: one sees it in the act of improvising on a ground bass or the development of motives within a tonal framework. And in Schnittke's case, one perceives the deep influence of Anton von Webern's notion of "fest und locker," balancing abstract pre-compositional plans with the unpredictable immediacy of invention.
But Schnittke takes this opposition to rather extreme and eccentric degrees, as one can see in his brief 1988 work for solo cello, Sounding Letters. Written for the 40th birthday of the composer's close friend and biographer, cellist Alexander Ivashkin, the five-minute score takes its "strict" aspect from Ivashkin's actual name, using Germanic letter/note equivalencies to form monogrammatic themes (for instance: A-l-E-x-A-n-D-E-r), and then making these into melodic or serial sequences. This practice -- heavily exploited by Bach, Schumann, and Schnittke's much-adored Alban Berg -- has became a hallmark of Schnittke's own style, as much a constructive device as a strange kind of homage to a quasi-occult tradition (Schnittke founds his Viola Concerto on dedicatee Yuri Bashmet's name, and his Fourth Violin Concerto employs no less than four names, among them fellow-composers Sofia Gubaydulina, Arvo Pärt, and Edison Denisov.)
This procedure obviously gives the composition a strict -- one might even say "indifferent" -- pre-compositional plan, almost an obstacle to invention, putting into the world of music something never intended for it. But what makes Schnittke's use of this musical monogramming so odd is his apparent disinterest in "musicalizing" this material: rather than dissolving it into a pliant musical development, Schnittke' seems to let it remain solid and slightly alienated. In the process he builds a work with sounds anything but "strict," and thus the other side, the "free"-Sounding Letters unfolds like an extremely prosaic, rambling recitative. Its awkward and halting speech sounds like a vocal fumbling with words (which it is in a sense), and creates an aloof, but surely deliberate atmosphere. Hence, by the end of this strange score, one has a sense of polarities, but not necessarily a balancing between them. But this is perhaps Schnittke's best gift -- to place brazen oppositions in a meticulous un-balance, to create a synthesis through mutual alienation.