The desire to remake the world is a long-acknowledged aspiration of the Romantic movement. It is also at work as a core impulse in the work of Galina Ustvolskaya, though one would not deign to call her a Romantic. Her voice carries none of the details of Romanticism as we usually discuss it: this music is not a collection of "intimate particulars"; it does not drift or sentimentalize; it steadfastly refuses to become lost in reverie or night, and paints no illusions of utopia or glowing death. If it is "Romantic," it is only in the hardest, most antithetical sense, as music which wants to tear out the world's own core, and place in it a new one, pulsating with a private vision's seismic force.
Ustvolskaya's Fifth Piano Sonata is perhaps the most literal embodiment of this cataclysmic sensibility. It forsakes all of music's better-known gravitational forces: there is no motivic development, no melody, no ascent, climax, and denouement; nor is there any tonality in the sense of keys or modes. Instead, all activity polarizes around a single nodal D flat directly in the middle of the keyboard (right above middle C): utterly unforgiving in its insistent secrecy, this pitch holds an almost absurd sway, and remains locked into its register throughout the sonata's ten short movements. In the first, third, eighth, and last movements, this D flat is pounded out at greatest volumes; it appears as the spine of some fitful, monstrous force, but one is never sure if it threads into the activity surrounding it, harmonizing with it, or whether it simply maintains its place with astonishing obliviousness. In the quiet movements, the D flat carries a different power, materializing like the afterglow of light sources; tones and chords revolve around it with hypnotic focus, still failing to unlock its cryptic knots.
And as the sonata's every moment orients around this ever-repeated D flat, on a larger lever the entire 18-minute score rotates on the axis of its fifth movement, perhaps Ustvolskaya's strangest, most essential music. The longest of the movements, it consists of only two elements -- the single pitch in the center of the keyboard, and a diatonic cluster directly below it, from F to B (the four "white keys"), which is struck at impossible but precisely measured volumes (fffff to ffffff), again and again in regular quarter notes. It would be fruitless to find another passage so starkly violent in the whole keyboard repertoire, and yet this music opens a universe of experience through its resonance repetition. Ustvolskaya's directions -- that the pianist should hit the cluster with the knuckles, so that the bones audibly smack upon the keys -- suggests that the performer must prove her own devotion through pain, through sheer traumatic endurance.
Speaking for the entire sonata, this music eclipses its own tradition and machinery through bare, imploring presence. In Romantic terms, the sonata would be an essay in the "sublime"; but this music moves further, cracking the sublime in two and revealing a visceral fear beyond all aesthetic terms.