Peter Schmelz, professor of musicology in Arizona State University's School of Music, Dance and Theatre, was recently awarded the 2022 American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers Foundation's Deems Taylor/Virgil Thomson Award in the concert music field for his most recent book “Sonic Overload: Alfred Schnittke, Valentin Silvestrov, and Polystylism in the Late USSR" (Oxford University Press, 2020).
Considered an expert in 20th- and 21st-century music, and more specifically Ukrainian, Russian and Soviet music, Schmelz has received three awards from the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers.
In addition, Schmelz’s “Sonic Overload” received the American Musicological Society’s 2022 Otto Kinkeldey Award as a “musicological book of exceptional merit that provides a genuinely fresh perspective on the music of Schnittke and Silvestrov as well as its broader significance. … The book brings the music, the era and its attendant ambivalences and confusions alive.”
Schmelz said the inspiration for writing “Sonic Overload” grew directly from his first book, “Such Freedom, If Only Musical: Unofficial Soviet Music During the Thaw,” which discussed the sociocultural meanings of avant-garde music composed during the Soviet 1960s. Schmelz said that after finishing the book, he felt more could be said about two of the composers, Schnittke and Silvestrov.
“I had long been interested in Schnittke’s music, but I had grown increasingly captivated by Silvestrov’s,” said Schmelz. “As I started kicking around ideas for the second book, I realized that polystylism would be an ideal way to tie the two composers to one another and to larger cultural currents in the Soviet Union.”
The entire project, from his initial ideas to the published book, took a little over a decade. Schmelz’s first archival research in mid-2010 at the Paul Sacher Stiftung in Basel, Switzerland, was supported by a generous grant from that archive. He completed the manuscript during the first months of the pandemic in early 2020.
While he was researching and writing "Sonic Overload," Schmelz also completed “Alfred Schnittke’s Concerto Grosso no. 1” (Oxford University Press), a shorter book published in 2019 that focuses on one of Schnittke's best-known and most compelling works.
Schmelz also received support from the National Endowment for the Humanities and completed the “Sonic Overload” project as a Guggenheim Fellow.
“I hope that readers come away from 'Sonic Overload’ with a better sense of its direct topics — the mature polystylistic music of Alfred Schnittke and Valentin Silvestrov and its importance within the late USSR,” said Schmelz. “I also hope that I demonstrate their connections to larger global trends related to collage, quotation and information overload. They are two crucial composers from the late 20th century who tell us about what it meant to be alive during this period of great upheaval and technological change and how identities were (and are) negotiated by filtering the informational torrent of the constant, unrelenting exposure to new sounds, images and ideas. And how music can act as a consistent yet transitory personal archive and shield against that torrent.”
Schmelz said that because of Russia’s war in Ukraine, Silvestrov’s music has begun to appear with great frequency on concert programs around the world. He noted that in a New York Times interview with Silvestrov after the war started and the composer evacuated from his home in Kyiv to Berlin, the composer stated, “Does music not have any value in and of itself without any kind of war?”
“The award from the American Musicological Society was especially gratifying because it is an award from other musicologists,” said Schmelz. “It suggests that 'Sonic Overload’ has had resonance within the field beyond readers in its immediate subject areas, which was always my hope. I think that the example of polystylism and information overabundance in the late USSR has much to tell us about our own lives and times, as we continue to grapple with an ever-increasing amount of sounds, ideas and images.”
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