Interview with conductor Nikita Sorokine: “Perception of thoughts expressed through music is an essential part of human nature”

Nikita Sorokin was born in Leningrad in 1990. In 2008, he Graduated from the Glinka Choral School as a choir conductor. In 2013, he completed his studies at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory. Rimsky-Korsakov), where he studied music theory. Since 2013 – PhD student, St. Petersburg state Conservatory, working on his dissertation devoted to the work of Mahler. Research interests: stream of consciousness, interdisciplinarity, analysis of drama and interpretation. While studying at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, he was a concertmaster in the conducting classes of professors Yu. Simonov, V. Sinai, A. Titov, and V. Altshuler. Collaborates with the Russian Institute of Art History in preparation for the academic publication of A. Borodin’s Second Symphony. Since 2016, he has been a student of the Paris Conservatory of Music in the class of Symphony conducting (Prof. A. Altinoglu). Participated in master classes with the national orchestra of Lyon (D. Tsinman) and The Philharmonic orchestra of Radio France (M. Frank). N. Sorokin’s works were performed in the Concert hall of the Mariinsky theater, the State Singing Capella, and the Union of Composers (Saint Petersburg).

We met with Nikita in Paris in December 2019 and, although the conversation seemed light and friendly, it touched upon many philosophical issues related to music, as well as anthropology of it: the role of the audiences, the relationship of the orchestra and the conductor, the message of the composer and what could be called a musical composition, the primary role of sounds in human nature, and many others. To guide you through this interview, I took a liberty to re-organize our talk along particular topics: you can pick and choose the ones that interest you.


Tell me, how does one get connected with the heritage of music? Is it through listening and reading scores? Is it possible to truly hear through reading only?

Actually, listening is very important, but I think it’s not quite the same as making music. In other words, you need to be a part of the process. There are music lovers who listen to it a lot and can distinguish different performances by ear. In France where I study now a lot of attention is paid to what is called «auditory commentary» when you put a record on, and you need to write what style it was, what instruments were played, what is its rhythmic organization, and so on. It seems to me that it will be easier to hear these things if you had had some tactile connection with music.

So just hearing it is not enough to understand music?

It may be enough for some people, but it’s definitely not enough for me. Composers themselves had to have a tactile connection with the material. For example, it is often obvious when the composer used piano chords: in orchestral music there is such a phenomenon as «piano texture» when the composer transfers what was invented at the instrument almost directly to the orchestra. Composers can generally only compose either in their heads or using the piano (if we don’t take new technologies into account).

Returning to your biography, how was your musical culture formed?

I studied at the the Glinka Choral School, or Capella, the first musical educational institution in Russia. It has existed from the moment of the foundation of St. Petersburg. It is an institution where musical subjects are mixed with general education, and children spend the whole day studying music. This is a very special experience, because in this institution we were engaged in makimg music every day and it was a boys-only institution. Our choir took part in very important concerts. Mahler’s Third Symphony is one of the first impressions of my childhood. Its fifth movement begins with the chorus entering: “BIMM-BAMM”, and it is the boys who should sing it. Maestro Yuri Temirkanov conducted this concert. If you sing it at 9 years old, it changes your life forever, it’s dizzying, unbelievable, opening a new sound world for you. Not to mention my participation in Mozart’s and Verdi’s Requiems, Shostakovich’s Thirteenth Symphony, and other works. We sang a lot of things with the orchestra, and it was immense. It is difficult to overestimate the significance of this experience.

How important teachers are in shaping a personality of a musician? You have taken part in various masterclasses. Do they limit your independence or reveal something you wouldn’t necessarily have found?

The teacher is always of monumental importance. A child’s interest is not enough to master music: you need to maintain and develop this interest, and the teacher plays a huge role here. A teacher is a guide to the world of music. If the teacher is a good one, he or she will try to teach his student to think independently. When a person graduates from the Conservatory, he or she should not have questions like: «What am I going to do now?
I don’t know how to play music at all» when nothing happens unless the professor advises something. My teacher Igor Rogalev, a Professor at the Conservatory in St. Petersburg (I wrote a dissertation on Mahler with him) first of all tries to teach his students to think independently. When we think about music, when we reason and analyze, it is very important to use our own active perception. Passive one, when a teacher gives you some ready-made cliches and schemes, is no good. No, you must find your own meanings, structures, and connections.

As for masterclasses, they differ from one another. There are commercial ones where a business idea of making money is prevalent. The musician doing it is not really very interested in the development of his students, and it is superficial. But there are masterclasses where the teacher’s input is no less, or even more, than that of the participants. Such was the masterclass of Tugan Sohiev in Toulouse with his orchestra where he conscientiously worked with detailed elaboration. I learned a lot of things there that I would not have understood myself, because I perceive some things differently. I could also mention Yuri Simonov’s courses, where we all worked tirelessly for almost two weeks on end. Is it possible to lose your independence there? Certainly not. There is nothing wrong with copying someone, learning from someone by imitating them. If you have talent and ideas, you will still have a chance to express them later, when you master the methods and tools of work. And if there is no talent — then what difference does it make?


What did music give you in childhood and adolescence compared to literature, paintings, and other forms of art?

I sometimes take a word and start saying it many times in a row so that its meaning disappears and the word becomes just a sounding object, a vessel of sound essense. I guess that’s what attracted me to music, too – that there is a certain sound substance that you can interact with. Well, in terms of emotions, she always gave me a lot. Music has been primarily about emotions for me, not to do with a detached perception. I have never had a view of music as a construction.

So music is free from meaning and gives emotions, correct?

Yes, but emotions are not a verbalized entity. There is a famous case when Tchaikovsky described the fourth Symphony in a letter to von Meck, outlining the literary plot, and then reread the letter and was horrified by what he had written. Music is always broader than any literary interpretation. Tchaikovsky also believed that music almost always has a literary basis, but there are many composers who did not share this view. It cannot be both: music connected with literature or not.

And in your opinion is music somehow related to architecture? There have been works dedicated to some buildings and structures.

Yes, there are those of Iannis Xenakis works, for example. It’s embedded in the music itself. The musical materials used by the composer are different in nature. There are very economical ones who don’t want to use new material again. They will make the most of one found thing. I’m not even talking about minimalists, it’s obvious in their works, but Stravinsky also did it very often. Although it may not seem so, as he had many different styles, but still his thinking involves drawing maximum benefit out of a single idea. In «The Rite of Spring» there is one chord that he constantly repeats, as he admired it. There are composers who do the opposite: there is a type of musical dramaturgy called «frame construction».
it involves a sequence of episodes, and each subsequent episode should overdo the previous one, constantly maintaining our interest. Endless novelty is very difficult, but some composers have examples of this approach. I see this quite often in Prokofiev, in his concerts and symphonies.

Music always has a tangible, physical aspect, as it does not exist until it is sung by a voice or played by instruments.

Exactly. There is such a concept in German «musik für die Augen» - music for the eyes. It is music that was originally composed for seeing it on the paper, not listening to it. The beauty of the score, the beauty of the way it is written sometimes exceeds the actual sound beauty. When I look at the score, it’s very beautiful, and can appreciate it afterwards, but without visual perception it does not immediately happen. Different types of music suggest different approaches.


If you consider various types of music, you will find different types of thinking embedded there. You can trace the composer’s thoughts if you know how to do it.

It’s very difficult, as we are not taught to do it. It seems that the musical event that occurs in a certain work is often overlooked. How to figure out what exactly is going on in the music? Leonard Bernstein understood the importance of these matters and always explained them in his lectures: they are remarkable as he does not forget about it. I think that it is necessary to continue the education of the listener in this direction nowadays. The way you listen is important, and this point is linked to the question what the music is.

I am trying to collect views of musicians on the subject.

Opinions are very different, you can write the whole book about definitions of music. I think that no one will ever come to an agreement. I also always think about it. I think every musician has some thoughts about it. I don’t think that everything that sounds can be called music, while some think it can and this is a well-known point of view. It was shared by John Cage and Berio. Then you can say that the coffee grinder is also music, if you hear it like that. But I would like to follow Tatyana Bershadskaya in calling it a «timbre», but still not music.

Or you could call those sounds noise, perhaps.

The art of music for me is primarily in intoning. However, even the musicologist Asafiev does not have a clear definition of what intonation is, as it is a very complex concept. It is so multidimensional, it includes so many things. You can say that intonation is a life experience expressed in sounds. Intonation is not a combination of intervals, it is something meaningful. So the concept of music for me is very much related to intonation. Intonation cannot exist by itself outside of our thinking. The coffee grinder does not think, and therefore it cannot produce intonation. You may not agree and say: «Yes, but can we hear it in our heads and perceive it as intonation». Yes, but we are not composers.
The idea that everyone can be a composer prevailed in the twentieth century after all the those terrible consequences of the war and dictatorships. This democratic idea prevailed at some point, and Cage was in some way involved in its popularity. You can listen even to silence after 4’33’’. And, in fact, it is not difficult. Anyone can be a composer. But in my understanding, this is only a reaction to constraints I mentioned earlier. Today this approach is outdated, deceptive. I can see why in the States it could take root and draw attention: at the beginning of the twentieth century, many composers were essentially amateurs in the USA. John Cage and Charles Ives did not have professional education. Composers who took private lessons from Nadia Boulanger are one thing, and composers who have passed through the academic schooling are another.

According to semiotics, we impose our own meanings on texts. One would suppose that we are able to do the same in music.

We are talking right now, but if we listen to the recording of the interview later, we will perceive it differently. And we can find different word constructions, different syntax in the way I speak and you speak. But at the moment when we were talking, we were not thinking about it. The same goes for composers. Of course, composers think their works through in great detail, those are living organisms for them, they know everything about each of their notes, as they are flesh of their flesh. But there are a lot of things that they just don’t think about when they write, while these things are revealed later. Th degree of ownership of the material during creation is so high that the composer simply doesn’t notice how he achieves an incredible thing, while we discover it later. When we analyze Beethoven’s works, we find something new – maybe Beethoven didn’t think about it. In the meanwhile, even when he or she breaks the mould, the composer works with pre-existing models – perception models, genre models – and that is very important.. There are uniform genre models, such as a waltz. There are rhythmic formulas that everyone can hear. The composer works with them. And when we are aware of it, this is when we begin to see something new, when we look at composer’s works using these optics of context — some things immediately become clear. And whether these new things came about consciously or not for a composer – Mozart, Beethoven, etc. – no one knows. And when you show such things to a listener, it helps a lot. One must treat music as speech, as a particular utterance. Not just labeling it as “beautiful”. Well, it’s beautiful, but what’s next? What’s the point?

This is probably what I am trying to do in my research: to combine linguistic, anthropological and musical understanding, to understand how we perceive music, because for the brain speech is related to meanings, thoughts, ideas, while I want to understand whether music is also such a language of meaningul expression and whether we could agree on its meanings. For many people, music is a kind of Chinese language that sounds very good and beautiful, and that is it.

Yes, unfortunately, because now, with the development of many visual things, such as YouTube, Instagram, and a lot of other things, the visual side dominates, and music moves into a subordinate position. Because nowadays music is always written for something. For a movie, advertisement, role, performance, and so on. And the fact that music as a force that does not need any crutches and props, has not really taken root in mass consciousness. It should take more space in our consciousness as a powerful individual force.

Don’t you think that it happens because we have forgotten how to concentrate? It takes time to understand a piece of music, you need the ability to engage in the listening process for 40-50 minutes, and if it is say Mahler’s Third Symphony-even for more than an hour and a half without a break. It turns out that you have to understand things that take place during this time. And to do that you have to concentrate, while we only pay attention to clips. It seems to me that people switch off every 5-10 minutes and do not train their attention nowadays.

This is indeed a very serious issue. Listening to music is an intellectual activity, not a recreation. It is clear that people work, they have a difficult life, and they want to relax at a concert, this is normal. But these are works that need repeated listening, not just a single seating. Just as good books need re-reading and good paintings in museums need to be seen again, so music needs to be listened to carefully. Yes, nowadays there is not enough attention and concentration, and it also happens because people find themselves in an unfamiliar environment. In a concert hall there is only food for the ear and there is nothing for the eye, and this is an unusual situation for most people. This is a situation where something needs to be done. You want to look at the program or look at the orchestra or do something else in terms of visual perception. On the other hand, concerts do not take place in complete darkness. Although Richter said, ” Don’t look at me, I’m playing in the dark,” the image of the performer-artist affects perception. I’m a conductor. The conductor is very important for the process also because people perceive music differently when they see different conductors. Let’s imagine hypothetically that the same work is played two times by two different conductors. I bet everything you want that people will proclaim these pieces “different,” even though they were the same from a physical, mathematical point of view. But music isn’t about math, and that’s the whole point. Music is about how we perceive it. This is very important. Some composers treat music as an exclusively sound construct, while I am sure that our perception means a lot, and it is not only through ears. The composer, first of all, works with our memory. Without memory we would not have been able to listen to music, because we would not have been able to remember what happened before a certain moment or some time ago, while music unfolds in time.


My next question is about conducting. You mentioned that you need to understand the way composers think. And how does one learn to understand how different conductors think? Could you explain to non-musicologists how to understand what the conductor’s idea is and why it makes sense to listen to different performances of the same work?

It is almost impossible to explain this, because in fact there are only a few people, even among professional musicians, who can really appreciate the work of a conductor. This sounds very paradoxical, but very often even musicians who play in an orchestra can not evaluate the conductor’s skill with accuracy. Why? Precisely because they do not hear the overall sound, his or her final result. Surely musicians can evaluate competence, literacy, and other characteristics that a conductor uses when working with them. But musicians perceive music locally, from their individual positions, and they hear…

Shostakovich, Symphony No 9, 5th Movement, conducted by Nikita Sorokine

Just their own instrument?

Sometimes, indeed, yes. They can hear and evaluate their own sound, of course. But I wanted to say that the overall sound is more likely to be appreciated by those who are outside the process of music-making. The audience, however, can’t really appreciate it either, because they just don’t know where they hear the result of the conductor’s work at a rehearsal, where the orchestra made a mistake or conductor made a mistake while orchestra overcame it and sounded good. This is impossible to understand if you are not a professional musician. And there is no way to teach understanding this. Therefore, for the listener, this is not important, this is not the main thing. So people come and listen to different conductors. What they are probably interested in is first of all the personality. Aesthetic appearance, energy-things that are difficult to describe, but are felt instinctively by audiences.

So when we are attending a Mahler symphony concert, we are not thinking about Mahler, but about specific modern people?

There is an ongoing discussion about it. There are conductors who obscure the composer. And there are those who, on the contrary, are channeling their music. The difference can hardly be defined in any specific way, but the conductor, in any case, is supposed to be the composer’s advocate. The conductor protects the composer’s works, the conductor is responsible for ensuring that the music does not fail, that it sounds interesting and captivating, causes some thoughts and emotions. The conductor is responsible for what happens to the composer’s work and how it is understood by others. We can say that if we appeal to the Platonic vision of things, composer is the ideal Eidos, and the material realization of Eidos is ensured by conductor. As a matter of fact, he or she actually becomes a congenial double of the composer. The conductor must be on the same level as titans of composition, or at least try to approach their heights because he is responsible for how they will be perceived. But it is very easy to spoil this connection. You can ruin Bach, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, anyone. You can play them in a way so that they will sound like something else. Here it is tricky as there is no higher authority that can stop the conductor. There is no one who can say: «that’s wrong you can’t do that!» The orchestra, the musicians will only do what he or she says. The director of the orchestra and the administration: they don’t understand anything about the process. Therefore, the conductor is the person who is responsible for everything. At the same time, there is a skeptical attitude towards conductors on the part of musicians. I heard the following observation from Yuri Ivanovich Simonov: «To be an average conductor, you basically do not need anything. Buy a baton and just wave your hands — and you will be an average among others». To be an average violinist, you still need to spend your entire childhood on it. This fact is causes a dismissive attitude among instrumentalists. There are famous soloists who say that the conductor serves for nothing at all, and that some people (i.e. conductors) just profit from honest work, ride on the hump of real heroes (i.e. musicians). And indeed, this can happen. But real, honest, great conductors – they never do that. They show the maximum degree of responsibility.

And as you said, the conductor’s intellectual activity during the performance should be congenial to the composer.

Yes, but here you can always divide conductors into intellectuals and those who rely primarily on musical instincts. There are conductors who know a lot. For example, nowadays one of them is Vladimir Jurowski. He is an example of an intellectual conductor. Of course, he also has feelings, there are many of them, and they are very different. Another pole in the profession – for instance, Teodor Currentzis. I have often heard from colleagues and musicians of the orchestra that Claudio Abbado had led that he did not know how to rehearse. But this only seems that way. He had the opportunity to work with orchestras of the highest level, and he could convey a lot of things through an impulse, a gesture or a succinct phrase, and nothing else was needed. Giving lectures before concerts was clearly not his thing. Another different case is Gennady Rozhdestvensky. He built the program according to certain principles, and he was very happy to give lectures before concerts, explaining why the program was formed this way. Or Pierre Boulez - a pure intellectual. While Yevgeny Mravinsky – he would never be giving lectures or writing articles.

How do you work with contemporary ensembles and composers?

I have had a chance to work with Ensemble Intercontemporain in Paris on the work of Finnish composer Magnus Lindberg. It is an ensemble of the highest level of professionals who have personally seen and worked with many famous composers. As a student, as a person without significant experience, I could hardly tell them anything extraordinary about Webern. As people who play this music, they know it better than me. So I have to get them interested in some new musical idea that they haven’t come across yet. In St. Petersburg I had the opportunity to meet some modern composers personally, as I took part in festivals of modern music there: «Sound paths», «From the avant-garde to the present day». Young composers from different cities came to St. Petersburg, and I was asked to conduct their concerts. So I personally worked with each of them. All the composers whom I worked with, if not expected me to contribute, then at least were interested in new ideas that I could offer as a conductor. They didn’t have the position of «this is what I wrote and this is carved in marble», not at all. As a composer myself, I like it when there’s room for variation and experiment. I like to leave freedom for the performer. I think this is important, I don’t like it when everything is written down, because then it turns into a competition of notation accuracy. Perhaps if I come across such works and have to conduct them, I will try to find an approach to them, but I will not choose such works in the first place, as my choices are then limited.

You said that you one should learn to develop one’s thinking. How does this happen during the process of conducting? How much do you stand in the shadow of previous interpretations, previous conductors? How can you avoid being like someone else?

First, there are orchestras that have played a piece of music many times, and it has been in their repertoire for a long time. Then there are orchestras that have played this work for a very long time and do not remember it — this is another story. The world premiere is the third story. In the case when the orchestra has already played a composition many times, you must be very careful not to ruin their relationship with it. So I would compare it to an excavation. Gradually you remove a layer by layer and pay attention to historical milestones. The orchestra, similarly to a piece of music, can also have historical milestones in its own interpretation of the piece, and you should hear it and feel it. Ruining or changing it could be compared to archaeologists who will find something and then chop the piece with an axe to see it better. Probably, if I am the Chief Conductor of an orchestra, I can only gradually change something towards my own vision. But I think it would still interesting for me to have a dialogue with previous interpretations, so that everything is not built from scratch, but rather in a dialogue with a tradition that is already alive and have been existing for years.

Beethoven, Symphony No.7, 4th Movement. Conducted by Nikita Sorokine

So, you don’t come in as a new incredible talent who is about to create something unique?

No way. Such approach is bound to fail. This is just not possible. Even well-known and universally recognized conductors do not act like this. There may be some proposals on their side that can be accepted - some accelerando that is done differently. We know that, say, for Mahler, interpretations of his works are very different. If we look at the timing of peformances - they could be dramatically different. We could take adagietto from his Fifth Symphony. Sometimes it is played very fast, and sometimes – almost three times slower. There have been polar interpretations. What should I do in this case? Of course, you still need to have your own vision, and use your emotions. But it is difficult to give a perfect recipe for conductor’s behaviour for each time.

So, nothing is carved in marble, even the interpretation is usually a result of specific intertextual interactions and a certain moment in time?

Yes. Let’s take Currentzis. He has his own orchestra, that has been formed by him, and nobody has worked with them before him. This was of fundamental importance for him. So in his case, it was building the orchestra from scratch. It was the same with Mravinsky. Or let’s take The Mariinsky Symphony orchestra led by Valery Gergiev: it is well known that this orchestra can not play with any conductor. And not every conductor will dare to play with this orchestra. Because they are honed to a specific system of conductor’s signals, and they can not immediately adjust to a new one. Therefore, if the conductor is not flexible enough, he will fail with this orchestra. For example, I don’t know what would happen to me if I conducted the Mariinsky orchestra, although I would have liked to try.


What place does music hold in the contemporary world? If we exclude it from the human world, there might be the same problems and the same joys left. Climate change, wars, survival of humans as groups, families and individuals. Maybe we will read some useful literature instead of listening to music. What would change in this world if music were to leave it for good?
I think that music cannot fully disappear, because even the language itself has its own set of sound instruments. In any case, music will remain. We don’t know how the music came to be around, we don’t have any documents about its sources. In my opinion, it is absolutely clear that music comprises and encompasses some universal things, that could even be attributed to physiological level – such as a sigh, a shout of despair or crying. There are some meanings and concepts incorporated into music that do not depend on specific culture. Anyone can cry, laugh, make a sound that can express their delight or other emotion. As long as there is an emotional sphere in life, these great elements will exist.

But you said in the beginning that if there is no conscious thought behind music, a final result cannot be considered a composition.

Those things that I named are not compositions, they are pre-elements. They are atoms like the ones that once formed matter after the Big Bang. In the same way, I think that after some kind of an articial ‘blackout’ (or rather a ‘blank-out’) a human being will sooner or later discover music. Even if he or she has been living without it for a while, sooner or later its discovery is inevitable. It will be long, painful, and you will have to find things out from scratch. But I think that if humanity is to press the “reset” button, the music will show up again. A person may not think about what role music plays in their life. We hear different things, but we do not think, do not analyze what we hear. Still, things heard have an effect one way or another. It is the same with architecture, by the way. You and I, coming from Saint Petersburg, understand this very well. If a person sees a certain system of architectural relations in space every day, his or her perception will be different from those who grew up, say, at the countryside. These two spaces engender different perceptions of space and time. It’s the same with music. I believe that music is an integral part of human perception of reality. And there is also music beyond what we call humanity – the famous music of the spheres found in space. Sound is at the root of everything in life, and it is amazing and great.