November 1, 2021
Composer Samuel Mutter:
"I was and continue to be so profoundly inspired by Bukovsky's memoir."
At his young age of 19 Samuel Mutter not only composes poignantly mature music, but also knows how to probe a far-reaching cultural terrain. His recent piece titled "Incarceration" premiered at the Atlantic Music Festival this summer and was inspired by Vladimir Bukovsky's book To Build a Castle — a classic of the 20th century resistance literature. Mutter's erudition, as well as the range he shows when exploring the tragedies of imprisonment and triumphs of resistance, made this work one of the most intriguing encounters for our editorial team this year. With picturesque, almost cinematic soundscapes unfolding from a deeply intuitive angle, "Incarceration" is full of tension and drama. But it's the spirit of discovery and the fact that Mutter is tapping into something real and important that make this music such an exciting journey. Wanting to find out how the history of the Russian human rights movement pulls such a deep resonance with young Americans, Soviet History Lessons reached out to Mutter to learn more about his work. The answers we received were both surprising and thought-provoking.
Alissa Ordabai: Congratulations on premiering your wonderful piece "Incarceration" at the Atlantic Music Festival this summer. We at Soviet History Lessons were both amazed and delighted to discover it on YouTube and to learn that it has been inspired by Vladimir Bukovsky's book To Build a Castle. Would you mind telling us a bit about yourself — where you grew up, what drew you to music, and how you came to study composition at Bard College?
Samuel Mutter: Thank you very much for your kind words regarding my piece. My name is Samuel Mutter, I’m 19 years old and I’m from Long Island, NY.
Neither of my parents are very musical people, so I suppose it’s kind of weird that I fell into the world of music as deeply as I have. Nonetheless, I grew up listening to lots of different kinds of music, from western classical, to Bollywood, to Irish folk, to Klezmer, to 70s and 80s rock'n'roll, to jazz, and more. I was eight years old when I started playing piano and nine when I started on trumpet. However, my interest in writing music only came about when I was 13. Since then, I have fallen absolutely in love with the craft.
The freedom, the creativity, the problem-solving, the catharsis of turning one's thoughts and feelings into music is addicting. As I went through high school I managed to get a couple of pieces performed by my school's string orchestra and jazz band which were hugely important steps in pushing me to continue down this path. I then realized that this was what I wanted to do with my life. I wanted to write music. So during my senior year I took private lessons with a composer and doctoral student studying at Stony Brook University named Alan Hankers. He was greatly helpful when it came to applying to various conservatories and colleges for music, and he was also just monumentally influential when it came to composition as a whole. I'm very grateful to him.
When applying to schools, though, I was also interested in majoring in a field outside of music, like history, or politics, or language. I have held interests in these various fields for a long time and I was hoping to continue my studies of them alongside my musical pursuits.
When the spring of 2020 came around, I started hearing back from the schools I had applied to. Bard College Conservatory was high on my list because of its double-degree program which allows me to major in music composition as well as another field outside of music entirely.
I'm currently a sophomore or second-year at Bard where I am majoring in music composition and historical studies.
A.O.: Your notes which accompany your YouTube video say that you came across Bukovsky's book through your history professor. Is this book being recommended to all students at Bard?
S.M.: During my very first semester here at Bard I took a course called "Alternate Worlds: Utopia and Dystopia in Modern Russia" with Professor Sean McMeekin. One of the books that we had to read for this class was Bukovsky's To Build a Castle. Unfortunately, this book is not required for all Bard students. That course was only a one-time offer and there were only about a dozen or so students in the class. However, Bard does have a literature course required of all freshmen called First-Year Seminar or FYSEM. Professor McMeekin has tried in the past to get this book into that curriculum which changes every few years. I also wrote one of my final essays for this class on why To Build a Castle: My Life as a Dissenter should be part of the FYSEM curriculum. I hope to again push for this addition to the curriculum in the future.
What parts of the book have made the strongest impression on you and which parts do you think are most relevant to today's world?
Well, I just want to say for the record that Bukovsky's book is one of my favorites of all time and that the whole book made a great lifelong impression on me.
Something that struck me in particular was the sense of humor, the sarcasm, the tongue-in-cheek tone that Bukovsky has throughout the whole memoir. In some spots he's even nonchalant about things. His unique style of writing really pulls the reader in and I think this can be really important when trying to grab a modern-day readers' attention.
Generally, though, I found the whole book just so fascinating because of how much detail he gives with regards to the way the Soviet machinery of oppression operated, and how he and many others worked to undermine it in any way possible. It's certainly an important work to read when trying to understand what life was like in the post-Stalin USSR, and more importantly what life was like for political prisoners. From prisons, to camps, to psychiatric institutions; all the various modes and methods of cruelty, torture, and punishment are unnerving. It's also an important work to read when trying to learn about the ways people resisted. The poetry readings in public city squares, the hunger strikes, the overwhelming of the bureaucratic system through filing complaints, the banding together of political prisoners and petty criminals to not just survive, but to actively work against the regime even while behind bars. The protests and fights for "all those endless ounces, degrees and inches that an outside observer never will be able to understand" (Bukovsky). All of these stories were immensely interesting to me and I think they contain valuable lessons for all.
I was and continue to be so profoundly inspired by Bukovsky's memoir. His determination, his resilience in the face of such oppression was truly astounding. There is a particular passage I have in mind where he mentions how he had basically planned out his entire life, and that he had calculated when he would be back in prison and for how long. I have the quote here.
"That was why, you might say, my future life was mapped out. I would have time for two more spells of liberty, and then I would be back in prison in time to die." - Vladimir Bukovsky.
I remember when I read this passage I had to read it over a couple more times. I was just so enthralled by his very calm and matter-of-fact tone. He was ready to give up his whole life simply to see the Soviet state undermined. Incredible! Absolutely astonishing! I very much admire Bukovsky's unshifting, stubborn level of dedication to the cause. I agree with him. What could be a more important battle than a battle for life, for liberty, for basic human rights and freedoms?
In terms of relevance, I think To Build a Castle is deeply relevant. I think anyone and everyone could read it and get something out of it. His dedication to the humans rights movement is something we could all learn from. He was courageous and loyal to his cause. He was ready to give up his entire life to the constant undermining of the Soviet state even if he never lived to see the day when the regime collapsed (which he fortunately did live to see).
Perhaps if there were more people in the world with his drive, today's dictatorships and totalitarian regimes would collapse a lot quicker.
For these reasons, I really think To Build a Castle: My Life as a Dissenter should be read by people in schools, in colleges, wherever, just as long as people are exposed to it in a meaningful way. I cannot recommend this book enough.
A.O.: Now that society and culture are in a state of flux, what do you think are the main challenges faced by young composers who work in the field of art music?
S.M.: First off, I personally don't know if I would say that society and culture are in any more of a "state of flux" than they’ve been in the past. What I mean is that I believe society and culture are waves on a churning sea. They're always moving, shifting, and changing. I don’t think there is an era in human history where society and culture were not in the process of evolving.
To answer your question though, I would say, frankly, that one of the main challenges facing young composers is how do we make it in the world. How do we make money doing this thing we love so much? I'm not in a place to answer this question as I'm only 19 and still in college, but it is certainly an issue that has weighed on my mind ever since I decided I wanted to be a composer.
A more artistic challenge we always face is being original. Why are we writing music and what goal do we have in mind when we compose? I think there are many answers to this question, and I don't even know all the different possibilities. However, I would say that the main reasons I write are the following:
1. To say something. To express some sort of opinion or feeling whether it's about political or social issues, or maybe something philosophical. Such is the case with my piece "Incarceration" and one of my newer pieces "Why Don't We Just Talk?" which will be premièred this November.
2. To express something unique to me. Music is one of many beautiful outlets for not just creative expression, but emotional expression as well. The music I'm currently working on is very much in this category of personal emotional expression. Music can be a wonderful coping mechanism when dealing with difficult situations.
3. To just create something beautiful, something entertaining or moving that musicians and audiences can both enjoy.
Again, I’m sure there are many more reasons people write, but these are, I guess, what I would call my big three.
I think another major challenge we as composers run into is whether or not others will see or hear our work the way we want them to. This is something that is difficult, maybe even impossible for us to control, but I think it is still something that worries us nonetheless. Personally, I find this challenge comes up the most when working on a piece that speaks about a political or social issue. However, I must say that I find this aspect of writing exciting as it can come with a certain dose of adrenaline from time to time.
A.O.: Bukovsky brought himself up on classical Russian and classical Western literature. You are studying classical music. In what ways do you think classical culture can enrich people’s lives in today's world?
S.M.: I think classical culture can be as enriching as any other. Ultimately, it's up to the consumer to take something meaningful away from it. Classical culture, like any other culture, is at its core human expression. Art as a whole, regardless of whether it's music from medieval England, a sculpture from modern-day Nigeria, or a poem from ancient India is and will always be about human expression, human connection, human experience. What's even more beautiful is how we as individuals and as collections of individuals have interpreted, interpret, and will interpret these forms of expression. In short though, I think if people today are open to having their lives enriched by classical culture, then it certainly can and will. The only reason peoples' lives are ever not enriched by culture from any era is because they haven't opened themselves up to being effected by it. How can one be moved by art if one has anchored themselves to a certain place? You have to be willing to be moved to be moved.
If you're willing to be moved I think classical culture has a lot to offer. In terms of what is considered classical music, there is quite a wide variety of it. There is classical music for all kinds of listeners and for all kinds of emotional settings. Classical music, like any music, can tell stories, it can evoke deep emotions, it can create drama, it can even be political.
I think art is meant to be consumed, to be enjoyed, to be thought-provoking, or emotionally evocative. It's about an experience that takes you away from your everyday, your usual, and brings you somewhere else. This can be an emotional state, a fantasy world, a state of mind, etc.
A.O.: Your YouTube notes also shared that you are teaching piano lessons via Zoom to young people in detention. What inspired you to start volunteering in this way and what are you learning from this experience?
Yes, so last semester I had the absolute privilege of teaching some beginner piano lessons to a few kids in a local juvenile detention center. I unfortunately am no longer giving these lessons because the facility where these kids were kept has since shut down.
I gave those lessons because I happened to be the only pianist to sign-up to give free lessons to young people through this organization at Bard, founded and run by one of best friends, called the Musical Mentorship Initiative. Though the lessons only really lasted for a short time, they left a profound impression on me. They made me realize how much I love to teach music, and more so how important it is that everyone gets a chance to learn music, to play music, to express themselves through music. Nothing gave me more pleasure than seeing these students, these kids, on the other side of the virtual screen smiling as they got the chance to express themselves through the piano, through music. And nothing makes me sadder than to think that these kids were trapped in a juvenile detention center without real access to the resources they need to be successful, or rather to be happy. I just wish I could continue these lessons with them and give them something to look forward to, something to focus their energies on that is healthy and fun.
A.O.: Anything else you would like to add?
S.M.: I just want say thank you and to express my gratitude for this interview. I'm honored that you found and enjoyed my music and even more honored that you took the time to reach out to me and set this all up. There's nothing more thrilling to me than to see my passions for music, history, and politics collide in one place at one time right in front of me! Thank you.