Sounds of Bulgaria: The Music of Lazar Nikolov
Updated: May 28, 2022
It was a world beyond anything I had yet experienced or imagined. When I recall it, the sounds come back to me first. I hear the spontaneous burst of vibrant applause of the passengers around me, most of them returning to Bulgaria for the first time in many years, triggered by the bump of the wheels of that aging 747 touching down on the tarmac in Sofia thirty years ago. I hear the tra-ka-ta tra-ka-ta tra-ka-ta of the yellow trams rattling along the tracks, competing with birdsong in the center of Sofia as the day begins. I hear the rush of water as the fountains in front of the National Palace of Culture or the National Theatre or the National Bank begin to spray. And I hear people, people waiting in ill-defined lines to buy banitsa or pay bills, the phrase “tuk ne e Amerika” (here isn’t America) often catching my ear.
There was music too. The resounding intonations of the priest and the harmonious hymns of the hidden balcony choir at the neighborhood church, the infinite repetitions of conscientious piano practicers wafting through open apartment windows, the pay-per-piece performances of street musicians ranging from fiddle players scraping folk tunes as their trained bears danced to classical musicians traversing concertos and chaconnes before heading to rehearsal at Bulgaria Hall. I never knew where or when I would run into a particular Bulgarian bagpipe player on the streets of Sofia, but he was out there most days throughout my 23 years there, improvising to the clanging accompaniment of his strategically-placed bell belt.
My own idea of what music can be exponentially expanded during my time in Bulgaria. The first “real” Bulgarian composer I met was one of the most distinguished, Lazar Nikolov. To some ears, Nikolov’s music can seem impossibly abstract, but it is just this quality that makes it infinitely interesting to interpret and lends it a powerful expressivity. The search for meaning in Nikolov’s music is endless, not because (as his detractors would say) it doesn’t have any, but because it is so packed with significance and implications that one can’t definitively pin it down. From the music of Lazar Nikolov I learned to be a seeker, to find joy in ongoing discoveries that may or may not lead to complete understanding or a fixed, unchanging final product. To revel in the possibilities while realizing that so many possibilities remain unrealized.
Nikolov recognized this too. He believed that music only truly lives through its performance, and he enjoyed the way a new interpretation brought out qualities he hadn’t heard or considered before. Playing his music, I have the sense of continuing an unfinished, unending dialogue with Lazar, of discovering together the true sound and significance of his music, while knowing that this truth is still “somewhere else.” When I get wrapped up in the seriousness of the process or the serious technical challenges of his writing, I remember another sound—the sound of Lazar’s quiet yet mischievous high-pitched laugh. Not a roll-your-head-back, lung-clearing laugh, but a slouching, closed-mouth chuckle, as elusive in its implications as was Lazar himself. It was an ironic chuckle, an acknowledgement to the receiver and also a marking of personal autonomy, of his freedom to think and do in his own way.
Lazar’s humor is also thinly disguised in his music. From that crucial moment in the early 1950s when he turned away from Bulgarian folk idioms, his music declared his independence loud and clear by not sounding Bulgarian, by not being confined to the expression of the vague idea of “nationalism” then being imposed by Moscow and the Union of Bulgarian Composers. Lazar Nikolov should number among Bulgaria’s national heroes—he shook off government oppression, he found a different way forward. He dared to develop a personal idiom, and he stuck with it despite a campaign of denouncement mounted by older Bulgarian composers. But along with the notes of defiance and perseverance, Nikolov’s music is also alive to the irony that those were the most bothered by his music were the ones who were taking it the most seriously.
There is a kind of transcendence in the playfulness of Nikolov’s own performance of his first sonata, written at about this time (ca. 1950). This rare recording of the composer as pianist is an especially important document, because Nikolov would soon stop performing altogether, entrusting his music to others instead. What remains from his early days as a pianist is a love of virtuosity as a signature component in his music. He relished the challenges he could present to his performers, and he relished their skill in overcoming them. The result is an almost miraculous mingling of meaning and mischief.
Cellists were always asking Lazar to “write something solo”—they wanted an unaccompanied piece, without piano. When he finally did compose a solo string piece late in the year 2000, he wrote it for viola instead (cue composer’s slouching chuckle). From the Music of Orpheus made colleagues of Nikolov’s own generation uncomfortable–they had him pegged as a composer of Sonatas and Symphonies, and here he was giving his piece a “programmatic” title! (Lazar chuckles again) For my part, I couldn’t resist the temptations of arranging the piece for cello, and luckily Lazar didn’t object. When I first played it for him, he exclaimed, “Chudesno! Kak i da e…” (Wonderful! Be that as it may…) And our dialogue continues.
Tram photo from http://www.sofia-transport.eu/en/trams.html