She waits for the interpreter to translate each phrase then carries on, urgent and thorough. I imagine that if we were in the same room she'd be leaning forward in her chair, maybe gripping my wrist as she talks. The 81-year-old composer must have given hundreds of such interviews over the years, answering the usual range of questions from a journalist she's never met in a country she doesn't know. But still she responds with intent generosity.
Maybe growing up under a repressive regime means that speaking openly to the press remains a matter of principle. Nowadays Gubaidulina is recognised as one of Russia's greatest living composers, but for decades her creative freedom was badly curtailed by the Soviet state. She was born in 1931 to a Tartar father and Russian mother in Chistopol, then part of the Tartar Republic of the Soviet Union. Her family wasn't particularly religious – her father Muslim by heritage, her mother Orthodox – but she herself developed a strong faith in her teens and much of her music is embedded with religious imagery. Needless to say the authorities didn't look kindly on these, and throughout her early career she had trouble performing her work. "It's hard for a composer to perfect herself when pieces can't be performed to a public," she says, simply.
She describes life at music college in 1950s Moscow, where student dorms were routinely searched for scores by forbidden Western composers (or, worse, by Stravinsky; considered the ultimate traitor). Her professors criticised her for "moving in the wrong direction", but a certain Dmitri Shostakovich defended her case. "I wish you to continue on your 'mistaken' path," he told her, and in one way or another she has done so all her life.
On August 28 the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO) and violinist Baiba Skride perform Gubaidulina's Offertorium at the Edinburgh International Festival. One of Gubaidulina's finest achievements, it's the work that introduced her music to the West 30 years ago. It was commissioned in 1979 by the Latvian violinist Gidon Kremer, and Gubaidulina remembers being "very taken with the idea. I'd been to many of Kremer's concerts and was struck not only by his technique and the extent of his colours, but also the magical way that he handled the strings. He seemed a performer who gave all of his essence to art. That idea of the sacrifice of artist to his art led me to writing an Offertorium."
Kremer toured the concerto, bringing Gubaidulina's name to global attention. Eventually she moved west to Germany, where she says the freedom to meet with other musicians and hear her works regularly performed only increased the intensity of her creative urge. "When there's such negative pressure the creative intensity is diminished, not increased," she says of life under censorship. "At least in my case that's how it was."
Offertorium revolves around a royal theme of Frederick the Great, a tune that Bach – whose music Gubaidulina reveres -– used in his Musical Offering. The theme is passed around various instruments using a technique similar to the klangfarbenmelodie of Webern, another of Gubaidulina's heroes. "And meanwhile another theme develops," she says, "exploring my personal relationship to sacrifice."
What does she mean by that last phrase: personal relationship to sacrifice? "Sacrifice is something I've been thinking about all my life," she says. "People are afraid of the concept nowadays and many try to avoid it, but to me it's still a wonderful mystery. Only in art has sacrifice remained an elemental concept." I wonder how she feels about the CBSO's pairing Offertorium with Sibelius's Second Symphony. "It's a great honour for me. Sibelius was a man with a rich soul. His music shows the immediate contact he had with the cosmic nature of things."
In previous interviews Gubaidulina has stressed the importance of her Tartar roots, but today she seems keen to paint herself into a broader picture. "I belong to the Russian school, the Russian culture," she says. "My mother tongue is Russian, but since starting to learn music in childhood I've tried to widen my horizons to connect with a universal language or culture. Yes, I'm interested in Tartar traditions, but also the folklore of the most distant corners of the world. Armenia, Azerbaijan, Java, Australia, Brazil – each time I've met a new folklore I've been inspired."
I ask whether she still improvises, something that in the past she's described as a crucial element of her compositional process. Her voice becomes audibly shakier. "Since the death last month of my close friend Victor Suslin" – a fellow Russian composer living in Germany with whom she had founded an improvisation group in the 1970s – "I have not been in a very good place". Her answers become shorter now. Only when I ask her to describe her home near Hamburg, from where she's been speaking, does she open up again.
"It's a small house. Very comfortable, very cosy. There's a small garden around it. No shops, just two streets leading to to a field. This is important. I can commune with nature without the need for a car or a tram. For a composer it's wonderful to be so close to the sky."
The City of Birmngham Symphony Orchestra and Baiba Skride perform Gubaidulina's Offertorium at the Usher Hall on August 28.