I just found out that Dobrochna Zubek will perform The Child, Bringer of Light as part of the “Fast Forward Crescendo” concert at Zamek Cesarski happening on January 7 at 7:30 pm. This will be the first time that my music is heard in Poland.
Dobrochna Zubek rehearsing The Child at the Music Gallery in Toronto in February 2014.
Back in May I premiered Weeping for a dead love with So Percussion Quartet as part of the Princeton Sound Kitchen. This performance was my debut as a folk singer of sorts and I’m very grateful to the guys from So for participating in this experiment.
This work draws on the now rare rural Ukrainian tradition of mourning songs, half-chanted, half-cried laments sung by women at funerals and over grave sites. They consist of small melodic cells, which expand and contract to fit varying phrases of text. For the content, the singer seems to borrow commonly used formulas filling in her own specific details to describe her loved one, the manner of his or her death, her own reaction to it, and the realities and fears of life without this person. The overall effect is both devastatingly emotional and meditative at the same time.
I discovered this tradition through archival recordings while doing fieldwork in Ukraine in the fall of 2012. Mesmerized by its sonic qualities and emotional power, I first explored it in Weeping, a work for six instruments commissioned and premiered by New Music Concerts in Toronto. Unable to leave this haunting world, I now draw and expand on its melodic and poetic formulas to mourn the death of a romantic relationship rather than a person. The vocal line is only roughly notated to allow room for ornamentation, and basic rhythmic and melodic freedom.
The lovely Ilana Waniuk and Suhashini Arulanandam will perform Through closed doors with the one-and-only door score in Mississauga, ON this Sunday, November 22. Dobrochna Zubek will also perform The child, bringer of light for solo cello. The performance will be part of a Thin Edge New Music Collective concert featuring music by Linda Caitlin Smith, Anna Hostman and Ana Sokolovic.
The concert will take place at 2:00 pm at the Great Hall in the Unitarian Congregation, 84 South Service Rd., Mississauga, ON.
I am super excited that the Gryphon Trio will be taking Like doves with grey wings embracing to Ukraine in a few weeks. This amazing ensemble will perform in Kyiv on September 28 (6:00 pm) as part of the Kyiv Music Fest. Please watch the festival’s Facebook page for locations. On October 4 (11 pm), they are performing in Lviv’s Contrasts Festival. This will be the first time that my music is heard in Ukraine. It’s amusing that a Canadian ensemble is importing music to the country of my birth.
The Kyiv concert takes place at the following location: Будинок Актора, вул. Ярославів Вал, 7.
I’m looking forward to the US premiere of my newest trio Like doves with grey wings embracing, performed by Trio Chimera as part of the Princeton Sound Kitchen concert happening on Tuesday, September 15 (8:00 pm) at Taplin Auditorium in Fine Hall (Princeton University, Princeton, NJ).
This piece draws on material from my work Weeping for a dead love, which I premiered with So Percussion last May. The violin and cello sing my vocal lines, while the piano expands on the sound of the four Noah bells, which so magically fit themselves into the sonic landscape of this piece.
I recently spent a lovely ten days at Avaloch Farm Music Institute in Hew Hampshire. I was invited there by the Brooklyn-based violin/piano duo aTonalHits to collaborate on a new project. Katha, Illya and I only met once when they did a concert in Vancouver back in 2014. Some post-concert beers and chance Facebook conversations about our outdoor adventures brought us to Avaloch. This private estate in the tiny farming town of Boscawen proved to be the ideal setting for us to get to know each other and get comfortable enough to try something which is new for all three of us. Our daily (or often twice-daily) walks through the orchard to dip in the lake, and the gorgeous hike to the summit of Mt. Lafayette forged the bonds of friendship; the cheap spirits amply supplied by New Hampshire’s tax-free liquor mega markets tempered them.
In this summer paradise, we grappled with a rather dark concept. The project that I brought with me in very loosely sketched out form deals with a folksong I recorded in Perebrody, a village in northwestern Ukraine, when I travelled there on a Canada Council funded research trip in the Fall of 2012. It is a song about the abduction and presumable rape of a girl named Halya by travelling cossacks. When they are finished with her, they tie her to a pine with her own braids and set the tree on fire. The climactic stanza of the songs is:
Горить, горить сосна, горить не стухає. Кричить, кричить Галя, кричить не стіхає. Ех ти Галю, Галю молодая! Кричить, кричить Галя, кричить не стіхає.
Burns, burns the pine and won’t go out.
Cries, cries Halya, cries and won’t quiet down.
O, Halya, young Halya!
Cries, cries Halya, cries and won’t quiet down.
In some versions of the song, Halya is saved by another young cossack who happens to hear her cries while walking through the woods. In the version I recorded, she is not so lucky and there is no salvation.
The subject matter was so horrible that it became inextricable lodged in my brain transforming into something entirely different (as I discovered to my great surprise when I finally extracted the song from the hours upon hours of recordings I made).
What made it even worse is that it is not, as I originally believed, just some obscure song I stumbled upon, dealing with some freak case that happened in the area in some distant past. The song is apparently extremely popular in Ukraine. It was used as a marching song by soldiers and cossacks themselves; it is sung during weddings and other celebratory gatherings; it exists in the most horrifyingly upbeat choral arrangements available all over YouTube.
A 1894 report of the Imperial Academy of Learning contains a whole sub-chapter on folksongs dealing with the “abduction and burning of maidens” found on the territory of the Russian Empire and the surrounding Eastern European countries.
There appears to be something about my Eastern European culture which keeps an almost cherished space for this horrible phenomenon. And what better way to illustrate this than the infamous case of Oksana Makar, which rocked the whole world in the spring of 2012, just a few months before I recorded this song. It is a real-life and very current case of a luring away, rape and burning of an 18-year-old girl, which took place just an hour north-west of where I was born. This case inspired major protests in Ukraine, not only because of its sheer horror, but because it is part of a larger phenomenon of brutal crimes against women which happen on a regular basis and go largely unpunished due to the corruption and ineffectiveness of the legal system.
As if all of this wasn’t revolting enough, there is also the moral of the story, the ultimate public response. After the initial indignation about the barbarism surrounding Oksana’s death died down, there was a strategic digging into her background which unearthed that she was a runaway from a broken home and was allegedly supporting herself through prostitution. As horrified as people were by the manner of her death, the ultimate public response was that had Oksana been a good girl, had she not gone home with men she didn’t know very well, better yet if she had stayed home, she would have been alive and well now. It’s her own fault.
And what is the lesson to be learned from Halya’s brutal story? Exactly the same.
Хто в бору ночує, нехай ете чує, А хто дочки має, нехай навучає.
А хто дочки має, нехай навучає, З вечору позненько гулять не пускає.
Those who sleep in the pine woods, let them hear.
And those who have daughters, let them teach them.
And those who have daughters, let them teach them,
And to go out walking late at night not allow them.
The project I am working on with aTonalHits is my attempt to process the horror that I feel when I confront this system of abuse and its ultimate acceptance through victim blaming. The piece is a song that weaves original material about Oksana Makar through the folksong about Halya. I will sing in folk style along with Katha Zinn playing a somewhat detuned violin and Illya Filshtinskiy exploring a piano prepared with various screws to sound like bells and coocoos. Singing in general and especially with pitched instruments is new to me and I had to work hard to be in tune and in time with the others. Though Illya is Ukrainian as well, this is the duo’s first encounter with Ukrainian folks music. Avaloch Farm provided the perfect atmosphere for us to get comfortable enough with each other to confront these new musical ideas as well as the darkness of this subject matter.
My recently completed set of prints, which make up the illustrated manuscript for the mini-opera Mirror, mirror, are now on display at the Vancouver office of the Canadian Music Centre located at 837 Davie St. This is one of seven such sets and is available for sale.
This opera is based on the Grimms’ fairy tale Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. During performance, the five panels are to be laid flat on a table with the Queen’s and Snow White’s lines appearing on opposite sides. The timing of each vocal entry is coordinated through small square symbols. The staves change size and shape to indicate changes in dynamics and accents.
The prints were carved into linoleum sheets and printed with oil-based ink on handmade paper from Bhutan. Each sheet is hand-coloured and features inserts made from fine tissue papers from Japan, Nepal and Thailand. After printing and colouring, I also wove through threads of woolen, hand-died yarn. Though there are seven copies of each print, each one is unique because it incorporates so many hand-worked elements.
I am super pleased to finally announce that for the past year I have been involved in the development of a brand new chamber opera based on Helen Humphrey‘s novel Wild Dogs. The project is being produced in Vancouver by Robert Carey and his black bachx opera lab. The opera is set in a small Ontario town plagued by unemployment and a pack of feral dogs made up of former pets, which have either escaped or been thrown out by their struggling owners.
I recently participated in a three-day libretto workshop with librettist Val Brandt, dramaturg Ann Hodges, producer Robert Carey and a crew of six fantastic actors (Kyle Jespersen, Heather Pawsey, Julia Arkos, David Adams, Shawn Macdonald and Kayla Dunbar). Ann led the workshop in a beautifully smooth and professional manner getting all of us to articulate our interpretation of the novel and our vision for the opera. She expertly mined the actors for feedback using them as a kind of “consumer testing” group. These super talented performers truly inhabited the world of the libretto and gave remarkably insightful comments. Val pulled some all-nighters to make significant revisions, which could be workshopped yet again the next day. She’s a superhero! The libretto has a solid dramatic arc and is well on the way to completion. It was a remarkably productive and inspiring process, and I’m grateful to have been involved.
From top left: me, Kyle Jespersen, Heather Pawsey, Julia Arkos, David Adams, Ann Hodges, Val Brandt, Robert Carey; Bottom left: Shawn Macdonald, Kayla Dunbar
In the evening of the final day, we held a reading and information sessions for some invited guests. The actors were fabulous, the atmosphere buzzing with excitement. The workshop and reading session were held in the East Studio at the Post at 750, the new downtown Vancouver venue inhabited by PuSh International Performing Arts Festival, Touchstone Theatre, Music on Main, and the DOXA Documentary Film Festival. Our time in the studio was generously donated by Music on Main.
In the next few months, Val will turn the currently more play-like libretto into a form more suitable for opera. I will start working on the music at the end of this year in preparation for the first music workshop scheduled for June 2016.
I would like to thank the Shevchenko Foundation and our private donors for sponsoring this project. I can’t wait to begin the music!
Work is progressing on what is turning out to be quite a monster score for the mini opera Mirror, mirror. I have finished carving the first two and a half sheets of linoleum and did some test prints. Here’s me painting on various red accents with watercolour. Stay tuned for photos of the complete score in the next week or so.
Thank you to M. Teresa Simao for the photos. And thank you to Princeton University and the Lewis Centre for the Arts for giving me these wonderful resources.
Last year, I transformed my part-time work as heritage wood-restorer into Through closed doors, a piece for two violins notated on an antique door. Now I’m working on a new illustrated and hand-printed score, which combines my love of lace, luxurious yarns, fancy paper and dark fairy tales. The project is a reworking of my mini-opera Mirror, mirror, which explores the story of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” The original version was premiered by Janice Jackson in 2012. Stay tuned for more pictures in the coming weeks.
Materials: 100% merino wool from Uruguay, papers from Nepal and Japan, linoleum printing
I am eternally grateful to Princeton University for giving me the space, time and resources to pursue this project.
P.S. – The only other composer I know who has managed to combine composition with knitting was Jocelyn Morlock, when she offered blue hand-knitted wear as rewards for the crowdfunding campaign for her album “Cobalt” (which is beautiful, by the way).