Teach your daughters

I can finally share the live recording of Teach your daughters, which I premiered with Katha Zinn and Illya Filshtinskiy from aTonalHits on a Princeton Sound Kitchen Concert on March 1. Because of the difficulty of the subject matter, this piece took a very long time to take shape.

This piece for voice, violin and prepared piano is my reaction to the horrific rape and murder of Ukrainian teenager Oksana Makar, which took place in 2012. More broadly, it explores the issue of victim blaming. The piece weaves Oksana’s story through a folk song I recorded while traveling in northwestern Ukraine in the fall of 2012. The story of the folk song’s heroine, Halya, is eerily similar to Oksana’s, which speaks volumes about the prevalence of such horrific violence against women and its perception throughout history and in the modern times.

I discussed this work in an interview with Nick Storring, which appeared in the fall issue of Musicworks Magazine. Katha, Illya and I workshop the initial sketches for this piece at Avaloch Farm in August of 2015.


Two concerts and a journal

It seems that I just got back from my last four-week-long trip to Europe (my suitcase was still in the middle of my bedroom until very recently), and already I’m getting ready to fly off for another five weeks. While the first trip was purely pleasure, this one has some work sprinkled in.

After a quick stopover in Toronto for a performance of my cello piece (see below), I’m heading over to Slovakia and Austria for the ISCM World New Music Days 2013 festival to hear my solo accordion piece, Light-play through curtain holes, in Vienna. To cap off the trip, I’ll spend a few weeks in Ukraine to do some more village recordings. Most of this is generously funded by the Canada Council for the Arts and the British Columbia Arts Council. I love my life!

First stop: Toronto. My piece for solo cello, The Child, Bringer of Light, which I originally composed for a Carnegie Hall workshop with Kaija Saariaho and Anssi Karttunen, will be performed by Rachel Mercer as part of Toronto’s New Music Concerts Series on November 1st. Check out more info here. Rachel will be amplified and I will diffuse her sound through eight speakers surrounding the audience. I haven’t tried this before with this piece, so I am super excited!


Also, check out excerpts of this piece in the current issue (No. 7) of Manor House Quarterly, which is available online or at Chapters. The score excerpts are accompanied by a very insightful artistic analysis by Cooper Troxell, and remarkably fitting photographs by Lissy Elle. The whole issue looks gorgeous!

My piece, "The Child, Bringer of Light," in Manor House Quarterly

Check back for further updates about my travels.


Soundstreams post-mortem

It’s been about a month since I returned from Toronto and I’m just waking up from my post-masters hibernation. I’ve done no composing since the Soundstreams workshop, and after deadening my brain with hundred-year-old dust and pain fumes at a heritage house reno over the last four weeks, I feel ready to jump back into creative activities.

I had a fantastic time at the Soundstreams Emerging Composers’ Workshop with the Gryphon Trio, and our mentors R. Murray Schafer and Juliet Palmer (see this entry and this one). As mentioned earlier, we were to bring sketches for a new piece for piano trio to be completed after the workshop. I am primarily working with combining fragments from a folksong I recorded in Ukraine with the more timbral ideas and extended techniques I started exploring in The Child, Bringer of Light.

There is a loose narrative in this piece inspired by a group of folksongs dealing with the subject of young women growing old prematurely from hard labour and abusive marriages. One of these songs explores a beautiful metaphor for this idea. A lonely young woman throws a flower into a river hoping that it will reach her people. When her mother finds it floating in a still pool, she wonders why it has wilted despite being in water, why her daughter has aged before her time. My piece will follow the progression of this flower on the river starting with the woman’s excited anticipation of a new marriage, going through the rapids of all the hardships she encounters, and ending in that dark and still pool.

Soundstreams: Piano Trio, Sketch 1

The rough beginning exploring the nervous excitement of a new marriage.

Soundstreams: Piano Trio, Sketch 2

The rough ending, the wilted flower arriving in the still pool. I am exploring ideas similar to the opening, but cast in a darker light.

Soundstreams: Piano Trio, Sketch 3

This material was meant to go in the middle section of the piece, but it became apparent that the overall feel of the sketch doesn’t really fit in the soundworld I am exploring in Sketch 1 and 2. I will probably extract certain gestures from this sketch and reshape them into something more consistent with the opening and closing of the piece. 

During the first two sessions I had with the trio, I started to suspect that the traditional notational system was not really doing a great job capturing the feel I was looking for in this piece. It was too confining. I figured out that the performers needed more room for spontaneous reactions to each other and time to engage all the timbral effects I was asking them to perform. The music needed room for stretching. After rewriting one of the sketches without measures and will less rhythmic precision, I was amazed at how the music magically locked into itself. Considering the freedom that my notation implied, it was remarkable how close the performers’ interpretation came to what I had imagined. I felt like I tapped into their natural tendencies and allowed them to simply play.

Thank you so much to the Gryphon Trio for being so amazing to work with and to the workshop organizers for creating this amazing opportunity.

A humble composer’s tribute to Stalin

For me, one of the most fascinating subjects in music history is the life and work of composers in the Soviet Union. It is close to my family history and always forces me to imagine my life had I been born 60 years earlier.

When I was in Ukraine last fall, my grandfather showed me a fascinating document: a torn up issue of the Ukrainian Pravda, an affiliate of the most important Soviet newspaper, dated from 1944. He had torn up and burned most of it before realizing what he was holding. What makes this issue special is that it is dedicated to the one-year anniversary of the liberation of Kiev from German occupation. It also contains an article by the Soviet composer Konstantyn Dankevych. What he has to say is an incredible glimpse into the kind of political and psychological environment that Soviet composers lived in.


“…our dearest and wisest father and chief. Now and forever our Soviet land is cleansed of German occupiers. The Red Army is preparing to fulfill a historic mission – to raise the emblem of our victory over Berlin!

“In this bright hour we are all thinking about Stalin. There is no challenge more enlightening and absorbing for an artist than to recreate the image of Stalin as he really is: the image of a person, chief of the nation and the party, military leader, man of learning. Perhaps this would only be possible for a whole collective of writers, composers, artists and scientists. Perhaps this image can only be created by a generation of masters of the arts – a whole generation.

“Most likely that is the case. Because Stalin is an epoch.

“But we live today and today our chest is tearing open in song and gratitude. Today our hearts yearn towards the Kremlin, and today we want to sing what is in our souls.

“I open my eyes and look out the window. A bright, sunny morning has come. I tell myself:

“‘This is Stalin!’

“I walk down the street. I see people. They hurry to work. They rebuild their city. They innovate. They write new books. They learn. They truly live. I tell myself:

“‘This is Stalin!’

“In the heart of this great and simple man…[the newspaper is torn here]…the hands of all peoples of the Soviet Union in great, unbreakable friendship? Who raised our country before the whole world, forcing them to deeply respect and love her? Who lives in everything that is dear to us, in the very thing we breath?

“I recently completed a symphonic choral work, setting the poem “The wreath of glory to the great Stalin,” which was performed on the 6th of November at the triumphant parliamentary session in Kiev. The poem was written for the 27th anniversary of the Great October Revolution and the one-year anniversary of the liberation of Kiev from German attackers. It is dedicated to the great Stalin.

“An immense challenge was before me, an ordinary Soviet composer. Is my poem worthy in the smallest degree of the image of the one, to whom it belongs with its every note? I know only one thing: never before have I written with such passion. And I would have never been able to write it had I not felt on my breast the warm hand, to which I cling like a son, the hand of Stalin.

“The people sing about the greatest triumph of the Russian, Ukrainian and all the people of the brother nations of the Soviet Union! It was Stalin’s friendship of the nations that won today!

“The trumpet-like voice of the victors sings, it rises high above the earth, and in this voice I hear the praise to the man, whose name has given glory to our age and whose image will forever live among the people.”

Ukrainian Polesia: Zalav’ja

After spending three nights in Perebrody, we were off to our second destination, Zalav’ja. Upon arrival, our instructions were to find a particular store and ask for Galja. This Galja would take care of everything. And she did.

Galja turned out to be a somewhat hung-over, but incredibly energetic businesswoman who runs a successful store/bar and hosts most of the visiting folklore enthusiasts. As soon as we arrived, she handed us two plastic cups of steaming instant coffee and started gathering all the singing women. All her phone conversations went something like this: “Does your head hurt? ‘Cause mine does…Drop the mushrooms and get yourself over here fast…Two girls from Canada! No joke!” And then she would pass the phone to me to convince whoever it was that I was in fact real and not just an excuse to have another drink-or-ten together.

While the women were gathering, we were sent to one of the neighbors’ to fill our stomachs and get warm. As soon as lunch was on the table, a jar of samohon (home-made vodka) appeared and so the day of plenty began.

Already feeling a little tipsy, we marched back to the store/bar where the rest of the crowd was gathering with a supply of food and alcohol sufficient for a western wedding. There were some women in their seventies, who still sing the old way, as well as their children, who sing loudly and with a lot of enthusiasm. The sound was absolutely deafening. My ears were ringing within minutes. The singers laughed at bawdy jokes told by the particularly feisty 70-year-old, Antonina, and shed bitter tears at their favorite sorrowful tunes. Our table was like a black hole that would suck in anyone who came too close. People entering the store to make purchases would join the party for a few songs and as many drinks, and the crowd grew steadily.

Zalav’ja – Oj na stavu na stavochku (“Ой на ставу на ставочку”)

A very long and sorrowful song that had people crying. Also note our very first male singer, the one-armed Ivan, in the bass. Galja, performing the highest voice, sings in parallel octaves with him.

Zalav’ja – Pryletila halka (“Прилетіла галка”)

This humorous song caused some debate. The villagers were reluctant to sing it at first because one of the words, which repeats often, apparently sounds like a swear word. They didn’t want to make a bad impression on Canadian audiences. But after reassurances that most Canadians don’t speak Ukrainian anyway, they sang it with gusto. Antonina astonished us with her virtuoso whistling skills.

Several hours later, when the singing session transitioned to drunken debauchery, Galja’s mother quietly untangled us from the jolly crowd and took us home. After heating up their little house to an oven-like temperature, the 80-year-old Ustyma told us many fascinating and sometimes-stupefying stories from her own life. She told us how she gave birth to her six children, (completely alone and unassisted, untangling umbilical chords with her own hands), how she climbed trees as a child while herding cattle and sang above the treetops, how she played jokes on drunkards and laughed at funerals. She is a woman with an iron will and a great sense of humor, the local matriarch presiding over her large family and the whole village.

Zalav’ja – Bila bereza jarko horila (“Біла береза ярко горіла”)

A song about an evil mother-in-law, a popular theme, performed by Ustyma Andrejevna Krepec’ (b. 1932).

We left Zalav’ja with a gift of several kilos of wild mushrooms, provisions for several-days-worth of travel, and an invitation to a wedding (more on that later). The hospitality in these regions is truly remarkable.

Ukrainian Polesia: first dip in Perebrody

Dear Lord, what can I say about Northwestern Ukraine…if vodka doesn’t kill you, diabetes will. In Polesia, the swampy land that was under Polish control until 1939, vodka flows freely from dawn to dusk, and tea is so sweet it should really be classified as syrup.

Our first trip to this hauntingly beautiful region of foggy mornings and cranberry-filled marshes involved a 5-hour bus ride to Rivne, where our Polesian contact, Oleksiy, shoved a map and some CDs into our hands and placed us on yet another bus. Four hours later we were nearing our final destination, Perebrody (Переброди), a smallish village right on the Belarusian border. In pitch-black darkness some kindly local, whom we met on the bus, led us to the tiny house of our hostess, Anastasija Musijivna Chmunevych.

78-year-old Nastja, the energetic little woman known as “the one to whom the Polish come for songs,” is a regular host to folksong seekers like ourselves. “They only sleep at my house,” she proudly tells us. She remembers countless songs and tells stories in that curious Ukrainian manner, which caused my mouth to drop in stupefied disbelief countless times (check out Maria’s post on that subject). After a good sleep, she feeds us buckwheat with onions and eggs baked with salo, and we set out on a tour of the village to collect “the girls.”

The girls turn out to be three more women in their 70s. They are well known in folklore circles, have sung all over Ukraine and Poland, and are featured on this DVD. We gather in Nadja’s kitchen and spend the next six hours absorbing their voices and personalities as they sing, gossip and bicker over forgotten song texts in their curious local dialect*. To make sure the vocal chords don’t dry out, we finish off a bottle of vodka in the process. The next day we gather for another six hours in a different kitchen and eat our way through an enormous heap of traditional food, which Lesya keeps bringing out from the bottomless void of her huge wood-burning oven. Over these two days, my stomach almost burst from overeating.

Perebrody – O, shcho heto za verba (“О що гето за верба”)

Nastja quickly interrupts her singing with “Don’t pour so much!” to which Nadja replies, “Well…just a little…so it doesn’t dry out.”

Perebrody – Oj ty holube (“Ой ти голубе”)

This song caused the most controversy. The first performance erupted into a heated debate over the text. How could the dove be first shot to death and then engaged? But why would a bird be engaged in the first place?? The girls eventually agreed on something and managed to sing the song all the way through before dispersing for the day.

“Oj, when we were young, we would be coming home from the club and there would be a group singing here, and another there, and a third a little further away. We sang all the time. Our daughters don’t sing. No one sings anymore.”

“Polesia is a modern-day matriarchy,” Oleksij tells me later. These women truly are remarkable. They lived through war, collectivization, the breakup of the Soviet Union and a million family traumas. Now in their 70s they live alone, digging their own potatoes, feeding a host of pigs, chickens and geese, and gathering berries and mushrooms in the marshes. And they still sing. They are the last generation that sings.

* Their dialect uses many Polish and Belarusian words and has an interesting, almost Russian pronunciation. “В гетом году було вельме багато слів.”

Travel back in time

In the last days of September, Maria and I visited two villages in the Bobrovyts’kyi district of Chernihivs’ka region to collect songs, stories and memories. A bus ride shaky enough to break teeth or induce labour took us to Kozats’ke (Козацьке), where a welcoming party of babushka-clad old ladies was awaiting us by the village club*. After a series of kisses and a debate about whether it was still sinful to sing softly on a fasting day**, the old ladies hopped on their bikes and rode off to the hut that would serve as our recording studio for the day.

The eight ladies who gathered in the humble, but beautifully decorated home of our host, Maria Andrijivna Vakulenko, form the well-known ensemble Berehynja. They tour all over Ukraine on a little bus that belongs to the former village kolhoz (communal farm). We ate delicious steamed pirogues and spent several hours listening to their stories and songs. Afterwards, Maria Andrijivna showed us some very old articles of traditional garb and gave us a tour of her little farm.

Village Kozats’ke, Ensemble Berehynja: “Kalyna malyna” (“Калина малина”)

Village Kozats’ke, Ensemble Berehynja: “Pryjizhaje mij mylen’kyj z polja” (“Приїзжає мій миленький з поля”)

From left to right: Hanna Oleksandrivna Chubovs’ka (1937), Oleksandra Stepanivna Hereles'(1938), Ljubov Mykolajivna Soroka (1943), Kateryna Ivanivna Burzak (1938), Maria Andrijivna Vakulenko (1945), Ljubov Petrovna Mojsejenko (1942), Natalka Hrehorivna Samson (1936) and Hanna Mykolajivna Chubovs’ka (1937)

The next morning we arose bright and early to catch a little bus to the neighbouring village, Vepryk (Веприк, which translates to “little pig”). There was no welcoming committee here. Iryna, our guide, had a list of names obtained earlier from the village head and we went door-to-door looking for the old ladies known to sing. Once we got two of them in one place, I was given an ancient bike and sent to look for the third.

Soon enough we were gathered in the summer kitchen of Nina Myhajlovna Borovik, who was preparing potatoes and constantly shooing the countless cats living in her yard. These three women are not part of an ensemble like Berehynja and rarely sing together anymore, but managed to remember quite a few beautiful songs. After several hours of singing, gossiping and eating, one of the women, Hanna Ivanovna Jermenok, took us to her home and showed us around her farm, even demonstrating how she reaps grass with an old scythe. She happily showed off old family photos, embroidered shirts and aprons, and hand-woven cloths.

Village Vepryk: “Oj u poli zhyto” (“Ой у полі жито”)

These women can usually sing all the voices in any given song, deciding almost instinctively who will take which line. Here, the top voice switches partway because the first woman was having trouble reaching so high.

Village Vepryk: “Nagljadajsja moja maty” (“Наглядайся моя мати”)

The whole experience was like traveling back in time. Life in these villages couldn’t have been much different 100 years ago, except that maybe people were younger, fresher. Rural communities are dying in Ukraine and this traditional folk culture is disappearing quickly.

For a writer’s perspective on this little expedition, check out Maria Reva’s “Expedition log: songs and sins.”

From left to right: Nina Myhajlovna Borovyk (1952), Hanna Tryhonivna Hajduk (19??), Hanna Ivanovna Jermenok (1949)

* Clubs were set up in villages during Soviet times to promote communist culture and ideals. This is where people would gather to sing and dance.
** One officially can’t sing during fasts, but they made an exception for us.

Art Music in Kiev

Upon arriving in Kiev, Maria and I discovered to our great joy that one can see an opera here for as little as $1.25 or as much as $25. Without losing any time, we booked superb tickets to see several Ukrainian works, which are very hard to find in Canada.

The highlight of our three-day cultural weekend was the ballet Night before Christmas (Ніч перед різдвом, 1990) by Yevhen Stankovych (or Stankovich), which took place at the Kiev Opera House. The music explored a lot of folk material and was a little Stravinskyesque at times. The whole first scene was a very clever layering of what is known as the “Carol of the bells”. It even makes an appearance in the tom-toms. The sets and costumes were gorgeous, and so was the hall itself. It’s obvious that this is the place you are meant to bring your foreign business partners – everything is beautifully restored and the programs have English translation. The following night we saw a Ukrainian classic, the opera Natalka Poltavka (1889) by Mykola Lysenko. The music was nothing special and was sadly overshadowed by the glamourous costumes and sets.

I was particularly looking forward to Monday night, though it ended up being a rather frustrating event in terms of local bureaucracy. But more on that some other time. The event was a state-funded celebration of Stankovych’s 70th birthday, with a concert presentation of his folk opera When the fern blooms (Коли цвіте папороть, 1979) at the Ukrainian National Philharmonic. I read about this work some months ago and had little hope of every finding it. And lo and behold! It turns out that it was being performed in Kiev, now, for free! I call it fate.

The event was full of speeches by various government and cultural officials and the gifting of countless grotesquely large bouquets. I hope the composer had a bucket or two in front of him. There was even a letter from President Yanukovych, the reading of which was greeted by dissatisfied murmurs and quiet booing. The music in this so-called folk “opera” was extremely loud and full-bodied, with a whole lot of choir. It sounded more like an oratorio. I will have to do some thorough listening to the CD, which I quite literally found in the hall, before I decide what I really think of it.

For those of you itching to check out some contemporary Ukrainian piano music, find something by Alexander Shchetynsky (or Shchetinsky). Maria and I got to see a full concert of his solo piano works performed at the Archive Museum on the grounds of the St. Sophia Cathedral in central Kiev. Most of the pieces were serial, each with a very unique soundworld. My favorite were the Four Preludes (1977-78). They had lots of character. Glorify the name of the Lord (Хваліте імя Господнє,1987) was radically different from the other works. It was largely made up of long, simple, chant-like melodies, which very slowly built up into a dense polyphonic texture over the course of 25 minutes. The flowing lines were frequently interrupted by a repeating bell-like chord. The work was very meditative.

Tomorrow we are off to our first village with a large bag of candy, a bunch of chocolate bars and several bottles of sweet wine (the old ladies have a sweet tooth). Check back for updates, and in the meantime check out Maria’s photo tour featuring the Kiev suburbs.

Flatten your throat and sing

“Flatten your throat and send a nasty sound into your teeth.”

That’s roughly what we were trying to do in the student folk ensemble led by the well-known Ukrainian ethnomusicologist Yevhen Yefremov.

This week I was very lucky to sit in on a lecture on the modal organization of Ukrainian folksong given by professor Yefremov at the Tchaikovsky National Academy of Music. Professor Yefremov doesn’t just collect and analyze folksongs. He can also sing them complete with all the ornamentation, altered tunings, and the authentic village timbre. His lecture was full of musical examples, which he performed himself, from memory and without any lesson plans. Later in the day I got to participate in his student ensemble where we tried to decipher and imitate several folksongs from Ukrainian villages found on Russian territory. Who knows, maybe we’ll make a folk singer out of me yet.

Last night, Maria and I got our first real taste of live folksong performance, which took place not in a village, but on the 22nd floor of a very futuristic-looking Soviet apartment block in the Troeshchina suburb.* Iryna Danylejko, the lovely ethnomusicologist who is helping us with our expeditions, invited us over to her “penthouse”** apartment to celebrate her daughter’s fourth birthday. The apartment is filled with curious objects that Iryna and her husband Danylo brought back from various expeditions: hanging baskets, ornate icons, a giant wooden trunk and a small stone mill, to name a few.

Once we got through a couple of bottles of wine and a small decanter of rosehip-infused horilka (Ukrainian vodka), the four singers treated us to three folksongs. I spent most of today walking around my uncle’s empty apartment, tears streaming from my eyes from intense sadness and concentration, trying to sing one of the mournful songs through my partially squeezed throat. I should have really been writing the somewhat belated piano quartet for Ensemble Sonore instead. But folksong is my raison d’être in Ukraine, right? Sonore can wait, I hope.

Iryna sings in a folk ensemble Mykhajlove Chudo (Mихайлове Чудо). You can see and hear them here and here, and with the rock band N.Sh.N (Н.Ш.Н.) here.

* Yes, suburbs in Ukraine are made up of 22-story apartment buildings with not one single-family unit in sight.

** As Iryna’s husband, Danylo, called their humble, but cosy abode from which you can see most of Kiev.