“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.
* 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.