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.
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.
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.
Paul Steenhuissen recently interviewed me for his podcast series SoundLab. The interview was commissioned by Toronto’s New Music Concerts in preparation for the Ukrainian-Canadian Connection concert happening on April 4th, which will feature the premiere of my piece Weeping. Paul asked some very probing and difficult questions, which forced me to define my compositional practice and goals.
We discussed my work with Ukrainian folk music, focusing specifically on Weeping and the grieving songs which inspired and shaped it, as well as an earlier piece BridalTrain, which was commissioned by the Thin Edge New Music Collective. We also talked about my explorations of childhood, Carl Jung’s archetypes and the cello in the piece The Child, Bringer of Light premiered by Paul Dwyer at Carnegie Hall. Finally, we discussed my work with graphic notation and unusual materials in the piece Through Closed Doors, also commissioned by Thin Edge.
In addition to recordings of my music, the podcast includes archival as well as my own recordings of Ukrainian folks music, and a bit of my singing. You can listen to the podcast online or download it here.