Unruly Sounds in Princeton

I am excited to be performing my piece What else can I give him? at the Unruly Sounds Festival taking place tomorrow (Sunday, Oct 2) outside of the Princeton Public Library in Princeton, NJ. I will be joined by Nick Tolle (cimbalom), Mark Eichenberger (percussion) and Florent Ghys (bass), who premiered the piece with me in December 2015. We are welcoming a new violinist, Andie Springer, for this performance.

The festival is free and will run from 12:30 to 7:00 pm. I will be performing around 2:00 pm. The rain location is inside the public library’s community room. For more info on the festival, visit this Facebook page.

What else can I give him? is part of a growing cycle of pieces I call ‘invented folksongs’ – pieces which draw heavily from the Ukrainian folksong tradition and marry it with a more contemporary compositional approach. Here’s a recording of the premiere performance with super duper violinist Courtney Orlando:

Leading up to the festival, composer-vocalist Annika Socolofsky and I got to visit Community Park Elementary school to chat and play with some kids in grades 4 and 5. Annika showed them some really cool ways to use their voices, and I told them about my upcoming opera Wild Dogs. We did some great howling, yipping, barking, chirping and croaking together. The kids made particularly great frogs hoping up with every “Enid” croak. I’ve never done something like this before and was surprised at how much fun I had with the kids.

Confronting darkness at Avaloch

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.

Avaloch Farm

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.

Anna, Katha and Illya at Avaloch Farm

Photo by Illya Filshtinskiy. 

Interview on SoundLab

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 Bridal Train, 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.

Piano Trio Premiere

On Wednesday (March 5), the Gryphon Trio will premiere my piano trio, Toss a flower on the water, which was created as part of the Soundstreams Emerging Composers’ Workshop. The performance will take place in the lobby of Roy Thomson Hall as part of a pre-concert event happening at TSO’s New Creations Festival, starting at 7:15 pm. The concert will also feature works by all the other workshop composers: Gabriel Dharmoo, Emilie Cecilia LeBel, Graham Flett, Adam Scime and Caitlin Smith. Click here for more info.

Toss a flower was directly inspired by my trips to Ukraine to research traditional folk vocal performance practice. In addition to recording many beautiful and often mournful songs, I also heard many stories. A common theme throughout my travels was domestic abuse, which is rampant in rural Ukraine. There are many folksongs dedicated to the subject as well.

This trio borrows thematic material, in a very fragmented form, from the folksong “Kalyna Malyna” which I recorded in October 2012 in the village Kozats’ke. This song compares a young woman stuck in an unhappy marriage to a guelder rose bush, its branches simultaneously weighed down by dew and wilting in the sun. The title of my trio refers to an image from another folksong on the same subject. Here a similarly abused young woman tosses a flower on the water to send a message to her loved ones. When her mother finds the flower wilted despite being in water, she laments the hardships which have caused her daughter to age before her time.

The original folksong is very cut up, its pieces emerging from and dissolving into shifting textures and colours, like the flower being carried and tossed by the force of the river. You can hear my original sketches here.

This trio was very difficult for me to finish. The subject matter is heavy. It was hard to keep track of the scordatura (different tuning) on both violin and cello. And I was trying to combine my love for Ukrainian folksong with my fascinating with string timbral effects. The final stages of the composing process also happened in Ukraine, right when the protests were starting up. The piece is now irreversibly tied to the momentous and tragic events, which have rocked the land of my birth in the last three months.

I am dedicating this premiere to Ukraine and its people’s ardent struggle for a better life and for freedom from corrupt governments both within and beyond its borders. Let these cycles of abuse finally break.

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.

Thin Edge on the Bridal Train

I would like to invite all those who live in Vancouver, Victoria, Toronto or Montreal to attend one of the concerts given by the Thin Edge New Music Collective in the next couple of weeks. Thin Edge is touring with a very unique combination of instruments – flute, violin, accordion and piano – and will be performing my newest piece, Bridal Train.

Bridal Train was the result of some very intense work at the Banff Centre and draws heavily on a folksong I recorded in Ukraine.

Village Kozats’ke, Ensemble Berehynja: “Vesil’naja maty” (“Весільная мати”)

This folksong is part of the traditional wedding rite in the village Kozats’ke, which I visited last September (see the post here). It accompanies the baking of special wedding bread known as karavaj. The song has an interesting formal structure, primarily reserved for this kind of ritualistic repertoire, where six-beat cells go through various subdivisions to accommodate an irregular text. The six-beat cells can sometimes be replaced by shorter or longer cells (commonly four beats); I play with this tendency a little in my piece. These particular performers also do what we know as metric modulation, suddenly going into triplets and letting them become the new quarter-note pulse. This is something that I pushed further in Bridal Train. I think Thin Edge particularly enjoyed rehearsing those bits.

Here’s a list of all the concerts where you can hear this piece as well as music by Juan de Dios Magdaleno, Georg Katzer, Toshio Hosokawa, Uros Rojko, Hope Lee and a brand new piece for the full quartet by Solomiya Moroz.

VANCOUVER – February 1, 8 pm, CMC Vancouver, 837 Davie Street, $15-20

VICTORIA – February 3, 7:30 pm, Wood Hall, The Victoria Conservatory of Music, 900 Johnson St, $10-$15 (Presented by Open Space Arts Society)

TORONTO – February 10, 3 pm, Gallery 345, 345 Sorauren Ave, $15-$20

MONTRÉAL – February 11, 8 pm, Sala Rosa, 4848 boul. Saint-Laurent, $10-15

They are also doing a second show in Vancouver focusing on repertoire with open instrumentation, including some wonderful Cage pieces for violin and keyboard (performed by accordion in this case):

VANCOUVER- January 31, 9 pm, 1067 EAST, 1115b East Hastings, $5 (with guitarist/composer Jeff Younger)

I hope you come out to one of these shows and enjoy this unique ensemble. I’m super excited to hear my piece this Friday!

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.