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.


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.

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.”

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!

Rediscovering hope at the Banff Centre

I just returned to Vancouver from a three-week creative residency at the Banff Centre. The 15-hour bus ride through Beautiful British Columbia gave me some time to take stock of the last 18 months of my life. Since August 2011, I have moved between Canada’s coasts three times, officially held three addresses plus four transient ones, attended two composition workshops, gave three public talks, and wrote 39 minutes of music in addition to completing a 36-minute chamber opera. My three-months’ stay in Ukraine last fall, though offering some incredible opportunities to hear authentic performances of folk music, was a psychological nightmare from which I came back feeling broken and depressed.

In that mind state, the Banff Centre, despite everything it has to offer, seemed like yet another place to travel to, yet another place to have to work very hard at. I was still trying to finish my chamber opera. I was terribly behind on a piece I was supposed to be workshopping with the Thin Edge New Music Collective and was absolutely dreading having to face them. I was too worn out to enjoy the prospect of yet another three weeks away from home.

But I went. And it ended up being exactly what I needed.

In Ukraine, there’s a saying that without your piece of paper, you are just a piece of poop. This idea infects almost every aspect of life. Going from that to the Banff Centre, I suddenly found myself in an environment where everything and everyone makes you feel supremely important. You have incredible facilities at your disposal and, most importantly, you are surrounded by an intense concentration of talent and energy. It’s absolutely infectious. The residency takes you away from the daily grind and reminds you why you work so hard at this ephemeral idea of music. And it makes you want to work even harder to reach your ultimate goal.

I came to the centre totally exhausted, but managed to write a 5-minute chamber piece amidst constant trips to Calgary for opera rehearsals. I worked like mad, but there is no way I could have done that at home. Somehow I came back to Vancouver feeling more rested and energized than I did when I left three weeks ago. Then, my only goal was to finish my current projects and hibernate indefinitely. Now I am looking forward to facing new challenges and new pieces.

The Banff Centre is truly a magical place and I very much hope that the current restructuring it’s going through will not take these residencies away from us. The centre is not just “inspiring creativity,” as all the signs on campus proclaim. It inspires a kind of radiantly innocent hope for the rest of your life as an artist.

In my hut with the lovely ladies from the Canadian Federation of University Women, the organization that generously funded part of my Banff Centre experience.

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.

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.