Musicologist Leah Batstone about the Ukrainian Contemporary Music Festival and the Notes from Ukraine

Лія Бетстоун. Фото: Asia Mieleszko

December 4th, 2022, is a significant date for Ukrainian musical culture. On this day 100 years ago, a performance of the Ukrainian Republic Capella, under the leadership of Oleksandr Koshyts, took place at Carnegie Hall in New York. This concert was part of the world tour of the Capella, and its main purpose was the promotion of the cultural and political sovereignty of Ukraine in the international arena. At this concert, American listeners for the first time heard “Shchedryk”, the legendary and now-famous choral adaptation of a Ukrainian song by Mykola Leontovych. However, the importance and achievement of the tour go far beyond this event. During years of touring, the choir gave concerts in 200 cities in 17 countries. It was a powerful step for Ukrainian cultural diplomacy in times of the country’s struggle for its self-identification and self-determination.

Today Ukraine is once again fighting for its independence on its own conditions. And cultural diplomacy is a powerful driver of this struggle. One can hardly miss the historical arch: now, like 100 years ago, the voice of Ukraine is heard worldwide.

On the anniversary of the concert of Koshyts Capella, the Ukrainian Institute, Razom for Ukraine, and the Ukrainian Contemporary Music Festival, with the support of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine and the Embassy of Ukraine in the USA, have announced a big concert “Notes for Ukraine” that will happen on the same day in the same place — December 4th in Carnegie Hall. Part of the proceeds will be donated to the “Reconstruction of Ukraine” project at the platform of the President of Ukraine United24.

One of the organizers of this event is Leah Batstone, an American musicologist specializing in the intersection of art music, philosophy, and politics. She is the author of a monograph Mahler’s Nietzsche: Politics and Philosophy in the Wunderhorn Symphonies, and now is exploring Ukrainian music of the 20th century. Leah is also the artistic director of the Ukrainian Contemporary Music Festival, annually taking place in New York since 2020. 

Leah visited Kyiv in early October, and we were able to talk.

How did you come to study Ukrainian music, what was the cause?

Leah Batstone: I have Ukrainian roots: my mother’s family comes from Ukraine. My great-grandfather and great-grandmother emigrated to the United States 100 years ago, and 4 generations of my family have lived here. I was not part of the diaspora, I didn’t know much about Ukraine. During my studies at the university, I was a member of the Ukrainian club because I was interested in learning more about my origins, my culture. It was important to me personally.

Later, as a musicologist, I thought: “Okay, why I don’t know composers from Ukraine?” I realized that there were Ukrainian composers, but there was almost nothing about them in English literature. That’s why it’s so difficult to study Ukrainian music. For example, Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev, and Stravinsky have been always perceived as part of Russian music, and I understand why, although they had connections to Ukraine, yet, they were more complex.

I was in Kyiv in the summer of 2019 researching and exploring music after the Maidan: what has been done, what new music has been performed. I learned about interesting music and lots of topics and projects. It’s funny that in the US we don’t know about this music and culture. New York is the most important city for contemporary music, and people don’t know anything there.

What kind of music did you discover for yourself?

Leah Batstone: I met Liuba Morozova, and she told me about different projects with modern composers. She also told me about her projects involving the different regional cultures of Ukraine. It’s all very creative and very interesting. I feel like in the US, we think that we are the most progressive, the most modern, the most interesting, and so on. And that’s probably okay. But there are also a lot of remarkable things in Ukraine, and I think that Americans will be interested in Ukrainian projects and Ukrainian composers. And that’s right. I know this because our festival is successful in New York.

I just wanted to ask more about your festival. Could you tell us how you got the idea to create a festival of Ukrainian music in New York?

Leah Batstone: I have financial support for research in Ukraine. A mandatory part of this support is developing a public project.

That is, you were given funds to study Ukrainian music, and you must allocate part of these funds for some public event.

Leah Batstone: Yes. I met Ludmila Yurina, and she told me about the festival in Texas. I thought, “Okay, that’s a good idea, why not? The festival of Ukrainian music in New York would be a public outreach.” This is a great opportunity to do something big and important that will be successful and received positively. We wanted to do the festival every year, and now we are preparing for the fourth festival. It will be held in March. 

Did the festival take place in March 2022?

Leah Batstone: Yes. The focus of our festival was landscape. There were three concerts related to this topic, as well as academic discussions about nature in Ukrainian culture.

In musicology, there are now specialists in the field of eco-musicology, this is a very new trend. It’s all about the idea of how music works with nature and the environment, the topic of climate change, and the ways composers use music while thinking about nature. And obviously, nature and landscape are very important in Ukrainian culture. You can see it in language, literature, and in music. We had three concerts, each with pieces on this topic.

This year, everything happened a little differently than usual. In February, a full-scale war began… But we received support from the American community, and it was possible to do everything without the direct presence of guests from Ukraine. We had to change some details a little, but not much. Several composers from Ukraine could not come to the festival, but despite this, Ukrainian composers were the best, for example, Alla Zagaykevych. We presented Nord/Ouest with her. She could not come to New York, but she made a new recording, and the performance took place anyway: a recording of electroacoustics and live drums were playing, and part of the live elements were also on the recording. It was great, it’s incredible that she was able to do this work at such a time.


How does the audience in New York perceive modern Ukrainian music?

Leah Batstone: The audience perceives Ukrainian music with great interest. I understand that modern music is a very niche thing, but when people who like it come, it’s always “Wow!”. Because it’s music from Ukraine, it’s very different, very fascinating. And regarding the topic of nature and landscape, I think Ukrainian music and Ukrainian composers are the best because this topic is very important for our Ukrainian culture.

Yes, it is normal that people, for example, study Grieg and Sibelius — this is all very close to the topic of eco-musicology. But I think that the best examples of this direction are precisely in Ukraine. We have the best pieces on this subject, and I think Americans understand that.

«It seems to me that there are many parallels between Liatoshynskyi and Copland, especially when it comes to using folk music in a modern context»

And the festival in 2023 is going to be dedicated to Borys Liatoshynsky.

Leah Batstone: Yes, this year marks the 55th anniversary of the composer’s death, it is an important date. Liatoshynsky is the father of modern Ukrainian music[OS1] , in my opinion.

It is very important to us that Americans play Ukrainian music. I know that there are wonderful performing musicians in Ukraine and perhaps they have the best understanding of Ukrainian music, that’s obvious. But for promotion and popularization, it is important that American musicians get to know this music themselves through performance. They will think: “Wow, this is good music, maybe in my next concert I will perform something by Liatoshynskyi!” And, honestly, in New York, we have very good musicians and specialists in contemporary music. Overall, I think the composers we played at the festival were very happy to receive the recordings.

Will there be anything else at the festival besides Liatoshynskyiʼs music?

Leah Batstone: Yes, there will also be music by his students and students of his students, who also have connections with Liatoshynskyi. That is three generations of composers of the class of Borys Liatoshynskyi. Also, at the next festival, we will try to do something new in our last concert. We will have the topic “Dialogues.” I thought: “Okay, it’s great that we’re presenting Ukrainian music, but it would also be interesting for Americans to perceive it in the context of what they already know.”  So, at the next festival, the program will include Liatoshynskyi and Schöenberg, as well as Liatoshynskyi and Copland. It seems to me that there are many parallels between Liatoshynskyi and Copland, especially when it comes to using folk music in a modern context. I hope that American listeners will feel it.

This concert will take place on Sunday, and it is the most difficult day because usually everyone has other plans for the evening. If you were at the concerts on Friday and Saturday, then maybe on Sunday as well it will be too much. I thought a lot about what could interest Americans. And I think that the topic “Dialogues” is very apt, moreover, it highlights Ukrainian music not as something separate, but as part of the global context, as part of a dialogue with the whole world. And now this dialogue is especially important because I think that many people in the West — Germans, French, Americans — see Eastern European music exclusively as a sphere of Russian influence.

Before the war, I thought that the program should center around Liatoshynskyi and Shostakovich, but after the beginning of the full-scale invasion, I thought that no, it is not necessary. There are other connections, more interesting and less obvious. It is much better and more relevant now to show that Ukrainian music has connections with Austrian music or American music. It is not necessary to look for connections exclusively through Russian music and through its prism. Yes, it is true that they exist, but enough is enough.

«…today Ukraine is a symbol of freedom all over the world, everyone perceives Ukraine as a very cool, very modern country…»

It may not sound professional, but do you have a favorite piece in Ukrainian music?

Leah Batstone: It’s hard to say, it’s like choosing between children… But it fascinates me how progressive and modern Ukrainian composers are now — and were before. I’m working on Józef Koffler’s music now, and I find myself thinking: “Okay, it may sound like Shostakovich in some ways, but it’s thirty years earlier, — and people don’t know anything about Koffler. There is the same ignorance regarding the music of Kyiv avant-garde, and contemporary musicians as well. People have no idea how first-class Ukrainian music is.

Since historically Ukraine was considered a periphery, all the most valuable gains were appropriated by the metropolis. But from my experience, major creative shifts and discoveries take place precisely at the “periphery.” Ukraine is a place where many different artists are gathered, it is an ideal place for creativity. And if you think about many important figures, like Mahler, for example, — he also is from the periphery, born in Bohemia, Czechia. Yes, he worked in Vienna and was the director of the Vienna Opera, but his roots are not in the “center.”

Often, when I think of creative people, I notice that they very rarely come from cultural centers. This is a major theme in my research, the idea of the relationship between the center and the periphery. This applies to postcolonialism as well, because we have so many tales of history that have been told to us from the center. What we now recognize as imperial narratives. I think that among historians there are also people in the center of the empire, but they cannot tell the whole story. People in the center always think they’re the best and the smartest, it’s like New York — we’re the best, we’re the most important [laughs], and why should we care about other people? But I believe that at the periphery people are different and that is why there is an opportunity to create something completely new, distinct, and interesting.

How do you choose a festival focus? As for Liatoshynskyi, it is dictated by the anniversary date. And how did it happen with previous festivals?

Leah Batstone: We have already had three festivals. When we organized the first festival, we didn’t know if there would be the next one, so it had no theme. It was simply the Festival of Ukrainian Contemporary Music. The second was dedicated to the 30th anniversary of Ukraine’s Independence, the third to landscapes, and the fourth to Liatoshynskyi. I think that the topic of future festivals will depend on what will be important and interesting for Ukraine, such as Independence or the figure of Liatoshynskyi. But I’m also thinking about what will be interesting for Americans, like landscape, which is a very sexy topic right now, it’s eco-musicology. Yes, it is a trend, and I want people to understand that Ukraine can be part of this trend as well.

And now Liatoshynskyi, especially during the war, will be interesting to Americans, particularly in the context of the long history of Ukrainian music. Yes, today Ukraine is a symbol of freedom all over the world, everyone perceives Ukraine as a very cool, very modern country, but I want to show its long, lasting history. I think that Americans who are interested in music will discover that Ukraine is not only about today: it has a lot of interesting things in the past, that is musicians and composers, and they are part of a long history.

This festival is a mix of what will be interesting for Ukraine and what will be interesting for the American audience. I have many ideas for future festivals, like music and films. But we have to wait a little and understand what will be interesting and relevant to present every year.

You are currently writing a book about Ukrainian music, but your first book is devoted to the figure of Gustav Mahler. Could you tell us more about it?

Leah Batstone: My first book is about Gustav Mahler and the influence of the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche on his first 4 symphonies. It is my doctoral thesis. It is very interesting to explore symphonic music in the political context of Vienna at that time. I’ve always been interested in the connections between politics and music, that’s my subject.

Leah Batstone. Photo by Asia Mieleszko

You have probably heard the thesis, which appeared anew with Russian aggression: art is beyond politics. How do you feel about it?

No, I hate when people say that, when they separate art from other areas of life, and political realities in particular. It cannot be so, it is not a historical rule, first. You cannot be a performer or any artistic person without political views. You are a person, you live in society, and all this affects you.

Your upcoming book about Ukrainian music will be called At 30: Four Waves of Ukrainian Music in the Twentieth Century. Can you tell us more about the content and work on it?

Leah Batstone: Yes, this was my idea for a postdoc at the University of Vienna, but now because of the war, I am changing the subject a little. I focus only on the first wave, namely Ukrainian modernism. Now, obviously, it is more difficult to conduct research in Ukraine, many archives in libraries do not work, some materials are not easy to get. And I also believe that nowadays there is a great interest in the history of Ukrainian music, so it is not necessary to give only an overview, such as “100 years of music in Ukraine”. I think there are people who will want to read a book about the generation of Ukrainian modernist composers and only about this, in detail. This is a practical solution: I get to work with the sources I already have, because now I can’t go to Kharkiv, for instance, and conduct research there.

I believe that the audience is changing, people are showing more interest in the long history of Ukrainian music, and not only in the highlights. Today, the English-speaking audience is eager to get deeper and more thorough knowledge, so I concentrate specifically on the period of modernism, and not on an overview of the whole century. Perhaps in the future, I will explore the following eras, the sixties, and post-Independence music, but at this moment there is an opportunity to write something profound about modernism. People will be curious about it, which perhaps would not have happened before the full-scale war. This is an example of how historical events change the direction of research. It is terrible, this war… But now there is an opportunity to educate people by talking more fully about the history of Ukraine.

I gave lectures about Koffler and Liatoshynskyi in Greece, published a small article. Then a representative from Oxford University Press asked me if there would be a book. They are very interested in the topic and want to publish information about it. That is, although the times are terrible, there is an opportunity to tell the world about Ukrainian music. I have many mixed feelings about such an opportunity at such a time, but in general, this is an important moment when I can and must do something for Ukraine, about Ukraine. This project of mine started even before the war and now I can promote Ukrainian culture even more. Nowadays, culture is a weapon.

Are you familiar with representatives of the Ukrainian musicological community? Maybe you have contacts with some of them?

Leah Batstone: Yes, I know Iryna Tukova and Yurii Chekan. Lidia Melnyk is now in Vienna, we know each other. I also know Olena Korchova, not personally though, I have her book on musical modernism.

In May, we are planning a conference in Vienna about Ukraine in the history of music. And I really hope that Chekan, Tukova, and other Ukrainian experts will be able to attend this conference and present their research.

Our favorite carol came to us from Ukraine!

On December 4, 2022, Carnegie Hall will host a large concert “Notes from Ukraine” on the 100th anniversary of Oleksandr Koshyts Capella’s world tour, and the North American premiere of “Shchedryk.” This is quite symbolic, in my opinion: both 100 years ago and today, Ukraine is fighting for its independence and opposing Russian propaganda and harmful imperial narratives. And cultural diplomacy plays a rather important role in this struggle. Tell us more about this concert, please.

Leah Batstone: This concert is a collaboration between the Ukrainian Contemporary Music Festival, the Ukrainian Institute, and the American organization Razom for Ukraine, with the support of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine, the Embassy of Ukraine in the USA, the Consulate General of Ukraine in New York, the Permanent Mission of Ukraine to the United Nations[OS2] . This program must do three things. The first thing is to present Ukrainian choral music because it is a unique and very interesting tradition. Many Americans, unless they are in the diaspora, do not know about Ukrainian choral music. I think that was the purpose of the tour a hundred years ago. We want to do similar to what the Koshyts tour did.

The second is a presentation of modern Ukrainian music. Again, as in Koshyts’ case, modern music will be played. Not only ancient traditions will be shown, but also the newest stage of musical development, new excellent examples of choral music, such as the works of Sylvestrov, Poliova, Havrylets.

The third is to show how Ukrainian music influences American music and how these two traditions interact and develop together. It is very important for people to understand that Ukrainian music and Ukrainian culture in the USA exist not only in the diaspora, it is also a full-fledged part of common culture. Our favorite carol came to us from Ukraine! But there are other examples. I think that overall, this program should show how music can be a means of communicating with the world in wartime and non-wartime, always.

We put a lot of thought into the program. It is a mix of works from the Koshyts Capella concert, which took place 100 years ago, modern choral music, traditional carols, and contemporary choral music from Ukraine. The last are pieces in English written by Maxim Shalygin and Svyatoslav Lunyov. Also, the program includes works by American composers who have connections with Ukraine, for example, Leonard Bernstein and Eric Whitacre, a prominent American choral composer who studied with Virko Baley in Las Vegas. Also, we present a musical mashup of “Oy Khodyt Son” and “Summertime” by Gershwin. We want to say that our connections go far beyond the “Shchedryk.” “Schedryk” is top, it is very important for us, and it is part of our culture as well, but there is more. I think now it is crucial that Americans understand that Ukraine is not far away, it is not “different.”

The performers are the well-known choir from the USA and the Ukrainian choir in New York “Dumka”, as well as the children’s choir “Shchedryk” and the bandurist capella. There are many descendants of singers from the Koshyts Capella in the diaspora choir because many singers did not return after the tour, they did not want to come back to the Soviet Union.

In the second part of the program, the best American choir, The Choir of Trinity Wall Street, will perform. They are professionals, the best specialists in contemporary [OS3] music in New York, and we are excited that they will be there. They are to perform works by Shalygin and Lunyov. I hope they will enjoy their part and will want to continue including Ukrainian music in their repertoire. So maybe Shalygin and Lunyov will be played in the next Christmas concerts. It’s like a festival: it’s very important for me that Americans play and sing Ukrainian music. I think this is an important step in the promotion of Ukrainian culture, although this is not the only way.

The finale of the concert will be the world premiere of a new work by the American composer Trevor Weston. He is a very interesting choral composer, he knew Myroslav Skoryk, visited Lviv and Kyiv, and is currently writing a piece to the words of Serhiy Zhadan. And this is already a mashup of two contemporary cultures, a contemporary American composer and a contemporary Ukrainian writer. Together they create something powerful.

Do you read contemporary Ukrainian literature? What are your favorites?

Leah Batstone: I don’t have enough time to read, unfortunately, but of course, I am interested in Ukrainian literature: Zhadan, Kostenko… I am also very interested in Mykola Khvylovy because he is part of modernism. There is a lot to read, but I’m not sure my Ukrainian is good enough to read the whole book.

Yes, of course, I understand, I was just curious. Thank you. Maybe I forgot to ask something or there’s something else you would like to tell us?

I would like to thank the Armed Forces of Ukraine due to whom we are able to talk about culture today. This is the most important thing.

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