Oleksii Shmurak: “In music I like paradoxicality, fragility, multilayeredness” Interviewer – Tymish Melnyk

Ukrainian contemporary music can be looked at different angles. Its united context is created by incredibly different composers, who oftentimes have opposite views on art. It is all the more interesting that one of them, Oleksii Shmurak, is a possessor of his own multi-layered universe. During only the last decade his aesthetics of composing has changed a lot – it is hard to find other examples similar in intensity of transformations. What remains unvaried in Shmurak’s music is that it has always been meant for the unprejudiced listener’s ear. To expand the borders of enjoyment of music is, perhaps, the most difficult task for a listener, who discovers something new for himself. Shmurak understands it, that’s why he organizes educational activities: his lectures – are a successful vaccination from snobbery.

Shortly before his birthday, Oleksii Shmurak told us about his recent projects and shared his visions about Ukrainian music life.

What have you been doing lately?

Generally, I fight with the consequences of emergency power outages. But, if seriously, more or less the same as in last years. Before 2015 I was, by my current standards, a very academic musician. Composed and played some scores, led a contemporary music ensemble, came up with ideas of projects for it. However, around 2015-2016, my career took a huge turn – I began to collaborate with artists of other disciplines – poets, directors, visual artists, designers, etc. In addition, approximately at the same time, I realized myself as an educator and teacher. I began to read lectures, little later – to give lessons, write articles. The other day on the lecture someone asked me how I ended up with this life, this attitude. Which attitude? I will explain.

Firstly, I don’t concentrate only on academic music and academic music circle. Nowadays my usual social circle is polydisciplinary. It means that I have to talk about music in a language that is not only understood by alumni of musical academies. I learned a lot from other discourses – philosophical, psychological, choreographic, theatrical, visual art, etc. The experience of cooperation with non-academic musicians also helped a lot. Even the students, who learn with me how to understand music and composition – almost all of them have no relation to the academic music sphere.

I study the lexicon and thinking approach of rap artists, authors of dance electronic music, artists in the genre ambient. There was a pretty funny episode. My student proposed I take DMT – Dimethyltryptamine – a strong psychedelic that develops strange hallucinations, and changes the neural connections in the brain, if simply. So, under this drug, according to his idea, I was supposed to listen to music, describe my analytical experience in text and convey information to humanity, in particular to this student. That would be an online lesson of composition and analysis with Oleksii Shmurak under DMT. I refused. However, this is an illustrative case. It is nothing similar to what we did in the music academy.

Secondly, while creating music, I compile notation-oriented thinking – the one with functional harmony, linear movement, polyphonic techniques, classical music structure, motive work, modern sound production techniques and similar things – with body-oriented thinking about music, where the most important criteria are stream, condition, feeling – things that you cannot describe in notes. Of course, you can write in the score “to play stream-wise”, but if the music is built discretely, with a detailed plan of musical events, contradictions, with many layers, – than something will be lost: either detailedness, or integrity (“holisticness”). This mixture of “notationness” and “streamness” reminds me of James Cameron movie “Avatar”, where a person with one body, led remotely another body, with other proportions and biochemistry. It is complicated, but it inspires.

If we talk about specific projects, this year I gave several charity lectures in the educational direction. Their mission is to form integral narratives about contemporary “searching” music, music of Ukrainian composers and the question of identity in the music. These are peculiar interdisciplinary bridges, that connect academic, history-philosophical, technological science and popular science discourses. Generally, it continues and develops the idea of podcast and vlog АШОШ.

Last months I began a new cycle of lectures – “Science fiction and music”, where I explain fundamental musical phenomena through no less fundamental phenomena of physics, math, evolution and other sciences. I give lectures for seven years already, but only now I allowed myself to form the thematic of course not as a compromise, but conversely, as peculiar as possible, with an emphasis on that, what deeply bothers me personally, what makes a basis of my internal mythology.

In 2016-2020, I almost didn’t write notated music, I had a serious identity crisis. However, in 2020 I returned to my native element. In 2021, I wrote a piano cycle “Greenland”, which, in studio performance of Antonii Baryshevskyi, will be released as an album the next year. In 2022 – two ensemble pieces were commissioned by European institutions – “The Fishes’ Reply to St. Anthony” and “Crocodile in the bathroom”.

Together with painters Dasha Podoltseva and Elena Orap we create an installation project Dreamscape about the role of music and sounds for people during this war. I will make sleepy surrealistic sound landscape. The opening of the exhibition is on 2nd December in the Small Gallery of Mystetskyi Arsenal. Also, speaking of exhibitions, – on 6th December in PinchukArtCentre will be opened a big exhibition, where among other artworks will be presented Dana Kavelina’s movie “It can’t be true, that nothing can’t be returned”, to which I write music in a collaboration with sound producer Oleksandr Chorny and vocal ensemble Alter Ratio. It seems to be the first time, when a film music that I compose will be, let’s say, conventionally quite beautiful, so that it could be listened to separately from the movie, like a soundtrack. I will still think about this idea.

On 4th December in Stuttgart will take place a concert-presentation of an album Liebestod – within the project of musical agency Ukho. We create this album together with Oleh Shpudeiko. These are songs accompanied by piano and electronics. Lyrics by Ivan Mazepa, John Keats, Volodymyr Svidzinsky and Inger Christensen. It will be my first concert since November 2019.

In your opinion, does contemporary Ukrainian music fit into cultivated coherent discourse?

The answer to this question depends on who exactly imagines this very contemporary Ukrainian music in his/her head. And what result he/she wants to get. There is a descriptive science and normative science. The descriptive one only describes what exists, normative one postulates what has to be.  Descriptively I personally have a coherency of ideas about what is contemporary Ukrainian music. However I, as, I assume, anybody else, want it to be “better”, or rather, more convenient for me.

What would be more convenient for me? So that not only West and Ukrainian oligarchs through their institutions and foundation, but also Ukrainian state through its institutions and foundations would commission music from me. I understand that I say “institutions and foundations” too often, but I can’t be silent about that in those years when friendly to the head of President’s Office corruptive officials have destroyed Ukrainian culture foundation, a couple of universities and ministries, Derzhkino (Ukrainian state film agency) and now they try to destroy Dovzhenko-center.

It is clear that now the state has other priorities – to fight with russians for our independence, territory, citizens and in general for ability for Ukrainian state and nation to exist. However, it makes me sad, that the tendency to destroy young institutions, that tried to play by transparent rules, not only hasn’t disappear after russian invasion, but as if didn’t notice it at all.

“The kind of music I make – academic, experimental, searching – can survive without attention of the state, almost without media and business attention. However, I think it should not only survive, but also live. Maybe I got used to financially and institutionally “fat” years – 2010-2019 – when each year we could observe cool projects, festivals, gradually was growing and getting stronger new Ukrainian cinema, there were interesting ensembles. Now it’s, of course, the war, – there are other things to do. But we have to build a base under the future – at the level of legislation, public attention, sustainable communities and processes.”

I am not an organizer, founder – this aspect of my activity remained in the past. At the moment, I’m an artist, a hiring specialist. If I felt strength, ardor and contentment, I would probably rush in the direction of initiating; however, something stops me – maybe acquired helplessness, maybe I just appreciate my comfort zone – I don’t know. But I’m also not going to take a “I’m an artist, you have to serve my needs, nobody understands me” position. I use grant agreements, communicate with agents of different professional communities, – and with all that I have a feeling, perhaps a false one, – that I’m still not influencing the situation, not establishing the future, not deciding how the history turns, I’m just observing it.

I believe, that for the development of contemporary Ukrainian music wouldn’t be redundant to have profound honest meeting-discussions of representatives of different movements, even those ones who don’t like, respect or notice each other. I have been going to psychoanalysis for the third year and am interested in psychology at the everyday and entertainment level. So it had an impact on my language and my communication. Nowadays when I talk as a friend or a colleague with people of other disciplines, other point of view, it’s important for me to understand the motivation and fantasy of my interlocutor. Perchance, if we share our points of view and fantasies with each other, we – agents of different modern Ukrainian musical movements – could understand something about each other and build connections. But these are, probably, just my sweet dreams about Amazing Ukraine of the Future. Most likely these things won’t happen.

How relevant is a national question in present-day musical context? Did it affect your identity?

For me it’s a very thorny issue. I was born in Leningrad, in 2007-2019 I had very close relationships with russian musicians, poets, generally with russian cultural context. Gradually those connections became weaker and, perhaps, if not the invasion, the influence of a russian world on me would keep gradually getting smaller and eventually would reach an insignificant level.

Invasion is like a shock therapy. I remember my manual therapist said, that you may not start to lose weight or do exercises “from Monday on”, you have to change something already today: little by little, but, most important, – regularly. Well, in that case in certain aspects I already do those exercises – regular practice of Ukrainian language in lectures and podcasts. Furthermore, I write music on Ukrainian texts in the new album Liebestod – I mentioned it already, in my answer for the first question.

However, such a “therapy” as now is, to say the least, not very healthy. I am not even talking about the fact, that war is an injection of hatred, offence, anger. I am talking about something else – to build something new, you need a base. Its’ not enough, or rather, not right to make some exemplary and demonstrative decisions, if behind that doesn’t stand systematical profound work on many levels.

Although you can change the facade fast, you can’t quickly change the fundament. My fundament is the books I have read, poems, my favorite music. It’s something not only conscious, not only superficial. There is neither tender ukrainisation, nor tender decolonization. It can only happen either in a natural way, through gradual increase of recognition and influence of Ukrainian music in a society and media, or through serious nation-creative steps, so some kind of a decisive breakthrough of a new myth – here I imagine high-quality educational programs, concerts, recordings, publishing music and popularizing-books. I don’t really believe this will happen, again, due to my acquired pessimism, however I will be happy to prove myself wrong.

“the tendency to destroy young institutions, that tried to play by transparent rules, not only hasn’t disappeared after russian invasion, but as if didn’t notice it at all”

If we talk about political positions, ethical and ideological questions, that arise among performers, composers, organizers, musical journalists, etc., I guess that if we want to find out what is there on a fundamental level, in the collective unconsciousness of our musical sphere, sooner or later we have to sit and talk seriously. About the principles on which to build a national musical canon and how to differ imperial, folk, globalist, post-soviet and other identity layers.

I have already given a lecture, more of a review for now, about music written by Ukrainian composers, howsoever I think it’s only “flowers” – the “berries” are ahead. I will do researches, form hypotheses and metaphors, suggest connections. Let’s see if it will help someone, if it will influence something.

Music of which composers formed your musical taste?

In my childhood, Prokofiev, Stravinsky, and Ravel had an influence on me. Later – Ligeti, Xenakis, Lachenmann, Scelsi, Grisey. In the academy times (scary to say how long ago it was – 2005-2010) I have felt a great impact of Scriabin, Sylvestrov, Andriessen, Furrer, Sciarrino, Feldman.

After the academy (2011-2015) I sensed the golden Vienna period – Beethoven, Schubert, main romantic axis – Schumann and Brahms, modernists, at the edge of late romantics, – Sibelius, Mahler, Janacek, Enescu, Szymanowski, – and also was inspired by modern composers who work with ghosts of the music of the past – it’s Szymański, Martynov, Knaifel, Zagny. At the same time I had an obvious strong connection with other modern composers, those who work with tiny sound and with time, that is blurring, – among them can be named Tim Parkinson, Klaus Lang, Mark Andre, Antoine Beuger. It turns out that from this exact period I can name the biggest amount and diversity of musical impacts on me. Perhaps it was the most musical period of my life.

In the second half of last decade (2016-2019) I have got a strong dose of jazz (my favorites – Ahmad Jamal, Matthew Shipp, The Necks), modern electronic and hip-hop music, and also David Lang.

Generally, in music I like oddness, paradoxicality, fragility, multilayeredness. And it is obvious, that inside of me there is some kind of a split between body and note orientations. For example, I’m fond of digging inside Webern’s scores, but it’s almost impossible to feel them with body. I pay tribute to the best pieces by Enescu – “Impressions d’enfance”, Octet, string quartets, third violin sonata, first and third piano sonatas, – but with all that I couldn’t move or make sex to this music – for that the stream-wise and groove musical pieces of other composers suit better.

And this is only about the impacts that I’m aware of. Without a doubt, all this time I was unconsciously influenced by Ukrainian and global pop music, soviet film music and soviet pop music. It was only once, when I tracked, understood and with this awareness began to listen a certain phenomenon in “usual” music – when I created a pretty funny track – “Preemptive act”. In this track, apparently, it’s not so much about the material as it is about the approach. Approach is a lazy improvisation with a gradual deconstruction, loss of wholeness. It is something I appreciate in Ravel’s “Valse”, late Beethoven’s music, early Schumann, Sibelius, late Mahler, Karavaichuk. So, It’s about the approach. However, this track has a material as well. And the funny thing is, that while I was creating it, I didn’t even suspect that this material has a pretext, so to say, “original” – it’s a famous bossa nova “standard”, “Triste” by Antonio Carlos Jobim. Ridiculous, but I didn’t even know the name of this author. To me, this similarity, or in fact unaware copying, has pointed out a composer and a friend of mine. I was astonished, almost shocked. After that, I decided to listen very systematically and consciously to Jobim’s music and similar music to find out what exactly attracts me and makes me fall for it.

How would you define your style?

Szymański defines his approach as surconventionalism, and it’s quite precise and wittily. Of course, I am not Szymański – I have more of something, so to say, east Slavic, post-soviet, sentimental. I don’t calculate everything that much. So, it’s probably surrealistic sentimentalism. Sursentimentalism.

Read also:

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

• Listening to contemporary Ukrainian music: “Air mechanics” by Alla Zagaykevych

• Grammy winner Nadia Shpachenko released an album in support of Ukraine


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