Forgetting every previous note and knowing nothing about the next one. How to listen to music by Anna Arkushyna?

Анна Аркушина

Today, Anna Arkushyna, a Ukrainian composer, is well-known to the European contemporary music community. Her works are often performed at various festivals, her music is commissioned by the most interesting collectives, after all, she has been on an internship for almost a year now — at the very centre of the new musical fashion, the Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique (IRCAM). Despite this, not many Ukrainians know her. Anna’s story is now out.

Sometimes even one place of birth is enough to claim a remarkable life path. The specific cultural term ‘genius loci’ is confirmed by numerous cases in art: Yurii Andruhovych, Taras Prokhasko, Volodymyr Yeshkiliev and other postmodern authors of the Stanislav phenomenon of the 1990s prove it. The creativity of the Ternopil composers Olena Ilnytska, Bohdan Sehin and Ivan Nebesnyi also evokes similar thoughts. So our heroine, Anna Arkushyna, was born in Lutsk, a city of ancient castles and a woman who is a symbol of the Ukrainian stylos (it’s about Lesia Ukrainka), the hometown of a famous Ukrainian composer of the older generation, experimenter and postmodernist Volodymyr Runchak. We leave this fact here for a reason.

The first stage of her musical past took place in a music school. In the role of a pianist, Anna felt indefinite: she did not like to learn other people’s music. Already at the age of 7-8, she could sit at the instrument for whole days, but with enthusiasm improvised, and recorded familiar melodies – that’s how in short, she formed her own creative approach. “When it came to Bach,” says the musician, “I definitely didn’t have enthusiasm.” Bach later became one of her favourite composers. Meanwhile, the future author liked to listen to his piano masterpieces performed by Glenn Gould and studied solfeggio with interest. Her music school was distinguished by creativity, the teachers were looking for ways to “make a holiday in the midst of routine.” So, at one of the lessons, the composition and piano teacher Iryna Tsygankova asked Anna to write her own melody — the next day she brought fifteen of them!

This enthusiasm was displayed even further, already at the Kyiv Specialized Music Boarding School, where Anna chose music theory, studying composition with Alla Zagaykevych. It was she who finally convinced her to choose a composing profession, laid the very first foundation. Anna wrote her program for admission to the conservatory under her guidance. Alla Zagaykevych encouraged attending concerts, frequently talked about electronic music (although Anna wrote her first electronic piece in the fifth year of studying at the Academy), and shared her experience of her stay in Paris. Being in almost the same place now, she says:

“I understand that when you live and work in such an institution, life begins to feel divided into before and after. Zagaykevych’s influence was extremely broad. And of course, I wasn’t the only one like that – she raised a whole generation of people (not just one any more), who now go to these concerts and are passionate about music: then it was perceived as a kind of underground.”

The boarding school was the period of formation of Anna’s musical tastes, at the same time the moment of the appearance of CDs and players, so it was the period of absolute immersion in the world of sounds. In particular, Bach, Mozart, Bruckner, and Sylvestrov were marked by her affection. Gradually, after getting acquainted with the work of the New Viennese classics, she realized: “This is the transitional stage when the usual harmony in music will no longer exist.” But even before this conscious turn, she got her first impressions of works rare for Ukraine in Lutsk, thanks to the arrival of Volodymyr Runchak and his famous ensemble “New Music in Ukraine”. She heard the music of Liutoslawski and Penderecki and thought:

“It turns out that you can write in a completely different way and people will come to listen and applaud! Crazy freedom untied my hands. Surprisingly, this music was well received at the time: indeed, the audience admitted their lack of knowledge (such concerts were held in Lutsk once every few years), but there was a feeling: “Even if I don’t understand it, I respect it.”

I had a similar approach. When I was introduced to something radically new, I did not immediately understand its meaning, but I looked at the notes, realized the scale of the work, the professional level of the piece. Still, my sympathy for the contemporary began with respect. Even later, as my auditory experience progressed, I was able to absorb this atmosphere and I dissolved into it.”

In 2009, Arkushyna entered the Kyiv National Music Academy in Yevhen Stankovych’s class. People warned that she would have to organize the most of the educational process by herself. And Anna was determined to work responsibly and autonomously:

“I liked studying with Stankovych because, no matter how rarely I appeared and no matter what score I brought (I often wrote works not according to the program of student composers), I could always count on his thorough review. We watched the orchestration, and even though he sometimes said things that were obvious to me now, I was sure at the time that I didn’t have to know all the “obvious” things in a second grade.

He understood my aspirations and really tried not to interfere, not to cut off my interest. Otherwise, my colleagues in the Academy were imposed by their teachers’ ideas, even their style… Stankovych understood me. Trust between teacher and student seems to be one of the most important keys.”

When it was time to finish her studies, Anna was deciding for a long time how to act. She saw how many colleagues, in particular instrumentalists, did not enter the conservatory right after the specialized school, but went abroad to study. And during her first trip abroad, in 2007, while performing concerts in Berlin together with the composer Ira Berintseva (also a student of Zagaykevich), she realized that she should at least try to study abroad. This thought haunted Anna: during her studies in Ukraine, she began attending international composer master classes.

That’s how she got to know Pierluigi Billone, Franck Bedrossian, Klaus Lang, Mark Andre, the meters of modern music that now “dominate” in Europe. Then she was a participant in the famous international Course master classes in Kyiv: in 2012 as a Goethe-Institut Ukraine scholarship receiver, and in 2013 — as a listener). Famous composers Gerhard Stäbler, Sergey Newski, and Ukrainian Serhii Piliutykov also came there as mentors.

The process of studying outside the Academy was already quite intensive during the bachelor’s degree. Later, she went to Graz, Austria, to the famous master classes of new music “Impulse” (an event based on the Graz University of Music and Performing Arts and the Klangforum Wien ensemble). And there Anna met the famous composer Beat Furrer. Many people go abroad to study with a particular professor. For her, in addition, it was important to look at the city, and the university, to understand the atmosphere in the institution. And in this case, all the stars aligned.

“It was interesting with Beat. I would say he is… the Austrian Stankovych. Because of his teaching style. I am lucky to have such teachers – wonderful composers who can share knowledge, but do not particularly interfere in my processes. When their criticism is calm, constructive, with the preservation of boundaries. Everyone really doesn’t care: it’s your business, how you write. But this is how they learn to make decisions on their own. This is the stage of healthy formation of a composer.

Later, I entered the third master’s program, with Professor Frank Bedrossyan. He is one of those composers who likes to teach, and that doesn’t happen often. He is still my mentor today: I show him new works and directly ask: “tell me the most terrible thing you see here.”

In Graz, there was no school approach, everyone was treated as equal. Of course, it’s one thing to do whatever you want from the big rebel. And when you do it for an artistic result…

At that moment, I realized that composition is about making independent decisions and managing those decisions.

They also need to be defended. For two years, they tell you “you can do whatever you want” – but already when you get to the exam, explain why you chose this or that compositional solution. The commission asks a question, and you have to “defend” your work.

When you are a student, you must apply yourself to various open schools, competitions, and grants. The university will not do this for you, it is solely in your interests. I applied a lot, some were approved, some were not. I don’t know how it works now in Ukraine – when I was studying, I was friends with the Nostri Temporis ensemble, they commissioned me several pieces on a free basis. But it is difficult to remember now, whether the “Kyiv Season Premieres” provided any opportunities specifically for students, other festivals, orchestras… I think that many people joined the Union of Composers in order to have performances and commissions. If you’re not there, do what you can alone.”

About contemporary performance and composition in Graz

There is a special separate subject on which performers collaborate with composers. This is one of the main requirements for a composer — to write a piece for a large ensemble with 15–16 musicians. University students gather (that is, the whole process is organized), there is a conductor, there is a deadline… Similar to diploma work in Kyiv, but this work is performed during one of the semesters.

Another faculty is teaching performative practices in contemporary music. Created on the basis of “Klangforum Wien”. The musicians of this ensemble have been teaching at the university for a long time, and come to them to study after all the main master’s degrees, specifically for two years (this is a full-fledged master’s degree) to learn to play modern music. One of the generations of such musicians has already formed its own ensemble – “Schallfeld Ensemble”, which is based in Graz, and a certain tradition is emerging.

About experimentation in modern music: is it still possible to create something new

It seems to me that even if I decide, when writing a new work, to follow a well-trodden path, then in the process of writing I will still turn “into the bush”, experiment, and then transfer this new thing to that well-trodden path. By the way, usually, I don’t need to know the specific structure of the future work. From the beginning to the end of writing, I leave space for intuition, “breathing” material. And in general, experimentation depends on the context: the context will change, approaches will also change, and ideas will be transformed and interpreted in a new way. I am very happy that there are inclusive projects for the blind and deaf… (Beethoven could not even dream of such a thing).

I am currently collaborating with Viktoriia Vitrenko – she will be performing my final piece for IRCAM – so now she is focused on inclusive projects. In particular, one of the last ones is the idea of broadcasting music for the deaf, it involved a sign language interpreter. Many artistic reflections will appear around this topic. Unfortunately, this is becoming relevant for Ukraine:

Now there are more and more people with disabilities, injuries, mental disorders and they need to adapt further, they should not be cut off from art, but we should provide them with the opportunity to feel naturally.

In addition to the emergence of inclusive projects, today there are many different nuances between composition and performance, when musicians improvise more and participate in the creative process, and composers become themselves playing their works, especially electronic ones. If earlier this happened less often, now it is almost a rule, one of the mandatory skills. For example, at IRCAM, we devoted a whole week to improvisation, developed our own electronic instruments, evaluated their flexibility and whether it is possible to quickly adapt them to different types and directions of music, performers, context, etc.

Also, although now, of course, there is a bias towards interdisciplinarity everywhere, it has gained momentum for a long time, is developing intensively and will not slow down any time soon, so I will stand for music until the end. I am an extremely “musical” person, this is my comfort zone, which, unfortunately or fortunately, I do not plan to leave yet. I will not be distracted by the visual or other aspects.


New approaches to the composition of the work

My current supervisor at IRCAM, Pierre Jodlowski, is himself interested in cross-disciplinary things. If a video component is important in his performance, he knows very clearly how to implement it. I am not saying that composers stop being composers and start being multi-artists. Simply in order to create a quality product that will match up with all the components, be it video, or lighting, or scenography, you have to know how everything works.

The faculty of computer music (my second education in Graz) mostly educates not composers, but media artists. That is, you, as a computer musician, play music with the help of a computer, having previously “programmed” your instrument. But what you play is of less interest at that faculty, the main thing is that you made a cool instrument and are good at it. At one time, this direction did not suit me very well. But colleague Alisa Kobzar found herself in this. We always moved in parallel, were fellow students at the Kyiv Conservatory, wrote together for Nostri Temporis, took part in master classes, but we were different. This faculty showed how much.

How to work with an arsenal of modern techniques as a young author

When a young composer discovers advanced techniques for himself, listens for the first time to Lachenmann, spectral techniques, Grisé’s multiphonics, gets to know the generation of their students – the same Marc Andre, goes to a concert of the “Musikfabrik” ensemble (by the way, during my stay in Kyiv, they came to play in the Kyiv Philharmonic twice: the first time they performed Zagaykevych, Lunyov and Shchetynskyi at the end of 200s, the second time they played my music and the composer Maksym Kolomiiets: in 2013), then gradually, discovering these accumulations for himself, he just learns. Visually, his works can look fantastic, he invents absolutely unearthly things – he puts glasses on the membranes of the timpani, in which water should resonate, but it turns out that when there are 10 other musicians sitting on the stage in addition to this percussion set, then the desired delicate things cannot be heard.

You have to balance the modern instrumentation, already in a dream you should hear any technique, you just have to know it, understand “Why do I want to press these cello strings now so that wild shrill sounds and people close their ears?”…

What makes people call music classical — the moment we hear the tonality? And when we hear wild noise, is it automatically contemporary music? No, modern is when you balance these things, when you make them show beauty, I think.

We have many composers who grew up in the classical tradition, and when they encounter this “modern” and, accordingly, playing techniques, they grasp everything at once. If this is a learning moment, then fine, you don’t need to be afraid or avoid it, but when you are already more formed… For myself, I understood that there should be a balance: there is beauty in it, in this mosaic of different things.

And in general, the latest performing techniques will be perceived on the same level as standard techniques, when music schools will teach how to perform “slap” on brass, all kinds of tongue strokes… I am sure that it would be interesting for both children and the younger generation: if you ingrain it the right way, then there will be no unnecessary conditional distributions left on modern and old. We need to finally get along with these advanced techniques, weld them into one whole, and the music will only become more organic as a result.


About the internship at IRCAM

This is quite a serious institution. They are very interested in young composers, especially those who come to study with them for a year, study their software, work in the studios. Many of them are later commissioned by IRCAM for new projects. Here I finally got answers to a hundred of my questions about electronics, about how to write for an artist with electronics. In Graz, on computer music, the teachers somehow waved their hands like this – “Play the program with your instrument and everything will be ok.” And I got them about the composition.

So when I decided on the idea of the work, I understood that I needed to choose a strategy I would be at least 50% sure of from the beginning. Now its architecture is finally concentrating in my head and it will combine my experience and new knowledge. This will be an experiment. The internship started in October last year and will end in September. That is, I still have a whole summer to write. I just finished my electronic architecture. I will have real-time voice processing, the voice itself will activate the samples, and separately there will be just an electronic part – an audio recording. And the work itself will be for soprano and electronics to texts by Lesia Ukrainka: in Ukrainian and French.


Post Scriptum

If you could only write one last piece, what would it be?

My mother has been gone for several years, my father died even before that, and I had a sister who, unfortunately, died young. In fact, none of my first family is alive. Now there is a war, and this feeling of mortality is strongly reinforced by it, it is stronger than ever. So I don’t know if it is my mental disorder, but for a long time now, when I write some piece, there is always a stupid thought in the background: “What if will I be hit by a car tomorrow, and this will be my last work?”. It’s actually not cool to feel this ambivalence. But the main thing in the work is that I have to make the right decisions, not imitate anyone and remain honest with myself.

How to listen to Anna Arkushyna’s music?

Forgetting every previous note and knowing nothing about the next one. Live only in the present time. Of course, music is about combinations and connections, but sometimes you just want to be here and now: try to accept the music as it is presented, and turn off your analytical intentions.

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