Composer Roman Hryhoriv: “I survive only through art” Translated by Lesya Lantsuta Brannman

Roman Hryhoriv is a well-known Ukrainian composer. Together with Ilya Razumeiko, he co-founded the Opera Aperta, Laboratory of Contemporary Opera and co-created the operas and multimedia performances Chornobyldorf, Opera Lingua, Genesis, and Lullaby for Mariupol.

On the Constitution Day of Ukraine (June 27th), Roman published three new works that he performed on the carcass of an Uragan MLRS cassette shell accompanied by the Kyiv Camerata Chamber Orchestra. The video caused a significant response in the Ukrainian and Western media. The composer commented on his music: 

“In exceptional circumstances, a rocket becomes a musical instrument. And playing it is a ritual of purification.”

In our long conversation, Roman Hryhoriv spoke about the indifference of Europeans to topics that are important to Ukrainians:  the power of art in overcoming personal trauma, and the responsibility of the artistic community to the military and civil society.

European fatigue from the war in Ukraine

For my postgraduate exam at the University of Vienna (where I study media composition), I presented a 25-minute performance dedicated to trauma. It was based on interviews with soldiers from the front line who are musicians.

I broadcasted those interviews on five screens with subtitles and 24-channel sound. The Austrian audience was watching this while sitting inside a special cage, on which I was playing with a bow to bring the audience as close to the truth as possible.

The soldiers on the screens talked about death, life, feelings, music, art, and happiness. It was very tough. Then I turned off all the screens, leaving only the soldiers’ voices for exactly five minutes. It was out of the ordinary. People came out and cried.

There were a lot of people who said: “This is a political art and why do you present it so aggressively?” I answered: “I’m presenting you something that is close to you – you are a musician and he is a musician. You see the difference; you are here and care free in a safe Europe and you don’t give a fuck about Ukraine, the war and all that.”

It was a joint project with Dominik Förch, a PhD student at the University of Vienna, and Stefan from another university (Universität für angewandte Kunst, Wien), but Stefan suddenly withdrew himself from the project because of the content. He wrote that he “didn’t feel so comfortable with my materials”. When I read this “feeling not so comfortable”, I thought… You asshole!  You don’t feel comfortable with our material. You think about comfort? You think about comfort when others are thinking about life and death (in particular, your life, too…)

It’s very difficult to react to this calmly.  You start getting into a discussion, into a conflict.

You want to say: “Wake up, fucking people. Wake up! Fucking! Up!”. Wake up, f**k,  and realize that this is not somewhere else, but right next door.  This is a genocide in Europe!

I was once approached by a professor who had lived in New York for a very long time and had recently moved to Austria with his wife. At our first meeting, he proposed to give a joint concert with the Russians, as a sign of reconciliation. I said that this issue has been resolved for our society for millennials, and that I am extremely displeased with his offer, that the ongoing tragedies did not enter into his thinking. 

During the next meeting, that professor said something else:

“Roman, please forgive me for suggesting this to you. My wife is Jewish. When we came to Austria two years ago, she was afraid to go out and be in a German-speaking environment”.

He told me how his wife ran out of the tram, unable to stand the German language. I can only imagine the trauma this person went through. She was a little girl when she had to flee from the Nazis. He apologized, and for me it was very important that the man realized his mistake.

In countries closer to Ukraine (Finland and Lithuania, for example) people better understand the context of our history. We were amazed at how closely they perceive our tragedy, as if it were their own.  I saw the same thing in Ireland, and partly in England. But other countries are very, very carefree.

When we screened our Mariupol in Milan, it looked like some guy brought a circus with a Kunstkammern. The organizer presented it as a show, and I don’t think he was aware of the content he was showing.

Europeans are exhausted of the content and, although people understand that this is a tragedy, they do not want to watch it. There is no longer the same reaction that there was at the beginning of the war. We played Mariupol in Rotterdam and the preceding week, in Vienna. People didn’t applaud for five minutes In Rotterdam. They weren’t able to say a word. They came to us and cried. They perceived it properly, as a requiem. In Vienna they listened to the music, looked at the scenery, and applauded. There was no sense that anybody in the audience was asking themselves questions about the tragedies behind the works.

The carcass of a cassette projectile – from installation to musical instrument

We got the case of a cassette projectile from a military volunteer who had a small museum of used military equipment and ammunition. This rocket was there.

The apartment of the soldier who gave it to us was destroyed in Irpin by the same shell, by a Uragan MLRS cassette shell. Everything burned down, even the cast-iron frame of his piano. Everything was destroyed.

We first used the carcass in October last year in the opera Genesis. It was built into the piano and performed an installation function, i.e. it was not used as a musical instrument.

Time passed, and after five months I walked into the studio, and an idea instantly came to me to play on this rocket with a bow. I picked it up and started extracting the sound in different ways in different places. It was a sharp and very piercing sound. For me, it sounded like death. You move the bow, and the rocket screams!

Marichka Shtrybulova. Photo by Nastia Telikova
Marichka Shtrybulova. Photo by Nastia Telikova

I tried to play in different ways and realized that I urgently needed to record a video. It was a very fast-paced idea and a clear realization that it had to be done now. I was foaming at the mouth. I organized everything very, very quickly: on April 19, I came up with the idea and on the twenty-first of April it was recorded in St. Andrew’s Church.

A lot of people asked me whether I pulled any strings on the rocket or dissected it in any way. I did not. The rocket has a very wide spectrum: there are three ribs, and each one sounds different. One of them, curved due to the impact, sounds the lowest in pitch, but it sounds very rich in the low part. And then there is a cap that sounds very low.

Art as a way to deal with trauma

How to write a piece if you have no time? I will share with you my technology. You take professional musicians and tell them:

“Friends, we all will play the notes by ear. In the next moment, when I play another note, you will leave the previous one, although not pure, but vibrating it microtonally. The conductor, Natalia Stets, will translate when I play the third note. She will manipulate you and play with you, making a tone cluster. For example, we have the note B. Someone will hold it, and someone else will make quarter-tone vibrations.”

That’s how I explained it, and they generally played it. This is the principle behind Vox Humana, the Human Voice. It contains a message that is important to me. It is a human voice that I extract from a rocket, transform it, and we demonstrate its energy, its history, and its pain.

Langsam was composed in November 2022. When I arrived in Vienna, I got a room at the conservatory to study. It was the first time I had touched a piano in a while. I hadn’t written anything like this for a long time. Suddenly music poured out of me, so much that it was enough for a whole cycle. I named it Gloria in Excelsis Deo. I used only the beginning for the recording with the rocket; that’s how Langsam – 9M27K came about. 9M27K is the serial number of that rocket.

Then there is Höllenpfeilstimme, “The Voice of the Hell’s Arrow”. A publishing house in Copenhagen asked me to publish the score of this piece, but I don’t see the point! Each rocket sounds different and, in general, it is almost impossible to reproduce the sound. This particular rocket is the only one you can try. Even then, some parts of that rocket are already falling off. You can see the rocket’s dismemberment in the video. I broke that rocket with this bow.

In Höllenpfeilstimme, I wanted to recreate the process of spell casting. The power I have is the power of creativity,  and of art. They are the only things I have, the most powerful weapons that I can use. So I used them. What is creativity? It is love. And love will always overcome the destructive power of evil. It always will. No matter how pathetic it may sound.

For me personally, this performance has completely exhausted itself. I felt psycho-physical relief, a purification, like after therapy. Purification means a liberation from my own trauma, which I would like to offer to all people. This is the purification of our land from these evil spirits. I don’t want to repeat this performance anymore, so as not to aestheticize the object I played on – it’s just satanic.

In many years, I would like people to perceive this music in the same way as the descendants of the Holocaust victims perceive the museum in Auschwitz. I would like people to see that there was a power of love, and that there were Ukrainians who conquered history.

We need to talk a lot about traumas and overcoming these traumas after our victory. This is actually a ritual of purification. It’s a way to get out of trauma through art. When you touch and live a tragic story again, you fix this situation mentally inside yourself.

I take this rocket and touch this genocide with my hands. I hold it in my hands and transform it into something else in the church. It’s very symbolic.

Mental health

I’m skeptical of people who do this to war artifacts.  When I did it myself, I took a self-critical look at the result. It is not something I can be proud of. It was just a ritualistic story about my own war and psychological traumas, which I unfortunately am in now. Although I am not at war directly, it still disturbs me. I don’t know how to convey it. My family is not in Ukraine. I struggle because they and I travel back and forth.

Sometimes, to calm down and fall asleep, I take the same pills that doctors prescribe to soldiers who have seen the hell of war.

We have a big problem in Ukraine with people who lost their loved ones in the war. We need to work with them now. My military friends often tell me:

“Roma, we can’t come to our senses. Civilian life puts us down and we need at least a month to adapt to somehow go out and function normally in everyday life.”

How the artistic community should function in order not to be ashamed in front of the military

We need to realize our function in society. It is far from just entertaining, because academic music is deeper. We need dialogue, and general communication.

In April, while in Kyiv, I noticed that tickets for theater plays and music concerts are sometimes sold months in advance. Imagine the need people have for art, even if it is not always of high quality! Now it is the time to help people, and to provide artistic support. All orchestras, choirs, and organizations should realize that they are institutions that influence the mental state of our people. It is through art that we come to some desired result, and to the right path to victory over our traumas.

When I talk about communication, I would like to see us, the artists and composers, communicating with people after every concert. I sent these videos with the rocket to the guys at the front line. Do you know what they wrote back to me? “Roma, I’m ready to fight for this,” the best words I could have heard.

This is our awareness of ourselves as an artistic institution, at every level, not only music and theater. It’s an absolute, total communication. I’m not afraid of being asked: “Where were you when I was at war?”. I am worried about people who have become disabled and have not yet been provided with normal conditions for movement, such as ramps. Metaphorically, we need to create these ramps through art.

My therapist recommends that I don’t watch the news. I’m like a sponge. I absorb it all, and then my system breaks down and I can’t control myself. I survive only through art, which only revolves around the war. I can’t talk about anything else now and express myself through other means. This is our reality.


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