Leonid Hrabovsky: “Kyiv Avant-Garde was a historical group, but paved the way for future generations” By Oleksandr Ostrovsky and Liza Sirenko

On the 28th of January Leonid Hrabovsky, classic of Ukrainian music, turned 86 years old. Recently, with the works by other Kyiv composers of the 1960s, his music has included in the anthology “Kyiv Avant-Garde” by the Ukrainian Institute. This name was given to the Fantastic Five Ukrainian composers, followers of the Borys Lyatoshynsky School. Although, today they are themselves artistic role models for the newest generation of musicians, and almost historical legends about which true stories and rumors spread. However, only the composers can adequately describe both the tragic context of survival in censorship and the comic side of such a situation. Oleksandr Ostrovsky and Liza Sirenko talked to Leonid Hrabovsky about all these issues, as well as about the language study ​​and higher mathematics, the composer’s life in New York, and the story of one vibraphone.

Recently, at the online conference “Musical Communications” Olexandr Shchetynsky called you the first of the “Kyiv Avant-Garde”. Why does he think so?

Leonid Hrabovsky: You know, the word “avant-garde”… On this subject, I have a personal opinion that came after reading a book by language philosopher Vadim Rudnev. In the late 1990s, he published a work named “Encyclopedic Dictionary of Culture of the twentieth century”. There are all areas, trends, phenomena of culture, literature, fine arts, cinema, and music systematized by headings. As usual, with music ones some things are amiss: there are some superficial and dubious things but the rest is extremely deep and balanced.

The author propounds the idea that avant-garde and modernism are not the same. And from his argument, it becomes clear that everywhere globally in musicological literature the word “avant-garde” illegally applies to everything new that has been written after 1950. So he cites the criterion that the avant-garde completely breaks with the previous one, rejects absolutely everything, and builds a new trend from scratch, which so to speak does not come out in an evolutionary way as a continuation of something.

For example, if we talk about even the most left-wing Schoenberg’s works, the invention of dodecaphony, they seem evolutionary. He and his students believed that they continued the German tradition. Considering all this, we cannot say that Schoenberg, Webern, and Berg are avant-garde. They presented modernism came from the previous style as evolution. But the typical avant-garde is Cage because he completely changed the concept of music: everything is music that sounds and “4’33’”’ is a typical example. Who would have thought before Cage that it is music?

Leonid Hrabovsky in 1949

There were the words “Let’s drop Pushkin and Tolstoy from the ship of modernity”. That is, public outrage, provocation of scandal are parts of the avant-garde concept. Also, it often happens that even the one artists at some point can approach the avant-garde, and then move away from it. For instance, Stravinsky in “The Rite of Spring” is undoubtedly an avant-garde because there was nothing like that in those days. He crossed the line where there seems to be no tradition at all. And then, in the neoclassical period, he was again a moderate modernist. Actually, I wrote an article and I want to publish it so that our music community learns that the concept of avant-garde should not be applied right and left. Therefore, my article will be called “Why I’m not an avant-garde”.

All music journalists whisper “avant-garde, avant-garde, avant-garde”. That is, all the music of Boulez, Stockhausen, Nono, Berio is supposedly avant-garde. This view is too superficial. Although it is not, something is avant-garde, and something is modernism. If we take the work of Berio or Boulez, it is modernism after all. But Stockhausen is more avant-garde because he started from scratch and came to a style dominated by diatonic. In his opera, I see the avant-garde in views on the multimedia concept of musical theater. But as for certain aspects of its musical language, this avant-garde component is weaker, it becomes more traditional, softens. However, in general, Stockhausen was a universal creator who did not miss anything, not a single moment in the universe of sound and the concept of sound, music.

Can we even say that there was avant-garde in the Ukrainian music?

Strictly speaking about our music, probably, there was not. All our music in those years actually seemed furtive: we gathered privately, played our compositions to each other, considering ourselves (at least I) as still novice students of Western modernism, who need to learn and realize a lot in order to understand our artistic selves. And the general public learned about us a little only from that historic concert on December 26, 1966 at the Kyiv Philharmonic. I have recently heard from Yevhen Hromov about the reaction of the famous Hungarian classic György Kurtag to the music of our group performed by Hromov as something completely original, unlike modern Russians or Poles. You must agree, this is a very valuable statement!

Probably, self-education played an important role in the study of modernist trends?

Absolutely! Moreover, I even believe that in academic life, in the education of students in general, it is very important. For me, historically, self-education has been the main and decisive factor in the path I have taken. First, I was very lucky that people like Blazhkov, my friends from Moscow, had the appropriate books. I also received a lot of scores and literature from Poland. Personally, I got his books and extremely valuable letters from Boguslaw Schaeffer, with whom I had a friendship. He published a huge work “Introduction to the composition”, which contained thousands of large-format musical examples and, in addition, a little text in a special brochure, which was enclosed in the middle of the work. Self-education and homework are crucial things in composer’s formation and training, his mastery of all techniques, means of expression, form-building.

I will try to draw a logical chain from Oleksandr Shchetynsky’s comment. The books you talked about would not be available to all Kyiv Avant-Garde members without you because you translated them.

I was lucky enough to learn German at school, so I immediately started translating it.

Maybe that is why you are “the first”?

It is a happy, fateful coincidence that Blazhkov Yelinek were found, and the three of us came together.

Leonid Hrabovsky. Kyiv Music Fest-2019

To be aware of all the latest trends, to discover forbidden music was up to you, your personal desire or the influence of time and external conditions? Imagine that your growing as a composer took place today, would you still open an underground “club”?

I think that then I would have formed much earlier, much sooner. Because Polish music became available from the initial contacts, when I learned Polish myself, corresponded with Poles. However, there was a problem with Boulez, Stockhausen because their books and notes could not get to us, only through personal contacts. French music was in the Edison Denisov hands because he knew French brilliantly, but spoke it poorly. He corresponded with Boulez, with the Italians, with everyone who could send him something. And Schnittke had connections with German music.

But it is not the same as having everything in one place now, all these sources. Then it was a problem. Today a person does not have to wait for years for an opportunity or a case when he is lucky enough to get something, everything is in his hands. So I am very jealous of today’s composers, because they have the opportunity to comprehend it all, to filter, realize and take shape as individuals much faster than in the days when we had to spend years on it.

So this is more of your persistent personality?

Honestly, when I was very young, I was not so persistent. At that time I did not have a thirst for new information, only a meeting with some famous people aroused that thirst. A lot depends on who you meet and how you will meet at the right time for your life. There was one Kyiv artist, a bright avant-garde Russian-language poet Vilen Barsky with whom we lived a short distance: I lived in Tolstoy Square, and he lived at Bessarabska square. At least twice a week we met: sometimes he was at my place, sometimes I was at his.

We listened to available fragments of music, and he brought me all sorts of Polish newspapers, magazines with modern paintings. From him I learned the names of the most famous artists of the twentieth century, banned in our country, not shown anywhere, not mentioned. It was not only Picasso, but also Braque, Kandinsky, Mondrian, Klee and so on. Thus, Vilen Barsky had a historical mission to awaken in me that unquenchable interest in everything new that is inherent in me to this day.

In your article “My Method” you write that when you received Xenakis’s book, everything was incomprehensible due to a large number of formulas, and you did not know higher mathematics. After all, now you are working with an algorithmic composition, with mathematical calculations.

I couldn’t get to the differential integral calculus, because in all the textbooks I came across, it wasn’t clear where it all started. And only about two years ago I found the key to differential integral calculus in an unexpectedly short article by the famous philosopher Aleksei Losev, author of the “History of Ancient Aesthetics” and editor of the “History of Aesthetics”. In fact, it is a history of philosophy disguised as a history of aesthetics. He learned about differential integral calculus from Nikolai Luzin, a mathematician and professor at Moscow University, with whom he worked on the White Sea-Baltic Canal when they were arrested and sent to a concentration camp. Actually, this little note of his opened the way for me, from this I began to understand something fundamental.

Now I don’t need it so much, but at one time I got a textbook of higher mathematics for the humanities faculties of Moscow State University. And passed the first chapter on probability theory. There were problems that I solved all correctly, and reading this section, I came across one axiom which later became the basis of my algorithmic method. I use random numbers that I just get from my computer, now it’s not a problem at all. At that time, the only available source of random numbers was a regular deck of cards, which was shuffled thousands of times, and another 10-15 pages with random numbers in one math book. Now the computer gives me “to order” several thousand random numbers in a few seconds…

Why did I come to this? There was the “Res Facta” anthology, a collection of materials that directly or indirectly relate to contemporary music, began to be published once a year or for a year and a half or two. In that first issue, there were a Polish translation of Messian’s classic work, “The Technique of My Musical Language”, and some other articles on the use of random numbers, as well as a short article by Xenakis on his so-called sieves. It was about his diatonic principle, when he passes the chromatic scale through a “sieve”, after which there are no longer chromatic sounds, but alternation with diatonic. And I thought: indeed, perhaps diatonics is a wider opportunity to extract something new.

In Messian music, everything is built on diatonics, my whole system as well. Prokofiev once remarked that diatonics has more resources to generate music than pure and total chromatics. So I thought it would be interesting to start building music on a polydiatonic basis. I remember one passage from Prokofiev’s first Violin sonata at the end of the second part. There is such a fast scale on the violin, which begins in E major, then goes to C major, then in some major, now I don’t remember. This is an interesting combination of different diatonics. So I started building my first scales that I worked with.

Leonid Hrabovsky. 1953

It usually turns out that people are able to either math or languages, and you managed to grasp both. How did you do it?

You know, there was a mistake about languages ​​in general. After graduating from high school, I had to go to the Institute of Foreign Languages. But my mother said that I had to study at the university, because, you see, Revutsky and Lyatoshynsky have a university education, in addition to having a music education. So I went to university. I wish I hadn’t thought that knowing foreign languages is ​​the most important. However, then it was even dangerous because everyone who knew any foreign languages ​​was under the supervision of the NKVD and KGB.

So maybe in terms of personal security, it was even better that I didn’t go to the Institute of Foreign Languages. I entered the economic department only because all the places in the historical department were filled with gold medalists, and I did not get there as a silver medalist. I thought that later I would move after the first or second year, but later, when I entered the Conservatory at the same time, I became indifferent. So I finished just to not offend my mother.

Returning to the topic of “Kyiv Avant-Garde”. Can it be called a school or a current, a group, etc.?

It depends on whether the next generation will consider themselves our followers, how they feel about it. We were a certain historical group, but we paved the way for future generations. It would be necessary to make a pool among composers of the middle generation from 30 to 50 years old to learn about their point of view.

It seems that many of them rely on the “Kyiv Avant-Garde”.

Maybe. Since I do not live in Ukraine, I cannot have absolute knowledge about it. To do this, you need to attend all the festivals, and when it starts in Lviv, Kyiv and Odessa, you have to be at all three at the same time. Then there will be something to know. Other than that, it is possible only then on the records.

Were there any distributions, functions in your group or were you autonomous?

I think we were all pretty independent in our quest. Let’s say I stood aside a little bit because no one walked that road. All were mainly engaged in dodecaphony. Even the fact that at the beginning I was a little amused by Polish sonorous ideas was also not received very well. I remember that they were quite critical of me, especially when I started to build my scales and, later, rhythmic vocabulary by the method of deduction from simple to complex, based on logical operations. Therefore, you will not even find me mentioned in articles written about the main trend of Soviet music.

Basically, it was dodecaphony, a branch of what, postmodernism in the 1970s, someone immediately went into tonality, someone threw into neo-romanticism. And you will not find a word about me there because I went my own way. For a long time I did not understand why this was so but now I suddenly realized the reason for it. Obviously, it could not be otherwise. I quickly deviated from the broad path that most people followed.

Why did critics prefer Huba, Zahortsev, Hodziatsky, and Silvestrov?

First, because their music was more directly accessible, although I don’t think my music is less accessible. I believe that I was labeled “avant-garde” very early. Somehow it wasn’t stuck to Sylvestrov, and they stuck it to me. For example, there is the Institute of Ukrainian Studies located in Toronto. One of the professors there is Marco Robert Stech. He has made many TV shows, including 15-minute videos about various Ukrainian artists. So I also passed in those programs as an avant-garde composer, and it was firmly rooted.

In those years, when “The Party said there’s a necessity. Komsomol answered, yes!” only the sticker of the avant-garde frightened both performers and everyone in general. Especially performers because they were afraid to play avant-garde music. The concert which took place in 1966 and was repeated in 2016 to mark its 50th anniversary was unique. After it, the authorities decided to ban it. In addition, there was a period of six years when no new chamber or symphonic music could be heard in Ukraine at all because there were continuous anniversaries: the formation of the USSR, the October Revolution, the 100th anniversary of Lenin’s birth, and so on. It took six years of party-government cantata-oratorio celebrations, and this was a completely fruitless period for rare and already appearing concerts of real music.

Leonid Hrabovsky

The only concerts that was managed to organize in the Composers Union were “Evening in memory of Webern” (I organized it) and another very interesting concert where one of the most radical works of Sylvestrov named “Projections on harpsichord, vibraphone and percussion”, and my “Patterns” for oboe, harp and viola were performed. So, in order to get a vibraphone, a group of three composers, including two classics (our Yevhen Stankovych and the leading Lithuanian composer Oswald Balakauskas) and I, took a vibraphone from the Opera House because there was the only one in Kyiv  vibraphone.

Snow porridge and puddles underfoot, and we take that vibraphone on wheels to the Composers Union on Volodymyrska Street, then on Shevchenko Boulevard and Pushkinska. We needed a film director and a cameraman to shoot this epic journey for posterity. These were the conditions. After all, the vibraphone is incredibly heavy — solid metal. We barely pulled it, despite the fact that Balakauskas and Stankovych are people with not such a weak constitution.

In conversations with Oleksandr Shchetynsky, you said that Revutsky and Lyatoshynsky were tragic figures. Two composers from the “Kyiv Avant-Garde” have already passed away. Reading their interviews, articles about them, it seems that they are also tragic figures. Zahortsev had the only one performance in the US…

The only one, but repeated four times, because if the New York Philharmonic does such iconic concerts, they go on Friday night, Saturday and Sunday (three or four times).

They performed in New York, but they didn’t play in Ukraine.

Absolutely. It is known that he was imprisoned — a tragic situation. The fact is that Zahortsev came to a restaurant one evening (maybe he wanted to eat) and saw a scene where a man was very rude to a woman sitting next to him. He approached and interceded for her, saying, “What are you doing? This is disgraceful!” He was offended. Zahortsev came out, he followed him, and said: “Ah, you are sticking to my women!”, he wanted to hit him. Zahortsev had boxing training. He dodged and gave it to him that he fell and hit his head, fatally hit. To the great horror of all of us, it turned out that the attacker was a KGBist.

It could have been a typical provocation…

Zahortsev just came up and really wanted to… he didn’t like that the woman was treated like that. Nobody would like it. He was a strong man, though not so tall, but very well built and trained. But no one knew what the KGBist was, that’s what it was. He, of course, shone much brighter, if not for the Union, which asked me to be his public defender. Thanks to my presence, he was given less than if I had not been there. Zahortsev’s life was very much affected, and he then began to drink heavily, and over time, alcoholism brought him to a critical state and shortened his life.

Is his creative pause related to this episode?

Obviously so.

What was your relationship with the other members of the group that united you?

Huba and I had fundamental differences in terms of which factor is the main one in art. He thought I was too “main” and speculative, and he was more on intuition. For my part, I thought that he was too unsystematic in his views, tastes and ideas. It would be very useful for him, I think, if he continued to practice in a modern strict style. Dodecaphony, in fact as a strict style, must be passed through, then go on and have your way.

I don’t think it is a coincidence that Stockhausen, Boulez, Berio, who later went his own way, and Nono all started with the same dodecaphony. But it should not remain as a closed system, it is necessary to go beyond it. But its training is necessary for the discipline of the internal logical structure of music. Huba in general called the nature and way of my musical thinking “inspired rationalism”.

Another factor that unites you is film music. You have worked in many films. For example, looking at Ilyenko’s “Well for the Thirsty”, I was very surprised, because now such work would be called sound design. But you call it specific music.

There was such a concept, everyone knew it and used it in this way. For example, Andrei Volkonsky was commissioned to play music for a modern play at a Moscow theater. To make this play, he recorded a “The Rite of Spring”, and in some studio it was played twice as slow. It became for him the backing material for that play. It was one of the varieties of specific music. These works by Hodziatsky — Emancipated Suitcase and Home Scherzo — are all home specific music.

And what about animation? It differs from working in cinema, because firstly the music must be created, on which the picture will be superimposed.

 To do this, it was necessary to enter into the context and requirements of these products to the composer. It was necessary to write something rhythmically clear, according to the nature of the idea: gestures, jumps or slow, gradual movement – depending on how one director or another character of the future animation thinks. Everything came out of it. An order was given: so many minutes this episode, so many — this one. Everything second by second. During the recording, the conductor had to meet the time interval, because everything was calculated, he had to lie down exactly. At the same time there were no such opportunities for editing and post-production, which is now available to the director. These are two different worlds — then and now.

Alla Zahaykevych said that if all music disappeared and only your Concerto Misterioso remained, it could become the original work with the code of modern Ukrainian music, from which all Ukrainian music could be born.

(laughs) That’s an incredible exaggeration, I think. It is much more complicated. Sylvestrov, Huba, Hodzatsky and Zahortsev — we all together created different branches of the tree, which will now be overgrown with even more branches than on any tree. The lower — the fewer branches, the higher — there are more and more widely spread.

She also said that it was from this work that “Leonid Hrabovsky 2.0” appeared. Do you feel any transition or turning point in your own work here?

Firstly, when I conceived “Concerto misterioso”, I set myself the task of creating something as colorful as possible, patterned in its lines, contours, something so variable from the number of voices to the number of different layers, rhythmic groups. He specially composed seventeen rhythmic groups, which he used there. This, in fact, was one of those far-reaching ideas when the system was conceived in its contours, as well as the first decisive attempt to use it to its full potential.

Last year, your name involuntarily got into a scandal that arose in creative circles in connection with the Shevchenko Prize. But you don’t seem to have commented on this yet.

No need to comment here. In general, those who came instead of the previous committee are not worth commenting on: from the chairman of the new committee to all its members. For the first time in the history of the Shevchenko Prize, its committee was headed by a man who is not an artist in any field of art. Before that, the commission was headed by artists: writers, filmmakers, artists, poets, and now came a journalist (Yurii Makarov). Journalism is not an art.

Can there be such a neighborhood of academic and popular music in one nomination of the Shevchenko Prize?

You know, you have to apply for that division here. In America, there is the concept of entertainment . What is included in this concept is not art, but entertainment. Art is art. It must be divided: this is entertainment, and this is art. So they decided to give the Shevchenko Prize for entertainment instead of art. Well, their will. I believe that this is incompatible with the charter of the Shevchenko Prize. Since the current government generally spits on any Constitution, laws, regulations and traditions – this is not surprising.

You have lived in New York for a long time. How do you manage to live financially in the United States while composing?

I am now completely on the emeritus and can work 24 hours a day and 7 days a week only as a composer. This is the first time. Why now? Computerization of my system, approach to it, were very difficult. It took me a dozen years just to find people who could point me in a specific direction, where I needed to go, what programming language I needed to take up arms, and where to start. It was a long process, and now I have to make up for the years when I did not have the opportunity to realize my plans and ideas. Retirement gives me the opportunity to live very modestly, but not to worry about any earnings, to devote myself entirely to music.

From 1994 to 2014, I worked as an organist in two different churches in New York. In addition, two or three days a week, I worked as a consultant in the classical music department at a central music store on Times Squere called “Virgin Megastore”. It closed in 2009, I was left to work only in the church as an organist. And in 2014 I decided that I had enough. So from this work the small fund on which I live has accumulated.

That is not due to the composer’s activity…

Not composition. You know, composing, if you get an order from a big symphony orchestra or a famous string quartet, it’s another matter. And here, let’s say, a work that I wrote for the ensemble “Continuum”… At one time they played a lot of music: both Russian and Ukrainian everywhere. For example, my work “When” based on Khlebnikov’s texts, which I wrote especially for them in 1987, was transported to five continents, especially, I remember, South America. In Brazil alone, there were five performances in different cities.

I received a fee of $ 1.87. From this you can conclude what money I could make as a composer. Negotiations are underway to publish one of my latest works, “Tetragon”, which I wrote for a guitar quartet and string orchestra. They want to publish it in a German publishing house. It will be a little more, probably not one dollar and not one euro.

At the conference during the Kyiv Music Fest, you said that if someone is interested in playing your works , they can write to you to receive and perform them . You do not take this categorically in terms of copyright , royalty?

You know, royalties will complicate my financial affairs. If I receive any fees, it will be deducted from my pension. Let them play as they play.

In the case of your work at the Kyiv Music Fest, it turned out that not all performers can play the composer’s work appropriately and “correctly”. That is, the composer still has to decide who can play his works and who can’t?

I will tell you that there are a few things to consider in this regard. There is a great reassuring circumstance, which is that from now on, thanks to Skype, Viber and WatsApp, the composer can always (if, of course, the performer also wants to) listen at a distance to how the performer plays his work, what trends to change… Now there are no such obstacles when a composer is on another continent and he could not influence the performance. Now it is always possible thanks to our gadgets. The problems of communication between the composer and the performer now are only their personal attitude.

Leonid Hrabovsky and Sed Contra Ensemble at the Kyiv Music Fest-2019

You wrote that there was no normal premiere at “Eqvin”…

Because we haven’t had previous meetings where I could see how they were going to play it. This did not happen, so I could not influence the result.

You said that this work is dedicated to and connected with your father, but as far as I know, you only knew him for two years. How can this be?

I don’t remember him at all. Apparently, there was some rebuff of all my previous memory by the time, probably taken care of by higher powers, so as not to injure a small child.

But the work is still connected with him…

Well, it will be clear from the work and will be felt when it gets adequate performance… My goal here was to express the tragedy that befell my family and actually mutilated my childhood, making me an orphan and depriving me of normal musical development for a long time, like all other children, and longing for my father, who in fact remained unknown to me, and the horror of the torture and execution that befell him…

How often do you visit Ukraine?

I have been flying for the last 15 years every 7 months, sometimes even every 3-4 months. For the first trip with a difference of seven time zones — it is very difficult, you can not sleep at night, and during the day you are carried in your arms. Then you get used to it. In addition, we have now begun work on a film about our four, which was launched by one cameraman ten years ago. He did a session with us —   Sylvestrov, me, Hodzatsky, Krutykov . Now we have decided that we need to make a wider film: not only about us as a whole, but also about each of us individually. We meet the director of this film — Svitlana Porozhna — quite regularly (both Krutykov and me). She has already filmed with us and individual personal videos, and all four together. Now it’s about installation and post-production.




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