Composer Anna Korsun — phantasmal art of music «You need to choose the profession of a composer only when you can't do otherwise»

Анна Корсун. Фото: Konrad Fersterer

Contemporary art takes various forms, encourages experimentation and search, reveals new sides of the phenomenon of music. Before the birthday of Ukrainian-German composer and media artist Anna Korsun, we talked about her path through it. 

Dzerzhinsk — Kyiv: introduction to modern

What do you remember most about the years of studying music? What memories and impressions remained unforgettable?

I studied as a pianist for ten years: I entered a music college in Dzerzhinsk (now Toretsk). Once we were preparing for a competition where modern work was needed, and my teacher offered to take one of Ivan Karabyts’ preludes. I listened to them. It was something completely new at the time, it was the first modern music I heard. Naturally, I understood not so much — it was just an acquaintance. And when I was studying at a music school, I didn’t know about the existence of modern composers. I thought that Mozart and Bach were long extinct like dinosaurs, and there were no other.

At school, I was taking vocal lessons. Now I can understand that these helped with voice acting needed in the future. And then, when I moved to Kyiv, there was a culture shock. It was very interesting to absorb everything I could: I went to all the lectures, to all the concerts. And it didn’t matter if I liked it or not — I just needed as much information as possible. The first year of my stay in Kyiv was probably the most intense. This is both acquaintances with teachers and communication also.

You studied with Serhiy Vilka at about the same time. In an interview, he said that at that time only Prokofiev and Shostakovich were performed, but Volodymyr Runchak came with an ensemble of modern music. Was there another modern music in concert and “out” concert life at college?

No, Karabyts was the only name we knew. And the studies of music literature also did not go far beyond — maybe until the XX century and that’s all. Of course, we studied Prokofiev, but we didn’t seem to go any further.

Do you have musicians in your family?

Yes, my mother taught at the college as an accordionist, my father also studied the accordion. And my aunt did, so, we are such a family of accordionists. There was a small accordion at home, but I remember trying to convince my mother that I would not practice it and begged for a piano.

How was your study at the Kyiv Conservatory in the class of Myroslav Skoryk?

It is no secret that Skoryk’s students are given complete freedom. I don’t think it was bad, it was an experience when I had an opportunity of choosing what to do. And it’s much better than a teacher who leaves no room for creative experimentation, as was in the case with some of my classmates. We discussed compositional issues with them.

But were there other teachers you remembered?

We have good relations with Alla Zagaykevych, Sviatoslav Lunyov, Igor Stetsiuk and Olena Korchova — these were people I was interested in communicating with, I am very glad that they were in my life. Unfortunately, they hardly teach composition lessons. I think they could give a lot to students.

Music as a way of thinking

In the interview, Alla Zagaykevych called your music “musical smoke”. Maybe there is a truth here because of such subtlety, sonority, sometimes disembodied sound, and precise attention to it? Or is it rather associative?

Why do I love music so much? Because it is the most abstract of all the arts, it allows us to fill ourselves with meaning. I don’t like to give annotations to my pieces — it’s another headache when institutions ask for comments and I don’t want to give any association to the listener.

I probably wouldn’t be able to find a particular word about my music. As for attention to sound, it is right, because music is the art of organizing sounds in time and space. Again, the sound is not a final goal in itself, so the discovery of this is important. Here you need to use the theatrical term, “dramaturgy”. Some of my colleagues are debating whether it can be used. I think it’s quite possible: I’m also thinking about this musical dramaturgy.

I can show you what is on my desk right now (and no one but me will know what it is, but this is the outline of the play I am writing). In the sketches, everything is divided by time, so I understand approximately how much these fragments will take, and try to imagine the timing at once. Of course, this does not mean that this will be the case. Often during the process, the music begins to dictate its rules, it leads me somewhere in a completely different direction, and often the proportions that I think about do not really work. That is, it does not coincide with my inner realization of time and I have to redo something. It’s also interesting, at least I’m trying to work on it.

Therefore, returning to your question, “musical smoke” is a poetic description reflecting pure sonority, which is almost not interested in temporal unfolding or texture. This is not a bad thing, but in my works, there is a beginning, a middle, and an end, so to say. And it is not desirable to listen to them from any random point. I have almost no installation work.

That’s how medieval theoreticians call music the science of number and measured harmonic sound, that is, musical sound.

Music is a very ephemeral art. In my opinion, this is a phenomenon at all, why we do it and why we like it. After all, compared to visual art (yes, it can also be incomprehensible, but it is essentially what we see), we do not see music. This is something completely illusory, but it can affect our emotions and feelings. It’s kind of magic, and that’s why I really enjoy doing it.

I remember, in one video there is your opinion “to see the beauty in subtle transformations of a long sound”. It’s also about reproducing space in time, not only with sound but also with volume in general.

Yes, it’s not just a line, it’s a capacity. When I start writing my piece, I need to know the space where it will be performed, and if this is not possible, I model an alternative scenery, which I will then try to implement on the concert stage. That is, I try to think about which of the performers will be located where. At first, I didn’t pay much attention to it, and I first thought about it seriously in “Wehmut” in 2011. At the time of writing, I had a clear idea that my musicians were not in line, I needed to work on plans: something would be in the foreground, something very far away, something hidden from view, and something would appear right in the composition process. For the first time, I composed a spatial thing alongside a linear discovery in time. And I really liked it, it was new to me and has since become an important parameter for the composition. Working with plans can make music very voluminous.

Can you say that the use of light, which adds a lot to the perception of the piece, also plays a role here? As, for example, in “Sottilissime”?

Sometimes changes occur during the preparation of a piece when it is intuitively clear that something is missing. In “Sottilissime”, light influenced the creation of the atmosphere. Of course, this is not always the case on the grounds. Often this happens more in the case, with musicians and engineers we decide how best to “light up” the work. I have yet to delve into this topic. Some works require semi-darkness, maximum intimacy, by the way, “Ulenflucht” too. When we first performed it, we made only local lighting for the consoles of the performers and the conductor. Minimal lighting in the church created the necessary effect.

Is this an element of theatrical?

I remember my teacher saying about it, Moritz Eggert. When I was studying in Munich, we discussed a lot about theatricality, and I told him that I wanted to avoid theatrical elements altogether. And he replied that when musicians come on stage, it’s theatrical, and no matter how much I want to avoid it, we see them, they invest in artistry, they have gestures, they have objects in their hands. This is a theater, you need to exist with it somehow. You have to think about what you will do with it. And yes, we can’t avoid it, but to add this element that is already present? — it is not necessary, it’s enough, and I do not want to strengthen it.

Or at least, you should use it without trying to emphasize something, but to find your own line, so that there is some kind of polyphony — musical and theatrical. The directors I worked with during my studies did, to my taste, a bit straightforward. For me, the theater should be a separate superstructure, should not emphasize the existing things, otherwise, it looks strange. Or I don’t use this aspect at all, and it has to be on a visual level. That’s how in “Sottilissime” the musicians sit with their backs to each other, and it looks theatrical in itself.

Besides, the way they sit embodies this closeness of sound, the timbre fusion to some extent.

Yes, and attention to those around them. It is known that when we cannot see, we rely more on other sensations, smells, movements… When performers do not see each other, at least directly, they try to hear more. During the first performance of “Spleen”, the performers sat on the stage in a row (quite classic). They played well, technically everything was even without flaws, but there was not enough sensitivity. The text was notated mostly without bars, and they needed to respond very clearly to each other. The second time we decided to try another seating (the musicians sat in a circle with their backs to each other). The new space of the gallery turned out great: the arrangement was so influential that the musicians heard the smallest changes in the musical texture and reacted to them.

Breathe more life into the works: the process of performing

Let’s talk about your performers. You often collaborate with ensembles several times. Because it is still difficult to find the appropriate level — and the level, perhaps, of interest in the implementation, in addition to professionalism?

There is a problem that I call the problem of three rehearsals. Music performance practice is mainly related, of course, to finances — that is, if you had three rehearsals, you should be happy and joyful, it’s like enough cool. But not really, because musicians need to get used to music.

What am I doing to breathe more life into the works? Of course, attending rehearsals helps. I tell musicians associations, often it’s very simple — what I don’t do for listeners in the annotation, I do for musicians because they need to know. Sometimes we work with everyone separately.

And it seems to me that you prescribe instructions in detail. Do you approve if someone undertakes to perform without your help? Would that be successful?

When I write a score, I think about what can be done to prepare the performer as much as possible without my presence. Now I’m trying to notice some details in more detail … And I realized that verbal descriptions help — ordinary, even simple associations: in the same “Ulenflucht” it is written “roar like a bear”. I am not ashamed of such literal descriptions. And I’m surprised that I do not stop learning in rehearsals and performances, after that I understand what needs to be changed, so the whole process of improvement and self-learning does not stop. Now not only my music but all the others, do not have such a common notation, which is clear to absolutely everyone. Even verbal marks, graphics, all this will not be 100% clear. How do I get out of the situation? I use specific audio examples. I record samples, specific sounds, and I think they should be added to the score when I can’t be in rehearsals.

How did you study in Germany after Kyiv?

In terms of context, there is, of course, even more diversity, and all this on a different level. I went to concerts, I listened to the best performances, heard completely different quality music of different aesthetic directions, and it was a shock. As for studying, it was a pleasant surprise in the person of Moritz Eggert, and, interestingly, this was his first year as a composition teacher. Yes, after the Kyiv Conservatory I did not expect anything special, I thought there would be freedom too. It was, but here I got the mentor I dreamed of but did not believe that it happens. He is an ideal teacher in my opinion because he is a smart person with whom you can discuss both compositional problems and anything else.

At first, I was embarrassed to come to class when I had nothing to show (the lesson is held weekly). Undoubtedly, not every time before a new lesson you can write something. But then I realized that even when I have nothing to show, we can sit in the cafeteria, talk about music, about art. And during such dialogues, some idea comes.

The second point is the impression that no matter how many students he had, he could aesthetically understand everyone, and at a deep level, could analyze the work and find some problems in completely different aesthetic areas. And this is an absolutely bright talent — not everyone is given such an opportunity.

The same thing happened with my works. I remember once bringing “Landscapes” to class, it wasn’t finished yet, and I wasn’t happy with the form. I had an audio score (I call it that), and that’s how I work with some pieces when I make audio first. He listened a few times, made some notes, wrote some scheme, and just gave me a point, saying: “You know, do something there, go, think.” And I followed the advice, came home, and put a kind of energy concentrate, which was developing very slowly in the play, at this point.

That was it. One can only envy the musical intuition that Moritz has. So my studies in Munich were absolutely happy, I enjoyed talking to my classmates, participating in class concerts where we collaborated with directors, someone else — Moritz came up with different topics to teach us something new. It was informative and gave me a lot.

The sound artist called a composer: profession and realization

A whole generation of composers that studied with you, left Ukraine — Retinsky, Shalygin… Is there no place in Ukraine for the realization of composers?

I don’t know how true this is, but when I entered Kyiv Conservatory, we had one of the first philosophy lectures and the teacher (he was so ironic) said: “Yes, we have a composition course, but there is no composers’ profession in the register”. In Ukraine, there is no opportunity to be a composer, or at least to be engaged only in creativity. All the composers I know who live in Ukraine make money with something else: at best, it’s teaching or playing an instrument, at worst, something unrelated to music. Such is the reality.

Still, when I studied in Kyiv, the environment was quite conservative. Now I know that things are much better. So I understood that I would not become a composer in Ukraine, but on the other hand, I wanted something bigger. I knew for sure that I had to move on and go. Then I just began to choose a country, studied this issue a bit, and realized that Germany is a pretty good environment for composers. I was right because Germany is one of the few countries that finance art. They are well aware that art itself cannot make a profit, so they have very powerful institutions: funds that provide subsidies and grant systems for artists.

Anna Korsun. Photo by Konrad Fernsterer

Here people basically understand what a composition is. They will not ask “what do you do for a living? Does this profession exist?”. There is an understanding that there is a sound artist who is called a composer. This is not the case in Ukraine yet. I’m not saying that everything is very easy here. Composers are not easy anywhere. When a person makes such a choice, he must understand that his life will not be so easy and cloudless. Either you are so committed to creativity and ready for uncertainty in your life, or you are not ready, and you need to do something else. Therefore, when young people ask me whether they should enter the conservatory, I do not know what to say, because there are many pros and cons. I’m just saying that you need to understand how freaky you are in this area. If you can’t freak out, then do it. You need to choose the profession of a composer only when you can’t do otherwise. Know that you will suffer from uncertainty.

Germany has a system of grants. Again, not everyone is ready for this. Therefore, if you want to live from grants, you have to go through paperwork. Not everyone can stand it. In Germany, there are organizations where there is a fund, where you can apply, and in theory, receive funding for the project. Of course, institutions are more likely than independent artists, but there are opportunities. Meanwhile, in Ukraine, there are only a few.

And competitions.

Competitions definitely help. I don’t do them anymore, but the Gaudeamus competition has helped in my career, it’s very iconic for everyone — international, known in many countries, and most importantly, thanks to this win, I wrote “Ulenflucht”. I was given the freedom to choose the instruments. I said I wanted to write for twenty voices, and I was able to buy what I wanted for them. Other competitions can help in some ways — winning a couple of thousands is always good for a young composer, but you shouldn’t bet on them. This is more of a bonus than the main activity.

During the pandemic, you had the premiere of the work — “Marevo”, and there were some concert performances. How has lockdown affected your life?

there is a meme on the Internet: “an artist in a pandemic, an artist without a pandemic” — and a picture of a man in a room. This is probably about us because we usually work from home. The work itself was not affected by the pandemic. On the number of performances: 10 concerts were canceled exactly. The performances in the United States, Italy, and Germany, in fact. All this had to be canceled, it was a pity. But people continue to think about the future, they apply for some projects, make orders, so I’m now working on projects for the coming years. If we’re lucky, by the end of 2021 something will happen live, but it is more realistic to plan for 2022-2023.

The only premiere that has taken place is “Marevo”. I was very surprised that the festival was live, with a huge number of people, everyone, of course, wore masks, but the hall was full. My husband and I came there and were absolutely happy that at a time when nothing is happening, we found ourselves in the environment of a real big festival with a large program. We also had open-air concerts: the premiere of my husband’s piece, Sergey Khismatov, and the second performance of my “Signals” for 14 voices with megaphones.

And “Distracfold Ensemble” recently released a new album featuring your work.

It was a new online project (so far). They commissioned short solo pieces from composers. I chose the cello with a voice because Alice Purton and I worked on “Sottilissime”, she sings well.

When listening, it is difficult to understand at first — what does it sound at the beginning?

It’s a scream. A high note by cello plus shout. And as Alice wrote, “it was the perfect piece to represent my pandemic experience” when she had to sit in her room and scream. My husband also had a joke about it. When I was writing, (accordingly, I was also sitting in my room and shouting), my scream was much more extreme: Alice’s voice is an interpretation of a nervous scream, so to speak. The man said, “Finally, your emotions are expressed in something where the cause is not me”. It was funny, but I hoped that the neighbors would not call the police, because such a case had already happened. Then I was playing hunter calls, the neighbors called the police because they thought I was torturing someone here. This time it worked out.

Our new time: music phenomenons

The Dutch online resource wrote in 2019: “Korsun’s works are the works of a sensitive and independent artist who seems almost unaffected by the speed with which society is changing and technology is evolving”. What do you set aside for yourself nowadays?

It is unrealistic for an artist to be left untouched by anything. Matters how you feel about it. Some artists specifically want to take on a social theme. But I have another point: we really get everything intuitively or consciously, we do not live in isolation from society. No matter what person you talk to, no matter what music you listen to, everything affects you. Sometimes I can say yes, that’s what probably affected me, but mostly, I can’t even keep track of it. It just goes into the subconscious, and then the “bowl” cooks something of its own. I even noticed an interesting phenomenon when the sounds we hear begin to form into a composition against my will. Do these sounds affect me? Yes, of course, although I may not want to, and a professionally trained brain begins to compose them.

We are probably more sensitive to ambient sounds, more attentive. On the one hand, it is very inquisitive, we enjoy that beauty. But it can also be a disadvantage when you can’t abstract. My husband and I always suffer from the birds singing the same motifs outside the windows, they intertwine in their melody and then become present in everything.

This sound component of the world is very interesting. I would like us to treat this not as a proper thing, but as a special beauty. You know, not all people can perceive certain tastes, because the number of points on the tongue can be different, so, probably, there is a special setting for the perception of sound. Some people are annoyed by the sounds, some people find them unusual. If we have this ability, isn’t it because of the sound art?

What inspires you?

I like to visit new places, it is a huge source of energy for me. I don’t have so many resources that give energy. Often the energy goes out, and I suffer from its lack. But the opportunity to see new places fulfills as if the batteries are charging at this time. And I like living in new places, not only as a tourist but also as an opportunity to be in a residence. It is not only financial but also in terms of living there as part of society. The last such vivid experience was in Italy. I just felt how the environment affects my thinking. Music, pronunciation, rhythm, all these are completely different — they begin to have an extraordinary impact. 

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