Meeting with the Ukrainian Contemporary Music Community: what is the role of art in the war?

Photo credit: Vladyslav Melnyk

On May, 6, a joint web talk on the current situation of artists in the field of contemporary music in Ukraine occurred. It was organized by Initiative Neue Musik Berlin / field notes and Kyiv Contemporary Music Days. A round table discussion covered historical dimensions and recent developments of contemporary music in Ukraine as well as effective ways to support Ukrainian culture and Ukrainian musicians, whether in Ukraine or in exile. First, there was a presentation of the Foundation for support of the Ukrainian classical music community by Kyiv Contemporary Music Days whose mission is “to co-form the community around new music, to develop its ecosystem both in Ukraine and internationally by creating new formats and opportunities for professional interaction and realization of artists in Ukraine and around the world”, as Albert Saprykin, composer, co-founder of Kyiv Contemporary Music Days, a lead specialist at State Arts Agency said. Then the panel discussion happened. We’ve collected some of its topics below.

Iryna Tukova, PhD, an associate professor of the Music Theory Department of the Ukrainian National Academy of Music (Kyiv) 

What do we have in the contemporary music scene of Ukraine?

I would like to emphasize two dimensions of the existence of contemporary music in Ukraine. The first is “vertical”. I connect it with our state level and the institutions which have the support of our state. First, it’s Ukrainian Composers Unions and its departments in different Ukrainian cities. These departments work with contemporary music. Traditionally, they organize different festivals and concerts. Here I would like to mention the most important of new music festivals in Ukraine (I will name the festivals with a long history). Among them are “Kyiv Music Fest”, formed in 1990; others are “Kyiv Music Premieres”, founded in 1989, and “Two Days and Two Nights of New Music” in Odesa (its leader is famous composer Karmella Tsepkolenko, who organized it in 1994); and one more big festival called “Contrasts”, it takes place in Lviv and was founded in 1994. Other concerts and festivals are focused on the projects of electroacoustic music; for example, “EM-visia” and its creator is Alla Zagaykevych. Among other representatives of such a vertical level are state concert halls, opera houses, etc.

For a long time, the emphasis in their activity was made on classical repertoire, but now I see the changes. Kharkiv Skhid Opera House staged Zagaykevych’s opera “Vyshyvanyy. King of Ukraine” and the premiere was great. Such level of the events I also see in Lviv Opera House, as well as the attempts to organize many events of contemporary opera and contemporary music. 

And we have a tendency in other directions: for example, state orchestras have begun to include the works of contemporary composers in their programs. Five years ago I didn’t see such a tendency. A new generation of soloists has been formed, and these people want to promote new music, I would like to mention some names, pianist Antonii Baryshevskyi, flautist Serhii Vilka, oboist Maksym Kolomiiets, clarinettist Dmytro Pashynskyi, violinists Andrii Pavlov, Mariana Skrypa, bassist Nazar Stets and many performers who are known not only by the professionals but also a wide audience.

Another direction that I named horizontal begins its active development, in my opinion, in the last 10 years. It connects with private initiatives and organizations. I don’t want to say that such initiatives didn’t exist in previous years, but now this trend has a mass character. One of the examples of such an initiative is Kyiv Contemporary Music Days, and another example of this activity is the concert agency “Ukho”. It was organised by two contemporary music lovers who are not professional musicians: Sasha Andrusyk and Yevhen Shymalskyi. Among numerous lectures, organised by the agency, can be mentioned, for example, the “Architecture of the Voice”. It was very interesting and concerts were held in various locations in Kyiv, including a pool, palaeontology museum, churches, cinemas, stadiums etc. At the moment, I would like to emphasise that there’s the possibility to meet new music at the concerts in locations in different locations. Currently, such a situation we can see in Lviv and Kharkiv.

Other examples of such private initiatives are opera associations like “Nova Opera” and “Opera Aperta”. The last one is a new initiative by Ukrainian composers Illia Razumeiko and Roman Grygoriv. In autumn, they presented a new project, “Opera Lingua” which is, by composers’ definition, the “musical theater in seven books”. The premiere was in the concert hall of the National Library of Ukraine. 

During the last ten years, many ensembles of contemporary music were formed. Not all of them exist now, but their activity was important for the development of the Ukrainian music scene. Many of them were created by composers and performers. I can mention “Nostri Temporis” ensemble; the ensemble “Ukho”, which was founded by the concert agency “Ukho”, and also the very interesting vocal ensemble “Alter Ratio”. One of its most interesting projects was “Mariology”. The music was commissioned by the ensemble to Ukrainian composers, so we had a possibility to listen to different versions of Marian Antiphons by Sviatoslav Lunyov, Maksym Kolomiiets, Maksym Shalygin.

And so now the Ukrainian contemporary music scene is very diverse. It includes both the state sector and the private. I have the possibility to choose events, and composers. As for me, these facts are inspiring. Our friends came to Kyiv from Kharkiv in autumn to listen to music by Sciarrino; I came to Kharkiv to listen to the music of Zagaykevych. Such activity was before the war. What will happen in the future? Let’s see, because now the situation is very sad. 

I would like to emphasize the activity of Lviv composers, performers and many musicians moving from the eastern and central part of Ukraine to the western part, Lviv, and we have the possibility to listen to online concerts and so on. Many of such activities give me the strength to look into the future with hope for our music and for the development of our contemporary music community.

Alla Zagaykevych, composer and founder of the Electronic Studio at the National Music Academy of Ukraine

The structure and participants of the electroacoustic community

The first electroacoustic music studio in Ukraine was founded at Kyiv National Music Academy. But in 2011, in Lviv National Music Academy Ostap Manulyak founded a big festival, “Vox Electronica”, and now there is a second studio. So we have this community of classical electroacoustic music composers and also experimental music. And in Kharkiv, before the war, we could consider also that we have a very interesting community of experimental electroacoustic music. For example, Andrii Kyrychenko founded the first label of electroacoustic music “NexSound” and also there’s an electroacoustic group “Moglass”. This community is small but very active. 

Yurii Samson and Andrii Kozhukhar from Nova Kakhovka, it’s Kherson region which is occupied now, are fantastic musicians and mean a lot to electroacoustic music. In the Kyiv region, we also have experimental music backgrounds; for example, media artists like Yevhen Vaschenko (v4w.enko), or Georgiy Potopalskyi (Ujif_notfound). It’s for the start, that it’s not only classical composers but big system of communication with experimental music. And it’s a good possibility to do projects together. In Ukraine, it’s like participating in festivals, artistic projects, and educational and scientific projects because we need to have musicology about electroacoustic music. 

Also, it’s important to work with state institutions like philharmonics. This year we were planning the concert on May in Kyiv National Philharmonic it’s the first time Kyiv Philharmonic accepted the concert with electroacoustic work by Ukrainian and French composers, but it’s not possible now.

Of course, this community is a good possibility to collaborate with European society, and we are members of the CIME / ICEM. So it’s a big organization and each year we have a concert of Ukrainian music. In each country, we participate with musicological articles and presentations in the electroacoustic area. Also, it’s important to use this experience of collaboration with European partners to work. Perhaps the best project we realized was Pandemic Media Space supported by House of Europe, its media platform for algorithmic composition. It was realized in the lockdown times, and now we can keep this experience to work online, to work with new media, principally on the Internet. It was a very good solution to start the reflection about what can be the activity of a composer in war? So I hope a lot that our experience of this collaboration can be used in this time of war. 

Oleksandr Vynogradov, ex-Head of Visual Art, Ukrainian Institute

It’s time for us to mention the elephant in the room 

When we talk about Ukrainian culture preservation and efforts of cultural diplomacy in Ukraine today, it’s impossible to talk about it without mentioning Russian culture which is huge not to say enemy but a huge rival to Ukraine in the international arena.

This is why the question of diplomacy and preservation of Ukrainian culture is intimately connected to the war in Ukraine. It won’t be an overstatement to say that for several centuries, Ukrainian culture has been living in the shadow of Russian culture. First, the Russian Empire and later the Soviet Union, Russia treated Ukraine as a colony. On one hand, Russia has been systematically destroying Ukrainian culture and its creators; on the other, it took talents from the periphery to the metropolitan centres in Moscow and Saint-Petersberg, thus appropriating Ukrainian culture and labelling it as Russian. 

For instance, Maksym Berezovskyi, an essential 18th-century composer who is labelled and marked by Russia as the author of the first Russian symphony, was in fact Ukrainian. And this is just one example of a great many. So it’s still not being discussed enough that Russia has been repressing Ukrainian intelligentsia since at least the 19th century, with official bans on the Ukrainian language and persecutions of Ukrainian cultural and political elites. Later in Soviet times, Moscow had several ways of devastating and killing thousands, literally ten thousand Ukrainian artists. This happened not only under Stalin in fact, but repressions against Ukrainian culture also continued up until the collapse of the USSR in 1991. 


So even though Ukrainian artists were not physically repressed by the regime, they suffered from Moscow’s imperial policy. To make a successful career in the Soviet Union meant moving to Moscow and becoming de facto a Russian composer. Moscow had a monopoly on high cosmopolitan culture, while the periphery including Ukraine, was only allowed to produce second-grade, provincial and ethnographic art. That is why Borys Liatoshynskyi, Ukraine’s leading 20th-century composer who chose to stay in Kyiv and worked there his entire life, could never get anywhere close to the success of Sergei Prokofiev or Dmitriy Shostakovich, his contemporaries, even though his work, his musical language was as diverse, as modern as theirs. 

Things have not dramatically changed since 1991 for the recognition of Ukrainian culture internationally. Russian Federation inherited not only the USSR’s oil and gas, but also the imperial culture with Tchaikovsky and others. 

As we talk about the partners to support us providing exposure to Ukrainian voices, which in the case of music institutions means performing Ukrainian composers and inviting Ukrainian musicians, which is why today it’s very important. 

If we wanted to send the message to support the people of Ireland, probably we wouldn’t do that by playing English music. The same is true with this case. You know that Shostakovich doesn’t really need more exposure, but Liatoshynskyi definitely does. And if you don’t know Ukrainian music well enough, which is totally understandable, given the circumstances, there are institutions such as Kyiv Contemporary Music Days, or Ukrainian Institute, or the State Agency of Ukraine on Arts and Artistic Education that will be more than happy to provide the context for you. Don’t hesitate to contact them now.    

So our message to cultural institutions in Germany, in particular, is this discovering Ukrainian culture, giving the platform to Ukrainian voices and collaborating with Ukrainian professionals is the best way to support Ukrainians.

Albert Saprykin, composer, co-founder of Kyiv Contemporary Music Days, a lead specialist at State Arts Agency

Probably instead of talking about some concrete examples, I feel like bringing up some tendencies that we have had in Ukraine for the last 10 years. As an artist myself I feel that especially in 2014 after the Revolution of Dignity, when we have thrown a Russian-oriented president and finally started to build ultimate democratic society and institutions, a lot of grass-root movements in the field of art and specifically in the field of music, classical and new, started to institutionalize themselves, to support artists. In these ten years, contemporary Ukrainian composers, first of all, started to see that there’s an audience in their cities. It’s ready to hear their music; for example, in Kyiv, there’s already a significant per cent of their audience, like 50 per cent, that is not professional musicians, not attendees to the philharmonic concerts, but ready to come to the contemporary music or installations or something like that.

Albert also stated, “I feel that diversity of styles, of approaches to organizing events, concerts master classes or festivals. I feel that now it’s time for artists to shine and to give concerts wherever they are”.

Artists and their response to the war

Oleksandr Vynogradov: I think it’s important just to be sensitive to the needs of Ukrainian artists because they are those of them who just don’t want to create anything right now because they are traumatized, and we shouldn’t expect anything from them. At this point, we just need to help them in any way we can. And then there are other artists who are very eloquent right now, and those artists need platforms; we just need them to give those. It’s totally clear that we shouldn’t put Ukrainian artists in any kind of category, expecting them to make art about war or something else. The question of sensitivity is to treat Ukrainian artists just like the German artist, but the one that is traumatized, the one that needs help. So if it’s artists who want to create art in no way related to war, it’s okay, if they want to make a statement about war, it’s okay, and if they don’t want anything right now, it’s also okay.

Damien Hirst. For Venice Biennale exhibition. “Ukraine: Defending Freedom”

Alla Zagaykevych: I think that now a lot of artists, musicians, we are in the same situation as Ukrainian artists in WWI and WWII. Three years ago, when I finished working on my opera “Vyshyvanyy” it’s about Wilhelm von Habsburg, I participated in a colloquium dedicated to WWI. I try to understand. I’m sure that the history of electroacoustic music in Ukraine has a direct relation to the intensive social activity during the war. ‌Ukrainian electroacoustic music started from the epoch of futurism, it’s a period before WWI, during and after. We have collaborations with cinema art, Yevhen Deslav and Luigi Russolo (a big Italian futurist with noise music). During WWII and after it, in Ukraine, there was the start of concrete music, and algorithmic music, so I guess we have a certain experience to be active in these periods of social revolutions, and I know works that were created during our time.

Cultural destructions in the war

Oleksandr Vynogradov: Mentioned fact from personal life. In 2015, I started working at the foundation that is called “Izolyatsia” which was originally based in Donetsk. This city was occupied by Russia in 2014. Contemporary art institutions had to flee and relocate to Kyiv. Back there they had a huge plant, the building of the isolation materials. It also was occupied by people of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic, and they had to take out the collections they had, and there were many works of big artists there like Daniel Buren… They managed to save only some of those. So when the soldiers came there and said, “Well, do you see what they were promoting there? Pornography. Promoting some kind of deranged western art”. And basically, the whole collection was destroyed and the territory of “Izolyatsia” has been used as a prison. And it’s documented that there have happened tortures, held on the territory of “Izolyatsia”. Up until today, it’s been used as a prison and a torture chamber. So for Ukrainians, there are no questions like whether we should fight or not because we understand very clearly what happens once Russia comes. When the pacifists around Europe are screaming that we should spare more people that may die during this war. For Ukrainians, this is absurd because we totally understand what will happen if we surrender. These “Izolyatsia” have been happening in Mariupol, Kherson, and any cities that are occupied. So until we have our army, we will fight, as long as it takes us. So this war will continue. It’s not like Europe can decide if to stop this war right now or not.

Сancellation of Russian culture

Sofia, a music journalist from Sweden, asked an important question about the cancellation of Russian culture. She finds the cancellation quite necessary but claimed that this question in her country has become extremely sensitive. “Here, many people don’t quite understand and think that this idea is equal to some kind of authoritarian, it’s some kind of restriction of freedom of speech. We’re a very liberal country; everything should be as open as possible. People reacted to that as this was not appropriate. So why is this so difficult for people in the west to understand and why is it that they get it the wrong way?..”

Oleksandr Vynogradov: I’m based in Chicago right now, and I talk a lot with people who are definitely not allies to Ukraine in this war. The answer to this question can’t be short, but there are two things I would like to point out. The first is imperialism in all its forms. It’s not something that is happening only in Russia. We’re critical of Russia, but the same thing is true in the West. Any time, any group of western intellectuals are trying to say, “Ukrainians should do this or do that”. Well, this is imperialism. Rather than listening to what Ukrainians have to say, they prefer to talk about the values of free speech but basically what they are saying and doing is making conclusions about Ukraine without asking Ukraine. It’s this imperialism which is ingrained in western intellectual thinking; it’s being criticized all the time, but somehow, with its help, excuses can be found for Russia and any imperialistic country. 

Photo credit: Libkos

And the second thing, as I guess, when we speak about freedom of speech, we should always think about sensitivity and about that freedom of speech, actually, any freedom has its limits. No freedom of speech when we talk about extremist or nazi ideas, even in the most democratic countries, with freedom of speech, we still cannot tolerate some things, mentioned publicly. It is clear in this situation. We don’t say “Ban Russian culture forever”, we say “Rather than playing the same composers over and over and over again maybe pay attention to some of the composers you have never played at all” and many of them are Ukrainian composers. Well, in this case, we are interested in Ukrainian composers, but of course, it’s not only Ukrainian, Georgian, all those countries that have been living in this shadow. Shostakovich doesn’t need to be defended. He’s one of the most performed composers in the world; this is just a fact. And I’m personally a big fan of him, Prokofiev also, Rachmaninov, Tchaikovsky and Myaskovsky. I don’t mind playing them. But at this particular time, wouldn’t it make much more sense to perform Ukrainian composers? We have composers who were systematically unrepresented. At this hard moment for Ukrainians, choosing willingly to perform Russian composers to support Ukraine is offensive. Again, we’re living under the shadow of Shostakovich while having those composers who are no worse than him. So it’s about being sensitive and hearing what Ukrainians are suggesting.

Sofia also pointed out, that as a music journalist, she feels the need for musicological literature, “I want to read about music history, I want to read about the Ukrainian art scene and in big form – not just articles and interviews. Shaping the historical background is crucial for us in the West to understand this very specific context of Russian imperialism. We also need witnesses, we need stories from all of you”.

Iryna agreed on having a big gap in the presentation of the history of Ukrainian music, “because we have many books in Ukrainian but not books in European languages. My colleagues and I are now forming the conception of the historic book of Ukrainian music of the 20th century”. She also shared her story: “I was born in Donetsk, and I myself formed in Russian and soviet culture. If from my young years I had “great Russian culture”, in school we had primarily Russian language and literature, and we even had the possibility to choose if we wanted to study Ukrainian”. “It’s easier to know Shostakovich than get to know composers from Poland for example, Lithuania, Georgia”, Iryna concluded.

The last speaker was Dasha Vdovina, who represented Kyiv Contemporary Music Days. She spoke about the imperialistic tradition of culture as “soft power”. It has also been indicated that many Ukrainians until recently didn’t know about many aspects of their culture because of imperial politics. Studying in Denmark, Dasha saw the big sentiment for Russian culture. So her last phrases were about what banning brings to the table, and how is it possible in a democratic society. She said, “What we’re trying to transmit here, this is the personal choice of each and every individual to figure out whether you want to speak at this point about beautiful contributions from the past history and continue to go further with this narrative or you decide to dive deeper what is the main storyline and what are additional perspectives”.

Read also:

• Statement from the musicological community of Ukraine

• Violinist Anastasia Poludenna: “Until we undergo treatment, we are allergic to Russian culture”

• Russians mined a 10-year-old girl’s piano in Bucha


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