“Lullaby for Mariupol” through the creators’ and participants’ eyes

Photo credit: Anna Sorokolit

The performances of the Ukrainian ensemble “Opera aperta” took place on May 18 and 22 in Vienna and Rotterdam. Charity concerts were dedicated to all victims of the Russian-Ukrainian war.

The composition performed at the concerts was called “Lullaby for Mariupol”. According to one of the creators, Illia Razumeiko, “in the beginning, we created a minimalist instrumental piece, and then we expanded it to multimedia performance. Our role as composers in this work is related to the general form organization because it is not a classical Western European composition with a precise score, but a joint meditative funeral ritual that combines traditional vocals, improvisations of our microtonal quartet and video art”.

Another author, Roman Grygoriv, ​​told us about the history of the work:

On February 22, my colleague Illia Razumeiko and I worked as usual in our studio at the National Union of Composers of Ukraine, thinking about upgrading our archaeological opera “Chornobyldorf”. An updated version of it was scheduled to premiere in May at the National Operetta Theater of Ukraine, later followed by a Dutch premiere in Rotterdam. But playing the music revealed new meanings to us and clearly showed signs of uncompromisingness in its texture. So we realized that this is a separate work, and there’s not enough space for it in “Chornobyldorf”. Therefore, Illia suggested naming it “Mariupol”. Why? Because before the start of the full-scale war, there was already some attention to this city.

At that time, we created the first 15 minutes of the performance and did not know how to use it. It is based on a continuous percussion movement (pattern) that moves in waves from maximum silence to maximum loudness, which lasts about 12 minutes in the peak zone. The texture itself is a permanent tremolo, performed with percussion beaters and cymbals; it is a kind of noise. This texture contains such micro-changes, which you unintentionally observe while diving into the ocean of microtonal spheres, where a new quality is born. The whole essence of “Mariupol” is in it.

In the first hours, days, and later weeks of the war, Illia and I stopped being composers; we stopped being artists, and our profession didn’t matter. We were just people. It was probably the third week, when, being in the Ivano-Frankivsk Drama Theater, we began to think about creating a whole composition, a performative sound installation. Considering the format of the online performance at the Vezha TV and Radio Company, we agreed on the 7-hour duration of “Mariupol”. And during our performance, there were no air raid sirens in Ivano-Frankivsk. However, as we got to know after it, in the third hour of our performance, a heavy missile weighing 500 kg arrived at the Mariupol Drama Theater. This was such a horrible coincidence. During the performance, we didn’t know, we just saw how the faces of our sound engineers changed. They could read the news from time to time.

We played continuously, hurting our hands. Do you know what inspired us when we got tired? (If you can use the word “tired” at all). We recalled how hard it is for the Azov Battalion, so how can we get tired of just playing the instruments?! It gave us strength. Then our wonderful, brilliant, in my opinion, musicians, Igor Zavgorodniy, Marichka Shtyrbulova, Igor Boychuk, Anya Rudenko and Nazgul Shukaeva, joined the creation of “Mariupol”. As the Mariupol International Team.

As you know, Mariupol is a port city, where different ethnic communities live. We have wonderful memories from there; as part of the “Gogolfest” we performed our requiem opera “Iyov”, the opera “Nero” at the shipyard… We have been there at least three times, and each time the city impressed us with its spontaneity. The people there are friendly. Mariupol has become a new and progressive city, and I still can’t believe that it has turned into a complete ruin. The separate areas where we walked no longer exist.

One of the decisive roles in the updated work called “Lullaby of Mariupol” was played by a video series (our media artist created it, Dmytro Tyntiuk). We did not give any chance to the public to remain indifferent. At the culmination, we showed a video where a drone flies over the destroyed Mariupol, displaying suffering and death. There was only one voice, and we all gradually joined in as a kind of metronome, like a clock. It was the voice of Mariupol, surrounded by explosions. It was illustrative, but very strong. After the performance, we were approached by musicians and festival directors with tears in their eyes, and although, of course, the attention of Europeans is gradually decreasing, they know that they blew up a maternity hospital there, dropped a bomb on a drama theater; they identify Bucha and so on. They do not know the “inside”, they do not know the depth of this crime. I consider this an absolute genocide of Ukrainians by Russians.

We asked the performers of the “Lullaby for Mariupol” the following questions:

  • What was “Lullaby for Mariupol” for you? How did it feel?
  • What was your role in the performance? How was going the rehearsal process in the new conditions?
  • Why do you think it is meaningful for Ukrainian musicians to continue their artistic activity? Is it possible to tell the world about the horrors of the war in Ukraine through the art language and to be heard?

Igor Boychuk (flute)
My experience with “Mariupol”, as well as with the opera “Chornobyldorf”, shows that we are definitely heard

Since the beginning of the war, I have not played a single musical instrument for two months. All these days I have accumulated different and very strong emotions, and feelings. Then rehearsals for the opera began. Mariupol was not touched. Roma and Illia only spoke about the idea of ​​performing the work. Before leaving Ukraine, we just sat together for an hour to feel the sound of everyone, and it was not yet “Mariupol”, but just a collection of sounds. In Vienna, on the stage of the Wuk Theater, we all played, sang and showed “Mariupol” together for the first time. The second time was at the Rotterdam Theater. It was a message, self-expression, a ritual, a work of art. It felt different for everyone. But it had only one purpose, to tell about a global tragedy. Personally, I played the instrument again after a silence. And we received, without exaggeration, a very strong response, empathy and emotions from the audience. This is the mission of every Ukrainian now.

Nazgul Shukaeva (vocals)
My wedding happened in Mariupol

For me, many composers are like mediums who interpret information from space. “Lullaby for Mariupol” was created on February 22, a few days before the war. During rehearsals, I was shocked by how accurately the war’s horrible sounds were shared. I was baffled several times before the performance and had to concentrate with incredible effort before going on stage. It was difficult. It was a song of our pain, a unity act of compassion with the terrible grief that struck the country and the city.

I was seeing myself young, youthful, in a wedding dress, I was seeing wonderful relatives of my husband (my wedding happened in Mariupol), the sea… And suddenly my brain took me to the labyrinths of “Azovstal”, into the darkness through dull pain, to the ruined houses of my aunt Klava and grandfather Kolya. It was our deepest prayer through sound.

During rehearsals, my throat tightened periodically. But as soon as the performance started, everything stopped, I mentally connected with the land and space of Mariupol. Many points are difficult to describe in words. It is also our transmission of love and energy through music but at the same time the pain and cry of our hearts and the living mother of the Earth, tired of wars and evil.

Singing and playing are very difficult but necessary. Creativity is life. It is necessary to live and give birth. Musicians are storytellers who can reach the depths of the soul, and the hearts of others. Speaking of Vienna and Rotterdam performances, during our conversations with the audience, we talked about the genocide of the Ukrainian people, about the terrible war in Ukraine. The main thing is not to be silent.

Igor Zavgorodniy (gusli, duduk, vocals)
The world needs to know exactly for whom
and what it is fighting

  1. I agree with this work definition by Illia. As for my personal vision and impressions, a long time ago I blurred the boundaries of the “art” concept. In addition, the war has “finished” this process, now we probably are not artists. So, for me, rough and straightforward, “Lullaby for Mariupol” was a non-verbal message.
  2. The rehearsal process was going badly; it was difficult and nervous. Partly due to the circumstances – we did also the opera rehearsals, so we were all overwhelmed by the crazy amount of work. Conditions were quite good, an interesting place and a comfortable space.
  1. Imagine a territory where some people live; they are doing something; then someone occupied something there (or not?), I need to help them (do I, really?), how does this apply to me? (No?), etc. Sounds as absurd as possible, but, unfortunately, there are a lot of such cases in history. So we need to work to have the opposite situation. In fact, Ukrainian music and artists, like nobody else, can play a key role: shouting about us, “raising the price” on the cultural map of the world, to share with the world the most important narratives. The world must know against whom and what to fight. The world needs to know exactly for whom and what it is fighting. This requires artists: both qualitatively and quantitatively, as a real cohesive army.

Is it possible to tell the world about the horrors of the war in Ukraine through art language? Not sure. To tell is equal to aestheticising, but it is necessary to try. Can we be heard? Not quite either. This is unpleasant and uncomfortable information. And people want the opposite as “lol, fun, cute”. But you have to try. We have to.

Anna Rudenko (vocals)
Everything we are doing at the moment is possible
owing to the Armed Forces

  1. For me, it was a prayer for the city of Mariupol, for the heroes defending “Azovstal”, and for every soul affected by this war. It was one common prayer of people who do not speak the same language, however, but people who feel and experience the pain of our country with all their souls. It was a prayer in the art language.
  1. Marichka and I perform authentic Ukrainian lullabies. Rehearsals began in Kyiv and continued in Vienna. The rehearsal process was easy and inspiring. I had the feeling that I had been working with this team for many years, so great we felt for each other. ‌

But the most important feelings that accompanied me throughout the rehearsal process were responsibility and gratitude because each of us understood that the topic of performance is so important and difficult and that everything we do at the moment is possible due to the Armed Forces.

  1. At the beginning of the war, I did not believe that art was “on time”. After the tragic events in my family, I did not believe that I would be able to be creative at all. However, when you realize why you are doing it and that art is also a weapon, you have the strength and faith that you are doing it for a reason. Your faith is strengthened by confidence when after the performance in the hall there is silence for about 7 minutes, and you can only hear people wiping tears. In all my years of working in the theater, I have never heard such a “loud silence” in the hall, such a power of silence.

We were heard, and we managed to reach, I’m sure. In the eyes of the audience, I saw understanding and compassion, pain and delight, and the eyes do not lie. I am sure that Europeans will talk about this performance with each other, and tell it to acquaintances, because that was our goal, to talk about Ukraine and to make our voices heard. I am proud to take part in this performance.

Marichka Shtyrbulova (ethnomusicological research, vocals)
It is crucial for us that the world remains loud, aware,
and not indifferent.
That this war did not become usual

  1. This performance was completely different from all the stage activities we did all our lives. Because a performance, a play, or a concert involves the creation of artistic reality by artists. But this is not exactly what “Lullaby for Mariupol” is about. The “reality” is true here; we are just trying to feel it and share it with the world.

Staying abroad was difficult for me. Even on a physical level: you cross the border, and it seems that you are no longer where you should be. I wanted to cancel everything, to return home, believing that just staying in Ukraine could be more useful. But, of course, one has to find the strength, faith, and motivation to do what one can.

The performance in Rotterdam was the most impressive in my experience. The whole performance ends with a lullaby that we sing and there is one chord, we just stop it for half a phrase. When we finished, for a very long time, like five or seven minutes, there was just silence in the hall. Loud, mindful silence. There was no applause; no one moved. It was very strong, but sad, difficult, and touching. This is the only possible reaction to this performance, I think.

  1. Illia and Roman called their composition “Mariupol” before the full-scale war started; it just felt that way. Of course, the new context and the mention of this city became a deep wound for us and before going abroad we decided to make a different format, and add a lullaby, singing. I have been researching folklore for a long time, so I opened my archives and we chose the most suitable options.

I can’t say that the music of the performance is very pleasant to listen to. This is not music that gives aesthetic pleasure. And at the same time, unlike such loud and chaotic sounds, a lullaby is heard. The fate of children in this war, in Mariupol in particular, is a separate wound. Now it unlocks new elements of awareness of what is happening and new shades of pain. We travel in this artistic real/unreal world like this; this is how we feel and believe in it.

These two performances were completely different. Not that the audience, but the general social context in Vienna and Rotterdam, was different. For me, this is a completely new experience of interaction with the artwork and the audience. It was very loud during the performance, there are different string instruments, which are hit with beaters at the same time, in different rhythms. At one moment, on the Vienna stage, I look into the audience and realize that most people are closing their ears. My first thought “oh, people are uncomfortable” changes into feelings of anger, ardour… I’m starting to get very angry that it’s not as loud as possible, it does not even the smallest part of what the sounds of war and Mariupol really are.

There were children in the theater. And I thought, “it’s too loud for them” again. But our war, Russia, the Russians, do not think of children. They do not think about how children, the elderly or the sick would feel. It’s loud and scary. Some people there got up and left the hall, there was such an opportunity. And it broke my heart. Because in Vienna, people can get up and go out, leave the hall, leave the unpleasant sounds, and change reality. And in war, in Mariupol, you can’t just close your ears or go elsewhere.

  1. Two weeks before the trip, I had a clear idea that I did not want to play and would never perform again in my life. When the full-scale war began, the feeling of peace and one’s own life changed dramatically. On the one hand, I have dedicated my whole life to this and have always believed in the power of artistic expression and its effectiveness. But the picture of the world has changed, there is a feeling of complete nonsense about what I do. When you experience real cruelty in life, you meet concentrated, total evil, it is not about any art. For the first time, I realized that even if an artistic expression involves dialogue, intelligent conversation or something like that, when you see such horrible violence, it’s not about any dialogue. You just want to stop it. You get the feeling that no art and performances matter, only weapons do. I want to take the gun and stop it. But dialogue with the whole world is important.

“Lullaby for Mariupol”’s function is not only about art. “Mariupol” is a cultural and diplomatic mission at least, and at most, it is proof that we exist. Our presence has great importance with any art product that is relevant to European newest processes. Of course, I’m talking about the original art – Lyatoshynsky, Silvestrov”, Roman Grygoriv summed it up.

Illia Razumeiko stated that “European society (as well as Ukrainian) is gradually getting tired of reading negative news about the war, so it’s returning to normal life. Our participation in art events in Europe against the background of this process is important because it reminds us of the Ukrainian tragedy that is growing now, and simply the fact that Ukraine exists as an independent country with its own history, culture and unique artistic face”.

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