After the start of the full-scale invasion of Russia into Ukraine, is it possible to talk about anything other than war? Yes, now we especially often talk about culture, freedom, and our own identity, but the prism through which every thought passes is magnified by one thing — war. The conversation with the Latvian composer Peteris Vasks, detailed below, took place in mid-May 2022. From the very beginning of the war in 2014, Peteris Vasks sympathized with the Ukrainian people. His support and solidarity with Ukrainians could be felt by everyone who had the chance to meet the composer. This conversation is no exception. However, as it’s impossible to talk about anything other than the war, Ukrainian music became an important reference point for the conversation — its presence and visibility in the European, and in particular Latvian, cultural space.
February 24 became a terrible date for all Ukrainians. The war that has been going on in our country since 2014 has moved from a local phase to a full-scale offensive. At the same time, Ukraine received and continues to receive strong support from many countries in Europe and the world, not only because of the sanctions imposed on russia, but also in other areas, including culture.
What do you as an artist feel about the fact that a large-scale war has been unleashed in the center of Europe?
Peteris Vasks: Of course, at first, no one believed that this could happen. Our and your neighbor is the Russian Empire… We never expect anything good from it. We, the people of Latvia, have also experienced a lot because of our neighbor, and now Ukraine is experiencing it… But no one could believe that such a terrible thing, a full-scale war, could begin. It was really an absolute shock. And, of course, in this situation, everyone has to take their position. The vast majority of people all over the world are standing with Ukraine, with this beautiful country, which I also had the chance to visit several times.
I loved Ukraine so much: I told everyone how beautiful it is and how it is developing, what free people are there. The last time I visited Ukraine was in 2019, I was able to visit twice a year. I was just fascinated by the country. That year, the premiere of my viola concerto and a new ballet by Radu Poklitaru took place in Kyiv. We went there with friends and were delighted: we saw free people living and developing in their country.
The whole world is rooting for Ukraine. After the first shock, admiration arose: how strong Ukrainians are, how they love their country, how they resist this terrible military machine.
I think a lot about those people who had such a tragic and complicated history. The Baltic states, three small countries between the Baltic Sea and the Russian Empire, also have a history of struggling with invaders from different sides… Ukraine is currently going through this difficult stage of struggle. A deep bow to the great people and the army, to all the people who are courageously resisting.
“Ukrainians are now fighting not only for their freedom but also for the whole of Europe.”
But I also often think that we can’t allow the world to get used to the horrors of war. We got used to watching TV in the evenings: “Well, are they still there?” — and to continue living peacefully. You can’t let go of the urgency of the situation so easily, you can’t get used to it and you can’t come to terms with it. In the world, unfortunately, it always happens, let’s say, primitively: there are values on the one side, and money on the other. This war is not the first crime of this regime, it started in 2014, even earlier in Georgia. There were a lot of terrible things, but right now this regime has crossed all the red lines and there can be no turning back. So — Glory to Ukraine! Glory to Ukraine.
Tell me, please, did this war affect the cultural life of Latvia?
Peteris Vasks: Yes, of course. Currently, the most popular piece in our country is the Ukrainian National Anthem. Every evening, any concert at the Latvian National Opera and Ballet Theater begins with the National Anthem of Ukraine, the National Orchestra also starts its programs with the National Anthem. And it is truly wonderful music, so lofty and patriotic.
Now Ukrainian composers have also become more visible, they are played much more. Many collectives are looking for music by Ukrainian authors in their repertoire. Previously, general knowledge about Ukrainian music was quite superficial, many Ukrainian composers were generally perceived as Russian, for example, Dmytro Bortnianskyi.
Recently, the Kyiv Chamber Orchestra [Kyiv Soloists Ensemble — M.T.] came to Cesis for the Pētera Vaska music aprīlis festival [an annual festival taking place in April in the city of Cesis — M.T.]. At this festival, thank God, they don’t play my music exclusively, there are usually several concerts, as well as ballet productions with my music, a symphonic or chamber concert, choral concert, etc. Kyiv Soloists played at one of the concerts and everyone in the audience was delighted. They played the music of Myroslav Skoryk, Valentyn Sylvestrov, Oleksandr Shymko, and Maksym Berezovskyi. It was a wonderful program.
Turns out, because of this war, everyone started paying attention to Ukrainian music and Ukrainian culture, got to know great Ukrainian composers and performers.
And what was the situation with Ukrainian music in Latvia before the war? Did they play it here?
Peteris Vasks: Unfortunately, not enough. But now it has increased significantly. I remember when we were together in the Soviet empire, which I called the world’s largest prison, we were not allowed to go anywhere, so we went to visit each other at the so-called congresses of composers. Even from that time, I remember how I first heard the music of Yevhen Stankovych; I really liked it — it was so emotional, so passionate. I recently heard his Second Violin Concerto performed by Dmytro Tkachenko — what a wonderful music. But yes, in general, there is not much Ukrainian music in the repertoire of Latvian musicians. After 2014, there was a wave of interest in Ukrainian culture, and now I am sure that there will be more and more Ukrainian music and Ukrainian culture in our country. I am quite sure.
The musicological community of Ukraine drafted an open letter to musicians, musicologists, cultural figures and cultural institutions, public organizations around the world with two fundamentally important positions: to put on hold any contacts with russian culture until the end of the war unleashed by russia against Ukraine and its civilians. And also, to pause interaction with russian composers, performers, scholars who presented and continue to represent Russia in the international community.
What are your thoughts on such a pause? What positive results can it have not only for Ukraine but also for the world?
Peteris Vasks: I fully understand that Ukraine needs to say ‘stop’ to Russian culture, at least during the war. It is like this all over the world: those who defamed themselves and sold themselves to Putin’s regime, you definitely cannot cooperate with them. The most prominent representatives are, of course, Gergiev and Netrebko. They knew what they were doing, that’s why they’re toxic and no one wants to work with them. Putin has done everything to destroy any possible ties with the neighboring state, and cultural ties are no exception.
I know that Russian music is not played in Poland now, it is difficult for me to be so radical. It is difficult for us to understand how deeply it affects you, and therefore we cannot tell what is the right thing to do. You need to understand and decide this yourself. Although I felt that Ukraine has a very strong national pride in its culture, its language, you did not become the ‘younger brother’ that russia has tried to make of you.
“But how to proceed is up to you, and I know you will manage. It is a difficult path, but it is clear that Russian culture is now toxic for Ukraine. I don’t know how such issues were resolved in other wars, in the Second World War for instance. I know that in Israel Wagner’s music is still banned and not performed, although Wagner himself passed away before those terrible events. But, of course, I don’t really understand how there can be a Tchaikovsky Conservatory in Kyiv, in Ukraine. It’s weird.”
What is the position of Russian art in Latvian cultural space? Has the attitude towards it changed since the beginning of the war?
Peteris Vasks: I do not think that Russian art occupies a special position in the cultural space of Latvia. There are pieces of high level, and we play it. I often wonder why Sibelius is played so little… German, Austrian music is played, but why so little Elgar, for example?
I can’t say that there is too much Russian music here. No, you can’t say that. Russian music has its place here, it is played, but not as much as during the Soviet empire. Shostakovich, Prokofiev are played… Perhaps they could play Stravinsky more. But you cannot say there is a lot.
Some people say that “art is beyond politics.” How much can you as an artist agree or disagree with that?
Peteris Vasks: Here I can only rely on my own experience: for me, art cannot be beyond politics, no. Especially at this time. There are only two positions here: either you are one hundred percent for your country, or you are against it. It is a matter of principle, I cannot do otherwise, I am always a maximalist. Although now my music is becoming quieter and more harmonious, this is also my maximalism.
About your music getting quieter… I know it wasn’t always like that. You have works that in some way touched on important events in the history of Latvia. Can you comment?
Peteris Vasks: Yes, yes, there were and are. But I think so: I don’t have much time left to use music to tell about all the terrible things that are happening in the world. Now I have to use music to tell about love, about eternity, about the fact that love is stronger than death. There is a lot of tragedy, there is a lot of unhappiness in the world for people… Therefore, I think that in my music I should be like this… [taps my shoulder in a comforting gesture — M. T.] this is the feeling I want to create.
Can you give examples of Latvian music or your own work responding to a certain historical process?
Peteris Vasks: I’m probably not the kind of composer who reacts immediately. If I were a Ukrainian composer, I could not immediately compose a symphony while Ukrainians are fighting for their freedom. Music should generalize on another level. The sound itself is abstract, but how can such realities be depicted through it? This is not my way.
Lately, I’m looking for something harmonious, enlightened in my music, I don’t have time for anything else anymore. Of course, great works need contrasts, and maybe vice versa — endless meditation… It’s hard to tell.
For sure, in my works, I touched on the events that happened to my people. What we experienced cannot be avoided if you, as an artist, live in unity with your people. And on the other hand, all these moments, which are important for me and the listeners here, are perceived completely differently by people, for example, in Australia, where my music is played. People just listen to music there.
What other steps do you think are important and possible in the field of culture (music, in particular) on the way to victory?
Peteris Vasks: It seems to me that after great tragedies and great suffering people realize that a world where the materialistic side has too much of a role is wrong. I think a reassessment should take place: after the war, people will physically restore and rebuild their country, their Motherland, but at the same time it is important to understand that there are values more significant than the cult of materialism, in which, one might say, we are all drowning. Culture is one of these values.
The final words of Peteris Vasks in this conversation seem to be symbolic. Undoubtedly, Ukraine is currently experiencing the most difficult challenge in its recent history when it is necessary to accumulate all forces for the struggle and our victory. However, in this struggle it is crucial not to forget about one’s own culture. On the contrary, its priority should be emphasized — because if our culture is not relevant, then what are we fighting for? The cancelling of russian culture in the Ukrainian and world arena is an important and fundamental part of our struggle. Otherwise, the famous “great russian culture” with its unchanging emblems will continue serving as the prominent and most convincing “advocate” of russia, justifying its terrorism and genocide against the people of Ukraine. It is time for Ukrainians to “sign a ‘Lend-Lease’ to ourselves” for our own culture, to stop looking around and in general to stop looking towards Russia, to get rid of the inferiority complex and finally to abandon harmful and humiliating imperial narratives.