Ukrainian New Music Scene

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Ensemble Nostri Temporis photo big

Open Potential. A Map of New Ukrainian Music 

Here, in this land, I see some signs of what I consider to be „post-modernism,” which primarily means „after-modernism,” or something that came after modernism with its desire for modernity and novelty as a time equivalent. This desire was brutally and externally interrupted by blood, ash, and world wars, as well as by dictatorships, concentration camps, and ethnic cleansing on a massive scale. In this part of the world every variety of modernism – whether it hailed from Vienna, Prague, Cracow, Lviv, Drohobych – has been repressed and wiped out. After-modernist emptiness followed, a great exhaustion with infinitely open potential, a huge and very promising emptiness.

Yurii Andrukhovych[1]

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The history of avant-garde music in Eastern Europe is unusually complicated, full of breaks and discontinuities. In the 20th century the desire to be a „progressive”, or just non-establishment composer often ended tragically. As evidenced by biographies of 20th century artists, not only were they removed from universities and musical life and forced to self-criticism, but also murdered for their politically incorrect avant-garde experiments. Usually their performances were denied, their characters broken, and their scores destroyed. Nevertheless, the desire to experiment was constantly revived in future generations.

Ukrainian avant-garde music begins with the dodecaphonic compositions of Nikolai Roslavets (1881-1944) and the futuristic works of Alexander Mosolov (1900-1973). They were of Ukrainian origin, both of them contributed to the cosmopolitan Soviet Avant-garde and both of them were politically persecuted for their musical experiments in the 20th century. Roslavets died of a heart attack at the end of the war. Mosolov lived to 73, yet after the war he abandoned his youthful experiments and wrote socialist realistic works with folkloristic elements.

A spirit of Modernism came back in the ‘60s – a decade after Stalin’s death. Young composers from different republics of the Soviet Union, including Edison Denisov, Sofia Gubaidulina, Alfred Schnittke, and Arvo Pärt, employed modern means and compositional techniques, which have been developed by Western artists since the end of the war. However, in the East they were regarded as a perversion and ruthlessly eradicated. In Ukraine Valentin Silvestrov, Leonid Hrabovsky, and several other students of Boris Lyatoshinsky created a group known today as the Kiev Avant-garde, which referred to serialism. Despite the Thaw, the Soviet authorities still stigmatized manifestations of Western modernity. This permanently influenced the composers’ consciousness. Silvestrov’s biography might be a model for whole Eastern European music. In his youth he succeeded in the West (where he supposedly sent scores by post on spec), but could never celebrate this success, because the Soviet authorities did not let him leave the country. When the Soviet Union started falling, Silvestrov received a passport in 1989 and travelled to the United States. However by then he was another man – withdrawn, closed to the outside world, and resigned. He returned to Kiev, where he composed music as if the 20th century had never existed.

The disintegration of the USSR and Ukraine’s subsequent independence resulted in new conditions for the arts’ development. The spirit of the Avant-garde was reborn once again, yet it was necessary to start from scratch. In 1995, the Association New Music was founded in Odessa. The Association brought into being a festival Two Days and Two Nights of New Music (2D2N), run courses for composers, organized conferences devoted to modern compositions, published sound scores, released books and CDs. In the first years of the new century, a young generation of composers formed a new music scene in Kiev and Lviv. They created their own new music group with the meaningful name Nostri Temporis and took responsibility for the failing Ukrainian Biennale for New Music, within which workshops and seminars were also organized. Apart from classical composers of contemporary music, an experimental electronic scene has been developing dynamically since the 1990s. It is centered around the record labels Kvitnu and Nexsound. A founder of one of them, a pioneer and a leading figure of the scene, Dmytro Fedorenko, organized several major festivals, established contacts abroad, and promoted a group of experimental Ukrainian musicians.

Odessa, Kiev, Lviv, Donetsk, Kharkiv…

“A line-up of the contemporary music festival in Odessa appeared interesting to me. First of all, taking into consideration information posted on the Internet (www.anm.odessa.ua), the festival presents itself as truly international, not provincial. In order not to be provincial is not enough to promote abroad – you need to be interested in what is happening in the world. An organizer that is the Association New Music (Ukrainian section of the International Society for Contemporary Music based in Odessa) is aware of it.”[2] This excerpt describes the Odessa festival 2D2N. The review was written by Krzysztof Kwiatkowski and was published in Polish biweekly „Ruch Muzyczny” in 2006. The then editor of a contemporary music magazine praised the line-up, ambiance, organization, and the original formula of the event, which has lasted over two days from four in the afternoon until four in the morning. This music marathon consists of a series of consecutive performances, separated by short breaks in order to rearrange the stage. It culminates in a dance after party at about five in the morning.

The festival is just a small part of a cultural activity of the Association New Music, which contributes to the development of new music in Ukraine by supporting composers, musicians, and musicologists interested in the modern art of music. Since the 90s it has published numerous books and records, run courses for composers, organized academic conferences devoted to the issues of modern compositions, as well as a series of concerts, individual musical and audiovisual events. The president of the Association is composer Karmella Tsepkolenko, who is a graduate and a lecturer at the Nezhdanova National Music Academy in Odessa. She attended Darmstadt courses and is still active on the international scene of contemporary music. Her works have been performed many times abroad. Together with his son Alexander Perepelitsa – pianist, manager, and director of the Association – Tsepkolenko came up with the concept and organized the international festival 2D2N. Since the beginning of the festival Bernhard Wulff has been the chairman of an organizing committee. He is a German percussionist, conductor, and a professor at the Academy of Music in Freiburg.

The group of Ukrainian composers whose music was played as part of the 2D2N is extremely large and it is difficult to mention all by name. Among them are many women such as Julia Gomelskaya, Kira Maidenberg, Ludmila Samodaeva, Aliona Tomlionova. Ukrainian performers, including Ensemble Senza Sforzando and Duo Violoncelissimo also regularly perform in Odessa. Foreign bands, such as the Percussion Ensemble from Freiburg and the Ensemble für Neue Musik from Zurich, regularly visit the Black Sea city. In 2006 the 2D2N featured popular today and then completely unknown Norwegian asamisimasa ensemble. It performed not only Ukrainian compositions, but also music by Murail, Furrer, and Lachenmann.

In 2000, on the Association’s initiative, the first electronic database of Music Information Centre emerged in Ukraine. It was devoted to composers and performers of contemporary music. Unfortunately, the database is probably not updated, because it lacks information about presented at 2D2N the Ensemble Nostri Temporis and young composers from Kiev and Lviv. Nowadays, it is presumably the most interesting community of composers and performers of contemporary classical music in Ukraine.

Ensemble Nostri Temporis was founded in 2007 by Maxim Kolomiets and Alexey Shmurak, who are both composers and performers (Kolomiets plays the oboe and Shmurak plays the piano). It is a kind of composers’ group, in which everyone has different responsibilities and roles. In 2009, Lviv composer Bohdan Sehin joined ENT. Today he is the group’s manager and the artistic director of the Ukrainian Biennale for New Music, organized by the group in Kiev and Lviv.

Ensemble Nostri Temporis thus combines the artistic communities of Kyiv and Lviv by integrating composers, performers, musicologists, and critics, who share a common aesthetic of widely understood modernism. Not only Kolomiets, Sehin and Shmurak, but also composers Anna Arkushyna and Olena Serova as well as musicologist and critic Lyubov Morozova are also associated with the band. It’s the „core” of Nostri Temporis. The group also works with Ukrainian, Polish, and Russian composers as well as with Anna Korsun (Ukraine), Irina Blochina (Ukraine), Zoltan Almashi (Ukraine), Ostap Manulyak (Ukraine), Karol Nepalski (Poland), Dariusz Przybylski (Poland), Sergei Nevsky (Russia), Dmitri Kourliandski (Russia), Gregor Mayrhofer (Germany), Helmut Zapf (Germany), Matthias Kranebitter (Austria), and others. Although Nostri Temporis has no permanent conductor, it performs regularly with Cracow based Grzegorz Wierus. In addition, ENT was conducted by Roman Kofman, Petro Towstucha, François Deppe (the Ictus Ensemble‘s member), Stanisław Welanyk (the conductor of the Cracow Percussion Group), Pablo Rus Broseta, and Vladimir Gorlinsky (the conductor of Studio for New Music Ensemble).

As Sehin explained in an interview with Maciej Jabłoński[3], Ensemble Nostri Temporis was created in prosaic circumstances. During preparations for the festival of the Ukrainian Composers’ Union, it turned out that Ukraine lacks a music group capable of performing a few works. It coincided with Maxim Kolomiets’ desire to create a music group and an initiative of the Union came upon a breeding ground. Initially, ENT performed all the works proposed by the Union. However, a participation in Summer Courses in Darmstadt in 2010 helped them to clarify artistic goals.

The group came to a conclusion that what they need is a selection of repertoire. Today, it precisely selects and effectively promotes abroad the works of young and ambitious Ukrainian artists. ENT has not only performed in Ukraine but also in Poland, Germany, Russia, and Belarus. It has played more than 400 works by composers from these countries as well as from Azerbaijan and Armenia. The group also maintains contact with such artists as Georges Aperghis, Gerhard Stäbler, Tadeusz Wielecki, Jerzy Kornowicz, Carola Bauckholt, and Johannes Schöllhorn, whose compositions are in the repertoire. Apart from performing new music, ENT engages in multimedia arts. As an example we can mention ZvukoIzolyatsia (Sound isolation) – a project run in 2011 in industrial areas in Donetsk[4].

In view of the modest or absent support from the Ukrainian authorities, the ENT can perform thanks to cooperation with foreign cultural institutes (Polish, German, French, and Austrian). Together with the Goethe Institute in Kiev, International Master-Classes for New Music COURSE and an international project Transit are organized. Concerts are held in the hall of the Goethe Institute, which even bought a piano especially for ENT. Poland is also an important partner for Ukrainians. In 2011, on the initiative of the Polish Institute in Kiev audiobook Taras Prokhasko and Serhiy Zhadan read Czesław Miłosz was created. The music by Shmurak, Sehin and Kolomiets was performed by ENT.

Since 2011 the Ensemble Nostri Temporis has performed regularly at aXes Festival in Cracow. Moreover, it played a concert in Warsaw in the Days of Ukrainian Music in 2012. Currently ENT is preparing a series of musical events with the Polish NeoQuartet in Warsaw, Gdańsk and Lviv (October 2014). Cooperation is facilitated by the fact that many Ukrainian composers studied or are studying in Poland under the grant program “Gaude Polonia” and many of them also speak Polish (especially in Lviv).

However, the group also raises funds from Ukrainian oligarchs, including Rinat Akhmatov. In Sehin’s words, „in Donetsk, a two million working-class city sprawling around the huge complex of mines and factories, the audience of avant-garde music concerts might consist of a few people. I was surprised when I realized that here there is not only a generous patron, but also viewers and listeners interested in contemporary art”. In this way the project ZvukoIzolyatsia was created.

The Ukrainian musical community is not only actively interested in new European music, but it is also feisty and highly motivated to influence the international music scene. Above all, it aims to strengthen the position of new music in Ukraine. In 2013, thanks to the cooperation and the financial support of cultural institutions of Poland, Germany, Austria, and France, Carola Bauckholt (Germany), Martin Smolka (Czech Republic), and Dmitri Kourliandski (Russia) came to Kiev and Lviv and conducted classes with young composers. Ensembles like Platypus (Austria), NeoQuartet (Poland), Le Balcon (France), and musikFabrik (Germany) played. In addition to the Ensemble Nostri Temporis, an accordionist Roman Yusipey, saxophonist Yuri Yaremchuk, the Kyivska Kamerata and the Lviv group ConstantY performed. Within three weeks several concerts were held and dozens of composers had world premieres and the first performances of their works in Ukraine. Concerts were accompanied by lectures, presentations, and meetings with artists as well as workshops in music criticism.

Sehin: „It is important to support young artists, students, who thanks to such courses can develop more rapidly than we in our student days… I did not have such an opportunity and it was not possible to go to the West to draw inspiration from new European music. Therefore, I am committed to promote the ideals of contemporary music among the young generation of Ukrainian composers.”

In 2012, the Ensemble Nostri Temporis’ monographic album was published in few copies. Compositions by Bohdan Sehin, Anna Arkushyna, Olena Serova, Maxim Kolomiets, and Alexey Shmurak were performed under the baton of Grzegorz Wierus. The choice of compositions is well thought-out and the record itself allows to form an opinion on the group and its preferred aesthetics. Young artists from Ukraine impress with excellent compositional skills and sound imagination, their music present interesting formal and sonic devices. Another element, which also deserves recognition is their dynamic, precise, and sensitive to every detail performance.

Thanks to such groups as ENT and composers contributing to the group, you would think that the continuity of Modernism in Ukraine was never interrupted. However, Ensemble Nostri Temporis is in opposition to the mainstream conservative current often associated with what is specifically Eastern, with a spirituality, which Western artists supposedly lack. Bohdan Sehin disagrees with this stereotype, claiming that „some kind of „opposition” results from the „official” views of the Union of Composers [Ukrainian] supporting traditional, conservative music, which is much closer to Pärt or Kancheli than e.g. Boulez. Even media events, pompously called avant-garde, depend on pleasurable visualizations accompanied by the works of Kancheli or Silvestrov.

However, giving this trend „national” meaning is the distortion of reality. It is forgotten that avant-garde artists par excellence, such as Nikolai Roslavets and Alexander Mosolov came from Ukraine. A „wave” of modernism spread in the 60s as evidenced by the works of young Silvestrov and Hrabovsky. We know what kind of music Silvestrov writes today; Hrabovsky settled in New York and composes occasionally. In this way “a hole” has emerged and there is a disconnect between tradition and the Avant-garde. Both trends are in the opposition, yet one of them (the conservative) is preferred over another. It is important to refer to a modernist tradition in order to hold a community’s interest in avant-garde music. After the heyday of Avant-garde in the 90s’, the regression came. The audience simply forgot about modernist music. Therefore, our work has met with various reactions such as distrust, dislike, but also curiosity („well, finally something changes”). These are serious tasks and I have no doubt that a great deal of effort is necessary to fulfill them.”

The artists also contribute to an experimental electronic music scene, which came to life in the 1990s. The scene started out in the previous decade as the Kharkov movement called the Novaya Scene. It drew inspirations from punk, yet it also referred to the Avant-garde, Dadaism, and various experiments. Many contemporary musicians experimenting with electronics, such as Andrey Kirichenko, were in touch with the Novaya Scene. In 2000 he founded the label Nexsound, which was addressed to musical innovators. Soon Kirichenko was joined by Kiev native Dmytro Fedorenko, who in 2006 founded a second major label called Kvitnu. This time we have the musical collaboration between Kharkiv and Kiev.

Currently, both labels are led by Fedorenko, who is a musician, curator, producer, and the inspirer of the most important events of its kind in Ukraine. He organized the Detali Zvuku, Kvitnu Fest and Kvitnu_Live – international festivals of experimental music and multimedia art. He invited Dawid Szczęsny (Poland), Pan Sonic (Finland), Zenial (Poland), Ignaz Schick (Germany), Scanner (United Kingdom), Marek Chołoniewski (Poland), and many others. Above all, it promotes experimental Ukrainian musicians.

Apart from Fedorenko (aka Kotra) and Kiriczenko, the most interesting artists today are Oleksandr Gladun (aka Dunaevsky69), Nikolaienko, Kateryna Zavoloka, Evgenyi Vaschenko (aka V4W.enko), Georgiy Potopalsky (aka Ujif Notfound) and Alla Zagaykevych. Each of them has a different background and different musical interests. Kotra started his music adventure from psychedelic rock and industrial. Zavoloka is a graphic designer of many album covers. She was inspired by The Cure, Squarepusher, and the old jazz. Alla Zagaykevych has more academic roots and graduated from the Tchaikovsky National Conservatory in Kiev, where in 1998 she set up the Electronic Studio and led many projects oriented towards electroacoustic music. In advance, she completed an internship at the Paris IRCAM, which influenced her aesthetics. Ostap Manulyak is a composer of electronic music and an educator, who works at the Academy of Music in Lviv.

These artists were rewarded at international competitions (e.g. in 2005 Zavoloka received the Prix Ars Electronica in Linz, and in 2011 Kotra received Qwartz Electronic Music Awards7 in Paris). Their music can be heard at such festivals as Unsound in Krakow and New York, Audio Art in Krakow, Transmediale in Berlin, Sonic Circuits in Washington, Présences électronique in Paris, and many others. It is worth searching for.

translated by Agata Klichowska

Source: „Glissando” 23/2014

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[1] Yurii Andrukhovych, Ostatnie terytorium, (Volovets: Wydawnictwo Czarne, 2002), 137–138.

[2] Krzysztof Kwiatkowski, “Nowe brzmienia znad Morza Czarnego,” Ruch Muzyczny no. 11 (2006), 20.

[3] “Formacja kompozytorska. Rozmowa Macieja Jabłońskiego z Bohdanem Sesinem”, interview by Maciej Jabłoński in Ruch Muzyczny no. 25 (2012), 20.

[4] This article was written before separatists supported by Russia have seized Donetsk and there recognized cultural centre Izolyatsia.

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