Contemporary Ukrainian Music: an Informal Introduction 

I want to share some of my favorite pieces by Ukrainian composers.
Just as there is no logical order in today’s world, there is no alphabetical, chronological, philosophical, stylistic or any other order in this list, apart from the intention to provide the maximum possible contrast between the works.

Valentyn Silvestrov (b. 1937), String Quartet No. 1 (1974)

String Quartet no. 1 by the major Ukrainian avant-garde composer Valentyn Silvestrov could be termed neo-romantic, if not for its frequent atonal gestures. Long resounding echoes play important roles, as does the “juxtapositioning of old and new techniques in a self- conscious, bare yet fluid manner.” (More in Peter J. Schmelz, Sonic Overload: Alfred Schnittke, Valentin Silvestrov, and Polystylism in the Late USSR, 106-112.)

Victoria Polevá (b. 1962), Transforma (1993/2014)

The first version of the piece was composed in 1993, at the time of Poleva’s spiritual conversion and an important personal transformation. When it was finally performed, in 2014, the piece transformed into a drama-mystery. Although there was no intention to refer to any political issues, the composition somehow naturally fit in to the social circumstances. (It was performed shortly after the Revolution of Dignity.) The performance presents the creation of earth. Its main idea is hope, which, as Poleva notes, “is always present in the world and in absolutely all human actions.”

Zoltan Almashi (b. 1975), Mirasteilas for two violins and orchestra (2006)

Mirasteilas means “those who look at the stars” in Romansh (Swiss) language. Almashi created a compositional concept with three layers that continue throughout the entire piece. First, the pitch D slowly raises from the lowest register in the base to the highest register in the violins; this symbolizes the sky that changes from thick darkness to the shimmering light of day. The second layer, representing the stars, consists of chords in the orchestra with 12-tone harmonies that rotate in various ways. Finally, two solo violins with neo-romantic melodies represent a conversation under the stars.

Alla Zagaykevych (b. 1966), Friend Li Po.. (dedicated to Oleg Lysheha) for guzheng and electronics

The name of the piece refers to the title of the book Friend Li Po, Brother Tu Fu by poet and writer Oleh Lyshega, whose work is “informed by transcendentalism and Zen-like introspection, with meditations on the essence of the human experience and man’s place in nature.” The combination of folk instruments (in this case a Chinese plucked zither) or folk singing with electronics is a recurrent characteristic of Zagaykevych’s work.

Roman Grygoriv and Illia Razumeiko, IYOV, opera-requiem for prepared piano, cello, drums and voices (2015)

Opera-requiem “IYOV” is a synthesis of ancient Greek drama, baroque opera, oratorio, Requiem, and the techniques of postmodern theater. It is the mystery of the birth of a new sound inside the piano and the demonstration of endless possibilities of the human voice. Job (Iyov in Hebrew) is the central character of the Book of Job in the Bible. This is a story of his life, pride and disbelief, the search for life’s meaning and death, hope and regret.

Anna Korsun (1986), Wehmut (2011)

Wehmut was written for a project dedicated to Robert Schuman. The piece is a surrealistic world of co-existing parallel lives, where noise part is at the forefront, seeming more realistic, while the melody is coming from a distant illusive world.

Svyatoslav Lunyov (b.1964), TUTTI for symphony orchestra (2005)

Mariana Sadovska (b. 1972), Chernobyl. The Harvest (2013)

Chernobyl. The Harvest was commissioned by Kronos Quartet and is based on ancient ritual music from Northern Ukraine. In this “pagan requiem” Sadovska refers to the nuclear catastrophe of Chernobyl explosion as a starting point for experimenting with the ideas of destruction and creation.

Alexey Shmurak (1986), I Have Lost My Eurydice (2014)

The work has the subtitle “four lost dances.” These dances are gradually disappearing as the piece develops. The disconnected contrasting sections in the piece are intended to create a feeling similar to watching a surrealist film.

Olesya Zdorovetska, Seconds (2016)

A setting of Yuri Izdryk’s poem “Sekundy,” this piece is a part of Zdorovetska’s project “Telling Sounds” – a sonic journey across the landscape of contemporary Ukrainian poetry. “Telling Sounds” explores the relationship between music and language in the current literary renaissance, which was spurred by the Revolution of Dignity, in new settings for voice and citera.

Maxim Kolomiiets (1981), opera Night (2020)

The music of the opera, with its delicate sensitivity, strength and irony, is written in contemporary idiom and at the same time is grounded in Ukrainian collective musical memory. The main character in the opera is a song “What a moonlit night” (Nich taka misyachna), which has an almost 200-year history; its prototype appeared in 1831, in a series of short stories by Mykola Gogol Evenings on a Farm near Dykanka. As the Italian conductor Luigi Gaggero stated, “This opera reveals the fundamental meaning of memory: it allows us to see and understand our personal history and creates connections between people. A society that has lost its memory cannot see itself, is unable to understand the meaning of historical events, is unable to be united.”

Victoria Polevá, Simurgh-Quintet (2000)

Structurally free and sensual, this minimalist piece creates the effects of bells on the piano and ethereal skies on the strings, and climaxes to an almost apocalyptic bird call. While the influence of Poleva’s musical-spiritual teacher Arvo Pärt is audible, Simurgh-Quintet also reminds of scenes from Kyiv – baroque churches, crowds and clouds.

Valentyn Silvestrov, Seranade for string orchestra (1978)

According to composer Zoltan Almashi, Silvestrov’s Serenade is a quintessentially polystylistic piece because it embodies the freedom to “exit from the avant-garde”: the composer seems to be in a closed room, but then he opens the door – and here is a river, a forest, a boat is floating…

If you want to hear more works by some of these composers in New York, come to Ukrainian Contemporary Music Festival at Kaufman Music Center, March 18-20, 2022.

2 thoughts on “Contemporary Ukrainian Music: an Informal Introduction 

  1. Pingback: Contemporary Ukrainian Music: a Disorderly Introduction – Avant Music News

  2. Pingback: Kyiv’s New Music Scene Today: Composing and Listening in the Time of War – Musicology Now

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