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.

18 Most Memorable Music Events in New York in 2018


1. The Head & the Load by William Kentridge and Philip Miller
(Park Avenue Armory, December 4–15)
2. Anthracite Fields by Julia Wolfe (December 1, Carnegie Hall)
3. IPSA DIXIT by Kate Soper
(October 27, Miller Theatre at Columbia University)
 A powerful exploration of the meaning of language and art, incredible voice and  original sounds.
4. The Mile-Long Opera: a biography of 7 o’clock by David Lang
(October 3-8, High Line)
5. Only the Sound Remains by Kaaia Saariaho (Lincoln Center, September 28)
6. Daniel Kahn’s “Yiddish Shabes” (Yiddishland, August 17)
7. The Force of Things: Opera for Objects by Ashley Fure
(Gelsey Kirkland Arts Center, August 6-8).
     Audible and beyond audible, “the mounting hum of ecological anxiety around us,” exceptionally imaginative music and architecture of the frightening future.
8. Leonard Bernstein’s MASS (July 17-18, Lincoln Center)
9. Toy Piano Plus, Margaret Leng Tan (Spectrum, June 2)
10. Terry Riley’s Autodreamographical Tales & Science Fiction, performed by Bang on a Can All-Stars & Terry Riley, voice (NYU Skirball Center, May 13)
    A masterful sonification of dreams and mystery.
11. Music of Max Johnson w/ Mivos Quartet, Beck, Thomson & Gornstein (Spectrum, March 30)
12. Cellular Songs by Meredith Monk (BAM, March 14-18)
      Enchanting way of being present in the nature and voice.
13. Audrey Chen with Talibam! (Wonders of Nature, March 8)
14. The Stone Benefit with Laurie Anderson et al (The Stone at Ave C, February 22)
15. An Evening with Vincent Moon and Priscilla Telmon (MoMA, February 19)
16. LES Elegy 3: Oriental Shtetl — Shekhina Big Band with Frank London, Steve Dalachinsky et al (The Stone at Ave C, February 15)
      Beat Poetics and Sun Ra Ecstatics – liberating music entering Jewish chakras to tell us we are going to live soon.
17. Matthew Shipp and Roscoe Mitchell (Carnegie Hall, January 27)
18. Quintavant in New York (Spectrum, January 11)

Disclaimer: This is a list of the most memorable music events in New York that we have attended in 2018. After several unsuccessful attempts to arrange them in the order of significance/beauty/power/originality/meaningfulness/etc, and still being sure only about the top 3 (numbers 4, 7, and 12), we’ve decided to put them in the reverse chronological order. Also, two events listed here did not appear on ET NYC calendar, and are “technically” not so much “extended”, but were so memorable that we simply couldn’t omit them.

Medea: Exploring the Total Field of Senses

“If John Cage was alive and heard this, he would go nuts,” – said an audience member of Medea, a Pasolini-inspired butoh-opera, staged near Olimpiysky sports complex in Kyiv on June 12, starring butoh dancers Valentin Tszin and Flavia Ghisalberti with music by Audrey Chen (vocals), Phil Minton (vocals), Henrik Munkeby Norstebo (trombone), Thomas Rohrer (rabeca), and Michael Vorfeld (percussion). Of course, such reaction could address a myriad of outdoor performances, and, coming from a pianist who had performed Cage a number of times, was just too obvious. That night, however, another idea of Cage could take on a new meaning, if we replace “sound” with “sense,” which isn’t too much of a stretch, given 21st century urge to multisensory experiences. It seems that this is exactly what the show’s organizer, a highly imaginative music agency Ukho, does best: making Kyiv’s audiences of all ages believe that music is not just sound.


photo by Lili Viter

It is the time of the day when the sun breaks up into pieces and scatters over the sky like – cherry blossom? pieces of flesh and blood? I walk past Olimpiysky stadium up the hill, until the voices of football fans recede into silence and the stadium’s UFO-looking roof emerges in front of my eyes – the place’s mysterious view indeed reminds of Pasolini’s desert landscapes. Few hundreds of unordered chairs await the audience; Medea is about to start.

Supposedly without a plot, this genre-bending opera has no melodic lines, let alone arias, but can be perceived as a counterpoint of sensorial threads, on the verge between stasis and narrative. Barefoot dancers, barely dressed in skin-colored clothes, emerge from the audience, writhing with pain. Their suffering becomes our suffering – we could almost touch them and do feel the cold of their freezing feet hitting the asphalt. Humming screams of Minton and Chen can hardly be perceived as sound, but rather as shades of silence that at once project agony and fill up the void. Complete silence would be just too intense – too intense to leave the audience one-on-one with the thriller thread of the performance, by Tszin and Ghisalberti. After several wild acts, such as Tszin getting up the metal construction, the couple meets in a static movement. Their Zen-like concentration and emotionally-charged slow motion vaguely reminds of New York’s Japanese dance couple Eiko and Koma. The subtle eroticism and the dancers’ cruelty to their own bodies, however, is definitely Pasolini’s: replace the mystery of this mixture of beauty and pain with his mysticism, and you arrive at realism – “only those who are mystical are realistic.” Once Jason tears off Medea’s “perfectly real” silicone skin, she scratches her real leg over the sharp edge of a wooden platform.


To add to the opera’s perfect combination of music and movement, yet another sensory line: some thirty butoh-village performers, steadily moving from backstage through the audience, their gaze steadily fixed on the horror which only their eyes can see. Barefoot, with cobblestones on their heads, they slowly walk over freezing ground, and the audience, again, can empathize with no effort. Yet another thread is our freedom to move across the space, choosing a different perspective each time, yet another – the sun going down slowly, in its own pace.


photo by Volodymyr Osypenko

Once the listener immerses into visual agony and is completely captivated by the couple, something remarkable happens. The sun goes down, the music switches from lightly-colored silence to scream, the thirty dancers “suddenly” emerge behind our backs, and, having passed the audience, they acquire voice. Once everything reverses, the suffering experienced by Medea and Jason is no longer there – it reverses into silence and stillness of our tortured hearts, from realism to mystery.

Erlena Dlu

©2016 by Extended Techniques. All Rights Reserved.

Medea is a part of Architecture of Voice project, vol. 2: around stadia, curated by Sasha Andrusyk of Ukho Music Agency (Kyiv). Previous shows included: “Blumenstudien” by Lucia Ronchetti in sub tropic orangery of botanic garden, Phil Minton and Audry Chen in paleontological museum, David Lang’s The Little Match Girl Passion in a church, Victoria Polyova’s Ave Maria Stella in a swimming pool, among many others.

Mary Kouyoumdjian’s Silent Cranes: Remembering the Armenian Genocide in Music

Memory is that which, in the end, never betrays.
Serhiy Zhadan

One of many questions triggered by Silent Cranes: The Music of Mary Kouyoumdjian, Performed by Kronos Quartet and Hotel Elefant presented on May 12 in Roulette, is the fragility of the boundary between political art and overt political statement. A descendant of a family that suffered from the Armenian Genocide, Kouyoumdjian shares Sartre’s belief in committed art, and, as Sartre suggests, in her works she recovers this world “by giving it to be seen as it is.”

Striving to approach controversial issues through the arts is apt in the case of the challenging topic addressed by Kouyoumdjian. Indeed, it is more common to learn about a century-old tragedy of the Armenian Genocide by experiencing artworks created by the exiled descendants of Armenians, rather than by means of a history lesson. I came to know about it from Ararat (2002), a film directed by an Armenian-Canadian Atom Egoyan, that shares many images and themes with Kouyoumdjian’s work: pomegranates, Arshile Gorky, Turkish soldier cutting the stomach of a pregnant woman, Hitler’s infamous inquiry, 1.5 million killed.

Kouyoumdjian’s music is able to transmit state of madness, exemplified in two portraits of genocide survivors – composer Komitas who suffered post-traumatic disorder after his deportation to a prison camp, and painter Gorky, who lost his mother to starvation. Sea of Two Colors (2011) transports the listener to the realm of a restless soul of Komitas; flowing piano trills of the sea can also be heard as dark sinister clouds that cover once clear mind of a legendary composer and, with a brief moment of transfiguration, dissolve into eternity. Gorky’s voice in Everlastingness (2015) sounds completely detached from the accompaniment (reminding of Schumann’s songs), as the protagonist, consumed by his memories, lives in a fever dream beyond reality.

Photo by Dominica Eriksen

Gorky’s ruminations didn’t engulf me as strongly as the last piece performed by Hotel Elefant: This Should Feel Like Home (2013) indeed felt like contemporary Armenia the way I imagine it, with all the imprints of the past. Folk melodies, marching band, distant voices, Orthodox church singing returning time and again – these recorded sounds naturally blended with their own reflections on the piano, flutes, clarinets, and strings.

The title piece of the concert, a four-movement multimedia work performed and commissioned by Kronos Quartet, seemed somewhat less integrated. The first movement appropriately introduced some highlights of Armenian cultural heritage: projected images of beautiful rugs and ceramics, traditional costumes and architecture, an old recording of Komitas music and his portrait on the screen. In the following movements pomegranates decomposed into blood as my ears submerged into survivors’ testimonies, my heart pierced with every word. I felt that these words were too numerous and too literal, leaving the music no role other than an accompaniment to a documentary film. After so many atrocities copied from real life and pasted into the piece, some of the conclusions in the last movement seemed redundant. Shocked by the work’s content, I felt imprisoned by the abundance of words. One of my inner voices resisted the idea that the facts, the images, the narrative and the conclusions were all thrown into my face so literally, leaving no room for reflection.

Photo by Dominica Eriksen

I’ve always believed that art should favor the figurative over the discursive, especially in the music; but further reflections on Kouyoumjian’s Silent Cranes proved that its case might be different. The piece bears many similarities with Schoenberg’s A Survivor from Warsaw (1947), famously criticized by Adorno for its literal depiction of suffering. The subject in each piece is personal to both composers, both works are based on the reports of survivors (although Survivor has a fictional narrative and it is not clear whether any reports at all are quoted directly), and the text is clearly recited. Moreover, both works stress the role of memory, although, ironically, in Schoenberg’s, written right after the Holocaust, the narrator “cannot remember everything,” while Kouyoumjian digs a hundred years into the past to give voice to someone who “was young, but still remembers.” One more twist of irony: in 1915, The New York Times systematically reported on the mass murder of the Armenian people, while the atrocities of the Holocaust were not immediately disclosed. And what do we remember today? Perhaps the artists who address the events forced into oblivion by the political will, have a right to be fully committed (i.e. realistic) – this is the only way time can lose its battle to memory.

Erlena Dlu

©2015 by Extended Techniques. All Rights Reserved.

Just between you and me: Anthony Braxton’s Trillium J is the future classic

On April 19, having rushed to Roulette leaving behind the last minutes of an international Sound and Affect conference in order to experience Anthony Braxton’s Trillium J (The Non-Unconfessionables), at first I could not stop thinking: how does this performance affect me and why? And – “whose are these emotions?” – as Deniz Peters questioned earlier that day.

I fail to describe my feelings having never experienced anything like this before. Perhaps one could compare Trillium J to Richard Foreman’s plays in the way it captures the absurd, the unexpectedness and ambiguity of contemporary world. Weave these into the voices of 12 vocalists and the sounds of 12 instrumental soloists with full orchestra, excellent acting, pseudo-philosophical digressions, visual projections, young skipping-rope Jazzy Jumpers and two of New York’s best contemporary dance improvisers Rachel Bernsen and Melanie Maar, and you get the mix.

At any specific moment I could not  recognize what exactly (music, words, acting, etc.) made me smile in a very strange way – the smile that sometimes comes from experiencing the misfortunes of Daniil Harms’s characters. This is perhaps the genius of a gesamtkunstwerk artist (Braxton wrote both the music and the libretto) – to blend all the media so naturally that a spectator cannot recognize the source of their feelings.

How does the absurd feel?

As an interlude before the Second Scene of Act IV, Jazzy Jumpers entered with their skipping-ropes and the choir started improvising “random” sounds to their movements. I sensed tears in my eyes, obviously neither out of sadness or joy. What catalyzed the sublime was (perhaps?) the excitement that something so contemporary and so musically apt was composed –the genre of opera has a future; at least it definitely has a present.

But the climax was still to come. The interlude could either feel like just another meaningful nonsense – the ridiculousness that was so fittingly at the wrong place, – or depict a stratum of society to be juxtaposed with the final scene – the trial of Sally Wanton. Despite the obvious references to social injustices of American society, Ms Walton reminded me of Russian President Vladimir Putin in her ability to pour complete nonsense and reject obvious evidence of crime with complete confidence (as well as accept it and immediately render crucial statements trifle). This is where, perhaps, “the concept of affinity,” the opera’s major theme, lies. Everyone walked out with a radiant face – those who thought of multiple possibilities of political connotations, or those who just took “the poetic transiency” and “undefinition that seeks its own level” as a flow of beautiful nonsense.

George Crumb once said that he was “frightened of a possibility to write an opera, nothing comes close to Wozzeck.” Whether you agreed with that or not in the past, you would definitely have to consider replacing Wozzeck with The Non-Unconfessionables.  Should 21st century opera, and music for that matter, only be political? It is not always this or that, it is often the other.

Erlena Dlu

©2014 by Extended Techniques. All Rights Reserved.