»Ukraine has to fight for the right to its own culture«. The Kyiv Contemporary Music Days in Berlin

field notes #32

21 April, 2023 | Lisa Benjes

Kyiv Contemporary Music Days
©Kyiv Contemporary Music Days

The Kyiv Contemporary Music Days (KCMD) platform is an important hub of the contemporary music scene in Kyiv. Since the large-scale Russian attack on Ukraine, KCMD has focused its activities on two main areas: The preservation of the Ukrainian musical landscape and the dissemination of knowledge about Ukrainian culture abroad. Part of the team now works in exile. Composer and artistic director Albert Saprykin and media artist and creative producer Daria Vdovina have landed in Berlin, while project manager Les Vynogradov works in Chicago. Lisa Benjes spoke with them about their first impression of the Berlin scene, the self-assertion of Ukrainian culture and its international dissemination, as well as the special characteristics of Ukrainian music.

You've been here for half a year now. How are you feeling and what's your first impression of the contemporary music scene in Berlin? 

Daria Vidovina: It feels good in many ways. It's weird in a way to be away from home, but at the same time, Berlin is a very vibrant place. And in terms of music, it's really the place to be. The scene was very welcoming and we managed quite quickly to get to know a lot of organisations and festivals and institutions and particularly musicians. A nice starting point for it was the »Time to Listen« conference where we could start the conversation with many people. We also got invited to Impuls Festival where we had the opportunity to give a keynote speech and to bring one of the Ukrainian musicians for a performance. We are grateful to all the people who approached us and invited us to collaborate. And the collaborations with the ensembles KNM Berlin and ensemble mosaik where Albert and Misha are fellows [Weltoffenes Berlin] are very fruitful.

What would you say are the main differences and similarities between the scene Berlin and Kiev?

Albert Saprykin: The number of events with new music in Berlin is just overwhelming. The scene as it is today has been developing for 30 years and it feels like this is the result of intentional work on building a community. I would say that the scene in Kyiv is on the same path, but at an earlier stage. Due to the fact that there are not so many actors in the field of new music in Kyiv, we have the luxury of having a large and interested audience. A clear similarity is the huge variety of styles in terms of aesthetics and formats that you can find in both Berlin and Kyiv. 

Where there any challenges you met in Germany?

AS: I wouldn't call it challenge. It's rather the differences in how things are done and how long it can take to plan something. While coming to Berlin, we obviously came with years of experience of organising events. We quickly realised here that things need much more time here on the administrative and bureaucratic level.

Some of your colleagues from the festival are still working in Ukraine, others work from exile. How do you keep up your work as a team? 

DV: There are challenges, but there are also benefits. For instance, we can also almost claim that we work 24 hours a day now because of the time differences. But there was a point during heavy shelling in Kyiv that it became difficult to work, since our colleagues didn't have electricity, and sometimes, they didn’t even feel safe staying home to work. That was the time when the portfolio was mostly developed. But people in Kyiv are very strong and impressively organized. For them, in many ways, it's nice that there were projects coming from abroad. Apart from the financial support of the festival structure, the work distracts them from everyday problems, and they can actively participate in creating new projects that have a higher value for them.

AS: Those who stayed in Kyiv are there by choice. It is their decision and it's not due to a lack of alternative possibilities. Actually, the capacities of our organization have grown since the 24th of February, since some members of our team started dedicating more of their time to working for the cause of KCMD, either in terms of supporting musicians in Ukraine within our foundation project or within projects that promote Ukrainian culture abroad. And there are also people who joined us over the past year.

Culture was specifically targeted in this war. Russia's war of aggression and its outspoken ambition to eradicate Ukrainian culture has ironically led to its being more visible than ever before. Is that self-assertion of Ukrainian culture and its promotion internationally also a driving force in your work? 

Les Vynogradov: Previously, and as the full-scale invasion started, I was personally involved in cultural diplomacy projects. That was something I always thought was important because, unfortunately, Ukraine is not well-known internationally. First of all, it is not a particularly large country, and, historically speaking, it has been oppressed and colonized for a long time. This lack of presence is not an intellectual problem. The very practical consequence for Ukraine was that the world didn't really care when the war started in 2014. The European Union did not feel that Ukraine was part of the European space, or at least not enough to help and provide any significant support - neither militarily nor psychologically. The Ukrainian revolution, Euromaidan 2014, was all about Europe and Ukrainians feeling part of Europe. Then Russia attacked, and, for the first time, many people, myself included, felt that Europe didn't feel the same way about Ukraine as they had before. Showing that Ukraine belongs to Europe is an important part of our work. Of course, since the February invasion, I have felt a real urge to do more to show that Ukrainian culture is a European culture, and that it is being actively destroyed without many people in Europe even knowing about it. There are many things that our fellow European citizens do not know about Ukraine, but this awareness is something we believe could enrich everyone.

A new identity is currently being formed in Ukraine in order to distinguish itself more strongly from Russia. Does this return to and revival of Ukrainian traditions and artistic practices also have an impact on the music that is composed today?

LV: Indeed, the restoration, exploration and discovery of the roots of Ukrainian culture can be observed very often these days. It is a reaction to the time when Russia suppressed all traditional crafts and traditions in the regions, as well as artistic forms of self-expression. It's just that maybe it's more visible in different genres of music than others. In pop culture in particular, we now see musical instruments that are very specific to certain regions. Using electronics and various contemporary technologies, some artists give a new twist to what has been forgotten. In this way they try to combine contemporary approaches with a tradition that has been forgotten by the long period of suppression by the Soviet Union. This also happens in new music. But there it takes longer until it shows up in the composition, where the creation is a slow process.

AS: There are indeed some artists with folk music and traditions that have existed in Ukraine for seven, six, sometimes even eight or nine centuries. But the way composers implement this in their artistic practice is very different. For example, in my works I am very interested in multiphonics and the way they are used in Ukrainian folk music. But that's just a starting point. It doesn't sound like folk music at all.

What would you say are the specifics of Ukrainian Music? 

LV: It’s a trope that Ukrainian music, including classical music, has been heavily influenced by folk motifs. With our work we're trying to show that Ukrainian music is much more complex than that. A very important aspect of Ukrainian music is that Ukraine is culturally very diverse due to its geographical and political history. We have different regions with different influences, which you can clearly hear in the music. For example, some composers from Western Ukraine were inspired by the music of the Hutsul, an ethnic group in the Carpathians. People in eastern or northern Ukraine, on the other hand, drew from other sources. There were many currents that influenced Ukrainian music. The Russian school was certainly one big influence, the Viennese school another. Immigration was also a major influence. Important Ukrainian music movements were founded by musicians from the diaspora who emigrated either after the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 or after the Second World War. These composers were influenced by all the Western trends of the time, but at the same time preserved their Ukrainian identity. There is still much to be explored here.

Do you think that the image of Ukraine or Ukrainian culture has changed in Europe?

LV: That's a good question. I'm pretty sure it's too early to really say for sure, whether it has changed or not, because we’re only one year into the full-scale invasion. But I think a process has begun, the results of which we will only see in five or ten years. In academic discourse, I can already see that Russia is finally being viewed separately from the rest of Eastern Europe. For a long time, all institutes specialising in this region had Russian studies at the helm of their work. Now we are finally seeing the emancipation of Ukrainian studies as part of Eastern Europe with Poland, Lithuania and Belarus and as distinct from Russia. There is also a lot of criticism of this, but I am quite sure that a rethink in academic discourse is inevitable in the long run; that should have already happened 30 years ago. And I think that the idea of the "post-Soviet" is now dissolving. It's not just about culture. It's about the general public and intellectual discourse. I really hope that the understanding of Ukrainian culture in Europe is a bit deeper by now, and that people are starting to understand that Ukrainian culture exists at all, and that it is different from Russian culture. I also think that nowadays only a few people will continue to confuse the two countries.

From a German point of view, there is a lot of interest in Ukrainian music at the moment. This is also reflected in the many collaborations you have entered into within only half a year. How do you manage to make this sudden interest and the new connections sustainable?

AS: The Ukrainian culture has received much more attention than before, which is very valuable, because Ukraine once again has to fight not only for its territory, but also for the right to its own culture. Culture is the place where we defend our right to define ourselves as an independent entity. I think the most important thing is to create more and more opportunities for sustainable exchange that is not ad hoc.

One way to create lasting and sustainable connections seems to be the festival you are hosting in the summer. Can you tell us something about it? 

AS: We are planning a series of concerts in Berlin this summer. We wanted to create points of contact between representatives of the music scenes in Berlin and Kyiv and introduce the Berlin audience to the Ukrainian new music scene from the 1960s to today. Ensemble mosaik invited us to curate the Ukrainian part of the programme at their festival UpToThree on the 10th and 11th of June at Acker Stadt Palast. The pieces will be performed by both ensemble mosaik and Ukrainian performers. 

DV: On 29 June there will probably be a concert at Ballhaus Ost with mainly Ukrainian musicians. The string quartet Nota Bene is scheduled to play, and then there will be an experimental part with electroacoustic music by Yana Shliabanska and trombonist Weston Olencki. We are also organising a concert together with the ensemble KNMBerlin on 1 July at Villa Elisabeth, featuring composers from Ukraine and other European countries such as Rebecca Saunders, Adrian Mocanu, Anna Arkushyna, Anton Koshelev, Clemens Gadenstätter and Anna Korsun, performed by KNM and the Ukrainian double bass player Nazarii Stets. The concert will also be preceded by a discussion and a presentation of the KNM project »Listening Cities - Kyiv Edition«.

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