Written By Canadian-Ukrainian composer Anna Pidgorna:
At the moment much of the world is focused on the atrocities being committed by Russian forces in Ukraine. The destruction is catastrophic, the attacks on the civilian population absolutely horrific. I was born in Ukraine and have family and friends there. Life as I knew it ended on the night of February 23. The last twenty days have been hell. I feel like a spider constantly tugging on the fragile threads of my Ukrainian web, hoping that none will break.
In between anxious text messages to ascertain that my people are still holding on and the endless scrolling through increasingly disturbing news, I ask myself, what function could music possibly have in this moment? Is music – especially contemporary concert music often associated with the ivory tower and a niche audience of converts – a luxury or a necessity of survival?
I struggled with this question in the early months of the pandemic. At that moment I felt mute. Music was meaningless to me. I couldn’t respond to that silent, unknown threat and the mounting death toll. I have a very different answer to the moment at hand. I want to scream. What Ukrainians need now is not minutes of silence. This is not the time to mourn the dead because like the glory and freedom in Ukraine’s anthem, we are not yet dead! The world needs to support the living by amplifying our voices and engaging with our culture. This is the moment when Ukrainian musicians can finally emerge from the shadow of Russian imperialism which has culminated in the invasion of my homeland.
My parents brought me to Canada at the age of 12 and I began my musical education here. Both as a musician and a Ukrainian immigrant, I have struggled with subtle, but deep seated feelings of inferiority. Ukrainians have been living under the weight of Russian imperialist propaganda for centuries. It has convinced us that our culture and language are inferior to Russia’s at best, non-existent at worst. It is ironic that we immigrated to Canada, a country that also struggles with its cultural identity, often feeling overshadowed by the giant to the south.
One benefit of Canada’s ambivalent cultural identity is that this country and its institutions have been very open to my explorations of my Ukrainian identity. It is a bittersweet reality given everything that Canada’s settlers have done to destroy the culture of local Indigenous people. I am a refugee of a colonized land thriving in another colonized land whose people are struggling immensely.
Given all this colonial history, it is ironic that my first truly conscious encounter with Ukrainian folk music as a musician came through a Russian composer’s use of Ukrainian folk music. Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring is popularly framed as a quintessentially Russian ballet, but the folk music collections he drew on came from all over Eastern and Baltic Europe. His aristocratic family also had a home in a Ukrainian village in the Russian Empire. Stravinsky heard singing there. Upon learning this largely ignored tidbit of information, I started digging into Ukrainian folk music.
I began with the same sources as Stravinsky, but my journey took me to a very different place. Not content to simply look at transcriptions, I listened to archival recordings. There I discovered a wealth of gritty details that Stravinsky would not have seen in transcriptions and only partly captured in his writing. In 2012 and 2013, with funding from the Canada Council for the Arts, I traveled to Ukraine and joined ethnomusicologists and folklorists on expeditions to Ukrainian villages. I sat around kitchen tables with elderly Ukrainian women, eating their food and absorbing their stories and songs. From this nourishment I created a great deal of original works which draw on musical elements from this practice. I also learned to sing in my native tongue creating a fusion between Ukrainian folk vocalization and classical vocal technique. The culmination of this exploration is A Soul’s Keening for her Beloved, a large work I premiered with Delirium Musicum, a string orchestra in Los Angeles, days before the pandemic was officially announced.
Through work that fuses Ukrainian folk music with skills and techniques I have learned in my western musical training, I celebrate my heritage as a living, breathing, evolving tradition, something that grows beyond archival recordings, museum exhibits, and the borscht and pirogies that are the global symbols of my culture. I am telling old stories that I heard in the villages through a contemporary lens, while sharing my own personal stories through the veil of folk idiom. I have been surprised and gratified by the enthusiasm with which my music has been received in North America. People are able to connect to the message without understanding my tongue because the emotions I share transcend words.
So please, do not mourn the dead with moments of silence. Ukrainians don’t want to be grieved. We want to speak, shout and sing our truth to the whole world. The world’s willingness to listen and celebrate us is what is keeping us going through this horrific time.
1. Anna Pidgorna with Ustyma Krepets’ in the village Zalav’ya in northwestern Ukraine. Anna and her sister, writer Maria Reva, visited Ustyma in 2012 to record her and other women in the village. Ustyma dressed up Anna in her traditional garb with a modern twist. Ustyma was 80 years old at the time. As of a few months ago, she was still alive and well.
2. Anna Pidgorna recording stories and songs from the women of Perebrody, a village in northwestern Ukraine, in 2012. Anna and her sister, writer Maria Reva, spent several days with Anastasiya Chmunevych, who was 78 at the time, and her friends. Anastasiya is the one in black. As of a few months ago, she was still alive and well.
Here are a few links to Anna’s blog about her trip
Anna Pidgorna (b. 1985, pronounced /pid-ɦɔr-nɑ/) is a Ukrainian born, Canadian raised composer, artist and vocalist, who combines everything from traditional music making, to visual arts, to writing, to carpentry in her multimedia practice. Characterized by “a balance of bold colour palettes, strong melodic profiles, and unexpected performative elements” (Nick Storring for MusicWorks Magazine), her work traverses both acoustic and electronic realms.