Over the last week, I’ve jotted down several aphorisms from composer Svyatoslav Lunyov, in slapdash, automated translations from their original Ukrainian. “The artist is like a spider,” he told the Kyiv Daily. “To catch a fly, he has to weave a web, which in turn he must extract from himself.” 

“The composer is a perfectionist in the sense that he tries to bring order to a certain territory,” he said in an interview with Lviv’s Collegium Musicum

And these two gems from Ukrainian Vogue: “I don’t think that artists are, in principle, fully-fledged people. They are escapists, they simply run away into a fantasy world.”  

“The composer’s dream is to create an artifact that people will need.” 

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There’s a sense of artifact in Lunyov’s “Panta Rhei,” what the composer describes as a “utopia for symphony orchestra” and a “hymn to the elements of live and non-living nature…a look at the idea of emergence and evolution of life through the idea of detuning a unison.” I can’t tell if this is a utopia being built out of ancient artifacts, the prophecy coming to bear for past composers, or a utopia shedding future artifacts. Is the hymn a celebration or an act of mourning? 

Either way, it’s electrifying to hear. As Wagner shapes the water out of nothingness in the prelude to “Das Rheingold,” Lunyov molds a world out of what begins as an audible, palpable silence. Shades of overtones. And then, the word. Hildur Guðnadóttir owes much of the creaky foreboding in her 2019 score for HBO’s “Chernobyl” (a coincidence of geography) to the taut premonitions in Lunyov’s 2008 work. If his version of a utopia sounds discomfiting to human ears, maybe that’s because utopia is better off without us. 

“Panta Rhei” is one of a dozen or so works I’ve downloaded this week via Ukrainian Live Classic, an app that has collected over 200 audio and video recordings—including some archival rarities that still have the staticy whiff of a well-worn LP—representing over 60 composers from the baroque era to today. Most of the composers have a detailed biography, in Ukrainian and English, that contextualizes their work in the timeline of Ukrainian music history, often in relation to the other composers featured on the app. And it’s all free, though you can support them via Patreon.

It’s a bitter reality that I only discovered this app thanks to the events of the last week, but it’s been the exact right music at the exact right time. Much of it was revelatory, and familiar works rang with a new resonance. In the latter camp was Valentyn Silvestrov’s “Requiem for Larissa,” which I know through its excellent ECM recording, and which has always felt as much like a requiem for humanity as  for the composer’s late wife. It may be that music actually does unite the former, if only we had any humanity left to unite. Or, as Silvestrov was once alleged to have remarked, “Composing music in our time is the galvanization of a corpse.” 

An app called Ukrainian Music Live has over 200 works by more than 60 Ukrainian composers—plus biographies, history, and more to discover. #StuffIveBeenHearing via @vanmusicmag Click To Tweet

This view is unusually bleak, even for Silvestrov—who later told musicologist Peter Schmelz that, if he had made the comment, it was likely referring to composing music solely as an academic discipline. Even in the murkiest depths of “Requiem for Larissa,” the grimmest of choral lines betray a glimmer of, if not hope, then at least catharsis. It’s unsurprising to learn that Larissa Bondarenko, who died suddenly in 1996, was a musicologist; Silvestrov preserves musical moments of Bruckner and Mozart in amber in her honor. The opening movement’s chord progressions sound like the deconstructed sonic palace of Strauss’s “Salome.” These ghosts hide in plain sight, eked out in the friction and tension of the orchestra as it creates mesh sculptures of past memory and present grief. Though this, too, is a fallacy: Both memory and grief exist outside of time. 

Much like Silvestrov’s requiem, Alla Zahaykevych’s “Nord-Ouest” is an amalgam, though it’s tinged less with the smell of smoke and copal of Silvestrov’s orthodox impulses as it is of marshes and larks. We’re in the northwestern regions of Ukraine’s Rivne Oblast and the nature reserves of the Polissya region, shared with bordering Belarus. With a score comprising both analogue instruments and electronics, Zahaykevych gives us a heterophony that blurs the lines between what’s real and what’s, for lack of a better word, a bot. 

Sound layers over sound: the echoes of a lark, perhaps a digital approximation, mechanical whirrs and blips like something out of “Short Circuit” or a 1990s fax machine, a folk-hued violin alternating between pizzicato at its upper reaches and equally short, fast, and high-pitched fiddling, propulsive percussion. But wait—is that bird call an actual bird? Or is it a convincing, computer-generated doppelganger? Is the growl of the machinery from a field recording, or is that just the violin scratching out a natural copy of something man-made? 

“Nord-Ouest” is at its most deliciously disorienting when it incorporates vocal folk songs, sung in the same full-throated, spring-toned “white voice” style that was brought to an international stage last year with Ukraine’s entry into the Eurovision song contest. It’s vertiginous and complex, while also feeling uncomplicatedly familiar; a nest of sound built to last the season. ¶

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