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Interview with
Yuri Laniuk and Myrna Kostash (2 of 3)
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Why did you use the form of the oratorio for his poems and not, say, opera or a song cycle for solo voice or for chamber choir? Why did you choose to use Biblical quotations in Greek?

I don't know. Actually, I wouldn't call this an oratorio. It could be called a symphony. Or it could be called a symphonic cantata, as for example, Liudkevych's "Kavkaz". But, I call this "palimpsests". And only that. Because this is not a specific genre. There is no such genre in music yet. There are oratorio, cantata. But, specifically "palimpsests", as a term, I think, is completely sufficient. Because "palimpsests" is a layering of images, texts or something that has been applied over the ages. Let's imagine that there are three layers and, if we were to rub a small hole in the third layer, we would be able to see through to the second, or perhaps even the first. We can say that this is some kind of poly-stylistics in music. I think that it is an accurately descriptive term. Simply, "palimpsests".

Because of such poly-stylistics I use another language to contrast Ukrainian, specifically, ancient Greek. I also use another piece of poetry by Stus which became the basis for the second part of the piece. And there is another piece of poetry which could be said to represent Ukrainian folk songs though I buried it a bit. And so, this is not a quote, but it is close to a Ukrainian tone. It is the poetry "Two Fires Burning". There are only four lines. I left out the rest. I used only two of Stus' poems.

Let us return to ancient Greek and why I used it here. For me, Stus' poetry is symbolic of the earthly human suffering of those, who must travel this path. The Biblical texts are taken from the apostle John -- the final passages where the Kingdom of God is mentioned. These passages describe that when all this is over, all the terrors and horrors that possibly await humans, then there will be a new beginning. The new beginning is described as no more pain, no death because all that has passed. It was important for me to show these two different worlds. One earthly, in which all of us presently find ourselves, with its dramatics, with its type of despair, pain -- all that we have experienced. And not just us, as individuals, but all of humankind. And the other, the ideal, the ideal world that is presented in Biblical poetry. It is in this poetry in particular, that it is so good. As a result, in the musical sense, this provided an expanse of opportunity for contemplation, for imagination in my search for different musical colours, my search for what can be called musical systems. It is precisely here that I searched for space, because for me, the two spheres, which are created here, were very important.

These two spheres are related to the two languages. Ancient Greek has its characteristics. And I wanted to foreshadow this with the choir singing in a transparent, aloof, instrumental style. That piece of music is sung without vibrato, without strain, without any great pathos. Whereas, the explosive, dramatic part, as I imagine it in performance is the music tied to Stus' poetry. A conflict develops, a certain type of dramatics. And, this is, perhaps, the concept of "palimpsests".

I think Myron will support me when I say that music, which has no conflict, no contrasts has little chance for survival. Particularly, in lengthy pieces such as this one, which last over half an hour. Somehow, the music needs to have a core. And, this is exactly, what I tried to do by using firstly, two languages, two pieces of poetry, two spheres. Somehow, they intertwine and cross over each other. So, this is the basis of this piece.

How much have you been influenced by an avant-garde, Ukrainian and other? What are the musical sources of the composition? Sacred music of the Eastern church? Other sacred music? Ukrainian folk music? Modern European? Soviet?

When talking about the sources of "Palimpsesty", one also has to include the sources of my previous works. And even so the sources are not just in my works. For when I was younger everything was new for me. Who knows what I found then and what influenced me?

When I was younger Nikodemowicz had some very wise comments to make about my work. And, I was under his influence. Somehow, I was able to appreciate many things positively.

But, here we have another question: what else influenced you? During Soviet times, we didn't have much to lean on. We had our own classical meter. Actually, names -- important names for any musician such as, Shostakovich, Prokofiev. Even today, I am a strong supporter of their music, more than, say, Boulez. There were some positive aspects to this system because what was allowed, was the permission to emulate them. And these were musical leaders.

What about sacred music? Ukrainian folk music? Modern European?

There was a creative period when I was under the influence of Nikodemowicz, and hooked for a few years. Then I was very much an avant-gardist, in minimalist circumstances. Later, I went to study in Kyiv and Nikodemowicz emigrated to Poland. When I returned I began composing three solo parts -- three small cycles: to the words of Shashkevych; to the words of the Lviv poet Mykola Petrenko; a cantata about Ivan Franko and about Shashkevych. I loosened my style and became very interested in Ukrainian themes. I even used quotes from Ukrainian songs -- this cantata "Two Streams." I think this composition, this cycle using the poetry of Shashkevych, is not bad.

But, this was a stage. Why? Because I wanted to feel and to show my allegiance to all that was Ukrainian. Because, for example, the renovation of Shashkevych's lands in Pidlyssi interested me. The poetry of Markian Shashkevych is so interesting, individualistic, similar to folk music. This was the kind of music I composed then. Presently I don't even acknowledge it. I feel that these were initial attempts, for example my cantata on Ivan Franko. But, all of this was somehow necessary. My music became softer then. I learned something then. But, basically, I was influenced by Ukrainian melodies and songs. I didn't particularly cultivate this in my music. Later, I left this. Now, in "Palimpsesty", I used a type of Ukrainian song melody in one of the episodes of "Palimpsesty". But, this is on a very different level.

Let me say a few words about sacred music. During the 80s, when we first began hearing church music, such as, choral works by Bortniansky, Berezovsky, Vedel' we were thrilled and captivated. It couldn't have been any other way. We weren't aware of it before. Performances were rare. This was almost, forbidden in the 70s. It was all extremely fascinating. And, this did not pass me by. So, there were many influences: on the one hand, the Western influences, which came later, partially via Nikodemowicz; I continue to be influenced by that which was available to us -- Shostakovich, Prokofiev. Right now, I really like Prokofiev as well as church music and Ukrainian music. All of this has become a part of me. It's just that now I'm at a different level in my thinking.

For us outsiders, the changes in post-Soviet Ukraine have been breath-taking, including the change in cultural production and the new styles in literature, film, theatre and painting. In your biography you state that your musical works composed prior to 1989-90, at the very end of the Soviet period, do not merit much attention. Why not? Are there no continuities between your work now and then? After all, you studied at important academies and with respected teachers: aren't these facts an important part of your development as an artist?

It is extremely difficult to explain my position, because of the experiences I have had. In principle I don't reject anything. But, many changes have occurred and I spent a lot of time thinking. At that time I attempted to improve myself, I spent time trying to learn.I spent a great deal of time listening to music, reading scores, analyzing music and discovering new things for myself. Now, having reassessed all of this, I came to understand that my compositions from that time period are not worthy of me. They're not what I would presently attempt, nor would value highly.

Let me elaborate. In 1993 I visited Germany and following that I traveled a bit to Canada and the United States. I knew that my compositions were being performed there. Having arrived in Germany, it was very clear that I was in a completely different world, western Europe having its own traditions and mentality. There I heard and was influenced by some of the young musicians, with whom I interacted. I had heard that they enjoyed playing a completely different type of music. Nothing I had imagined up to that point. This music is sometimes called "intellectual-rational". Music, which is somewhat akin to a science. The composer is less concerned with the listener and whether or not he will be listening to his piece. And the ensemble, Recherche, with whom I associated, cultivated this type of music. I spent a great deal of time listening to this music. Much of it tired and exhausted me so much, that I couldn't tolerate it anymore.

However, under their influence, I wrote a piece and named it "In answer to Recherche: Music for an Ensemble". "Musique pour Recherche" is the French name. I feel that perhaps it is one of my better achievements. The piece itself is not a large piece involving just 9 musicians. But, every professional musician would agree that it is difficult to write a piece for four strings, three wood percussion instruments and piano. This ensemble is a very difficult combination. There are few instruments and consequently each instrument must be given a specific sounding nature. And then, some kind of face must be uncovered. I spent two years working on this.

How has your life as a composer and musician changed since 1991? Do you have many opportunities to collaborate with musicians in the rest of Europe? Do you have any contacts with Russian artists?

Your connection with Polish musical culture has been important to you, especially the friendship of Andrzei Nikodemowicz. How did you meet and become acquainted with Maestro Nowak of the Edmonton Symphony?

Sometime after 1991, I experienced a turning point. Not because Ukraine gained its independence then. Although, it also had an influence, if only for the reason that we had new contacts, which brought us together, and that there was a new creative freedom. It became possible to talk to someone, to walk with someone without constantly looking over one's shoulder wondering... Is someone eavesdropping? But, it was at this time I felt a personal maturity, because I experienced the musical world and my relationship to it differently.

I think it is also important to understand that I am, after all, a practicing cellist. When I play Bach, Haydn or Brahms pieces for the cello, this also influences everything I do. If I am in constant contact with such music, music that I am constantly trying to emulate then slowly criteria will evolve that are quite significant.

From the time of my turning point I developed this formula for myself. It would be better for me, if every one of my compositions had something, which was significantly different from the previous one.Thus, in "The Thorn's Lament" to the words of Bohdan Ihor Antonych I was very influenced by his use of colourful expressions, esthetics in his text, as well as, an incredible depth. I was very affected by the fact that Antonych was a native of Lviv and walked the same streets that I walk. And, that until recently he had been unknown. More and more became known about him and recently he had been, as if, renewed. All this during my time. Somehow, I was part of this poet and, I wrote music and called it "The Thorn's Lament". Even now, I am dazzled by the words. I still find it difficult to comprehend that such a young person of Antonych's age, who died before his 30th birthday could write so. At that time, it was a piece that was very significant for me. It coincided with my son's birth and I experienced this very deeply.

My next piece was "Chant pour un Equinoxe" with French poetry which is esthetic, colourful, quite unusual, and may not even even be real poetry. This is a poetic form. I used it in its original language because this is a completely different world and completely different music. It is much more neutral. It doesn't have that Ukrainian spirit found in Antonych.

I then composed the "Anticipation Sonata" for cello, piano and an audio-tape, or perhaps more accurately, four melodic voices. Again it was a completely different composition, with a novel task. Its texture was distinct. The cello was used in a way unlike that of any of my previous cello pieces. In short, for every composition, I assigned myself a completely different task and attempted to achieve it. Although, certain elements do run through one composition to the next. And this is a conscious form. Of course, actualizing my objective of never repeating myself is difficult because, then, there can't be very many compositions. Nevertheless, each time I solve some new problem, which I set myself.

During this period contacts became possible. I have already mentioned trips to other parts of the world that influenced me. Naturally, the music of Polish composers,is the closest for me. It is more accessible here for us. I have been in Poland numerous times and have many friends and acquaintances among the composers there. But, I admire only one, Lutoslawski, his later works.

Yes, certainly, I have contacts with Russian composers and musicians. Particularly since I was one of the initiators of the festival "Contrasts" in which musicians and composers from Moscow participated. These musicians are about my age and we have much in common. As individuals they are very interesting. Let's not forget that Moscow was an imperial centre and the best gravitated to it. At one time there was excellent training for composers there.

Let me say a little bit more about the festival "Contrasts". It's as if we turned a new leaf here in Lviv for musicians and composers and performers such as myself. Because, here, we mean classical musicians and contacts with contemporary music.

I've mentioned already that we were, as they say, behind an iron curtain. At the beginning of the 90s, the Lviv branch of the Ukrainian Composers' Union began to organize festivals. The first was "The Music of Lysenko in Lviv", and then as I recall "The Music of Liatoshynsky". Once the Union had acquired the skills to organize such events, we, together with Roman Rewakowicz,originated and organized "Contrasts" which is an international festival of contemporary music. The ensemble "Recherche" from Germany participated in the first festival, as well as many high calibre Polish musicians.

These festivals were initially Ukrainian -- Polish -- German. The first one in October 1995 couldn't have been any different. At the second festival there were contacts with the rest of the world. We invited Penderecky-a conductor and composer, and the Cracow Symphony Orchestra and Choir. We went even further in the third. The fourth one established it as a significant festival in Eastern Europe -- it is one of the better and prestigious festivals of the world, and has been included in the register of international music festivals and is known throughout the world. We now receive many inquiries and proposals from around the world. We have built this concept to appropriate heights, even though we are experiencing great financial difficulties.

The important point is that we have developed contacts without which it would be difficult to do anything. We developed creative partnerships, creative friendships with many fine musicians from different parts of the world. For example a very good German pianist, recently played my "Anticipation Sonata" at a festival in Vilnius. We met in Lviv.

I can spend a great deal of time talking about this. Other young performers and composers have the opportunity to play or to showcase their music here, or to listen to the music of other very good performers. This festival is unique among serious, classical festivals of such type in Ukraine.

Yuri Laniuk and Myrna Kostash read programme notes at the world premiere of 'Palimpsesty' (February 20, 1999).

Interview with
Yuri Laniuk and Myrna Kostash (2 of 3)
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Last updated: March 01, 1999