This interview was conducted by the novelist Raina Markova on behalf of the Bulgarian KWeekly magazine in December of 2018.
Heartfelt thanks to Christopher Wilke and Massimo Marchese for making this possible!
Some time ago I received by mail two albums with music for the Baroque Lute, "De temporum fine postludia" and "Dialogue with Time", played respectively by Christopher Wilke and Massimo Marchese. Mеlancholic from the beginning to the end, as always the lute music is, following Renaissance and Baroque patterns and reminiscent of old Ukrainian folklore, these pieces were composed by a contemporary musician, the Kiev-born New Yorker Roman Turovsky.
These days Turovsky responded to my invitation to tell a little more about what underlies the beautiful complexity of his works.
Q. We automatically associate Baroque with Western Europe, but in the booklet of “Dialogues with time” you mention "baroque period in Ukrainian music". Is there any historical context in which the Baroque appeared in the Ukraine?
A. Yes, quite a large one. Ukraine was a part of Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the 16th and 17thcenturies, and the western part of the country through the 18th as well. Missionaries of many denominations came to Ukraine in that era, mainly Jesuits and Socinians, and the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy (the first university in Eastern Europe) had a large Lutheran presence. Ukraine had its own styles of Baroque architecture, painting and literature. Music as well, however none of it was instrumental. All we have is entirely vocal/choral.
Q. How did you discover that archaic Ukrainian folk melodies match to the Renaissance and baroque patterns of such composers as Joanambrosio Dalza, Francesco da Milano or Dowland?
A. Ukraine was depopulated at least three times during the Medieval era, so it never had a chance to develop its own Renaissance culture. I had a good knowledge of the European Renaissance musical “technology”, so I started experimenting with it in the Ukrainian context, which allows something extremely rare in European Early Music, the use of irregular meters and rhythms. So I've set out to build a Ukrainian lutenistic counterpart to Bartok's pianistic “Mikrokosmos”.
In the process I discovered that there were traces of Italian renaissance melodies in Ukrainian traditional music, surviving to this day, in particular the famous 16th century La Mantovana melody.
Q. On Youtube your pieces are often accompanied by gloomy black-and-white videos, showing the harsh part of New York reality - industrial areas, construction sites, urban infrastructures, skyscrapers. Bearing sharp contrasts to the dreamy tempo and minor tonality of the music this produces a somewhat intoxicating effect on the senses. The separation between the inner world of the artist (the microcosm) and that of the outside (the macrocosm), all the melancholy and restlessness they cause, are typical to the baroque. But they are typical to our post-post-modern living too. Will you refute that?
A. No refutation necessary! All real art is based on the sense of loss. That separation provides plenty of it, and itforms a clear central principle, according to which each of my film sequences aims to represent an increment in the voyage
through forbidding/forboding space, in which the only available means to remain afloat are certain personal cultural memories, remnants or fragments of beauty in the decidedly unbeautiful universe. In my case that means certain auditory memories of my early childhood - polyphonic laments sung by girls while crossing the river in the evening in order to milk the cows grazing on the other side.
Many of my musical endeavors were based on that particular material, subjected to those neorenaissance or neobaroque procedures.
Q. I think the interest in baroque constantly grows. I conclude that based on the growing abundance of publications which I find when I surf the net. Is it my subjective sensation, or is there appeared a need for rediscovery of some kind of resistance to that ultra-technologized way of living? (Just like Baroque resisted the rationality of the Enlightenment.)
A. Absolutely. Handcraft is ever-popular, young Americans begin to sing traditional Bulgarian, Georgian and Ukrainian polyphony. And all that thrives in that ultra-technologized way of living!
Enlightenment also had a prominent element of irrationality, exepmlified by the Empfindsamkeit music of Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach and his circle in the 18th century.
Q. Gerard Genet, who died early this year, wrote about the Baroque: “Its spirit is syncretism, its order is its very openness, and its signature is its very anonymity.” In the world of Baroque anonymity and the spirit of a hoax are quite common. (Another similarity to our information era!) In 1996 you started to sign your works with names like “Joachim Peter”, “Johann Joachim”, “Konradin Aemilius”, "Ioannes Leopolita", "Jacobus Olevsiensis", representing them as newly discovered manuscripts by composers from several generations of one family, “Sautscheck”. Is there any special context in which “Sautscheck” came onto the stage?
A. In its original form Savchuk it was the surname of my semiliterate grandmother, who said that I will be a composer, when I was presented to her soon after I was born. I only found out about this recently! I also was influenced by Charles Nodier, the French Enlightenment philosopher who believed that a hoax is an essential creative method throughout history. Prosper Merimee was one of his students.
I was bred on the works that were often enough great literary 19th century hoaxes, De Coster, Merimee and Nodier, Prince Igor Saga, Kraledvorsky Ms etc, etc. Descartes once said that when he was a seminarian his professor told him
that if one gets a really good Idea - it must be immediately ascribed to a long dead authority.
Q. Some reacted harsh. They even invented a term “Sautscheckerei”, in your honor, as a synonym of hoax. What exactly caused their anger?
A.There were many flame-wars and a qite few accusations of immorality. The accusers were oblivious of the quotations from Beethoven, Reger or Giazzotto that I had used in an anachronistic Baroque context. I suppose I've exposed their musical insensitivity. But I've also earned some great friends for whom music's quality is paramount to its pedigree.
Here it would be appropriate to relate a small episode from Michelangelo's life related by Vasari: “When M. arrived in Rome for the first time, without connections or commissions, he was faced with rather grim prospects. He proceeded to produce an "antique" statue of a Bacchus, broke off its nose and buried it in a place where he knew a ditch would be dug shortly (in a areawhich also happened to belong to a certain Cardinal known for his aversion to living talent). Needless to say, the statue was promptly unearthed and taken to that Cardinal, who displayed it with great pomp, accompanied by his usual invective. Then the Buonarotti turned this well attended occasion on its head by taking out of his pocket a marble nose that was a perfect fit for the missing one of the statue. Everyone stood agape, and his reputation was made.“
In essence, the detractors missed the point. Art in general is a lie wherein lies the truth, and there is no Art without mythopoeia (which is the same thing said differently).
Q. The Baroque, though by itself is a formulaic music, is not a rigid structure, I think. Or maybe there are some inviolable structuring principles and strict rhetorical discipline to respect? I've watched some pretty fierce fights in groups for baroque music on this basis, which left me with the feeling that Baroque is a dead specimen fit only for examination. Is that so?
A. It certainly can be. And I have observed a lot of this. An “ethnoBaroque fusion” might very well be a very good antidote for all the orthodoxies. I thought I invented it 20 years ago, but I'm not alone in this: Christina Pluhar and her ensemble L'Arpeggiata have done a lot of work in this genre.
Q. You prefer old instruments: lute, viola da gamba, carillon, torban, in a world of omnipresence of technologies. You use technologies for your video art. Anyway, what do you think about computer music?
A. I'm not opposed to any music, as long as it good. And I have collaborated with my friend Hans Kockelmans on some computer music composed jointly. And I am a avid follower of the great folk singer and avantgarde composer Mariana Sadovska, who uses a lot of modern technologies.
Q. Philosophy in Music... Many baroque musicians (in my opinion) are too biased toward intellectualization of music. Baroque absorbed a lot from the rationality of the Renaissance but it’s a resistance to the Renaissance rationality too, its aim is to affect the public directly. Can you say something about this?
A. Yes, and exactly due to these biases I have started to deviate toward the traditional music, with the aid of my my friend and mentor Julian Kytasty, the great Ukrainian singer/musician/composer. Rationality/positivism is not very creative, I much prefer metaphysics.
Q. And religion… Is Baroque inseparable from Catholicism? Can it exist emancipated from the notion of God?
A. No. It can also be Lutheran, Socinian, Orthodox. But it essentially spiritual even in its most secular forms, as it was a natural outgrowth of the high mortality rates in its physical era.
Q. I see names in the titles of your works: names of historical personalities, geographical names, Latinized names of tribes and kingdoms that ceased to exist, for example: Sarmaticae, Rutenicae, Lodomericae… I think I can sense during this historical “filter” your attitude towards the tragedy of contemporary Ukraine. Am I right?
A. Yes. I've set out to produce something that has been withheld from my country by historical circumstance. Wars and famines have prevented Ukraine from having its own music for lutes, so I've decided to right this wrong in my own mythopoietic if not megalomaniac way, by creating something that should have happened.
As to contemporary Ukraine: war is not tragedy, it is atrocity. Tragedy is usually brought upon oneself. And Ukraine has shown a tremendous upsurge of civic sense during the Revolution of Dignity and the subsequent (and ongoing) war with Russia in 2014, when the loss of independence was a real risk. Now there are grounds for cautious optimism - Ukraine is Europe. And this is definitely one of my themes in music.
Q. And, some more politics at the end… I’d draw a parallel between contemporary transnational capital and 17th century Catholicism. They are quite similar in their global openness, in their “soft power”, their highly advanced organization and order… Maybe in their injustice either? But do art needs justice at all? What is your attitude toward all this art activism and social justice warriors of our times?
A. Nothing is ever black-and-white. 17th century Catholicism and Counter-Reformation have also produced the first modern ideas of social justice, in the Utopian Jesuit communist experiments in South America. Jesuits also taught the last Ukrainian hetman Pylyp Orlyk, who in exile in Constantinople in 1710 postulated that the future Cossack state should be based on the tripartite separation of powers, and that 50 years before Montesqueu!
Politics kill art, but - art without justice is snobbery. Art's purpose in general and tragedy's purpose in particular is observe and remind us of our condition, by apotropaic means – to stave off the calamity.