Ukrainian-Canadian composer Anna Pidgorna writes on the horrors of war through the lens of music: the Russian invasion and war pose an intentional existential threat Ukrainian culture and identity, and music is at the heart of this.
The destruction wrought by the Russian armed forces in Ukraine is catastrophic, the attacks on the civilian population utterlyhorrific. Though I am safe in Canada, I was born in Ukraine and still have family and friends there. In between anxious text messages to ascertain that they 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 for survival?
I think back to this time two years ago. Watching the pandemic unfold, I felt mute. Music didn’t seem like the right response to the silent threat creeping through our communities. Being a witness, absorbing and processing, felt more important at that moment. Faced with the much louder and more immediately brutal force wreaking our homeland, Ukrainian musicians are not answering with silence, but with renewed vigour. This danger is more urgently existential — it is not just a threat to our survival as individual human beings, but also the survival of our culture, our voice, our identity.
What drives Russia’s invasion is imperialist logic which argues that Ukraine, its culture, and its language are not real, that they should not exist. In his televised address on February 21, Vladimir Putin stated that Ukraine is “wholly and fully created by Russia.” The goal of Ukraine’s physical destruction is first and foremost Russia’s attempt to wipe out its identity, as it is the very assertion of this identity that is so threatening to Russian imperialism. Russia has tried to do it before and it wants to do it again. If this identity is not real, why is Russia so determined to destroy it? For more context, listen to Masha Gessen and Timothy Snyder’s nuanced interviews on Ezra Klein’s podcast.
The threat of cultural genocide
Since the invasion began, I have been reaching out to my musical contacts in Ukraine and making new ones, asking them how they are managing and what they are doing in the face of this catastrophe. Some have been forced to flee their homes with little more than the barest essentials, prioritising the safety of their families over the tools of their trade. Those who’ve been able to stay in their homes and studios are working feverishly to preserve Ukrainian music from destruction. They are frantically uploading vulnerable archives to the cloud in case the buildings that house them are shelled. The folklorists are saving decades of archival ethnomusicological recordings from the National Music Academy of Ukraine and their own collections —the amount of data is immense and the process continues day and night.
Folk singer and ethnomusicologist Iryna Danyleiko with folk singers in the village Kozatske in the Chernihiv region during an expedition in 2012 (photo by Anna Pidgorna)
As part of the general suppression of Ukrainian resistance during Stalin’s era, the Soviet regime deliberately destroyed Ukrainian musical heritage. Archives were burned. Folklorists were exiled to other parts of the Soviet Union and forbidden to continue their work. Some were sent to labour camps in Siberia; itinerant musicians of the kobzar tradition were rounded up and killed.
The fear that Russia would target and destroy Ukraine’s cultural institutions is very real. This is exactly what the Russian-backed separatists did in the Donbas region after taking over in 2014. In an interview with the “Yes The Voice Podcast,” visual artist Maria Kulikovska, who has been barred from her home in Crimea since its occupation in 2014, describes how an exhibit of hers was destroyed shortly after the Donbas region was overrun. Insurrection leaders, one of whom was previously seen at the gallery’s public events, shot at Kulikovska’s soap sculptures created from casts of her own nude body. Russian forces have already targeted several artistic institutions, including the Kharkiv opera house and the theatre in Mariupol, which was sheltering hundreds of displaced civilians.
Visual artist Maria Kulikovska reenacting the destruction of her soap sculptures
Contemporary carriers of Ukraine’s kobzar and other folk traditions are under threat like their predecessors in Soviet times. Bandura player and composer Volodymyr Voyt evacuated from Kyiv with his wife and small child, bringing little more than some items of clothing and food for the road. He couldn’t bring his instrument but was able to borrow one from a local amateur musician. The family is hiding out in western Ukraine, where it was safer until Russia targeted a nearby military training station with long-range missiles. They are holding on.
Duo SAS, a collaboration between Ukrainian bandura player Volodymyr Voyt and UK-based Ukrainian-Canadian composer and flautist Solomiya Moroz
My long-time collaborator, folk singer and ethnomusicologist Iryna Danyleiko has fled Kyiv with her three daughters. Sheltering in her parents’ home in Chernivtsi, she is now recording air raid sirens instead of elderly women singing in the villages surrounding Chernihiv, her area of specialisation. In a text message she sent me on March 8, Danyleiko confided that she hasn’t been able to sing since the invasion began. “There is a lump in my throat. I feel that if I start singing, I will begin to weep. So for now I cannot sing. I must keep myself together.” After her extended family joined their family home several days later, Iryna sent me a video of her grandmother singing a jolly military song while accompanying herself with a child’s drum. I hope Danyleiko’s own voice will return soon. She and I have a lot of singing to do.
Anna Pidgorna performs her folk-inspired work “Drown in the Depth” with folk singers Iryna Danyleiko and Halyna Honcharenko
Electronic artist Edward Sol and his wife Ira evacuated from their home in the Bucha region with 18 rescue cats. Before their flight, they endured days of fighting in the sky above them, observing airplanes and helicopters falling on their village. Faced with the arrival of Russia’s ground troops, they could not remain. They could not abandon their furry wards to die either. Now they are in a village in the Cherkasy region, where it has been quieter. Sol left his studio behind and now leads a “simple village life.” On March 14, he sent me a photograph of a dozen multicoloured fur-balls sleeping together on one bed.
Reaching beyond Ukraine
Like the folklorists, Ukrainian composers are also uploading their catalogues and archives. Julia Nikolaevskaya is part of a group of musicians gathering and sharing scores with foreign ensembles who are scrambling to program Ukrainian works. She is doing this from Kharkiv, one of the cities hardest hit by Russian forces. Many of these works are now available through Ukrainian Live Classic, a new resource on Ukraine’s musical history and composers.
Composer Alla Zagaykevych has met this invasion with the conviction that music-making is crucially important to the message that Ukraine is putting out into the world as it fights to free itself from this imperialist horde. She lives in Poznyaky, a suburb in southeastern Kyiv which has not been as badly affected by fighting or shelling. She knows that horror can arrive at any moment. “I have to figure out ways to keep myself together, to orient myself towards life under different conditions,” she told me over the phone on March 6, 2022. She sounded exhausted but collected, pausing to search for the right words.
As with other Ukrainian acquaintances with whom I am not in touch every day, I know that Zagaykevych is still alive because her social media posts continue at a regular pace. Her Facebook wall is a mix of professional posts about performances of Ukrainian music abroad, and tidbits from the war happening around her. One is a repost of a plea from Kherson residents to help ban two Russian Telegram channels which frame the occupation of their city as a long-awaited liberation. I was born in Kherson and have family there. I receive regular videos of Kherson residents protesting in front of Russian tanks. I repost her post and report the channels.
As head of the Ukrainian Electroacoustic Association of Ukraine, Zagaykevych is coordinating the preservation of their collections and sharing performance materials with foreign presenters. “Almost every day we have a concert or podcast in the West.” She is also working on her own projects, including the soundtrack to a major Ukrainian motion picture, Dovbush. She was supposed to travel to New York for the Ukrainian Contemporary Music Festival happening March 18-20, but instead, she’s reworking her electronics so that local New York musicians can perform her work without her as she shelters from Russian bullets. In between all these tasks, she finds moments to cook borscht for the members of the territorial defence squad who live in her building. She wishes she could do more for them but believes her artistic work is her main contribution to the war effort.
“Musical work has become more vital for Ukraine. The function of artistic activity at large has become a vector for understanding the Ukrainian situation,” Zagaykevych told me.
“Our conversations with Europe and the world at large have always lacked unity. Ukrainian citizens often didn’t share my own desire for an actively developing Ukrainian society. We never had this in our musical practice either. Now I have this impression that we are finally united and that our music is part of our unified message to the West.”
Ukrainian musicians have struggled to reach beyond Ukraine’s borders. The sudden interest from foreign ensembles inspired by the horrors of this invasion offers a chance to form much-needed connections for the future.
“What supports my spirit is that these ties exist now, that there is now interest, that there might be the next step after this, not just a step towards empathy but towards a deeper investigation of our culture.”
“Nord/Ouest”, an album released by Alla Zagaykevych and the Electroacoustic’s Ensemble in 2011, which combines live instrumental performance with electronics
Escaping Russia’s shadow
Zagaykevych also wants to finally dispel the perception that Ukraine’s artistic development is inferior to Russia’s, to bring it out of this giant’s shadow. Because Ukraine was under Russia’s control for so long, first in the Russian Empire and then the Soviet Union, much of Ukraine’s artistic achievement has been appropriated and absorbed into Russia’s international legacy. Ukrainian writers like Nikolai Gogol are thought by most to be Russian because they were forced to write in Russian due to bans on Ukrainian literature.
The international framing of Ukraine as a province of Russia continues to this day. Maria Reva’s English-language short story collection Good Citizens Need Not Fear published in 2020 is often discussed as an example of Soviet Russian literature in casual reader reviews, even though the author and setting are clearly Ukrainian. References to Ukraine and even its friction with Moscow are found throughout the book, and still, one local librarian wrote during the pandemic: “Need a vacation? Head to Moscow with Maria Reva.”
Another reader ironically observed that this collection “belongs to a genre of literature that I’m starting to think of as ‘More than Russian’ literature. Written in English, outside of Russia, and yet encapsulating the true spirit of the place.” It’s jaw-dropping how much Russian imperialism pervades Western thinking to this day. Considering that Maria Reva is my sister and her writing is inspired by a building we inhabited in Ukraine, this casual framing of her work as Russian is particularly maddening.
Russian and Soviet-Russian art and its avant-garde is romanticised and even fetishized in the West, while Ukrainian art struggles to gain international attention. Western musicians valorize Shostakovich’s oppression by the Soviet regime, not realising that Ukrainian artists suffered from double oppression by virtue of being not just Soviet artists but also Ukrainians. Living in Canada, I’ve observed that Ukraine is still largely associated with its borscht, pierogies and folk dances brought here by immigrants of the late 19th and early 20th century.
Don’t get me wrong, I love both borscht and pierogies and cook them regularly, but there is so much more to my Ukrainian identity. In North America, Ukraine is not widely known for its contemporary, post-Soviet culture. This perception is starting to change thanks to the work of artists in the Ukrainian diaspora and the curiosity of local audiences. I’ve had much success with my practice that draws on Ukrainian folk singing and poetry, expanding its idioms into the realm of contemporary concert music.
Anna Pidgorna performing “A Soul’s Keening for her Beloved” with Delirium Musicum in Los Angeles
Zagaykevych noted that “for all of us actively making and studying Ukrainian art there has always been a problem with feeling a kind of unbroken development or durability of the Ukrainian avant-garde alongside the European artistic line. We have to overcome the broken connections, the bombed bridges to the origins of this movement.” She points to the 1920s, known to Ukrainian artists as Ukraine’s Renaissance, a decade that produced futurism, the earliest electroacoustic music, experimental film and other avant-garde developments. Much of this cultural flowering withered in the Soviet Union.
“We simply didn’t have access to these works. They only began to appear in the 90s. At this moment we are conscious of the fact that Ukrainian culture generated an avant-garde, that it was among the first. We already know this. We have known it for a long time. Now the whole world will know this, see this, feel this.”
Referring to the sudden explosion of interest from Western presenters, Zagaykevych concluded that “despite the fact that our current state of mind is depressed and blocked by very difficult emotions, these processes [of sharing] are extremely important.”
The ferocity of Ukrainian resistance
Many Westerners do not understand why Ukrainians are resisting this invasion with such determination. They wonder if such civilian casualties are worth it and suggest that it would be more “responsible” for the Ukrainian government to surrender. What those who have never lived under the Russian/Soviet regime do not understand is that surrender is not possible for Ukraine because it would mean its obliteration. What Russia frames as its “liberation” is in fact Ukraine’s destruction, both physical and spiritual. Even if the Ukrainian government falls or capitulates, Ukrainians will keep fighting and dying because the alternative is still more horrible.
I recently reached out to composer Karmella Tsepkolenko, with whom I shared a program presented by Toronto’s New Music Concerts in 2015. She is the president of Two Days Two Nights, a festival of contemporary music in Odessa. This major port city has been a coveted target, with Russian forces attempting to reach it by sea and by land, through besieged Kherson and Mykolaiv.
Despite the stress that Odessa residents must be experiencing every day, Tsepkolenko does not want to leave. She told me that European conservatories have offered Ukrainian students stipends and a chance to finish their semesters abroad, but the young men cannot go. Martial law requires them to stay in the country in case they are needed for military service. Some have joined the army or territorial defence already. I asked Tsepkolenko if she would consider an artist residency in Canada. “It is a difficult question,” she texted back. She thanked me for the offer but said she would not. She is volunteering to help the army and territorial defence, resisting Russia’s attempt to wipe out her people and culture in whatever way she can.
Karmella Tsepkolenko’s “Duel-Duo No. 6 for two violas” premiered and recorded by Paul Silverthorne and Andriy Vijtovych in 1997
I have not written a single note since the invasion began. Instead, I have unexpectedly turned into a journalist, reporting on the war through music publications and my own social media channels. I am also raising money to directly support Ukrainian musicians through an informal initiative I started with composer Ben Keast, called Operation Pickle Underground. Named after the Ukrainian lady who knocked out a Russian drone with a jar of preserves, this is my contribution to the war effort from the safety of my home in Greater Vancouver, Canada.
Anna Pidgorna (b. 1985) is a Ukrainian born, Canadian raised composer, artist and vocalist. She is coordinating support for musicians in Ukraine through Operation Pickle Underground – please visit the facebook page to donate or find out how you can support people in Ukraine.