if you are making a music festival, radio or any cultural program and not inviting Ukrainians or vicitims (sic) of the Russian violence, dunno, what you are doing [eastbloc af sound alliance pinned tweet]
Music festivals in 2022 have not been able to bypass the issue of Ukraine. And considering there is currently no end in sight to the war, the same will apply for the year ahead, unless war fatigue sets in, and signs are, this has already happened. That said, some festivals have addressed the changed landscape more openly than others.
The Ephemera Festival 2022, for instance, curated and produced by the team of Unsound, gave prominence to Ukrainian artists. But it’s not just numbers, a certain sensitivity is also required.
When talking to Heinali, who opened the Next Festival in Bratislava, he was quick to praise the organisers. As a general rule, he told me, “Even when playing at festivals where Russian artists who have condemned the war are present, it is important that we don’t share the bill, as placing Ukrainian and a Russian artists together just reiterates the myth of the ‘brotherly nations’”. And any Ukrainian who ends up finding themselves sharing the bill, is duley castigated.
At times, though, on the global arena, having a Ukrainian act in the line-up can seem tokenistic, with the Guardian hailing the presence of “Ukrainian techno” at Glastonbury 2022 as one of “30 acts not to miss”. But is highlighting Go_A (hardly a techno band) an attempt by the Guardian to make up for its scant coverage of Ukrainian artists in its music pages since February 2022, or just evidence that Ukraine is now seen as sexy?
Indeed sexiness, was addressed, albeit indirectly, by the first key speaker at the Next Festival conference Boom, Agata Pyzik, a critic and author of Poor but Sexy: Culture Clashes in Europe East and West (Zero Books, 2013). “As far as sexiness goes, in Poland we definitely consider ourselves unsexy. So do must other post-communist countries.”
Speaking via zoom from Warsaw as a result of long covid, Pyzik asked, “What influence is the cold war tradition still having on our contemporary lives? What is the centre? And does a centre still exist?” The answer, she stated is, yes, with the centre being in the West (meaning Western Europe + the US) as the holders of the majority of the capital. To illustrate her point she showed three music clips.
The first by the Moldovan band O-Zone – “Dragostea Din Tei” playing 90s synth pop that was briefly picked up by Western audiences as “cool”; the second from the Slovak singer Dara Rolins, at a time when she tried to reinvent herself and released an album in English to appeal directly to Western audiences; and the third, “Manirna Muzyka”, from the Ukrainian experimental music group Cukor Bila Smerť (Sugar White Death) lead by Svitlana Nianio, who released on the Polish label Koka. “It is of course the West, like in the good old days, that we’re supposed to model ourselves on,” she wrote in Poor But Sexy, and that still seems to be the case with other variables at play.
Things that were considered shameful, or just plain drab, by Eastern Europeans and that they tried to get rid of, have been reappropriated by the Generation Z as some kind of cool.
And so it is that O-Zone became viral by virtue of their “kitschy and eccentric” take on Italo disco, while Dara Rolins failed to ignite any interest with her carbon copy brand of Western pop, whereas a band that never courted success like Cukor Bila Smerť ended up becoming cult thanks to their “folk” appeal. “Every time a record is reviewed in the Wire or The Quietus in recent years very often, when coming from Eastern Europe, it is inscribed in folklore culture,” pointed out Pyzik adding that, “With the war in progress, the rediscovery of the Slavic past is a popular trend in Poland.” This, Pyzik finds problematic as it raises two questions, “What is original?” And, “For whom?”
Pyzik’s conclusion is that the East is always trying to bow to the West because the West is the centre.
Olga Beckenshtein, the second speaker, also inscribed her contribution within a post-colonial framework. Beckenshtein is a member of the Closer team in Kyiv and the founder of the festival “Am I Jazz?”. As a cultural player, she was quick to point out, she enjoys a privileged position and was able to take up a residency in Trnava back in July 2022. And yet, she stated, she also comes from the unprivileged position of Ukrainian culture, which suffers from ongoing imperial oppression (the 1920s and 30s Ukrainian language poets and writers known as the Executed Renaissance being a prime example of this, or the branding of Ukrainian artists such as Malevitch as Russian, by Moma another symptomatic case of its ongoing effects).
Beckenshtein also addressed the cultural trope “Is Kyiv the new Berlin?”, noting that, “Ukraine is the territory for the nostalgia, or the imagined nostalgia, of how Berlin looked like in the 90s,” the problem being one of not recognising the Ukrainian electronic scene as Ukrainian culture. “Lots of people come to Ukraine to experience the nightlife, but at the same time the coverage of Ukrainian producers is not that great even during this war,” she pointed out.
And while there have been attempts to address the issue, as the next speaker Lucia Udvardyová, indicated, with initiatives like the platform Eastbloc af Sound Alliance (formerly the Eastbloc Antifascist Alliance) and “Tracks East” on Arte, a series that “goes east and meets artists and journalists to get a different perspective on the war in Ukraine”, more needs to be done.
Udvardyová herself is one of the promotors of Easterndaze, a project that explores and highlights the best new music from Central and Eastern Europe through a variety of channels, including radio shows, concerts, music releases and a blog. What’s more, Easterndaze does not impose a patronising Western view on a “cool” (or “sexy”) Eastern Europe, as it originates and operates within Eastern Europe.
A similar attitude has been taken up by The Wire and The Quietus, whose coverage of the Eastern European scene is mostly delegated to locally based journalists, such as Jakub Knera (Poland), and Yaryna Denysyuk (Ukraine) – for the Quietus, and Ivan Shelekhov (Ukraine) – for The Wire (Global Ear). And yet, while The Quietus has somehow redressed the Western bias it displayed in its end of the year list from 2021, The Wire is still lagging behind in this respect, with little mention of Ukraine in their eoty issue from any of the invited guest contributors. It is difficult to break this Western-centric bias though, when English remains the dominat language placing the narrative axis squarely on the anglophone world. The proliferation of English language podcasts run by Ukrainians and featuring Ukrainians like Ukrainian Spaces, Explaining Ukraine, and Air Raid Siren is an attempt to claim back agency.
Also on Ukraine, there were a couple of awkward moments during the Next festival, with a contribution by Goodipal (Parl Kristian Bjørn Vester), who sent a provocative letter apologising for not being able to attend with a series of statements that put the moderator, soundartist and curator Ján Solčáni, ill at ease.
01. Physical war is shit and only people dealing with money, power and the destruction of the planet benefit from it.
Afghanistan, Kosova, Yemen, Ukraine – it’s all the same thing.
DO not hate on the aggressor of any conflict as they are, just as bad as yourself
-IN most conflicts Go Spiritual, as spiritual warfare seems to be a better choice
06. Globality is over, it was a U.S. dream.
Alexander Dugin was right, BUT that does not make him right only just far right – and right and left is wrong – LOVE Rules…
feel more then sorry for people send (sic) to wars for stupid ideologies and bad income
I believe these statements speak for themselves and need no further comment.
“Strasty”, a performative reportage based on field notes collected in the Carpathian Mountains by Lucia Nimcová and David Petráš also made some uncomfortable, as it was seen as exploitative.
To put things in context, Strasty should be seen as part of Nimcová’s long standing research into the linguistic and musical culture of the Rusyn community she hails from and has studied for the past two decades in Slovakia, Poland and Ukraine.
At the time of Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, Nimcová then started recording khroniky (Ukranian folk songs). Considered too crude, the khroniky have never been properly documented.
Adopting an ethnomusicologist approach in times of war, though, is a different matter. Due to martial law, public performances have been forbidden in Ukraine, although these measure have since been relaxed allowing for fund-raising parties and other cultural events to take place.
Lucia Nimcová and David Petráš visited the Ivano-Frankisk region in Western Ukraine, and filmed funerals where war songs are now sometimes played.
Dressing the stage as a wake with candles and offerings of food they shared with the audience, Nimcová and Petráš interspersed documentary footage they took with brief musical interludes. While there is a need to document the suffering of people in times of war, there is also a danger of turning this into a “spectacle of grief”. Showing people mourning the loss of a loved one does not increase our understanding of current events, but does it nonetheless elicit sympathy?
In Regard the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag writes, “The imaginary proximity to the suffering inflicted on others that is granted by images suggests a link between the faraway sufferers – seen close-up on the television screen – and the privileged viewer that is simply untrue, that is yet one more mystification of our real relations to power. So far as we feel sympathy, we feel we are not accomplices to what caused the suffering. Our sympathy proclaims our innocence as well as our impotence. To that extent, it can be (for all our good intentions) an impertinent – if not inappropriate repose.
To set aside the sympathy we extend to others beset by war and murderous politics for a reflection on how our privileges are located on the same map as their suffering, and may – in ways we might prefer not to imagine – be linked to their suffering, as the wealth of some may imply the destitution of others, is a task for which the painful, stirring images supply only an initial spark.”
To clarify the intentions of the Lucia Nimcová and David Petráš, I am including here an interview with both.
“Strasty” is a performative reportage based on field notes collected during the last months in the Carpathian mountains. You both do field work and collect field recordings or document sonic environments of border regions. Spending time with local communities and earning their trust is an integral part of the work. How did you go about selecting the families and communities you worked with the Ivano-Frankivsk region and how much time did you spend with them and in the region?
Lucia: I went to the region for the first time, after Orange Revolution as an election observer in 2005. Then I spent half year traveling across the Ukraine in 2006, sleeping in my car, or in people’s houses, depending on the region. I am glad I travelled also around Crimea, when it was still part of Ukraine.
Afterwards I focused on Rusyn minority language and culture mostly in Slovakia and Poland. I came back to western part of the Ukraine in 2014, when war started, and stayed there till now in any possible moment I can get from my family and two children.
I feel there is not much time left to do the work I need to do. I tried different ways of finding living culture as I have remembered it from my childhood in the same mountains, but from the Slovak side. The language and way of singing I grew up with. I was tired of discussions how it should be done properly. My minority is well known by not finding right people and ways to represent who they really are. They like to do things “po nashemu” (in our way), that’s exactly what I have decided to do. I went to the mountains from where my grand grand father came before first war. I consider Rusyn history extraordinary case study for understanding European history. It’s all mixed up, but very interesting. As I grew up in the village, which does not exist anymore, because communist decided to build a water dam there and relocated 7 villages during the 80ties to the typical Communists blocks of prefabs, I lost the place I loved dearly and ended up, trying to find it in a new communities, living similar life I remembered, in strong connection with environment, self sufficient. I am obsessed with my minority language and all the dialects of the Carphatian mountains.
I tried different strategies finding people, I was interested in. I ended up asking in the shops, markets, churches, roadsides: “do you know old badly behaved women, who can sing about what life can bring?, who would remember songs by heart and like to share it?”
David: In 2020, I was invited by Lucia to help her with the research. I started listening to her archives and later we moved into the field. When the full-scale invasion began, we packed our car with food and supplies and went to visit the elderly women whose lives we had started documenting regularly two years earlier. We had no expectations and it was likely that the type of songs she/we collected before would not be sung anymore. We found out that some of the women did not receive a pension because of the war and we tried to help them with the purchase of medicines, health care, animal feed and so on. We continued with the same approach to work as before. Our practice is based on building personal relationships and we have never separated it from volunteering. Almost everyone we met had a tragic experience. Some of the recorded burials were of grandchildren or other family members of these women. We followed their life stories and the function of music in these difficult times. Since February, we have spent approximately 4 months in the field.
You prefaced your work by stating that since February 24 music in Ukraine is prohibited. As I understand there were restrictions as a consequence of martial law, but the situation has been fluid with parties and fundraising events now taking place throughout the country on a daily basis. Many electronic musicians from Ukraine have spoken to me about their complex relationship to music ever since the full scale invasion. Most couldn’t even listen to music to begin with, as a result of having to be alert in case of shelling, but the majority have now resumed their practice. Why did you choose to focus mostly on mourning with war songs now becoming part of that sonic environment?
Lucia: Honestly, I do not know what is happening in electronic or any sophisticated musicians scene, as I work only with local musicians, many of them just normal people not involved in any scene obviously. I can not speak for the whole Ukraine as it is huge country and I work for many years only in few villages to get to know the place and people deeply. They stop doing big weddings or family celebrations till war ends. You can meet people having small weddings, having drinks on the roadside, talking jokes, but not singing.
Most of the singing is happening in the churches, or funerals, that’s where people I love moved to. It is heart breaking to follow the situation month by month, especially when you realise that Slovakia is in general pro Russian and I have lost few friends, because of that. When my kids would say at the playground of my hometown that their mother came from Ukraine, we had to leave very often as I refused to talk to people who are in any ways supportive of Russian invasion and it is majority unfortunately, also in other countries around . Imagine you want to continue your research, but environment changes drastically. These people lived through three wars and their children have to die again.
David: The work contained this text: “Since February 24, it is forbidden to perform music outside religious ceremonies in the Ivano-Frankivsk region.” The entire research is situated in the specific environment of the Carpathian Mountains, and the quotes used in the performance are based on interviews with local folk musicians. It is difficult to talk about a music scene, since many of the musicians are ordinary people with other professions. In the area, it is natural for everyone to sing or play. Owning a musical instrument is like having a hammer in your house… Many of them do not have the opportunity to play and earn money, since wedding ceremonies can only take place in churches without any informal celebrations. From February, the culture gradually moved from homes to churches, where people prayed and sang every night for the return of their relatives from the battle front. We documented the diversity of liturgical chants, language dialects, religious songs and the connection of the Stations of the Cross with the current situation in Ukraine. A few weeks later, there was no time for daily prayers, as the number of soldiers’ funerals increased.
The meaning of singing sad songs remains the same as before. They help people survive and overcome their grief and loss of loved ones. At the same time, they can identify with historical songs sung during other wars. Unfortunately, many of the lyrics sound like they were written today. For example, “Chuyesh, brate miy (Zhuravli)”, which we recorded at one of the funerals, was sung at the beginning of the 20th century in labor camps in Kyiv by prisoners of war from Galicia (Halich). Historical records describe the song as a nightly prayer or a last cry for help. I think it’s important to record the contemporary use of historical songs as well as the context in which they are performed.
You were obviously given access to funerals, and welcomed by grieving families, which is a testament to the relationship of trust you must have built, but how does filming grieving families deepen our understanding of present circumstances or the human condition, and what would you reply to those who might criticise you for monetising the grief of Ukrainian people?
Lucia: I would first of all say that I am not talking for whole Ukraine. It is huge country. I try to stay away from anyone, who feels like capable of talking for the whole nation in general. I just continue what I consider important in given situation and context I understand. I try to be helpful and honest in a way I consider relevant. I wish good luck to anyone who will try to find better way for sharing the grief as I believe, many people in Slovakia have not much connections to the experiences of the families just few kilometres across the border. I have no problem to be criticised, as that is naturally part of my job to be far away from any comfort zone. I want to cross any possible borders. I do it as honestly as I could. I have no real profit doing it, as I am freelancer and almost any support I get I try to bring back to people I work with. My projects are as low budgets as possible, because I like to have freedom to improvise, also while finding the ways to share it.
David: A military funerals are often visited by journalists who broadcast live video via social networks. They stream it from start to finish, with no consideration of what should be shared… It is important for the family as well as hundreds of visitors to know that the deceased soldier sacrificed his/her life for their country and for all of them. The price of this is the loss of intimacy and the transformation of a very personal moment into a public event. Sharing these experiences may probably strengthen the unity in Ukraine. That is the one of the reasons why we decided to share some scenes with the Slovak audience, which is often not in contact with what is happening a few kilometers from the border. People in Slovakia often do not realize that Ukrainians are also fighting for the freedom of other European countries. The latest polls show that the majority of the population wants Russia to win the war…
How did you devise the performative aspect of Strasty with the repeated mercy meal offerings and the mimicking of certain aspects and scenes of the film like the scene at the end with the girl in the park dancing to recorded music?
Lucia: I was inspired by the position of the volunteers who are risking their own lives to bring dead bodies to their families and then taking care of the whole communities to survive given situation. Very often close neighbours would do the same. They are there to make sure, everyone who is present feel comfortable, while grieving as they believe it’s important for dead one to get to the other world peacefully.
I talked to these volunteers, mostly young women, how they could be so calm and strong. They would just say, we have to be strong as situation is gonna be even worse soon. I share their opinion, as I studied what happened in Chechnya, Syria, Transnistria, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Crimea and Donbas.
The girl which was dancing to recorded music was refugee from eastern part of the Ukraine, finding a way to enjoy herself in Carpatians, trying to forget for few minutes, what she escaped from, but dancing at the area, where all killed heroes are officially welcomed by the people they use to share their lives with as a first place, before they will get to their homes to be buried. She does not rally recognise the place, as she is trying to dance to the music, lost in her own world for few minutes, which is understandable, but not acceptable by anyone, who knows the reality of that special memorial place, build for the heroes of Maidan 2014. “Nebesna sotnja”
I was documenting soldiers’ funerals since then, but could not imagine it would become the most usual, every day ritual and folklore of the region I love so much. I have cried a lot, before being able to finish Strasty. We have decided that it is the most important part of our archive, which had to be shared with public at the NEXT festival, but we have no need to repeat the same form or performance anywhere else, as it was meant to be shown there. Few of my friends in Bratislava did not make it, but we do not repeat. I might try to make other form in any pro Russian countries around, but it will be always site specific.
David: We noticed that playing music in public space is also accepted during competitions and education. We filmed the dancing girl at a talent competition for refugees who are looking for their place in a new and unknown environment. Also our musical performance in Strasty was based on a series of master classes from local musicians that we organized during the last months. They taught us how to play the local tunes and I promised to share them further.
Have you presented the work in Ukraine and if so, what has the reaction been?
Lucia: Why would I go to villages to present funerals they are living every day, there is no need for that. My dream is to have small bus and present other part of the Archive, full of survival humour, when situation allows.
David: I’m not sure I understand the question. Do you think that an exhibition of photographs of dead bodies and devastated towns in the place where they were taken would have any meaning now? Local people often told us to share across the border what is happening in their villages. Now we try to bring them a positive energy. We sing them the songs they taught us or we listen to recordings together…
[interview conducted by email]
Leaving the issue of Ukraine aside, The Next Festival excelled as always in the synergies it created and the audacious pairings it presented.
The UK computer-based artist, musician and programmer Tom Mudd, performed alongside the Hungarian drummer Áron Porteleki in a daring fusion of digital and analogue. Known for creating digital models of physically impossible brass instruments (Brass Cultures) and developing a new digital synthesis technique that uses networks of resonated Duffing Oscillators to create very physical sounds (Gutter Synthesis), Mudd’s sonic world is nonetheless supple in a live context. Like questioning how bumblebees maintain flight stability, this was the kind of performance that shouldn’t have worked, at least on paper, but did, with Proteleki providing enough flapping of wings, twisting and rotating on drums, to make the combined performance fly.
Another unlikely but winning combo, was that of Tuvan singer Sainkho Namtchylak and Belgian artist and filmmaker Jochem Baelus (aka Slumberland) famed for his signature battery of sewing machines, projectors and dismantled mechanical objects. Sainkho, a true master of vocal techniques, has always explored different territories, from throat singing to folk and jazz with a healthy dose of electronica, going for contamination and akways rejecting spurious notions of authenticity. Lending her voice to Slumberland’s percussive fury, proved that, “Real imagination is technical imagination” as Francis Bacon put it, with consummate artistry in evidence. It also made for a very physical performance that lifted their studio work to a whole other level. The definition of sound sculpture never seemed more appropriate, one made out of molten lava.
Other highlights included the Budokan Boys, for fans of “weird, extremely dark, genre-bending music”, providing “deranging entertainment”.
On stage, Jeff T Byrd and Michael Jeffrey Lee strip off, but their sliding scale of sinfulness stops short of debauchery, way before they reach Good Times Street. Theirs is a strip tease that doesn’t go anywhere, it’s the staging of a ludicrous debacle, that leaves them in unflattering long johns and wife beaters. The Budokan Boys court ridicule and place themselves in a position of vulnerability, – but hey, that is how you become a clown, – and their live set elicits both laughter and tears, switching from the awkward deconstruction of masculinity of “My Old Friend”, from Dad is Bad (2019), to issues of bereavement that underlie their latest album, So Broken Up About You Dying.
Forgoing any pleasantries and platitudes, the Budokan Boys set “the whisper of blood and pleadings of bone marrow” to the manic beats of synths and sax, relying on the grotesque to build up sweat. A bittersweet take on loss, middle age, human apathy and loneliness.
Responding to a venue and adapting to the live environment is a challenge that reaps rewards, as Rie Nakajima, Limpe Fuchs, and Kaðlín Sara Ólafsdóttir with Toby Kruit, demonstrated.
Performing at the Slovak National Gallery (a brutalist building designed by Vladimír Dedeček), Nakajima introduced a tiny cluster of chaos within the museum’s clear lines with her trademark constellation of mundane objects and materials, glass jars, tin boxes, lids, plastic tubes, tin foil and paper, which she gives voice to by way of small mechanical motors. Preoccupied with making “sound stand”, Nakijama sees her work as sculpture rather than sound installations.
Picking up echoes from the work of Slovak artist Július Koller, renowned for his Antihappenings and Antipictures, Nakajima responded with her “anti-sonic” interventions following an “anti-narrative” approach. It could be argued that the work of both artists indicates a direction but not a message, pointing to non hierarchical communication, creating possibilities of exchange that overcome the power systems.
On the opposite side of the spectrum in terms of scale, Limpe Fuchs made an impressive musical offering at the Church of the Elevation of the Holy Cross (Kostol Povýšenia Svätého kríža – Klarisky) with her homemade instruments and sound material consisting of wood and granite stone rows, ringing bronze within ballast string instruments – as well as drums with skin or bronze drumhead, and violin.
Fuchs not only listens to the resonance of the performance space, developing musical ideas and a directing concept, but is also attentive to the audience, as if taking her cue from it, and inviting it to play her instruments after the performance. Within this particular context she seemed to be transposing the cosmic magnetic vibrations that rule us. The flow and movement of Fuchs musical improvisations giving rise to forms and colours spoke of connectedness with infectious joy.
Also at Klaristy, the Icelandic composers Kaðlín Sara Ólafsdóttir performed on clarinet, vocals, and tapes, together with Toby Kruit on Korg and Modular, presenting variations of her debut album Hljóðfirring centred on the concept of home spread across different cities. Setting up a dialogue between memory and space, Ólafsdóttir played field recordings from the Hague, where she resides, together with poems from a found tape, birdsong and traffic noise as well as material she collected in Bratislava. Stripping back some of the effects Ólafsdóttir had originally programmed after soundcheck revealed the acoustic qualities of the space, the duo introduced loops to further enhance the notion of echoes and recollections from places we inhabit, not just physically but also within our minds and imagination.
Loops featured heavily in the work of two other very different performers, Julia Reidy, with a premiere of Non-Linear Stages, a new work for spatialised re-tuned electric guitar and Lyra Pramuk, who constructs walls of sound solely by exploring, manipulating and layering her voice. Whereas the former induced a meditative trance like state, the latter cloaked her pop sensibility underneath a veil of futuristic folklore. Both effective in their own, with Pramuk bringing the audience to its feet for the finale.
Amongst the other featured artists during the week long festival, it’s hard not mention Ryoichi Kurokawa‘s audiovisual project “s.asmbli / subassemblies”. As the artist explained in an interview with the digital publication Stir, “The main data source for this project comes from 3D data collected by laser scanning human-made architecture, ruins and nature. These are then distorted and reconstructed into each module as subassemblies in order to create a renewed timeline with layers of order and disorder playing with each other.”
Against the backdrop of the full-scale Russian invasion of neighbouring Ukraine, Kurokawa’s eerie and chilling work could be read as a dystopic rendering of a post-nuclear world, one marred by conflict. And yet, reading Markiyan Kamysh’s Stalking the Atomic City – life among the decadent and the depraved of Chenobyl, (“…you don’t think of clichés like ‘postapocalyptic’ or ‘industrial’. Actually you never think about such stupid things.”), made me think how spurious this reading might be, especially as it was not the one intended by the artist. Nonetheless, leaving any artwork open to interpretation will inevitably lead to unexpected connections, especially in a festival like Next that promotes dialogue.
[All photography Šimon Lupták]
(Gianmarco Del Re)