↬ Twenty-two – 04: Poetry, Threads 🧵

Hi, I’m Rudiger Meyer and this is my monthly newsletter covering what I’ve been up to and what’s been catching my attention.

In my last newsletter I mentioned that Lene Henningsen, together with whom I work on running Poetisk Podcast, had embarked on some translations of the Ukrainian poets Anna Akhmatova and Taras Shevchenko. Those (Danish) translations have since been completed, recorded and issued in the form of a podcast: Taras & Anna.

Taras Shevchenko (1814-61), was Ukraine’s great national poet from the Romantic era and a symbol of the country’s independence – a political figure, artist, etnografer. Anna Akhmatova (1889-1966), an important and highly loved Russian (Ukrainian born) poet, wrote in the shadow of Stalin, censorship, persecution and fear. Both were national treasures, each in their own way. Both were censored and imprisoned for writing and thinking the way they did.

In her introduction to the podcast Lene, still recovering from a bout of Covid, describes “…fever dreams and fantasies, many of which ended somewhere in Ukraine, and that was perhaps not so strange since many of our thoughts at the moment end there, or dwell there, and perhaps find it difficult to find a way back again.”

That’s certainly something that I can relate to, especially the part about finding one’s way back again. As with the previous month the war has continued to fill my attention. Along with following the day to day developments on the ground there’s also a desire to come to some kind of understanding of the current (cultural) moment.

Kamil Galeev, whom I mentioned in last months newsletter, has continued to post a number of brilliant, if often pointed, Twitter threads that provide a wealth of insights. Here he is on the Hexapodia podcast if you’d like to follow some of what he has to say in audio form.

Kamil has elevated the phenomenon of the Twitter thread 🧵 (see his thread of threads43 in all to date!) to an art form in its own right, and Taras Shevchenko plays an important role (as a contrast to Pushkin) in a recent thread on Russian cultural memes as a crucial background to understanding deep roots of the war. He sums it up as follows:

43. War of memes: why Z-war won’t end with peace

TL;DR Z-war is not about NATO or CSTO. It’s about memes. Russia aims to transform the old “Russian” (=Church Slavonic) sacred community into the unitary Russian nation state extirpating Ukrainian culture

Alexander Pushkin is an important figure in the thread, presented as a centralising force (“Our Everything”) crucial to the legacy of the Russian language and its literature. Kamil also brings up Brodsky, another Russian treasure (and apparently favoured protégé of Akhmatova, who along Nadezhda Mandelstam saw him as a “guiding light that might someday lead Russia back to her own deep roots”). Brodsky defected to the West where he was celebrated and showered with prizes, but for all his Soviet misgivings nevertheless displayed deep rooted Russian-imperialistic views perhaps most clearly expressed in the anti-Ukrainian poem On the Independence of Ukraine, written shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1992.

In this poem Brodsky sends multiple messages to Ukrainians (called with slur “Khokhly”). He:

  1. Tells Ukrainians to go fuck themselves
  2. Predicts: “you, scum will be gangbanged by Poles and Germans”
  3. Wonders if he should spit in Dnieper in order to make it flow backwards
    Kamil Galeev

What I find more interesting however, is the two final lines of Brodsky’s poem. They literally tell to Ukrainians:
“When you are dying and scratching your deathbed, you’ll be wheezing Alexander’s lines and not the Taras’ bullshit”
What does he mean by that?
Kamil Galeev

While Pushkin celebrated Russian militarism, Shevchenko criticised it. He sympathised with the mountaineers fighting against the Russian conquest, lamented the losses of Russian conscripts. While human misery meant nothing to Pushkin, it was highly important for Shevchenko
Kamil Galeev

The entire thread is well worth a thorough read.

(I’ve since been wondering why Malcolm Gladwell named his media company after Pushkin – and found some answers on their website. Diversity… mmm.)

Another example of how easy and normal it has become for a wide range of culture to be subsumed under the “Russian” banner – a recent Ubu Web tweet drawing attention to:

Russian Futurist Sound Recordings from the GLM Collection (1920-1959). Including David Burljuk, Velimir Khlebnikov, Aleksei Kruchenykh, Lidia Libedinskaja, Vladimir Maïakovski, with readings by Roman Jakobson [MP3]: https://ubu.com/sound/russian_futurists.html

To which (retweeted by Ubu) Joakim replied:

@ubuweb Burljuk was Ukrainian, Lidia was Azerbaijani, Maiakovski was Georgian… in the light of current events and the long overdue need of decolonizing ex-Soviet countries, it can’t be overlooked.

* * *

Some reading and listening: two articles covering the experimental/new music scene in Ukraine from different angles:

I was struck by a comment in the first article highlighting how we’ve been thrown from one extreme to another within a short space of time, from the quiet introversion of the pandemic to the loud extroversion of the war:

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.

* * *

I went with keeping the Taras & Anna podcast somewhat simple. Due to Covid the best that Lene could do was record her readings of the poems on her phone and as a result much of my work involved simply cleaning up the recordings and trying to get them to sound as good as I could given the circumstances. Rather than jumping into some kind of movie-like sound-bed that follows the narratives of poems I decided to keep it simple, almost conceptual, with a more or less constant river and forest background for Shevchenko’s Pyrchynna and some dog barks (spontaneously contributed by Lene’s dog while she was making the recordings) as a kind of punctuation between the Akhmatova recordings. An element both raw and primitive, as Lene pointed out. Nature and animals.

For a biography that reads more easily and provides a little more information on Shevchenko’s poems than the Wikipedia entry, I found this page on the Encyclopaedia of Ukraine useful.

Prychynna (The Bewitched Woman, 1837), the poem that Lene translated and included in the podcast, follows the lines of many of his early works, displaying “an affinity with Ukrainian folk ballads as is evident in their plots and supernatural motifs. Although Shevchenko’s early poetic achievements were evident to his contemporaries, it was not until his second period (1843–5) that through his poetry he gained the stature of a national bard.”

I’ve been thinking of a quote tweeted by I Care if You Listen outlining a difference between film and opera music:

But in opera, the music often introduces the emotion, and the character sings into the emotional context provided by that music. That’s one of many ways music takes the lead in opera in ways it usually doesn’t in film. https://buff.ly/3xCpxXJ

With the podcast work the sound and music is often following the spoken text, as in film (though music can play an important role in introducing things there too). I’m wondering if there might be a third position between the two or oblique to it.

Alongside Taras & Anna I’ve made some more progress on Atomar, my other project with Lene based around her collection of 40 short poems. With the recordings of the poems in place I’ve begun to assemble field recordings and piano music around them. Sometimes building off the speech melodies to some extent, but also largely teasing improvised material into some kind of shape. Here another ICIYL quote comes to mind:

“I don’t like to just write notation from my head ­– it really comes from making sounds in real time through improvising and playing.”

Which plays off another:

In the model of ‘genius’ which surrounds the imagined Western classical composer, the body is simply ignored, assumed to be bionic.

The nice thing about the podcast projects is that they provide a space free of the conventions/expectations of the ‘new music’ scene.

* * *

Since I decided to restrict all the music for Atomar to that which can be played on a piano, my intonation experiments have been put aside somewhat, and it’s been fun to approach music from other angles again.

The tuning stuff is still there in the background though. I did spend a little time experimenting with Ableton’s new Microtuner, which works beautifully with their Wavetable synth. (Of course, not everyone is satisfied with the ‘ideological’ aspects of Ableton’s offering – see Peter Kirn’s coverage of the issues on CDM.) While I would have liked to see ratios rather than cents as the main interface element, Scala files are easily imported and it remains a useful tool. I find it wonderful that all these possibilities are now so readily available.

Marcus Hobbs has been working on a plugin version of his wonderful Wilsonic app, with expanded possibilities in the desktop version. Some video demos of the progress are available on YouTube.

Well-established standardisations providing the ground for a multitude of new vernaculars?

All the best
↬ Rudiger

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<a rel="me" class="p-name u-url" href="https://rudigermeyer.com">Rudiger Meyer</a> is a composer interested in the play between traditional concert music and new media.