Issue 26 / 2015

Sounds of Maidan

Lyubov Morozova , transl. Katarzyna Kramnik

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Kiev, the night between the 24th and 25th of January 2014. Air temperature: – 18 degrees. A thick layer of ice and dirty snow, opaque clouds of steam coming out of the participants’ mouths. A violent clash in Vulutsya Grushevskogo between Maidan activists and militia continues. At the other end of a so-called protestors’ town near the Kiev City National Administration (KCNA, ukr: KGGA), a young boy wearing a bulletproof vest and balaclava plays a piano painted in the colours of the national flag. However, he plays neither The Dogs Waltz, nor any of the Uprising’s army songs. Earnestly, he flicks through his notes, freeing music composed by the contemporary Italian minimalist Ludovico Einaudi, subtle and delicate.

In a couple of hours, a video snapped by a random passer-by appears on YouTube, entitled An extremist seized the piano. The irony in this title seems like a parody of kiselevshhina, the language used by Dmitriy Kiselev in his propaganda TV show, currently flooding a vast number of Ukrainian TV channels. In this case, however, propaganda is powerless. You may present facts in a particular way and comment on the meetings or clashes with governmental forces, but it is not possible to prevent the sympathy this video evokes. In fact, this is a picture of a contemporary knight who owns all the noble traits related to his archetype: manhood, reason, will and faithfulness, generosity and respect. And, of course, kindness towards medieval Minnesingers, trouvères and troubadours.

On the morning of December 7th 2013, when Markiyan Maceh of Lviv established the first “revolutionary piano” across a cordon of militia next to the President’s administration in Vulutsya Lyuteranska, he could not have suspected how much unrest this would cause. As a matter of fact, he simply recreated the idea of the “street piano” from Lviv on the Kievian streets. On this day, Markiyan played Waltz Op. 64 No. 2 by Frédéric Chopin, and straight after that somebody from the crowd stepped up to play Ukrainian and foreign tunes, even Murka for the President. However, the “revolutionary piano” in Lyuteranska became a symbolic photograph showing a lonely pianist against a row of militia. Sean Lennon, son of The Beatles’ pacifist singer, posted a photograph on his Facebook profile with a comment: “This photo of a guy [sic] playing Imagine [only Sean knew why he decided it was this song – L.M.] to riot police in the Ukraine is awesome!”

photo: Alexandr Yalovoi

photo: Alexandr Yalovoi

From Lyuteranska, the piano was moved down the street and left in front of the KCNA (KGGA), where it had stayed since December 2013, but the real piano boom started between the end of January and the beginning of February 2014, right after the video mentioned above appeared on the web. The night after this memorable recording, those protesters occupied the Ukrainsky Dom – and immediately began cleaning the rooms and playing music. This time another video appeared on YouTube, showing “the extremist” by the piano, wearing sports clothing and playing Atlantique Nord by French minimalist composer Yann Tiersen.

Children in camouflage wear competed in virtuosity, playing to the activists and resting in the Music Academy rooms or at the KCNA. A joke that the extremists were taking over buildings just to play the pianos went viral. Later on, instruments painted yellow and blue appeared in the central squares of other Ukrainian cities, in almost all the administrative centres. Lugansk chose a different pattern: here, anti-Maidan activists taken by a wave of euphoria destroyed a piano just because it was painted in the national flag’s hues.

An hour of splendour came for Ukraina brand instruments. During the Soviet Union era tens of thousands instruments were manufactured anually. The piano as a sign of good taste stood in almost every other Ukrainian house, no matter whether any family member could actually play it. In the ‘90s and 2000s, the instruments were removed from homes, treated like massive objects occupying too much space. On the announcement boards one could find ads about free piano removal. The musical instrument manufacturer based in Chernyhov, named in honour of Pavel Postyshev, ceased producing the Ukraina piano, using the remaining wood stock on… coffins for an Italian contractor. Afterwards, becoming a Ukrainian revolutionary symbol, Ukraina received PR they could only dream about. Grateful listeners held intense discussions about restoring manufacture in Chernyhov.

Extreme conditions awaited the brave ones who agreed to play in Grushevskaya Ploshchad. During a fragile ceasefire in the neutral zone between the assembly and the militia, on the roof of a burned-out bus, they placed a painted Ukraina instrument. Diminutive Antuanetta Mischenko, a student at the Music Academy and winner of numerous international contests, played the Revolutionary Etude by Chopin, a piece written by the Polish composer at the age of 21, during the November Uprising of 1830. Experiencing intense feelings regarding events connected with the national uprising of Poles against Russian annexation, he wrote in his journal: “The enemy is in the house, the outskirts of the town are destroyed – burned down… Oh God, and thou exist! Why thunder’st thou not?” The composition, almost 200 years old, is full of anxiety and boldness. Then, the aforementioned “piano extremist” (a couple of personal details are known now: his name – Bogdan, age – 29, education – Simferopol Music School) again plays the neutral minimalism of Einaudi. His music is drowned out by Russian chanson on the Berkut side. The contrast between neoclassical and “crime songs” says a lot about the war between high and low culture – louder than thousands of words.

It seems that the stand was not always so musical. Richard Wagner fought at the barricades as a simple trooper and would not carry his flugelhorn around; Ludwig van Beethoven and Frédéric Chopin devoted their revolutionary works to military events, bursting with anger in the concert halls – but not on the streets. Meanwhile, the Maidan witnessed a genuinely sound-powered uprising. The music that detached itself from the traditions of local folk tunes and domestic playing during the last hundred years, the one that turned into a profession and restricted itself from listeners behind solid walls, once again entered human life.

Konstantin Oleynik, a 50-year-old citizen of Kharkiv, gave up music more than twenty years ago and switched to business management. The municipal authorities destroyed his private business and made efforts to seize his apartment. However, the man continued his struggle through all possible means, starting with a housing association, ending at the Presidential Administration, and finally managed to get the flat back. Later on, with a trumpet in his hands, he went to support the others in their fight. During the Maidan events, the trumpeter of Kharkiv always occupied the hottest spots. In Vulutsya Grushevskogo and Vulutsya Institutskaya he played between the bullets, clutching his instrument even while those around him were being shot. The most popular tunes included the national anthem, the uprising song Ribbon by Ribbon (Lenta za Lentoy), and the European Union anthem – Ode to Joy from the 4th Movement of the 9th Symphony by Ludwig van Beethoven. A similar repertoire was also played by the Volhynian musicians, who participated in the revolutionary events since the activists clashed with government forces in Bankovskaya Ploshchad.

Such wonders happened during those times in Kiev city centre! Four highlanders brought trembitas, manufactured according to traditional principles – using thunderstruck spruce timber covered with birch bark. They played in front of a militia cordon in Grushevskaya Ploshchad. Magic took over the site as much as the music did. Furthermore, the traditional folk dances, their monotonous rhythms uniting our ancestors into one body around sacrificial fires, turned into a steady beat coming from rusty petrol tanks. Women went straight from the camp kitchen and spent hours stepping together, turning barricade building and Molotov cocktail tossing into a sort of ritual.

At night, between December 11th and 12th, the alarm rang first in Mikhailovsky monastery heralding further intense fights in the Maidan. The last time a similar song of church bells sounded was during the invasion of Tatar and Mongolian forces in 1240. After receiving about 70 phone calls for help, Ivan Sidor, a theologian working on his PhD, asked Bishop Agapit for his blessing and ran straight to the belfry. From 1 till 5 AM he and five other Academy students rang the bells one after another, intuitively playing traditional warning tunes. None of them had ever done anything like this before: at first, they produced low, heavy sounds, but after four hours of practice they had torn four of the bell ropes off.

Alongside the sacred tune, the Maidan was filled with the melody of the loudly-sung Ukrainian national anthem. It seemed like a sort of a prayer, as universal and embracing as Our Father.

The musical world of the Maidan, reflected in hundreds of videos, spread across YouTube. Even more films found their place in a professional soundtrack. The music selected for this set speaks for itself. Ukrainian bands and singers included Okean Elzy, which gave a historic concert in the Maidan, performing in their first, legendary line-up. The song Drug (Friend), during which the audience raised their mobile phones with the screens switched on, turned the Maidan into a starry sky and entered into the chronicles of the revolution. Another piece – Stena (The Wall) gained a couple of self-made videos depicting the Lviv and Kiev events in chronological order, becoming even more popular than the official broadcast. Similar DIY films were created using Western European rock and pop tunes. A key example: the single Cant Pretend by Tom Odell, with a 23-year-old Briton singing about simple, strong issues that continue to concern young people: of love healing wounds, lovers’ bodies and souls intertwining, and the impossibility of standing against this uniting force – the values of 20-year-olds, the very youngsters who created the video, the ones present in the Maidan snapshots. The video’s creators prefer to understand it as an expression of the simplest and most humane of feelings – embracing love and honour (‘I can’t pretend”, the vocalist repeats). This gesture collides with the idea of “piano extremism”: Maidan events were not a wave of aggression, but a force of love for one’s homeland and its people, who deserved a better life. Nothing complex. Everything as simple as the song’s music and lyrics.

The Lvivian part of the documentaries relied on minimalist music. Among the composers one may find Ludovico Einaudi who, by the way, has never occupied himself with any revolutionary ideas. Grandson of the second Italian president, he was destined by birth to become a political or social activist, though the taciturn boy seemed more involved with music. He graduated from the Giuseppe Verdi conservatory in Milan and went on to an internship working by the side of a modern Italian music icon, Luciano Berio. And yet, the avant-garde is not the opium for the people, and an artist should not expect a splendid career. Einaudi’s struggle to gather the largest audience possible, which lay within his noble genes, resulted in switching to more approachable genres. At first, he became interested in electroacoustics, recognisable in his first album, 1988’s Time Out was a mixture of rock, jazz and electronic sounds with titles expressed in academic forms such as Andante, Adagio and Presto. However, his 1996 album Le Onde proved to be a return to regal style. From then on, each of his CDs has included a score, which utterly delights the composer’s fans. Einaudi used basic harmonious chords – the ones learnt at first by every beginning guitarist – and wrote pieces that were possible for any final year music school student to play. The composer transformed his creative work to introduce compositions based on the universal code of beauty, perceiving all disharmonies as flaws requiring immediate removal.

Einaudi gained popularity together with the trend for minimalist film soundtracks. He received numerous requests to prepare soundtracks for Italian films and, increasingly, international productions. Finally, the maestro earned international fame thanks to his composition Fly, included on the soundtrack for Intouchables, a film by Olivier Nakache and Éric Toledano. From that moment, adoring fans of Yann Tiersen, composer of the soundtrack for Amélie, found a new idol.

photo: Alexandr Yalovoi

photo: Alexandr Yalovoi

Ludovico Einaudi created a great collection of purely beautiful pieces. They were empty gilded frames with perfect proportions, but the pictures were actually added in the Maidan, Kiev. A musical populist, even he could not have dreamed that his creative work would become so popular among the masses. The real feelings, strong emotions and being close to the shocking events filled these tunes with new meaning. The secretive image of a “piano extremist” who would not show his face in public made everyone expect the Maidan activist in army boots, bulletproof vest and balaclava not only to be a brave knight, but also a sensitive artist.

Atlantique Nord by Yann Tiersen, the piece heard on the night of the Ukrainsky Dom takeover, is another key to understanding the musical processes which took place during the revolution, and the strong memories connected with it. This composition was included on the soundtrack for the documentary Tabarly, telling the story of Éric Tabarly, an excellent yachtsman and French fleet officer who gave his life – and death – to the sea. The creator of soundtracks for various films including Amélie, which brought him fantastic popularity, continued the tradition associated with documentary cinema. Minimalism in documentaries began in 1983 with Godfrey Reggio’s controversial Koyaanisqatsi: Life Out of Balance, showing how human civilisation interacts with machines. The moody soundtrack for the film was composed by the American composer Philip Glass, and added a kind of voice-over: replacing narration or actors’ dialogues. The success achieved by the Reggio-Glass partnership was confirmed with the further parts of the trilogy: Powaqqatsi and Naqoyqatsi. As a result, minimalism entered ‘90s and 2000s cinema.

Playing Atlantique Nord that night at the Ukrainsky Dom, “the piano extremist” may have compared himself to brave Tabarly. Or maybe not. Minimalism, a flagship tendency in the last decades’ film soundtracks, sounded surprisingly logical in a situation where everything around was living history in a real cinema. The music one could hear in the Maidan became the essential soundtrack for this three-month motion picture, for the events impossible to believe before the fights had begun and concluded. The events that will remain in our memories like a picture including all of us in the cast.

Lyubov Morozova

translated by: Katarzyna Kramnik

Lyubov Morozova