DATELINE NEW YORK: Kochan and Kytasty delve deeply into musical past

by Helen Smindak

Last week, "Dateline" focused on the wealth of Ukrainian melodies and musical elements found in the work of classical and contemporary composers. This "Dateline" is zeroing in on another aspect of Ukrainian music: the rich traditions of ancient Ukrainian songs, rearranged and presented in a contemporary manner to expand the sphere of Ukrainian culture.

The idea of presenting music from Ukraine's past in a modern context may have occurred to others, but it was Winnipeg singer Alexis Kochan who explored it fully and brought it to fruition in three recent recordings highlighting Ukrainian ritualistic songs. Reviewers of the recordings "Czarivna" (Princess) and "Paris to Kyiv" and the CD "Paris to Kyiv: Variances" point to the collections as "something completely different," "soothing and quite enchanting" and "enthralling." Some listeners have called the music "organic."

During a recent visit to New York to confer about upcoming concerts with her newest musical collaborator, bandurist Julian Kytasty, Ms. Kochan talked about her special passions: ethnicity and Ukrainian folk song. Contributing to our dialogue was Mr. Kytasty himself, a third-generation bandurist who has spent several years concertizing and teaching courses in North and South America, Europe, Australia and Ukraine.

"This whole idea of the Ukrainian folk song - we Ukrainians really don't know how beautiful it is and how fortunate we are to have this incredible literature," Ms. Kochan explained. "Folk music has moved so many composers and so many artists in interesting ways, because it is carved through the generations and becomes this perfect jewel by the time it gets to us through oral transmission. Every tune that I've dug up has always moved me completely, and it moves other people as well, not just Ukrainians. It seems to me that the mission here is to popularize the Ukrainian folk song, since there is such a great interest in world music now."

"We perform a lot for ourselves, in celebration of our own folklore and our own ethnicity," she continued. "But we've never reached out beyond that. There's no place for the fourth- and fifth-generation Ukrainian Canadians and Americans who are sometimes on the fringe of the Ukrainian mainstream to reach it. Music can bring them in, especially if that music speaks to them, has some kind of contemporary quality, some kind of edginess."

Ms. Kochan has held these beliefs for two decades, ever since she visited Ukraine with a Winnipeg choral group. Deeply impressed by the sights and sounds of Kyiv, as well as side visits to Suzdal, Uman and Odesa, she decided she would return to Ukraine's capital "to spend some time excavating songs that come from the depths of our tradition" and to explore a city that she believes should have been "the Paris of Eastern Europe."

Though she had earned a master's degree in psychology from the University of Manitoba while simultaneously studying music, she devoted her full concentration to a career as singer, music teacher, producer and recording artist. The contralto spent six months in Ukraine studying folk music that, she says with great excitement, "comes from the deepest layers of our traditions, music from 1,000 years ago."

Ms. Kochan's first album, "Czarivna," released in 1983, featured 17 Ukrainian ritualistic songs that traced early Ukrainian rural life through three seasons and the festivals and songs that marked them. Arranged and scored by Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra concertmaster Arthur Polson, it was recorded with eight WSO musicians. The pre-Christian, somber folk songs were a far cry from the lively folk dance melodies usually associated with Ukrainian music, but the album was warmly received by reviewers.

In 1994, the "Paris to Kyiv" recording tastefully incorporated diverse musical styles, featuring Ms. Kochan's ethereal voice and a variety of wind and reed instruments played by Alexander Boychouk and Petro Iureschuk.

The fascinating CD, "Paris to Kyiv: Variances," released in 1996, features Ms. Kochan, Mr. Kytasty and his bandura, the viola of Richard Moody and such exotic instruments as Northumbrian pipes, udu drum, djembe and buffalo drum. "Variances" is a multi-layered fabric of voices and instruments that weaves together pre-Christian ritual songs, fragments of medieval chant and contemporary influences from polytonality to jazz. Like the other recordings, it was produced under the Olesia label.

Over the years, Ms. Kochan's reputation as a performer, recording artist, educator and speaker has grown. An invitation in 1993 to teach Ukrainian folk songs at a Jewish klezmer camp in West Virginia led to a concert at New York's Jewish Museum, where she and Mr. Kytasty teamed up for the first time. The concert was repeated in Toronto and Berlin as part of the "Brave New World" production directed by Michael Alpert of New York. The team is now looking forward to a large-scale concert later this year at the World Music Institute in New York. She performed both as a soloist and with the Vesnivka Choir during the May 17 concert held in conjunction with the Ukrainian National Association's 34th Convention in Toronto.

Since Mr. Kytasty is a master of folk styles and original arrangements and reinterpretations of traditional music, the Kochan/Kytasty collaboration has become extremely successful. There's a good chance the pair will perform with an ensemble of musicians at the Canadian Embassy in Washington and do an East Coast concert tour in the fall. There are also preparing a new CD project.

Mr. Kytasty finds that one of the interesting features of their music project it that "it's a process rather than a single thing."

"A lot of the music we do has different versions already, and much of it can sound very different depending on whether we're doing it by ourselves or with musicians on a recording."

While they are eager to continue their joint appearances, both have individual goals to pursue. Ms. Kochan would like to do some touring and teaching in Ukraine as part of her folk-song mission - to reach Ukrainians with the help of Canadian funding and help them develop strength through their music.

"I'm specifically interested in Ukrainian voices and, in a bigger way, in Ukrainians having a voice through music. In the process of democratizing, they're dealing with so many basic issues. The arts are very poor; they're dying. I think the people of Ukraine need to know that this is a temporary situation," she observed.

Mr. Kytasty, on his part, is involved with concert tours of the Ukrainian Bandurist Chorus and its summer workshops in Emlenton, Pa., and teaching bandura classes at St. George's Academy in New York City and in Yonkers, N.Y. He would like to organize a workshop for all the New York area groups he oversees, including the New York SUM-A group and the class in Astoria taught by his assistant, Alla Kutsevych.

Since our meeting at the Veselka restaurant, Ms. Kochan and Mr. Kytasty have given concerts in New Haven, Conn., Cambridge, Mass., and Boston, where WGBH Radio taped an interview with the two performers for the Boston radio program "The World."

On May 2, they brought their contemporary stylings of old Ukraine and a few of Hryhoriy Kytasty's 20th century compositions to the Ukrainian Institute of America. Ms. Kochan's throaty contralto and Mr. Kytasty's quiet tenor voice blended exquisitely in traditional wedding songs, lullabies, funeral laments, old carols, Kozak tunes, a Chumak melody and a medieval Kyivan chant.

For accompaniment, Mr. Kytasty played the sopilka (flute) and three different types of bandura - an instrument made by a bandura maker in Ukraine to the layout of the instruments designed by the Ukrainian Bandurist Capella in 1946, a small-size reproduction of an 18th century bandura with wooden tuning pins, and a standard factory-made bandura. The banduras were held upright or flat on the musician's lap as they were strummed. At one point, Mr. Kytasty created a rhythmic beat by slapping his hand against the sounding board of a bandura.

Outstanding in the program was the selection "Vocalise," in which pre-Christian carols were fused together with Ms. Kochan's wordless singing and Mr. Kytasty's words in song. A humorous song about trouble "Pro Bidu," came from the old repertoire of Ukraine's "lirnyky" (hurdy-gurdy musicians) and "kobzari." The lullaby "Oy Khodyt Son" offered a pleasant surprise: as the quiet melody flowed along, listeners could hear the haunting strains of George Gershwin's "Summertime." Ms. Kochan's explanation: Gershwin was deeply affected by the Ukrainian lullaby when he heard it sung by the Koshetz Ukrainian National Choir at Carnegie Hall in 1929.

As an encore, there was a new arrangement of the beautiful folk song "Oy u Poli Krynytsia Bezodnia" (In the field there is a bottomless well).

These were songs and melodies that brought the past to life, ennobled the spirit and touched the hearts of all who listened.

Copyright © The Ukrainian Weekly, May 24, 1998, No. 21, Vol. LXVI

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