Viktoria Poliova has written three symphonies, the ballet Gagaku (based on Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s short story Jigoku hen [Hell Screen], 1918), and countless orchestral, choral, vocal, and chamber pieces. Today she ranks with Ukraine’s most interesting and spectacular Ukrainian composers. She was raised in a family with serious musical traditions (her grandfather, Petro Mohyla, is a singer with the Veriovka State Ukrainian Folk Choir under the pseudonym of Valerii Poliovy; her father is the composer Valerii Poliovy). She also embarked on a music career and became an acknowledged and talented composer. Her works are marked by intense drama. Her music is born of a spiritual effort; here the catharsis receives powerful primeval energy.
Her compositions are performed by leading Ukrainian and foreign academic and chamber orchestras. This Kyiv-based composer’s opuses embellish contemporary music festivals in Ukraine, Russia, Sweden, Finland, Switzerland, Italy, France, Poland, United Arab Emirates, US, Peru, and Chili. Her music is put out by the Swiss publishing company Sordino Ediziuns Musicalas. In 2005, the world-famous violinist Gidon Kremer included Viktoria Poliova’s Warm Wind in his concert cycle Sempre Primavera. It was performed by Kremer, Andrei Pushkariov (vibraphone), and the chamber orchestra Kremerata Baltica during concerts in Paris, Vienna, Berlin, Dresden, Madrid, Valencia, Shanghai, Seoul, Singapore, and San Francisco.
On December 5, her Ode to Joy (for soloists, mixed choir, and symphony orchestra) was performed during a gala concert in commemoration of the fall of the Berlin Wall, organized by the German embassy and those of the WW II Allies. Owing to Poliova’s creative endeavors of this composer, Ukraine was worthily represented during that soiree.
And so I started my interview with her Ode.
How did you create this composition?
“The offer to write it came as a surprise. I’d never been to Berlin, I don’t speak German, and I keep my distance from politics, but then I thought it over, I began to regard Berlin as a living organism, I was shown where the Wall had been, I read eyewitness accounts, and realized that it was my theme, that it had some deep-reaching overtones that affected me as a composer as well as individual. After that everything happened quickly. In fact, it took me a month to write the music.”
How did you feel about the Wall?
“As it were a bleeding wound inflicted on the whole body politic. I couldn’t help crying as I read those eyewitness accounts. It was terrible: official knives cutting priceless live human ties.”
What was your composer’s message?
“Schiller put it aptly when he said that all people would treat each other like brothers at one point. It was a very important opportunity to gather a great many people who would deliver this message. That’s why I write choral pieces – then a great many people become as one, the way humankind is united by Adam, when different individuals take a single shape.
What about childhood? How did your creative life begin?
“It never did. Recently I came across a romance to Pushkin’s lyrics ‘Have you ever heard…’ when digging up my archives, but it was when I’d learned to write music. Otherwise I was constantly in a music environment. How was I to live? Writing music was what I knew as life.
“I’ve tried to remember my childhood. I can remember that I could hear music in my head, loud and clear, when I was four years old. The moment my head touched the pillow, an orchestra would start playing, as though someone had pressed the ‘playback’ key on a tape recorder. I would raise my head from the pillow and the music would stop. As soon as my head returned to the pillow, the music would start playing. I though it was the radio at first. This must have been the starting point; there was that music and there was nothing I could do about it. I remember this as something very important, even if weird. Several times I tried to discuss this with my parents, but they wouldn’t take me seriously. I felt offended.”
So you had to wage a struggle against your parents, didn’t you?
“I rejected the adults’ world, because I found it to be boring; I wasn’t interested. I was forced to keep in contact with it, but I wanted to stay in the children’s world. I craved contact with my peers, but they turned me down and I once again found myself in the adult world’s embrace, something I hated so much! I hated all of them and everything there. I was in a terrible state. My circle of silent friends included ants, grasshoppers, ladybugs, small fish, grass, and trees. I remember them vividly, but nothing else except all those gray figures looming over and demanding something from me. For me, childhood was a period of muteness, aloofness, and a lack of understanding and contact. Music was the only way I could have an inner monologue.”
How much do you think this conflicting situation helped your composer’s talent?
“This conflict is still there. I keep trying to rid myself of it, and this perhaps serves as a creative stimulus of sorts. If you feel ill at ease, for some or other reason, you see harmony, on the one hand, and on the other, you want the world to share your inner conflict. This can get you further than you’d want to, yet trying to find an answer to this question in your childhood would be too primitive an approach. In actuality, everything is far better, bigger, and more enjoyable.”
You must have been a rebellious teenager.
“Right, and this must have started in my young years. I kept living a two-sided life. I was a dull reticent kid in the adult world, so going to school — and even afterward — was living in hell. I had to play the part of an obedient girl, sit with all of them, listen, and nod my understanding, yet deep inside I was seething with hatred.
“Even after I entered another world, one of cultural interaction, I still had my rejection modus. In a maximalist manner I chose as my idols such personalities as Alexander Skriabin, Richard Wagner, Gustav Mahler, Valentin Silvestrov, Arvo Part, Anton Webern, Gyorgy Sandor Ligeti, and John Cage — with all other cultural phenomena, even sufficiently noteworthy ones, receding into the background by comparison — but there was always Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart topping the list.”
You have written a number of choral pieces using Church Slavonic. Is this a creative trend or religious dictate?
“I must’ve become aware of myself as a composer a year, maybe two years ago. For me the most important thing is self-expression rather than self-perception, so religious texts offered an opportunity to boost my inner progress, to reveal my true self through the sounds of music. The creative component materializes when there is a performer with his or her own worldview. It is then that you can begin to realize that yes, you are a composer, that you have written this music. First, you have an idea and then you implement it in your music.”
Singing appears to occupy a special place in your system of values, as a separate philosophy.
“Singing is paradise on earth.”
Is this paradise on earth isolated from other things?
“It is, because it is paradise on earth. I have an online chat buddy and he once said that he feels like a perfect dummy in every respect. I’m just like him, a dummy, even if well clothed and placed. There is a great void within, Now and then I try to fill it, but after filling it I start missing this void. What I have to offer the world is just these fine clothes on a dummy; I can make them look even better or simply keep displaying them to stay in touch.
“This emptiness is what Zen Buddhism is all about. Questions like ‘What is this thing all about?’ lead to answers like ‘This thing actually doesn’t exist’ or ‘This is an altogether different thing.’ And so I titled some of my compositions Zero, It, Taking a Walk in the Void, and No-One’s Song, as a way to reject the existence of objective things. What I mean is that there objectively exists this absence, this void. Most likely this comes from my childhood experiences. The real things are those you can’t grasp. The rest is all those fancy clothes you put on the dummy.”
So then your music emerges from that void?
“Yes, it does, and then returns to that void. Well, this concept was formulated a long time ago. That which is tangible and acknowledged no longer exists. The trouble with me is that I have to fit my inner trends into concrete shapes. I have to put together an orchestra and choir, and elbow my way through this crowd to express something that has no shape. It’s still a mystery to me.
“What makes me move all these heavy masses, move all those mountains, or find a way through them, considering that all this could have been made in a much simpler way? I want to express things that can’t be expressed, things that have no weight. I could simply swim with the current and this would be appreciated as my self-expression. Well, there must be something else, something I can’t identify for want of an identifying device. Yes, I guess that’s the reason.
“Why am I being assisted by business structures having to do with Arvo Part? Because all this has to do with the simple and easily understandable condition of having grace. Another thing is when I want to express something [in music] I can’t identify. Then the situation gets tough. Try to depict a primeval forest or the fury of a wild boar attacking his adversary.”
So where is the starting point when creating a composition?
“Always in a different place. The aging processes, meetings, reading books, sentiments, trying to explain various situations, periods of depression. All this is eventually put together and has its effect. My music often has to do with specific individuals. As a rule, I keep all this to myself, without sharing any of this with other people. All these other people find their reflections in me. An expression on one’s face, a phrase, a look can start my inner engine. Then I start writing music.
“I have several compositions inspired by certain individuals. In each case the name is meticulously converted into music and I’m the one who creates these sounds and place them in a certain order. As in the case of Brach and Picasso, parts of a face are scattered across the canvas. At first I thought I’d write music like that, but then, I guess, fellow humans became less important. I can’t seem to catch that moment of special inspiration. What I have is a splendid lawless land where no one can give orders, just as no one has to take them; where anything can happen. I’m soaring over this land, responding to whatever interests or affects me by writing music. There are times I have to work like a slave, but when something touches a nerve in me, I start and keep working, which means that I make myself socially scarce for three to four months.”
Are the urban or rural environs having any effect on your creative work?
“None whatsoever. More often than not I find myself in a kind of cocoon that can expand without any restrictions. I love to see the sky, I’m drawn to the mountains — fortunately, I have them here! Here is all the world. I’m fond of traveling, and I like the smell of different cities and countries. These smells and lyrical aspects make it easy for me to communicate with fellow humans. This is a nice tourist-guidebook-like image that I put on to make people easy to deal with me.”
What about temporal relationships? Are they different?
“I tried experimenting with time back in Vorzel [a scenic Kyiv suburb], after the Chornobyl disaster. Few if any visited the place. Autumnal twilight, no electricity, practically no heating. The forest. The deserted composers’ cottages. Just me and my music score. You don’t have to get up on time and cook your meals. No duties to carry out whatsoever. In fact, there is no one interested in your music; you’re writing it on your own. You’re within the Exclusion Zone, which means that every necessity is subject to exclusion. This is where you can start understanding the notion of time differently. I know this sounds crazy, but I felt that time was acquiring different features. There I was, at a deserted unlit dacha, watching time turning into clouds. Time looked to me as a big dragon that had weight and clear shape. I can’t find words to describe it; I just sensed its presence. It’s when you’re doing nothing and have no thoughts; you know nobody needs you. It’s then you realize you have all that unrestricted freedom that lends different parameters to the usual dimensions.”
Whom do you address your music to?
“Each and everyone, yet no one in particular. This absence of addressees expands your space while, most likely, depriving you of some part of it. I wouldn’t say that my music addresses the Lord. There is another aspect. Like Tsvetayeva wrote, ‘I’m one of those who are for all, against them all!’”