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Voices Fall-Winter 2011:
Click on the cover for the Table of Contents. Read “Dialogues with Time” by Roman Turovsky-Savchuk here.
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Volume 37

Dialogues with Time by Roman Turovsky-Savchuk

Murmur, murmur, murmur in the forest,
The fog is covering the fields,
The fog is covering the fields, the fields.
A mother is sending her son away:
Go, my son, go away from me.

At the age of seventeen I was transplanted from my birthplace of Kyiv, Ukraine, to New York. A dreamy European city in front of my eyes was replaced by New York, with all its severity of lines and colors, unforgiving yet intriguing. I’ve painted since my childhood, learning visual precision and honesty, developing a firm faith in harmony, beauty, and perfection. My new reality was rough and fearsome. And I knew that I was being transformed. My new reality brought new simplicity and roughness into my work. I painted nudes, craving love, music, and spiritual fulfillment. All of these eventually came, bearing happiness for the émigré/ exile/refugee, transforming him into an American:
Come back, my son, come back to me, my boy,
So I would wash your head.
Mother, my head could be washed by rains,
And my hair shall be combed by feral winds.

There has always been music in my family. My father is an artist-painter, but he was also a fine classical baritone in his younger days. Our house was always full of interesting guests, of all kinds of arts. The grown-ups were infinitely more interesting than children of my own age. The former were bearers of the historical weight of the place where I was growing up. Their sense of history intoxicated me, inexorably, forever, even though I was unaware of it at the time. It manifested itself much later in my music.

I naturally studied painting from an early age, and it would always remain my main calling. Inexplicably, I remained indifferent to music, despite being surrounded by it, until the age of fourteen, when I had an epiphany upon hearing “Trauermusik Beim Tode Siegfrieds” in Wagner’s Götterdämmerung. It opened the floodgate of music. I went on to study painting and music after coming to New York. I studied lute with Patrick O’Brien, who also taught me the basics of harmony and counterpoint. I began composing for myself during the 1990s, concentrating on the baroque idiom and my chosen instrument, the baroque lute. This instrument doesn’t tolerate gratuitous dissonance, and my compositions naturally took on the style and character of the baroque era.

Descartes once said that when he was a seminarian, he was told by one of his professors that if one gets a really good idea, it must be immediately ascribed to a long dead authority. Mythopoeia ran in my family, so I decided on a whim to invent a mysterious and previously unknown historical figure to which I would ascribe my compositions as genuine baroque music, and miraculously, they were taken as such. In the mid-1990s, I wrote out some pieces in a nice baroque hand, signed them “Sautscheck,” the German transmogrification of the second half of my surname, and sent them to some overseas lutenists—total strangers at that— without a return address or explanation. The music was clearly in a baroque style, but not always in character, being grim and morose as would have befitted the music of an entirely different era.

Then I lost track of all this for more than five years. Eventually the rumors of mysterious and interesting lute music trickled back to me, so armed with a PC and the internet, I produced some paramusicological mythology, explaining the range of styles from 1680 to 1840 with four generations of purported composers, all from the same family. This caper later resulted in a few musicological scandals, which gave me some professional repute as a competent “baroque” composer and a modicum of respect from lutenist colleagues, while causing considerable irritation for the few detractors, who were oblivious to the literary mystification/hoax culture prevalent in Europe since the late eighteenth century.

After many flame wars and a few op-ed accusations of Ossianic immorality—some accusers were oblivious of the quotations from Beethoven, Reger, and Giazotto that I’d used in a baroque context—I earned some great friends for whom music’s quality is paramount to its pedigree. Not least of these are Luca Pianca, the founder of Il Giardino Armonico, who premiered my pieces in his concerts at several international festivals, and American lutenist Robert Barto, who is featured in several of my video installations.

Roman Turovsky-Savchuk playing his lute. Photo by Luba Roitman.
Roman Turovsky-Savchuk playing his lute. Photo by Luba Roitman.

Then came other momentous developments. One was the growth of the internet, which gave me a way to connect with many colleagues worldwide, and another my renewed interest in Ukrainian musical culture in general, and its baroque period in particular. Ukrainian folk music is unique in many respects. The vast majority of it is in the minor keys. Even the happy music is more often than not still minor, only at a faster tempo. It is also probably the best documented of all folk music, with many compendia collected since the eighteenth century. Ukrainian folk music had a period of popularity in Western Europe around 1800, and it left its mark on some composers, not the least Beethoven. The literary qualities of its texts are astounding, their imagery profound. Its texts are often hair-raisingly violent, as well as breathtakingly lyrical. This music is powerful. I didn’t choose it: it chose me. This reconnection with Ukrainian music was a true epiphany, from which I—as a displaced individual—gained a sense of total rootedness in that Old World, paradoxically in harmony with my American identity built in the tribulations of immigration.

My familiarity with existential angst was counterbalanced with happiness found in cultural memory, the memory of old songs amid new forms: bridges, highways, and skyscrapers of the New World. It later found expression in several video installations for which I also composed and produced the soundtracks. These installations were built around a clear central principle, according to which each sequence represented an increment in the voyage through forbidding space, where the only available means to remain afloat were certain personal cultural memories, remnants, or fragments of beauty in the decidedly unbeautiful universe. In my case, these means were the auditory memories of my early childhood, specifically the memories of polyphonic laments sung by girls while crossing the river in the evening to milk the cows grazing on the other side.

In 2000, I undertook some research into the history of Torban, the Ukrainian variety of the lute. The literature for this instrument did not survive, as it was largely an oral culture, and so I began to use Ukrainian melodies in my compositions as reconstructions of this lost musical microcosmos. In time I began to experiment with progressively earlier musical styles—early Renaissance and late medieval—in combination with those Ukrainian folk melodies that were archaic in character and could easily be manipulated using the compositional techniques of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The milkmaids’ choirs of my early memories were a perfect match to diminutions and variation cycles for lute in the style of Joan Ambrosio Dalza, Francesco da Milano, or John Dowland. This project has been nearly ten years in the making and now numbers more than five hundred pieces. I initially called these pieces “Cantiones Sarmaticae,” which were later augmented with “Cantiones Ruthenicae” and “Cantiones Sarmatoruthenicae,” “Balli Ruteni” and “Balli Sarmatici,” in a nod to Sarmatism, a cultural movement in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries.

Each of these cycles was progressively more adventurous and complex, so I later gave them the collective title of “Mikrokosmos,” in an insolent lutenistic challenge to Béla Bartók’s homonymous keyboard cycle. In the process of composition, I discovered not only multiple structural similarities between Ukrainian dance melodies and Renaissance dances from Western Europe, but also evidence that some late Renaissance melodies survived in Ukrainian folk music. I was also struck with the medieval sound of the folk polyphony of the Polissya region of Ukraine, from which my family came. These observations became inspirations, and the music flowed—in strict style, but with unusual cadences and forbidden intervals of the land. Such were my Dialogues with Time.

This music has gradually earned respect from lute players, and many colleagues who were total strangers to me, connected only by the internet, began to perform these pieces, record them, and eventually film them for YouTube. Among these musicians I should mention Robert Barto, Luca Pianca, Rob MacKillop, Christopher Wilke, Ernst Stolz, Daniel Shoskes, Stuart Walsh, Jindřich Macek, and Trond Bengtson. Most of them I have not met in person to date. I have also had several collaborative electroacoustic projects with Dutch avantgarde composer, lutenist, and carillonist Hans Kockelmans, who has written a number of contreparties to my scores. The most rewarding aspect of it all has been the totally unexpected appreciation of Ukrainian music by musicians who had no familiarity with Ukrainian culture. I was equally surprised by the sensitivity with which they interpreted this material.

All of these projects remain works in progress, and in the meantime, I have put all of my music online for lutenists’ free use. The projects involving Ukrainian Renaissance lute may be found at http://www.torban.org/mikrokosmos.html and the baroque lute project at http://www.torban.org/torban4c.html.

In 2003, I made the acquaintance of Julian Kytasty, the finest traditional Ukrainian epic singer and kobzar-bandurist in the West. We became good friends, and he later became my teacher. He eventually asked me to accompany him in his projects centered on the baroque period and occasionally to sing in them. We have had unusual concepts for our concert programs, drawing from material rarely touched nowadays, such as penitential chants and psalms and songs about violent historical events, evil and treachery, marital and erotic mayhem, and the miseries of war in a land that was split between two empires (Russian and Austro-Hungarian), whose inhabitants were forced to kill each other senselessly by callow foreign royalty.

Julian and I received a folk ar ts apprenticeship grant in 2008 from the New York State Council on the Arts, which enabled us to work together for two years on the traditional epic style and repertoire, which by then had become one of my main interests. Through Julian, I also met Nina Matvienko and Mariana Sadovska, two great Ukrainian folk singers of our time. I also began many virtual friendships with great folk singers, notably with Natalya Polovinka and Volodymyr Kushpet. In the spring of 2009, I undertook a journey to Kyiv, after a thirty-year absence. There I had good fortune of meeting Taras Kompanichenko and Eduard Drach, the finest carriers of the epic singer-kobzar tradition in Ukraine, and was able to adapt some of their repertoire to the baroque lute for my own use. They also inspired several variation sets on Ukrainian melodies in baroque and early classical styles.

After the period of fakeloric music artificially imposed on Ukraine during the Soviet era, there is now a real revival of the epic tradition in Ukraine, with kobzar guilds established in Kyiv and Kharkiv and many talented young musicians studying not only performance, but also lutherie. There is also a revival afoot of the traditional folk polyphony, and there are several excellent choirs specializing in that repertoire— notably Bozhychi, Hurtopravtsi, Drevo, Strila, and Korali—as well as ensembles that specialize in Ukrainian early music. All of these groups face many difficulties in the cultural wars stemming from three centuries of forced Russification of Ukraine, as well as hostility from the commercial media and music establishments and the large Russian minority, which still harbors anti- Ukrainian sentiments. But the groups active in authentic folk music are multiplying, and there are grounds for cautious optimism that this music will live on.


Roman Turovsky-Savchuk is an American lutenist, composer, and painter. Born in Ukraine, he has lived in New York City since 1979. His work is informed by both the American reality and Ukrainian cultural memory. He is currently completing a series of video installations, as well as radio broadcasts of his music for Dutch radio. Examples of his work can be seen on his web site, http://turovsky.org.

In the process of composition, I discovered not only multiple structural similarities between Ukrainian dance melodies and Renaissance dances from Western Europe, but also evidence that some late Renaissance melodies survived in Ukrainian folk music. I was also struck with the medieval sound of the folk polyphony of the Polissya region of Ukraine, from which my family came.

Ukrainian Ethnomusicological Online Resources






This article appeared in Voices Vol. 37, Fall-Winter 2011. Voices is the membership magazine of the New York Folklore Society. To become a subscriber, join the New York Folklore Society today.

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