Composer Myroslav Skoryk talks about the decline of avant-garde and the mystery of music
Myroslav Skoryk is the patriarch of contemporary Ukrainian music. Critics call A Melody, his best known piece, which was used in the war-time drama Vysokyi Pereval (Highland Pass), “Ukraine’s spiritual anthem”. He composed operas, ballets and symphonies for Ukrainian cartoons and films, including Sergei Parajanov’s Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors. He always managed to find a compromise between styles, genres and sounds in his music. The result was high-quality and timely classical, spiritual and even popular music. Skoryk has taught many generations of musicians starting from 1959 until the present. In 2013, he celebrated his 75th birthday at the International Days of Myroslav Skoryk’s Music.
THE MYSTERY OF EXPRESSION
Music should appeal right to the soul. That’s what I seek in my music – first and foremost, I want to stir emotions in the audience. 30-40 years ago, I and several other Ukrainian composers – Leonid Hrabovsky and Valentyn Sylvestrov – thought that avant-garde music was the future. We were wrong. Instead of getting more complicated, music became more primitive or returned to classics - a déjà vu of simplification. People who listen to serious music now, once more buy Tchaikovsky, Verdi, Schubert and the like. Mass culture is everywhere. Avant-garde music that had a more complex harmony and a lot of dissonance went into decline, turning into a ghetto for few fans. In many respects, it was a dead-end branch of music evolution because it was unnatural – complication for the sake of complication. People want to hear something that relates to their hearts, not decipher manmade technical, albeit very ingenious, elements.
I compose music based on classic traditions but I never shun new techniques. Still, intuition always matters most. Computers, no matter how smart, are not robots that will do everything for you. They are technology, even if very convenient, but do not affect the essence of the music process. I recently composed a track for a cartoon without writing a single note. I just played the tune and computers did all the rest – harmonized it, wrote parts for other instruments and all that. It is an interesting experience of course, but I think I would have done a much better and more interesting job on my own. Still, time is time – composers must follow it and develop their personal style in line with that context.
I once researched ways to express every sound with the right colour. But it is extremely difficult to actually transform music into visual material on a high level. I also worked on the chord theory, i.e. a system to make every note more expressive. But the more I deal with music, the more I realize that much of it does not fit into any schemes or understanding. It’s not even about the fact that music cannot get more complicated. When I compose something, I can’t tell for sure that people will like it. I can only hope that they do, investing all my experience and knowledge into it. Still, some pieces have this expressiveness that touches the audience, and others don’t. You can’t blame this on technique. Sometimes you listen to a song – it’s not well-done; it’s wrong, primitive, and yet the audience likes it. Nobody knows why this happens because it’s a mystery that no music system available today can grasp.
I prefer to work on my own music. When I make music for a project, especially a film, the director decides everything. You think that you’ve composed a masterpiece, but the client does not agree. What matters here is finding a compromise between a director’s vision – often so trivial that it kills any desire to continue to work – and your efforts. In fact, there is always a way to come to terms with everybody. It’s a job after all. I had a great time working with Sergei Parajanov although he was a weirdo and had this Oriental backslapping habit. Of course, he had comments about my music but they were reasonable and adequate. One day, he asked me to compose a tune of death. I showed it to him. “No, this will be the tune of love,” he said. Okay, I thought, let it be love.
I have never been member of any political party. I was invited to join many times, especially the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. I always came up with excuses to delay this - “I have to think about it”, “I’m not ready yet” and the like. After Ukraine became independent, I decided to stay out of politics. Of course, you can’t live in a society and be absolutely free of it and its norms. I had to compromise sometimes, but only when it wasn’t about something I regarded as really serious. What matters most to a musician is to compose music first and foremost, he/she can’t disperse him/herself into various activities. So I tried to stay out of any political activity or dangerous issues, although I fully supported the patriotic concepts of the Sixties’ dissidents.
PLAYING IT DOWN
Music cannot be built on standards. For a long time, it was very important in the U.S. to have a solid music system with clear-cut borders, rules and a framework within which a serious composer had to work. Take Arnold Schoenberg (Austrian-American composer of Jewish origin who worked in Germany, France and the U.S. – Ed.) and his dodecaphony – the twelve-tone technique he devised, whereby a note is not repeated until all the other 11 notes of the chromatic scale (a chromatic scale has 12 notes) are sounded. He once said that his invention will help German music to conquer the world in the next 50 years. Half a century later that system has still not generated a single outstanding composer. This is because such an approach is standardized and not serious. Music should be similar to folk music in terms of being something that people can relate to. When American journalists asked Henryk Górecki, a well-known Polish composer, about the system in which he worked after the successful performance of his symphony in the U.S., he replied: “I don’t give a damn about those systems.”
Classical music is elite in essence, so should not be imposed on the audience. This is what the Soviet government was doing. It is largely why Ukrainians first rushed to love things like Besame Mucho, and later switched to low-grade pop music. The idiotic persecution, whereby someone who listened to the “immoral” Besame Mucho could have been put in jail, only aggravated this.
Pop music has taken over everything in recent decades. Of course, any music is necessary and all music must have its niche. If you come to a strip bar, you don’t need Brahms. After all, I used to play and compose quite a few entertainment pieces myself. However, 90% of what is called show business today is blatant kitsch, not to mention plagiarism. There is too little professionalism in the industry now. And there is a huge tilt towards primitive music. People who want to think about the sense of life or something more complicated will have to opt for Brahms after all. In many aspects, this is a downgrade in the music industry, i.e. people are intentionally fed a poor quality product and persuaded that that’s the way it should be. The less intellectual investment, the more cash. However, I think the audience is gradually tiring of this and turning to better music. Take the Kyiv Music Fest (Myroslav Skoryk is the festival’s Artistic Director – Ed.). More and more people come every year, the concerts are sold out, and still more young people come. This proves that today’s primitiveness is something unnatural and will die out under normal influences.
The increasingly popular electronic music operates with sounds rather than melodies. It’s more of a sonorous mix of noises – sometimes even well-composed – than real music. I don’t think it’s possible to compose a serious piece of music based on sounds. But to each his own. Live instruments are still the best option in symphonic music – the area I work in. Still, electronic substitutes are so good now that they are even better for pop music because they require fewer resources.
The current situation in music reminds me of the 18th century in many internal and external aspects. Composers and musicians both find it difficult to survive without rich donors and sponsors. Music is also experiencing a certain stagnation and lack of new bright names. I can’t really name any great composers right now. Most of those whom we view as the best composers are not. But a new Bach may well be ripening somewhere. Perhaps he has even composed some pieces but they are yet unknown.
Myroslav Skoryk is a contemporary Ukrainian composer. Born in 1938 in Lviv, he is the great-nephew of Solomiya Krushelnytska, one of the brightest Ukrainian sopranos of the 20th century. In 1947, the Skoryk family was repressed and deported to Siberia. Only after Stalin’s death in 1955, was the family allowed to return to Lviv. In 1955-1960, Skoryk studied at the Mykola Lysenko Conservatory in Lviv. From 1966 through the late 1980s, he taught composition at the Kyiv Conservatory, then worked in the U.S. for a long time, and in Australia until 1996. In the late 1990s, Skoryk returned to Ukraine. He became dean of the History of Ukrainian Music Department at the National Music Academy in 1999 and Artistic Director of the Kyiv Music Fest in 2002. In April 2011, Skoryk was appointed Artistic Director of the Kyiv Opera House. His music is played in the U.S., Canada, Australia, France, Germany, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Russia, Georgia, Armenia and the Baltic States.