Composers-Sixtiers. Unknown Kyiv avant-garde

Max Chukhlib

Writers and dissidents of the 60s (Sixtiers) are well known to Ukrainians – during the Khrushchev Thaw, those groups protested against the totalitarian Soviet regime and wanted to divert Ukrainian culture’s vision to the West.

Not many people know that while director Paradzhanov filmed Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors in the Carpathians, Stus wrote heartbreaking letters to Andrii Malyshko about the total russification of Ukrainian Donbas, in Kyiv a group of musicians-sixtiers was formed – academic composers, later known as “Kyiv avantgarde.” Because of fewer cultural regulations, these people got access to global academic music and tried to make Ukrainian music closer to it.

Valentyn Sylvestrov, Leonid Hrabovskyiyi, Vitalii Godziatskyi, Volodymyr Zahortsev – they are pupils of Borys Liatoshynskiy, a composer, mentor, and conductor, the founder of modernism in Ukrainian classic music. Being students of Kyiv conservatory at the beginning of the 60s, they played music of pretty much the same high quality as Polish and Russian avant-garde of the time: foreign critics assume that Kyiv composer’s school had its own unique sound.

Avant-garde nonconformists against party composers
Dodecaphony, serialism, sonorism, aleatoric music and musique concrète – these modern composing techniques were banned in Soviet Union. The Party only approved socialist realist music, such as melodic and nice to listen to. Soviet composers had a task to portray the glory of the Soviet Communist Party accessibly and in an interesting way to a common listener. Anyone without this approach was called a “formalist” because of “too rational” choices of writing music.
Kyiv avantgardists were not keen to follow Party’s templates. They became nonconformists, whose main values in music were art freedom and compositional progress.

They managed to establish contact with global academic music via conductor Ihor Blazhkov, also a member of this informal avant-garde group. He gathered sheets of new music and books about its creation as he exchanged letters with prominent modernist composers of the time: Stravinsky, Varèse, and Stockhausen.
At that time one of the avant-gardists Leonid Hrabovskyi translated one of the dodecaphony books by himself, and composers started to learn it by writing plays as a result after reading each part.
The key moment that happened with composers was the Warsaw Autumn festival, wherein an area of a less strict communist regime avant-garde music was performed. They managed to record plays during the broadcast on Western radio stations, and so Kyiv avantgardists personally learned about the music of Schoenberg and Stravinsky.
Musicians-sixtiers acted semi-secretly: they met at the flat of Valentyn Sylvestrov’s parents, listened to Western music, and shared their own works. Everyone experimented, carving their own style: for example. Leonid Hrabovskyi researched an algorithmic method of composition made of random numbers; Vitalii Godziatskyi, besides usual avant-garde, created musique concrète with home improvised objects and tape recorder, and Volodymyr Zahortsev kept modernist traditions of Borys Liatoshynskyi. In their free time, while resting from music, avantgardists played football.

Later, the Party members noticed the actions of Kyiv’s avant-garde. It was because Halyna Mokrieva, a musicologist and wife of conductor Blazhkov, wrote an article “A letter from Kyiv” about Kyiv composers, published later in Polish magazine “Ruch Muzyczny”.
“This material was written for publication in Ukraine but nobody wanted to publish it as in the text Mokrieva divided all Ukrainian composers in two groups:
One was young representatives of Kyiv’s avant-garde that were strongly supported and highly praised by a musicologist.
Another was composers that were working according to the Party templates in romantic-orchestral spirit and were members of the Soviet Communist Party as well.”


Yurii Chekan, musicologist, Ph.D.
After this publication, pressure grew against Kyiv composers: Sylvestrov couldn’t find a job and later was excluded from the Composers Union, Godziatskyi was forced to earn money by playing with the orchestra in a cinema theater, and Hrabovskyi was fired from Kyiv conservatory and was forced to move to Moscow. Musicologist Halyna Mokrieva was prevented from doing any professional work.
Kyiv’s avant-garde was regularly “ashamed” in the press, thus its members were forced to forget their main value – freedom of art…

How Kyiv’s avant-garde decolonized Ukrainian classical music

Kyiv avant-garde became a cultural phenomenon that, by musicologist Yurii Chekan’s definition, pushed the process of decolonizing Ukrainian academic music.

For a long time, Ukrainian music was focused on and followed the Russian classical traditions, infected with an out-of-date Russian Narodism (“coming from people”) complex. According to this ideology, intelligence, especially composers, was mainly paying attention to folk songs and folklore, casting away the urban intellectual culture.

“Narodism complex hide under romantic traditions, usual for European music in XIX century, such as democratism, nationality, realism. But for Ukrainian music that meant limiting its own theme potential.

Having a Russian Pyatnitski choir or Russian Andreev folk instruments orchestra as an example, you can create a Verovka national choir or NAONI (National Academic Orchestra of Folk Instruments) that will be oriented not toward global trends but toward Narodism. And then it will turn out the colony’s culture is less valuable than metropole’s one.”

Yurii Chekan, musicologist

In that case, Kyiv composers managed to prove that Ukrainians can write original academic music on the European level. They also played a part in destroying the stereotype that Ukrainian music must always be illustratively folkish, and have folk motives. Their work laid the ground for the restoration of Ukrainian culture in its urban and European essence.

Deep underground of Ukrainian academic music
For a long time, Kyiv avant-gardists were recognized probably only by the academic society. And it’s only logical, as the masses wouldn’t likely listen to such music for fun. It needs to be analyzed and researched for understanding. Because the avant-garde exists to be valued by the minority but moves the general progress. So it’s important that anyone, who got interested in such art, has conditions for experiencing it.
Nowadays, pianist Yevhen Hromov and composer Oleksii Voytenko can be named ambassadors of Kyiv’s avant-garde. They worked hard to learn, analyze and then share this unknown for decades composing school for classical musicians. Hromov played and released an anthology of piano plays’ records by Sylvestrov, Hrabovskyi, Godziatskyi, Zahortsev, and others, but those records are hard to find and listen to, with digital platforms being no exception.
Still, there are promising signs for the popularisation of Kyiv’s avant-garde music made by the Ukrainian Institute. A few years ago, this state institution released the Kyiv avant-gardists’ note anthology: it included plays of Hrabovskyi, Godziatskyi, Zahortsev, and Huba. It gave an opportunity for Ukrainian and world musicians to learn and perform works of our academic sixtiers. As a result, anthology works were performed in New York at Ukrainian Contemporary Music Festival.

Time has shown that Ukrainian musical sixtiers are world heritage and their nonconformist position in the 60s was timely and important. Now it’s our turn to make this music accessible to everyone who wishes to record, compile and release it in digital form.

Translator: Yurii Lishchuk

Support our cultural media financially on Patreon or with a direct donation — we need it now.