Monday, May 6, 2013

Karelian Soundscapes Newsletter #1 - What Else: From Russia with Love

Dear Backers and Friends,

Karelian Soundscapes is at last underway! You know that feeling of knowing just where you are on the map or globe? Right now that feeling tells me that I'm a few hundred yards away from Lake Onega in Russia. These last months of preparation have been extremely busy: I finished my master's thesis, graduated with my Master's Degree in Composition, had my first orchestral premier, and I got everything ready for this trip, including the very arduous visa process. It got VERY close in the end, but I did get my visa which will in fact be good for three years. All the effort was worth it. 

The trip to Petrozavodsk

I left Salt Lake City on Tuesday, and flew all day and all night to arrive in St. Petersburg Wednesday afternoon. On the long overseas flight, a very kind Russian sailor named Nikita carried on a very interesting conversation with me in Russian, which helped jumpstart my Russian speaking. I immediately threw myself at the mercy of my ability to get around in Russia, taking a bus from the airport to the nearest metro station, and from there transferring lines until I reached the Ladozhskii Train Station, where I caught my first break and waited until 11pm, when the train left for Petrozavodsk. I slept very soundly and arrived in Petrozavodsk at 6:40 am on Thursday, eventually getting settled in my apartment.

Thursday, May 2nd

As soon as I could I had a walk around with my recorder, trying to get the hang of things. I discovered that it picks up EVERYTHING, which means I've got to stay stationary to get really good samples. Also, just in the few days since I've arrived, Lake Onega is 'opening up' as they say, from the winter ice, and so there has been an uncharacteristic amount of wind. I've got a good windscreen for my recorder but it is no match for some of this wind. Fortunately it is calming down the last few days! In the evening on Thursday I stopped by the local branch of my church here in Petrozavodsk and happened to arrive at the same time as several American serving here. After the last day of having been all on my own in Russia it was a welcome meeting. After that I visited the Alexander Nevski Cathedral, where they were having their one of their Easter week services. (The Russian Orthodox Church celebrates holidays by the old calendar, so Christmas is in January and Easter in May). Afterwards I was invited to attend the Easter Vigil on Saturday night, more on that later! I closed the evening by walking along the bank of the Onega, where I met some college age Russian students with whom I had a great time and who were very interested in my project. They even sang me some of the Karelian songs they learned in school, particularly one about Petroskoi, the Karelian name for Petrozavodsk.

Friday, May 3rd

Part of moving temporary to another country is getting all the ducks in a row, I've got my phone working here and I've got an internet connection now fixed in my apartment. Other things like getting my money changed and my registration done have been hard since the Russians have had their first ever sort of spring break this year from May 1-5, so many things including banks have been closed. The highlight today was meeting at last with the author of my invitation to Russia, Natalia Mihaelova. She is the director the Folklore-Ethnographic Theater for Kizhi, an ensemble that tries to recreate Karelian cultural and musical events for the museum. What I learned at this first meeting is that Natalia and her husband Zhenya are pretty much world-class authorities on Karelian instruments, music and culture. They have in fact literally written the book about it. They've got a huge collection of all sorts of materials concerning Karelian music and of field recordings of Karelian songs and instruments. Every year they go together on an expedition to find people who know old songs so that they can record them and teach them to the ensemble. I just could not have ended up in touch with a better person for my project!
Natalia has set up everything so that I get to spend almost a week living on the island before many tourists start coming. I'll be there starting next Wednesday. They're going to put me to work proofreading the tour guide's english scripts. They said they've got a man on the island who knows some bylina (sung legends), as well as a girl who is a virtuoso at the kantele (Finnish harp) and both are excited to meet with me. Igor Hutter the bell ringer is also waiting for me there on the island. 

Also on Thursday I stopped by a small exhibition hall that happend to have some very interesting exhibits of modern art by young Russian artists. I asked around and now I've got a meeting for next Tuesday with the artistic director to see about opportunities for collaboration! I also had some refreshment at the Strange Place Cafe, a wonderful little place right next to the aforementioned exhibition hall full of old antiques are quirky decorations. "Why Strange?" the menu asks. "Because nobody else will be strange!"

Saturday, May 4th

Today I really wandered a lot around the city and caught some breaks in the wind to get some good recordings. I've decided that at least one of the movements of Karelian Soundscapes will feature the sounds of water, and I'm fairly certain that another movement will use the sounds of traffic. Also, I've been, um, 'testing the resonance' of various objects to see if I can sort of build up a collection of interesting sounds that way - railings, poles, anything that I can use to make a noise! Sort of me 'playing' the city as my instrument. Finally Saturday evening I went to the Easter Vigil at the Alexander Nevski Cathedral, or at least the first four hours of it. I didn't realize that it would go pretty much all night! It started at 11 pm, with the church very dark and lit only by the candles placed in front of the icons. at first a single bell rang slowly for about twenty minutes. A number of somber prayers were read by a priest and corresponding refrains sung by the choir from the loft. Suddenly, the lights of the church were all lit, and out from the iconostasis (or veil) burst the priests of the church, carrying candles or icons on poles and looking for all the world like a phalanx of angels. They stormed out into the night, with the congregation following, circling the church. At last they finished and the doors of the church were reopened and the priests shouted "Xristos Voskrese! (Christ is Risen!)" to which the thousand or so faithful responded, "Vo Istinu Voskrese! (Truly Risen!)" Then....oh then! The bells rang. The first time I've really heard them GO AT IT here in Russia this time around. And this is at midnight, mind you! It was wonderful. More prayers and reading of the scriptures followed, including multi-lingual readings of John 1:1, including in English. "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." Each of the Priests got a turn to come out and proclaim to the congregation that Christ is Risen, and each time the affirmation was shouted back. Around 2:45 am they started to serve the Eucharist and I excused myself, since the services were likely to last until dawn! I'm really glad I went. Every great Russian composer has been influenced by the liturgy of the Orthodox church in some way, and this is an opportunity I am very glad to have had. 

Sunday, May 5th

Today I went to the services of the branch of my own church here in Petrozavodsk. It was a wonderful reunion with those that I had known here eight years ago, also it turns out that one of the brothers happens to have been schoolmates with Alexander Beloborodov, the composer with whom I was originally going to have worked back when this project was going to be a Fulbright thing. Now it is much more likely I'll be able to get a meeting with him! Beloborodov is perhaps Karelia's most decorated living composer.

Natalia Mihaelova had told me that on Easter Sunday anyone can go ring the bells of the cathedral, and 'it is considered that your sins are forgiven.' Well, all day I didn't hear the bells ringing, but I happened to be walking by on the way to a dinner appointment when I saw some activity in the bell tower, and the bells started to ring. I asked if anyone could go ring the bells and went up when the answer was yes. Up, up, up the round stairs and through several low corridors. There they were! The closest I've ever been to the bells. The sound was engulfing in a physical way. The largest bell is almost an arms span across. Sure enough, I got a turn to ring the bells, although it was so loud that I wasn't able to explain to the girl holding my camera that I wanted a video. Turns out her name is Ksenya and she works with the bells. She told me to stop by! So I don't think that will be the last time I'm up in the tower at Alexander Nevski. 

After my dinner appointment I accompanied my hosts, an American couple serving here, to the evening services at the cathedral. It was like a shortened version of last night, but included some wonderful singing and bell ringing. As I was walking home, it suddenly started to rain quite hard. I hurried home and changed for rain, hoping to get some recordings in the rain. I ran outside into the rain, but I couldn't find my key, so I ran back inside to find it. A few moments later the rain stopped! I got some nice traffic recordings anyway. I also went and sat on the north side of the Onega embankment, where ducks and seagulls were having a conference. 

Coming soon...

I've been so excited to be here I haven't really wanted to sit still. That means I haven't yet processed through most of the recordings yet, or started to compose. Don't worry, next week's update will include be more multi-media. I think that spending most of the week on the small island of Kizhi will have the effect of slowing things down. I look forward to composing on the island!

More photos are being added daily to my Facebook page in the Karelian Soundscapes gallery.

Thank you all for making this trip possible! Shortly before leaving I found a journal entry I made over 10 years ago about how someday I wanted to travel to Russia as a composer. I'd forgotten how long this has been a dream of mine. I wouldn't be living the dream without your support! Thank you! 

I appreciate any comments, questions or feedback you might have!

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