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Escape Velocity

Personal Anthems: An Interview With Heinali
Jakub Knera , March 6th, 2023 10:03

Oleg Shpudeiko speaks to Jakub Knera about his sonic memories of his home in Ukraine, his return post invasion, and processing it all on new album Kyiv Eternal

Photo by Ksenia Popova

On 24 February, 2022, as russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Oleg Shpudeiko, aka the musician Heinali, left his hometown of Kyiv in order to escort his mother and his girlfriend’s mother to safety. He managed to get them to Budapest, returning to his homeland the following month. With Kyiv under heavy siege, he stayed in the city of Lviv in Ukraine’s west. There, he and a number of other musicians began live-streaming fundraising concerts from a bomb shelter; his contribution made use of his ongoing project Organa, a re-configuration of liturgical music for modular synth and non-classical vocalists. One of the performances was released as the album Live From A Bomb Shelter in Ukraine by Injazero Records.

In April, after the Battle Of Kyiv had ended, Shpudeiko was able to return to his home city by train. “There were many checkpoints, and you would have almost no one walking the streets,” he remembers. “There was one cafe I knew was open, and many people were meeting their friends there for the first time since 24 February because until then it had been too dangerous.” Within a few weeks, however, things began to return to some semblance of normality. “By May, life in Kyiv was more typical. Most cafes, restaurants, grocery stores, and metro stations were open. Public transportation was working, with some limitations. It was a usual time, except for the air raid alarms and missile strikes.”

Although a prolific solo artist, composer of music for films, video games and ballet, and collaborator with the likes of Matt Finney and Siavash Amini, Shpudeiko’s previous work had rarely been connected to the history of Ukraine; up until now his work was mainly within Western electronic music and the Western classical tradition. (In January, for instance, MoMA commissioned him for a new composition. ‘Aves rubrae’ which focussed on his continuing practice of reimagining early music in modular synthesis.) Nevertheless, he started to imagine what shape his work would take in a post-war city. “I wanted to reflect on a feeling of hugging the city,” he says. “I saw many monuments protected with sandbags, looking like they were being embraced. It was like I wanted somehow to protect [the city]. To try and embrace it, even though you can’t because you’re a tiny human. I wondered if there was something I could do about this feeling with music.”

One of those protected monuments is on the cover of Kyiv Eternal, the album Heinali released last month, a year to the day since russia invaded. It shows a statue of Ukrainian political, military, and civic leader Petro Konashevych-Sahaidachny, wrapped up to protect it from russian missiles. For the record’s sonic basis, Shpudeiko made use of field recordings taken across Kyiv in 2011 and 2012 with his collaborator Alexey Shmurak. “Our interest was to preserve the acoustic ecology of the city. We intentionally made field recordings of Kyiv; sounds that bear particular significance for this place, of the town,” he recalls.

When asked which sounds in particular most characterise the city, he cites the shouts of drivers at the shuttle bus station. “They would call out and say the direction they’re going, like Odesa, Kharkiv, or Dnipro – every one of them would have a very distinct intonation. It’s like being in a garden with different birds,” he says. He recalls, too, the characteristic beeps of grocery stores, and the melancholy sound of trolley buses. Those sounds, he says, are “a part of my story, because a lot happened to me in Kyiv. If you spend most of your life in a town, many things happen there. The names of the tracks refer to certain places and locations that were meaningful to bring the recorder to.”

At the same time he was capturing those field recordings, Shpudeiko was recording a vast amount of hitherto unreleased music, primarily consisting of ambient sketches. As he revisited his field recordings of Kyiv made in more peaceful times, it made sense to revisit those compositions too. He experimented with 20 or 30 field recordings, and a similar number of excerpts from archive pieces. On ‘Stantsiia Maidan Nezalezhnosti’, the sounds of people on the streets are mixed with weaving layers of electronics; in the background of the loops, you can hear the distinctive growing sound of the oncoming metro. ‘Botanichnyi Sad’ mixes chirping birds and chopped piano in the style of early Four Tet albums, while ‘Peizazhna Aleia’ recalls Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works. On opener ‘Tramvai 14’, you can hear the loudspeaker announcing the next stop on a tram route along with distorted ambient lines, followed by the tram jumping irregularly on the rails. In ‘Rare Birds’, another voice from the loudspeaker is barely intelligible, while on ‘Shuliavka On Winter’, the sound intonates, but you can’t recognise the words beneath a noisy drone.

“Trams in Kyiv have the old speaker system that is supposed to announce the next stop. Some are so distorted that you can’t hear the announcement, but no one cares,” he says. “It’s more like a piece of sound art because it depends on the context – no foreigner would understand what is happening here, and it’s useless. But for people from Kyiv, who know by intonation what the next station is, it’s fun.”

Kyiv Eternal is an exception in his discography. Given the way it harks back to the ambient music of his past, some might view it as a sidestep or even a step back. As he explains, however, “It isn’t easy to appropriate ambient music, it’s too abstract and fills the space. It’s not something that you can make into a grand narrative or some political statement. It’s like an anthem, but not a big anthem. It’s an anthem more on a personal level.”

Photo by Alina Garmash and Vitaliy Mariash

Shpudeiko recalls reading Ukrainian literature as a schoolboy and finding it to be gloomy and depressing. “This effect comes from what happened to us in the past and what is still happening to us now. But I think we can talk about these things in other ways. Not necessarily as martyrs or as people who are victims, but as people who can be powerful. Not through creating melancholy, depressive, oppressive moods, but through art which is life-affirming.”

Listening to the album is like listening to the music with one ear and the city with the other. An excellent example of how this album works is the closing ‘Coda’, which Shpudeiko recorded while walking with his dog around the city. In one pocket, he placed his phone playing a piano loop, and in the other he placed the field recorder to capture the sound – combining the sound of the city and the sound of music not in an audio editor, but in real time.

As the record progresses, the musical strand becomes more pronounced and more dominant, and the album more about emotions. The longest track, the meditative ‘Night Walk’, has a Rhodes-like melody with a light, scratchy rhythm. ‘Kyiv Eternal’ features a dense synth crescendo line with organ-like polyphony while rain falls on tin sills in the background. That track is the most moving, but also the lightest, brightest and least melancholy. Shpudeiko says that’s because his memories of Kyiv are primarily colourful.

He is currently based in Germany, as once again Kyiv is under bombardment from missile and drone strikes, meaning electricity and water supplies have been seriously disrupted once more.. “I know that where I used to have a studio, I wouldn’t be able to work at all – I would be out of work and out of money if I stayed there,” he says. “Those who suffer the most are just the citizens of Kyiv – from not being able to use electricity and from the cold; this winter was quite challenging. But still, I hope that it will get better, especially with the help of the West and contemporary modern missile interception systems like Patriot, for example.” Though he might be far from home, he says, he still feels a tight connection to the place he has spent 37 years in. “It’s challenging to understand something that is part of you unless you have some distance from it.”

Heinali's new album Kyiv Eternal is out now on Injazero