Close your eyes and think of the place you grew up. What sounds do you hear?
Depending on where you are, they might include traffic, bicycle bells, music, dogs barking, people laughing. A soundscape is an integral part of the identity of a place, the soul of a village or city, the soundtrack to our memories of it.
That’s what Ukrainian composer Oleh Shpudeiko wanted to capture and preserve in his new album, which comes out this Friday. It’s a tall order, even more so given the fact that his hometown is Kyiv.
“I grew up in the city and spent 37 years there,” he told Euronews Culture. “I didn’t realise until after I left Kyiv that it’s a strong part of my identity.”
Shpudeiko, who performs under the stage name Heinali, was in Kyiv when Russian troops stormed the city on February 24, 2022. After evacuating his family and relocating to Lviv in the West, he returned briefly a month later to find his perspective of the city had changed. His senses were heightened, he said. He could hear every sound.
“I experienced this feeling, like the city was alive,” Shpudeiko said. “We (Kyivites) wanted to preserve it, to hug it somehow, to do something to prevent harm. I didn’t know what to do about it back then, and only after I achieved some sort of distance, I realised that this album is how I can help this city in an artistic way.”
Kyiv Eternal is his love letter to his city, released on the one-year anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
The album is what he calls a “side step” from his usual work, which is focussed on early music and contemporary electronic music. For Kyiv Eternal, Shpudeiko combined field recordings he made over the past 10 years in the city (before the invasion) with ambient loops taken from his music archive from the same period.
“For me personally, it’s a way of remembering the city, of remembering our past,” he said. “It’s also about hope for our future. This album is personal for me, but I hope it will resonate with other Ukrainians as well, because we can’t really return to our past anymore. This is my way of dealing with this trauma of not being able to to go back to my peaceful past and also of remembering my past and our past and of hoping for a better future as well.”
The five-minute long title track begins with the sound of rain on a rooftop, building up to an exhilarating finale of powerful chords brimming with hope, while “Night Walk,” the eight-minute centrepiece of the record, uses street sounds from one of Shpudeiko’s many walks through the city centre after dark.
“Some of these recordings are connected to the practice of documentation of acoustic ecology that my colleague and I did in 2013 or 2014,” he said. “We did several sessions of documentation of how the city sounds and what are the earmarks, the soundmarks of the city, what kind of sounds make Kyiv Kyiv.”
The album artwork further illustrates this idea of preservation, featuring a photograph of a statue in Kyiv of Ukrainian political, military and civic leader Petro Konashevych-Sahaidachny, covered in sand bags and plastic to protect it from Russian bombs.
The power of Ukrainian culture during war
Shpudeiko is now in Germany, one of many Ukrainian artists who have fled the country to continue to create and spread awareness about the war to foreign audiences that have become increasingly war fatigued.
“It’s exceptionally difficult,” he said when asked how to keep people caring. “We (Ukrainian artists) are extremely underrepresented, and this was true before the war as well.”
Since last year’s invasion, Shpudeiko has worked with other artists to organise events and concerts to raise funds for Ukraine. In April, he performed a live modular synthesis set from a bomb shelter in Lviv to raise money for humanitarian and military efforts in Ukraine.
As the war continues, Shpudeiko said it’s extremely important to keep shedding light on Ukrainian culture, and that he wishes his government would offer more support for Ukrainian artists.
“The artists that I know that are present right now in Europe, they're trying their best to do as many performances, as many events as possible,” he said. “But the problem is that apart from that, we need a strategy from the Ministry of Culture because our resources are limited.”
Ukrainian artists in Europe have received support from organisations like UNESCO and the European Commission, as well as individual governments, in the form of funding, art residencies and other resources.
What’s missing, Shpudeiko says, is a clear strategy from the government to increase the visibility of Ukrainian artists and culture on a global scale. For him, it’s the best way to fight war fatigue, as some in the culture and entertainment sphere begin to tire of appearances by President Volodymyr Zelenskyy at major events.
“Politicians are usually despised. Even if there are certain periods where some of them might be admired, it doesn’t last very long,” Shpudeiko said. “Culture is a very different thing. It’s really difficult to get a fatigue of culture. It works long-term and it’s absolutely essential right now.”
Heinali's new album Kyiv Eternal is released on February 24 via Injazero Records.