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Roman Hrynkiv, an accomplished musician and bandura maker
Had Antonio Stradivari lived in Ukraine, he would have probably gotten himself involved in creating and perfecting the Ukrainian traditional stringed instrument bandura. There is an Ukrainian living today who could be described as Stradivari of the bandura. He is both an accomplished musician and bandura maker.
Roman Hrynkiv was interviewed by Oleksandr BUTSENKO, Welcome to Ukraine senior editor.
“Bandura is a younger sister of the violin about whose existence
Sir Yehudi Menuhin
Byway of introduction, I want to start this interview by mentioning that your perform music by Bach, Mozart, Handel, Vivaldi, Bortnyansky, Schubert and other composers, your own pieces and even jazz improvisations — a pretty extensive repertoire for a bandura player. You are regarded as a virtuoso performer too. But in addition to that you are also a creator of musical instruments which are designed and made by your own hands. Mr Hrynkiv, do you feel it is essential to be a composer, a performer and maker of instruments all rolled into one?
In our days the quality of performance has reached a very high level but the development of musical instruments and their perfection lag behind. Some time ago those who had the skills of a cabinetmaker could make banduras even without being able to play them. Now you have to be a musician trained to play the bandura to make this instrument…
A friend of mine, Sashko Matviychuk now lives in Cremona, the city in Lombardy, Italy. Cremona is famous for the violins and violas which were made there in the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries by the Amati family and their pupils, the Guarneri and Antonio Stradivari. My friend is addressed now as Sancho di Mateo. He teaches at the School of Violin and Viola Makers. He studied at that school and he also made violins that sounded so well that Italians invited him to come back to that school and continue making these instruments. But he is not only a maker of violins — he is a musician in his own right, he used to play in a symphony orchestra. He is also a person with a very inquisitive and searching mind. He studied the music archives and from what he learned he realized that such greats in violin making as Stradivari or Guarneri were also great innovators. Stradivari always strove to achieve perfect balance and harmony in the instruments he created. There were a lot of excellent violin makers but Stradivari was special. What made him so special? He discovered that when you play a certain range of tones on the first string, then you have to do something to your violin which would make even the little pieces of it react in unison to this range — in other words, even the little pieces in the violin should be made in such a way that they could be tuned up to the tones played on each string. At first, it was purely the ear of the maker that was used as a decisive factor, and later the knowledge about such things was systematized and arranged into something that can be taught. When I learned about it, I felt I could apply it to making banduras…
When did you come to that realization?
When I was a student of Kyiv Glier Music School, I thought that if I searched well enough I could find a way of making banduras sound better…Once I went to Chernihiv to see my mother who had found “the best instrument there was” for me. I talked the maker of that bandura into letting me have the coveted instrument — I did go to great lengths to get it. And I did. I played the instrument for about a year and it was really better than instruments that I had had before, with a better sound, but it still did not produce the sounds I wanted it to. And I started experimenting. My first bandura was praised by the experts but the things I had introduced into it made the instrument fragile. I remade it and it began to sound in its own special way — neither better, nor worse but different. I supplied it with technical innovations which are not at all difficult to make.
Did you get it patented?
No, I did not. I do think that sooner or later things like that should be patented but at the moment I believe that ideas should be shared as much as possible — the wider new ideas spread the better.
Did your search for a better sound interfere in any way with your performances, or with perfecting the skills of performing music?
Not at all. The better the sound, the better the music you play. Take, for example, that little piece which I introduced into the body of the bandura to achieve a better sound. I called it Trypilsky konyk (“a little horse from Trypillya”) and it gave my bandura a very special timbre. I found what I wanted to find and it gave me confidence that the music I played would sound the way I wanted it to sound. The better the sound, the more perfect must be your skills of a performer. If your instrument cannot produce a good sound, you can play music without trying hard or actually without having considerable skills, you sort of hide behind the bad sound, but with an instrument that sounds well, you have to be so careful with every little touch you give the strings. So, the better sound made me a better performer. With my technical innovation giving me the sound I wanted, I plunged into music, giving myself totally to it. You could describe me as an impressionist bandura player, I played as my feelings and emotions guided me… The instrument inspires me and I do my best to let it have its way… Every piece of music I compose starts from something very small which sort of develops all by itself into something bigger, worth being called music. I scrap everything that does not sound right. My instrument opened new opportunities for me and at one point I thought I was ready to go public.
I heard quite a fascinating story about your first public performance abroad. I wonder if it’s true…
I don’t know what you’ve heard or whether it can be called a fascinating story, but I grant you, it was a bit unusual. It happened back in 1993 when I was an undergraduate of the Tchaikovsky Conservatory in Kyiv. Now it is called the National Music Academy… I must admit there were not enough rooms for all the students to play or practice in, and so you could see and hear students playing their instruments all over the place — in corridors, backstairs, anywhere and everywhere, with all sorts of heated arguments erupting all the time. What a pandemonium it was! And one day two Frenchmen who were making a film about Ukraine walk into that bedlam of a conservatory and start filming. They must have been overwhelmed by what they saw and heard. They spotted me with my bandura in a nook and started asking what kind of an instrument it was and the like. I explained through the interpreter that it was a bandura, an ancient Ukrainian instrument, something very-very Ukrainian as well as the music that was played on it. They got interested and asked whether we could find a quieter place where I could play and they could shoot some footage. I took them to the classroom of Professor Serhiy Bashtan, my teacher. I told him about the Frenchmen’s request and he let me play in his office without any interference. Some other students who played Ukrainian instruments were invited to play too, and there was even some dancing, and all of it was filmed. Then they thanked us and left. And soon I quite forgot about the incident. As it turned out, upon returning to France they started to look for a sponsor to get the film released and went to an association which was backed by Sir Yehudi Menuhin [Menuhin, 1916–1999, US-born British violinist of wide fame — tr.]. When Menuhin saw the film and me and other bandura players in it he said that he wanted “that boy” and he pointed to me on the screen — to come over and perform at the concert he was planning to hold. But those French movie people did not even know my name — all they knew was that I lived in Kyiv and was a student of the conservatory there. I was later told that they found me thanks to the help provided by the secret services. Sir Yehudi Menuhin was quite an influential figure and asked someone to help find me, a bandura player who lived in Kyiv and played his bandura in a corridor of the conservatory. He wrote down in musical notation the piece I played on that film, and passed it on to those who were involved in the search, just in case. One day, somebody from the Ministry for Foreign Affairs turned up at the conservatory, and the president of the conservatory and that somebody started looking for “a student who played the bandura for the French filmmakers.” They tracked down Professor Bashtan, showed him a piece of paper with music notes on it — it had been sent over thorough the fax machine, but the professor did not recognize that piece of music though he remembered I was one of those who had played in his office with the Frenchmen filming the event. The word was sent to look for me — I was found and brought to the professor’s office. He showed me my music on a piece of paper and I admitted it was me who had written it. That piece was called Vesnyanka (“In the Spring Mood”). A week later I was on my way to Belgium where that concert organized by Sir Yehudi Menuhin was to be held. That’s how I went public. Incidentally, Menuhin’s concert was called All the Violins of the World.
But you did not play the violin, you played the bandura, didn’t you?
I did. You see, Menuhin’s roots were here, in Ukraine, in the Land of Odeshchyna, and he wanted his audience to see and hear an instrument that came from the land of his ancestors. But he asked me to play a piece by Bach and any other piece of classical music of my own choice, and anything of my own music. I played Mykola Lysenko’s Elegy [Lysenko, 1842–1912, Ukrainian composer — tr], and Bach, and my Vesnyanka. I was the only one at that concert who played an instrument other than the violin, and it made a splash. I was made a member of the Association of Professional Musicians of Sir Yehudi Menuhin. I’m the only bandura player in that Association which includes mostly violinists and orchestra conductors.
You mentioned that you also play jazz.
I do. Through Menuhin I met Al di Meola who happened to be in Brussels at that time. He was to perform on the next day after our concert in the same hall. After his performance I was introduced to him and I played for him. He went into raptures about the bandura and right there and then invited me to play at a concert with him in Luxemburg. I accepted his invitation. That’s how it all started. I gave concerts and played at music festivals in the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Germany, Belgium, France and Poland. And then at one point in my life I decided I wanted to have my own bandura-making studio or workshop — and I put the money I had earned with my bandura back into the bandura. It was something I’d been dreaming to do for years.
I’ve been impressed with what I saw in your studio. I found it to be a very special world — all those drawings and pictures on the walls, aquariums, a big collection of sheet music, those shelves with musical instruments on them. The metal frame of a future electric bandura I saw in your studio made me realize with great clarity that you are one of those people who never stop in their search for something new — and for perfection.
Thank you for your words of praise… Thanks to Menuhin I learnt that many instruments from private collections are lent to musicians to play on them. Menuhin’s Association is instrumental in organizing this. I think it’s an excellent idea — if you are rich enough to collect expensive violins it’d be really no good and silly if you kept those instruments on the shelves under glass. Excellent instruments should be used by excellent musicians to play at prestigious concerts or music contests. There are international contests which are dedicated to one particular instrument! I find it to be a great idea. The organization of such concerts is superb, and the prizes are high, but the main thing is to show what this or that instrument is capable of in skilled hands. The names of those who made such instruments are perfectly known, of course. By contrast, banduras made in Ukraine are not linked to those individuals who made them. Say, there was a workshop in Kharkiv that made banduras and then all the banduras made there were called “Kharkiv banduras.” Now we have “Kyiv banduras,” or “Poltava banduras,” all anonymous. And it made me want to produce banduras which would be associated with their maker. I started from scratch, and most of the things in my studio I made with my own hands. But I want to go further — I want to crate a bandura centre with workshops, labs, a library of CDs and DVDs, a concert hall, all under one roof.
Did you, by any chance, think of making banduras designed for children?
Good that you mention it. It is a problem — lack of instruments designed and made especially for children. Bandura is no exception. It is a heavy and cumbersome instrument and it is very difficult for children to get adjusted to it. And if a child uses a bandura designed for grown-ups, he or she must assume a pose while playing that can lead to the scoliosis too. And those instruments that are made for children are usually so bad that it is impossible to make good music playing them. Plus, because of the smaller size they can’t sound properly. It’s high time we started making good banduras for children, and not just for training or fun, but for playing at concerts. In fact, I made one such bandura and gave it as a present to President Yushchenko. I was invited to come to his place and took my bandura along. I was first met by his wife Kateryna who said that they would like me to teach their children to play the bandura. I began playing to demonstrate what my bandura was capable of. When the President came in, he listened to my playing and I saw he was moved. In a conversation that followed it turned out that he knew quite a lot about the bandura as a musical instrument, he knew the names of all those parts the instrument is made of. I told him a number of tall stories about the bandura players of the old times — that they could heal wounds by just putting their hands on the wound, that they could catch the flying arrow — such kind of stories. He listened to me politely and then started giving me back the names of all those fabled bandura players. He knew all those stories! Seeing that I’d failed to surprise him with my stories, I produced my trump card — Do you, know I asked that Bach wrote music for the bandura? He did not know that!
Neither do I! Is it true? It’s hard to believe though that you were pulling the President’s leg!
Of course I was not! I’d never commit such an act of impropriety. My student, Kateryna Trotsenko, doing her research, discovered that a seventeenth-century Ukrainian singer and bandura player, Timofiy Bilohradsky, happened to come to the city of Dresden in the year 1733 with the entourage of the Russian diplomat Herman Kezerling. Bilohradsky was known as a virtuoso and Ms Trotsenko unearthed some evidence that suggests that Bach was commissioned to write four suites especially for Bilohradsky in 1741 when the last was employed by the king’s August III prime-minister, the count von Brul. It is known that the suites were not suitable for playing on the lute. One of the explanations offered suggests that a special kind of lute was created of a different shape and a few strings were added which would make it possible to play Bach’s suites on this lute. But the thing is that at about that time there existed in Ukraine an instrument called torban which combined some features of the bandura and of the lute. Bach could have seen that instrument which was designed for playing particularly virtuoso pieces. He may have gotten interested enough to write music for it. We have made an instrument, bandura-lute, and it became part of Kateryna Trotsenko’s experimental project-performance, A True Legend about 4 suites for the Bandura Written by Johann Sebastian Bach.
You seem to be talking about the bandura as one would talk about a living being.
Bandura becomes so much part of the player that he just can’t exist without it. Bandura players never parted with their banduras. When the bandura player died, his instrument died with him… I have discovered that if something goes wrong with me, something bad can happen to my bandura too. It can develop a crack, for example if I try to work on it. Back in my early student days, if I had not prepared the lesson properly, the instrument would not want to get properly tuned in class. Bandura is like a living being, with its own soul.
The first known depiction of an instrument which could have been an ancestor of both bandura and kobza, ancient Ukrainian instruments, is to be found in a fresco on the Holy Sophia Cathedral of Kyiv which dates to the first half of the eleventh century. The first written mention of the bandura dates from the 1320s. In many of the folk paintings of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries known as Kozak Mamay, we can see the bandura which is much an integral part of the image of the Ukrainian Cossack as his pipe, saber or horse.
Photos are by Roman HRYNKIV