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Oleksandr Sparynsky, a composer, musician and promoter of Ukrainian performing arts

 

Oleksandr PANASYEV makes an attempt to relate in a more or less coherent way what he was told by Oleksandr Sparynsky, a composer, producer, promoter of Ukrainian art abroad, in several hours of a conversation during which it would be much easier to say what was not discussed rather than what actually was.

 

OLEKSANDR SPARYNSKY — composer, musicologist, producer, author of music of more than 200 songs (for children, pop, rock, folk, etc), instrumental pieces (incl. electronic, world music & jazz), up to 100 TV& Radio regional and National ad jingles, choral works a capella and with accompaniment, oratorios, 52 theatrical performances, music for 18 films (incl. animation, documentary, TV movies), 9 children’s musicals, 1 operetta, 1 folk opera. Internet www.sparinsky.kiev.ua

 

I was introduced to Oleksandr Sparynsky by an old friend of mine (a movie director) in the bar of the Dim Kino (House of Cinema) Culture Center. I have to admit that my new acquaintance somewhat overwhelmed me with his great energy, enthusiasm and with his stories which overlapped each other. What I heard made me want write an article about him. I talked about this idea to the publisher of Welcome to Ukraine Magazine, and he gave me a go-ahead signal.

So I arranged for a meeting with Sparynsky who said that the best place for an interview would be his place. Looking at the address he gave me I realized his apartment was in Pechersk, probably the most prestigious part of Kyiv. I used to live there for quite some time and I know the neighborhood well.

On my way to Sparynsky’s place I passed through the streets with luxurious cars parked along the curb and on the sidewalks — it was like an auto show of the most expensive and luxurious cars available on the market. The thought that Sparynsky could be one of the nouveaux riches made me a bit uncomfortable — is it really worth talking to a man whose sole purpose in life is making money and buying luxurious villas, yachts and cars? But at our first meeting he did not strike me as a person of such inclinations — on the contrary, he made an impression of a person of arts with an attitude of a shrewd businessman. I already knew he was involved in the business of art promotion in addition to being a composer.

Oleksandr Sparynsky, a man in his late forties or early fifties, was kind enough to meet me close to where he lived to save me “the trouble of looking for my house in that maze of apartment houses that crowd the courtyard.” He was wearing a dark T-shirt with a loud logo splashed all over it, and shorts and sandals. I took it to be a good sign. The house he led me to must have been built a pretty long time ago — it did not have an elevator so we had to climb to his floor on foot. As we ascended the steps, I noticed signs of repairs being under way. “Yeah, there’s this guy, an MP, who has already bought several apartments in this building and now has them revamped — he probably wants to join them in some way to make one huge apartment. He’s already approached me with a request to sell my apartment to him. He offered me a good price but I told him — get lost. He insisted we talk the price over. I told him, ‘OK, one lemon (a lemon in the current Ukrainian slang means one million) and it’s yours.’ The guy said it was a bit too much and left me alone — for the time being.”

Once we were inside Sparynsky’s apartment all my fears were allayed — it was a place I immediately felt at home in. The place was cluttered with old furniture, book cases, players and musical instruments. In fact, the room I was taken to had a huge grand piano in one corner, a large ventilator standing on top of it, shelves packed with CDs, DVDs, cardboard boxes of old reels of tape, vinyl records, a huge-sized flat TV screen, computer monitors here and there, several cassette, CD and DVD players, a couple of antiquated reel-to-reel players, amplifiers, small and big and very big speakers, a low coffee table with a glass top, and a sofa.

I was seated on the sofa and the ebullient host brought a bottle of Seagram’s Dry Gin, a bottle of whisky and several bottles of tonic water. I opted for gin and Oleksandr supported this decision as “a clever choice in this heat.” We clinked the glasses, said ”Cheers” and sipped the gin with tonic and lime.

Two small bowls with nuts and raisins were produced to go with the gin. “Before we start our talking session, how about some meat and vegetables? Yesterday I had a TV crew here, they were making a video. I baked a good chunk of pork in wine for them. Some has been left. It’ll take just several minutes to warm it up.”

Even though it was very stuffy and close — the whirring fan didn’t help much, I didn’t have the strength to refuse, all the more so that I had not anything to eat since my morning tea, a cheese sandwich and an orange, and the time was drawing close to 6 p.m.”

“While I’m getting it all done, watch some of the stuff on my latest multimedia CD. What I saw on the TV screen piqued my interest still further: jam sessions with Roman Hrynkiv (a virtuoso bandura player and maker of new-type banduras) and Enver Izmaylov (a virtuoso tapping guitar player) and somebody else I could not recognize; a conversation with Nina Matviyenko (a great singer of authentic traditional folk songs); folk songs performed by villagers from various villages in a free, spontaneous, and most authentic manner — exactly the way such songs should be performed; paintings by Ukrainian painters and enlarged details from them…

Oleksandr brought in the meat, tomatoes, cucumbers, parsley, marjoram and some other herbs for seasoning, placed all of it on the table, deftly carved the meat, and put a couple of succulent, fragrant pieces onto my plate — all of it almost in one sweeping movement. “Now — here are a couple of sauces that go well with the pork – help yourself to them. And let me pour over the meat some of the sauce the meat was baked in — and here’s some herbs — and cheers!”

The meat was real good – tender, a bit spicy, full of all kinds of flavors. It was the subject of cooking that became the starting point of a long monologue which was once in a while feebly interrupted by my questions. Oleksandr’s speech was like a hurricane that would have carried me away if I had not been firmly and comfortably ensconced on the sofa. It would be totally futile on my part to try to render his manner of talking — rapid, highly idiomatic, involving many subjects at once, deviating, coming back, using slang and swear words to emphasize emotion. It was like a turbulent flow of a mountainous river when the snow is melting. All I can do is to arrange the monologue in a semblance of some sequences and hope that I‘ve included the most important things that were said.

“You say the meat is good? Thank you. The TV girl and her crew also liked it. They were filming right in here, in this room, and in the yard… Where did I learn to cook? Oh, it was my late father who inspired me and encouraged me in this respect. He had hundreds of books on cooking and on food in general. He was a food specialist, invented several new kinds of soft drinks. He wrote culinary and cook books too. He was from Bukovyna in western Ukraine, from that part of it which was still under Rumania when he was born. He knew a dozen languages or more (here Oleksandr led me to another room with bookshelves lining up all the walls from top to bottom; by the condition of the books and the way they were arranged you could tell that the books were not for an ostentatious display — they were read and reread; “see all those dictionaries? And see this section? All of these books deal with food, recipes, and cooking”)…

My mother? She’s eighty-two, but is in a good health and sound mind. She’s a pianist, or was, in the sense she does not play the piano any longer. But it was she who got me into music. I think I was four when I began to be taught to play musical instruments. Music, in all of its aspects, has always been with me ever since… No, I was not born in Kyiv — I was born in Lutsk in 1954 but later my parents moved to Kyiv and it was in Kyiv that I went to school. No, not music school yet… Mom, Mom, what year I went to that music school? (an old lady, wearing glasses, appeared in the doorway; after exchanging hellos with me she said, “It must have been 1962 … or 1963… I don’t remember for sure. But I can check — I’ve got all the papers…” It took Oleksandr some time to gently persuade the old lady not to bother).

…And imagine — at twelve I started earning money by playing music at wedding receptions in restaurants! It all began when my mom took me once to a restaurant in the center of Kyiv where a wedding party was being held, and I sat down at the keyboard of some electronic instrument and began to play — I could play any tune the guests wanted! I kept playing in restaurants for several years, earning a lot of money, more than my dad, in fact. Was it illegal? Of course it was illegal, but somehow neither I nor the people who hired me got caught. If some inspection or other discovered that a teenager was playing at nights in restaurants, there could have been a lot of trouble. But in the soviet times you had to learn fast how to bend the law. What did my parents think of my playing at night for drunken wedding guests? If they had minded that they would have prevented me from doing it in the first place… Anyway, at one point, I had saved enough money to buy myself a sort of an electronic organ or piano — it was called Yonica, and cost hell of a lot of money — seven or eight hundred rubles. With an average salary in the Soviet Union being one hundred and twenty a month, not many musicians could afford to buy a thing like that…I was very proud of myself, and I think it was then that I began to compose my first tunes. The Beatles were my great inspiration — I could and still can play any of the two hundred something songs they released…

Who else mattered for me in my musical development? Oh, many musicians — Manfred Man, Frank Zappa …You know Zappa? Good. He was great; he opened up new ways in music… But you know what? I find that traditional Ukrainian folk songs are an absolutely great kind of music. You can find anything and everything in it — now listen to this (Oleksandr fed a disc into a player and on the huge Samsung TV screen there appeared a group of Ukrainian peasant women singing and chanting in a village street). That’s Ukrainian rap for you — only it’s better than rap, it’s a thousand-year-old song, authentic, vibrant with emotion… All right, you’ll watch it at home (and he, putting the disc into the box where it belonged, presented the album to me).

Now, where were we? Aha — after high school, I enrolled at the Teachers’ Training College (now it’s Dragomanov University), Department of Music. I was supposed to be taught and trained to become a teacher of music in secondary school. Why not a music conservatory? I didn’t feel up to it — and I did not want academic music, I did not want to be “a classical” musician. There’s nothing much to remember about my student days, really. But right after my graduation, I was drafted into the army (in the soviet times, all the young men were supposed to do some army service, with few exemptions — tr.). I could talk about my service as long as anybody would listen (“He surely can,” Oleksandr’s mother piped in a cheery voice from the doorstep — she brought the papers with dates of her son’s schooling, “but don’t let him do it. He’ll talk you to death.” “All right, Mom, that’s fine, thank you.”).

The army service was a great experience for me, a school of life, if you want. I think every man should serve in the army — it either makes you or breaks you. No, I was not quite a regular soldier — I was in an army orchestra. I could play all kinds of instruments and it turned out to be very useful. We played not only at army occasions — I, or rather the unit I was a member of, was stationed in Kharkiv, and we played at wedding receptions, and at funerals too. I made arrangements of some well-known pieces of classical or pop music — for example, Albinoni, of Aphrodite’s Child — for funereal processions. That was fun! And it was in the army that I really began writing my own music. The starting point was a march that I composed for one occasion. It was as though some floodgates had been opened and music began pouring out of me…

After I came back to Civvy Street, I had to find a job that would more or less suit me and support my ambitions. I landed a job with the Ukrkontsert (Ukrainian Concert) organization and I began touring the Soviet Union with an orchestra — a sort of back-up orchestra for the then pop and folk music stars. We played what can be called ‘music for easy listening’ — and I kept writing songs. My first song was performed at a major concert hall, Palats Ukrayina, in 1979, and from then on my songs began to be performed live at concerts, on the radio and television…

In a song, the lyrics should be of paramount importance — if the lyrics are no good nor will be the song, even if the tune itself is nice. I used poems by well-known and very little known poets. But it’s not only a good poem that can give me an inspiration to write music — it could be anything, even a telephone book! In addition to touring and to writing music, I prepared and broadcast some music programs on the radio. I think I was the first one to put on the air a radio program about Vladimir Vysotsky, a Russian actor and a bard of wide fame (Vysotsky’s songs, very popular with large sections of the general public, were frowned upon by the soviet authorities for their content which did not coincide with the soviet communist party line — tr.). I seemed to have achieved a level of success which would keep me going without too much promotion and would guarantee me quite a comfortable life. But I began to feel that it was not enough, I wanted to do something else though I did not quite know what… Incidentally, in my line of business, self-promotion is of a paramount importance. I saw other well-known musicians do it, leaving demo tapes wherever they went and with whomever they met — just in case. I did the same…

What is that crab doing on my wall? (on one of the walls, in a big box with a transparent cover, sat a huge light-brown crab). I brought it from Kamchatka in Russia’s Far East in 1982. We toured that area and performed on a ship of an enormous size that was a sort of a floating factory for processing crabs and other sea creatures for food…

A breakthrough came in 1990 when I started taking Ukrainian performers to perform in the West. It was not an easy start but once it started moving, things sort of got into the groove. Which groups and ensembles? Veseli Muzyky, Halytsky Dzvin, Masterok, Mimirichi and others. Lately, it was mostly Mimirichi — it’s pantomime, ‘physical art’ which is understandable to any audience with any language background. The performers whom I take abroad perform before all kinds of audiences, not necessarily audiences of the Ukrainian Diaspora. In fact, most audiences are not of Ukrainian descent. Which countries? Great Britain, Belgium, France, Ireland — it is easier to say which countries in Europe I have not taken Ukrainian performers to. We have not been to Scandinavia yet. In Asia, we’ve been to Japan and Hong Kong. Everywhere we go we get excellent reception and very good press. The original idea of the shows is mine and often the music is mine too… Incidentally, I’ve discovered it’s practically impossible to get a Western journalist to write a laudatory article about you if there’s nothing to praise, no matter how much you would offer for such an article. And I find it to be very good. Also, you cannot win the western audiences with cheap things — your show must be truly authentic, truly engaging. And another thing that I’ve learnt in the west — you have to be honest. In Ukraine, in show biz, everybody wants to rip you off, and you want to cheat. In the west you do have to be honest, to the last cent, if you want to stay in business. Everything has to be transparent.

… Mimirichi? They are made up of six people, they are excellent mime artists and what they do on stage is understandable to everyone… No, promotion and producing are not the only things I do. I produce multimedia disks — Ukrainian folk dance and song, Ukrainian fine arts, anything and everything authentically Ukrainian, not pop versions of the performing arts. I do the design for the discs myself. My most recent venture was into Ukrainian cartoons — I’ve had a DVD of Ukrainian cartoons released. Earlier disks worth mentioning? Well, maybe ‘Orange Revolution’?

It was a set, a box that contained a small bottle of horilka (Ukrainian for vodka) called Maydan, a couple of small horilka glasses, a photo album, and a multimedia CD with the events of the Orange Revolution. In 2004 and 2005 it was the most popular souvenir that we gave as gifts on tours. I m not even sure I have any sets left…Ah, yes I do (Oleksandr pulled a chair to one of the walls lined up with shelves on which sat CDs, boxes with reels of tape, and God knows what else, climbed onto the chair and pulled from one of the top shelves a cardboard box in orange color with the symbols of the Orange Revolution splashed all over it. “Sorry, I can’t give it to you as a souvenir — it’s the only one left”).

I can’t stand still, I’ve got to be moving all the time, exploring and doing new things, things that are in demand. Can I be called someone who promotes Ukrainian art in the world? Probably yes — but mind you if it were not in demand in the west no amount of promotion would sell it. You say you wish there’d be the same interest in authentic Ukrainian art inside this country? That’s my wish too…

I’m a believer in professionalism. If you can do something real well — like washing windows for example on the skyscrapers, it often means you can potentially do something else well too — write operas, for example. I think if it were not needed by this country, at some deep level, what I am doing, I’d hardly achieve any success, even though I get absolutely no support from the state, and I do everything on my own. My native land seems to be whispering into my ear — ‘Go ahead!’

My hobbies? Do you really have to ask banal things like that? All right, I love movies. Everyday I watch at least one movie. Are you satisfied? No, I absolutely do not care about politics, I don’t care to talk about it, and I don’t watch news shows. Once you go into politics, you can’t stay clean. Oh yes, I care for money, I want to be paid good royalties — but not money for money’s sake. Money for good and comfortable living, for good food, for good gin, for all these things you have to have money to buy them, right? No, I don’t want to talk about such personal things as whether I’m married or separated or what. I have two children who live elsewhere.”

When I looked at my watch I discovered that we — or rather mostly Oleksandr Sparynsky — were talking for four hours. The night had fallen, it was time to take my leave. I thanked him for his time, for his gin and meal, and he thanked me for patiently listening to him talking. In my bag I carried several discs produced by Oleksandr and a cassette of his songs, sung and recorded in the 1980s.

“It’s old stuff, you know, but sort of nostalgic, if you know what I mean.”

I think I do.

 

One of the most recent projects of Oleksandr Sparynsky was producing, together with V. Myslyvy, a film, Tayemny Hvardiyets Imperatrytsi (An Empress’s Secret Guard), based on historical events and personages of the second half of the eighteenth century, that is the time of Catherine II. The central characters are Dmytro Bortnyansky, a famous composer, and Andriy Rozumovsky, Imperial ambassador to Italy, both of them of Ukrainian descent. The film is packed with fast action, intrigues and sword fights which will grab your attention from the start of the movie and to the very end.

The film was directed by Valentyn Myslyvy who also wrote the screenplay (in co-authorship with Yury Obzhelyan); music for the film was written by Oleksandr Sparynsky.

The film had a cast of Ukrainian actors, with D. Havrylov, V. Borysyuk, O. Sumska among them.

 

Photos are from Oleksandr Sparynsky’s archives

 

The famous Indian musician Ravi Shankar
(center), two members of his band (two men
on the left of the picture), Mykola Amosov,
a Derzhteleradio (State Radio and Television
Committee) official, Oleksandr Sparynsky,
and Oleksiy Solohubenko, director of the BBC
Eastern European Department. 1987.

 

Vakhtang Kikabidze, well-known Georgian
singer and actor, and Oleksandr
Sparynsky, recording a song. 1990.

 

Oleksandr Sparynsky at a meeting
with children in Adelaide, Australia. 1996.

 

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