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Throwback to the residency at the Helsinki Festival

Eugene Birman

Eugene Birman


The nature of a festival with such supra-national significance as Helsingin Juhlaviikot (Helsinki Festival) implies that any residency would, similarly, seek to look beyond traditional(ly) imposed constraints and purposely transcend boundaries. The project I brought as Artist in Residence is no more a musical idea than a demographic survey, political theatre, and historical research rolled into one. Of course, the musical idea belies the complex task of integrating the latter explorations into something coherent and necessary. When the European Union National Institutes of Culture first proposed a cultural exchange between artists and thinkers in Russia and Western Europe, I was the only composer practitioner involved, and the resulting project, titled Russia: Today and done in collaboration with librettist Scott Diel and the Kim? Contemporary Arts Center in Riga, Latvia, also reflects my status as an interloper in a predominantly visual art and theory-tilted conversation. 

The goal of my work, and, indeed, my residency, is to give voice to the voiceless living up and down the Russian border - one that existed only in theory during the Soviet years - by asking them to say, anonymously, what they feel about the past, present, and future of Russia. This process is not easy. People who, as former citizens of the Soviet Union, were oftentimes imprisoned and exiled for sharing unpopular views still hold trauma, even over generations, from that infamous past. Yet this is also part of the idea: in speaking their truth, they also give a voice to their long-gone ancestors. 

During my residency in Helsinki, this formative part of the project culminated in an event in partnership with Cultura-säätio, the Finnish non-profit organization the purpose of which is to improve the cultural and social status of Russians and Russian speakers in Finland, which brought people of a huge variety of ages, experiences, and languages into one room, anonymously, to say what it is that Russia means for them. The event ultimately elicited a national TV interview on Yle, amidst other coverage; for me, it was particularly exciting to meet people who have never been asked such open questions before, who have been waiting to answer them. Having found these responses, this project, which is further supported by the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation who have granted me a 2018 Guggenheim Fellowship to pursue the music creation, will now progress to the phase where a libretto, and hopefully a 'message', can be compiled from the words and then, of course, the music itself.

The three weeks spent with the Helsinki Festival have given me not only invaluable data and material, but also, surprisingly, a new-found understanding of how 'classical' music can maybe be presented differently, and how a project like this cannot simply be presented in traditional concert form. I am also particularly grateful for the rare opportunity to live and work as if among the festival itself - besides the rich musical experiences, it has been a genuine source of new inspirations, ideas, and even vocal techniques. 


Eugene Birman

September 2018