Oleh Shpudeiko is a music composer and sound artist who records as Heinali. He specialises in electronic music and modular synthesis, taking inspiration from early music and medieval polyphony. Oleh writes music for games, films, and choreographed performances, creates sound art installations and performs live shows. His works include the award-winning music for the video game BOUND by Plastic/Sony Santa Monica and compositions and sound art installations commissioned by The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), The National Art Museum of Ukraine (NAMU) and The Museum of Odesa Modern Art (MSIO).
You have been active on the music scene since the 2000’s, which was a very different era in terms of politics, society, arts and culture. What led you to electronic music?
I agree; it was a different era. Back then, I was a part of the ‘Ukrainian Gothic Portal’, a subculture that, contrary to the title of its website, covered broader swathes of music than gothic rock and darkwave, reaching into the fields of industrial, dark ambient, noise, experimental electronics, futurepop, EBM, IDM and, occasionally, contemporary classical, attracting pretty much anyone on the fringe. Most of this music circulated on cassette tapes or CDRs and wasn’t available in the record stores. You could get your hands on it if you knew people, or people who knew people. I was lucky because I knew a few collectors, and they were kind enough to share their weird and rare music with me. It was my first point of contact with Coil, The Sisters of Mercy, Muslimgauze, Aube, Boyd Rice, Merzbow, Current 93, Aphex Twin, Tujiko Noriko, Front 242, Ulver, Telefon Tel Aviv, Explosions in the Sky and many, many others.
I believe this music, which was predominantly electronic, had an emancipatory effect. It showed that starting your musical practice without a formal musical education (which I don’t have) isn’t such a flight of fancy. And discourses permeating Ukraine’s early industrial and gothic scenes, which were raw but enjoyed more freedom of speech and open-mindedness, proved fertile ground for such an undertaking. This, combined with my familiarity with computer software, which I owed to my background in computer science, led me to my first experiments with electronic music. So, while it states ‘electronic music composer’ in my bio, I didn’t choose electronic music because I felt a particular affinity with it. It wasn’t intentional; it was rather dictated by circumstances back then. I see myself as a music composer in the broadest sense, who works with electronic sound because it constitutes the largest part of my vocabulary and because, after all these years, as I have internalised it, it has become native, natural to me.
Medieval music, with its polyphony, and early music are your great inspirations. So is the British cult band Coil. How did you amalgamate these influences, and what in particular interests you in this music – is it more the ambience, the spirituality, the composition techniques?
All of these influences carry some of the things that I find lacking in contemporary musical practices. Medieval and early Renaissance music in general, and polyphonic music in particular, is a pre-affect music. The baroque doctrine of affects, which is still widely influential, even dominant (especially in contemporary popular or amateur music), dealt with representing a feeling through music as clearly and compellingly as possible. While a powerful tool, especially in functional music, it lacks nuance and subtlety. It’s too direct. Pre-baroque music is largely devoid of this affliction, offering precious ambiguity, refinement and delicacy. Another reason is the trans-historicity of the polyphony, its ability, as noted by Björn Schmelzer, to transcend particular contexts and particular temporalities and become universal, to produce meaning outside of their time, from a state of non-belonging. I encountered this at a concert last year when my wartime experience turned into embodied abstraction on stage and spoke to me for the first time since the beginning of the invasion through the lamentations of Josquin des Prez, performed by Graindelavoix. Just think about it: the 21st century wartime experience of a Ukrainian musician incorporated itself into the body of work of a 15th-16th century Franco-Flemish composer who staged his symbolic death through lamentations during the last years of his life. I felt dread and love at the same time. It was utterly terrible and utterly beautiful. No other music does this to me.
Coil, Current 93, Death in June, and other similar influences are various examples of transgressive art that no longer seem to grace the contemporary underground. While I welcome the (hopefully) increasing inclusivity and safety of contemporary music scenes, the lack of transgressive art is troubling. I remember reading Guyotat, Burroughs and Wittkop when I was a teenager—at times it made me feel unsafe, anxious, and nauseous. But at the same time, it revealed certain truths about me and the world that no other art could. More importantly, it made me develop a certain set of artistic and political values and an accompanying aesthetic hunger, a drive that isn’t easily satisfied, which I believe helped me to navigate through the muddy eclecticism of the first ten years of my career on my way to finding my voice.
Regarding early music techniques, if we talk about tuning and tonal organisation—I use Pythagorean tuning (following Boethius; although related, medieval music theory and practice are distinct fields that only occasionally overlap) and church modes, depending on the particular plainchant on which I base my polyphony. In terms of rhythmic organisation, rhythmic modes were extensively used in the Notre Dame polyphony, which I employ throughout the patch. Regarding the texture, some parts of my patch employ basic generative monophony over a drone, as medieval monophony is often performed. Other parts of the patch replicate a melismatic organum. For example, if it’s a three-voice organum, also known as organum triplum, the patch will feature three voices: two upper ones (vox organalis) with florid melodies generated by the machine over the viscous tones of the lower voice (vox principalis), which plays a sequenced fragment of the plainchant stretched in time. However, the most difficult part is the development of the form. I think it takes most of my time, and even after years of working on it, I’m constantly changing the general structure. It is problematic because my music is generative at its core, and generative music resists any external structure imposed onto it. This resistance creates a tension that I think is responsible for producing the core meaning of my work.
Your main instrument is a modular synthesiser. You also work with generative patches and sounds. Is this unpredictability of the instrument also something that you take into account when working with it? For some, the modular synth might seem like an alchemical sonic instrument, full of cables and led lights. It requires a different way of working than a computer.
The unpredictability is the main reason I work with it. The Polyphonic era’s scholastic thought concerned the relationship between ‘the necessary’ and ‘the possible’, and structured modular improvisations are a fitting metaphor for the dichotomy between Providence and Contingency. Roughly speaking, the former is how an artist sets up their machine, creating a patch and putting certain constants, rules, and frameworks into place. The latter is the variables—pseudo-random events that unfold within the rules set. Eno’s garden metaphor is rather helpful in explaining this kind of musical practice. A gardener may plan a garden and sow seeds in it, but they will never know what this garden will look like in every detail. A generative patch on a modular synthesiser is a garden—it explores the boundaries between what is predetermined and what is free to unfold. This leads to the machine sometimes behaving as if it were possessed, haunted by something—a spirit, a ghost. The more complex the patch is, the older the modules are, the more likely it is that the machine will develop a kind of will. And at times, it doesn’t hesitate to force it on me.
Since the beginning of the war in 2022, you have become one of the most prominent ambassadors of Ukrainian culture. You have an album dedicated to Kyiv called Kyiv Eternal, featuring field recordings from the Ukrainian capital, and you also played from a bomb shelter in Lviv at the beginning of the war. How important is culture in times like these?
A country without culture is just a piece of land. Unfortunately, Ukrainian culture is still underrepresented in the West. And it’s partly our fault. The role of culture gets downplayed during wars, and Ukraine is not an exception in this regard. I believe that at least some of our tragedies could have been prevented if Ukraine had had a clear, long-term cultural policy, especially regarding cultural exports aimed at building a strong Ukrainian cultural identity abroad.
Culture becomes weaponised during a war, whether you like it or not. Nothing can be done to prevent it. However, an artist has the opportunity to recognise this process and steer it in a direction corresponding with their artistic values.
On Kyiv Eternal you were working with “memory loops” – memories of places where you made the field recordings over the years. Can you talk about the process of making this record, and the interplay between memory, genius loci and displacement (you have been living in Germany for a while now, and I assume the album was largely composed outside of Ukraine?).
Kyiv Eternal features both field recordings that were captured and music drafts that were composed in Kyiv before the full-scale invasion of Russia. I combined the recordings and looped fragments of music drafts, forming a near textbook, an almost clichéd ambient record. This was an intentional choice since ambient, which often lacks narrative structure, is quite difficult to appropriate. I had a lot of experience working with this genre in the past, during my formative period. The core impetus behind this was a particular experience I had in Kyiv when I returned to it after having spent the first month of the war in Lviv. The city felt like a living thing; you had this impossible yearning to comfort, hug, and shield it from harm. It sounds sentimental, but it wasn’t a sentimental feeling. It was traumatic and, at the same time, serene and distressing. These qualities, of course, make it interesting to explore artistically. However, it turned out I needed both time and distance to realise how to work with it—I composed Kyiv Eternal while at an art residency in Cologne, having brought my backup hard drive from Kyiv. I couldn’t have composed it in Kyiv; the idea wouldn’t even have arisen since the context would have been completely different.
Another subtler displacement is the track order. Most track titles carry the names of the locations in Kyiv where the field recordings were made, and they form a certain route that may seem realistic. In reality, however, it’s entirely impossible, as tram 14, for example, does not go to Majdan Nezalezhnosti (the first and the second tracks on the record). The logic of personal memory structures the album’s topography; the routes and locations have their place in these memories, not in the real city. They’re a cityscape displaced. These locations carry a personal meaning. Each location has a personal story attached to it as I spent 37 years of my life in Kyiv. All my formative life experiences, the best and the worst, happened at certain locations in the city. I carry the memory of this city, just as the city carries the memory of me. So, in a way, it is really about the peaceful life that we lost and the future that that past carried within itself and that was violently taken from us.
In spring 2022, you initiated a series of live-streamed performances from a bomb shelter in Lviv. Can you talk about your memories of these live streams, of these performances?
It wasn’t just me; it was a group of artists: Michael Balog, Alexey Shmurak, and Ivan Kostyk. I understand now that it was largely a therapeutic practice, an attempt to reinstate, recollect, and recover our shattered artistic identities. And, of course, it was an attempt to bring more attention to the war from the West and collect funding for the Ukrainian Armed Forces. We started live streams from Michael Balog’s electronic music school, which was luckily almost fully equipped for broadcasts (we should probably thank COVID for that). And it wasn’t difficult to find musicians who would perform these shows—there were quite a few of us in Lviv from every part of Ukraine, as Lviv was considered a safer city back then. But as the air raid alarms grew more frequent, we had to postpone or cancel future broadcasts. So we decided to move the whole thing to the nearest bomb shelter, which was fortunately just next to Michael’s school, about 100 metres away. The only real issue was having a stable internet connection, which we provided by getting two 50-metre Ethernet cables, joining them together and shielding them from the rain with a plastic bag. It worked. When it was my turn to play, I could not focus on the music when I rehearsed. I remember that I was checking the news constantly, and it was impossible to work. But when I started playing, a miracle happened, and I felt like a musician again for those twenty minutes. Tetiana Voloshyna, a friend of mine who was there and who helped us with the organisation, wrote about this performance: ‘Heinali’s music miraculously fits the bomb shelters and transforms them into the sacred space of Roman catacombs’. But as I returned from the performance and turned on the news, I read about the Bucha massacre, and everything went back to the way it was, and worse, and no miracle could ever undo that.
Since 2019, you have been the co-author and co-host (together with Alexey Shmurak) of the Ukrainian АШОШ education podcast and vlog, which covers a wide range of music and sound-related topics. Can you talk about this initiative?
We started it as a response to COVID-related measures. Alexey, a classically trained music composer whose background differs from mine, has been working closely with me since early 2013. Our goal was to bring closer two quite different music discourses present in Ukraine; to put it roughly, the academic and the amateur-electronic, which had close to no intersections and would benefit from cross-pollination. The vocabulary and language we chose were also aimed, with interdisciplinarity in mind, at visual artists, curators, writers, theatrical directors, and pretty much any cultural actors interested in expanding their understanding of musical and audial practices.
After the full-scale invasion of Russia, we switched our focus to covering topics related to belliphony. One of the recent episodes deals with the relationship between death and music—how European culture suppresses the expression of loss and mourning and how music helps us to accept and survive it, the romanticisation of death in the nineteenth century, and the horror and absurdity of death in the twentieth century. Another episode features an interview with John Object, a Ukrainian electronic musician who has been serving in the Ukrainian Armed Forces since the beginning of the invasion. Timur talks about how his perception of sound and music has changed during his time in the army, how the purchase of sound equipment can be therapy and an investment in the future, how the symbolic meaning of sound, and not its physical reality, changes the experience of it, how silence becomes of greatest value, and how control over the sound environment is an insurmountable goal. The podcast is currently in Ukrainian, but we’re considering recording episodes in English in the future.
You have been active with various projects – your composition Aves Rubrae was commissioned by MoMA, and you also have a recent live show called Orgona. Can you talk about these works?
While Aves Rubrae is indeed recent, I wouldn’t call Organa recent as it’s a continuation of the work I’ve been doing since before the full-scale invasion of Russia. In fact, I was planning on recording a new eponymous album in 2022 and was doing related artistic research until the explosions in Kyiv woke me up on the 24th of February, 2022. I performed it live for the first time in August 2021 at St. Sophia in Kyiv, and Live from a Bomb Shelter in Ukraine, recorded in April 2022, is another early iteration of it. It is a structured improvisation on a modular synthesiser, loosely based on the high medieval polyphonic compositions of the Notre Dame school called organa (or organum in the singular) and the medieval monophony of Hildegard von Bingen. However, some parts of the patch employ taleas—isorhythmic techniques used in motets, presumably appearing later than organa and even a sort of imitative polyphony that appeared even later. The Florence Manuscript, also known as Magnus Liber Organi, one of the sources of medieval polyphony, features both organa and motets.
Aves Rubrae, unlike the Notre Dame polyphony, which was composed to grace the most resplendent church celebrations, takes on an eschatological tinge. The ‘Aves rubrae’ (‘red birds’ in Latin) references ‘Red Birds Will Fly Out Of The East And Destroy Paris In A Night’ by Coil (which, in turn, was probably influenced by Tangerine Dream). It’s a homage to one of the most influential artists, whose music shaped me during my teenage years. It’s widely accepted that the name of Coil’s composition comes from one of the apocalyptic prophecies of Nostradamus. Curiously, I couldn’t find any mention of that particular line or a similar theme in his texts. Perhaps, and more fittingly, it came from Balance’s, Lewis’s or Christopherson’s own visions. I find it fitting, though, in the context of recent news.
What will the next months bring for you?
I have a show in Milan on November 25th, where I will perform Organa, and I’m currently finalising music for a Lithuanian documentary. I was hoping to record Organa, finally, but it doesn’t look as if I can afford it. A few years ago, I used to have a certain kind of battered optimism regarding the music industry’s current state, but I think I’ve lost it. When you have more than twenty years of your career behind you, play two dozen shows per year, including appearances at major festivals like Unsound, Primavera, NEXT, Ephemera, and Musikprotokoll, and have your records shortlisted for several awards. When The New York Times, The Guardian, The Pitchfork and other major news publications show an interest in your work. Yet you still barely survive, barely make it, barely can provide for yourself—and I bow down to artists with kids who manage to keep things afloat. And when artists who are more successful than me share privately that they barely make any money from their European tours, I think it’s okay to say that something is wrong with the industry. I often get asked for advice by younger musicians who are at the very beginning of their careers, and I used to try to find the positive sides and tell them that although it’s insanely hard, it’s doable. But in reality, I think it’s a cursed profession.
Interview: Lucia Udvardyova
Image: Alina Garmash and Vitaliy Mariash