“What do we do with the artworks of monstrous regimes?” Two essays and a playlist for San Francisco Opera’s staging of Eugene Onegin

Some recent short pieces, and below, a little background on how they came to be:

  1. “…my burning heart aches from yearning…”: A Ukrainian Perspective on Eugene Onegin (program essay)
  2. Questions for Richard Taruskin, After His Passing (a remembrance and response to Taruskin’s Onegin program notes from 1997)
  3. Indomitable Ukraine: Music of Resilience, with Liuba Morozova. An annotated playlist featuring mostly classical music (and some popular music) featuring Ukrainian music going back centuries up to the present day.

Some background: The San Francisco Opera is celebrating their centennial season. They seemed unprepared for the backlash that followed the announcement that Eugene Onegin–an opera by Tchaikovsky based on a work by Pushkin, created in 19th c. Imperial Russia–would be staged this fall. The decision to present this opera was made years ago, before the Russian aggression towards Ukraine had reached its current terrible pitch (but while the war in the east was already underway). So why were they forging ahead with this opera, plans unchanged, at this moment of Russian imperialist revanchism? I believe this is a valid question. And so, when I was invited to contribute to their Onegin programming, I considered the proposal from a few different angles, asking myself the following questions:

  1. Am I the right person for this job? I am Ukrainian-American, raised in the diaspora and not in Ukraine. (This is an evergreen question.) Also, while I am a scholar of Ukrainian music, my scholarship has been oriented towards non-classical genres. (Stay in your lane, Sonevytsky.) And while I was once a devoted classical musician, and took many courses on the history of classical music and Russian and Soviet history, it’s been a while since I was immersed in the scholarship on opera, 19th c. Russian imperialism and the structure of serfdom, and 19th c. literary traditions of Pushkin and Shevchenko. I decided it might be a productive stretch to reacquaint myself with these subjects.
  2. Are they asking me to just make it seem ok, to make their problem go away? It’s not the first time in recent months that I’ve been invited in because I can offer a Ukrainian perspective (however partial). This poses a challenge in terms of what the historian Olesya Khromeychuk has recently diagnosed as the shift from “epistemic distrust” to “epistemic exploitation”: where the perspectives of Ukrainians on Ukrainian matters had been earlier framed as untrustworthy, they are now, in wartime, highly coveted–both for the emotional performance expected and to fill the gap in knowledge of a historically marginalized group. I had frank conversations about this with the staff at SF Opera while I was deciding whether to agree to the tasks proposed, as I made it plainly clear that the only contributions I could make would be critical. They agreed to include my critical contributions, to their credit.
  3. And perhaps the biggest one: What *should* we do with the artworks of monstrous regimes, especially when they hit upon current-day events like the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine? This is a huge question with ramifications for most artworks, and all regimes. I join a long tradition of people grappling with it. I don’t have an easy answer. But I know this: I am persuaded by arguments that a politics of purity is a likely dead end; we’d eventually be left with no artworks that could clear so high an ethical bar. But I am interested in thinking through a politics of forbearance. Especially a politics of forbearance that privileges the experience of populations historically oppressed, in every global context. And I’ve always been attracted to deconstructing the myths of exceptionalism that motivate so many of our beliefs not only about empires, but also about opera, and canons, and the seductive classical music ideologies of masculine genius, the masterpiece, the transcendent, and so on. Not all of that made it into the short pieces I wrote, but it was all in the background.

I kicked it around, and then I agreed to write two essays: one for the program, one a remembrance of Richard Taruskin and response to his own Onegin program notes from the mid-1990s. I also accepted the commission to create a playlist of Ukrainian music, for which I was able to engage my Ukrainian colleague Liuba Morozova, whose knowledge of Ukrainian classical music is *far* more extensive than my own.

It’s been good to see responses, even some negative ones, to writing produced on a much shorter timeline than what I’ve grown accustomed to in my scholarly life. I hope these pieces finds readers and listeners and spark curiosity about how the techniques of empire extend into the present. I hope whatever audience this finds keep you thinking about Ukraine, supporting their existential fight.

Ukraine Has A Legitimate (Musical) History

On February 24, 2022, Putin escalated his war on Ukraine into a full-scale invasion. Without hyperbole, I think it is safe to say that life will never be the same for many of us. Many North Americans are slowly waking up to the fact that the war on Ukraine is consequential not only for this region of the world, but for the whole of the global world order. I pray for peace in Ukraine, for the defeat of Putin, and for Ukrainian sovereignty to prevail.

Putin’s Russia has falsified history, made a childish simplification of it. The Russian military is now advancing a brutal assault on the entire population of Ukraine by arguing that Ukraine does not exist as an entity apart from Russia. The historic cities that the Russian military claims to be “protecting” are being reduced to rubble; they are desecrating their own shared history with Ukraine. It is sickening to witness, even as it is inspiring to see Ukrainians fighting back against this terrifying unprovoked attack.

My research going back to 2004 has centered on how the dynamic musical arena of Ukraine has shaped sovereign imaginaries that often refute simple narratives of Ukrainian history and identity, and reject binary geopolitical options. Since February 24, I’ve taken many opportunities to speak about this. I think about this as one front in the discursive battle against Putin’s attempted genocide.

Here are a few items that may be of interest if you are reading this now:

Tenure! And some archived talks

I received notice in April 2021 that I have been promoted to Associate Professor with tenure at Berkeley! I’m so relieved to put that hurdle behind me, and so grateful to the friends, colleagues, mentors, and interlocutors who supported me on that long road.

One of the affordances of the Zoom year is that the various talks that I gave, which would normally be to very small audiences, are archived on YouTube. All three of these are tied to publication projects that are at various stages ranging from “in press” to “in early draft.” So if you’re interested, here they are, from most recent to oldest:

And with that, on to thinking about which novel I will read before turning my mind to the neglected writing projects of the last year…

Wild Music wins the 2020 Lewis Lockwood Award from the American Musicological Society!

Deeply honored to say that Wild Music: Sound and Sovereignty in Ukraine (Wesleyan University Press, Music/Culture Series, 2019) has won the Lewis Lockwood Award from the American Musicological Society this year! According to the website, “The Lewis Lockwood Award honors each year a musicological book of exceptional merit published during the previous year (2020) in any language and in any country by a scholar in the early stages of his or her career who is a member of the AMS or a citizen or permanent resident of Canada or the United States.” A surprising and welcome affirmation of this book about Ukrainian etno-muzyka.

 

Wild Music book is out!

My first book, Wild Music: Sound and Sovereignty in Ukraine, is now out in the Music/Culture Series of Wesleyan University Press!

Cover_WildMusic_FNL

Cover art by Sashko Danylenko

Here is the blurb the press came up with to describe the book:

What are the uses of musical exoticism? In Wild Music, Maria Sonevytsky tracks vernacular Ukrainian discourses of “wildness” as they manifested in popular music during a volatile decade of Ukrainian political history bracketed by two revolutions. From the Eurovision Song Contest to reality TV, from Indigenous radio to the revolution stage, Sonevytsky assesses how these practices exhibit and re-imagine Ukrainian tradition and culture. As the rise of global populism forces us to confront the category of state sovereignty anew, Sonevytsky proposes innovative paradigms for thinking through the creative practices that constitute sovereignty, citizenship, and nationalism.

And here are some kind things some scholars I really admire have to say about the book:

“Sonevytsky’s vivid prose brings together rich ethnography with sophisticated analysis. Through her concept of wildness, she shows how performers disrupt binaries of tradition and modernity, of ‘Eastern’ and ‘Western’ culture, as they construct their country’s sovereignty. A powerful book!”

—Laada Bilaniuk, author of Contested Tongues: Language Politics and Cultural Correction in Ukraine

“Beautifully written, this vital and sensitive ethnography documents the social, affective, and discursive energies that flow within contemporary Ukrainian music. Sonevytsky highlights the possibilities for imaginative agency that “wild musics” provide, without ignoring the very real constraints that hem in the Ukrainian subjects whose complex personhood is the real focus of this remarkable book.”

—J. Martin Daughtry, author of Listening to War: Sound, Music, Trauma, and Survival in Wartime Iraq

“Post-Soviet Ukraine emerges in this beautiful and original book as a place of a vibrant musical and sonic culture. Marked by experiment, hybridity, and ‘wildness,’ this scene not only produces remarkably creative musical projects, but also makes new forms of political sovereignty, citizenship and community imaginable. A great achievement.”

—Alexei Yurchak, author of Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More: The Last Soviet Generation

It can purchased directly from the press, on Amazon, or even better, from your local academic bookstore!

Berkeley Ethnomusicology

I’m delighted to announce that I’ll be joining the faculty at the University of California, Berkeley as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Music starting in the Fall of 2018. Our little family circus will be moving West next summer. I am so thrilled to join the dynamic intellectual community of Berkeley, to be among faculty who have inspired and shaped my thinking since I started on this path, and to contribute to the renowned ethnomusicology graduate program there. I am all too aware that I have some big shoes to fill. 

We can file this one under “so damn bittersweet”: I am very sad at the thought of leaving our Bard and Hudson Valley community. I have learned so much from the endlessly creative, energetic, brilliant faculty at Bard, many of whom have become close friends. I love our little town of Tivoli, I love our street in that town, I love our little home, the mountains and our river and our lakes and our woods here, I love the klezmorim and the secret canoe shows, and I love the care that my kids have gotten outside of our home. There are too many people who I’ve grown attached to here to namecheck. I’m looking forward to one more year of the Hudson Valley life, and many future visits!