I don’t know much about Ukrainian arts and culture. Sad but true, even though I live in a Chicago neighborhood full of Ukrainian immigrants and their descendants, minutes away from the foremost exhibitor of Ukrainian art outside the borders of the former Soviet state. I’m a negligent interloper into a cultural enclave, perhaps, though I plead in my defense that traditional Ukrainian music has never really had its time in the sun. Plenty of people know the sound of Bulgarian vocal choirs, Tuvan throat singing, and Balinese gamelan, but Ukrainian folk styles are probably an unknown to all but the most intrepid of ethnic music explorers. For that reason, there’s a part of Nord/Ouest that’s liable to soar right over the heads of many non-Ukrainian listeners. The proclaimed “geo-political” music was inspired by the folklore and physical environment of Ukraine’s Rivne Polissya region, an amalgamation of modern electronics with traditional sounds from Ukraine’s northwest. Even if one can’t pick up on the specifics of what Alla Zagaykevych and Company are doing, the contrast at the core of Nord/Ouest is easily apparent.
Alla Zagaykevych is the founder of Electroacoustic’s Ensemble and Nord/Ouest’s core contributor. Her electronics are the album’s constant, the ocean on which the rest of the music floats. Vaporous clusters of tones swoop and swirl in colorful auroras, littered with a miscellany of other electronic emissions and occasional theremin — squiggly spurts like a foghorn amidst the sometimes murky haze. Vadim Jovich’s percussion plays at the music’s outer edges, providing textural support and arrhythmic splatters, in league with Zagaykevych’s electronics in setting the scene for Nord/Ouest’s leads. On the first and third untitled tracks, Sergiy Okhrimchuk’s violin plays at center stage, scratching and scribbling in messy tangles, arresting itself before it engages in any activity that might be construed as too melodic. There’s attention paid to an overall ambience, but Nord/Ouest isn’t an album that aims for cohesion or an overly homogenized sound. This becomes most apparent on the second track, which features vocals from Iryna Klymenko, with accompaniment from Zagaykevych, and Okhrimchuk. It’s in the singing that Nord/Ouest ’s link to Ukrainian folklore is at its most obvious. Even when it’s echoed or effected, the strident voices ring out as Electroacoustic’s Ensemble’s human element, that which keeps the album’s conceit from feeling too academic. When Klymenko duets with Zagaykevych, the effect can be chilling and I find the music fading into the background; when one or the other sings alongside Okhrimchuk’s violin, the album comes as close as it will get to conventional beauty. There are hints at what I assume to be traditional Ukrainian songs, signposts to those in the know in a language that few in America will understand. Incomprehension makes them no less arresting.
I probably wouldn’t make many friends jamming Nord/Ouest out on the streets of my neighborhood, but I imagine that someone from or familiar with Rivne Polissya might enjoy or understand the album in ways that I don’t. Still, the broad stroke collisions that constitute the album are easy to understand. The dichotomies between old and new, electronic and acoustic, human and inhuman, are at the crux of what Zagaykevych and her compatriots are exploring. It’s no coincidence that the segments of the album that concentrate on the electronics, well executed as they may be, pale in comparison to Nord/Ouest more heterogeneous intersections of sound. Like the inexplicable possessive in the Electroacoustic’s Ensemble’s name, this album leaves the listener with some questions, but Nord/Ouest is often at its best when it’s most mysterious.
By Adam Strohm