I know this Project has an international reach, with listeners and readers in many countries. This is natural, because interest in poetry and music is borderless — but this month many areas of our world are also following the invasion of Ukraine by Russian troops. There’s no shortage of news, opinions, and analysis of that matter available anywhere where such things are allowed to be freely discussed, and I’ll not be adding personally to that here today. Some of you may be saying “Well, you must speak out! The situation is clear!” I agree that the situation seems clear to me too. I don’t believe I need to be an expert on the matter to have my villain and my set-upon victims, and my mere words in this Project’s small but valued audience won’t add that much.
But one of the Parlando Project’s mottos is “Other People’s Stories.” This lets me call in others’ words to bear on this. Neither of the poems I’ll use excerpts from today were writing about the current invasion, but they weren’t writing about things unconnected to it either. I won’t explicate their words here in any length, I’ll let those words speak for themselves today.
In place of that, let me give you a short description of how I came to create this piece which I call by the names of the two poems I used parts of: “Babi Yar – Testament.”
In the news this month I read that some ordinance in the invasion has landed on the site of Babi Yar, which is the hallowed memorial site of the execution of 33,000 people, mostly Jews, during the German invasion of Ukraine in WWII. The primary reason I know of that horrific event was from a poem I first heard as a teenager, named as the place was: “Babi Yar.” “Babi Yar” was written by a young Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, and the event of this poem was extraordinarily noteworthy in 1961 when it was published. First it was a poem read internationally by a Russian citizen that included criticism of the Soviet government and some elements of Russian history. Those of my age may know how unique that seemed at that time. After all, even the term dissident hadn’t really escaped from the Soviet regime back then.
And the poet? He was young, good looking, and a powerful reader of his poetry. Yevtushenko was seven years younger than Allen Ginsberg, and roughly as famous for a time after this young Russian was put on the cover of mass-market American magazines.
The whole thing was strange enough that some folks even thought there was a double-game being played, usually around the idea that Yevtushenko was the Soviet equivalent of the Black employee who is given the desk by the door to demonstrate that the firm they worked for didn’t discriminate on color. “See we’ve got our bright rebellious youth too, and there’s really no suppression of speech much less imprisonment for literature in the USSR.” One Yevtushenko, it was supposed, allowed the suppression of a multitude of others.
Let’s leave it at that, because the important thing I want to mention, is that the main reason I knew of the site of Babi Yar was from the man’s poem, the utter empathy it expressed for the victims who died there, and the statement that his native country hadn’t properly memorialized that spot. I often go into the background of poems here, but the poem had a power outside of that.
It’s been around 60 years since I heard or read that poem (I’m not sure which came first) and I wanted to revisit it. I was so bad at remembering the correct spelling of Yevtushenko’s last name that my first web search for some Scrabble rack of a bad guess with “poet” added in the search window brought up another poet instead: Taras Shevchenko.
I don’t know why I read that link to Shevchenko’s Wikipedia page, but that 19th century man has been called the bard of Ukraine. I knew nothing of him, though his wiki entry is long and detailed. An accidental cross-link had now occurred: I read of an attack during the current Russian Ukraine invasion, yet thought of a Russian poem and poet — and in searching for that, came upon a much-honored Ukrainian poet!
Today’s audio piece uses part of Shevchenko’s poem “Zapovit” translated* as “Testament” read by myself, mixed with several sections of “Babi Yar” read by Yevgeny Yevtushenko himself.**
This is the video showing the full performance of “Babi Yar” that I excerpted for my mashup.
The piece you can listen to below may seem like the sort of thing I used to do when I recorded with other musicians, but it has elements of remarkable accident too. The drums and bass parts were generated by a little box that I normally use only to practice with.*** I played a chord progression in rhythm into this box and it then generates a drum pattern in time with that and a bass line to follow the chords I played. Next recording pass, I played my reverse Stratocaster to add a guitar part to that bass/drums rhythm section, mostly using that very characteristic Strat “quack” two-pickup setting. Thinking that I might want a different option sonically, I played another take using an Epiphone semi-hollow-body guitar. This left me with two takes of guitar over the same beat. I figured I’d listen to one, then the other, and decide which sounded better later. Not an unusual tactic in these days of digital multi-track recording that.
When I first pulled up the tracks later that same day, I forgot to mute one of the two different electric guitar parts, and instead I heard the two tracks simultaneously. They seemed to weave with each other, even engaging in what sounded like responses — as if two guitarists were standing toe-to-toe and playing at each other. Without planning to, I’d played each part differently against the beat in a way that coincidentally complimented the other part. I decided that was the perfect accident for my Russian/Ukrainian poetry mashup.
I next moved to weave in the parts of “Babi Yar” as read by Yevtushenko and my own reading from Shevchenko’s “Testament.” The final addition was to play some layered synth. The completed piece has Yevtushenko, his poem, and the Stratocaster in the left channel and my reading of an English translation of Shevchenko’s “Testament” in the right. My aim was for it to sound something like a live jam, but I’ve tipped my hand today as to the artifice creating that impression.
Even with those parts separated in the stereo field, and two writers from two now combatant countries, it’s not really a dialectic. By a widely scattered coincidence both poets seem to reference the socialist anthem “The Internationale.” In the translation I used, “Testament” speaks of “Arise, sundering your chains,” while “Babi Yar” wishes for “The Internationale” to “thunder when the last antisemite on earth is buried for ever.” Each poem speaks of graves and outrage. Yevtushenko’s poem and expressive reading focus on the suffering of Jews, long persecuted in Europe even outside of the enormous atrocity of The Holocaust, and he audaciously claims to take on that suffering as a non-Jew.**** Comparing atrocities and suffering — oh, I cannot bear to do that tonight — but each suffering victim is their own suffering, each death their own death. Amid the current bombs and guns I won’t put that on a scale.
To hear my mashup of parts of “Babi Yar” and “Testament,” you can use a player gadget below where you can see it, or this highlighted hyperlink is an alternative way where you don’t have access to the player. The full text of “Babi Yar” is here, and the full text of “Testament” is part of Shevchenko’s Wiki page.
*Wikipedia credits Vera Rich for the translation I used. The use of the translation on the Wikipedia page may well indicate it’s free for reuse.
**In this case, I haven’t obtained express rights to use these parts of Yevtushenko’s performance. I normally would not do this here, but it’s such a powerful statement that speaks to feelings that I and some others have with the current crisis, so I went ahead and used it for this non-revenue Project today. If any rights holder objects, I’ll promptly remove it.
***The box is the Digitech Trio. I think I’ve used it once or twice here before in this Project’s over 600 audio pieces. I thought I might play my own bass line, but I couldn’t “untangle” the drum parts from the bass, and leakage into the guitar mics of the backing parts would have been another problem— and then generally, some of the issues I’m dealing with are a reduction in my time to record, or to record with others, or even my own body at my age being up for playing.
****I don’t recall anyone objecting to Yevtushenko’s poem’s statements back in the early ‘60s that “I seem to be Anne Frank,” “I am each old man here shot dead,” or his concluding statement that he has “no Jewish blood” yet he must he hated “now as a Jew.” Yes, I hear earnest empathy there, even risk in his time and place as well — but I could see some saying now, or even then, “You’re a fine, famous poet Yevgeny, so good words, but what do you really know of living that?”
As I navigate the Parlando Project and one of its goals, “Other People’s Stories,” I try to recognize similar things. My current working theory is that I’d rather get it half-right than not try at all, and I don’t feel any level of prominence that lets me stand in front of and obscure others who want to tell their stories particular to their lives.