National Catholic Register

Arts & Entertainment

Musical Stillness Moves

BY The Editors

December 2-8, 2007 Issue | Posted 11/27/07 at 6:53 PM

 

Roman Hurko rattles off the names of liturgical composers who have influenced his work. Arvo Pärt. John Taverner. Henryk Gorecki.

Not exactly household names, these, but one gets the sense that, to Hurko, the three (an Estonian, a Brit and a Pole) are as familiar as, well, family.

What he admires about their music is the sense of “introversion and stillness” it conveys. That effect, he finds, matches the iconography of the Eastern Church, which, he explains, is two dimensional and “doesn’t come out to you,” like statues in a Western church. “It draws you in.” The music is meditative, he says, and has the effect of “slowing you down, centering you, giving you space to breathe and pray.”

Hurko, 45, a Ukrainian Catholic composer, strives to elicit a similar response from his own liturgical music — two settings of the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, a requiem for the victims of the 1986 nuclear power-plant disaster in Chernobyl, Ukraine, and his new CD, “Vespers.”

He spoke with Register news editor John Burger.


I’ve been listening to your music. To compose works like these, you must be deeply immersed in the Ukrainian Catholic tradition.

Both my parents came from western Ukraine. I was a late child. My mom is 83 and my father, if he were alive, would be 93. So they really come from another era, another time. They retained the traditions they grew up with in the 1920s and ’30s.

When they got married and started a family and a home, they tried to recreate what they knew.

Even though I was born and raised in Toronto, the home was very Ukrainian. Every time I came home, Ukrainian was heard — Ukrainian traditions, Ukrainian food.


How did music enter your life?

Something I’ve always loved. My mom is always singing and knows a thousand songs, at least. So I’ve got a lot of the Ukrainian folk melos (the style of singing) in my ear.

On top of that, going to church on Sundays, hearing a chant from western Ukraine, as well as choral singing of the great Eastern tradition — that all that got mixed up in my idea of music, and that’s what I draw on in my composition.


Did you formally study music?

My first degree was a bachelor’s of music history and theory at the University of Toronto. But it didn’t go in that direction. I worked in opera (stage direction) for my first career.

And at the same time I was doing music and started a choir at my church. I started writing music for the choir, since I had an instrument to work with.

It was my little laboratory. I’d bring something in, they’d sing and I’d hear. I saw what worked, what didn’t work. On top of that, I’d sung in choirs all my life, so I had an idea as a performer but not as a writer.


What are you trying to do with your music?

I’m trying to match the iconography, match the vestments, match the incense. I’m just trying to match with the music. Maybe that comes from my opera directing, that everything should fit. It should be a complete, you know, the music should match the building, what you hear should match what you see and what you smell.

That’s all I was trying to do and, when my second Liturgy had its premiere in Kiev, at St. Michael’s Golden Domed Monastery, I was very pleased that it did not feel out of place in this 11th-century church.

I’m trying to write music for the church and not for the concert hall. This is music that any slightly-better-than-average choir should be able to perform. The text is very much understood because I’m writing homophonically, which is chord, chord, chord, usually, with very little counterpoint, except where people would understand the words or in an Alleluia, perhaps.

Also, trying to create music that calms one, that centers one, as opposed to music that excites you.

I’ve been looking into this idea of hesychasm. Hesychasm means stillness. There were Greek monks who would achieve this sort of still state through repetitions of the Jesus Prayer. This stillness is very important, that a person can forget the outside world when they’re in church and forget all the turbulence that’s going on and just center themselves.

The Cherubic Prayer says at the end, “Let us put aside all worldly cares.” I’m hoping that the music can help in that process in putting the world outside and calming down, focusing, centering.


You have some of your music on YouTube. Are these sacred “music videos?”

Yes, they’re kind of like sacred-music MTV. Someone told me that people don’t listen to music anymore; they watch it. Especially kids, I guess. They watch their MTV or go to concerts, and so it’s a very visual experience for them.

My website is set up so people can order or download CDs, and I see who orders them, and I was shocked once that a soldier in Fort Bragg, Ala., orders one of my CDs. And I was thinking, “What is an American soldier called Miller doing downloading one of my Ukrainian Byzantine Catholic CDs?”

But you never know who it’s going to touch — some soldier in Alabama, someone across the world somewhere. And … let it be out there. Let it do its work.


ON THE WEB

Romanhurko.com