Katarina Gryvul © Yana Ilo

»That’s the reality in Ukraine right now!«

Her new album dropped. Then the war started. Katarina Gryvul is a Ukraine-born, Graz-based sound artist, talking about the current situation in her home country — and why there’s still hope.

»The world was a different place before this album«, says Katarina Gryvul. The sound artist and violinist, who hails from Lviv in the western part of Ukraine and currently studies in Graz, released her second solo album in early February. In the meantime, she says, art is far away. There is war in her home country. Millions of people are fleeing. The world is, in fact, a very different place. Gryvul, whose family stayed in Ukraine to fight, tries to give herself courage. Her new album »Tysha« tells a story of hope and decay — themes that arose during the pandemic and take on new urgency today.

Katarina, you were born in Ukraine. How do you cope with the current situation in your home country?

I feel guilty that I’m in a safe place. I know that my family and friends are hiding in bomb shelters right now. That’s hard to cope with because in my head, there’s always the question: How can I help? I can’t just hide. So, I collect medicine and support organizations which transport other things to Ukraine. At the end, I still feel guilty because I can survive in a safe place. Now we’re almost three weeks into this terrible war and I still have a sense of shock. For me even basic stuff like cooking dinner or doing some work is hard. I have troubles to get to sleep. I cry several times a day, checking the news updates because I fear so much about my family. Psychologically it’s very hard to be – in this particular moment of time.

I’d like to thank you for talking to me about your situation today. Do you remember the moment when you first heard about the invasion to the country you grew up in?

I woke up in the early morning of 24 February because my mother called me. She told me: Katja, the war has begun! I will never forget this moment. I immediately felt shocked. Then she said: Calm down, don’t worry too much, right now, they’re just bombing military infrastructure. But obviously, the Russians were already shooting civilians! I asked her if she wanted to come stay with me — I also have a sister with kids living near Lviv — but they all wanted to stay. Luckily, they all live in the western part of Ukraine, but as you know, the region around Lviv has already been bombed as well.

Katarina Gryvul © Yana Ilo

What does your family tell you about the situation around Lviv right now?

Lviv is collapsing because a lot of people – especially from the east of Ukraine – are fleeing there. It’s the last major city before you reach the Polish border. So, all refugees who head to the west eventually come through Lviv. Still, a lot of people try to help, especially kids who come from the regions around Donezk and Luhansk. They tell terrible stories from their family members getting killed in front of their eyes, but they’re numb. They tell these stories calmly. Imagine it.

It’s terrible. Sometimes I think about how close this situation is to our lives. Still, you feel powerless like some kind of dead faint.

It’s so close and still we can be here . But the point is: It is happening! The war is happening. We need to do what we are able to do. And there are possibilities to help. Otherwise I don’t see the point to live in such a world.

You’re posting a lot of pictures and information on Instagram.

I know that a lot of artists tell themselves that they’re not political. They just want to see their art as art. To be honest, though: You can’t be silent about this situation! If you keep silent, you’re on the side of the murderers. So, yes, I do post information. I have some followers, they trust me – therefore it’s very important to me to talk about the things that are happening in Ukraine! Especially at the beginning of the invasion, I texted so many friends who told me that they’re bombing them. I was afraid that the world will be just looking at it, barely taking notice. Then, our president stood up and said: Nobody will help us – we must fight along!

And a lot of people do. There is strong resistance against the enemy.

Yes, my family told me that they will not only stay but also fight. It’s their land, their home, their freedom that they will protect at all costs. The Ukrainian nation will not be slaved anymore. It will be free because in all of our history we fought for freedom. It’s in our blood. You cannot understand that if you’re not in danger. If you are, though, you’ll get the value to be free. That’s why everybody in Ukraine feels like this today.

You told me before that you are feeling guilty not being in Ukraine right now. What would be different if you were?

Yes, I do feel guilty that I am not there. I was abroad when the war started and I wanted to go back immediately, but my mother told me: We’re in a bunker, we do have some amount of food — you can help more if you stay abroad and make other people understand what is happening here. So, that’s what I do because one of my biggest fears is that nobody will know.

How do you mean that?

I already see that war is getting boring for some people. It’s in the media all the time, but you see it fading whereas it should be on the first place! In the 21st century, you cannot let something like this happen without other people realizing what is going down.

Katarina Gryvul © Yana Ilo

Talking about art can feel so miniscule during these times. Yet, do you think that listening to music, for example, can be empowering to a certain extent?

When it’s war, I don’t feel art at all. I can’t compose. I can’t even listen to music to feel better. It just doesn’t work for me while knowing that my people are dying. Therefore, I also skipped two lessons of composition here at the University of Graz because I haven’t got anything to show. Usually you prepare some piece, but I couldn’t. At the same time, I know a lot of people currently hiding in bomb shelters. They need music and things just to stop thinking about the war. They need the distraction. Even if it’s just a boring YouTube video of some other people cooking something. One friend of mine is listening to sounds of rain — and it makes sense. There are sirens going off all the time. Besides all the physical danger, war conveys a psychological pressure. My friends are already telling me that they hallucinate these sirens. They don’t know whether they’re real or not. So, they record the sound to a phone to see if they should hide or not. That’s the reality in Ukraine right now!

What future do you see for the country you grew up in?

In the future, I see a powerful and independent country. There are so many brave and talented people that want to develop the country. They are proud to be Ukrainian. And we will fight. Therefore, as an artist, I understand that I need to be stronger. I am not allowed to feel bad because all my people are living through a situation much worse than mine. I feel the urge to prepare myself and do something, because I need to fight too, but they’re fighting much better.

At the same time, you have every right to be in pain, to be numb even if you’re not living through the situation.

I know, but it’s a complicated emotion. At the beginning, there was only crying. Now, I feel more like emptiness. You go through so many different emotions in such a short time and it’s a painful experience. In the end, though, it is still an experience.

It might be early to ask this but: Do you think that this war will change your approach on composition?

It will be a big change, yes. I already feel how it changes my perspective. We are living in a different world; my music will be darker compared to before. There used to be this element of hope inside my compositions, but now, I feel it will lead me somewhere bleaker. Somehow, that’s obvious because it’s a way of putting out your inner feelings. They are a reflection of the world you’re living in.

 

I’d like to talk to you about the album you released on Standard Deviation: »Tysha«. It translates to silence.

It’s my favorite word in Ukrainian language because it has a very personal meaning to me. Besides, it has an interesting sound. It can be sharp or soft — it’s versatile all around. Also, the different tracks tell a story of their own. It starts off with hope, but slowly, you can hear the destruction until eventually, the whole thing is falling apart. There is a certain element of decay to the songs. In the end, they turn more aggressive. It’s emptiness that remains.

Emptiness which translates to silence again?

During the pandemic, I only had contact to people via Zoom. It was my decision not to see anyone, an experiment to prevent myself from getting affected by something. Hence, I stopped listening to music which wasn’t much of a difference to me anyway because I like silence. At home, I usually don’t listen to music.

It sounds like you self-quarantined yourself.

Yes, I was curious how this would turn out. I wanted to deprive myself from the world around me in order to immerse in the record. You don’t need words to describe music. The label asked me to point out some details, and I decided to write a short poem – it is originally in Ukrainian, but I translated it into English:

when the world accidentally
runs out of blood
out of our bodies will grow
tulip stems
viscous
you hear the silence cracking under your steps
like thin ice
sudden winter
words with flat feet
flexible lips
birds like black dots
cutting through
the confined space
and you cannot move
can not m…

It captures the moment of silence that you convey with the record.

Yes, I do like the contrast between silence and noise. There are different timbres of the sound that can convey different meanings. Therefore, I take great care in mixing.

You’re classically trained, but with »Tysha«, you got more into the electronic music realm, right?

I got into electronic music in 2018, I guess. It was purely by accident. A Polish label asked me to produce something more electronically – and I needed that push from outside in order to urge myself into this realm. I can tell you. Inspiration comes from the deadline. If I don’t have one, I can work on a song forever.

Do you like procrastinating?

Oh, very much! That’s why I have to make deadlines for myself in order to get something finished. Same goes for taking care about performing. The most valuable thing a person can give you is their time. Once I get to play a concert, it needs to be perfect because people come to see me, spending their time on my music. That’s why I put great effort into making it work decently.

So, there’s sort of a perfectionist element to your music?

My whole musical career, from the age of four until now, I was trained to perform the maximum I can do. That’s the classical world, for sure.

Katarina Gryvul: »Tisha« (Standard Devitation) 

Das Interview erschien in deutscher Übersetzung bei mica.