Mary Burke - Mezzo-Soprano
Allison Tsai - Piano
The Chernobyl Disaster, as well as the Soviet government's efforts to contain both its radiation and press coverage, remain as one of the most pivotal moments of the twentieth century. One of the measures the government took to ensure the safety of its people was the forced deportation of nearly 50,000 people from the nearby town of Pripyat. Pripyat is one of, if not the largest ghost town in human history, and it carries a macabre, yet compelling aura to us outsiders that knew nothing of its existence before the Chernobyl Disaster turned the world upside down. Gigantic high-rises and community complexes are left to the mercy of nature and radiation, and an unfinished theme park sprawls out from the city center as a rusted ferris wheel looms overhead. But this is merely the opinion of an outsider. Upon doing research, I came upon the poetry of Lyubov Sirota, who is a former resident of the city of Pripyat. Her work largely deals with this sense of loss from her forced evacuation at the hands of the Soviet government, and her triptych, To Pripyat, drew me in immediately. In this work, Sirota tries to first comprehend the disaster, and, in the second section, sees the city come to life under the cover of darkness. The third section of the triptych is something of an open-ended question asking how we can learn and move on from such a monumental and costly disaster, ending with a benediction-like declaration, stating that "no matter to what joyful and faraway lands / your happy wings bear you / may our charred wings/ protect you from carelessness!"
Approaching this poetry from a musical standpoint took a lot of effort, just due to the kaleidoscopic yet sudden shifts and changes in emotion Sirota is able to achieve in the space of a few words. Her tone can abruptly change at a moment's notice, and the music does its best to reflect that change when applicable. After a short and jarring introduction, the first song begins out of the remnants of the previous texture. This first part, to me, felt very conversational, as if Sirota is trying to commiserate with a fellow refugee of the blast. The vocal line weaves in and out of the clusters of the piano as the singer tries to rationalize, yet move away from, the situation at hand. The second song, to me, felt like a sort of hallucinogenic fever dream. Much like Debussy's underwater cathedral, the city of Pripyat (to Sirota) rises from its ashes every night, and functions as normal. The transcendent nature of the darkness allows the abandoned city a brief reprieve from the harsh radiation of daytime. However, as the night wanes, and the sun's beams begin to crack through the growing forest, the city returns to its hardened and abandoned form. The third and final song seems to return to the same speaker that we encountered in the first poem. However, this time the speaker encounters their doubts straight on. Once a resolution comes to these hard questions, there is a benediction of sorts. The music becomes lighter and more open to reflect the changing nature of the speaker as, instead of wallowing about in the doubts and troubles caused by this horrible tragedy, they take their knowledge and move forward with it in the hopes of preventing disasters of this sort from ever returning. This piece was commissioned by the soprano Mary Burke, and is dedicated to Lyubov Sirota for her generous and trusting nature in letting me set her text.