BeFrank’s dramaturg, Amanda Fromell, met up with the company’s associate composer, Ben Osborn, to talk about his experiences of travelling to Ukraine and the sounds he recorded in the aftermath of the revolution.
Ben has worked with BeFrank on two previous performances and when he was asked to be involved in Tommy Lexen’s new play, ‘The Point of No Return’, based on the revolution in Kiev in January-February 2014, he immediately said yes. Soon after, the team received a travel grant from the European Cultural Foundation to conduct research in Ukraine and so in early July, not long after Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea, Ben found himself alone in the eerily quiet half-empty airport of Kiev. Due to circumstances, he travelled two days ahead of the rest of the crew and although the situation in the city was unstable to say the least, he ditched his bags in the hostel and ventured out onto the streets.
One of the musicians warming up.
He fell in love with the city almost immediately. “The news show you the flashpoints”, he explains, “but the huge clash of different influences, sounds and impressions goes way beyond and that has to almost be experienced in order for it to be understood.” The inevitable distance between the UK and Ukraine is one of the things that ‘The Point of No Return’ hopes to bridge. When Ben and I meet for our interview at IdeasTap Creative Space, BeFrank’s new home by London Bridge, the buzzing of the coffee machine and the soft tapping of fingers on key boards serve as a reminder that we are miles away from the roars of revolution and the cries of war. In order for me to get an idea of what it was like to walk into the Maidan Square, Ben asks me to picture Trafalgar Square transformed into a military camp occupied by armed men. The paving stones are gone, having all been used as weapons. There are piles of tyres, barbed wire barricades and metal shields. The big iron pegs of the military tents had been hammered straight into the concrete and walking through the camp, people are selling souvenirs and pictures of the revolution that took place only a few months ago.
Standing in the Maidan Square, Ben tried to summon the sounds that would have filled the space during those violent days. What did people hear and how did the noise affect them? If, he asks me, we are sitting in an office in London Bridge and people start marching towards us from Waterloo; what would that sound like? What is the sound of burning barricades made up of tyres, the noise of a heat roaring beyond flames? Finding answers to these questions will require experimenting with sounds and it’s a task that Ben has only just begun. He also points out that during the revolution radios played music through open windows, there was live music in the streets and soothing jazz coming from the city library, offering a respite from the violence. The soundscape is inevitably as complex and contradictory as the city and the people that generate it, something he experienced first hand as a man started playing the piano, the notes hovering above the barbwire, floating along the broken ground and bouncing off the battered buildings.
A man playing piano on Euromaidan.
Ben continued his walk through the city passing the Golden gates, the large redbrick arch that was once the gateway into the ancient city fortress and now serves as a landmark of central Kiev. There he spotted some buskers finishing up their set for the day and, seizing the opportunity, he went over and sparked up a conversation. The language barriers were quickly overcome by their mutual love of music and they ended up spending the evening wandering around the city singing, drinking beer and talking about music, politics and revolution. The songs they played for him that night was a kind of western pop intertwined with poetry in Russian and rather than being explicitly political, they spoke of a desire for peace and a greater understanding of one another.
More music from the buskers.
After two days of explorations on his own, Ben was joined by the writer and director Tommy Lexen and the actress Svetlana Biba. Together they went from Kiev to Lviv and back again, meeting with a range of artists, theatres and government bodies as well as conducting interviews with students, teachers, activists, NGO’s and journalists. When possible, Ben would ask about their relationship to music and art and soon a theme emerged of a need for a cultural response to what the country was going through and a desire to rediscover Ukrainian traditions.
Kyrylo playing Ukrainian song.
All the different impressions, experiences and inspirations from the research trip are too many and too complex to be covered over the cup of coffee getting cold in front of me, but Ben does single out one musical event from the rest. “Even if it doesn’t get responded to in the play, it’s something that I’m gonna write a piece around somehow”, he says with passion, “I don’t know how but I’ve got to. It was just the most amazing experience hearing it.”
The piece he is referring to was performed by an actress from BeFrank’s host organisation, the theatre company V. Zavalinuk’s “Peretvorennya”, sung a capella by a lake outside of Kiev where they had gathered for a barbeque. The song tells the story of a dove laying its eggs in a tree by the road. Soldiers come past and eat the eggs from the nest, shrugging their shoulders saying; ‘Hey, you shouldn’t have put your eggs so close to the road’.
“And that is just one of the most moving metaphors for the whole history of Ukraine”, Ben sums it up. “That’s how people feel. They feel like they’ve been endlessly trampled by forces from the outside.”
The “Dove” song.
Before the evening came to an end and it was time to begin the journey back home, Ben was asked to play something from his own country. Being half American, he chose to play old country songs taken from his mother’s childhood. This inspired one of the actors to sing a translation he had made of Bob Dylan’s Blowing in the wind, written as a response to the revolution.
Travelling back to London, the song left Ben with a message of universal struggle, private and political, which carries resonance across cultural borders. And on that note, he is now starting to compose his own cultural response to the stories he was told and the music he was played, with a message of cultural inclusion and mixed influences still ringing in his ears.
The result can be heard in April 2014 when ‘The Point of No Return’ premiers at New Diorama Theatre in London.