the abyss of katarina gryvul

  • Interview
  • Mariana Berezovska
  • Photography
  • Lesha Berezovskiy

katarina gryvul, kyiv, 2022 © borshch

katarina gryvul, kyiv, 2022 © borshch

Our initial interview with Katarina happened shortly before her premier of Tysha at Kyiv’s ∄, only some days before russia invaded Ukraine. In our following conversations over the last year, I learned about how the war has changed Gryvul as an artist and human and how the cruelty and loss have scarred her for life. Katarina went through a months-long blockage in her work when frustration, sadness, and despair left her helpless and unable to access her creative resources. Overwhelmed by the intensity of this nightmare, Katarina had her first panic attacks. She started recording these incidents trying to break away from the numbness and shock and reconnect with her body and voice. These recordings became a part of Katarina’s new work that she’ll present at the CTM festival in a collaborative concert with the digital artist Alex Guevara within a project titled Rybachka.

Mariana Berezovska: The first time we spoke, shortly before the release of Tysha, the feeling of dread and uneasiness could already be sensed in your work and your words. We talked about the pain you constantly feel for Ukraine. Tysha was released just two weeks before russia invaded Ukraine, and you premiered it at Kyiv’s ∄ club in February 2022. How was this concert, and what kind of feeling did you get from the audience and the city back then? 

Katarina Gryvul: The release concert is one of my best memories that will remain with me forever. It was my first performance in Ukraine, and the support and feedback from the audience were simply incredible. There was a sense of unity but also a sense of anxiety. I felt like this was a moment of calm before the storm. After my performance, many embassies began to leave Kyiv, and the air was charged with urgency and anticipation. All evening I could not think about anything else. So this day was extremely significant but also very sad for me. 

MB: The title of this album is translated as ‘silence.’ The theme is connected to the solitude you first found during the pandemic. Does it also reflect a personal retrospection experienced during this time? 

KG: I wrote most of the album during the pandemic, but it has a deeper meaning. The pain and restlessness I felt for what had been happening in Ukraine before the full-scale invasion are also there. I’m not particularly eager to describe what my music is about. I feel like there’s no need to talk about music because you can take away from the listener something that your music could awaken in them without your prescription through words. Music should speak for itself. I wrote a free verse for the album, and these are the only words that can describe it. 

MB: You use abstract poetry and many vocal and breathing experiments throughout the album. It creates a sort of mourning but also an almost erotic atmosphere. Did you try to express any specific events or associations with it? 

KG: The album goes from “Tysha” (silence) to “Bezodnia” (abyss) to “Ruina” (ruin) and “Rozpad” (decay). The first four songs have lyrics, and the second part is wordless. The overall structure feels like falling somewhere deep. One of my favourite songs, “Rozpad,” consists of three parts that are not connected, and you can hear the wailing. It’s like a flashback from my childhood, channeling this slightly painful but pleasant nostalgia. So the words I used for the tracks’ titles are very important to me personally, but I want listeners to be able to find something for themselves without my description. 

 MB: You’ve been studying music since you were six. Was electronic music also a part of your education?

KG: I actually learned about electronic music from video games. I’ve been interested in computer games since childhood, and I’d always play when I had some free time. One of my best friends is a sound designer and composer who used to work for Nintendo in Japan. And a few years ago, he invited me to compose music for a game he was designing. We’d receive only a script without animation, a few references, and a mood board. I needed to apply all my knowledge of composition, harmony, sound design, and mixing, and also consider that Japanese music is much more complex than European music. This was great practice for writing huge soundtracks with a strict briefing and tight deadline. The feedback process was also crazy: a client would listen to the track and give feedback like “this part should sound more pink” and “here, I want to hear a feeling of hope.” So I learned to think in those categories and apply specific harmonies and instruments for such requests. Besides, I’ve been listening to artists like Ben Frost, Aphex Twin, and Drew McDowall my whole life. And Coil is my favourite band ever.

It opened my eyes to how much of a fake world we all live in

MB: In your experimental work, you pay special attention to using your voice as an instrument and building different vocal layers. Have you always been singing while also mastering the violin and composition? 

KG: In my childhood, I played in different rock and goth bands when I had free time but I never sang. But I am fascinated with voice. I wrote the first song only a few years ago for Radio Kapitał (in Warsaw). 

Another important point was when the TV Show Utopia came out in 2014. I was impressed by the soundtrack (by Cristobal Tapia de Veer). It has a bizarre use of vocals. I love it so much that it gives me goosebumps. I think in a way it even influenced my second album. I want to work with it more, synthesise voice recordings, etc. I think that breathing and using one’s voice comes with a profound code, and it comes from genetic memory. You know this scene in Midsommer (film directed by Ari Aster, 2019), where the main character Dani is crying and screaming, and the women from the cult are breathing, screaming, and sobbing together with her? In Tysha, I played a lot with the voice, and I want to continue working in this direction, like in the work I’m preparing for my performance at CTM. In this performance, I will use my new work based on the recordings of my first-ever panic attacks that started happening three months after I became numb with shock when the invasion started. I was grief-stricken, helpless, and powerless, struggling to find a sense of normalcy and safety. Facing my despair and anxiety by recording and extracting them from my body brought me back to life, although it’s not the ‘same me’ anymore. 

MB: The scene from Midsommer you mentioned also comes to my mind when I think of going through suffering collectively and developing this empathy that helps to handle the pain that’s unbearable for one person. 

KG: Yes, this breathing creates a very intimate environment. When I hear tracks with breathing and a special use of voice, it evokes a wide range of emotions in me. That’s why I want to go in this direction and discover something I’ve never heard before. The biggest purpose of my life is to find or create an entirely new sound whose nature couldn’t be explained. I realise that it’s almost impossible because even if I reach a sound I’ve never heard before, it’s very likely that someone on this planet must have done it at some point. But I must discover something completely new in music. I don’t care which style it will be; a style never mattered to me. I just do what I like and aim for novelty in every genre I’m working in.

katarina gryvul, kyiv, 2022 © borshch

katarina gryvul, kyiv, 2022 © borshch

MB: I’ve noticed that in the first album, Inside The Creatures (2020), and the follow-up EP No Pain (2020), you are singing in English. In Tysha, all songs are in Ukrainian. Was it a conscious decision to sing only in your native language? And do you also write the lyrics by yourself? 

KG: I used to write a lot of stories in Ukrainian and Russian, and also free verse poems. In the first album, all the lyrics are mine except for the songs “Monster” and “Almost Human.” Now I try to use only my poetry everywhere, so it’s even more ‘mine.’ I also like absurdity in a text, not everything has to be straight and clear. I want a listener to be able to interpret the meaning. 

Since Tysha, I decided to make all my music only in Ukrainian. It’s my mother tongue, and I realised I sound ‘most real’ in Ukrainian. When I was a teenager, the Ukrainian language wasn’t very ‘trendy.’ The Ukrainian language would come along with an inferiority complex. It felt like my voice sounded better in English, but now this has changed forever. It became clear that using my native language is the strongest catalyst, and it holds an immense depth. Our language has a unique sound, it’s very melodic and soothing, and it sounds like nothing else. I also really enjoy other musicians singing in their native language. Take, for example, Lena Platonos, singing in Greek. She has the savouring of her own language. It’s unique. It’s real. If I ever gain wide recognition in the music scene, I want to inspire people to speak and create in Ukrainian. 

MB: I feel like the album, and even the photo shoot we did for this interview were like an omen to what we are going through now. Since the war outbreak, you have presented Tysha at Hyperreality (Vienna), CTM (Berlin), ZKM (Karlsruhe) , PTX (Athens), and Unsound’s Ephemera Festival (Warsaw). Do you feel like you release the pain when you present your work to people from international communities and share your story with them? 

KG: I try to play and talk about war as much as possible. It doesn’t make me feel better, but I cannot help doing it because people’s lives depend on it. Now, when the topic of war is gradually disappearing from the news, you must knock on all the doors even harder to be heard.

It is very difficult and painful for me mentally to perform my second album because it has an imprint of the war that will remain in all my future work. Some songs have acquired a completely different meaning for me. Sometimes, I can’t hold back tears during performances.

For me, the war erased faith in this world, justice, or humanity. It opened my eyes to how much of a fake world we all live in. It seems that if there were any other European nation in place of Ukrainians, they would break very quickly. Ukrainians protect European values and the whole world at the cost of their lives from this invasion, but many still do not realise this.

heroes do not die

the imprint of the war will remain in all my future work

katarina gryvul, kyiv, 2022 © borshch

katarina gryvul, kyiv, 2022 © borshch

MB: You’ve been studying music since an early age, first in Lviv and later at Krakow music academy. Academic music education is designed to help students develop technical proficiency and musicality. Still, it is often more concerned with mastering traditional musical elements than experimentation and exploration. For academically trained musicians, it can be challenging to explore more experimental territories and balance between the classics and the underground. In which of the two worlds do you see yourself moving further?

KG: For me, the line between modern and popular music has almost faded. It is difficult for me to say now how everything will develop in the future, but it will definitely be different than it was before. When making Tysha, I had a lot of hope in the music, but now it’s gone. And I don’t mean the loss of hope in our victory—it’s more of a feeling of personal hopelessness. 

I couldn’t write anything during the first three months of the war. I couldn’t think about art when people were dying. Now death has become something normal: you read about new deaths every day, and there is no end to it. As sad as it sounds, death has become a new reality for me. I don’t want to get used to it, but just to stay sane, we adapt to it. I recently finished my piece for ambisonics, “Zemlya.” I was very surprised when I first heard what kind of music I produce: aggressive, disgusting, sharp. It’s like looking in the mirror and not recognizing myself… And I understand that I will never be the same.

MB: Currently, you are studying computer music and sound art at the university of music and performing arts in Graz, performing your own material and composing for other ensembles. You’ve also founded your own school of music, Gryvul School. Does it help you to work on your own art when you offer this space for others to learn music production and empower their creativity? 

KG: I founded the school in 2021. I have had a dream to teach since childhood. It is very important for me to restore people’s faith in themselves and introduce them to music that brings the greatest happiness in my life.

MB: Do you have other people helping you with the school?

KG: I run the school alone, from marketing to teaching. In general, I like to do everything myself, and it is much easier for me. When the war started, I had already formed a group, but it was impossible to think about music under such conditions, but recently we resumed classes. All my students are from Ukraine, and I am glad that despite the war, almost all of them stayed in the course. I am proud of this as a teacher. It was challenging for me mentally to start learning everything, but this routine has been helping me to hold myself together. Also, music helps to release emotions and become a little lighter. My students and the school are like a family to me, and I try to keep in touch with everyone. Some graduates are now in the Ukrainian Armed Forces. They are brilliant musicians who could now perform or write music but decided to defend the country because it’s their only way to exist. And some are no longer with us. But heroes do not die.