It’s disorienting: Again and again these past few weeks, I’ve been walking through New York and thinking I’m somewhere else. I’ll be strolling through Central Park, but the sounds I hear come from a park nine time zones away. In line at my local Whole Foods I’ll hear the cash registers of an Eastern European grocery store. Last week I was riding the subway to Harlem and the announcer called out the wrong line. “Next stop, Maidan Nezalezhnosti …”
In my headphones, I’ve had an album on loop: “Kyiv Eternal,” a ravishing audioscape of the Ukrainian capital by the composer and electronic musician Heinali. Amid ambient washes of sound, Heinali, whose real name is Oleh Shpudeiko, integrates field recordings from across Kyiv: the horns of minibuses that ferry workers in from the suburbs, or the crowds in Landscape Alley, the open-air sculpture park overlooking the Dnipro River. Staticky street sounds from Shuliavka, a neighborhood that endured artillery strikes in the war’s first hours, commingle with quavering loops of electronic vibrations.
The sounds are something of a time capsule. Shpudeiko captured them before Russia invaded; some of the recordings are more than a decade old. Intertwining those archival noises with electronic keyboards and instrumental lines, he has fabricated a citywide portrait of beautiful irresolution. “Kyiv Eternal” is no war diary. It’s an inward-looking musical conjuration of a city that’s partially vanished — to refugee outflows, to military curfews — and a city that is still, defiantly, standing.
“I bought my first pocket Zoom sound recorder in 2011, I think, and the moment I bought it I started recording basically everything around me,” Shpudeiko told me when we caught up on a video call. With Alexey Shmurak, another sound artist, he attempted an “acoustic ecology of Kyiv”: collecting tones and noises that typified the capital’s audible life. They captured the unique phrasings of drivers of the capital’s private minibuses — which once constituted a hefty fraction of Kyiv transport, but began to fade in the era of Uber — hawking their destinations.
“They would develop, with time, a very specific phrasing,” Shpudeiko said. “A melodic contour would suddenly appear. Like birds trying to capture the attention of a mate.” He incorporated those calls into the track “Rare Birds,” where soft electronic tremolos shimmer over drivers’ megaphones, as they announce their routes to Odesa or Vinnytsia.
You hear more literal chirping on “Botanichnyi Sad” (“Botanical Garden”), whose stuttering synths intermingle with field recordings of birdsong from the A.V. Fomin Botanical Garden, which has stood in the center of the capital for nearly two centuries. Or there’s the exquisite track “Silpo,” named for a Ukrainian grocery store chain, whose jingling beat derives from the cash registers: a corporate carillon of high, sharp chimes, each ringing out over the composer’s muffled, crackling percussion line.
“Kyiv Eternal” was released on Feb. 24, the one-year anniversary of the invasion. It inhabits a different sonic space from Heinali’s medieval-inspired synthesizer compositions, which he’s performed this year in a Paris mansion, a Vienna nightclub and a Ukrainian bomb shelter. (Ukrainian men require government permission to go abroad; Shpudeiko had approval for a residency in Cologne, Germany, where he recorded the new album.) Each track of “Kyiv Eternal” is largely stationary, without strong melodic variations. Some recall the ambient 1990s synth baths of Aphex Twin, others the recent synth-and-found-object compositions of Ryuichi Sakamoto. The effect is foggy, wistful, plangent, unresolved.
Yet to a Kyivan listener, every track is studded with “ear-marks,” as Shpudeiko calls the aural signposts that orient you through the city as landmarks do for your eyes. The album is an ode to the capital, but not a mash note. “Kyiv isn’t the perfect city,” he said. “It’s full of ugliness and beauty as well. It’s a very interesting city, but it’s hard to love. But after leaving Ukraine, I felt it was a part of my identity, and I owe a lot to this city.”
Shpudeiko is a city boy, born in Kyiv in 1985. As a teenager he witnessed the 2004 Orange Revolution, which drew nonviolent protesters to the streets to protest a rigged election. Ten years later he took part in the Maidan Revolution, the massive democratic uprising that ousted a Kremlin-backed president. Maidan didn’t just recast Ukraine’s political trajectory; it brought a cultural revolution too, especially in the capital.
Before Maidan, Shpudeiko recalled, Kyiv had few promoters specializing in electronic, experimental music. “After 2014,” he said, “it was like an explosion.”
Clubs sprang up in Podil, a low-lying bohemian neighborhood by the Dnipro River. There were digital radio stations like 20 Feet Radio, and electronic music labels rivaled only by Berlin’s. Kyiv became one of Europe’s prime party capitals — but the same venues that hosted club nights like Cxema also presented contemporary classical concerts, dance performances and art installations. “The audiences that would usually visit a rave would go to contemporary poetry readings,” Shpudeiko remembered.
That post-Maidan class of DJs and sound artists — composers of art music and of club music, none too worried about the distinction — would become the first generation from post-independence Ukraine to win broad European esteem. But even as the city developed its reputation for cutting-edge nightlife, Shpudeiko started looking back: to medieval and early Renaissance music, whose strict, almost mathematical cadences reverberated with his own modular synthesizers.
He fell particularly hard for Léonin and Pérotin, two of the first named composers, who in Paris in the late 12th and early 13th centuries pushed Western sacred music into polyphony. On his magnificent 2020 album “Madrigals,” Shpudeiko used custom synthesizer software to generate rich, independent yet intertwining melodies in the style of the Notre Dame school. Over that electronic polyphony, accompanists on period instruments, including the theorbo (a long-necked lute), improvised sometimes plangent, sometimes dissonant improvisations.
He was at work on a second album of “generative polyphony” when the war came to Kyiv. (That album remains on hold, though a new composition, “Aves rubrae,” premiered on the website of the Museum of Modern Art last month.)
“The thing is, I didn’t believe there would be a full-scale invasion,” he said. “All of my friends didn’t believe it either. But my girlfriend, she actually believed there would be war. I remember, on that night, we drank wine and we watched the last season of ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm.’ Four hours later we were woken up by explosions in Kyiv. And even at first, I thought that maybe it was some kind of mistake.”
The couple’s first act was to evacuate their mothers. They were on the road for 50 hours straight, with Shpudeiko’s synthesizer between his legs. They tried and failed to cross the Polish border, unable to make it through the miles-long lines. Eventually they made it to the Hungarian border, where his relatives crossed safely. Shpudeiko took refuge in Lviv, in the relative safety of western Ukraine, where he and other displaced musicians played live-streamed concerts to raise money for the army and humanitarian aid.
Last April — as Ukrainian forces retook the Kyiv suburb of Bucha, and discovered unspeakable atrocities exacted on civilians — Shpudeiko was in a bomb shelter, his synthesizer hooked up to Ethernet cables the length of a football field, playing his unfinished medieval album. Out of the basement, the beeps and honks of the synth danced around one another, just as the voices did in Paris some 900 years ago. The walls of the shelter, like those of the Gothic cathedral before it, reverberated with polyphonic music from a world beyond pain: not sacred, not quite, but certainly exalted.
“What we did back then, it wasn’t just activism,” he says of those bomb-shelter concerts. “It was also about therapy. It was a way of preserving our artistic identity. When the full-scale invasion started, I think no one knew who they were anymore. I think everyone needed to perform some work to either reconstruct or preserve or change their identity.”
Now the Ukrainian capital has another soundscape: the wailing bursts of the air raid siren that wakes you at night, the whir of the low-altitude cruise missile, the chain saw buzz of the slow-flying drone. The war haunts “Kyiv Eternal” nevertheless. The album opens with sounds of the Kyiv tramway, and, amid reverberant synths, we hear a loudspeaker calls out the stops: Zoolohichna Street, Lukianivska Square …. It’s line 14, and a gander at a Ukrainian transport app (for the trams still run on time in Kyiv) confirms that this streetcar is headed north, to Podil, where it will terminate at a grand square.
On the album’s cover is a statue in that square, of Petro Konashevych-Sahaidachny, a Cossack military commander now adopted as the patron saint of the Ukrainian army. In peacetime, pedestrians would look up to see Konashevych on horseback, saber raised to the sky. On the cover of “Kyiv Eternal” he appears as he does today: sandbagged up his neck, a black tarp shrouding his head.
The general is, for Shpudeiko, an unexpected cover model. “I’m not a nationalist, and all my music was always personal or abstract; it didn’t have any obvious national identity,” he told me. “I wanted to have something that would capture this feeling of wanting to embrace the living city. And these monuments: They are embraced by these sandbags, protecting them from harm.”
Heinali (Oleh Shpudeiko)