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view of Kyiv from city's botanical gardens
Kyiv Botanical garden with view of Vydubichi monastery.

Every city has its unique soundscape, made of sounds so ubiquitous that they lose impact until they disappear. Suddenly, these sounds are missed in their absence, as during the COVID shutdown. Such sounds include the unbearable screech of the number 3 trains as they crawl through the century-old tunnels between the Fulton Street and Wall Street subway stations in lower Manhattan; the chop-chop of low flying helicopters as they make their way to and from the White House over Washington’s Dupont Circle neighborhood; the jejune electronic bell chimes on millions of automatically sliding doors in Tokyo; and the bells of Rome’s multitude of churches. Since February 24, 2022, Kyiv has added a new background sound: the air raid siren.

Kyiv’s sounds have long fascinated electronic composer and musician Heinali (real name: Oleh Shpudeiko). For more than a decade, he has taken his microphone onto the streets and into the city’s parks and recorded ambient noise. In an effort to compile an “acoustic ecology of Kyiv,” Heinali recorded the sounds of metro stations and supermarkets, the birds at the botanical garden, and the silence of the city under snow. He didn’t know how and when, but he did know he would someday incorporate these sounds into his music.

After a period of refuge in Lviv and performances in France, Austria, and Germany following the Russian invasion, Heinali returned to his hometown Kyiv on a mission. Finding the city to be a living organism, he began to combine his archive of city sounds with new music to produce the recently released album Kyiv Eternal. As he told the New York Times, “Kyiv isn’t the perfect city. 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 part of my identity, and I owe a lot to this city.”

Heinali represents—and is a product of—Kyiv’s vibrant electronic music scene that burst forth following independence. Kyiv had emerged by the early 2000s as a premiere European party city. The vibrant local club scene nurtured a new generation of electronic musicians, DJs, and sound artists who combined the popular beats of dance clubs with more esoteric musical sounds. Only Berlin surpassed the number of music labels and radio stations focusing on electronic music. The fun (and the money earned from making it happen) created space for a thoughtful reinvention of music. Shpudeiko was part of this scene.

Around this time, he began recording electronic music and modular synthesis as Heinali. He was drawn to early music and medieval polyphony, composing self-released albums mixing the medieval and the contemporary through electronic instrumentation. His albums attracted an international following, with critics from Fact Magazine describing “an immaculate sense of intrigue, nostalgia, and wonder.” The Bandcamp website quotes a listener as saying that a session listening to Heinali’s music is “like re-entering the womb.” His 2020 release Madrigals won international acclaim for his exploration of the polyphony of the Middle Ages through a modular synthesizer.

Heinali and his fellow Kyivian electronic musicians went beyond exploring the possibilities of new technology and old music. They sought a pathway to a distinctive Ukrainian identity, combining the extended past of their city and nation with the opportunity to create something new, representing Ukraine’s independence.

The war made these intentions explicit in ways Heinali had not previously intended. As he told a CBC interviewer earlier this year, “Right now, I understand my role as someone who preserves and develops further Ukrainian culture and makes it visible, and audible as well, abroad. It is through art that people from other countries can identify what Ukraine is,” he said, “not just identify in terms of [the] political.” He said, “They can empathize with Ukraine through art.”

These revelations triggered a new way of thinking about his hometown. Heinali’s “acoustic ecology of Kyiv” gained a larger purpose than merely capturing the sounds of everyday life. The additional sound of air raid sirens converted an interesting artistic venture into a mission of national endurance.

Heinali has explained that his music is not nationalist, but personal and abstract. But, as many Ukrainians have discovered since February 2022, what is personal becomes national under the onslaught of an invader. Like Heinali’s hybrid music, the resulting collective identity combines what has come before with visions for a new future. Music, thanks to masterfully creative artists such as Heinali, will be part of the process through which a new Ukraine takes shape.

The opinions expressed in this article are those solely of the author and do not reflect the views of the Kennan Institute.

About the Author

Blair A. Ruble

Blair A. Ruble

Distinguished Fellow;
Former Wilson Center Vice President for Programs (2014-2017); Director of the Comparative Urban Studies Program/Urban Sustainability Laboratory (1992-2017); Director of the Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies (1989-2012) and Director of the Program on Global Sustainability and Resilience (2012-2014)
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Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier US center for advanced research on Russia and Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange.  Read more