INTERVIEW WITH RIYA VOLKOVA
Musician, composer, poet and singer Riya Volkova talks about her creative endeavors related to playing the Russian harp (the ‘gusli’), her attitude to the traditional musical culture of the peoples of North-West Russia and traditional music’s connection with new musical trends, as well as the importance of nature for her work.
Keywords: Russian harp (gusli), improvisation, nature, creativity
Brief information about the interviewee
Riya Volkova is a musician, composer and singer. Since 2013 she has been playing the Russian harp, and since 2015 she has been teaching the harp at the “Khvoya” (Fir-Needle) studio. She studied traditional harp technique with Dmitry Paramonov, and since then she has created her own style. In 2019 she released the album “Meri,” and in 2021 she released her second album, “Strands of Water.” She is a soloist of the group "Kivi Niemi."
Alexandra Dvornikova (A.D.): Please tell us when and under what circumstances you became interested in the Russian harp. How did your relationship with this instrument develop? What do you see as the unique features of this instrument?
Riya Volkova (R.V.): My character and my passion for folk music determined a special path for me, all that remained was to wait for my meeting with such an unusual instrument. But I didn't expect it to be like that. I began singing along with one Russian harp player, whom I first saw in the park in Moscow. Suddenly, people with a big television camera came up to us and wanted to interview us. They began to ask me about the Russian harp, which I myself had only seen and heard for the first time that day. Among the spectators in the crowd, there was even a man who knew my name. At that time, I performed songs with a guitar, but I definitely wasn’t popular enough to find myself in such a strange situation. That day, I seemed to fall into a wonderful dream and it’s like I haven’t woken up again since. The sounds of the harp hang over me, wrapping my entire reality in a shawl of light and warmth.
I began to look for teachers to learn how to play the Russian harp. First, I came across an academic school, and prepared to enter the school. But when I realized that the ancient harp was completely different both in sound and in the manner of playing from what was presented in this academic school, I changed my mind about beginning this training program. I began to study the traditional village Russian harp and ordered my first instrument. I went to the North-West of Russia on an expedition, where, on the banks of the Pinega River, grandmothers sang old songs about the harp for me. From that moment, wherever I appeared with this instrument in Moscow, it seemed to attract unusual people.
Over time, I realized that all harpists are “out of this world” and charmingly sweet, ad that they are all very different. Some stand up for the preservation of tradition and do not allow anything but the traditional tunes to be played on the harp; others play popular songs. One player even goes around in a birch bark headband and bast shoes, singing about Veles (one of the Russian pagan gods). I just wanted to play beautiful music. I played for myself and sometimes performed. Once, I was invited to a major folk music festival in Suzdal to give a master class. Then, already in Moscow, I was asked to teach the harp. And so, I slowly got involved in teaching. Our "Khvoya" Studio has existed for seven years. Classes are held in Moscow and online. My students are now not only from Russia, but also from other countries (Cyprus, Korea, USA, UK). It is difficult to determine why this happens, but many of my students are close to me in spirit.
The main direction of my ship is still my own creativity. We have a group "Kivi Niemi", with which I perform old Russian songs in a modern style. The group includes a bass player, a drummer, and a balalaika player. I also play the harp.
I have another project called "Ria Volkova". This involves more electronic music, but mostly the parts are played on the Russian harp and the horn. This project presents the ancient songs of the North in the languages of the disappearing peoples. Two albums have already been released: in 2019, the album "Meri" was released, followed by "Strands of Water" in 2022.
A.D.: Can you give readers a short cultural excursion into the history of the Russian harp and kantele, in particular, explaining their special role in the socio-cultural environment of the past? How, for example, did their role differ in your opinion from the role of the balalaika or accordion? What tasks did the Russian harp solve? Is it possible to say that the instrument itself is able to actualize certain images and experiences with its specific sound?
R.V.: The gusli is an ancient instrument, and not only Slavic. Almost every nation has its own version. The Baltic peoples have a very similar instrument, and the Karelians have the kantele. The kantele was played by rune singers, elders, and sometimes by women who had a special social status. The whole community gathered around them and listened to the runes - songs about the Karelian myths. They carried the wisdom of their ancestors to the sounds of the kantele. Rune singers were also called “those who know,” the same name as the healers. The sound of the gusli to some extent acted as a healing agent, and helped people to enter an altered state. Peasants, warriors, merchants, and holy fools played the harp. Old Russian holy fools are not jesters at all, but more like priests. They participated in ceremonies, for example in Rusalia folk festivals. An image of a harp player, with girls in long sleeves dancing around him, has been preserved in our culture. These figures were said to invite mermaids to the fields to bring moisture for the harvest.
The gusli, unlike the balalaika and the accordion, was played not only at parties and holidays, but also during sacred ceremonies. The gusli has always been associated with communication with the gods. King David played the harp and the Mari have a legend about the god Yumo, who was seen floating on a cloud and playing the harp. According to ancient beliefs, the harp player had a special power to influence the world around him. There is an old Russian fairy tale in which a torn string on a harp takes the life of a young groom.
A.D.: Please tell us about your creative process. To what extent is it related to nature? Does it have any parallels with natural cycles?
R.V.: Our life is full of sounds: the roar of cars, the shouts of passers-by swearing on the phone, the sound of opening elevator doors, the hum of a subway train, etc. There are also pleasant sounds: the sound of a waterfall, the rustle of leaves, the crunch of snow underfoot ... Variety is wonderful. The mixture of different sounds can affect our emotional well-being. Perhaps we should surround ourselves with nature and its sounds, and the harp is an instrument that awakens the experience of happiness and harmony with nature. At the first opportunity, I try to get out into the forest and improvise on the harp there, feeling how this has a beneficial effect on my state of mind.
Improvisation is a stream that easily goes around any obstacles. In music, the harp prevents me from following the usual ideas about harmony, musical theory, and invites me to play by tuning the harp correctly in advance, and just plucking the strings and creating music from this. The main thing is to let yourself go on a musical journey, go with the flow, not being afraid to hit the wrong note, let your soul sing and enjoy the beauty of the sound of an old instrument. My songs are born in waves. I write them only with a surge of inspiration. I never try to control this flow, I just let go and go with it.
A.D.: Many people associate the gusli with the past. Is there any reason to believe that this instrument is really connected with the past, with fundamentally different living conditions, a different mentality and culture and no longer meets the demands of modern life? Or can this instrument touch the strings of modern man’s soul and solve problems that are relevant today? What are you personally doing to make the harp more accessible for modern people and possibly help them find what they are looking for?
R.V.: The technique for playing the harp is very different from the ways of playing other musical instruments. But there are also similarities. Oddly enough, my repertoire is not only old Russian tunes; almost any modern song can be played on the harp. We play Radiohead, Coldplay, Moby, ABBA songs. But for me the main direction is improvisation. I see my task as teaching people to convey their mood and thoughts in music, to create their own melodies and to express what they’re experiencing here and now.
A.D.: In your work you use languages that are on the verge of extinction. For example, the Seto language was included in 2009 by UNESCO in the atlas of endangered languages of the world. What is your goal when you turn to ancient and little-known languages?
R.V.: I am a philologist by education, I studied languages that have already disappeared, such as ancient Greek and Latin. When you study these languages, you understand how differently the people who spoke them thought. When I came across the songs of the Setos, the Karelians, I saw images that were completely new, unexpected and deep. I began to sing these songs accompanied by the kantele and wanted to better understand the world view of these peoples. Now I am studying different dialects of the Karelian language: northern, southern (Livvik) and Tver.
A.D.: You are very much inspired by the nature of Karelia with its specific landscape. Why do you think this is? What do you feel when in Karelia?
R.V.: My husband and I often travel around Karelia by car or by kayak. Once we even took our cat to raft along the river rapids. I like the mysterious and harsh mood of Karelian nature. I like the pines, reindeer, moss and gray rocks. There is nothing superfluous in it. I guess the spirit of Hiisi is closer to me than Tapio. There are two forest spirits in Karelian mythology. Tapio is mainly endowed with positive features: "The golden king of the forest, the beautiful forest Tapio." He has "a hat of pine needles, a beard of lichens." Hiishi is a spirit that lives in the dark places of the forest, and it is closer to the world of the dead. I play almost all of these songs in minor key. My last album was completely minor. The sighs and rustles of otherworldly spirits are heard in it.
A.D.: What is the importance of the natural environment and human interaction with the natural world for playing the Russian harp? Does this interaction matter to you personally? Do you practice playing the harp and improvise by tuning yourself to the natural landscape? If yes, what does this contribute to your music? What is your method of making music and teaching, when, for example, you conduct sessions with a group in a certain landscape? Can you give examples of such activities?
R.V.: We are organizing a retreat in Karelia on an island, where we play the harp and meditate on the shores of Lake Ladoga. The water creates a specific acoustic environment. We learn to hear in a new way, in a new space, without the sounds of a bustling city. In August, we were invited to play at the Sky of the North festival. I will play around the campfire at night while people look up at the sky and watch the August meteor shower.
I led classes related to playing the harp in an ethnic center in Moscow, and as part of the course I organised meditations and improvisations. Usually in meditation we lie on the floor in a circle, with our heads in the center. We put the harp on the stomach and tune the strings in a certain way. I set the limits in advance, but within these limits the person himself chooses what to play. The effect of chime bells is created. For many, this makes a strong impression. People seem to make an internal journey through space and time.
I like to see people’s burning eyes and renewed facial expressions after this. I rejoice when people simply smile when they first hear the chimes of the harps. I myself have been playing for eight years and do not get tired of rejoicing when I hear the harp. I try to convey this happiness to others.
A.D.: You write about yourself: “Once we were all part of the green world. Now, in the bustle of grey roads, we are trying to return home, to the past, opening our way through the harp. Returning to the origins of nature, connecting through the sound of the harp with nature and space.” Can you elaborate on what this means? How do you connect through playing the harp with nature and the environment?
R.V.: We have become very detached from nature, from our original integrity. We have lost the feeling of unity with the world and the ability to hear it and be in dialogue with it. Getting into the forest, I sometimes feel as if I find my true home, a forgotten language of communication with a wider environment than just the human environment. I feel the ability to make contact with what immediately surrounds me - plants, animals, sun, rain; it awakens in me. But there is something far away that we forget. Space is all around us, and it's not just the stars. There are a lot of inexplicable objects, something new and unknown that everyone can discover. Returning to our earthly home, we can also look at the nature of the universe. Looking into your inner microcosm, you explore the macrocosm. I sing about this in the song “Album”.
About the interviewer: Alexandra Dvornikova
self-employed artist (St. Petersburg, Russian Federation)
Reference for citations
Dvornikova, A.V. Interview with Ria Volkova. Ecopoiesis: Eco-Human Theory and Practice, 2022, 2(2). – URL: http://ecopoiesis.ru (d/m/y)
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