Ukrainian Composer Maxim Shalygin honours Belarusian dissident Maria Kalesnikava in ‘While Combing Your Hair’

In 2011, Maxim Shalygin  (Ukraine, 1985) came to the Netherlands to study composition with Cornelis de Bondt and Diderik Wagenaar at the Royal Conservatoire in The Hague. He never left and has meanwhile acquired a firm position in Dutch musical life with his adventurous pieces.

Commissioned by the AVROTROSVrijdagconcert he composed While Combing Your Hair for the Dutch Radio Choir. Peter Dijkstra will conduct the world premiere in the Jacobi Church in Utrecht on 8 October. The concert will be broadcast live on Radio 4.

The short piece is an indictment of the repression in Belarus and is dedicated to the musician and dissident Maria Kalesnikava. She was one of the three women who led the resistance against Aleksandr Lukashenko’s dictatorial regime in 2020. She was arrested, but when the authorities wanted to deport her, she demonstratively tore up her passport and was imprisoned. Recently, she was sentenced to 11 years in prison in a closed mock trial.

This was not only a blow to the opposition in Belarus and to Kalesnikava herself, but also a shock for Shalygin: ‘We met several times in Germany and became good friends. She is a warm, honest person, a moving personality. I miss her terribly.’ The composer seized the commission from AVROTROSVrijdagconcert offered him to express his feelings in music.


He wrote the text for his choral composition himself, which reads both like a lament and an attempt to buck Kalesnikava up. How did he conceive his text and who is actually speaking? Shalygin: ‘It is my personal letter to Maria. At the same time, it is indeed not always clear who is speaking; sometimes we hear voices in our heads.’

The writing process was difficult, says Shalygin: ‘On the one hand, my text is very personal, but at the same time I wanted to convey universal emotions through imagery. After I had finished a first draft, my friend Paul van der Woerd helped me improve it.’

Asked how he translated his poetic words into music, he replies in metaphor: ‘The structure of While Combing Your Hair reminds me of a stream that springs from a small source and rapidly expands into a mountain river, which in turn flows into a calm lake and freezes in it.’

Maxim Shalygin

Beautiful, but what should we expect from this in terms of sound? ‘I usually compose tonal music that sometimes becomes polytonal, or transitions into so-called extended tonality’, says Shalygin.‘I have been researching these techniques for years and have discovered how to develop them musically. Thus, this piece starts tonally and undergoes many modulations across different keys, to end up again in a simple, tonal music with a bright melody.’


‘This melody is sung twice, but in a different colour scheme. Then it is incorporated into a polytonal chord that suddenly begins to vibrate.’ The vibration Shalygin refers to arises from the dissonant composition of this final chord (c-des-d-es-e-f-ges-g-as-a-b), in which with the exception of the b-flat all twelve semitones sound simultaneously.

Yet the ending does not evoke tension, but sounds instead very natural and calm, Shalygin emphasises: ‘While Combing Your Hair is my musical letter to Maria Kalesnikava. I want to float on the music and end up in the lakes I have never seen before and hope she can listen to my piece soon, sitting next to me in the concert hall.’

While Combing Your Hair

Wake up from your dream and look up straight to the sea.
Would you be silent, if its color turned suddenly red?
And from the emerald sky hundreds of various animals will start to fall down.
Will you believe the rainbow’s still near,
when at night the seagulls start screaming above all flooded market places,
will you take the hairbrush and start combing your dazzlingly stunning white hair?
The sound of the broken mirrors will freeze in the air:
thousands of silent shards!
And you will see lonely boats in quiet lakes with faces of fish:
praying, trembling and crying in primeval fear.
Let your hand shield your blue eyes
so darkness will be like blood in a world out of golden salt.
Stay in silence, and lift up your sorrowful,
exhausted face to the Sun.
Then flocks of birds will descend to every home,
people will hear them sing in their backyards.
And smiles will suddenly cover their frightened
yet trustful and beautiful souls.

Maxim Shalygin

Apart from the world premiere of While Combing Your Hair the choir will sing music by Dvorák, Bruckner and others.

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About Thea Derks

I am a Dutch music journalist, specializing in contemporary music, and a champion of women composers. In 2014 I wrote the biography of Reinbert de Leeuw (3rd edition in 2020) and in 2018 I published 'Een os op het dak: moderne muziek na 1900 in vogelvlucht'.
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