Maxim Shalygin composes Severade for 9 cellos & sound sculpture: ‘At first I had no idea what to do with all those new instruments’

The Ukrainian-Dutch composer Maxim Shalygin has established himself firmly in our Dutch musical life with his adventurous pieces. Last October, his choral work While Combing Your Hair, dedicated to the Belarusian dissident Maria Kaleshnikava, was a great success.

In September, the Dag in de Branding festival staged the first public performance of Severade, a full-length work for cellist Maya Fridman, Cello8tet Amsterdam and 25 mechanical instruments by Rob van den Broek. Who is he and what is the background of Severade?

Maxim Shalygin (c) Anna Reshetniak

Maxim Shalygin was born in 1985 in Kamianske, a medium-sized town about 450 kilometres southeast of Kyiv. Although he was not born into a musical family, at the age of six he went to the local music school and then to musical college, the preliminary course of the conservatory. There he studied bayan with Alexander Kornev, with piano and conducting as subsidiary subjects.


In his biography we further read that he studied composition with Irina Ivashenko. But a search for her name on the internet or social media yields no mention at all. Who is she? She was one of the teachers at the music college in Kamianske and I had composition lessons from her from the age of fourteen. – On a voluntary basis, because composition was not on the curriculum. Irina taught me in her spare time and did not charge a penny for it. The last two years before I went to the conservatoire, we met up other almost every day.’ 

She played an important role in his life, Shalygin continues: ‘We became good friends and at one point she dedicated just about all her free time to tutor me. Not only composition, but also harmony, solfeggio, music history, analysis and even art history, poetry and film. She was extremely versatile, it was an incredible time for me. I realise more and more that in those four years she taught me all the important basics. No composition teacher after her taught me as much as she did.’

Maxim Shalygin & Irina Ivashenko, Kyiv 2010 (c) Anna Reshetniak

What made her teaching so special? ‘Besides her broad interest and knowledge of music and culture in general, her way of teaching was remarkable. She had an interesting approach for every subject. For example, to my first lesson in harmony I brought along a tome that everyone at school used. She immediately told me never to bring it again, because we would be studying harmony from music history itself.’

‘For each subject we addressed, she gave examples of the great works from the canon, which she played at the piano – by heart. And after I had played through a few pages of my own new piece, she selected a few bars and explained why I should keep them and discard the rest. Step by step, she thus guided me through my first compositions. Thanks to her, I developed a profound knowledge of musical structure.’


After completing his training, Shalygin did not move on to the Kyiv Conservatoire, but went to Saint Petersburg instead. ‘This was because Irina considered the Saint Petersburg Conservatoire the best place to study composition. She still had contacts with some of her former teachers and they advised me to attend the class of Boris Tishchenko. But I was very disappointed with the composition department and the education in general. Soon I withdrew to the library. There I listened to recordings and studied scores that were not available in my hometown.’

After a year he returned to Ukraine. In retrospect, his short stay in Saint Petersburg was fruitful, because ‘I realised that it was time to choose my own path. I left in April, before the end of the academic year, and that same summer I was accepted into the Kyiv Conservatoire, where I found the freedom I was looking for.’

Maxim Shalygin: ‘No composition teacher has taught me more than Irina Ivashenko’.

‘Here the teaching was aimed at helping you find your own individual voice as a composer, while at the same time you were thoroughly trained in music theory. I still remember the analysis class of Mykola Kovalinas, who had developed his own method. This immensely stimulated my imagination. There were times I would be studying a score for 12 hours a day!’

In 2010, he obtained his master’s degree with the Triple Concerto for violin, cello, piano and orchestra. He then came to the Netherlands, where a year later he completed a second master’s degree in composition with Cornelis de Bondt and Diderik Wagenaar at the Royal Conservatoire. He has been living and working in The Hague ever since. The ties with Ukraine remain warm, however; Ukrainian television followed his trail in The Netherlands for an hour-long documentary that will be broadcast in November 2021.

In December, his Severade for 9 cello’s and the newly built sound sculpture will be performed three times. The composition is part of a ‘project for life’ on which Shalygin has been working since 2017. This ever-expanding cycle of full-length compositions for equal instruments is encapsulated under the umbrella title S I M I L A R. Up to now three ‘chapters’ have been completed.

In 2017, Lacrymosa for 7 violins was premiered in the Gaudeamus Music Week; two years later followed by Todos los fuegos el fuego for 8 saxophones; both have been released on CD. In April 2021 Severade, its third movement sounded for the first time in an empty TivoliVredenburg. Chapters four through six are already in the making, for 4 pianos; 5 recorders and 6 percussionists respectively.


Shalygin composed the 75-minute Severade for Cello Octet Amsterdam and Maya Fridman, for whom he previously composed the ground-breaking Canti d’inizio e fine. Severade is a contraction of ‘sever’, the Russian word for ‘north’ and serenade. Especially for this composition, artist Rob van den Broek developed 25 mechanical wooden instruments, which function as extensions of the acoustic cellos. These are controlled by the nine musicians and together form a spectacular sound sculpture.

The idea for this came about more or less by accident, says Shalygin: ‘Normally I compose for purely acoustic instruments, and this time I had nine cellos in mind. But while I was thinking about my piece, I met Rob and suddenly an idea sprang to mind: maybe we can build an instrument that a cellist can operate while playing.’ That turned out to be easier said than done: ‘If we had known how long and difficult the road would be to reach a satisfactory result, we probably wouldn’t have started our endeavour.’

Cello Octet Amsterdam & Maya Fridman in TivoliVredenburg

‘But once we had jumped in at the deep end, we didn’t want to give up. The entire process of developing, experimenting and trying out took a year and a half. I still remember how I felt when I received the first instruments from Rob. For a day I stared at them in my otherwise empty studio. I had no idea what to do with them, even though it had been my own initiative. But gradually I began to understand how I could use these new instruments in my piece. Once that coin dropped, writing Severade was actually a light and exciting journey.’

Each of the eight tutti cellists plays their own cello as well as a set of three wooden instruments, strung with horsehair strings and tuned differently. These are driven by a (silent) motor, operated by the respective cellist. The most important object is a long, pipe-shaped sound box to the left of the musician, which resembles a rectangular cello. A thick string is rubbed by a wooden wheel, creating mysterious, long-drawn-out bourdon tones.


Next to it is a rotating wooden tube, whose eight strings are struck by as many mallets, creating tinkling pizzicati. A smaller wooden cylinder with eight thinner strings is plucked by a rotating wheel and creates a loop of ever-changing chords. Soloist Maya Fridman resides on a platform in the centre, like a high priestess. She operates a so-called dodecagon, a twelve-sided kind of lyre. Its walls consist of 150 randomly tuned metal bars which are triggered by an uncontrolled bouncing ping-pong ball.

With his mechanically driven sound sculpture, Shalygin reflects on the development of the cello. He seamlessly blends the sounds of the age-old acoustic instrument with those of a futuristic ‘robot cello’. In the ear-catching, but extremely complex sound fabrics, it is often impossible to distinguish where the music comes from. The constantly resounding drones seem to stop time and create an almost mythical feeling of infinity.

Severade is a sequence of slowly building climaxes and diminuendos sloping down to near-silence. Sonorous chorales of ascending and descending glissandi are juxtaposed with virtuoso layers of titillating pizzicati, angelic flageolets and alienating microtones.

The slow pass, the melancholic, often descending melodic lines and sustained notes create a serene and ritualistic atmosphere, which is reinforced by hauntingly repeated short strokes. The interaction between solo cello and tutti is like one breathing organism. As a listener, you are irrevocably carried away on a nocturnal journey through a fairytale landscape.

With his combination of acoustic and mechanical instruments, Shalygin weaves a convincing blend  out of Slavic emotionality and Western sobriety – precisely the ‘northern serenade’ to which the title Severade refers.

Severade can be heard 3 times in December 2021
1 Dec: De Vereeniging Nijmegen
2 Dec: Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ Amsterdam

(During the introduction I will speak with Shalygin and Van den Broek)
3 Dec: 12 TivoliVredenburg Utrecht

Update 27 November: unfortunately all concerts have been cancelled because of the new corona measures.


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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2 Responses to Maxim Shalygin composes Severade for 9 cellos & sound sculpture: ‘At first I had no idea what to do with all those new instruments’

  1. Pingback: Een Os op het dak Concertzender: Oekraïense componisten en hun link met het westen – Klassiek van nu

  2. shoreclaregmailcom says:

    Fascinating, Thea! I just listened to the trailer for ‘Severade’ on YouTube. How fortunate are the folks who are able to hear the performance live in December, and to hear you speak at the Dec. 12th performance!

    Liked by 1 person

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