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Performers in the Time of COVID: Sviatoslav Avilov

I met with musician, producer, mathematician and general polymaths, Sviatoslav Avilov near the end of March 2021. He spoke to me from Venice where he has been staying with friends for the last few weeks. It was from Venice that just over a year ago he found himself escaping the first lockdown and flying back to his hometown of Voronezh near Moscow. 'Of course, Lombardy had already locked down but we weren't taking the news too seriously... until one evening at the end of the first week of March, a friend read on an alternative news channel that all flights from the city would be grounded the following morning. I packed all my things in half an hour and was on a flight from Verona the next day,' Sviatoslav said. 'I simply discarded my previous return ticket. Health, life and safety became the priority.'

Sviatoslav had been accustomed to visiting Venice frequently because some years previously, as part of his degree in modelling and physics at Voronezh State University, he had been sent to Italy in an exchange with the Ca' Foscari University. During his visits to Venice, as well as collaborating on articles with a group of scientists at the University, he was able to connect with the city's artistic community. 'It was over an aperitivo,' Sviatoslav said, 'that I got talking to an artist who was interested in inter-disciplinary projects. Later I met a generative visual artist who was excited, as I am, by the connections between music, texts, geometry and colour.' Sviatoslav and his new friends conceived the idea of collaborating to create performances where visual images could be generated from music in real time. From these conversations The Whale Project, which planned to create a series of live music performances with interactive visuals, was born.

But fate had other plans in 2020. In Russia, Sviatoslav quarantined for two weeks and then embarked on a year of isolation. His former monthly performances at two hotels in Moscow, live gigs with his band as well as his work in studios came to a halt. Sviatoslav was not seriously deterred by the new protocols. He decided to see the enforced confinement as an opportunity and chose to focus on finishing his PhD. He said it was interesting to have the time to work on new musical material, to become familiar with LilyPond, a musical engraving programme and LaTeX, a programme for text typesetting. And he was able to finish several music production projects that had been waiting for completion.

Moscow and the surrounding regions went in and out of lockdown but, said Sviatoslav, 'even without regulations we found ourselves frightened into a lockdown by choice. I didn't want to endanger my own health or that of my parents who live nearby. So I sat at home for 7 or 8 months. I had my food delivered but I did occasionally sneak in to meet my professor and was able to defend my thesis.'

What Sviatoslav did miss was the opportunity for and adrenalin of live performance and 'the exchange of energy with live audiences.' He also missed the use of his studio where he had been able to rehearse and record. 'I initially had been allowed back there to clear out my things and I ended up spending an entire week recording backing vocals for the projects I had in progress. At the end of the week I was completely euphoric.'

On a more personal level, Sviatoslav found himself separated from his Italian girlfriend without a vision for when they would see each other again. But at the beginning of February the couple was able to reunite. 'Venice is in and out of the red zone,' Sviatoslav said, 'but all the Churches are open and since each Church is like a museum there is always somewhere beautiful and inspiring to visit. 'This city,' said Sviatoslav, 'is like no other place on earth. I imagine it as one big house where the streets and canals are corridors between the rooms. I feel very lucky where I am. We meet other musicians and exchange ideas with artists.'

I asked Sviatoslav how he saw the next months and years developing. 'Live music cannot be suppressed ,' he said. 'Already in Russia there have been some live gigs. I think when people are able to meet in groups there will be a huge thirst for live performance and for the sound of acoustic instruments. I ask myself,' he said, 'what genre of music people would most want to hear and somehow think there will be a demand for more arrangements with a wider dynamic range characteristic of classical music. I like to think that we are heading towards a sort of musical renaissance with the added advantage of modern technologies and open-source software. During the pandemic artists were given a chance to breathe out, stop for a moment and contemplate. But there is nothing that can replace the sense of communication and emotional exchange at live musical performances. We are social beings and music is a path to a sense of connection with one's tribe; even more than that it is a universal language, a way of finding unity on an intellectual, emotional and spiritual level, especially after such trying times.’

More about Sviatoslav

More about The Whale Project


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