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Maria Sonevytsky

Maria Sonevytsky is Assistant Professor of Music at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York. She has published on the racialized accordion in the U.S., post-nuclear folklore in Ukraine, and on doing ethnography in post-Soviet rural Ukraine. She is presently at work on a book tentatively titled, Wild Music: Sound, Sovereignty, and the Ukrainian State. She is also a singer and instrumentalist who has played experimental chamber music, cabaret pop, and various Eastern European repertoires.

“The Rural Voice on Reality TV: The Politics of Timbre in the Ukrainian ‘Voice’” 
Holos Krainy, the “Voice of the Nation,” is a Ukrainian reality TV singing competition that has aired to great success since 2011. It, along with nearly fifty other programs worldwide, is part of the global “Voice” franchise that originated in the Netherlands in 2010. In the Ukrainian “Voice,” contestants are judged and later coached by musician-luminaries from the late and post-Soviet rock, pop, and estrada (adult contemporary) scenes. Yet, many seasons of the program have featured contestants who perform folkloric avtentyka (literally: “authentica”), singing with voices that index rurality, with stylistic flourishes that evoke the ritual songs of the archaic village. This paper investigates the semiotic strangeness that occurs when folkloric avtentyka singers come to compete on the “Voice.” Beyond the clashes of style and genre between aventyka singers who use village timbres to sing modern pop hits, I focus on the politics of vocal timbre. Teasing out the imaginaries evoked when singers perform in the open-throated style associated with the pre-modern Ukrainian village, I situate the avtentyka voice within a historical trajectory of resistance to state power that undermines easy assumptions about the folkloric necessarily pointing back toward an essentialized national past. Rather, I consider the avtentyka timbre as distinctly post-Soviet and post-modern. In this regard, it fuses late Soviet modes of protest with 21st century concerns about ecology and territorialized identities. An ethnographic approach to understanding vocal timbre reveals the political codes contained within such localized sounds, particularly as they are produced within a competition that at once purports to anoint the “Voice of the Nation” while exclusively producing victors who are fluent in generic “global” pop styles. I argue that the politics of rurality contained within the specific timbres of the avtentyka voice summon complex and contested imaginaries of the modern, imperiled Ukrainian state.


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