Friday, October 31, 2014


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'I Had To React': Russian Composer Recognized For Pussy Riot Opera

Russian composer Ilya Demutsky with mezzo-soprano Clara Calanna at the performance of "The Closing Statement of the Accused" in Bologna, Italy.
Russian composer Ilya Demutsky with mezzo-soprano Clara Calanna at the performance of "The Closing Statement of the Accused" in Bologna, Italy.

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When a Russian court sentenced three members of the anti-Kremlin punk collective Pussy Riot to prison last year, Ilya Demutsky was appalled.

The Russian composer immediately embraced the global wave of solidarity with the jailed women, sentenced to two years each for staging a protest from the altar of Moscow's largest cathedral.

But instead of joining street rallies or signing petitions, Demutsky, 30, chose to do what he does best: write music.

In the weeks that followed the verdict, he composed a mono-opera -- a one-act performance by one singer -- based on the closing statement delivered by Pussy Riot member Maria Alyokhina at the end of her trial.

"I just could not believe that this was happening, that such things could take place in 2012, in the 21st century. And the entire world was watching," Demutsky says. "I was shocked. When I listened to these statements, I understood that I had to react."

Demutsky, an award-winning composer who studied in San Francisco and St. Petersburg, says he never expected his work to be performed. 

But in July, "The Closing Statement of the Accused" won first prize at the prestigious 2 Agosto composing competition in Bologna, Italy, and was performed earlier this month on one of the city's central squares.

WATCH: A Performance Of "The Closing Statement of the Accused"

On August 13, Demutsky was awarded the President of the Italian Republic medal.

In Russia, however, his composition has generated limited interest.

The St. Petersburg-based composer regrets that while "The Closing Statement of the Accused" was recognized for its musical qualities, reactions in Russia have centered almost exclusively on his choice of libretto.

"It's sensitive because the text is tricky, and everyone is focusing on it," he says. "I think that if I had chosen another text it would not have received any coverage at all."

In her closing statement, which is sung in English in Demutsky's work, Alyokhina defended her right to free speech and denounced the trial as "a travesty of justice."

"I'm not afraid of you," she told the court. "This trial is not only a malignant and grotesque mask, it is the face of the government's dialogue with the people of our country.

"The current government will have occasion to feel shame and embarrassment because of it for a long time to come, will blush and be ashamed of it for a long time to come," she added.

READ NEXT: One Year After Pussy Riot Verdict, Children Still Coming To Grips With Mothers' Jailing

Demutsky describes his composition as a musical "manifesto" denouncing the disproportionately harsh verdict against Alyokhina, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, and Yekaterina Samutsevich.

Samutsevich was released on probation in October, but Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova, both of whom have young children, remain behind bars.

Demutsky rejects accusations that he is seeking to cash in on Pussy Riot's celebrity.

He also rejects his detractors' argument that music should be kept separate from politics, and he urges fellow musicians to be more active in denouncing injustices such as the jailing of the Pussy Riot trio.

He says Alyokhina's powerful closing statement perfectly encapsulates the current political climate in Russia. "As it turned out, this text is still relevant today. Look at what has happened over the past year, what trials have taken place against people," Demutsky says. "I think this speech was visionary."

Written by Claire Bigg, based on reporting by RFE/RL Russian Service correspondent Tatyana Voltskaya

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