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Julia Úlehla

Monheim Papers ‘When you're living between two cultures, that's a very particular vantage point. It's not the same as your parents, not the same as your children, not the same as your grandparents.’ by Aida Baghernejad

The past flows into the present and back. When dealing with Julia Úlehla's work, we cannot avoid the subject of time. What remains of yesterday in today – and what will remain tomorrow? Which traces do our ancestors leave in our own lives?

Julia Úlehla could be called a singer. But that wouldn't even begin to describe her and her work. In her work, art, and science merge, as do time and space, as well as performance and analysis. Based on the book ‘Živá Píseň’ (Living Song), written by her great-grandfather Vladimír Úlehla in 1949, about the song traditions in the Strážnice village in the border region Slovácko (in the south-east of the Czech Republic), Julia embarks on an ethnographic search for identity and history, both as researcher and as an artist. Even if she is not quite sure whether that would be the right term: ‘I don't know if I'm an artist – I know I create things.’

‘I think I always struggled with the conventions of classical singing.’

The format of all the creations by Julia Úlehla has changed and shifted over the past few years. Actually, the plans for her future had been rather different. Born in 1978 in Knoxville, Tennessee, the daughter of a father who fled the Czech Republic and of a mother with Welsh and Cherokee roots, she studied at Stanford and the Eastman School of Music and is a trained opera singer. However, after attending a workshop by Jerzy Grotowski's and Thomas Richards’ theatre lab ‘Workcenter’, she questioned her path as a classical mezzo-soprano and followed the ensemble to Pontedera in Italy. ‘Their work was so deep and so human. Opera suddenly appeared very artificial – or maybe not so suddenly. I think I always struggled with the conventions of classical singing and the conservatism of classical singing.’

For five years, Julia was part of this renowned institution and co-created several performative opera pieces within the institution’s collaborative methodology based on anthropology and psychology. A very educational period, but also an extreme experience: ‘It was such an intensive physical and spiritual reckoning through this process’, she recalls. At some point, this intense practice no longer agreed with her life plans – not with the family she started with her collaborator and partner Aram Bajakian, nor with her hunger for yet another level of insight. ‘I felt like I needed intellectual work to balance out the extra-rational or trans-rational places I had been to. It felt like it needed to be the same thing, almost as if it were multi-modal. So the substance of the thing breaks of into an academic article or a performance or singing songs with my kids, all those things actually aren't that different, or I haven't wanted them to be, I wanted them to make each other richer. And not trying to compartmentalise.’

Dálava’s Living Songs

One way to achieve such a multi-modal existence was to return to university. Currently Julia is completing her PhD on ‘Živá Píseň’ in Vancouver, as a kind of auto-ethnography which is inseparably interconnected with her own vita. A conscious decision and a political action defying the conventions of the colonially influenced academic establishment and feeding into the wider context of indigenous song traditions as well as the transmission of knowledge by the means of songs. ‘My approach has been to let the personal exist inside the academic document and I feel like that's also a political choice, and an anti-colonial choice. The academy asks for this scholarly distance – which for me is totally false, my approach has just been unabashedly personal and… I don't apologise for it. Most of my research is based on a book that was written by my great-grandfather and his father, and his great-aunt are the singers that he transcribed, and my grandparents sing these songs, and my dad did... It makes no sense to be a distanced scholar with this material and so I stood fully inside the personal.’

Her musical project, Dálava, developed from her examination of the ‘living songs’ transcribed and researched by her great-grandfather as well as his scientific films. Dálava is both a continuation of Slovácko's vocal traditions and also a progressive development in its own right. Julia's work cannot be understood without the past and her ancestors, nor without her search for identity, a search that so many post-migrant people are very familiar with. Growing up in-between different cultures means remaining a searcher all one's life, existing without solid ground. But it also means living a diverse life and being culturally enriched. Those who combine different concepts of what life can mean lead an existence in that in-between state. Julia's artistic and scientific works reflects this. ‘It's a conversation between past and present’, the artist describes her experimental performances, where ritual songs from the book ‘Živá Píseň’ are met by her husband’s guitar improvisations and that by other fellow musicians, as well as by old ethnographic films of her great-grandfather.

During the Monheim Triennale, Julia Úlehla and Aram Bajakian will also perform these conversations on stage. Three acts revolving around the material at the base of their work, in various formats which become increasingly minimalist in the process. The performance will start off as a sextet, with the pair inviting musicians Peggy Lee, Dylan van der Schyff, James Meger and Tyson Naylor to join them on stage. This will then continue as live improvisation in pairs, developing film scores to two of Úlelah's grandfather's films (‘Pohyby rostlin’ (The Movement of Plants, 1928) and ‘Mizející svět: Přiběh lásky z moravsko-slovenského pomezi’ (Disappearing World: A Love Story from the Moravian-Slovakian Borderlands, 1932). In the last act, Julia will be on stage on her own with a semi-improvised solo piece she is currently developing, titled ‘Body without Organs’. Layer by layer, the exploration of Julia's grandfather's work is reduced, the performance evolves from an orchestral, communal experience to a skeletal individual performance.

The material used by the former opera singer have a very special meaning. Vladimír Úlehla’s book contains mysterious songs, magical songs, in the truest sense of the word, songs that are so much more than ‘just’ music. ‘He has these beautiful descriptions of hearing people communicate from meadow to meadows with songs, for him a song was a biotic entity, a living entity, and very much related to the particular topography’, Julia Úlehla tells us. ‘These songs are so much about life, they are about very basic relationships between, if you look to the song poetics, between family members, between mountains, rivers, birds, that are communicating with people, spirits that are communicating with people, they're about very basic life things.’ In the book and its notes, which are now archived at the Ethnological Institute of the University of Brno, the elder Úlehla gives precise instructions on how to proceed with the songs. ‘He has all these instructions for his reader, like ‘go outside and sing this song. What happens when you do?’ He was thinking of song really as a living thing’, his descendant Julia tells us.

This connection between songs, life and their environment is the focus of Julia Úlehla's research. She understands the ‘living songs’ as a human and social resource and investigates their connection with the ecological conditions of the region. But what happens to a song when it is relocated, like a tree? Can it still live, grow, and thrive in a foreign place, at a new topography, in new soil?

Songs in multiple shapes and places

‘Some songs I can't find life in’, Julia reports. It took her a long time to find an access to her ancestors’ songs. She herself only discovered her grandfather's book towards the end of the noughties. For a long time it was virtually unknown in the Czech Republic itself as well before it experienced a renaissance after it was reissued in 2008. ‘I actually tried to sing a song back when my grandmother sent me a copy after it was published again. It was so bad! So formal and stiff and in no way living, it was just like... a bland bla.’ She was still fully immersed in the opera world at the time, she remembers, and approached the material like a libretto. But it could not to be brought to life in this way.

After her time in Italy with the theatre lab ‘Workcenter’, she moved to New York, became a mother, and finally dared to try again. ‘It became like an experiment, could I make these songs come alive? What would it mean to make a song alive, off of a page, given this hybridity, this rupture and being a transplant? And so I started just playing with them, almost thinking of them as they were my teacher, or they were my partner, and they were going to show me what they needed.’ The resulting experience was, or so it appears from her narrative, life changing. ‘I remember the first one that felt to me like it worked, which I’ve never recorded but perform a lot. It just felt like a volcano happened inside my person. I started to feel really hot, and there was a kind of vertical something happening, I asked myself, ‘what is this’? And it almost feels like an engine, something just starts going, that just gives you energy, that's yours but also not yours. It felt like it was a vitality maker.’

Photo: Jen Osborne

The liveliness, the songs’ own identity was also evident during the digital performance by Julia Úlehla and Aram Bajakian at the Monheim Triennale in 2020. These had been organised as part of a series of talks and concerts after the 2020 edition of the festival was postponed due to Covid-19. Together with Achim Tang, the festival's artist in residence, they explored the space of possibility in music. Right from the first piece – a lamentation – it became clear that it is not the artist who determines what happens, but the inherent power of the song guides the three musicians. Julia herself describes this in a similar way: ‘Part of our work is to see how it is the song wants to be, almost to give agency to the song. Almost like a conjuring of the song, in some way.’ Over time, she says, the songs also change, their format, their sound, their timbre. The songs are organic, like wood that constantly changes and lives even after processing, and they are related to their country of origin, as Vladimír Úlehla so aptly described it. But they also develop present (and beyond) relationships with the performer Julia Úlehla, fellow musicians such as Aram Bajakian and Achim Tang, interconnected by an invisible digital bridge, and the sadly only virtually present audience.

The songs, chants, even practices that Julia Úlehla brings to new life together with others are not just at home on stage or in a research paper, they are also an organic part of Julia's life. ‘Song also come into very domestic things. There is a lot of song in our house. It’s connected with food and meals, singing at funerals, singing in weddings. It’s not just like on a stage and a creative practice that’s for an Avantgarde music audience or Experimental music audience. It’s linked with a kind of creative practice of life and needs to be sown into every part of life.’

Tradition of resistance

Julia Úlehla's artistic practice is also a type of resistance, resistance to forget, resistance to the museumization of traditions, but also resistance to the appropriation of folk rituals and songs for nationalist purposes. ‘I sometimes get really tired of the baggage of nationalist folk song’, Julia elaborates. ‘In the Czech Republic’, she says, ‘performances are often difficult. There is a lot of encouragement as well, but there are always listeners who have a problem with her and her husband's interpretation of folk songs and chants. ‘Some people think it’s too weird, it’s not traditional enough or it just doesn’t make sense to their aesthetic sensibilities of how folk music should be sung. So everyone has a different opinion about it. Some people are even like, ‘your great-grandfather would’ve killed you’, and some people tell me, ‘your great-grandfather would be so proud of you’. It’s the whole gambit from killing to being proud.’

This is a proud family tradition. For Vladimír Úlehla, the very act of collecting, archiving, and saving traditions was an active act of resistance. ‘Vladimír wrote the book during the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia. For sure there was something in him that wanted to preserve what he loved, but also in his work I find a kind of… sneaky covert thing, which doesn’t toe the nationalist line’, Julia says with a laugh. But the communist regime, which came after the Nazis, did not want to know anything about him nor his songs and prevented the publication of his work, so it was only published after his death. Decades later, Julia Úlehla's father, Vladimír Úlehla’s grandson, also fled the still communist country. Another separation from the land of songs and another act of resistance.

Both her academic exploration of the material and the performances of the Dálava reflect this dissonance and ongoing negotiation between past and present, between embracing ethnic traditions and clearly distancing oneself from everything ethnic. ‘It’s tricky, this link with song and people and place, and who is original and who is not original. It’s been the motivation for so many horrific acts in human history’, Julia adds. But would it be an option to discontinue these traditions and not bring these rituals to life? ‘When you work with something like folk song, there is an awareness that it matters to other people too and not just you. And there are different people you have to keep in mind – or I feel there is different people I have to keep in mind.’

However, for children of the diaspora in particular, much more is at stake in these issues, she explains. ‘Am I a tradition bearer? Does that even make sense when you’re a hybrid, can you be a tradition bearer? What does that mean, and who are the tradition bearers?’ It is not surprising that some traditionalists consider Julia's approach to the songs to be a real insult. All those experiences, all changes, all the pain of escaping, the hybridity of her life's reality enter her interpretation of the songs. But isn't that exactly what translates these songs back to life of the 21st century? And is this vehement adherence to the traditional, strived for by traditionalists, precisely what strips living rituals of their relevance?

‘Songs are the best travellers of the world’

The title alone, ‘Živá Píseň’ (Living Songs), implies the invitation to live, to grow, to experience. ‘Why not see how it lives elsewhere?’, Julia Úlehla asked during the livestream concert, quoting ethnomusicologist Bruno Nettle: ‘Songs are the best travellers of the world’. A song cannot live between old and yellowed book pages, not as a dead memory and by no means as a costume and pastiche of itself. In Julia Úlehla and Aram Bajakian's performance, Vladimír's notes create a world of its own, and yes, also a new one, in which ritual songs meet jazz and post-rock, traditions meet experimental music. The meadows and fields of Slovácko and the songs they bore travel around the world as material at the heart of Dálava. And they spread their seeds much further than boring nationalist traditionalism ever could.

Aida Baghernejad