Times Free Press music reporter Casey Phillips spoke with roots fiddler/mandolinist Peter Ostroushko about his ties to his Ukrainian heritage and how cooking and music are similar pursuits.
Q: One thing that interested me when I started doing research for this article was that you grew up in a Ukrainian neighborhood.
A: My parents were Ukrainian immigrants. I was the first generation born here.
Q: When you’re writing new songs, what specific influence, if any, does that exposure to that culture play on your writing? Does it have a conscious impact on your writing or is it more incidental?
A: You know, that is such a large question. I’ll answer it in two parts.
On the one hand, I do sometimes consciously write music that is related to the Ukrainian/Slavic music I grew up with. But then, having said that, the second part of the answer is that a person would really have to know what the immigrant experience was for Ukrainians or for anybody who came over after World War II and what they went through to understand what the means.
The people in Ukrainian culture have a heaviness about them and, at the same time, a great joy. There doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of in between. Consequently, someone described my music, not all of it, but a lot of what I write, as being very bittersweet or melancholy. I would say that’s a direct influence of having grown up in the Ukrainian society. Regardless of whether it sounds Slavic, I think the heart and soul of the music is.
Q: How strong an influence is music on Ukrainian culture? Is that culture a very musical one? Is it as intertwined in the culture as, say, traditional Irish music is in that culture?
A: Oh yes, I would say very definitely so. I’ve never been to the Ukraine myself, so I don’t know what that’s like, but my parents came over in ’52. When people come and live in a different culture, the culture they came from stops when they start living in the new culture. So, for instance, if you want to know what the Ukrainian culture was like and the language was like and the music was like in 1953, you wouldn’t go to the Ukraine to find that out. You’d go to Cleveland, New York City or Minneapolis or Winnipeg or any number of cities where there are sizeable Ukrainian communities.
That said, in the Ukrainian community where I grew up, there was always live music. I don’t think it’s just with Ukrainians, I think the same is true of the Irish. Part of how they hold onto their culture is through their music, and as soon as that starts disappearing, other things start disappearing. The language starts disappearing, and they start getting acclimated to being whatever culture they’ve moved into. The music is a big part of what holds them together and what holds them to where they left. Everyone can identify Irish because there were so many of them that came. There weren’t anywhere near that many Ukrainians that came to this country, but the ones who did tenaciously held onto their culture and music was part of it.
That’s how I got into music. Every weekend there would always be family get-togethers, and one of the things that would always happen during family get-togethers was music. My father played the mandolin and guitar, and a number of other people who were family friends who immigrated also played the music. There was always live music in our house and people singing, so it seemed like a natural thing to do.
Q: At what point did you pick up an instrument, and was it the mandolin first or the fiddle?
A: It was mandolin first. I probably started playing that when I was three or four, and when I was about 10, my older sister came home from college with a $35 plywood Harmony guitar and the complete Bob Dylan songbook and Joan Baez songbook — at least complete to that period, which would have been about 1963. After about two months, the guitar became mine, and I really became more of a guitar player for a long time.
Over the years, I just started picking up other instruments. I played the accordion for a little bit. I think I was 16 when I bought my first fiddle. I played banjo and dobro and whatever — anything with strings I was fascinated with.
Q: To move on to something else I know is a passion of yours, what are the connections between cooking food and playing or composing music? Do the skills in the one feed off the other?
A: I had a wonderful teacher in my mom, who’s a wonderful cook specializing in Austrian food — my parents met in Austria after the war in a detention camp. Once I started learning how to cook for myself, I realized it’s like playing an instrument. You start off learning a few basic chords, and as you get more ambitious, you start playing melodies. As the process grows, the mind expands and the fingers do what they’re supposed to do.
Cooking is the same kind of thing. You start off frying some stuff up, and you progress to other things. One thing I found out after awhile is that, the more you get into the world of music, not just playing tunes, but once your mind starts grasping the ways the instruments work together with harmony and counterpoint and all that stuff, then actually playing music isn’t actually as interesting as composing music. The same thing happens with cooking. I rarely use a recipe when I cook. I’ll go to the grocery store and see something I like, find some things that look like they’ll go good with it, and off I’ll go.
I’ve been experimenting over the last couple of years with my real passion. What I usually say is, If you have to eat, you might as well eat Thai food (laughs). I love Thai food, and I’ve been trying to create different Ukrainian foods with Thai sensibilities, with varying degrees of success. I think the process is the same. Eating satisfies a whole different part of your being than music does, and I’m not sure I could pick one or the other.
Q: I just think it’s cool to have such disparate interests that are linked in ways you might not think of at first.
A: Well, the other pursuit I have, which is kind of a seasonal pursuit is that I have a garden that I grow food in. That also comes from my mother, who, from the time I could remember, always had a garden. I often say, If you want to be a good musician, you need to have a garden. You have to be able to dig in the dirt and watch things grow. That process is, in many ways, kind of the process of truly learning how to play music. It’s not practicing, but the stuff that happens in your brain over a period of time that assimilates. All the sudden, it makes clear what five years ago you thought was impossible to do and stopped doing. Five years later, you pick up your instrument, and all the sudden, you can do that. That’s this kind of osmosis that just happens over a period of time, and I think growing a garden is very much like that. You see it, and you can be part of it.
Q: Another interest of yours that I think might have ramifications on your performing is that, when you were younger, you did a lot of work in the theater. Did that rub off in any way in making you feel more comfortable on stage?
A: Yes and no. I do love theater, and at one point when I was younger, it was my desire to be an actor, but at the same time, people realized I had these musical skills, so they kept using me for that. Sometimes, people would even write plays around the fact that I could play all these different instruments. At some point, all the sudden, it just seemed easier to play music than to act, so I went with it.
I’ve remained very much a part of theater. Actually, a project I’ve been working on over the past few weeks is with the Kansas City Repertory Theater, which commissioned me to write music for a production they’re doing for a production of To Kill A Mockingbird. I wrote that and recorded the music for it this last weekend. Their tech week is next week, so I’ll be going down to make sure the music all fits. That’s where I’ll be coming from when I come to Chattanooga.
I never seem to have a problem with being up on stage, and maybe it was because of that experience. I never stopped to really think about it. What I do know is that there was a time period when I was playing music — this would have been back in the late ’80s — and I remember I was on stage doing a gig at a local coffeehouse. I was doing my best to be Mr. Norman Blake, who was a great influence on me and one of my main mentors. There I was sitting singing, My Blueridge Mountain Home. I was pretty good at it — I could play the guitar and do a fair facsimile of Norman and had a fairly decent voice -but I found out between songs and tunes that I didn’t really have a whole lot to say about the music. I played it because I loved it, but it wasn’t my music.
For whatever reason, on that particular evening, I did something I’d never done before. I played a medley of some of the old Ukrainian tunes from way back when, and all the sudden, it was like I was Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Mr. Hyde came out big time, and they couldn’t shut me up because I started talking about the Ukrainian community and all this stuff, and people just loved it.
Unless you grow up in a Ukrainian community, you’re not familiar with the music, and it’s very beautiful, haunting music. It’s not unlike Irish music in that sense. They have their own equivalents of reels and jigs, which are called hopaks and kolomiykas. It was something new for people, at least back then, and it really opened my eyes to what I was doing musically and things started changing from then on.
Q: Given the wide range of styles you do have available to you, what would you say lies at the root of your music? Is it the traditional Ukrainian? Is that the backbone, or is it something else?
A: I would say that’s the origin of it, yeah. Actually I hate being asked that question, but it’s OK because everyone asks it. I want to say that the music, at its roots, at its basic core, is roots music or what they call roots music now. It’s music that comes from some community in someplace. That kind of thing doesn’t exist so much anymore as it used to. It’s still around, but not as much since radio and TV have taken over the county and diluted so many of the small cultures trying to hold onto what they were doing. I happened to grow up in that culture. I’m not what you would call a folk revivalist — I grew up in it.
At the same time, I was very influenced by the pop music of the day. My original music has its roots in Ukrainian music, but I think also the big affinity with that was that I fell in love with the instruments and the sounds those instruments made. Those instruments like the mandolin, fiddle and guitar appear in so many different cultures that, as it’s been said, there are more similarities in music than there are non-similarities. You can take just about every kind of music and, given those instruments and a little time to learn the language, you could basically play just about anything from anywhere.
Q: What are you working on next? Any current projects?
A: Oh boy. Actually, right now, I’ve not got any projects because I just finished up three very major projects. I do a holiday show every year at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul, which is a big thing. It involves a lot of people, and I write music and produce the show. It’s a lot of work, and at the same time I was getting done with that, I was on tour with a theatrical musical called, Gales of November, which was music and narration for a play about the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald in Lake Superior. I was also commissioned to write some music for the National Parks Service, which I finished a week ago.
I have no projects, and I’m really happy with that. Actually, for the next month, I’m pretty much going to be on the road. The road has it’s own things to deal with, but at least I don’t have people screaming at me for creative output (laughs).