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Kvitka’s Music

Despite a singularly successful career as a studio singer, backup singer, and a commercial soloist, Kvitka Cisyk’s greatest love was Ukrainian song. In 1980 she recorded her first album, “Kvitka: Songs of Ukraine,” winning top honors in the 1988 Ukrainian Music Awards. Her second album, “Kvitka: Two Colors,” dedicated to “the spirit of the Ukrainian soul, whose wings can never be broken,” was released in 1989 to equally enthusiastic acclaim from both fans and critics. Songs from both albums can still be heard today both in Ukraine and around the world. Both “Kvitka” and “Kvitka Two Colors” were family projects—Kvitka’s husband Ed Rakowicz produced and engineered the recordings; her sister, Maria Cisyk, a concert pianist and teacher, accompanied Kvitka on piano; and her mother, Iwanna, oversaw the translation and pronunciation of the original lyrics and texts. Following are some of the stories behind these historic albums’ creation.

Kvitka: Songs of Ukraine

Kvitka: Songs of Ukraine

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Creating “Kvitka: Two Colors”

Kvitka: Songs of Ukraine

As told by Ed Rakowicz, Kvitka’s husband and the album’s producer/engineer

Nine years after completing the work of love “Kvitka: Songs of Ukraine” in 1980, Kvitka Cisyk decided that she was ready to record a second album of love songs to and about Ukraine. She remained inspired throughout that time to research, prepare, produce and release another album of songs dedicated to the spirit of Ukraine as she perceived it. Even though she had collected next to no money for sales of her first record as it was and continues to be sold by pirates with illegal copyrights and was still in debt having paid for the musicians, artists, arrangers, copyists, studios, and engineer, she still believed in the purpose of her cause. She was highly motivated to employ her talents, her family and her friends and represent her devotion to Ukraine in the form of songs that told the story of real people, real struggles and real emotions. Kvitka was a storyteller. The tales she told are the same ones that drove humanity to civilization from the beginning of time and continues today and beyond. It was just that she was born of a lineage of evolved artists and loved ones at the intersection of a communication boom and a brave new freedom won by her country that makes her story so interesting. In her profession as a studio singer, she was the voice of hundreds of commercial artists and products. In her passion as a Ukrainian folk singer, she became the voice of a people.

Kvitka and her beloved mother Iwanna had been researching and collecting songs of Ukraine for many years. Iwanna was a sweet and generous, warm and reflective person who also had an engineer’s mind steering a relentless purpose in the pursuit of locating and amassing the most endearing of her country’s heritage in music. Although she had not been to Ukraine since she left as a very young woman, she and Kvitka returned to her hometown in 1983 and visited the bench in the park where her husband Wolodymyr had proposed to her. Iwanna teared up joyfully to see this place again. Kvitka wept uncontrollably, empathizing mistakenly how sad her mother must be at having been away from her home all these years. But happiness abounded. It was a good trip.

While in Ukraine, they visited all the family they could find and polled them for stories and songs. Ukrainian society was still under the cold thumb of Russian politics as they had been since the end of World War II. Iwanna and Kvitka smuggled toilet paper and blue jeans and music cassettes into Ukraine and took sheet music out. They returned with renewed passion and information about their beloved land. Some of the songs they brought back from their trip became the songs recorded for Two Colors. Sometime in 1988 Kvitka decided it was finally time to make the new record. She had been saving her hard earned money and was willing to invest in another adventure. She could find no record companies in Ukraine that would sponsor the making of a new recording. Although she knew many powerful people in the American record industry, no one here was willing to venture into the uncharted, unregulated and pre-Glasnost territory of the Ukrainian music business. It again was up to her. She clenched her fists and set her jaw and leaned into the wind that tried to drive her back from her ambition. She wouldn’t accept defeat. Success would be the only outcome.

Recording Kvitka: Two Colors

Now the work began in earnest. Piles of music books, sheaves of sheet music sent from Ukraine and family and friends throughout the world, notes and records and cassettes littered our lives. The piano in our home groaned under the weight of music yet to be interviewed. Kvitka, her sister Maria, and her mother Iwanna speed-read lead sheets and scores. Many of the songs were written only as lyrics sometimes including melody lines. There were no chord symbols or arrangements or orchestrations. The three Cisyk women were able to perceive, evaluate, choose and cherish the important music they were studying. Through many nights of dedicated work, a collection of songs were finally assembled as being the short list of all that Kvitka had hoped to sing for her newest record. Kvitka and I had previously agreed that Jack Cortner—who was Kvitka’s ex-husband and arranger on her first album—should be enlisted as the arranger on this newest venture. It was here that Jack and I were invited into their process. They were giddy with excitement over having found so many musical gems and it was contagious. Maria and Jack poured over the sheet music trying with difficulty to figure out the chords and keys and tempos while Kvitka and Iwanna did their best to interpret the lyrics and spirit of the songs they had hoped to include for me. As each of the songs was agreed to by all, Maria would play the piano in her most evolved style and the three Cisyk women would sing the songs, often in three part harmony. Maria had a bass flute type alto voice, Iwanna had a perfect reedy soprano and Kvitka with her soaring and airy coloratura, blended as if they had been singing together their whole lives…which pretty much they had. I suggested strongly that at least one of the songs on Two Colors include this three part vocal family glory but somehow we never did record any of the songs that way. After several sessions of song interview and presentation, Jack took his work load home and long into the nights he conjured magic around those songs. How he perceived the essence of each and every melody and crafted those sweet and poignant arrangements is an ode to his particular genius. He was a very busy working writer/arranger/orchestrator and thankfully made the time to impart his gift on these songs. The recording dates were chosen. It was to become real.

There were many noble and talented musicians who would have loved to participate in this project. Very happily many of the same players were available and willing to contribute to this new record as had performed on the first. All of them are outstanding on their instruments and cumulatively had played with or recorded with virtually every important artist of all genres in America since the 1960s. They were a powerful bunch.

Recording Kvitka: Two Colors

I was the owner of Clinton Recording Studios on West 46th street in Manhattan. I had been a recording engineer at the famed A&R Studios from 1976 to 1980 and was trained by the amazing engineer/producer, Phil Ramone (the “R” in A&R) and my mentor Elliot Scheiner. I then became an independent engineer and traveled extensively, recording artists and projects for the next several years. I worked in some of the best studios in the world and kept stringent notes on their acoustical and electrical successes and failures. Having studied architecture briefly and remaining enamored with it, I committed my studio reviews to drawings. In 1981 the opportunity to partner in a world class facility in New York presented itself and I and the brilliant business manager, organizer, and brother-in-law, Bruce Merley embarked on the long road of building acquisition, design, equipping, acoustical and wiring design and ergonomics. The studio facility, which opened in 1983 at the forefront of technology and design and had the largest main stage in New York, was the busiest and arguably the most sought after. It was here in Clinton’s Studio A that Kvitka recorded Two Colors.

The orchestra arrived an hour before the first session to temper their instruments, look over the charts and catch and transmit the spirit of the project. I had known and worked with most of these wonderful players perhaps hundreds of times. Kvitka had probably sung to the music they made just as often but she may not have known which of the players hired for Two Colors had been on those other sessions. In the modern recording process, the instrumentalists were recorded first and then later the singers would come into the studio and overdub their parts. This would not be the case for Two Colors. Kvitka would sing live with the orchestra. They would each play and hear their own parts and each other’s for the first time together. It is quite an electric and symbiotic process. Everyone wants to imbue the recording with as much unified style and class as possible, without interfering with the other musicians doing the same, all of whom have never heard the songs or arrangements or the other parts before. Nevertheless, I recorded every note that everyone played and in some cases, the very first time the band played and Kvitka sang a song together was the take we used for the album. It was a series of magical events. Kvitka was completely prepared, as always, and was in fine voice. The only thing about which she was nervous was the pronunciation of some of the lyrics. She knew that she would be singing the words that millions of Ukrainians may hear and hoped to not distract from their beauty by a mispronunciation. Here Iwanna’s help and attention put Kvitka at ease and allowed her to confidently perform at the highest level.

Kvitka: Two Colors

Jack Cortner conducted the orchestra from a raised podium in the center of Studio A, surrounded by musicians. Kvitka stood next to him and sang these beautiful songs fully realized. I listened from the control room, being the first to witness this record in the way it is heard by all since then. I was awed by the level of sophistication and sheer beauty presented during those three days in 1989. After each successful take, I invited Kvitka and all the musicians into the control room for a playback. They were one and all truly touched by the unified effort of each individual—achieving a whole greater than the sum of its parts. Magic was captured during those days.

I spent many days and nights mixing and remixing those wonderful songs until I was satisfied that I had sculpted a presentation worthy of a listening by Kvitka. I sent the mixes to Jack Cortner, and he told me it was the best sounding recording he had ever heard. I was happy but still concerned whether I had done justice to this superb and varied collection of songs. Kvitka said that she loved the sound and all the mixes I did, but she continued to question whether her own performance was “good enough.” I knew that just good enough was never good enough for Kvitka. She had aspired to and performed with greatness. Witnessing tears in the eyes of Ukrainians and non-Ukrainian listeners alike for all these years since is a strong confirmation of her intent. She built a feeling of home and family with those songs that transcends place, ethnicity, and time. Thank you for your gift, Kvitka.