Interview about Lullaby and Memory

Ljova as interviewed by Jeffrey James, originally published on in 2013. Republished with permission.

Lev “Ljova” Zhurbin has written Lullaby and Memory for Quintet of the America’s Memory Project. This commissioned work is based on interviews by the composer with seniors during his visits with them at the Salvation Army in Jackson Heights, Queens, New York. Others works that are part of the project are Carl MaultsBy’s Abuelas, Nanas and Grandmamas Unsung, created during his work with seniors at Elm-Cor Senior Center in East Elmhurst and Music for Bayside by Lembit Beecher, who worked with seniors at Bayside Senior Center. More about the project and composers at

1. When did you first realize you were a composer?

I began creating (recording, playing, writing) music when I was probably 6 or 7 years old, sitting in the back of my parents car and making up songs about the streetlamps of Moscow, where I was born. Over the years, I’ve written a lot of music, but it has always been a dance between writing on paper, recording sketches, and improvisation.

2. How did your parents, composer Alexander Zhurbin and writer Irena Ginzburg, influence you? Who are some of your current influences?

My parents taught me to love people, sounds, music, to find your own voice. My father is a very pluralist composer with a very open mind and a flexible technique. He’s written symphonies, rock operas, musicals, tv scores, pop songs; he’s a journalist and performer – and he everything with complete commitment and passion.  My mother is a passionate preservationist of family tales, keen observer of the present, with an eye for everything repeating itself from the past. Current influences? My heart is split between the music of John Adams and the pathos of Eastern European folk fiddlers. I haven’t quite found a way how to reconcile this, but keep trying. Our amazing kids (aged 2 and 4), and all of the old Russian cartoons they consume on YouTube… My wife, the incredible folk singer Inna Barmash.

3. How has your music evolved over the past few years?

In the beginning, I wanted to try everything – rock, pop, jazz, film scores in every style, classical “weird”, classical “tonal”, and so forth – these days, I shy away from all of these directions and follow my own intuition –  it’s turning out to be a sound that’s more influenced by folk musicians, but often using classical & jazz techniques. It feels so awkward to analyze your work that way, though – you hope that what you’re doing is magic and not a mix of “techniques’.

4. What is your favorite type of ensemble to compose for?

I don’t really see myself writing for an ensemble of instruments, but rather for an ensemble of hearts.  As such, many of my pieces have lived in various arrangements, whether for strings or winds or chamber orchestra or multitrack violas. Though clearly I have a subconscious connection to violas and 6-string fiddles, I really do love all instruments equally.

5. Tell us about Lullaby and Memory, and something of how it was created. What was it like listening to the stories of the clients of the Salvation Army Center in Jackson Heights and being part of the Memory Project?

Spending time at the Salvation Army Center, listening to the stories of the Ladies there, made me feel wholly at home – any one of these ladies could’ve been my grandmother. Since all of the ladies are immigrants, we share so much in common – beginnings, babies, countries in political struggles, losing relatives in a war, finding footing in a new country, learning a language… it’s all a very familiar story to our family… Principally, though, “Lullaby and Memory” is based on a moment I shared with my grandmother-in-law, who is well in her 90s. On a visit last year, I saw her asleep in a chair, whispering in Yiddish to her late husband. Her face was in a trance, smiling, shining, telling stories.

6. You’ve written music in a wide range of styles, including classical, jazz and folk. What mix or combination of these styles are heard in Lullaby and Memory? “Lullaby & Memory” is part folk song, part tango, part hora – it’s really a mix of influences, all singing together.

7. Tell us about some of your other works and how they came about.

That’s very broad! In the past season alone, I had to write a song cycle, a viola/percussion piece, a number of arrangements, some music for theatre and film – what would you like to know?

8. How did you meet Quintet of the Americas?

Barbara (Oldham) read a profile of my work in the New York Times, by Allan Kozinn, and decided to contact me – but, in truth, we have many friends in common and had discussed a commission even earlier.

9. How does your other life as a violist influence your composing?

It’s all part of the same story. The tactile and spiritual experiences I have as a performer directly feed into everything I do in writing music for other performers.  It’s a very direct and inseparable kinship, something I rarely question. I feel incredibly lucky to be able to be proficient enough on an instrument to experiment and express something, and then to be able to translate that for others to try on their own.

10. What does the future hold for Lev Zhurbin? Is there a sort of dream project that you would like to be able to create?

The past two seasons had been primarily about commissions – for Brooklyn Rider, Silk Road Ensemble, Art of Élan, DuoJalal, choreographer Aszure Barton, several filmmakers, and of course the Quintet of the Americas. The upcoming season finds me working more as a composer/performer, with a new album coming from my ensemble Ljova and the Kontraband, and a few more items in the pipeline that I’m too superstitious to air here. I’m also hopeful to do a lot more playing as a solo performer, just fadolín/viola and loopers. Dream projects? Chamber operas for kids & adults, performing for the needy, a bagel shop storefront with a rehearsal room in the back…

Lev ‘Ljova’ Zhurbin’s appearances with the Quintet of the Americas are funded in part through Meet The Composer’s MetLife Creative Connections program. Leadership support for Meet the Composer’s MetLife Creative Connections program is generously provided by MetLife Foundation. Additional support is provided by The Amphion Foundation, Argosy Foundation Contemporary Music Fund, BMI Foundation, Inc., Mary Flagler Cary Charitable Trust, Aaron Copland Fund for Music, Inc., The William & Flora Hewlett Foundation, The James Irvine Foundation, Jerome Foundation, mediaThe foundation, National Endowment for the Arts, New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, New York State Council on the Arts, Pennsylvania Council on the Arts and Virgil Thomson Foundation, Ltd.  

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