Archive for the ‘Ana Sokolović’ Category

An interview with Ana Sokolović

September 2, 2011
Ana Sokolović

Ana Sokolović is an artist who ought to be specially introduced. Why? It is because she is our contemporary and a world recognized-composer. The second reason is that I personally believe that, apart from gossip and individual and collective tragedies, the media may contribute to the endangered sanity of the world by praising and promoting creativity happening here and now. For Canada Ana Sokolović is a case in point.

It has already been ten years that the exceptional talent of Ana  as a composer of contemporary music has been recognized. “Opera News” commented on the first staging of her first opera “Midnight Court”: “The production was dazzling, its verbal, visual and musical wit unfailingly exuberant and its stunning cast fully in command of the vocal pyrotechnics Sokolović demands.” In voices of similar exuberance wrote the “London Times”, “Globe and Mail” and “National Post”.

The history of music has no shortage of examples where the creative brilliance of great composers had not been recognized by their contemporaries, to the embarrassment of the fiefdoms, kingdoms, empires or communities, which allowed that Mozart ended in a collective grave for the homeless or get evicted by landlords as happened to Wagner. Every nation may find in its closet of shame a desolate Van Gogh, an imprisoned Solzhenitsyn, or Giordano Bruno burning at the stake.

It is a manifestation of divine grace when an artist is recognized during his life and that the creative impulse is met with deserving praise and joy at the receiving end. Ana Sokolović is looked after by her lucky star. We wish that it remain so.

After the Toronto première of her third opera “Svadba-Wedding” I was introduced to Ana Sokolović. She met me two days later, an hour before conducting the second performance of her opera. We went to sit and talk on a park bench near a busy corner half a block away from the theatre. At first glance Ana looks like a sophomore student who just completed her exams and is getting ready for an overseas trip to exotic lands. She is petite and slim. Her dark eyes are curious, focused and intelligent. Her short dark hair requires no elaborate styling. She has the unassuming spontaneity of youth. It is also unlikely that you would recognize in her  reputable university lecturer and a mother of two children. Her irresistible, forthcoming simplicity is a manifestation of joy that only a person who receives the recognition of the public and of critique while freely expressing her creative spirit may have.

Ana was born in Belgrade 1968. She studied composition in Belgrade and Novi Sad. Professors who influenced her in that period were Dušan Radić and Zoran Erić. After that came a period of graduate studies in Montreal, where she studied in the class of professor José Evangelista. Between 1995-1998, as a young composer Ana was three times recipient of the SOCAN award. In 1996 and 2009, Ana represented Canada at UNESCO’s International Rostrum of Composers in Paris. As a recognition for exceptional creative achievements as a composer the Canada Council for the Arts in 2005 awarded her the Joseph S. Stauffer Award. That same year Ana composed her first opera “Midnight Court”, which less than a year later was successfully performed at a podium of the Royal Opera House Covent Garden in London. In 2007 Ana was named as the Composer of the Year, an award given annually by the Music Council of Quebec.

In a unanimous decision of  the Société de musique contemporaine du Québec, Ana  is the artist of the year 2011-2012 in the homage series– a nomination venerable for any artist after a mere decade and a half upon her graduation. The homage also includes province-wide performances of her works. At the time of our conversation there were already 75 performances scheduled. A book for schoolchildren will be published about Ana, which will include her biography in cartoon format,  a CD, and a DVD with her music. This summer Ana is a composer-in-residence giving a master class during the summer school of music in Orford. 

Jacqueline Woodley as Milica in “Svadba-Wedding”,  photograph by John Lauener


On June 24, 2011, Ana’s second opera “Svadba-Wedding” had its première in Toronto. Written and sung in the Serbian language with surtitles in English, “Svadba-Wedding” explores the theme of the girls’ night out before the wedding. It is the night before the wedding of Milica, the bride, and she is with her friends Lena, Danica, Nada, Zora and Ljubica. It is a story without narration. It is direct musical experience. It is the vibration of the human voice combined with emotion that produces an associative effect, creating the connection between the audience and the stage. There is no story-telling or description of anything. The exchange between the singers and the audience takes place on a deeper level, at the level which transcends the barriers of linguistic communication. Those in the audience who are not fluent in the Serbian language were not prejudiced in the wealth of impression.  

OT: When in your life did you realize that music was your vocation, and composing in particular and not playing an instrument or singing?

AS: I started to be involved with music when I was rather young. But before my parents enrolled me in a music school, I had been attending classical ballet school until the age of 7-8. That was my first contact with the stage. My elder sister started piano lessons. As a younger child I was naturally impressed by my sister and wanted to do everything she did, and so I had to play piano too. When I was seven I started music school, and with  elementary school it became my regular schedule and my life. I believe that it is important to discover things that you like early in life. As I started music school it soon turned out that I was lacking the discipline for regular practice. It was a sign that I was not cut out for the career of musician-performer. My lack of discipline and desire to practise was obvious to everyone and I was criticized for that. But my teacher Davorka Šperac-Polojac, who still teaches in Serbia, did not state the obvious. I used to come to music school before the class began, and Ms. Šperac-Polojac would give me a key to the classroom to go there and warm up for the class. I found it boring to use that time to practice performing the piece by repeating it. Instead, I would change something each time I played it. I would change the tempo or tonality, or add some wrinkles that would occur to me at the spur of the moment. Instead of criticizing me like everyone else, my teacher encouraged me with the words that it may be I am cut out for the most creative career in music – composing.

At that time I was already composing without quite being aware of the process. I would sit at the piano and start playing. That way I created a hymn for the school, a hymn for my class. These were simple harmonies and I was not writing notes or anything. It would just come out. It was rather early in my musical education that I discovered a bent towards modern composers, usually disliked among very young students of music.

The second important influence at the outset of my encounter with art and the creative process started when I was in Grade 3 of elementary school, when my father enrolled me in drama classes held at the City of Belgrade community program for elementary schoolchildren (Dom Pionira). I was privileged to be the student of an exceptional pedagogue Ms. Zora Bokšan, who was probably the most remarkable drama teacher for young students. She was not making “actors” of us. Through drama practice she was teaching us to learn how to express ourselves in an eloquent way. With various exercises of spoken words, movements, improvisations, and mime she inspired our imaginations. She did not impose anything or proclaim any rules how it is supposed to be done. She was ushering us into our own creative expression by maintaining an open and receptive attitude. She was a great inspirational force, and my love for the theatre and the sense of structure were established in that period. I was her student until the beginning of high school, and continued to work with Ms. Zora Bokšan as her assistant, helping her with the mise-en-scenè, and composing music for her classes. In essence, that period was an introduction to the creative process in general, which I believe can be applied to any creative field.

When I came to university to study composition, the teachers to whom I was indebted were Mr. Dušan Radić and Mr. Zoran Erić, and I want to mention them as the teachers who made a lasting impact on my formation as a composer. From the influences that I felt relevant for my development I would  mention Igor Stravinsky, especially his sense of rhythm and the way he was influenced by traditional Slavic folk music. The music of György Ligeti was another important impression. Ligeti was a Hungarian Jew who lived in Germany. The music of Ligeti reached its broadest audience through the films of Stanley Kubrick such as  “The Shining”, “Odyssey 2001” and his last film “Eyes Wide Shut”.  

At the time the trumpets of the civil war in, what we now call, the Former Yugoslavia were playing high C, Ana became a student in Montreal in a graduate program at the University of Montreal. She was in the class of José Evangelista, a teacher of Spanish descent. Ana remembers one of the first conversations with her professor upon admission to the program:

AS:When the professor asked me what I would like to do. I was surprised. Contrary to the mandatory program method where everything is structured into lectures, assignments and exams, with precisely defined requirements, it was an approach which directed the student to turn to himself. It was reminiscent of the method I encountered in my drama school. I wanted to write music for ballet. At the concerts within the graduate program I was receiving compliments for my pieces, in which my colleagues recognized  “Slavic soul”. I did not have any particular intention to express my “Slavic soul” so I wondered what it was that they heard in my music. Where was my Slavic soul in the music I made? I started to explore and research my cultural ethnic heritage. Elements of Serbian life are definitely part of my artistic atelier but in that atelier there are other influences as well, from other places and other sources.

OT: The opera “Svadba-Wedding” is your third opera. Before that you wrote “Midnight Court”, which was also premiered in Toronto. Are you writing more often music for voices or instruments? Do you have a special affinity towards a particular form?

AS: I like diversity. So far I have composed for solo voice, for two instruments, for trio, whole orchestra, string quartet, etc. It is in diversity of form that I find challenge. I like, when I finish something, to start something completely different. I also like to look for a humorous note within the assignment. I am interested in exploring archetypal images and characters, discovering that which is universal in human experience and emotion.

OT: What is your first opera “Midnight Court” about?

AS: It is a musical satire with erotic elements inspired by a Brian Merriman poem. It is a story of the year 1780, but it sounds as if it were written yesterday. Archetypes of human characters are eternal. The action takes place in a period of many hardships in Ireland. War, famine and emigration decimated the population of Ireland. A young bachelor, a school-teacher in his thirties, is traveling through a forest. He sits down to have lunch and falls asleep. In his dream he is accused of a crime of being a bachelor. As the prosecutor’s witnesses appear various women: young, old, rich, poor, beautiful and ugly. When the verdict finds him guilty as charged and condemned to flogging, he wakes up. The originality and force of  Ana’s first operatic piece delighted audience and critics alike.

Irish fairies can be malign spirits, but they’ve done nothing but good for Queen of Puddings Music Theatre. This small Toronto company launched its only production of the season at Harbourfront Centre on Saturday, and a scant hour later had scored its biggest artistic success ever. The Globe and Mail

The direction was pacy, and there was much high-quality singing and playing under the direction of Dáirine Ní Mheadhra …The sounds themselves … are constantly being deconstructed and recomposed by the other performers. This is a technique that harks back at least as far as Stockhausen in the Sixties, and it is often used today in the esoteric branch of composition known as ‘spectral music’. But I have rarely heard it applied so entertainingly and resourcefully in a stage work. The London Times

OT: “Svadba-Wedding” is the fourth joint project with the Queen of Puddings Music Theatre, and your third  opera. How did it come about that you decided to compose your second and third opera?

AS: After the opera Midnight Court came the next opera project with the Queen of Puddings Music Theatre. The Love Songs is a mono opera, written for one female voice. It was first performed at the Canadian Opera Company in March 2008, after which time it toured nationally and internationally. Among other places it was performed  at the small stage of the Lisinski concert hall during 25 Music Biennale in Zagreb. It is about love in different stages and ages of life. It includes poetry of Michael Hartnett, Paul Éluard, Émile Nelligan, Vasko Popa, Miroslav Antic, Laza Kostic, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Shakespeare, Catullus, Walt Whitman and Amarusataka, and the words of love are expressed in hundred languages. The idea for the third opera Svadba-Wedding  came out when I accepted the offer to compose a piece for six female voices, I wanted to combine something that is universal and joyful. That is how the idea for girls’ night out before the wedding arose. The influence of my ethnic heritage, my “Slavic soul”, was not limited to the influence of folk music. That influence is drawn from many sources: embroidery, tapestry, the sounds of the Serbian language, and also characters of certain mythic or historical personalities. The Serbian lyric mediæval poetry is extraordinary. There is little direct reference to love, it is hinted at in a subdued way. The characters of mythic or historical characters are inspiration in itself. For example, Little Radojica, although tortured in a Turkish dungeon, sighs when he sees the girl Hajkuna dancing. My native language has a strong rhythmical quality. The sounds of the spoken consonants in Serbian language “p”, “v”, “f”, “r”, if you pronounce them at a different pace it almost amounts to singing. The idea of “Svadba-Wedding” draws inspiration from an ancient right of passage and separation. Milica is any bride in any time/place. It is a departure from one part of life and initiation into something new and unknown. There is joy and excitement but also certain sadness and hesitancy. It is a wealth of emotions densely packed in one moment, emotions that are universal.

OT: When you compose, for example when you were composing this opera, do you see the piece as a final product on the stage?

AS: I must have a complete picture. It is not the one and only possible picture and it is not quite finished, but the creative process demands a certain relationship towards the whole for it to make sense on the stage. Michael Cavanagh, who directed “Svadba-Wedding”, told me that he noticed remarkable synchronicity between the music material and staging. But Michael did not have the same vision as I did in relation to costume and light. His take on this is quite legitimate and I believe that there are many ways how this opera could be staged. I deliberately did not want to influence his vision, so when I arrived at the dress rehearsal is I was pleased that he recognized the emotion and drew into the forefront its universality, but he did it in his own way. Of course we discussed certain solutions related to the transition from one scene to another.

OT: What are you doing now?

AS: I am working on a piece for string quartet inspired by Comeddia del Arte characters which includes one male dancer. I love to write for ballet. It was my first encounter with the stage and it is ballet which often draws me to compose pieces for the stage. I consider myself very fortunate that I do not have to look for the production teams who will consider my music. I am commissioned to write more than I can accomplish and for an artist there is no greater fortune. I also like to work within a given framework, It gives me a necessary guiding structure. If I were asked to write something undefined it would be very difficult for me to start.

This summer I will be a guest composer at the music academy in Orford, Quebec during the summer festival. I will give a master class of the summer school and we will perform four concerts. This year is the 60th anniversary of Orford and I composed a hymn which will be played before every concert. It is written for the piano, for the string orchestra, string quartet, symphony orchestra,  and for seven violas da Gamba.

OT: How does it feel to be in the middle of all this?

 AS: I am so happy and busy that I do not even think about it. Sometimes when I read something written about me, for a moment I think–how wonderful, and I am almost surprised— is it really me!?


‘T was the night before a wedding…

June 28, 2011

It was a jolting surprise to hear that the world première of an opera sung in the Serbian language will take place in Toronto. The opera Svadba – Wedding (svadba in Serbian means wedding), written for 6 female singers (no instruments), is composed by Ana Sokolović, an acclaimed native Serbian, and a Canadian contemporary composer now residing in Quebec. Ms. Sokolović was born in Belgrade, where she studied composition. She received a Master’s Degree at the University of Montreal, the city she decided to make her home. Her outstanding talent as a composer has been recognized by critical acclaim, numerous awards and prizes both in Canada and internationally. Her creative collaboration with the Queen of Puddings Music Theatre resulted in the production of her first opera, The Midnight Court Opera”. A year after it was premiered in Toronto 2005, it was performed at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. Svadba-Wedding is her second opera, which premiered on 24 June 2011, at the Berkeley Street Theatre, again in Toronto.

It appears that the singers enjoyed taking part in the experimental playfulness of this opera in spite of the tough learning task with the densely packed consonants and pronunciation of archaic Serbian texts. Jacqueline Woodley appeared in the role of the bride-to-be, Milica, Carla Huhtanen as Zora, Andrea Ludwig as Nada, Shannon Mercer as Danica, and Krisztina  Szabó as Ljubica.

Commissioned by the Queen of Puddings Music Theatre to compose a piece for 6 female singers, Ms. Sokolović, guided by a wish for creating a joyful and universal human context which would fit the initial requirement, ventured into her ethnic heritage researching love songs, medieval epic and lyrical folk poems. From this starting point her research expanded into the exploration of the rhythmic quality of the Serbian language, combining the experimental sounds of rolling pebbles, stirred ice cubes in a glass, with soprano voices. Those loosely connected sound and visual vignettes resonate with the vibration of universal human experience embedded in the archetypal images and rites of initiation.

Svadba is a story without a narrative. It is a direct musical experience. It is a vibration that connects the stage with the audience. It is human voice which reconciles by itself and within itself sound and emotion on a level we all share. The exchange between the performers and the audience takes place on a profound level, which overcomes the barrier of linguistic communication.

In many cultures it is a tradition that a bride spend her last night before the wedding at her home accompanied by her girlfriends in preparation to be initiated into the adulthood of married life. They sing and talk and play together while helping their friend to prepare for one of the most important days of her life. A wedding, in the Serbian folk tradition, is a collective experience. Incorporated into Christianity, the pagan rites and superstitious  customs  survived and retained prominent place in the Serbian folklore calendar, revolving around fairies, spirits of the water and forest, dragons, and other out-of-this-world invisible beings. The rich ethnic Slavic heritage includes not only poetry and music but also tapestry, embroidery and dance, which in their synergy are the inspirational force behind the Svadba-Wedding opera.

The Berkeley theatre was just the perfect size for a full enjoyment of the vocal acrobatics this opera abounds with. Costume and set designer Michael Gianfrancesco came up with flattering sensual outfits, leaving out the time/space specifications and emphasizing the universal quality brought up by the composer. Stage director Michael Cavanagh connected the dots in this opera of a yet unclassified genre with spirited intelligible charm.

It occurred to me that this opera may be staged in so many different ways. Calixto Bieito would  bring up a completely different flavour by staging the bride’s girls’ night before the wedding, for example, in a strip club with male dancers.