It’s Gaudeamus Muziekweek, and as part of the festival I’m conducting on-stage ‘meet the composer’ interviews with the five nominees for the Gaudeamus award for young composers. Every day this week (and in alphabetical order) I’m also posting my own short introduction to each composer here. Once they’re published, you’ll be able to find them all under this blog’s Gaudeamus 2017 tag.
Today is the turn of Ivan Vukosavljević.
Compared to his fellow nominees, Serbian composer Ivan Vukosavljević is a bit of mystery. He doesn’t have a website, and biographical information is not easy to find. Here’s a little of what I’ve been able to stitch together. He was born in 1986 and studied first at the University of Arts in Belgrade, before moving to The Hague in 2014 to study at the Royal Conservatory; he lives there still. His works have been performed by, among others, The Hague’s Ensemble Klang and Belgrade’s Ensemble Metamorphosis. In 2015 his The Sly Reeds was developed and performed by Emulsion Ensemble as part of the Cheltenham Music Festival’s Composer Academy.
Fortunately, Vukosavljević’s music is easier to come by, although this doesn’t mean it’s easy to pin down either. For his Gaudeamus portrait he speaks of creating works from single sounds, which are explored to their fullest. ‘Small, “unwanted” sounds’ blown up to the scale of works. He also applies a rigorously unified conception: ‘I never introduce something mid-piece that has nothing to do with what’s been going on. Everything that happens comes from something that happened before.’
Minimalism is a clear influence. Yet while Drill for two pianos recalls the neo-romantic drama and energy of Adams’ Phrygian Gates, Vukosavljević frequently takes his music to darker, more ambiguous places. Trills, Spills & Bellyaches (the first Happy Mondays-inspired new music title I’ve encountered) adds more aggressive attacks and crunching, distorted dissonances to similar material. Guitars again!
Other pieces are still more monolithic in nature, dropping the rhythmic pulse almost entirely to focus on prising open their initiating ‘small sounds’. The Atlas Slave, Vukosavljević’s nominated piece, builds from the sound of guitar strings bowed on the instrument’s neck and to the left of the fingers. Out of this he draws spectral-like wind chords and percussive trills that roll in like clouds. His inspiration is Michelangelo’s idea of the ‘non-finito’, of leaving part of a sculpture unfinished, so that it appears captured in the moment of its emergence from the raw stone. Vukosavljević’s piece steps a similar line between poetry and its base material.
As Dragana Stojanović-Novičić has shown in her chapter in The Ashgate Research Companion to Minimalist and Postminimalist Music, minimalism has been a presence in Serbian music since the mid-1970s, emerging from longer-established tendencies towards reductionism among some composers and a rebellion against the officially approved neo-classicism taught at the Belgrade Music Academy. Deeper examination of this history is a subject for another post, but I hear in such works a more complex, ambivalent relationship to Western musical history than in the music of Glass or Reich. Something of that ambivalence has passed into Vukosavljević’s music, which carries within it a delicious tension between emptiness and plenitude, reminiscent I think of the dark nostalgia of Kancheli or Terterian.