“It Has to Have a Life of Its Own”

BELGRADE, SERBIA—So I may sound like something of a heathen but I have never really been a huge fan of contemporary classical music. Last spring, a friend and I went to a concert of Estonian contemporary classical music in London  and most of the stuff sounded to me like a bunch of notes—fairly incongruous—put together to make noise. So on a trip to Belgrade this week, I jumped at the chance to interview one of Serbia’s most promising up and coming young composers, Ana Gnjatovic to get a better understanding of this musical genre.

Born in 1984 in Belgrade, Gnjatovic is a composer, performer and concert organizers who focuses much of her work on composing pieces influenced by visual practices. Currently working on her PhD, Gnjatovic has won numerous awards for her work (which includes everything from symphony, chamber and string orchestra pieces) including a commission from the Milan based music ensemble, Sentieri Selvaggi, during their 2009 Musica Leggiera season and was the 2005 prizewinner at the International Summer Academy Prague-Vienna-Budapest for her piece “Canvas.” She has also worked with numerous composers including George Aperghis, Richard Ayers, Ivan Fedele and Julia Wolfe and has had her pieces performed in places including Holland, Austria, Denmark and Germany. She is the co-founder and executive producer of the KoMA festival (Concert of Young Authors) held annually in December in Belgrade. We sat down over coffee in Belgrade to talk about her career and what it means to be a young composer of contemporary classical music.


Did you always know you wanted to be a musician?

When I was little, we had an old piano my mom used to play and I started to play. I wanted to play cello when I was little but piano was already there. But I kind of hated it.


I loved lessons but I really hated practicing [laughs]. I started in high school studying music theory. I did that out of spite because my piano teacher did not want me to go on with the music. But then I really loved my high school and I think from the second year, I knew I wanted to study but was not sure what. I decided on composition. So if I had failed my entrance exam [to university] I think I would have never done it again. When I was 17, it was all or nothing for me.

Such a cheesy question but who are your influences? How do you describe what you compose?

I think they call it contemporary classical or contemporary art music. I guess it is influenced by lots of styles. I cannot really compare it to anything but I can tell you I like to listen to everything from Beethoven to Gyorgy Ligeti on one side and everything up to Zappa. So it is pretty diverse.

ana-cello-1I cannot imagine what it is like to compose. I assume that it’s a bit like the process of writing but instead of letters it’s notes.

I compose for various ensembles. I compose for symphony orchestra because I have to do it; it is part of my exam. And also chamber music and since I occasionally sing, I am interested in composing for voice. My PhD is about extended techniques of vocalization and voice with electronics. Sometimes I use other music as inspiration. I am kind of a visual type, which may be a bit weird. So, for instance for inspiration I like to think about elements like lines and dots and then try to translate that into music.

How do you do that?

I think that is one of the occupational hazards, when people try to translate a lot of things in music. To hear music where there is none. Like how sounds on the street relate to each other.  And I just try to become aware of it and use it. I do not want it to be a distraction when I cross the street though. [laughs]. So I try to read an interesting poster or see a painting to think of the elements of how it could translate. It is not literal but think maybe like how, for example,  a long line could be turned into a long tone. It’s kind of abstract like relations between elements. Something that is moving and something that is still.


A lot of young people want to be musicians but more in terms of rock, pop or rap. Are there are lot of young contemporary classical composers at the moment in Serbia?

Not in terms of composers. The contemporary scene is not that developed but I think things are getting better. But, for example, violin players who are studying for their undergraduate degree could go through their whole studies never playing a single piece of contemporary classical music. And there are not so many contemporary classical music events.


There is never a lot of funding. But it is just not here. There is never enough funding for classical music altogether, or for arts in general. But contemporary classical music is not part of the programs. You have to find additional funding, to put something new in the repertoire. That becomes a problem more and more.

Is that why you co-founded KoMA?

A friend and I started it when I was in my second year of undergrad and we wanted to have something, one place, where students’ music is played. And luckily it still has funding and still goes on year after year. Last year there were four concerts and 20 premiers and it was really nice to hear a lot of different music from young people, even those who are only starting out. The whole idea behind the festival was to actually have contact with living sound, not just to try things out on paper.

ana3How do you know if something you write is good? Do you have moments when you question pieces you have composed?

I think it is a similar process to writing. We usually like to mystify things somehow, but it is just work. Sometimes you write something and you think, “This is really good.” And then you go back to it the next day and you realize it just doesn’t work. Maybe it is just one element but sometimes it is all just crap. It does happen.

So it’s a moveable feast. It shifts, grows and changes?

Yes, that happens to a lot of people between projects. They start a piece and then they go back to it after a month and you have 30 different dreams and then you see your piece and you think, “I remember it but sometimes it feels like this someone else’s music.” Like, I did this? It does not feel like your own.


Ever had a piece you put aside and then switched around totally?

I think 90% of composers do it. Not just rearrange it but takes bits out of it that I think might work in different pieces. Sometimes even really old pieces. And then I make something different of it. I think it is a process, to constantly go back to something. Somehow improving it. Changing it.

When do you finally say, “That’s it—that is the best it can be.”

Well, [conductor] Pierre Boulaise said that his pieces will only be finished with his biological end. For me, it is the moment of performance. But the piece itself is what it is is. For me, at that point it has its own life. I have to finish it sometime.

2nd photo courtesy of Deen van de Meer, 3rd photo courtesy of anagnjatovic.com