Saturday, January 1, 2011

An Interview with Ivan Elezovic / Tom Moore

Ivan Elezovic has produced a successful body of work in electronic and acoustic music. He was born and raised in Serbia, but went onto do university study in Canada. His training included study at McGill University with the noted Argentinean-Canadian composer Alcides Lanza. We spoke by Skype on April 5, 2010.

MOORE: You are from the “former Yugoslavia.” Where were you born and raised? Was there music in the family?

ELEZOVIC: I was born in Belgrade, Serbia. Music education in Europe is quite different from what I have seen in my experiences in Canada and the United States. If you want to enter undergraduate studies in any music field, first you must go through elementary music school, which lasts for six years, and then music high school, which lasts for four years, so there are ten years of school training before anyone can actually apply to enter as an undergraduate. I studied as an accordion player, and that is how I completed my elementary school in Belgrade. After that, before I entered music high school, I added piano as well, so I have two primary instruments. Regarding my family, no one in the immediate family was a musician. My grandmother had musical talent, but never was active as a professional. I was the first one in the family to pursue a musical career.

MOORE: How did you happen to choose the accordion? How old were you at the time?

ELEZOVIC: I was about ten years old. I liked listening to records when I was a kid, and used to sing along. My grandmother noticed, and talked to my parents. She said “Why don’t you send your child to a music school, to see what he can do?” My mother took me to the school, and I passed the entrance exam.

MOORE: What records were you listening to?

ELEZOVIC: Franz Liszt, Dallapiccola, some domestic popular music – rock and roll and pop. Then I started listening to blues, as well. It was an education experience of figuring out what was going on out there.

MOORE: In the United States, the accordion has a strong association with particular genres of music – polka, music from Eastern Europe. Are there particular types of music with which it is associated in Serbia?

ELEZOVIC: I was playing classical music on the accordion. There is a different conception of studying accordion in Europe. In Europe classical study of the accordion is well-developed. The good schools are in Germany and in France, and in the rest of Europe, where playing accordion is not based on folk music (though it can be used in folk music as well). There are many composer and arrangers for accordion. Bach preludes and fugues can sound amazingly good on accordion, because every single pitch can be perfectly controlled with respect to duration. I played no folk music at all on the accordion, and when I came to Canada to do my undergraduate studies, people were expecting me to play polkas or something along those lines.

MOORE: How did you start to listen to blues?

ELEZOVIC: One of my friends gave me various recordings of blues singers. One of them was a British musician, Gary Moore. I couldn’t find his records in Serbia, and made a trip to the Czech Republic to buy some.

MOORE: How did you come to do your undergraduate studies in Manitoba?

ELEZOVIC: I wanted to study with Dr. Michael Matthews, who was teaching at the University of Manitoba at the time, and wanted to write music, but I knew that I needed an education to do that, since until that point I had been a performer. In 1992 I came to Canada, to Winnipeg, and passed the entrance exam in 1993 and started studying composition and electronic music, along with music theory.

MOORE: When and how did you decide to move to composition?

ELEZOVIC: When I came to Canada, I took a year off, and questioned everything about how I wanted to continue my music career. I had always wanted to express myself, and the language of expression was music.

MOORE: What sort of music were you studying at that time? Which composers were you listening to?

ELEZOVIC: Dr. Matthews was responsible for introducing me to twentieth-century music and various styles that I had not been aware of until that point. He also opened the door to electronic music and electro-acoustic music. I had known the music of Jean-Michel Jarre, but using computers to compose classical music was something very new to me. I was very interested in this. Dr. Matthews also influence my compositional styles. He made a point of introducing his students to as much twentieth-century music as possible, which gave me a great background. I will never forget arriving at the electronic music studio at the University of Manitoba. I was amazed by a program called Sound Designer. I was excited to visually see the sounds on the screen, the samples and sound waves. At that point Sound Designer was cutting edge. There were also additional pieces of hardware which were necessary. He also introduced me to Max, which is based on the programming language C++. At that point it was not MSP, like today, but only Max.

MOORE: Then you moved on McGill.

ELEZOVIC: For me it was a logical place for continuing my studies of composition. I had already heard of Alcides Lanza while at Manitoba, and Dr. Matthews suggested it was a place that would work well for me. By now Alcides Lanza is a legend – a very famous Argentinean/Canadian composer. I wanted to learn about graphic notation, and to be able to write my electronic music scores visually. In my first year of my master’s studies, Alcides said that he could not teach me to compose, but that he could give me tools to keep me interested, and which I could take in any direction that I chose. I will never forget those words. I was shocked at the time, but I soon realized that it was a very truthful statement.

MOORE: Perhaps you could say a little more about his pedagogy. You were working with him on electronic music, I take it.

ELEZOVIC: Electronic music and acoustic music as well. Alcides was very open to experimentation. We had a very good studio on the top floor of the McGill University Faculty of Music, and I continued working with Max MSP and music sequencing software. I should also mention Professor Zack Settel, who studied at IRCAM, and who came to McGill to teach classes in music technology. I took a number of classes with him. The combination of study with Alcides Lanza and Zack Settel opened me to new ideas. From that point on, my pieces were targeting particular media. I had enough tools to be able to compose successfully in both the acoustic and electronic domains. Whether a piece would be acoustic or electroacoustic would depend what the best way was to develop its particular ideas.

MOORE: Historically there has tended to be a divide between the people who work in electroacoustic music, and those who work in acoustic music, or as they used to say at Princeton, silicon-based and carbon-based music. Were there particular composers who seemed to be useful models for you in these areas?

ELEZOVIC: I do not necessarily see that we should make a distinction between composers of acoustic and electronic music. My decisions are based on the ideas before I actually sit down and start writing the music – that is what media will be the best for presenting and developing my ideas. As far as which composers are my favorites, they include Giacinto Scelsi, about whose music I wrote an article for the Journal for New Music and Culture regarding three-dimensional sound phenomena. I don’t have one favorite composer, but try to listen to various composers depending on what I am looking for – I am interested in the music rather than who wrote particular pieces. Every composer has pieces which are relatively successful and relatively unsuccessful. It is up to us as listeners to listen and to make those judgments.

MOORE: To go in a slightly different direction, perhaps you could think about what piece might represent your “opus one”, the first piece which you would list in your catalogue?

ELEZOVIC: That’s a very hard question to answer. It is extremely hard for me to judge my own music, and has always been a problem. In the process of writing I may think that the piece will be successful in various ways, and receive a number of performances, but that is not always the case. And on the other hand, when I am not satisfied with my pieces, it turns out that they are well-understood and well-received, with multiple performances. So I try to stay away from those kinds of judgments. With each new work I am approaching a different method. I am always trying to find new conceptual goals for my music, and comparing my pieces is difficult because each piece stands on its own. I like to thing about a completed piece as a world which is already closed, and with every new piece I am moving to the next step.

MOORE: I see composers using two competing approaches to building a piece, one a more architectural approach, in which the structure comes from an over-arching shape, with the details filled in later, or the latter a more narrative approach, where the shape comes from the level of the details upwards. Which approach would you take?

ELEZOVIC: For every piece, before I start, I have an initial idea. If that idea is complete or not is a separate issue, but to me every piece is a puzzle, made up of smaller puzzles, which do not necessarily mean anything when we take a puzzle in our hand, but by putting together two, three, five, ten puzzles, we start creating something. Whether that something is going to be the beginning, or middle, or ending of the piece is a very different story. I try to limit myself in those situations. The hardest thing for me is to pick which bits are going to be fine in designing my piece. Once I make those decisions my piece will grow from the core, which is the basic idea of the piece, which may be made up of a couple of those small puzzles, and which will eventually grow to make the entire picture. In that sense, I can say that the work grows organically. For the past four or five years, this was the most common approach for me. I also sometimes try to do something different, that I have not tried before. I wrote a lot of small exercises, which really helped me to figure out how well I can write a piece based on different approaches at the beginning. There are some interesting solutions that I came up with, and I plan to save them for future use in generating pieces.

MOORE: Rather like a Beethoven bagatelle.

ELEZOVIC: Yes. I am always thinking about listeners, and how many ways that people can listen to and hear and understand my music. I am still surprised by some of the comments that I get, when they mention that they have heard something that I really had not thought of at all. I am very interested to learn about how they understand and perceive my music. Those comments are very important for me to think about how to structure my next piece.

MOORE: Could you talk about “Mediterranean-Riots-Colors”? That was a commission for the Atlantic Center for the Arts, and seems to have been very successful since then, with performances, or I suppose one might say, showings at other festivals of electroacoustic music?

ELEZOVIC: First of all, it’s a multimedia, audiovisual piece. It’s one of the first pieces in which I connected audio and visual media. Both have basically equal importance throughout the piece. When I went to various festivals, some of the multimedia pieces that I saw were basically video pieces, with the audio portion simply a supplement, or vice versa. My idea was to devote equal attention to both, which is very challenging. Since I come from Southeastern Europe, and from the Balkans, I think that I owed it to myself to dedicate something to that geographic area. That area is very beautiful, but also very turbulent. The title makes this clear. Within the piece I tried to cover various social, political and economic issues which surround Mediterranean countries and life there. A lot of people and composers from North America recognize that, whether from personal experience, whether from traveling to the area, or from reading, and I think that part of the reason why the piece was successful was not only the compositional approach, but also the subject matter that I tried to expose.

MOORE: What presence does your background, your nationality, your growing up in Serbia have on your work as a composer? Is there music you heard as a child, or cultural factors that are important in terms of expression?

ELEZOVIC: From time to time I will write a piece that is influenced by the area where I come from. For instance, I have a piece for two-channel CD that is based on the tambura, an instrument that is a sort of a cross between guitar and mandolin. The instrument is used in the music of the Balkan peninsula. The timbre of the instrument is very interesting, and I tried to explore various timbral possibilities in the piece. And of course “Mediterranean-Riots-Colors” is based on events which took place in the Balkans over the last fifteen years. Every new piece brings new ideas. Influence may not be something that I am aware of, but obviously I grew up there, so it had to leave some influences on me and my music.

MOORE: Could you talk about a recent piece, or a project that you are working on for this year or next year?

ELEZOVIC: The last piece that I completed, which had its world premiere at a new music festival at Palm Beach Atlantic University, in West Palm Beach, Florida, was “Between the Lines” for string quartet. I was very interested in exploring various processes which are constantly developing from the first measure to the last. I was also interested in the timbral possibilities which I explored for the various instruments. The idea was to use the string quartet because I believe that it still has many timbral possibilities that have not been explored. Future pieces which I will complete this summer include a piece for solo piano that I am writing for Misa Stojanovska, a great pianist that I met at a conference in Tallahassee, Florida last summer. In hearing her performance I was very excited about what she can do. I will be writing a piece for her which she can play at various festivals. I also want to get back to writing electronic music. My next piece will be a work for two-channel CD, where I will be doing some experiments regarding speech. For now I am planning to structure the piece around the speech of various people whom I will invite to the studio and record.

MOORE: You spent a year as a visiting professor teaching Western music in Thailand. How was that? Did you come away with ideas from Thai music that might have an effect on future pieces?

ELEZOVIC: My experience in Thailand was very valuable, first as a musician, and then as a composer. Culturally it was very interesting. I was reading a lot about Asia and Thailand before I went, and knew that I would be exposed to music that I had not experienced before. Living there was a composition lesson that lasted for an entire year. I tried to meet a lot of composers, and get a view into their way of writing music, their stylistic approach. First of all, they have a lot of instruments which we do not know much about, or do not study. Not only that – they are not so interested in intervals or modes, but are more focused on the inner life of the actual sound. The music is based around a lot of improvisation. That sense of freedom was very interesting to me, but the composers actually leave blank measures where the performers are supposed to act as composers by improvising and adding to the things that the composer structured initially. These issues led me to think about my own music. I like to explain everything, to be very precise, to be as precise as possible. But perhaps I should think about allowing my performers to control the music in various ways, so I am wondering about how those pieces might look, and how they might sound.