The Mac Dowell Colony Newsletter Peaceful Measures, 2008
Composer Aleksandra Vrebalov interviewed by Brendan Tapley
Five years ago Aleksandra Vrebalov, a Serbian composer who now lives in New York, formed a collective with five other composers called the South Oxford Six. Their name — slightly infamous-sounding — is fitting. Under the guidance of Vrebalov, the group decided to put its artistic energies into political action by connecting American composers and students with Serbian audiences and creating music that fused he two. Hoping to “decentralize the Serbian culture” and reconcile the resentments for the NATO countries that bombed the former Yugoslavia in 1999, Vrebalov says her activist plan, now government funded, aimed for “a higher form of exchange that is spiritual in nature.” Art and art organizations, she believes, tend to “fix things governments do.” The sincerity and altruism of Vrebalov’s newfound mission is affecting. Above and beyond that mission, what she seems most passionate about is the unique way art invites critical introspection into human life, that same introspection that guides conscience, empathy, and the ability to understand — three traits that might diminish a great deal of conflict, personal or international. Though music is the means and result of the collective, it seems that introspection is the goal of the exchange program. In this confrontation with the self, art becomes a handmaiden of humanitarianism. It is a formula Vrebalov bases on her own life: “Being away from my country and becoming more rooted in this one gives me enough insecurity to question things,” she says. “And when you have to redefine your identity, you also have a strong urge to understand your origins, your place.” And the origins and place of others. We spoke to the composer recently about her work.
What do you believe the link is between art and political reconciliation?
I believe that there is a homo politcus in each of us, so creating, for me, is in part a way to respond to the social environment and to deal with events and emotions specific to the moment. In the arts, we have a luxury of creating worlds in which real-life tensions and dramas become abstractions, available to us to mold and manipulate. In that imagined, staged world, we can relive hatred, loss, shame, humiliation, with enough distance to recognize them as universal and shared across the war lines. And this is how we humanize those who are, according to our governments, our enemies. From the moment we realize we share that humanness, we are more open for acceptance and compassion, and eventually for reconciliation.
What about the Serbian conflict inspired you to take up this artistic challenge?
Coming from a place like Serbia, where it has been impossible to separate individual identity and destiny from the collective one — because of events such as the totalitarianism of Milosevic’s regime, nationalism at its extreme, and several wars — writing music turned out to be a way to process and cope with what has been going on for all of us over there.
So this has shown up in your own work?
Yes. In the specific case of … hold me, neighbor, in this storm … [Vrebalov’s work, which premiered at Carnegie Hall in March 2008], I wanted to merge musical languages of two antagonistic ethnic groups (Serbs and Albanians) and create a world in which they can coexist and complement each other. The challenge was to use the elements of their individual identities, such as religious symbols and ethnic instruments, and to fuse them, wed them, in a union impossible otherwise. Therefore, the powerful attributes of both Serbian and Albanian nationalism, which over the years had fueled a dark passion to exclude, become in the piece just the opposite: the binding, structural elements of a rather striking union in music.
In terms of your exchange program, what specifically have you detected about how art can heal those you’ve worked with?
We do not cry because music is sad, we cry because there is sadness in us, helped by music. So, art has its ways — subtle, yet direct; irrational, yet steeped in our most concrete experiences — and when we are exposed to it in a ritual of performance, we know we are protected by boundaries of that ritual. We feel safe and open to emotions.
Do you think governments, political systems of any kind, would benefit from enlisting art in conflict?
In an ideal world of responsible governments, reaching out to artists and intellectuals would be a part of the prevention of conflict rather than post-conflict reconciliation. The benefits would be about inclusion and treating “the other” as an equal partner in keeping the peace, rather than a threat. So, government-supported cultural programs could contribute to a better mutual understanding of groups. In real life, however, it is a super-sensitive issue, and a very problematic one. Art’s power, I believe, lies in an artist’s readiness to deal with intimate concerns and views on the world that, in the process of creation, exclude the public and certainly exclude governments. So, as an artist, I want to distance myself from my government and to counteract its doings by creating ways of dealing with political crisis. Art in the hands of government can be in danger of becoming a defender of ideology. Depending on the political agenda, it can be equally effective in both propelling the conflict and helping the process of reconciliation.
Aleksandra Vrebalov has written chamber, vocal, orchestral, and ballet music. She has received honors and commissions from Carnegie Hall, the American Academy of Arts and Letters, Barlow Endowment, Merkin Hall, Kronos Quartet, and Festival Ballet Providence, among others. Her residencies include The MacDowell Colony, Rockefeller Bellagio Center, Tanglewood Music Center, Other Minds, and American Opera Projects.
Peaceful Measures, 2008
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