Back To The Roots

All-Vrebalov concert in Sombor, Serbia, June 6, 2019

Sombor – a beautiful town in northern Serbia. This is where most of my family comes from. Last names of my grandparents are Gucunja, Knezevic, Ferencevic, and Malesevic. My both parents went to school in Sombor before moving to Belgrade for college. As a child, I used to spend summers there with my maternal grandparents: playing barefoot in hot afternoons in front of the house with my little sister and other children, splashing water from a tiny end-of-the-street pump-well, sitting with adults in the warm summer evenings and listening to their stories, breathing in the scent of flowers of my grandmother’s balcony, picking up gigantic watermelons at the market with my grandfather, waking up to the sound of neighbors’ pigeons being released for the morning flight.

My father’s mother Vera Gucunja was a pre-war communist. She died in the revolution and there’s a bust in Sombor’s main park celebrating her heroism.

In 2007, my maternal grandmother was still alive. I wanted to spend as much time with her as possible and I wished I could bring in my friends, musicians and composers, to experience the creative, carefree power of Sombor summers. So between 2007 and 2011, I put together Summer in Sombor, a week long composition workshop with the South Oxford Six composers’ collective that I co-founded in 2002 in New York City. Kala Pierson, Daniel Sonnenberg, Mike Rose and Ed Ficklin would join me in Sombor to make music for five summers. The workshop facilitated the creation of over fifty new works by young composers from Europe and the USA. We lived together for a week, made music, played concerts, talked about creativity and values. In the evenings we swam in the canal, ate fish paprikash, and had most inspiring discussions.

Kala Pierson, Daniel Sonnenberg, Michael Rose, Aleksandra Vrebalov, Sombor 2007

Sombor has always been about art. Some of the most significant figures from country’s culture come from Sombor: poet Laza Kostic, composer Petar Konjovic, painter Milan Konjovic who was a family friend, painter Dragan Stojkov, Zvonko Bogdan whose singing of traditional songs is iconic throughout the region. Those who have lived in our time – we would visit them in their studios, see them in a cafe, or just wave on the main street. At those visits, as a kid, I would play piano in the dark, high-ceiling rooms absorbing vibes and stories like the one about Kazimir’s nagymama (grannie) taking piano lessons from Ferenc Liszt. I was five years old when I learned to play my first piano tune with both hands – that was in Sombor, in the house of my father’s best friend Kazimir, with his grandmother, Liszt’s student as the legend goes, sitting by me.

Portrait of Franz Liszt painted by my grandmother Vera Gucunja

It’s 2019. My mom and grandparents are long gone. I occasionally visit Veliko Groblje where they’re buried surrounded by family graves dating from 1700s. Living in New York City for almost 20 years I tend to forget how important death is in Serbian culture. In my childhood, paying a visit to the dead used to be an equally common and important segment of visits to Sombor as paying a visit to our living relatives. To the dead we would bring candles and flowers. The living would usually get flowers and chocolate or brandy.

Tonight, June 6, 2019, I will be in Sombor again, presenting an evening of my music at SOMUS, Sombor Music Festival. It is a full circle – music will be performed by the TAJJ Kvartet with who I have worked for twenty years now, and by pianist and old friend Mihajlo Zurkovic. The evening will be moderated by Ira Prodanov, a musicologist and a high school friend with her own family background from Sombor.

After the rehearsal, TAJJ Kvartet and Aleksandra Vrebalov.
Timea Kalmar cello, Aleksandra Krcmar violin, Jovanka Mazalica violina, Jelena Filipovic, viola

We’ll have a concert at the beautiful 200 seat National Theater where over the formative years I had seen unforgettable shows during the annual Sombor Theater Festival.

National Theater Sombor

It’s exciting to go back. There’s purpose in giving context to the present through the past — in the context of my family it is through ideas, values, intangible output rather than through our physical presence in Sombor. I like the idea of bringing sound, creativity and new people into this place of my roots. Thus there’s purpose in actualizing the past through the present, by creating continuity, bringing beauty, friendship, and a sense of belonging to the people in the audience tonight. Even though most of them might be strangers, they aren’t — we share in the Sombor lineage.

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Alice’s Chairs

On Chairs Alive! an installation by Alice Wingwall at Gualala Arts Center, May 2019

Alice’s chairs are of course – chairs alive.  Everything about and by Alice is filled with life – her laughter, colors of her wardrobe, her inquisitive ways, and her art.

Stepping into the lobby of Gualala Arts on Sunday felt like walking into a strange, eccentric world of seemingly disparate objects combined together.  It was a funny, mysterious, adventurous, busy, metaphysical, sturdy world – all at once.  If you know Alice, you know that chairs, gloves, cameras, shoes, clamps, guide dogs are all defining nouns.  Add architecture —especially images of iconic buildings carrying histories of humans creating beauty like museums and cathedrals, add reflective surfaces and crystals, add sky – you’re in Alice’s world.  It’s an abstract universe created by concrete elements of everyday life objects and imagery, and put together with precision and discipline.  Its multitudes of narratives are hard to define, yet they are obviously there and feel strangely familiar.    

There’s a stack of plastic chairs with clamps and yarn on them; there’s a series of photos of a floating chair in a pool, there are wooden hands resting on a chair, on one hand another tiny chair attached as a ring, there’s a chair with black large wings on it (Wingwal of course), chairs with shoes attached to them, or chairs resting on shoes, like they’re ready to take a walk, or take you for a walk.  

In the lobby of Gualala Arts Center all of them face in different directions, non-conforming to a point of view defined by the main entrance.  They ask a viewer to move in space, see them from multiple angles, come closer or bend over to not miss a detail.  More time one spends with them more there is to see.  The consistent use of elements (objects) throughout the exhibit establishes the vocabulary and depending on the context, a chair becomes a frame, a container, a vehicle, a throne, an invitation, or a portal to some other place.  

As I walked among them and read the descriptions that always involve snippets of memories of places and people surrounding the creation, Alice was guiding Donlyn in how to reposition one of the objects.  He would move it, describe the result, Alice would edit further, Donlyn would move it again, describe the new result, and that went on for a while.  

The exchange I observed brought a realization profound in its simplicity – Beethoven didn’t need to hear sounds of the physical world around him to write the most iconic pieces of his last opus.  He heard them IN himself before making them available to others’ ears.  In a work of art what we see as spectators is created by inner vision of the artist, and in Alice’s art that vision is entirely independent from the external, physical aspect of seeing. The translation from inner vision to what we (get to) see is what excites me about her chairs.  These alive chairs have existed in a world encumbered by physical reality of gravity (that’s why they sometimes float in the air too), size, weight, purpose; seeing how they translate to the physical world is as beautiful as it is striking, especially considering the consistency of the language within which the translation happens.

Alice Wingwall: Garden Party Preview, 2013 (from Wingwall’s website)

The Sea Ranch, CA, May 15, 2019

More on Alice Wingwall here: http://www.alicewingwall.com/work.html

World Premieres This Spring

Here they are, premieres of six works March through May 2019!

March 7 – 9 The Laughing Garden (2019) with Dusan Tynek Dance Theater. Choreography by Dusan Tynek. Prepared piano four hands, wooden flutes, vocalizing – Aleksandra Vrebalov and Luciano Chessa. Baruch PAC, New York City. For more on this collaboration see here: https://aleksandravrebalov.music.blog/2019/03/03/the-laughing-garden/

April 6 Pianist Dale Tsang premiering INDIGO CODES (2019) at the San Francisco Conservatory, as part of Ensemble For These Times Film Noir concert, San Francisco, CA. More on this concert: https://sfcm.edu/performance-calendar/event/film-noir-project.

April 7 English National Ballet – Dance Journeys, The Uncharted (2019), Sadler’s Wells, choreography by Malgorzata Dzierzon and Renaud Wiser, music by Aleksandra Vrebalov, Orlando Jopling conducting, London, UK. The piece is inspired by female pioneers across fields throughout history.

Dance Journeys, English National Ballet – recording session with the Royal College of Music Junior Department, composer Aleksandra Vrebalov, conductor Orlando Jopling

April 14 Raleigh Civic Symphony Orchestra with Peter Askim conducting the world premiere of OUR VOICES (2019), Raleigh, NC. This 25 minute piece commemorates the centennial of women’s suffrage in the United States. More on this work here: https://aleksandravrebalov.music.blog/2019/04/02/our-voices/

May 9-12 Abraham in Flames (2019), two act chamber opera with Young Women Choral Projects of San Francisco. Music Aleksandra Vrebalov, Libretto Niloufar Talebi, Direction Roy Rallo. Z Space, San Francisco, CA. More on this work here: http://www.zspace.org/aif

May 23 Sylvan Winds and Daria Karic (actress, narrator) premiere the Harvard/Fromm Commission Xenia and The Bishop (2018) for wind quintet and the narrator at Kosciutszko Foundation, New York City. Music and story by Aleksandra Vrebalov. For more on this work see here: https://aleksandravrebalov.music.blog/2018/12/26/62/

Our Voices

I was asked by Peter Askim, the music director of Raleigh Civic Symphony Orchestra, to write a piece for his group. He said that the 25 minute work would have a virtual reality component built by graduate students of North Carolina College of Design, led by Derek Ham, on a theme of suffragettes.

In 2017 Peter gave the world premiere of my Echolocations in New York’s Le Poisson Rouge; we had divided a string orchestra into three groups to play an identical material, at different times, from three different locations in the hall.

The experience was magical, as if the sound were coming from all around the audience, echoing across space. Textures and volume mixed and merged right next to one’s ear as well as in the distance. There was a sense of oneness between the musicians/sound and the audience since the stage as a divide did not exist.

Peter asked me to do something similar with the new work – to spatialize the orchestra. It is a dream situation to get permission from a conductor (Peter is also a composer and a bass player) to break the standard layout of this gigantic body of sound and explore it. There were several things to solve: how to make musicians comfortable while away from their usual places on stage; how would they follow the conductor and be able to hear others if they are dispersed throughout the auditorium; would they like the idea of being challenged that way, since their experience is to belong to a group and play as a group; where would they stand in the specific hall that I never visited? I got photos of the hall – there was room to have musicians in different spots, so I decided to divide them into Surround and Stationary groups. Instruments that can’t move would stay on stage and be the Stationary orchestra, while the Surround orchestra with all portable instruments (high strings, woodwinds and high brass) would be positioned around the audience.

Stewart Hall where Our Voices will be premiered on April 14, 2019 by NC Civic Symphony, conducted by Peter Askim
Our Voices – distribution of instruments throughout the auditorium

The piece needed to be lean in terms of notation, as the lighting, stands, and all elements of the orchestral setup would not apply to this performance. (Also, Surround orchestra members would be standing for the duration of the entire piece.)

I divided the piece into six sections framed by Intro and Epilogue. In both Intro and Epilogue, musicians are asked to use their voices. In Intro, everyone gradually joins in a hum on A a cappella, while in the Epilogue the Surround orchestra members walk through the auditorium calling the names of women in their lives who inspired them: their grandmothers, mothers, sisters, wives, teachers…it’s a personal choice.

Aleksandra Vrebalov: Our Voices, excerpt from the score

Parts 1-6 are all organized around pitch centers (B, C, D, E, F, and G) so all musicians can come in and out of playing, knowing how to fit in harmonically. The score is open, no meter, mostly aleatoric, with options offered, but choices entirely upon the 80 people playing the piece. The role of the conductor is to keep time and organize transitions, while his gestures do not mark sharp beginnings or endings of gestures and sound. Transitions between the sections are fluid and overlapping.

Aleksandra Vrebalov: Our Voices, excerpt from the score

There were many interesting insights during our rehearsal in Raleigh, NC this week: most of musicians in the orchestra would start and stop immediately following conductor’s gesture although the instruction states – the conductor’s gesture means you can start from this point on at your own time; or with the ending – wrap up your material at your own pace and move onto the next thing.

The atmosphere during the one rehearsal I attended was inspiring – we were searching for new ways of individual expression, trying out new techniques not so common in the standard orchestra repertoire, understanding the concept of musical time in which there is no counting, but listening and responding instead, discovering ways to feel safe without the structure of barlines and meter.

Rehearsing with The Raleigh Civic Symphony, Peter Askim music director

In terms of rehearsal methodology, Peter had me talk to the orchestra about each section, then we played it through, worked on timing and explored sound, and played it through again. After going through the entire piece we were ready to try spatialization. The Surround orchestra members placed themselves around the rehearsal space, all of them behind the conductor – and we had the first run-through. The sound was traveling in all directions creating most beautiful, unexpected sonorities.

My favorite part was when the orchestra for a brief moment accompanied the recording of Billie Holiday singing Strange Fruit. Again, there was no meter, barlines – just Billie’s voice with her beautiful, free, out-of-time phrasing.

Peter and I had several conversations on how to make that segment with Billie Holiday doable for the orchestra. I didn’t want to transcribe the song with any specific metric or tonal changes. My idea was to have the orchestra follow her voice, rather than following the conductor. The very topic of the piece – the struggle for equality, somehow symbolically came up in the treatment of that sample from Strange Fruit: in an ideal world of citizens with high consciousness we would not need to be told what to do and whether and when to support the voice of another. By listening and doing our best to understand and support the other we would create a different humanity.

Peter’s concern for precision and clarity was a great reminder that I am creating a work for eighty people whose comfort and success in delivering that music also depend on how aligned they feel with one another and the recording of Billie’s voice. We were deliberating whether I should rewrite the score and instead of just saying ‘follow Billie, c-minor” write out orchestral parts transcribing the metric freedoms that she takes while singing. I decided against it. In this specific case I wanted each individual to take charge, be responsible for their choices, listen, try to provide support, swim in uncertainty if so happens, rather than follow the conductor. The invitation to the orchestra to join in freely around Billie Holiday’s voice in Our Voices calls for a personal, unique contribution of everyone involved in the piece, rather than an orchestrated, controlled response. The thinking through of those two options (lock it in a standard notation or keep it as open as possible) inspired me to write a poem about how I made musical choices in this piece. The poem also reflects on a larger context of what it means to belong to and to create our humanity. I dedicated the poem to Peter, who invited me and trusted me throughout this creative adventure.

Accompanying Billie Holiday in Strange Fruit

Do 
Not
Be
***
At
Me
I am like you
And you are like me
Doing my best
Often fast
Sometimes slow
Wanting all
And then some more
Creating order
Bliss or mess
Still true and real
Despite distress
Those Billie-lines
More than once
Made me cry
As I fit them
In odd times
Whole notes
Half notes
Aren’t wrong
They are 
Dark and lost
To song
Of pain and 
Crisscrossed time
No chance to
Truly align
Unless
We all agree
That 
What is yours
Is also mine
What was theirs
Was hers at times
Wanting best
Yet often failing
Feeling rough
Still trust prevailing 
Contrasts of
Wants and coulds
Of possibles and shoulds
No wiser thing
No greater power
Than seeing
With one’s heart
Into the dark hour
Of those Billie-lines
They might also
Make you cry
As you play them
In odd times

London, January 29, 2019, for my friend, collaborator, and a fellow composer Peter Askim.  

Our Voices, full recording of the world premiere. Raleigh Civic Orchestra, Peter Askim conducting, April

Our voices was commissioned by NC State University and NC State Sustainability Fund. Our Voices has been featured on NCSU Website:

Concert Blends VR With Music to Tell Suffrage Story


Le Jardin Qui Rit – The Laughing Garden

a new dance piece in the making

After months of traveling, I returned to New York on Thursday and started rehearsing with Dusan Tynek Dance Theatre on Friday for our new show, The Laughing Garden.  This is my seventh collaboration with Dusan over 15 years.  Our long creative relationship enabled us to expand and grow together trying out different ways to create a dance – from sound coming before choreography, to building music and choreography simultaneously, to choreography coming first, to the current approach of establishing the vocabulary and freely creating music and choreography together in real time, before your eyes. 

The Laughing Garden is inspired by Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights and is filled with moments of primal energy, joy, some darkness, a lot of playfulness.  

Detail from Garden of Earthly Delights, Hieronymus Bosch

I am thrilled that my friend and a fantastic composer Luciano Chessa will join me in creating a live score for performances. We will be on stage with six dancers and make sounds on prepared piano and other objects, including a water fountain.

Alexandra Berger, Ned Sturgis, Tim Ward, Gary Champi of Dusan Tynek Dance Theatre rehearsing The Laughing Garden, March 2019
Prepared piano from last night’s rehearsal of the Laughing Garden

The creative process has been fun, an exercise in a discipline of relating. It’s beautiful to experience the piece being re-created with every performance, based on choices and responses of each moment by every individual engaged in the process.

Luciano and I first established the vocabulary so that we can independently create our parts.


Taking a closer look into the fantastical painting by Bosch I found out about the music inscribed on a sinner’s bottom on the right panel of the tryptic, the Hell. The sound Luciano and I decided to create for the dance is abstract and without any linear musical narrative. At the same time we wanted to have a focal point where musically all kinds of disparate elements come together into a little tune, a phrase, a place of intimacy. And there it was, the little chant, inscribed by Bosch himself waiting to be brought to life; this time in the context of joy and beauty, rather than sin and punishment.

The tune – detail from Garden of Earthly Delights, by Hieronymus Bosch

I see this newest work with Dusan as a curious look into the profusion of life and nature – which is creativity itself. It is funny, fun, unstoppable, rich, fragrant, colorful, and free.

See the details about the show and come see us if you are in New York:
https://www.newyorker.com/goings-on-about-town/dance/dusan-tynek-dance-company

Update, March 11 – We had a blast. Every evening was different, as sound was improvised/live. It was thrilling to have the full house every night; more than 600 people saw the show. Here are a few pictures from the Garden with all its protagonists: the fountain, composer Luciano Chessa and myself, and superhuman dancers Elizabeth Hepp, Tim Ward, Ned Sturgis, Alexandra Berger, Nicole Restani, and Gary Champi.

2018 highlights


If you are fortunate in life there will be love where you expect it, and if you are really fortunate, there will be love where you don’t expect it.  This was my theme for 2018 and I was really fortunate. This year I made music with hundreds of young people in unrelated projects on three continents.  Among them there were the Nusaybin Choir in Turkey with a dozen children, mostly girls displaced by war, two hundred girls of the SF Girls Chorus, young musicians of Mikka Quartet in NYC who I had met before they were teenagers, and students from the music high school I attended 30+ years ago in my hometown Novi Sad.

Inline image

Rehearsals: Nusaybin Youth Choir in Mardin, Turkey, and SF Girls Chorus with Kronos Quartet in San Francisco

All brilliant, eager to participate and engage, these young people come from the widest possible range of backgrounds and life experiences: from the Middle East and not knowing where their family members are, to Manhattan and San Francisco, living the liberal values of the Western world.  Traveling as much as I have this year, I often have the urge to connect those experiences, to integrate the worlds and knowledge, not only for myself but for others too, in hope of better understanding the complexities of our time.  So in one of my such fantasies, I imagined that ten years from now somewhere in the peaceful world some of those kids’ paths cross.  They have a conversation and of course they immediately feel close.  They realize what they have in common: the love of music and the experience of making NEW music.  As they relay their specific memories of performances they gave a girl says – once we shouted our names and words like love and freedom and peace in an outdoor concert; it was in 2018, in a war zone, a town where I was a refugee, where concerts would get interrupted because of Azaan and women covered their heads.  

Well, says the other, we have lived in peace all along, but it’s funny, it was also 2018 and two hundred of us shouted Holy All for about three minutes in a concert in my hometown, San Francisco. As I contemplate that fantasy I am profoundly grateful for every moment of connection with those young musicians. I asked girls from Nusaybin to shout their names into the open sky above Mesopotamia.  In rehearsal they giggled and spoke them shyly, and with every repetition there was more exuberance and power in their voices.  We also called for what we desired most – peace, love, and freedom, in Kurdish, Arabic, Turkish, English, and it was profound and urgent.  Similarly it felt crucial to proclaim us all holy in Allen Ginsberg’s San Francisco while in the US and across the world we get divided, excluded and killed because of gender, race, or religion.  These kids, with their passion and beauty weren’t performers, they were the life and the essence of the music we made together.  They have given me so much hope for our world and made 2018 unforgettable for me.

Mardin, Turkey, music lesson and lunch with children at the Flying Carpet Festival directed by Sahba Aminikia

I am also grateful to all of you who in many different ways made these experiences possible. 23 ensembles played 17 pieces of mine in 13 different countries in 70 performances registered this year.  From those of you who I have worked with for many years to those who I never met in person – THANK YOU.

Here’s a video from one of the performances with the Nusaybin Choir and the Kurdish bard Abdurrahman Ciziri at the Flying Carpet Festival in Mardin last September.

I wish you a healthy, happy, and filled with love 2019!!