baptism underground

St. George’s Church (1761) in Sombor, Serbia

I visited Sombor last week and walked into St. George’s Church on main street.  Some of my family history is recorded in church documents here.

During the era of Tito’s communism in 1960s and 1970s in Yugoslavia any religious expression was at best seen as provocative, and at times it was sanctioned by the party (The Communist Party).

My maternal grandmother Stojanka, my great aunt Vida and my maternal great grandparents were the four people present and instrumental in organizing the baptism for me in 1971. My dad recalls that the ritual was not performed in the church but more discretely in my grandparents’ house, and that he and mom knew about it but weren’t involved as their participation would be considered reactionary.

My father is a WWII orphan. His parents, Bosko and Vera Vrebalov, communist revolutionaries, were killed by their countrymen, Serbian nationalists. There are streets and schools named after Bosko and Vera, and two of my siblings have their names. My younger sister and I (Marija and Aleksandra), fancied as little girls that we were named after the royal couple of prewar Yugoslavia. Our assumption was repeatedly shushed by our grandmother Stojanka, with no explanation. We knew that royals were expelled by communists so the silencing by our grandmother for the two of us meant that what we suspected was for sure correct.

Well, we were wrong. I was named after one of the communist party leaders, Aleksandar Rankovic, who was a prewar comrade of my paternal grandparents and took upon himself to look after their orphan – my dad. Rankovic was ousted before I was born and persona non grata in Tito’s regime. He never made public appearances and even though we would visit him in isolation in his home, the origin of my name was not discussed in my presence while he and Tito were alive.

Lots of us born during the existence of Yugoslavia were born into families with similar ideological polarities often resulting in painful divisions, blame, and loss.  Those historic divisions carry into the current political reality, and not only in Serbia. Through reconciling and integrating them into a balanced, complex identity we have a chance to better understand and serve our environment and, on a larger scale, the polarized world.  The service might show as kindness to a political opponent at a family dining table or as bridging cultures and connecting with the other from a radically different religious, political, or social background.

My personal interest has been to integrate polarities within my own identity so that I can contribute with work that’s relevant and unifying, which then, I believe, is beautiful as well.

our true wealth

Within a year, by coincidence, i made music with teenagers at the Royal College of Music in London, in the Middle East at the Flying Carpet Festival, and in San Francisco, where a girls’ choir carried a main role in my opera Abraham in Flames.  These teenagers come from three continents and very different life situations spanning from exile, war, and refugee camps, to growing up in liberal western metropoles.  They are beautiful and inspiring and have in common an undiluted urge to belong, love, and give their best.  If anywhere I have felt a sense of purpose, it was in their laser-like presence, soaking in information.  They are our ticket to survive, globally! Encourage them, the kids around you, to love the planet, to make friends, and to strive for excellence in whatever way available.  

Here’s a video recording of the show we did with young Londoners for the English National Ballet, performed at Sadler’s Wells Theater in London on April 7, 2019. Enjoy the show, choreography by Malgorzata (Gosia) Dzierzon, Renaud Wiser, Aaron Vickers, Katie Cambridge, and Hubert Essakow.



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:

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:

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:

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:

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:

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:

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

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
We all agree
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:

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.

a different cinderella


Story by Aleksandra Vrebalov

Once upon a time, there was a girl whose name was Xenia.  She was smart, strong and had a beautiful, good heart.  She was creative and funny, too.  She loved nature and people.  Her secret passion was to play chess – she learned it from her late mother and grew to be an excellent chess player.  In her free time she made little pieces out of clay, imagining they were her friends.  She was especially proud of a clay chess set she made using her late mother’s jewelry to decorate the pieces.

Her hunger for knowledge and beauty was huge, yet not satisfied.  She was disciplined and curious.  She loved math and astronomy, and often played with animals.  She lived in a home where she sometimes thought she was not understood.  She was expected to play the children’s games and engage in activities with cousins that she did not enjoy so much. Often, Xenia found excuses to play on her own, which made her seem a bit strange. 

One day she learned that there was a masked chess tournament coming up in her town.  She really, really wanted to go.  The tournament was open to everyone, but with two requirements – that 1) they come to play incognito and 2) they bring their own unique chess sets.  Her cousins wanted to go too, so they started private chess lessons to learn the game and to learn it fast.  They disagreed and quarreled on how to decorate the chess sets they got in a store.  Xenia kept quiet about her own original chess set, but often ran into her room to check on it, hidden under an armchair.

It was a weekend when Xenia packed the chess set and left for the tournament.  She put her blue-kitty mask on as she entered the tournament hall.  It was filled with most colorful masks and unusual chess pieces.  Xenia moved with her unique beautiful set through the space like in a dream, winning at all tables!  The figurines seemed alive. There was a sense of magic, of a beautiful order.  She played half a dozen games and finally there was the last encounter with another finalist – someone wearing a pink-bird mask.  They drew the queens to determine who was to play first and with which set, and Xenia’s set was chosen for the last game.

She knew she had to play fast as she needed to be home by dinner time.

The game was fun!  She won and was cheered by everyone.  Other players were coming to congratulate her and the trophy was to be presented to the winner.  But Xenia needed to run home.  She used the moment to quickly pack her set and sneak out as the MC was calling the finalists to get on the stage.  As she ran out, without noticing, she left behind a black bishop from her set.

For days everyone talked about the mysterious winner.  There were funny posters and many social media posts about the unusual clay bishop with a head made of black lava.  Who is its owner?  Where is the tournament winner hiding and why?  There was a prize to be given!  Xenia was shy.  She was so happy that she played so well and with so many good chess players that that in itself was a prize for her.  Her cousins kept talking about the tournament, about the mysterious winner with a blue-kitty mask, and teased Xenia for not participating.  Then one day they saw her clay chess set with a missing piece!  They looked up the black bishop online and yes – it was Xenia’s!  By the time the cousins broke the news, the entire town was already in awe of the secretive chess master.  Xenia’s school friends talked about the winner of the tournament with admiration and curiosity.  There was a sense of wonder and excitement around the stranger who played so brilliantly and then disappeared.  Xenia liked the buzz but thought it would be so awkward to be discovered.

So it happened!  The cousins posted a picture of her chess set with the unusual army of jewel-decorated pawns, knights, and rooks all in order and lined up — with one empty tiny square among them.   By then, everyone knew that it was where the bishop belonged.

The organizers of the tournament announced that the owner of the black bishop was found.  Congratulations poured in from friends, classmates, cousins, neighbors, and strangers!  The golden trophy and the black bishop were now in Xenia’s hands, but the greatest prize was that she learned that her biggest strength was in being herself: in pursuing with freedom and passion what she loved and did best!