Renowned Canadian composer Ana Sokolovic discusses the importance of cultural and personal expression for new music composers.
Serbian born composer Ana Sokolovic is currently a Professor of Composition at the University of Montreal. Active in Canada since the mid-1990s, she has written for many of Canada’s orchestras and chamber ensembles, and her compositions have been performed throughout Europe and North America. She was the recipient of a National Arts Centre Award in 2009, and the SOCAN Jan V. Matejcek Award in 2008, 2012 and 2013. Professor Sokolovic has also been honoured with major awards from the Conseil québecois de la musique, the Canada Council for the Arts and the CBC Young Composer’s Competition. She has just received a prestigious commission from the Canadian Opera Company for a main-stage opera that will be premiered during the 2019/20 season.
Ana, how did you get involved in the Azrieli Music Project?
I was contacted about a year ago by Joseph Rouleau [Chair of the AMP Advisory Council]. I just couldn’t resist the charm of this perfect singer and perfect human being. So of course I met him and I accepted to be part of this, for me, very important music composition competition in Canada.
As someone who is not Jewish, what does “Jewish music” mean to you?
You know that I am coming from the Balkans and we had a lot of friends who are Jewish, mostly Sephardic Jews. Of course, it was a part of our culture but also we were in a communist country, where religion was ignored, so we used our different backgrounds as a spice, as a delicious fruit, as a pretext to celebrate life.
There is no one Jewish music. We can more specifically say there is Russian music, but Jewish music is more particular because the Jewish people are all over the world. So Jewish music from Spain or from Turkey are not the same. Much Jewish music is influenced by where the people lived.
I think that this kind of competition is very important for making us think about our cultural heritage, of humanity’s cultural heritage, and Jewish music is part of that. I think this is interesting – it could be very vague, extremely large from a composer’s point of view – we can really be inspired by many things.
Of course, there are the musical elements of melody, rhythm, and modes, but also literature, painting, language – and different accents and pronunciation – a way of life.
Your style is said to be inspired by Balkan folk music.
Among other things, absolutely. I wrote an opera in Serbian [Svadba-Wedding, which premiered in Toronto in 2011 and will have its European premiere at the Aix-en-Provence in July]. What is interesting with this piece is that I was not only inspired by elements of Serbian folk music but also the language, the color of the language. The languages are the spices of humanity. The whole spirit and the beauty is lying in these different languages. Musically, this is for me the greatest inspiration. I wrote many pieces and put different languages in them. Now, I am composing a piece for the National Arts Centre Orchestra for countertenor, choir and orchestra and I have seven different texts in seven different languages, including a Sephardic text in Ladino, a lullaby. What is interesting for me, this research – with Serbian or in any other language – is how each language has the colour and the rhythm so it can influence the music. This is the same procedure we can do with Jewish music.
Are there special challenges in composing orchestral music? Are you thinking of the great masterpieces?
This is a part of our formation, of course we always thing about this when we learn the scores, we try to understand, etc. But when I am composing, I don’t think about other pieces. I think about what I can bring that is original from my side. Which story I can tell which was not already told. I think this is very important for today’s composers and this is the thing we will search for with the Azrieli Music Project –
to find composers who really have something which is personal and with which they will make their own contribution to the subject.
Yes, I had wanted to ask you, as a member of the Azrieli Music Project jury, what will you be looking for in the submissions?
Of course this person has to be professional, with some level of knowledge of writing for orchestra, this is the technical level. But then, if people are on the same level, what will make the difference is their personal language, their personality. How their imagination can touch people and can tell something we didn’t hear before.
I see that you will be giving a two-week workshop for young composers at the Orford Arts Center this summer, along with composer Jean Lesage. What other advice will you be offering young composers?
The principal thing is to do what they believe they should do. To contribute in the way they think they are the best. To do it always honestly – not what we see is in fashion. And to go to see the concerts. To go to talk with performers, to be part of the community, be involved.
This is a solitary a job in a way. Today we think that we can get everything on YouTube and that all recordings are in the library but, if we are writing the music for the people who play it on the stage, it is important to see them playing other things on the stage. It is important to talk to them, see how they feel about some other techniques, or to talk about that. I think that music is an evolution all the time – always new techniques, new instruments – there are very good things. But is has to be always double-checked, we have to work with the performers. The performers also want to enlarge their boundaries. They also want to do more and they are able to do a lot of things. If we do it together, I think the results are better.
You have won a lot prizes for your work. Do you feel that there are enough opportunities for Canadian composers? What role does the Azrieli Music Project play?
I think that it could always be better. I am very happy that I had a lot of prizes but I think that there are a lot of prizes that don’t exist anymore like the Radio-Canada competition, which I won in 1999 and it was so important. I think that the Azrieli prize is more than important for the whole Canadian community. To speak to the classical community is important. And also, to put Canadian music along with world music composers. That’s why I like that there are two parts of the prize – the Azrieli Prize and the Commissioning Competition – putting in context Canadian music with contemporary music is extremely important. It could become one of the hugest Canadian composition prizes. I really hope that it will stay and it will be a reference. In music, we don’t have the Gillers or some other prizes in literature. Now, we have the Azrieli Prize!