Aleksandra Vrebalov: Finding Your Roots by Replanting Them

Video presentation by Molly Sheridan

Aleksandra Vrebalov, who arrived in the United States from her native Serbia in the 1990s, is technically no longer an “emerging composer” or a “recent émigré.” Her music has been commissioned by Carnegie Hall, has appeared on several recordings as well as in a prominent print publication, and her first opera will be staged in the fall. But Vrebalov’s initial success—a performance by and subsequent commissions from the Kronos Quartet beginning when she was still in her 20s and had only just relocated to this side of the Atlantic—remains an encouraging model for all aspiring composers.

The lesson is to be willing to take chances, according to Vrebalov. “My relationship with authority is very different from the people who grew up here and who I went to school with when I moved to San Francisco,” she explains. “I think that relaxed and kind of naïve attitude towards authority led to that relationship with the Kronos Quartet, because I simply mailed my score and said, ‘I’m in San Francisco and I would really love to meet with you.’ They heard a piece and invited me to meet with them. When you’re replanted from your own environment, in a way it becomes simpler.”

Kronos Quartet’s embrace of Vrebalov’s music has resulted in their commissioning a total of five works from her thus far including Pannonica Boundless, a 1998 work that was subsequently published by Boosey & Hawkes in their Kronos Collection, Volume 1, was recorded by both Kronos and the TAJJ Quartet, and was just recently performed in a showcase during the 2011 Chamber Music America by the Voxare Quartet as well. It’s starting to feel like standard repertoire. And two different performances of a more recent work, The Spell III (2008) for violin and live electronics, were released on separate recordings last year, by Ana Milosavljevic on Innova and by Elizabeth Cooney on a disc issued by the Louth Contemporary Music Society in Ireland.

But coming to the USA from Serbia not only jump started Vrebalov’s compositional career early on, it also gave her a whole new context for what it means to be a composer by reshaping her world view about music. As a result of studying in both San Francisco and Ann Arbor and then subsequently moving to New York City, she has a broader understanding of our cultural landscape than most composers who were born here do. During her undergraduate studies in San Francisco, Vrebalov became part of a scene where “everything is possible creatively and that creatively everything is also acceptable.” That complete openness was a sea change from what she had experienced in Serbia where, according to her, there were “very rigid strict rules, or expectations, about what is a piece of music at the end of the 20th century.” Her subsequent graduate work in Ann Arbor put her in a different kind of environment, one which was “so vibrant intellectually […] not only for music but also for cutting edge science and a whole discourse that’s about progress and what we can do together.” But perhaps her greatest artistic epiphanies are happening for her now that she is living in New York City, a place where she is able to experience “all those ideas about worlds merging on all different levels” on a daily basis. In each of these three American cities a firm belief in the viability of multiple stylistic possibilities was reinforced and she now acknowledges jubilantly that she “discovered I like the American kind of pluralism in music.”

As a result, Vrebalov’s own music transformed into a deeply emotional music which, ironically, even though it clearly echoes the centuries-old traditions of her native land, probably would not and could not have been composed if she had stayed there:

I became aware of my roots much more after I moved here. I think it’s a common phenomenon: people realize where they’re from once they leave the place where they’re from. […] Modernism was something that we grew up with and this was the kind of aesthetic that we all supported without questioning it because we were surrounded by that. It’s a matter of exposure. But it’s more complicated than that. In the years I was growing up, the wars started and the wars were initiated by nationalists and I certainly didn’t want to be associated with that. It was really not an option to use any kind of material that would remind you of your own cultural or national background because that meant that you sided with people who used that for political reasons. Even when I came to the States, I realized that the kind of music and the tradition that I am coming from and that I am interested in posed an ethical question: Do I really want to go into that knowing what kinds of things it was used for?

The emotionally painful and violent dissolution of Yugoslavia into six separate sovereign states, which Vrebalov experienced firsthand, reignited a lot of the same kinds of factionalisms that threatened to tear all of Europe apart during the course of two World Wars. In fact, modernism’s eschewing of anything that reeked of nationalist sentiments was born of a direct response to the horrors that nationalism had wrought on Europe. So for Vrebalov to bring it back into her own music, coming from this background, was an incredibly difficult decision. But ultimately it helped her to find her own compositional voice, a voice that has had a tremendous impact on audiences both here and abroad.

It is also music with a tremendous social conscience. In works such as hold me, neighbor, in this storm, the sounds of Serbian Orthodox church bells merge with the Islamic calls to prayer heard in Bosnia-Herzogovina and Kosovo, a collage that transcends national identities and transforms them into larger sonic metaphors for co-existence and mutual understanding. And in her opera, Milena, which will be performed in her home town of Novi Sad, she honors a different kind of potential Serbian national hero, Mileva Maric, the tragic first wife of Albert Einstein who might have had some influence in the formulation of his revolutionary theories but who has largely been forgotten. For Vrebalov, close attention to the traditions of the past—its role models as well as its victims, its tragedies as well as its triumphs—has allowed her to forge an extremely effective music for our own time.