Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 1, No 15
4 October 1999

Shoemaker Bridge M U S I C:
A Not Entirely Harmonious Success
The cutting edge of Slovenian music since independence

Niall O'Loughlin

Slovenia was the first of the Yugoslav republics to prepare for independence. As the people decisively chose to break away from Yugoslavia, the wheels were set in motion and independence was declared on 25 June 1991. The Yugoslav army attacked the Slovenian border posts, but after a low-level war lasting some ten days it withdrew. Slovenia had achieved a de facto independence. Apart from a small number of fatalities and some damage to buildings and other property - an Adria Airways Airbus for example - Slovenia managed a remarkable continuity.

This continuity has been reflected in the music from this time. There had been, since the mid-1960s, a very vigorous and challenging avant-garde. Its members continued with their work after independence. There had also built up a new generation of "modernists" who were establishing themselves as the composers of the late 20th century. Alongside this there was what might be called the post-modernist group. They did not follow the trends of the American minimalists but rather those of the popular and folk-derived idioms that have been so prominent in parts of Central and Southeast Europe. Collectively they made a very impressive group which shows that, despite its size, Slovenia has established a very strong creative presence in the new Europe. Let us look at these three groups in turn.

The old avant garde was very much the creation of such composers as Ivo Petric (b1931) and Primoz Ramovs (1922-99). Petric not only created a large corpus of fascinating and rewarding music that was very undogmatic in approach, but he also conducted the ever resourceful Slavko Osterc Ensemble which commissioned and performed a large number of works for varied ensembles. It was perhaps one of the greatest catalysts to composition. These composers were joined by Lojze Lebic (b1934), Jakob Jez (b1928), Darijan Bozic (b1933) and others. The work of these composers continues right through to the 1990s. Remarkably, at the time of his death, Ramovs had composed a number of new and challenging works, two of which were performed at the Slovenian Music Days festival of 1999 that was intended as a celebration of his music, rather than of his memory. The semi-expatriate Vinko Globokar (b1934) has continued to produce pioneering works, most notably the opera L'Armonia Drammatica, first performed to great acclaim in Ljubljana in 1997.

The new modernist group has been less unified. The continuation or renewal of any kind of tradition is only made possible by the use of a body of techniques which can be applied again in effective ways. In the case of music, it must involve those techniques which can be used and developed creatively, and not used as a means to replicate pallid imitations of old models. It is emphatically not the case with the younger Slovene composers who are looking for new and interesting ways of adding to the music of the leading composers of the "middle" generation. Their music is not tonal in any obvious sense, although there may be the occasional triadic formation, even if it is not part of any recognisable harmonic progression. Rhythmic layout is normally in regularly spaced bars, but within this there is considerable flexibility. Occasionally there is just the suggestion of some form of traditional music, but these references, except one to be mentioned later, are not normally meant to be explicit.

Four composers are particularly notable, Aldo Kumar and Uros Rojko (both born in 1954) have struck an enterprising line of development which promises well, and Tomaz Svete (b1956) and Brina Jez-Brezavscek (b1957) are composing works of substance and are, along with other composers of their generation, beginning to gain wider recognition.

The two composers born in 1954, Kumar and Rojko, show a strong sense of tight organisation. A piano piece by Kumar called Sonata z igro 12 (Sonata - a game of 12) is a brilliantly conceived set of variations on a rising chromatic scale. Variants are teasingly introduced almost immediately, for example, by octave dislocation, rhythmic reorganisation, changing registers, and the use of parallel chords. It is a wonderful piece of imaginative writing using a very limited range of material. A much longer piece (just over 40 minutes) is the 1990 choral and orchestral work Na struni Merkurja (On the String of Mercury). The choir is treated mostly homophonically with the words by Andrej Lutman not clearly audible but acting more as inspiration for the character of the music. The orchestral contribution is mostly supportive, encouraging a brooding and mostly slow intensity in the music.

Uros Rojko lives and works in Germany but he regularly visits Slovenia and many of his works have received performances in Ljubljana. Some of his published works give an idea of his style: The piece for cello simply called Ja, composed in 1986 and revised in 1990, is a virtuoso study for the instrument. While much of the repertory of avant-garde cello playing is used, there is another aspect which adds enormously to the difficulties, the two-part nature of much of the music. Sometimes this leads to some problems involving two bows. Despite these difficulties, the work is playable and gives some idea of the extreme techniques possible. This was shown also in the piece for saxophone and piano called Godba, which uses the extreme abilities of the instrument in a completely breathtaking way.

p>The work of both Tomaz Svete and Brina Jez-Brezavscek is small in quantity, but high in quality. Svete's orchestral piece L'amour sul mar is sensuously scored and suggestive of the influence of the French composer Olivier Messiaen in its textures and harmonies. His Godalni trio (String Trio) varies in texture from very thin with fragmentary motives to dense and highly coordinated between the parts. Some of the music has the appearance although not the rhythmic complexity of passages of some of the string quartets of the American Elliott Carter. Svete's television opera Kralj Malhus is a satirical piece in three scenes that last just under half an hour. It appearance must be a good indication of the emergence of operatic talent.

The delicate and sensitive works of the last of these composers, Brina Jez-Brezavscek, are most impressive. Presenecenje (Surprise) for solo violin is a short study in violin techniques. A variety of changing ideas is part of the plan of this kaleidoscopic piece, making the listener constantly aware of each new section and its musical characteristics. It is a good point, well made. The rather more substantial Aulofonia domestica for oboe, clarinet and percussion explores a number of new woodwind techniques, particularly the smorzato (cutting off the tone) and the use of multiple sounds. The use of a wide range of percussion is particularly effective as it is used with the greatest musical sensitivity. The coordination between the parts is generally fairly free except when there are obviously important harmonic implications.

The last group takes a more modest stand. Their work, broadly speaking, falls into two categories: the first, the traditional, either in a derivative neo-classical style or in a renewed manner possibly as part of a post-modern philosophy. So, is this the old style returning or the beginning of a post-modern reaction to the avant-garde music? The work of some of the younger composers can begin to answer this question.

Perhaps a work like Romanca for flute and piano by Peter Kopac could be dismissed as a recreational or educational piece, with its unashamed E minor tonality. Yet with its dedication to the superb flautist Irena Grafenauer and the very tricky middle section, the issue is not as simple as that. It is interesting, then, to consider the work of such jazz-influenced composers as Janez Gregorc (b1934). His band works Prelude to Summer and Wire are good examples of a fine, jazz-based idiom that has a good following in Slovenia. These works are emphatically not "left-overs" from an earlier age, but freshly thought-out creations from a new and living tradition. In terms of popular music categorisation, they would be considered "cross-overs", drawing stylistic features and techniques from both popular and classical traditions. The cross-over idea is a new one, and perhaps another indication of post-modern thinking in some areas of Slovene music.

This leaves us with a substantial collection of works by two composers born in the post-war years: Jani Golob (b1948) and Marko Mihevc (b1957). Golob's earliest published music dates from the late 1970s, after playing the violin as a professional and having studied with Uros Krek. The folk-derived Stiri Slovenske ljudske pesmi used folk songs from Slovenia that are transformed and put into a vividly modern context. What is so good is that the originals are presented with a raw intensity without any false sentimentality. The work deservedly earned itself many performances and won the composer the Zupancic prize.

Golob's works for violin, the solo Sonatina, and the Sonatas Nos 1 and 2 with piano of show a mastery, not just of violin technique which can be taken almost for granted in Golob's work, but also of formal manipulation. The rhythmic structures of all three works remain fairly strictly controlled. While the idiom is vivid and full of exciting writing - suggestions of folk violin playing are frequent - the works do not try to emulate the flights of rhythmic and motivic fantasy of Krek's music of the same period.

Two chamber works show a new development. There is little suggestion of folk music in either the Trio '84 or the String Quartet No 2. In the 15-minute trio Golob's compressed forms do make for a rather terse feel, and perhaps not allow enough time for the musical ideas to unfold. Although of about the same duration, the string quartet allows the motives to develop more naturally. Particularly memorable is the breathless energy of the finale's string writing.

Golob's orchestral works are numerous, showing that he has moved away from his earlier exclusive attention to music for strings. That he has mastered the technique of writing effectively for other instruments can be heard clearly in his ballet Urska in povodni moz. This work, inspired by the poem of France Preseren, is notable not only for its excellent orchestral handling, but also for its striking thematic developments and clear formal control. Golob is certainly a composer to watch, as his music now expands far beyond a few interesting pieces.

One could hardly conclude this section on the newer music of traditional orientation without some reference to the phenomenal rise to fame of Marko Mihevc. One orchestral work in particular has taken the public's imagination, the symphonic poem Equi of 1990. It is a piece of some 17 minutes' duration that sizzles with energy, in an orchestral texture which is very "slimmed down", thus allowing the individual instrumental lines to be heard clearly. Rhythmically there is an excellent sense of momentum which is the result of the composer's attention to moving parts in at least one of the melodic lines. Concessions to modernism are relatively few: for example, the reported atonality is suitably disguised. Mihevc's ability to draw something new out of the old techniques is impressive in Equi. The composer's almost unflagging energy is also found in two other symphonic poems, In signo tauri of 1991 and Miracula of 1993. The fluency and accomplishment are again very impressive, but one wonders whether these features are perhaps becoming more important than the musical content.

Another important factor in the development of recent music in Slovenia is the state of music publication. In 1960, this was in a very rudimentary state in all the republics of Yugoslavia. Financial support was available, but the number of pieces that were published was very small, and to make matters worse the numbers of copies printed was often pitifully small. Slovenia had good fortune at this stage, with the strong organisation of its composer's association, Drustvo slovenskih skladateljev. In addition, , the number of works published was expanded enormously under the careful expansionist policies of successive secretaries of Edicije DSS, and the company is today the leading publisher from the former Yugoslavia.

This healthy situation is very well established now. The main problem for composition in Slovenia now is not quite so obvious. With the gaining of independence in 1991, political connections with Western Europe were particularly encouraged. Inevitably this means a greater reliance on the market economy and financial pressures of a type that were not so frequently encountered previously. The pressure to perform music to full concert halls obviously encouraged a reliance on the standard repertory and an obvious reduction of opportunities for new works to be performed. Only a few years after independence these problems have now begun to be addressed. New recordings on compact disc have been issued with much greater regularity and performances are frequently broadcast by Radio Slovenija from all over the country. Organisations are now shouldering the responsibility for fostering the new group of composers active in Slovenia today. Particularly noteworthy in this respect is Festival Ljubljana which is the organisation which fronts the concert series under the title of Slovenski glasbeni dnevi (Slovenian Music Days) that has been such a splendid platform for new music from Slovenia since long before independence. All the signs suggest that there is a renewed surge of enthusiasm for ensuring that a serious music culture is reinvigorated and grows. Without this activity what would otherwise fill the gap is a large amount of faceless commercially oriented popular music from the outside. That would be a great loss to Slovene culture.

This short survey of Slovenia's newest music indicates that musical composition is active and challenging. There is every sign that composers will follow the works mentioned here with others that are similarly challenging and interesting. With the new opportunities presented by the situations brought about by independence, there is likely to be a new emergence of native Slovene musical talent in the future. All the signs are there.

Niall O'Loughlin




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