Establishing experimental and improvised music in Belgrade is a challenge: there are just a few funding opportunities, a conservative music education and a missing infrastructure. But musicians as the sound artist and composer Svetlana Maraš are moving back to Belgrade after years abroad and build up a new scene – with enthusiasm, good ideas and international collaborations. In this interview Svetlana speaks about her enthusiasm of living in her home town again, how she uses the laptop as an instrument in improvised music, and samples that attract her.
[Theresa Beyer]: Svetlana, six years ago, after your studies at the Belgrade music academy, you decided to leave your homecountry. What were the reasons at this point in your life?
[Svetlana Maraš]: At this time, Belgrade wasn’t really the best place to be. Music studies in Serbia were quite conservative. I wanted to learn things that weren’t possible to learn in the academic environment. I also felt that the system was slowing me down. I had a lot of creative energy and I felt that I could progress much faster in some better environment. That’s why I needed to go abroad. I found the Media Lab Helsinki, a school where I could learn about contemporary music in relation to new technology and sound arts. It turned out to be a wellspring of knowledge and ideas and one of the best decisions in my musical career.
[TB]: Two years ago, after finishing your Masters, you decided to come back to Belgrade. Has the city changed?
[SM]: Yes. The atmosphere in the city was getting pretty good, so I decided to stay in Belgrade. There appeared to be many other people who came back from their studies abroad. Although having different fields of expertize (some of us being sound artists, composers, instrumentalists), we all had a good academic background, lots of experience in playing improvised music and – what’s most important – we had this enthusiasm to establish our own music scene in Belgrade. With joined forces we are nowadays promoting experimental music, e.g. by hosting artists in our monthly series ImprovE.
[TB]: How this growing scene in Belgrade is different from traditional centers of experimental and contemporary music like Berlin, Paris and London?
[SM]: Belgrade surely is no hot spot. There are not so many things happening here or least not so often and there is also very little or rather no money for culture. So we can do projects just on a smaller scale and with a lot of effort. However, we are on the European experimental music map: we all work a lot abroad and there is a lot of exchange. More and more young people are interested in improvisation, noise, sound art and also the audience – created around events as Ring-Ring Festival or ImprovE – is getting bigger. These are all good indicators: Belgrade has the potential to become the leading place for experimental music in the region and wider.
[TB]: Let’s speak about the work you create in this stimulating atmosphere. It is mostly based on samples. Where are they coming from?
[SM]: I started building my sample library years ago, spontaneously, and I keep adding new materials when I find them interesting enough. I also modify the old ones until they become something new and I classify them very accurately. I use mostly these glitchy, digital sounds and the recordings of amplified objects. I also use field recordings and I sampled prepared guitar and no mixing input board, as long as I edit these samples up to the point that I can’t recognize anymore where they are coming from. At a certain point they start to be something else. Step by step my library became well defined in terms of sound. I think that gives a certain stamp to all of my works.
[TB]: Give me some insights in your sample library. What qualities should a sample have that it becomes interesting for you?
[SM]: I’m often attracted to delicate and «small sounds»: it’s when quiet sounds are amplified a lot, but they still keep their low intensity. I like very high frequency sounds that some people may find disturbing and I’m interested in producing as many varieties of them as possible. With mid-range frequency sounds I’m interested in color and texture and I love the «granular» quality of them. Nowadays, I also have a folder called «graphical sound» – very simple tones who’s soundwaves have a very basic visual representation and a precise sounding. When it comes to combining the sounds I’m interested in complex textures that are gradually changing over time, color and intensity of a sound mass.
[TB]: When you improvise, how can you orient yourself in your sample library? Do you make a preselection for every set?
[SM]: Yes, I prepare the sounds that I’m going to use and I figure out all the options how I can manipulate them. It‘s important to know how I can access these sounds quickly (by using external controllers mostly), because when I use my laptop in improvising I’m trying to use it as an instrument. In order to be able to respond quickly to other musicians’ actions, I need to know well my instrument and the characteristics of each sound that I’m using. When somebody is playing an acoustic instrument he or she has this certain spectra of sounds and techniques at a disposal. And I think it’s the same with the laptop. So I build up a playing environment for myself: practicing and playing often enough, I start to become virtous.
[TB]: In your compositions you work a lot with samples of spoken word. What is so fascinating about this?
[SM]: Text and human voice inspire me a lot. Human voice simply because of its diverse, interesting musical properties and text because being a different medium than sound. Both provide many interesting possibilities of translation into music. In «Poetica Micromix», for example, the only material I used were the micro cut-outs of the existing vocal compositions and improvisations. On their own, these samples don’t mean anything, but by combining them in different ways they create a completely new piece of music. This composition has been performed a lot – on the radio (for example at Kunstradio-Radiokunst for which it was made), but also in concerts as tape-music, most recently at University of Southern California Listening Room series.
[TB]: In «Poetica Micromix» you are editing pieces from Meredith Monk, Luciano Berio, Laurie Anderson und Steve Reich. In this case, how is the relation to the original?
[SM]: In «Poetica» the relation of samples to their original source is kind of dynamic. At some point the samples are so abstracted from the original context that they really don’t have any other meaning but are supposed to be appreciated for the purely musical qualities (a procedure that I really like). And at some points the samples are easy to identify. They relate to the original composition, but appear in context that is drastically changed and therefore their function is changed too. I didn’t make any other manipulation of the material except of cutting it – no effects are added except of panning, so they preserve the original quality. This is really interesting for me: shifting between the recognizable and unrecognizable, referential and non-referential. But in the end, the hole piece should stand on its own, the listener doesn‘t need to know the other pieces to understand the meaning.
[TB]: Similar works your radio piece «Canzone distorte». What is the idea behind this project?
[SM]: This is the project I realized with Anja Đorđević for the ocassion of Art Birthday Celebration organized by Ars Acoustica group. We started working on this project more or less accidentally, from the beginning it was an experiment. We didn’t even know each other and although we are both composers and having similar background, we were doing completely different things when it comes to music. This huge gap between us turned out to be a challenge and inspiration for the piece that we made. We tried to find the smallest thing that we have in common as musicians. We realized we both share the same appreciation of good song (old italian songs from 50’s and 60’s for example), and we have the same understanding of what a «beautiful» melody could be. So this piece is actually the journey that we went through while searching for this melody. We wandered through different styles and musical worlds and…I don’t think we ever found it really. There are just musical fragments of this search packed in a fairytale-like story.
[TB]: In your compositions, radio pieces and improvisations you are in the center as musician and hold all the threads together. But in your performances you often involve the audience. How does this conscious inclusion of the unforseeable change the authorship of a work?
[SM]: More than an author, in collaborative works I have the role of the concept designer. I need other people to execute the work and in some cases the audience can have this role. In this kind of works – interactive installations or performances – just half of the work I can plan in advance, the other half I can’t influence. That‘s great, because my work grows and becomes an organic thing that has its own life. It’s amazing to see how the audience participates and reacts. In my installation «Bourgeois» I’m kind of a director: I created the whole setting, the scenario and I sit behind the scene with the technicians and light designers and I manipulate (in real-time) the musical material the audience is producing by playing with objects on the table.