Macedonia Now at Wilton’s Music Hall-10th March 2013
This is the pre-concert talk which I gave before the concert:
In 2005, I visited Skopje for the first time. In the 4 years previously, I had spent a considerable amount of time in the Balkans, ever more fascinated by the creative energy and contemporary diversity that I witnessed in the region. Having had the opportunity to travel, perform and collaborate in cities as different as Cetinje and Zagreb, I was accustomed to the Balkan norm; that proximity does not bespeak similarity, that at every turn one has to recalibrate one’s expectations, one’s point of view, for a newly enriched understanding, new ideas, sounds, colours… For all of this, I was not really prepared for the world of Macedonian new music, into which I was abruptly thrust. I had no idea of what to expect.
My first visit was in April, and I was invited to perform at the annual DMM, the Days of Macedonian Music, organised by SOKOM, the society of Macedonian Compsoers. Every year, international performers, and Macedonian musicians gather for an intense week of concerts, mainly given in the archaeological museum in Skopje. On that first visit, I played works by Nacevski, Abrahamovski, and made my first acquaintance with Mihailo Trandafilovski, who was going to play a vital role in my musical understanding over the ensuing years. I
To my delight, I found that I was performing the newest music by a number of Macedonian composers, at that time completely unknown to me, surrounded by a showcases full of Iron age stoneware, Roman glassware and jewellery- a creative layering of shifting history and modern points of view that has been my repeated experience of working as a musician in the country. Since that time, on repeated visits, I have been able to perform in army barracks, caravanserai, nightclubs, libraries, working with groups of musicians ranging from orchestras to the Skopje Mandolin Orchestra, enthralled by the energy with which new music music is played and appreciated. There is something in the air, from which we in London can learn-a sense that the music written now is a reflection of the complex layers of a country’s interweave of history and contemporary culture-I am sure, that when you hear the music in tonight’s concert, that you will find that irresistible.
A vignette. A few years later, the British composer Nigel Clarke and I found ourselves in the historic city of Ohrid. We were there with the composer Jana Andreevska, who was been a guiding light on my first visit to Skopje and our many subsequent projects there. Ohrid is famous for its beautiful lake, and for, at one time, having had a church for every day of the year. The most famous of these, Sveti Sofia, is justifiably famous for its extraordinary frescos, of the lives of the orthodox saints, dating from the 11th to the 13th Century. The three of us climbed up to the galleried portico over the main cathedral entrance to the cathedral, and there, my breath was taken away by the riotous richnesss of the wall paintings under the colonnade. But then, the fog seemed to lift from my eyes, and I realised that we were looking at much more than just paintings-at a living, vibrating web of imagery. The entire wall of medieval frescoes is covered with an intricate network of scratches in to the plasterwork, which does not seem to obscure the paintings at all. When the eye adjusts itself, a new set of images, is revealed, dominated by what appear to be 17th and 18th sailing ships, the traffic of the adjacent lake, which itself is abutted by some of the most spectacular Roman mosaics I have ever seen. The images of the saints seem to be made vibrant by this apparent graffiti, and immediately we fell talking about how this reflects the relationship of the art of today, to that of the past, how, for example, the wild contemporary language of, Sonni Petrovski’s Bric-a-brac, might serve as complex lens, both to focus on the 21st Century, or to re-examine earlier traditions – of romantic virtuosity, of 18th century court music, folk traditions, or even of music at its beginnings-the scratch of hair on animal gut, of wood on stretched animal skin.
Last year, the Kreutzer Quartet made its first visit to Skopje, or rather, the half of the quartet that had not visited (or grown up there), to play at the DMM. Over a weekend, we played more Macedonian new music in three concerts than ever had been played by foreign artists, in one visit-along side works by Scelsi, Bartok, Ligeti and others. The Macedonian works ranged from the great voices of the second half of the second half of the 20th Century, Nikolovski and Zografski, to pieces by the youngest voices, such as Bojana Petrovi. These concerts convinced us of the value of bringing a concert linke this to Wiltons . Morgan and Neil were entranced by the welcome from the composers-for instance, Goran Nacevski turned up to rehearse his 5 pieces for violin and cello armed with chocolate for us. We can deny nothing to a composer who hands us good chocolate!
But I won’t deny that the meeting with Mihailo Trandafilovski proved to be the most profoundly important for me as an artist. Having gone to Macedonia to premiere his First Sonata for Piano and Violin, I discovered that he is a virtuoso violinist, and somehow managed to trick him into joining the Kreutzers-and from his hot seat in the quartet, he has produced an extraordinary series of chamber works, concerti, and chamber orchestral works, many of which have been heard on this stage in recent years. It is Trandafilovski’s unique energy and sense of modern lyricism, which has given me an entre into the modern and historic cross-currents of Macedonian musical life. These can provide pointers to look out for in all of the composers that you are going to hear tonight.
The most obvious of these will be rhythm. Macedonian Folk music has its own very particular rhythmic signatures, which vary from region to region, from village to village, from season to season. But the simple thing to listen out for, which you can hear in the …… for quartet, is the overlaying of heavily accented polyrhythms-rhythms, which literally, add up in different ways, and which can be best understood if one imagines them as the dips and nods of a line of traditional dancers, or as we as a quartet experience it, the very clear ‘marking of time’, a love of vertical accentuation, which is sometimes sniffed at in western Europe.
The next pointer might be colour, or better, flavour. On subsequent visits to Skopje, I found a favourite restaurant, in the 15th Century Kapan Han (one of the three surving caravanserai in the city). On one visit, over a week or so, we succeeded in trying everything on the menu, and I don’t mind saying that the richness of flavours quite literally coloured our growing understanding of the new music. But it was Mihailo and Jana Andreevska, who hammered home that he real signature of Macedonian flavours, the ‘Ajvar’, simply could only be experienced at home, as its making (using peeled and seeded roasted bell peppers) and chilli was simply too labour intensive to be commercially viable, and because every Macedonian family knows that it makes the best. I can’t stop tasting this when I play the richly textured harmonies of Trandafilovski’s music, or amazing wen of timbres in Tomislav Zografski’s 1968 Quartet, which we will also play tonight.
Image of my hours exploring the capital leap out at me when playing this music. The centre of Skopje is bisected by the River Varda. I normally have visited in the spring (I have never experienced the furnace of a ‘full on’ Macedonian summer), when the river is in spate-and one crosses it by a white stone bridge, built by Mehmed II ( conquerer of Constantinople)-and this bridge always feels like a time-machine, from the quiet alleys of the past to the sometimes overwhelming energy of present-day, fashionable Skoje, between architectural styles, from the alarmingly rapid change of the modern city, to the worn stone of ancient one layers of Byzantine and Ottoman, all of it under the gaze of the great fortress constructed during the reign of the Emperor Justinian in the 6th Century.
As travelling musician, there is nothing better than feeling at home. I know, that each time that I visit Skopje, there is one square, with a fountain and a tree, where the waiter will greet me in French, because that’s what we ended up speaking to each other on my first visit, and knows my coffee order. It seems that it’s always the same cat that comes to sit at my feet when I visit, though I know it’s unlikely. But every time I have sat at that table, my ears are full of the music that I have learnt to love-Nachevski, Spasov, Andreevska, Abrahamovski, Trandafilovski, Nikolovski, Zografski, Petrovski, Petrovic and many others. I hope that those of you who are new to it tonight will come to love the rich weave of this contemporary culture, it’s unique dialogue with past and present, as much as I do.