Saturday 11 February 2023

New music should not be seen as extra-terrestrial, it should not generate fear: I chat to composer Ana Sokolović, artistic director of the Société de musique contemporaine du Québec

Ana Sokolovic (Photo: Jérome Bertrand)

In the third of my interviews devoted to exploring music in Canada [previously, I chatted to Alexander Shelley, music director of the NAC Orchestra, see article, and cellist/composer Margaret Maria and soprano Donna Brown, see article], I chat to Canadian-based, Serbian-born composer Ana Sokolović. Ana has been the artistic director of the Société de musique contemporaine du Québec (SMCQ) since early 2022. From 23 February to 5 March 2023, SMCQ will present the 11th edition of Montreal/New Musics (MNM), one of North America's largest new music festivals. SMCQ is in fact one of the oldest contemporary music societies in North America and the oldest in Canada. It is notable for being founded by composers, and the artistic director has always been a composer. Ana is perhaps best known in the UK for her opera Svadba (The Wedding), which was performed by Waterperry Opera Festival last year.  

SMCQ wasn't just created to produce concerts, the idea was that people could meet, think and talk about music and contribute to the musical world. Prior to that, in Canada, there were sporadic contemporary music events but nothing that was taking care of new music exclusively. This year will be SMCQ's 56th season. In fact, both Ana's predecessors were composers and conductors; Ana's predecessor, the Canadian composer Walter Boudreau, conducts a major premiere at this year's MNM. Though Ana hastens to add that she is not a conductor. 

Each year, SMCQ presents a concert season, and alternates between MNM and a Homages Series, a tribute to one composer's legacy. But there are many other activities beyond these, including a youth programme, SMCQ Jeunesse (SMCQ Youth) and many activities to promote new music. As Ana develops her own seasons with SMCQ (the current MNM is largely the work of her predecessor) she wants to involve not just musicians and composers, but musicologists and other artists, to bring out the idea that music is not alone and artistic expression can be correlated with other arts. 

Having a composer as artistic director has always been important to SMCQ but Ana sees it as simply being another angle, and she admits that she had never thought about directing a company until she was asked. In many ways, for her, it is like creating a new piece or a new concert programme. You need to consider what will go with what, from the point of view of the composers, the performers and the audience. Whilst the current season is largely the work of Walter Boudreau, with just a few of her interventions, she is preparing next season. One of the things she is thinking about is the concert experience - how long should concerts be, should there be an interval, should they change the times of day? She is even wondering about including music from other eras such as the Baroque. 

SMCQ will present the 11th edition of Montreal/New Musics (MNM),

As far as she is concerned, everything is on the table, so it should be interesting to see what develops. Part of this, she feels, is that post-Pandemic, everybody is thinking differently about performance and the arts. Also, she thinks that it is important that music is a mirror of society, so as well as the pandemic, there is climate change, Black Lives Matter and other issues to consider too. For Ana, music should mirror what is around in society, and she is happy if music can reach a lot of people. New music should not be seen as strange and extra-terrestrial, it should not generate fear.

As well as the concerts, Ana has added other elements to the mix of MNM, there will be a colloquium during the first week and two study days. The theme of the festival is Music and Spirituality, so the colloquium considers this topic under the title Music and Transcendence in a Posthuman Age [23-25 February 2023, see SMCQ website]. 

For any festival like this, Ana sees it as important that they not only present Canadian composers, but present music from the rest of the world as well as developing connections to ensembles from across the globe. This year, as well as Canadian ensembles there are European ones - Ensemble Court-circuit and Ensemble Cairn from France, Mixtura Ensemble from Germany and mdi ensemble from Milan, whose programme will include a commission by Salvatore Sciarrino. An accordionist from Germany, Snežana Nešić will be performing two premieres by Quebec composers, Jean Lesage and Jimmie LeBlanc. There will be an event where Montreal's Quasar Saxophone Quartet and Germany's Mixtura Ensemble will be playing together, from the two separate countries thanks to modern technology. Looking ahead there will be an ensemble from Vietnam at a future festival. 

Many of the European ensembles are collaborating with ensembles from Québec, and music includes not just contemporary but near contemporary such as Messiaen's Trois petites liturgies de la présence divine and four of the Vingt Regards sur l’enfant Jésus. Vocal music is very present this year, and two concerts include the participation of First Nations artists. Voix du nord: Nunavik — Bretagne will feature music by Katia Makdissi-Warren with Inuit and Breton singers, whilst one of Canada's indigenous voices, Cree-born composer Andrew Balfour is presenting Notinikew, a mini-opera that highlights the history of Indigenous soldiers who fought for liberty in Europe during the First World War but were denied their rights and freedoms upon their return home. There will be a new version of Golgot(h)a, an oratorio on texts by Raôul Duguay, created originally in 1990 by former SMCQ artistic director Walter Boudreau.

Composer Andrew Balfour whose opera Notinikew is presented at MNM (Photo: Aaron Vincent Elkaim)
Composer Andrew Balfour whose opera Notinikew is presented at MNM
(Photo: Aaron Vincent Elkaim)

Le Grand Nuit 2023
on 25 February 2023 takes place as part of the Nuit blanche à Montréal of the Festival Montréal en lumière, when museums and other spaces are open, and Le Grand Nuit 2023 will feature a series of different sound artists, including a piece by Sandeep Bhagwati, a Canada-based, German-trained Indian composer who will be the subject of SMCQ's Homages Series for 2023/24. 

De Tremblay à Feldman: visages de la spiritualité en musique will feature the music of Canadian composer Gilles Tremblay (1932-2017) alongside Arvo Pärt, Morton Feldman's Rothko Chapel and a new piece from Canadian composer Simon Bertrand inspired by Zen Buddhism. The final concert of the festival, on 5 March 2023 will feature Benjamin Britten's Les Illuminations and Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, alongside Illuminations by Canadian composer Brian Cherney.

This year's festival represents a return to the normality of indoor events following the uncertainties of the previous festival, but though past festivals have attracted audiences from all over, there is the question as to whether they will return in person for this year, also Ana is keen to attract new audiences and young people. The festival's mix of concerts, round tables and other events is intended to be interesting for anybody. The aim overall is to communicate, and this year's theme of Music and Spirituality is one that is of concern to many, whilst music and spirituality have always been connected. Ana feels that the events in the festival will ask questions, but not necessarily find the answers.

There is none of Ana's music in MNM and she has no immediate plans to schedule any during SMCQ's season, but elsewhere she has plenty going on. When we spoke she was just back from Düsseldorf where her ballet Coppelia X Machina with choreography by Hélène Blackburn was premiered by Ballett am Rhein at Opernhaus Düsseldorf. When I ask how it went, her first comment is 'amazing'. Whilst she has worked with dance companies before and her music has been used by choreographers, this was her first experience working with a large company with the orchestra in the pit. The ballet was a new interpretation of the Coppelia story, based on ETA Hoffmann.

Coming up she has the premiere of Melita by Orchestre symphonique de Montréal, conductor Rafael Payare, in April 2023 [further details]. Ana is coming to the end of her third year as the orchestra's composer-in-residence and this is one of the pieces arising from the residency. It is a work inspired by nature, which is relatively unusual for her, she describes herself as a 'city girl', she likes nature but is rarely inspired by it. The piece's title, Melita, is the Latin name for an island off Croatia (named in Croatian, Mljet) which she has visited twice. The island is quite an experience because there are no motor vehicles, just bicycles so the piece is inspired by the sounds of the island, sounds that are very different to the world full of motor cars and more.

She is the fourth most performed female opera composer in the world in the last decade (according to Operabase), Her first opera, The Midnight Court (2005) was presented at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. Opera News noted its "refreshingly playful, inventive, joie de vivre sound world". Her opera Svadba (2011) has been performed more than fifty times, including by Opera Philadelphia, San Francisco Opera, the Perm Opera, and at the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence .

Ana was born in Belgrade, then in Yugoslavia (now Serbia), where she studied in Novi Sad and Belgrade, before coming to Canada in 1992 to study at l’Université de Montreal. Coming to Canada opened her eyes to the possibilities of utilising her Balkan roots in music. Canada embraces people of many different origins and the country's mosaic culture encourages each person to bring something from their own country. She realised that Balkan culture's rhythms and other not necessarily musical elements might perhaps be interesting. She uses elements of her culture as a backdrop when she needs and likes it. She writes only for acoustic instruments. But that does not prevent her from being interested in modern techniques and modern instruments, and she is often inspired by elements which can enrich musical expression.

She comments that contemporary music has now opened up to new ideas and techniques from other cultures and traditions, new ways of doing things inspired by the old. And she cites the example of scratch tone used by traditional fiddle players and in folk music. Contemporary composers are now able to use such techniques in different ways, and she loves this sense of opening up, as it helps her to use elements from her Balkan background.

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