Ana Sokolovic: Made in Canada (sort of)

by Aaron Gervais

This is a dangerous way to open, but I’m going to go out and say it: there is something very Canadian about the music of Ana Sokolovic. (Yes, I know she’s originally from Serbia.) By that I mean Sokolovic’s music would probably not have been possible in many other countries. For better or worse, composition is a field still dominated by national borders, and as effervescent the question of a country’s personality is, it is there. Sokolovic has of course had her share of performances abroad, but hers is a music that needed to be fostered in the Great White North.

I feel confident in this assertion for two reasons. First, in researching this article I asked Sokolovic to send me her favorite pieces from her catalogue, so I can assume that what I got is representative of her aesthetic and not just what I’ve heard by happenstance elsewhere. Second, every time I’ve seen “the Canadian approach” tried in other countries, it has failed spectacularly. Yet Sokolovic has not failed, and I’ve seen her methods work very well for other Canadian composers too.

The Canadian (Sokolovic) approach tries to balance opposing forces in an egalitarian way. It embraces a constant change, allowing a new solution in each piece with no strings attached to the next. It juxtaposes unrelated aesthetic ideas without fear of dilution, confident that they will hold their own. It trusts that the personality of the composer will shine through, regardless of the musical solutions chosen.

Just try to write music like this in the US. You’ll be labelled a tweener at best. The American musical scene requires you to pick an aesthetic camp and go whole hog, whether that’s downtown post-minimalism, academic new complexity, or one of the 6 or 7 other isms in common use right now. Similarly in Europe, you either write music that fits with your nation’s “style,” you define yourself in antagonistic opposition to that style, or you move to the country where they support the music you want to write. Sokolovic doesn’t need to play these kinds of politics.

The Music of Ana Sokolovic: The Coles Notes Version

These are the six scores Sokolovic sent me for this article, listed chronologically by date of composition:

Pesma (1996/2005), chamber ensemble with voice
Ciaccona (2002), chamber
Vez (2005), solo cello
Portrait parle (2006), piano trio
Concerto pour orchestre (2007)
Dring, dring (2010), solo voices

Ana Sokolovic draws on her Serbian roots, but not exclusively, and never in an all-encompassing way like Bartók does. She likes rhythmic patterns and often sets up vamps. She uses a lot of trills and repeated, fluttery patterns of 16th or 32nd notes. She also possesses that rare gift of not writing pieces that are too long.

Some of her pieces have strong motivic relationships, others don’t. She rarely uses transitional material, nor does she often use long stretches of silence to separate unconnected musical ideas. Different materials or movements are buttressed together and the listener is left to figure out, “Oh, okay, we’re onto something else now.”

Sokolovic also seems to understand the importance of the hook: a musical entry point for the audience. Sometimes it’s extramusical, as in Dring, dring (a vocalization of deconstructed telephone conversations in four languages). Sometimes it’s just an appealing music structure that gets milked for all its worth, as in Ciaccona. In all cases, however, her artistic project can be unraveled from the first few phrases of music.

For me, Sokolovic is at her best with smaller ensembles. Portrait parle and Ciaccona are very strong pieces where the musical materials shine through and there is a good balance between development of structure and interesting use of instrumental resources. Similarly, Dring, dring and Vez both set forth clear aesthetic projects and execute them effectively, without adding extraneous bells and whistles that would distract from the larger goal.

Sokolovic’s voice is less evident in Pesma and her Concerto pour orchestre. Granted, Pesma is earlier than any of the other pieces, so I expect there would have been some development in the intervening years. Still, there is less finesse in the way she presents her materials, and her influences are more obvious—sections sound paraphrased from Xenakis, Stravinsky, and Bernard Hermann.

Fast-forward a decade to the Concerto and we find technically well-executed music but without the nuance of her other work, her voice subsumed by colouristic gestures that seem to be there mostly because they can only be done in an orchestral setting. These are not grave errors, and I would never fault any composer for experimenting, but the Concerto is not at the same standard as the chamber works she sent me.

Serbian-Canadian or Serbian and Canadian

Sokolovic is not shy about bringing her Balkan roots into her music, but the way she does it is very Canadian. Instead of making ethnic identity the defining aspect of her music, or totally subsuming it to a more “mainstream” compositional aesthetic, she uses it when it suits her, as just another item in her toolbox. Because the issue is not problematized, her music doesn’t sound “fusiony” or self-conscious.

Pesma and Cacciona both explicitly use Serbian scalar/modal material, and in both pieces she contrasts folkloric passages to dissonant chords, clusters, and extended techniques. These materials sit next to or on top of each other, perfectly happy to coexist unaltered. In Pesma, this juxtaposition extends down to the level of individual parts. Sections of the vocal line sound decidedly folkloric, while others are squarely within the French new music tradition, bringing to mind Grisey and Aperghis.

Sokolovic also uses Balkan rhythms in her music, which explains the intricate repeated vamps, as well as the odd meters of pieces like Vez. She states that many of these patterns stem from “the irregular Serbian rhythms which again come from the spoken language.” But as with the pitch material in her music, she feels no compulsion to use Balkan rhythms rigorously or exclusively, readily admitting that other rhythmic patterns are chosen just because she likes them. Stretches of music that sound completely “conventional” in the 21st-century Western compositional frame will abruptly be replaced by dancelike patterns that are clearly taken from something Balkan, all within the same musical phrase. It’s a bit like the musical equivalent of franglais or spanglish.

The Serbian influence in Sokolovic’s music is a faucet that can be turned on or off to varying degrees without compromising the integrity of her voice. Contrast Sokolovic’s approach to Argentine-American composer Osvaldo Golijov, whose musical materials scream, “I am an Argentine who moved to America!” on every downbeat. Golijov epitomizes the American music scene, where developing a brand or a shtick is a prerequisite to success, while Sokolovic characterizes the Canadian scene where you can be Serbian AND Canadian instead of just Serbian-Canadian.

Form and Religion

Sokolovic told me that she finds form “the most difficult element to conceive in music,” and that uncovering the right form is the driving force behind most of her compositional work. Listening to her music, it’s true that no two pieces seem to have the same approach. She treats form with the same Canadian plurality as her other musical materials.

Two of the pieces I received use extramusical elements to structure the form, leading to a highly episodic development. In Dring, dring, each movement represents a distinct moment in the ritual of speaking on the phone (ringing, answering, etc). Portrait parle draws inspiration from the 19th-century police chart of the same name, each episode based on a facial feature (hair, nose, lips) and played attacca; families of similar materials reappear throughout and the piece ends with a clear recapitulation, but each episode receives its own music.

Vez, on the other hand, is structured in a through-composed fashion. A series of Balkan-inspired runs in paraphrased form make up the primary material, but the piece ends on something entirely new: large, un-folk-like intervals moving upward. Ciaccona is the most tightly motivic piece of the bunch, drawing its structure from the traditional baroque form and sticking to variations on the opening 16th-note theme for the bulk of the development.

That right there is pretty much the range of what one can do with form: programmatic, episodic, through-composed, or classically derived. Outside of Canada, it would be hard to build a career with such a diverse palette. Like choosing your religious affiliation, nobody takes you seriously unless you stick with one approach for a while, and composers as different as Feldman, Stockhausen, and Reich built careers on very specific, narrow conceptions of form. Yet for Sokolovic, this was never an obstacle. She has developed an approach where musical elements are expected to be agnostic to their use, and one’s personality as an artist is assumed to carry across regardless.

Sokolovic’s is a very Canadian approach to composition, a kind of approach that is one of the unifying factors between the Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver scenes. I’m not sure exactly why the Canadian scene has developed in this way, but Sokolovic is an especially clear example of it. Other Canadian composers vary certain elements to lesser or greater degree, but Sokolovic has a fairly wide range of motion throughout all of her compositional materials. It would be easy to say that Serbian musical materials are the defining characteristic of her music, but this isn’t true. Canadian compositional aesthetics are as much or more important.

Aaron Gervais. December 2012. San Francisco, USA.
Canadian composer Aaron Gervais resides in San Francisco. You can learn more about his work at