“Do memories make us who we are? And if we lose them, does that mean we automatically lose ourselves?”

Sara Stevanovic

Sara Stevanovic is a Serbian composer and musicologist currently based between Belgrade and Italy. Sara describes her music as a “constant research that polemicizes in both content and form different sensations and reflections of the contemporary world”. Sara recently graduated in Composition in Ravenna (IT), and her compositions have been performed across Europe at festivals such as Mixtur (ES), Festival Crossroads (AT), UML International Festival (FI), and EstOvest Festival (IT) to widespread critical acclaim. Sara spoke to PRXLUDES about her research in memory creation through music, her work’s relation to space, time, and reminiscence, her influence from film and literature, and how these themes have influenced her upcoming opera.

Sara Stevanovic – the particular fact of “where” as such (2021), performed by Orquestra ESMUC in l’Auditori, Barcelona, ES.

Zyggy/PRXLUDES: Hey Sara! It’s great to chat with you today. How are you doing — where are you and what are you up to at the moment?

Sara Stevanovic: Hi Zyggy, so nice to see you! I am in Salzburg at the moment! I will have my piece premiered at Crossroads Festival this week so right now we are rehearsing and preparing for the big night! We just had a rehearsal this morning and it went great! My piece will be played by this amazing, young ensemble from Italy called Collettivo_21 alongside some amazing pieces by my colleagues. And when we are not rehearsing, I’m enjoying the concerts and the amazing program of this years Crossroads Festival. And some Glühwein!

You recently had a miniature for orchestra premiered at Festival Mixtur in Barcelona (which was fantastic, by the way!) — tell me a bit about your experience at Mixtur and what inspired the piece?

Thank you Zyggy! The festival week at Mixtur was amazing! It was actually quite intense with the rehearsals and numerous super-interesting events and lectures — but I enjoyed every bit of it! And the opportunity to meet in person and chat with other composers and musicians (including you!) from all over the world is just incredible: seems almost like a privilege nowadays!

The piece I wrote for Mixtur is entitled ‘the particular fact of “where” as such’ and the original idea for the piece comes from the book called ‘The Poetics of Space’ by French philosopher [Gaston] Bachelard. Privately, I’m very interested in memories, and everything that has to do with memories — [so] there was a part of this book where he talked about the connection between memories and time and space. He mentions how if you take some of your memories, and think about [them], you’ll notice how in your memory, time basically plays no role. It’s a little bit like with dreams; you’re never really sure how long the whole event was, the duration of it, when exactly did it happen… But then again, when you think about the space, you will notice how you and your memory have some details that look kind of random, and that you thought you didn’t even perceive in the first place. Sometimes, when I think about some of my childhood memories, I remember the exact detail of what was on the walls, or the color of the tablecloth, and you’re not even sure if it was really like that or if it was your imagination — but those details are there.

That’s absolutely fascinating. How did this idea of memory feed into your conceptualisation for the piece?

Basically, I decided to recreate a short memory where I would play with these two elements; the connection of memory to time and to space. On one hand, when you’re listening to the piece, you’re not actually aware of the time — it’s very fluid, it’s very passive and flying around. On the other hand, you can hear the different layers of the space that [are] slowly [being] created and little, but very precisely organized details that kind of stand out and create a story of their own.

That’s what I found so fascinating about it, though. You brought the audience into a sound world for such a short period of time, but you didn’t notice the time passing; you were ‘in’ the soundworld, and then you weren’t.

That was the idea, so if you tell me that I’m really happy. It means that it works. -laughs-

Have you played with the way in which your pieces concern time in your solo works? I remember you’ve done a piece for solo viola recently…

Well as composers, we are basically always working with time. Everything is [within] time. So of course, I think that you try to play with that — and not only “with” time, but with the perception of it. And I think in solo pieces that is very tricky. There is a tendency to involuntarily extend its perceived duration; the attention must be kept active in every given moment.

How have you played with the exploration of timbre and texture between different forces — particularly in your work for solo instruments?

Well, this year I actually started a series of pieces for solo instruments. The first piece was written just a couple of months before the miniature for orchestra. So, there was this short period of time where I was kind of contemporarily working on both of them. It is so fascinating how different the approach is; the space you have for details, for exploration… In the series of solo pieces, I also decided to use some sort of open forms connected to some levels of improvisation. The first piece of the series was actually written in spring this year and it was a commission for viola. The fact is that I enjoyed the process so much (and the way I was able to play around it) that I decided to write other pieces as well. The second one, ‘at times, I let the walls of my house blossom out’ for piano, was premiered this autumn in Oulu by Rob Durnin (K!ART Ensemble) and right now, I’m working on the third piece of the series, called ‘hideous hopeless cruel happy’, that will be for electric guitar and dedicated to Luca Guidarini.

There’s almost two entirely different forces at play there; one’s a lot more outward-looking, one’s more inward-focused. With orchestras, I find it hard to get that connection just because of the practicalities of those forces.

I really don’t like to talk about the practicalities, because I think as a composer, you shouldn’t be influenced by that. But, in some ways, you have to always keep them in consideration. There are some boundaries, and you have to keep in mind the rehearsal time you will have.

Sara Stevanovic – world is probably made of roses, so-ons and ashes (2021), performed by Daniele Valabrega / Divertimento Ensemble.

So tell me more about this series of solo pieces; what connects them? What makes them a series for you?

Well the defining factor was actually the process of memory creation, because that was my idea when I started writing the viola piece. For the form of the piece, I took the process of memory creation, and I connected it to this childhood game — I don’t know if you know it, if it’s a famous thing in Britain — where you have a design, some kind of drawing, and you have these little numbered dots that you have to connect…

Connect the dots? -laughs-

Well yeah – easy! I was reading this book called ‘The Art of Memory’, and in the description of the process of memory creation, [Yates] would say that when you’re remembering something, you don’t remember 100% of what happened, but you have little dots — little moments — of that memory, and all the rest is something your imagination creates. That’s why you’re never 100% sure if it happened exactly the same way as you’re thinking. So, I connected that to this game. That is also [what] I was telling you about the open form; in one part of viola piece the player is asked to play the game [of] connect-the-dots using the pregiven musical material. The connection line with the other two pieces is exactly that: the process of memory creation, and its connection to the childhood game that takes slightly different form in the other two pieces.

Do you see yourself expanding this series in the future, or do you see it more as a triptych or trilogy?

I think I will expand it more. I still have to finish the e-guitar piece, so let’s see where it goes. But if you ask me now, it’s something I would like to continue doing, for sure.

Your pieces tend to have very unique titles — how much of an emphasis do you place on titles? Do you find titles to be important with regards to your compositional process?

A lot. -laughs- I wouldn’t say “too” much, but a lot. I usually start with a title. This is a very funny thing — but I have to think of a title in the first phases of my composing. And even when I’m composing, I would go back to that title and [make] little changes or exchange some words if I find better. I think I have at least three or four working titles before arriving [at] the final one.

But also, I really like to write; it’s something I used to do a lot, when I was younger. I remember when I was 8 or 9, for my birthday I got this little journal with a lock on it. And I think it was the lock — the fact that for the first time in my life I had something that only I could open, that belonged to me. So I started writing, but I guess I didn’t really know how journals worked. I never wrote about myself but I made short stories, about random, imaginary people or things. And I continued doing that for years. So right now, I feel that the titles are the freedom I get to write as a composer… -laughs- I know it’s funny, but it’s my miniature [freedom]. I really love to have a very nice [sounding] title. I cannot really explain it, but it has to be perfect to me — to have the exact sound that I want.

Sara Stevanovic – across the passing hours (2020), performed by Claudio Pasceri and Sara Stevanovic at ISOLE D’ISTANTI 2020.

On that note — what’s the significance of each of the titles for the solo series?

The first one for solo viola is called ‘world is probably made of roses, so-ons and ashes’. The drawing that I chose for the game that I was telling you about — the little improv part — was a rose; my idea was, if a child comes to you and asks “can you tell me what the world [is] made out of?” — just a very silly question that [children] ask — there is no real answer to it, so you would probably think of something really nice and sweet, such as “the world is made of roses”. And then I wanted to create something very contrary to it, [like] ashes.

I don’t know if you know, but there’s this Slovenian philosopher called Slavoj Žižek — he always says “and so on, and so on, and so on”, and I really love it when he says [that] because it’s basically like the story’s so long [that] you don’t have time to say it all. I thought about it when thinking about the game, and the process of memory creation… a long process [with] a lot of repetition. And so between the roses and the ashes, I just put “and so on”. -laughs- It sounds silly when I say it like this!

Not at all! It encompasses that infinite between two extremes.

Yeah, and then so-ons and so-ons… -laughs-

The piece for piano is called ‘at times, I let the walls of my house blossom out’. I was thinking of a very particular memory, which is the memory of the childhood house — the house where you were born [or] raised. The idea comes from another one of my readings; this time it was an experiment by two French psychologists — Anne Balif and Françoise Minkowska — who explain how simple, drawn images can “reveal a psychic state”. They have studied drawings of houses made by children and tested how types of lines, of forms, and even small details like [a] chimney, smoke or doorknob can reveal their own vision of “home”. So, for the game of connect-the-dots I decided to use a drawing of a house that then becomes the basis for the form of the piece; the pianist is in some way letting that form and that house “blossom out”.

Tell me a bit about how this affects your compositional process. What tends to come to your head first, and how do you tend to manipulate that kind of material?

What comes to my head first… If I have a clear idea about the piece (it can be a concept, or something extramusical), I would say that then I start working on the musical material and title, [and] it all comes at the same time. But this year, I had a couple of commissions in a very short period of time, and sometimes they were also overlapping — and at some point, I had to write a piece, and I had no idea what to write about. So, when that happens, I take the instrument, and try to play around, and discover something I can start with. Sometimes, the things that I discover don’t even finish in the piece, but it’s something to start with. And then that develops, and changes, and creates something completely new.

“As composers, we are basically always working with time. Everything is [within] time. So of course, I think that you try to play with that — and not only “with” time, but with the perception of it.” Sara Stevanovic, in conversation with PRXLUDES

How does that approach work with instruments you’re unfamiliar with — do you prefer to discover things on your own or through working with performers?

To be honest, I prefer working with a performer, with a musician. That’s what I did for the viola piece; from the moment I started writing the piece I was in contact with [the performer]. We were having video calls, and I would ask him to try to do [things] and he would give me some feedback, and stuff like that. But actually now for the e-guitar piece I’m trying to play a little bit myself; and I am not a guitarist! So let’s see how that works out!

Would you say your work has a narrative quality to it? How much of an importance do you place on that extramusical influence?

Well, I think that’s something I used to consider a lot when I first started composing. As I said, I used to write a lot when I was younger so when I first started composing, I guess I was still trying to have that kind of narrative in my music but somewhere along the way I kind of moved away from it; and I don´t think that is necessarily a bad thing. Talking about extramusical influence — I think that when you are creating something from scratch you are kind of influenced by everything around you. I see that [about] myself as well; how different phases of my life, different surroundings (I move a lot), different people have an impact on my work. So that’s one and then there are books, movies… But I think that the most concrete example of how books and movies influence my work [is] my mini opera.

Sara Stevanovic – Atrocity of Sunsets (2021), performed by Ensemble Collettivo_21 at Crossroads Festival 2021.

So tell me a bit about this mini-opera you’re working on…

So for the last year and a half, I’ve been working on [a] mini-opera for soprano, ensemble, electronics and video. I finished the piece in summer this year, and right now we are working on the production [side of] things, and we are hoping to have it premiered in summer 2022, fingers crossed!

The piece is called ‘Between mirrors, memories blundering merge’. I have to say I’m particularly excited about this piece, because it’s the first piece where I got the courage to write the text — so I’m the composer, and the librettist for the opera! That’s why it took me so much time to write it, to work on the text, to finish the text, to start working on the music and everything. It’s been a lot of work, but I am very excited about it, because it’s the most autobiographical thing I have ever written; it has a lot of very personal elements. I’m really excited to hear it, and see some reactions [to it].

What’s the foundation of the piece — is it linked to those ideas of memory and memory creation?

So, I started from this hypothesis that I read some time ago, saying that in some very, very far future, humankind will completely lose the ability to create long-term memories. The explanation for this hypothesis is that our memory capacities started decreasing from the moment when the first writing systems were discovered. Later on, technology had a great impact on it as well. The reason is very simple: we are not obliged to remember as we can simply outsource so many of our memories and this can lead to humankind completely losing the ability to create long-term memories. But still, even if that happens, the hypothesis says that we would still keep the so-called “natural memory”, meaning that our senses would still be able to recognise things already seen or heard — but our brain would not be able to recreate the exact image of the memory. It basically means that our body would react, but we wouldn’t be able to recognise what we are seeing, or feeling.

That’s absolutely fascinating. How did you develop that hypothesis into the opera’s storyline?

Well, the main character is [a] woman who comes from this hypothetical future, with no ability of creating long-term memories. One night, walking around the city, she has this strange reaction smelling the linden tree — which would basically be the natural reaction of her body recognising something she had smelled before. The smell of the linden tree is in fact something connected to the memory of her father, that she’s obviously not aware of. So, having this strange reaction in her body, she decides to visit a therapist who should help her to research and understand those feelings. The therapist in this mini opera is a virtual therapist, represented through an artificial voice. I liked the idea of introducing a representative of artificial intelligence because of the dualism that it creates: on one hand it is the outsource of woman’s memories and on the other hand, the solution for rediscovering them.

So, the whole story goes on [from there] — I don’t want to say too much — but some of the most important elements are: the loss (very particular one too, because one can’t be aware of losing memory), the indescribable void and also the question of one’s own personality: do memories make us who we are? And if we lose them, does that mean we automatically lose ourselves?

This sounds incredible — I’m so excited for the production when it does get premiered. Out of curiosity, what language is this opera in (or is it in multiple?)

It’s actually in three languages. -laughs- It’s in Italian, English, and German — which are almost the languages I speak (plus my mother tongue, Serbian). From the perspective of dramaturgy, I think it helped me a lot to represent the complexity of woman’s personality. Every language is, in some way, connected to one part of her personality. I think it’s very clear once you’re into the story, to understand [how] it’s basically like three little “personas”, [each] represented by one language.

More of Sara’s work can be found at the links below:

Read more about Sara’s apparances at Festival Mixtur and Crossroads:

Links to mentioned literature:

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About Author

Zygmund de Somogyi is a composer, performer, and writer based in London, and artistic director of contemporary music magazine PRXLUDES.

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