Ẑebeljan: Pipe and Flamingos in Santiago de Compostela

Ẑebeljan: Pipe and Flamingos in Santiago de Compostela

Pipe and Flamingos is the title of the new concerto for clarinet and orchestra by the Serbian composer Isidora Žebeljan, commissioned by Joan Enric Lluna, who’ll be performing the piece on February 9 in Santiago de Compostela, along with the Real Filharmonía de Galicia. Lluna conducts and will be featured on solo clarinet.  
Pipe and Flamingos consists of three clearly distinct movements which blend together seamlessly, inspired by an imaginary, surreal fairy tale. The concert format resembles a form of a film in which brief fragments, like film sequences, follow one another to create a story.
We had these questions for the composer.

Pipe and Flamingos, as you explain in your introduction to the piece, is an imaginary fairy tale. The titles of your instrumental compositions often contain figurative and narrative references. To name just a few: Song of a Traveller in the Night, Dance of Wooden Sticks, Escenas picaras, Il Circo. How important is the fictional component of your music?
My music has a strong narrative component, but only in the musical sense. This means that I am always telling a specific musical story. These stories are also based on an element of surprise. I would compare my music to the literature of South American writers of magic realism like Márquez , Sabato, Llosa, or to the art of Surrealism – what they do with words and thoughts, I do with notes. I always give a title to my music after it has been finished, when it has already been born. This means that I am solemnly guided by musical intuition. I reckon it’s a way to give intuition the chance to prevail and be as free as possible. Music is energy, and my task is to be a transmitter of that divine energy, as much as I can.

How much influence has Balkan music had on your compositions? 
Balkan music is as natural for me as breathing. Even though I was born in Belgrade, much of my childhood is marked by the sounds, smells and sights of Banat, a plain in the East Balkans divided among Serbia, Romania and Hungary, where Bartók and Kurtág were born, and where my grandparents lived - many of my childhood summers and winters were colored by that landscape. From an early age, I was enchanted by the music of Serbian, Romanian and Hungarian Gypsies of that region, and by the sounds of untuned violins and pipes played by the village players, as well as the ‘raw’ voices of Orthodox peasant church choirs in those same villages. Above all, I was and still am madly in love with all sorts of dance music (traditional, jazz, punk, ska, techno, etc.).

Can you tell us what working with Goran Bregović and Emir Kusturica was like?
I was in my late twenties when I worked with them, so from today’s perspective that was like…once upon a time. The biggest gift I got from that experience was the chance to practice orchestration - then as now, one can consider that a real luxury. For example, I would arrange the same chord in a few different orchestral positions, and then listen the to result in the orchestral rehearsal. It was my little, secret, joyful game from which I gained enormous experience and for which I am eternally grateful. That time was marked by exhausting work, but it was a happy time, too. Goran has a fantastic sense of being able to feel which melodies might become hits, and Kusturica is a perfectionist with a great imagination, but with a good ear as well. As Bosnians, they have a special sense of humor that helped make our work a lot of fun, and sometimes even surrealistic. 

ISIDORA ŽEBELJAN was born in Belgrade in 1967. She is one of the leading Serbian composers in contemporary music. Her impressive résumé includes compositions for musical theater, orchestral and chamber music pieces, which have been performed at major institutions and festivals throughout Europe. She has also collaborated on numerous film soundtracks, and was responsible for the orchestration of music by Goran Bregović for films by Emir Kusturica. She is also a pianist and conductor. She garnered international recognition with her opera Zora D., which was commissioned by the Genesis Foundation of London, and performed in 2003 in Amsterdam, directed by David Pountney and Nicola Raab.
Her most recent opera, Two Heads and a Girl, a comic tale in one act inspired by an Indian legend, premiered in Siena at Teatro dei Rozzi in 2012, and was commissioned by the Accademia Chigiana. The opera has been staged several times since then.

Photo by Kristina Milković