PuSh Festival: The Balkan bride gets the spotlight in Svadba/Wedding

The traditional meets the starkly modern in Serbian-born composer Ana Sokolovic’s Svadba/Wedding for six female voices
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In keeping with a growing international art trend, many of the productions on view at the 2013 edition of the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival involve unusual perspectives on human relations. They’re concerned with how we interact with each other and with society at large; consider the Danish company Stop the Violence’s Human Library, in which viewers engage one-on-one with an assortment of living “books”, or Do You See What I Mean?, a French production in which participants explore Vancouver while blindfolded. Still, few of this year’s PuSh offerings encapsulate a web of relationships in such beautifully concrete form as composer Ana Sokolovic’s a cappella opera Svadba/Wedding.

Set in a Balkan village on the eve of a wedding, Svadba finds the bride and her five best friends preparing for the big day by swapping stories and song. Although both the text and the music draw directly on the Belgrade-trained Sokolovic’s Serbian heritage, their delivery is starkly modern, and their content universal.

As the composer tells it, the original commission—from Toronto’s Queen of Puddings Music Theatre—stipulated only that she write a piece for six female voices. The trick, she says, was finding a situation in which a half-dozen women might naturally meet.

“Of course, it was easy enough for me to think about Serbian music, but at the same time I thought about an opera, and about the possibilities where we could have six people together, in which situations,” Sokolovic explains from her Montreal home, speaking in heavily accented English. “And then I thought, ‘It’s the shower, before the wedding, where we have six women who are talking and preparing the bride for tomorrow.’ So I took the same principle [Igor] Stravinsky did in his Les Noces, his ‘wedding’. I borrowed the original texts—in his case it was Russian texts; in mine it was Serbian and Balkan texts. The difference between Stravinsky’s piece and mine is that he has instruments and male voices, so his is really the wedding itself.”

Online excerpts of previous productions show that Svadba clearly draws from the kind of Balkan singing popularized in the 1980s by the Bulgarian State Radio and Television Female Vocal Choir. Sokolovic points out that this kind of close-harmony approach is common to all of the Balkan countries, and adds that she didn’t fully realize how much impact it had had on her musical development until after emigrating to Canada approximately 20 years ago. Trained as a contemporary composer, she had been under the impression that she’d been working in a modern, borderless style, but that wasn’t quite the case.

“It was the critics and the public who told me, ‘Oh, I feel your Slavic soul,’ and I didn’t even know what they were talking about,” she says, laughing. “But I think this is a completely normal reaction. You want to create another world. You don’t want to create the world you already know, or else you would do folk music.

“For the larger audience, I think it’s clear that there is influence from folk music,” she continues. “But I don’t know if they can say where is the limit. What’s very interesting is that in 20th-century music, when we started using all kinds of extended techniques for voice—onomatopoeia, whisperings, all kinds of different sounds which are not related to the real, pure voice in the classical music we know—a lot of these techniques exist in the folk music of the Balkans, and in other folk musics. So there are many things in Svadba that are inspired by that—but of course a lot of them I invented, too. My idea was to make it the most organic combination possible.”

That’s part of the work’s appeal: although adventurous, it’s rooted in shared human experience.

“I can say that the whole array of emotions comes into it,” Sokolovic reveals. “There’s laughing. There is a lot of joy. But there are some conflict situations that arise, maybe some jealousy. And there are some memories of childhood, some very childish situations. There are almost erotic situations, where the bride is taking a bath. And at the end, she’s leaving—and traditionally, in the Balkans, this is a very emotional moment. There is a lot of sadness, a few kinds of sadness. It’s not the saddest sadness, but there’s something very touching about it. After that, she will dance, but at the moment where she’s leaving her friends, it’s very emotional.

“What’s interesting about women,” she adds, “is that they are close, much more close than boys are together. Intimately close. You know, we will be naked with our friends without any problem, which is not the same thing, always, with men. So there’s this physical closeness, but there’s this other closeness. We’re gossiping, we are talking about many, many things: about boys, about our mothers, all these surprisingly universal girl questions. So I just put that in evidence, in a way. I just played with it, because it seems so universal. We are all the same!”

And different, too—often in very beautiful ways. 

Svadba/Wedding is at Heritage Hall on January 21 and 22, as a Music on Main and PuSh International Performing Arts Festival presentation.

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