Interview with Manja Ristic

Manja Ristic, born 1979 in Belgrade, is a multimedia artist – violinist, improv performer, sound artist, curator, published poet, researcher, educator and cultural manager. Graduated at the Faculty of Music Art, Belgrade (2001), then in 2004 finished PGDip at the Royal College of Music in London (RCM).

As a solo and chamber musician of classical repertoire she performed throughout Europe collaborating with renewed mentors, conductors and performers. After postgraduate studies she turns toward multimedia performance researching in the field of instrumental electro-acoustics, sound art, conceptual music, AV installation, applied music, experimental theater etc.

She is co-founder of the Association of Multimedia Artists AUROPOLIS, established in 2004, which produced large number of cultural events, interdisciplinary projects and international artistic productions.

You’ve studied violin at the Music Academy in Belgrade. Was your interest always firmly rooted in classical music and what were your early influences?

In a certain sense this is hard question! Most of my youth I did spend deeply dedicated to classical music education, which was always clearly a priority – developing my perception and understanding of music, and above all mastering an instrument. In that process, I was taught how to “listen” and to strive towards the exact sound I wanted to produce. I was intensively exposed to classical music, but on the other side I grew up with a six years older brother who was pretty much punk orientated, and he would constantly play cassettes of Ramones, Dead Kennedys, Bad Religion, Dinosaur Jr. and some great bands from ex Yugoslavia punk culture such are KUD Idijoti or Pekinška Patka!

The early influences were also my teachers and mentors. The “first phase” of my musical development was happening in a war-torn country, under embargo, inside a cultural vacuum, so in my high school days my real idols were my teachers, they were responsible for my primary system of musical values.
Then at the Belgrade Academy, at the age of 17 I met a person that was to stir my musical orientation, and introduce me to electronic music and concept-orientated performance art. That was the cellist Ivana Grahovac. Today we walked together by the sea and we realized it’s been 20 years since we first met.

After completing a degree at the Royal Collage of Music in London, you’ve decided to return to Belgrade and you took what was probably not the easiest of paths, deciding to concentrate on electro-acoustic and experimental compositions. What prompted such a decision?

It wasn’t a firm decision that happened in a concrete moment, it was rather a circumstantial process stretched across over a few years. London was a cultural shock for me, but was also set at the right speed for me. I enjoyed the “meat grinder” tempo. That doesn’t mean it was an easy life, on contrary, I was poor and I landed from another planet. My focus was on violin studies. Thanks to cosmic synchronicity, I become student of Dona Lee Croft.

Dona Lee Croft is a violin wizard, an extraordinary artist and teacher. Conscious of that I worked my ass off to get as much as possible from her. Thanks to her patience it only took me two years to reach the highest level of instrumental performance. It was my first so to speak identity crisis – to reach that peek at the age of 25, but it didn’t feel completely right to focus on recycling classical repertoire straight away. I was already musically mature enough to ask some serious questions.

Practise and development of (self taught) improvisation and electro-acoustic experiments already lasted for couple of years. Since 1997 I performed with cellist Ivana Grahovac as Eruption, and we would often invite a percussionist, a DJ or an electronic musician to join us on different occasions. During our Belgrade Academy days we felt a bit like outcasts. We were troubled by the rigid classical environment and decided to start on our own, playing in underground clubs, galleries, alternative spaces… It helped us stay sane as we wasted the most important years trapped in Milosevic’s Serbia, spending months on the streets during student protests, experiencing bombing; all that turmoil completely disrupted our studies.

During this period the most important person who introduced us to electronic music composing was the composer and multimedia artist Jasmina Mina Mitrusic. She approached us after an improv gig and simply said, “I expected more from both of you”. It was the beginning of a life long friendship. Apart from being a genius composer, Mina was a member of Luna, a cult post-punk band from Novi Sad in the 80s.

Towards the end of my studies at the RCM I went to Amsterdam to visit a friend who studied piano in Den Haag, and while killing time around the town and looking for a place to practise, I met an amazing gang. People who would release an improvisational beast in me in the years to come, French percussionists Toma Gouband and Mathieu Calleja, double bass player Brice Soniano and Danish singer Birgitte Lyregaard. We would meet up and go to the woods to jam for hours on end. We kept meeting in France, UK, and then eventually Brigitte wrote and produced the musical fairy tale “The Tale of the Forbidden Flower” with Danish pianist Rune Kaagaard. For a while we toured in France, Denmark and Croatia as a quintet.

That would be the romanticized side of the story. The less romantic side is that after finishing the RCM it was nearly impossible for me to get a working permit in the UK as a non EU citizen. I would’ve needed to hand over my passport to the Home office for a couple of years, and being at the peek of my performing craziness that didn’t occur to me as either desirable or necessary. So, after Eruption and the Tale, I joined a group of artists in Belgrade and formed the Association of Multimedia Artists. “Auropolis” was a product of the close friendship between young people at the beginning of their artistic careers in different spheres of the contemporary arts. We started developing projects, but producing experimental arts wasn’t an easy task. We didn’t know how to access the funding channels because our activities weren’t engaged or political or critical enough and two years after finishing the RCM I was ready to go back to London or to start all over in Paris on my own. But then a catastrophic event occurred, I lost my mum, which changed my overall perception of life. Chasing a career wasn’t so necessary any more.

What importance, if any, did early Serbian electroacoustic composers such as Vladan Radovanovic have on you and what impact would you say his activity with the Elektronski Studio Radio Beograda, which he founded in 1972, have on the younger generations?

You might be surprised now but my answer is none. Only because higher music education at that time, and I can freely say still today, is not contemporary orientated neither strives to change single-minded old-fashioned classical performance philosophy. So I found out about Radovanovic and the Electronski studio the same way I found out about Stockhausen or Boulez. From a book, or from a friend. Like in the Middle Ages.

It is the greatest tragedy how, with the fall of Yugoslavia, a giant cultural drain opened and sucked out everything that previous generations were building. Darkness occurred and we found ourselves in that darkness with eyes wide open and sensing that we must be part of something, but that something was either dead or forgotten. Only when I started encountering the underground culture I found out that I slept on gold. At that time I was already composing electronic pieces myself. There is no systematic education about what was happening around Elektronski studio and there is no contemporary music theory or post-critic practice that produces research in that field. There are people vaguely remembering it and there is an official archive. Culture was in a certain sense stuck for a prolonged amount of time, metaphorically speaking like in a nuclear post-war zone.

Following on from the previous question, I recently did an interview with the Ubivae collective from Novi Sad.  Apart from a few names such as Szilárd Mezei, Igor Stangliczky, Abul Mogard, and Marko Nikodijevic, I am woefully ignorant in terms of adventurous music from Serbia. How would you describe the experimental scene in your country and more specifically in Belgrade?

There is a small scene that uncompromisingly fights for its existence mostly dependent on a few strong individuals. Its been a long ride and almost 20 years of investment in organizing, proposing, proliferating, promoting, educating in order to bring life back to new music scene. Funding policies are constantly on someone else’s side; dozens of projects were written and put aside. Some amazing festivals are killed by backlashing politics. But even in these conditions the scene is there. Getting some recognition within an European context helped, also integrating different performing cultures, electronic music, sound in experimental theatre, spoken word experiments, cutting-edge or noise, mixing improv and ambient with live video or live cinema. I held web-streaming performances every Friday for 3 years on an Internet radio. Stangliczky and Lukatoyboy started the ImpovE series, and then disappeared for couple of years until the harpist Milana Zaric initiated its revival. The collective is going through different phases but it is still there. There are names that are enjoying international recognition like Milana, Teodora Stepancic, Svetlana Maraš, WoO… On the other hand, Novi Sad has the Improstor collective, which is holding regular performances, and there are some wonderful names coming from the Novi Sad scene like Marina Džukljev, Ivan Ckonjevic, Tijana Stankovic, Nenad Markovic, and also Blank Disc from Zrenjanin. Of course there are many others as well! But there is still “a missing link” between these two scenes in my opinion. Belgrade and Novi Sad are only 80km apart but they struggle to get together.

Back to your solo work, when listening to your album All Naked the first time round, I was quite startled to hear the voice of PJ Harvey appearing out of nowhere on one of the tracks (The Horse). For a moment, I thought an ad had automatically started on one of the tabs I had open on my laptop. As it happens, this is a collaboration with the artist Simonida Rajcevic. Indeed, the visual arts and theatre often seem to inform your music. What would you say you have gained from this type of cross-pollination?

All Naked is a poem and the album came as a side project – as a spontaneous / instant collection of my applied sound art. It happened as I got a sudden urge to get closure on a certain period and to collect in one place pieces taken out of larger artistic concepts.

I conceptualized and produced enormous amount of projects in the span of 15 years that involve all sorts of different practices, art, multimedia experiments, interdisciplinary research…

Simonida is one of my great companions, an amazing visual artist that always appreciated experimental sound. Although her works often reference pop culture she kept my perception of sound close and throughout the years we unconsciously built a subtle interrelatedness when bringing her exhibitions to life.

My relationship with theatre started long before. Eruption was often invited to perform live acts at contemporary theatre plays. A deeper relationship with electronic music opened space to experiment with video artists. Through these collaborations and through curatorial practice I gained a considerable education in different fields, from aesthetics to deliberation of structural and technical possibilities and above all I developed an intuitive mechanism for abstract communication among different performing aspects. Now I can say that I believe that it is not all the same anticipating the direction of a single breath from a tuba player and the movement of a body in space.

Some of the tracks on All Naked tackle big themes and subjects like the nature / culture dichotomy. Others were triggered by events such as the Bataclan massacre in Paris. I have often asked myself why the current electroacoustic and experimental output all too often seems to shy away from confronting political subjects in the broader sense of the term and was wondering what your position was in this regard?

Abstract sound practices are not generally accepted or thoroughly understood practices, which makes them hermetic and self-orientated. If society is not acknowledging me why would I acknowledge society? Also with the project writing trend in the last 20 years many art practices were forced into an undesired cultural context or political discourse in order to get funded. Then on top of all there is discontinuity in modernizing musical education that keeps it drifting away from the actual reality. I remember my 20 years old persona hating any aspect of every day politics. Until I woke up one day and realized that my existence itself is a political statement. Where I’m from, if you don’t get involved they screw you bad, your kids and their kids as well. Unfortunately necropolitics is always expanding and now I could simply apply this statement to a global condition. No one can afford to be ignorant or to turn away their head any more, because we are all in this together.

You seem to favour collaborations with a number of musicians you have worked with on several occasions, namely Marina Dzukljev, and Marko Paunovic. How do these collaborations develop and how do they translate to a live context?

Marina and Marko are new blood, from a generation that is bringing new qualities to the table with a serious musical attitude and from a self-taught theoretical background. Both collaborations are part of my post birth-giving phase. I had a few years of slow down with almost no traveling while taking care of my son Luka (now 4 year old). So with the recent re-start of my performing activities, other than Ivana Grahovac who is my constant partner in crime, I got back into the ImprovE concerts and that is where I encountered both Marina & Marko on different occasions. Marina is an amazing pianist and for me the perfect improv companion, she has one of the leading roles within the Improstor collective. Marko comes from a scene I knew little about. He is from the ambient electronic scene from Niš. We developed a close friendship from the very start, giving music a role of coexistence, and putting our projects and plans into the long-term no-gravity context.

There is a lot of space within your compositions and improvisations, where sounds are allowed to breath. At the risk of resorting to a cliché, did Cage’s notion of silence influence the way you approach your own practice?

I wish it was Cage, perhaps that would spare me of many thoughts and reflections, on the other hand it is these musing that triggered my experimentation…

My attitude toward “silence” comes from a different angle and from a diverse sound praxis. Partly I extracted it from classical music. From the meaning of a pause, and from performance gestures so to speak; for example that of keeping the listeners’ attention beyond (across) the pause. Also, I was always fascinated with moments where I’m just standing in silence with the whole audience waiting for me to start the piece. Or the moments when I’m supposed to put the bow down marking the end of “concentration”. In those moments I could explore how energy transfers between the listeners and myself without having to think about musical structure, which eventually made me think about the concept of the body of “silence”. Its qualities, its geometry…

The second major musical influence in this regard was Toma Gouband. He introduced me to “small sounds” and opened the dimension of investigating sonic data, sonic qualities and sonic stratum of particular materials and objects.

Further then these two concrete initiations I was introduced to meditation already as a teenager, and later explored diverse systems toward psychological and creative self-development. Which in this context helped me fully understand one of my favorite quotes from John Cage, “The act of listening is in fact the act of composing.”

The reason I put “silence” in the quotes is that I don’t consider that there is such thing; we have pretty clear (physical) limitations when it comes to the perception of sound, but if one starts to think about sound as a form of energy then the situation is slightly different, and even abstract non-linear super quiet sonic stratum can become a very powerful stimuli.

What role would you say do field recordings occupy in your practice?

My early years (before primary school) I spent on an island off the South Adriatic coast where my mother came from. Being exposed to that very rich (natural) sonic environment definitely did something to my brain. Now, when I’m back in that environment for half of the year every summer season, I can more clearly perceive what role sound had in the development of my cognitive memory. Further then that my listening philosophy was significantly upgraded when I realized the clear connection between sound perception and the fluctuation of energy in my body. But I am never in a lab environment to cling on that one, nor is that my focus. Exploring the frequency dynamics and textures of an environment and their further implications is more likely to occupy my attention. Beyond that I am super concerned about sound ecology. The noise level our society is producing is ironically the silent killer of our world. Lately I am exploring artificially integrated memories, building compositions from field recordings, improv or my live act archive and electronic – ambient samples.

As you write in the liner notes of your album 7 Miniatures for Violin Solo, this “is a spontaneous outcome of 15 years long personal research covering fields of conceptual and experimental expression in instrumental performance. I developed the system based on creative sonification of an instrument perceived as an overall sound object and articulated through graphical notations, sounds and directions that I developed out of my personal improv style.”

Violin Revealed. It is an open system; it is a growing – evolving concept. It is ultimately intuitive and it explores abstract interrelatedness between sound and graphical symbolism. 7 Miniatures for Violin Solo are naked demonstration of the complex notation system that explores and maps the concrete sonic qualities as well as the poetics of an instrument. Significant expansion of the sound pallet and pertinent elaboration of possible frequency manipulation, as well as creative amount of unusual treatment of an instrument, are involved. To put it more simply, I started developing a sort of improv language, which would help me expand different composition processes without that unnecessary degradation of the spontaneous cognitive outcomes that occur in improv music and are often anticipatorily suppressed inside the frames of traditional notation. I wrote a little study that supports the overall concept and developed a series of graphic scores. Some serious recording work is in front of me this autumn, to bring these scores to life, also a multimedia exhibition set up explaining the overall concept.

Coming from a classical background, what is your feeling about so called “modern classical” music, and the current trend of inserting looped violin, cello or piano lines onto an ambient backdrop that seems to have spawned a lot of what I personally tend to consider as “easy classical” releases?

I believe that we live within an all encompassing and planetary field of recycled material, and by recycling already thoroughly recycled ideas, I guess that this gives the original information a kind of a homeopathic trait while trivializing its original provenance and existence. It is hard to judge certain aesthetics without concrete examples, but certainly a lot of products that lean towards commercial consumerism simply pass below my radar. Every time that trends are forced upon us, I guess we have a lot to put up with. On the other hand, gaining creative consciousness is a process that undergoes countless different phases.

And finally, what would be your three top tips for any first time visitor to Belgrade?

  • Burek at the Cubura Bakery in Mekenzijeva Street across the Cuburski Park
  • Excursion to Macura Museum
  • Visiting Tesla Museum

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