Why did you choose musicology?
I come from a family of scientists, where playing the piano was tolerated as a hobby. It was a coup-d’état when I decided that I wanted to go to the Conservatory and become a musician. However, my scientist “genes” seemed always still present – every piece that I played, I wanted to know everything about: what was the composer thinking and feeling when he/she composed it, what ideas are behind the piece, which art and literary works are similar to it in spirit etc. Once I found answers to some of these questions, I felt I could play the music with more inspiration and understanding. I was “doing” musicology unknowingly, as I was looking for artistic inspiration.
Your interests span very wide: Mahler, fin-de-siècle Vienna, but also Balkan music (Greek, Serbian, Roma). How come and how do you reconcile this? How would you in general describe your scholarly approach to music?
It is true that one sees little connection between Greek Rembetika and Mahler. However, what does connect my interest in both is the intensity of emotion and expression, as well as a palpable, hearable presence of ideas outside of the music itself. My interests have always been interdisciplinary – I was torn between the study of Art History, Philosophy and Music. I feel that Musicology enables me to incorporate all these interests into a coherent understanding of the music that I love. That is why I don’t see much difference between the study of non-Western musical traditions, which has traditionally been the domain of Ethnomusicology, and the study of the Western cannon. I approach both from a similar perspective, which takes into consideration the complex network of currents surrounding a piece of music, a genre or a musical tradition. At the same time, I always start from the music itself – from the score, or from the recording (for music that is not notated). The most fascinating outcome of the study of a musical work for me is the discovery that the composer’s or performer’s choices are never arbitrary and to manage to unlock, even if only partly, the secret of his/her selection of keys, pitches, modulations, timbres, structures, inflections. The question “why” is what preoccupies me, and if I can glimpse into the “because” thanks to being able to penetrate the composer’s thoughts, ideas, his l’air du temps, then I can also get a better idea of how this piece lives on in the different interpretations of performers. You discover the emphasis of these different elements from the “because” in the different interpretations of Bernstein versus Scherchen versus Mengelberg of a Mahler symphony. Or the different renderings of the exact same folk tune in the Serbian funeral ritual versus a Bulgarian wedding ceremony. Without the interest in the “why” and some glimpses into the “because” all of this would go unnoticed and remain arbitrary.
Could you name some musical pieces that got you into music and musicology?
As I said, my background is as a pianist – I finished the Belgrade Music Academy and was a performer until I suffered a hand injury. So, naturally, my earliest moments of wonder in music were from the piano repertory that I played and listened to – in particular, Bach’s Well-tempered Klavier (I listened to my parents’ complete Sviatoslav Richter LPs for hours, but later discovered also Feinberg), Beethoven’s piano sonatas (Wilhelm Kempff’s and Ivo Pogorelic’s interpretations), Schumann’s Fantasie and Schubert’s Piano Sonata in B-flat, D960 (Richter), Chopin’s Berceuse (Rubinstein), Scriabin’s Piano sonata no. 2 (Sofronitsky and Horowitz), Michelangeli’s Debussy Preludes. But at the same time, Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion and Mass in B-minor were major listening experiences. There were two very dramatic moments in my teenage years – when I first got a CD player and with it the CD of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, and then, discovering Mahler’s 1st Symphony. Tristan came first and I spent an entire ski vacation listening to the Prelude and Liebestod on my walkman (it was in the 80’s!). When I heard the 1st movement of Mahler’s 1st Symphony, my destiny was sealed! It was a Haitink recording and it brought out all the mysterious and multivalent orchestral nuances of nature’s shimmering in the introductory harmonics on the long A pedal. Later on, it was the analysis of Mahler’s 3rd Symphony that helped me make sense of many traumatic experiences of war and death that happened in my country and my family in the 1990’s.
What do you think about the role of music history within the context of the conservatory? If someone is every day engaged in 8+ hours of practicing his/her instrument plus rehearsals and other things that go into making it in the music world, how can there be time or even motivation to study history, theory, and other things?
Having a performance background myself, I remember what a struggle it was. My piano professor on the one hand, pushing me to practice more and more and focus on piano only, and my own interests for literature, arts, history, culture in general on the other. At some point, I realized that I needed to read, to know, to understand, to seek – in order to be inspired, to penetrate the music that I was playing and to interpret it in a unique way. That is also what I think is essential today for musicians – even if they are playing in an orchestra. How each and every one of them will play within that orchestra, how it will nuance every note on their instrument - is how the orchestra will ultimately sound. That is perhaps why Berlin, or Vienna Philharmonic traditionally sounded so unique – a lot of value is placed in Europe on a broad and comprehensive education. A musician is not just a performer, but a participant in the most important cultural currents of the time and as such needs to be an active participant in it. It does matter what books a musician reads and thinks about, which art works are flickering before his/her eyes as they are engaged in a performance, what impressions, awareness and memories are part of their soul. All of that goes into the interpretation of a musical work. If the only elements in a musician’s life are the notes in a score and Facebook or MTV, than not much can be hoped for in terms of originality and inspiration. But if the former three (score, Facebook and MTV) are all part of a broader worldview, where Goethe’s Faust, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Proust and Jackson Pollock, for example, are present as well, then very interesting combinations result!
You are currently the chairperson of the Department of Music History and Musicology. What is your vision for the department? How do you think it fits into the larger landscape of the Conservatory?
As I mentioned before, I don’t see a strict division between the activity of performing music and thinking about it. You cannot “just” think about music without either actually performing it, or virtually performing it in your own inner ear, nor can you “just” play it without thinking about it. What our mind does as part of the creative process is a complex interaction of many processes. The most ideal performance, as well as the best writing on music is always a result of the harmony between these complex processes. That is how I see my role as Chairperson: to bring the Department of Music History into the forefront of the Conservatory’s activities, to participate actively in the preparation of the best future musicians in the world. The kinds of insight and inspiration our professors, all of them with vast performance experience, can offer will undoubtedly help our students find their own unique, creative voices. I wish that it’s in St. Botolph 110, where our offices are, and in all the different classrooms where our faculty teach, where student will come for some essential nourishment of their minds and souls, after which they will go to their lessons full of ideas and strength of inspiration.
What are some of your enduring literary inspirations, both scholarly and otherwise?
Adorno’s Mahler book, Allan Keiler’s article “The Origin’s of Schenker’s Thought: How Man is Musical” (JMT 33/2, 1989), Karl Schorske’s and William McGrath’s books on Fin-de-siecle Vienna, Homer’s Iliad and Ancient Greek myths, Dahlhaus’s texts, Stefan Zweig’s The World of Yesterday, Julia Kristeva’s texts, Leonard Meyer’s Style and Music, Tia de Nora’s book on Beethoven mythology, Scott Burnham’s Beethoven Hero, Wagner’s “Beethoven” essay, Hermann Bahr’s text “On Overcoming Naturalism”, Eric Chafe’s book on Tristan, Goethe’s Faust, Donald Mitchell’s and Peter Franklin’s books on Mahler, Erwin Panofsky’s and Gombrich’s writings on Art History; Schopenhauer, Hegel, Thomas Mann, Dostoyevsky, Fernando Pessoa, Milos Crnjanski, Edward Said.
You were educated both in Europe and in the United States, and you've now done significant amounts of university-level teaching on both continents. Are there differences between the two educational systems that you think are worth considering? How do those differences figure into your scholarship and teaching?
The differences are quite large on the surface: the traditional European approach has been based upon building up knowledge of factual data, working on organization of that knowledge and understanding of different methodologies, which can result in a better general education and preparedness of students, better ability to publically express themselves, but less personal experience and discovery, which can result in a lack of independence and poor research skills. In the US, the students are more free-spirited and open-minded, and therefore more critical and ready to become independent thinkers. However, what is missing here is the ability to actually handle a larger amount of knowledge, which comes from reading. Without this knowledge, students come into the danger of producing “fluffy” or insufficiently rigorous work, even if original in its general approach. It is evident that the entire educational system in the US could benefit from a more intense emphasis on reading skills, from elementary school onward. So, it has been a challenge for me to adapt to both systems, and to find the right way how to work on the weak sides of the two educational systems. However, in both situations, I found that a keen interest in the students and their way of learning is essential. Once the teacher understands how the knowledge is being processed and where the limitations are, then he/she can address this and help the student. In general, the teacher/student relationship is far better in the US – most of my European students were amazed that I would show any interest in them since the typical European University professor mostly lectures and rarely gets to know any of his students beyond the compulsory office-hours. In that sense, I have high hopes for our students and the US system, since some of the most inspiring and valuable lessons I learned come from discussions and close work with my students.
What are you currently working on? What are your immediate future plans?
I am engaged in a couple of projects: one is the editing a collection of essays dedicated to the study of Music, Theology and Aesthetics. I am contributing to this volume an article on the meaning of the Posthorn solo in Mahler’s 3rd Symphony. A lot of my energy is going towards helping to organize the Mahler Festival at NEC, where I am involved with several events and projects. There will be two symposia that I will coordinate as part of this celebration: one – “Mahler, our contemporary” - is dedicated to the contemporaneity of Mahler’s music and the issues he faced during his time, while the other, “Mahler as Interpreter; Mahler as Interpreter,” is a very relevant topic for NEC and our performance-oriented community. Otherwise, I have several projects – conferences and papers that I am working on that deal with the issue of Mahler’s symbiosis of operatic and symphonic elements in his symphonies. This school year, I will be teaching some of my favorite subject matters – an undergraduate class on Mahler, a graduate seminar on Fin-de-siècle Vienna in the Fall, and a course on 20th c. music until 1945. I look forward to new discoveries!