The Shortest Word - with Igor Cubrilovic

Composer, musician and sound artist, Igor Cubrilovic grew up moving between different corners of Yugoslavia (he still refers to the region and his home country by its old name), as his father worked on building up the roads, railways and dams of the newly founded nation. He has since lived in eleven countries and worked on a vast range of musical projects including sound installations, rock, jazz, and participated in an improvisational orchestra, film music, production - the list goes on. Three years ago Igor returned to Belgrade where he is set on using the technological tools of our era to preserve and project his culture and context “for the generations that come after.”

In spite of his aversion to islands – “The only island I’m going to is Manhattan … I don’t know why, it’s a Woody Allen thing” – he will be making the journey to the volcanic island, with grand plans: “You know when you blow over the top of a bottle and it makes a sound…?”

Igor Cubrilovic will be performing at Kinisi Festival of Sound together with the Serbian Women’s Choir “Bajke” on Sunday 23 October 2016.

Listen to a field recording of Bajke from The Mazi Collective's most recent research trip:

HH: What do you plan on doing at the festival?

IC: At the festival I plan on doing a multi-source installation together with two women who will sing with me during the live part of the performance. The songs are from the mountains in southern Serbia and ultra traditional, one hundred year old songs. The two women are like best friends. When they came to see me in Belgrade one of them was soon to be married, and the other is her maid of honour. The two of them were here in the studio, together with her husband. They were like a family and you could see that the two of them are tight. They sing like that, like  they've been singing together for ages.

HH: What are their names?

IC: Well their names are Maria and Alexandra. But I call them “bajke” and that’s a plural of “bajka” which means fairy-tale. The town that they come from is famous for this particularly brutal and terrible incident that happened in the beginning of WW2. There is a poem about it called Bloody Fairy-tale (Krvava Bajka). This town is connected to that word because of the female Serbian poet who wrote it. So I call them fairy-tales because the word “bajke” rimes with “majke,” which means mothers. Because they are two women, one of them is getting married, they will have kids and become mothers, they understand what motherhood is. And they sing this music that doesn’t really exist because it’s so old, the songs are almost like imaginary fairy-tales. So I’m calling them Bajke.

HH: How do you know them?

IC: When I told Ramona and Alyssa that I’m a sucker for female voices in general they put us in touch. There are a lot of positive people and a lot of positive energy involved, and then they brought these two girls from Kragujevac, they are amazing, singing. I’m recording, it’s a lot of fun. And when they let it rip it was insane. It was literally peeling paint off the walls, it was loud, it was so much fun.

There are a lot of positive people and a lot of positive energy involved, and then they brought these two girls from Kragujevac, they are amazing, singing. I’m recording, it’s a lot of fun. And when they let it rip it was insane. It was literally peeling paint off the walls, it was loud, it was so much fun.

What I want to play isn’t traditional music. And the festival is sort of dealing with the same issues I’m dealing with: your cultural identity, your history, how to move your tradition into the 21st century, and not just through hip-hop, because that’s not your culture. You cannot pretend hip-hop doesn’t exist, but this isn’t my culture. I respect my culture, I know a lot about my culture. But I want to use all the knowledge and technology that I have and all the influences from the world that I’ve seen and put this culture into the 21st century. So what I’m playing is very simple and sort of symbolic in the way that reminds people of traditional instruments, except it’s not a traditional instrument, it doesn’t sound like a traditional instrument and it’s not played like a traditional instrument. I don’t want that to dominate the emotional impact, but when you experience the way it is presented, there is this arch that connects the whole thing. It’s regional music so they sing in a very traditional way. Because they are used in situations where girls sit and crack corn and sing together.

I was super inspired by the space; locations are very inspirational to me. But then I realised, Santorini is actually the edge of a volcano with two thirds under water and this tiny part above water, and that’s where we’re going to be! Wow! I was totally blown away. I started thinking about this Helmholtz resonator. You know when you blow over the top of a bottle and it makes a sound? It’s this guy Helmholtz who calculated what note you would get if you blow under a certain angle together with the diameter of the hole. So I was thinking: “What is the diameter of the volcano?”

HH: That’s thinking very big!

IC: I was thinking, wouldn’t it be amazing if I could hit that frequency. Not literally that frequency, because I wouldn’t want to wake up the volcano. If we could maybe just make ripples on the water or something. But actually it’s 7km. It’s not impossible, you can totally do it. But you’re basically making a hurricane. The only people who have that equipment are military people. And those are the people you don’t want to ask any favours from, and you don’t want to owe them anything - ever. But because that frequency is really low, we wouldn’t hear it anyways, because it’s 7km. Sound waves that are longer than 25m we can’t hear, it goes below our hearing. We could maybe see the ripples on the water and get the earthquake, and then we’d have to get the hell off the island. That’s not my idea of a good time, especially for someone who doesn’t want to be on an island. “I don’t want to be on an island –let’s destroy it!” Wrong attitude. So I calculated the note of the volcano, I know what the note of the volcano is. Since we can’t hear the real note in the frequency of 7km anyways, I’ve just transposed this. This is going to be my starting note for the composition.

So I calculated the note of the volcano, I know what the note of the volcano is. Since we can’t hear the real note in the frequency of 7km anyways, I’ve just transposed this. This is going to be my starting note for the composition.

HH: And what is it?

IC: Aaah, I’m not telling! Do your own calculations! So I started with that. I want to incorporate as much of Santorini into the performance as possible.

HH: How did you get into making music?

IC: I went to music school, but they told my parents: “We don’t think your son should come next semester.” Because I didn’t’ want to play anybody else’s music. When you’re 6 years old they don’t have department for composers. They send you to music school to learn how to play instruments, and you learn how to do that by playing other people's music. “I came here for you to teach me to express this that I have in my head. Can you do that? No? You suck as a teacher.” So it was more like that. But I had a piano at home and I had enough neighbours around that I could get around these things, and I kept all my books from school and I kept the guitar. But at that time I was already into tape recorders, cutting tapes, collages and mixes.

HH: So you’ve been composing music since as long as you’ve been playing music?

IC: Yes, that’s the initial reason why you play music, to express yourself. If I wanted to express myself with words I would be writing emails. Even this is a lot of words. Talking about music is like dancing about architecture. I also field record. I record everything all the time. I managed to collect all the sounds from Damascus to Frankfurt. People, dialogues, phone conversations, travelling, smugglers. I went to Syria 10 years ago, I know people there and I was worried about them, I’ve been trying to help them. I had a lot of those conversations, filmed and documented and especially sounds. And I asked them to send me the sounds of the bombings. I have old sounds from places that don’t exist anymore. Now there are only pictures, sounds, and conversation with people. So from then to now, through the roads, the truck stops, the smugglers, the sea to the crossings, through Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary, all the way to Frankfurt.

HH: You’ve lived and worked in a lot of different places, can you describe the relation between your music and these different parts of the world?

IC: I’m concerned with how to preserve our culture without being overrun, compromised, watered down and turned into clichés, and how to move that for the generations coming after us. Using tools that we have now. I don’t want to pretend that we don’t live in the 21st century. Look at us - this is insane! This conversation is shooting through and over us in some satellite. Why should I pretend that this doesn’t exist? This is exactly the technology that I want to use. I just don’t want to pretend that whatever is happening in Berlin is the only way of using that technology. They implement that technology in their culture and their values, and I respect that and I love some of that stuff. But for me to do that, then I should be in Berlin. But here, that’s just abstract. I think right here, right now, what’s important. I’m doing everything that everyone else is doing because I care, because this is where I live right now. And right now I live in Belgrade. So it’s Belgrade, Santorini, and Volcanoes.

This is the little pond that I swim in. This Italian composer, Giacinto Scelsi said that the border between East and West runs through his living room. Because he lived in Rome and there’s this street that runs around the Collosseum and onwards. And he said everything south of that street is East, is the Orient. And I totally agree with him, because I consider the Danube to be the border between the East and West. I call that “desna strana Dunawa” which means the right side of the Danube, and then there is the wrong side of the Danube. You can stand on a bridge here in Belgrade and have east and west on each side of your feet. I’m very interested in this idea of East. And of course when I read Edward Said, Orientalism, I thought: “Aha.” Kundera wrote two great essays on how the French cannot translate Kafka because they cannot compute - and he wrote it in French! If you’re looking for someone who is not a musician but dealing with the same issues and subjects as me - that’s the man. He wrote an essay called Testament Betrayed, much more articulately than me, obviously - the man is good with words. He writes this difference, about how we rub east and west, that push and pull, and how to preserve your culture.

There was this cultural change in our time: the country that I grew up in doesn’t exist anymore.  Although I still say I’m from Yugoslavia, people tell me: “You know that place doesn’t exist anymore?” And I’m like: “Yea, but what can I do?” That’s just the way it is.

HH: Do you still think of this region in that way?

IC: Totally. When I go to Bosnia and I take the highway, I’m always so shocked when they stop us. And then I remember that there’s a checkpoint. I’ve forgot to bring my passport so many times when making these trips. We don’t even need a translator, and were standing there discussing that I need a passport. Culturally it’s the same thing. What I see is that when you start moving around, you see people as two groups of people – people who see things as different, and people who look for things that we have in common. And I’m the kind of guy, when I go to places I’ve never been before, like when I go to Ethiopia I think: “Guys – you have the same instrument as us.” And they reply with: “Whitey, this is a traditional holy Ethiopian instrument.” And I’m like: “Dude, hand it over, let me show you.” And they’re so surprised I can play. For me it’s all about the similarities. Haile Selassie was best friends with Tito!

What I see is that when you start moving around, you see people as two groups of people – people who see things as different, and people who look for things that we have in common. And I’m the kind of guy, when I go to places I’ve never been before, like when I go to Ethiopia I think: “Guys – you have the same instrument as us.” And they reply with: “Whitey, this is a traditional holy Ethiopian instrument.” And I’m like: “Dude, hand it over, let me show you.” And they’re so surprised I can play. For me it’s all about the similarities. Haile Selassie was best friends with Tito!

HH: Final words?

IC: I’m just working - I don’t judge anything. I don’t have that idea of right and wrong. There’s just emotions, and that’s what I deal with even if I cruelly say that I deal in emotional manipulation. But that is what we all want. If I go to see a romantic comedy, I want to see those two people kissing at the end, otherwise I want my money back. That’s what I came for. When you see an action movie you want to see Bruce Willis come out of impossible situations and survive and kill the bad guy. You want that. That’s’ what you paid your money for. That’s’ emotional manipulation. You wake up and you feel like shit, you put on you favourite record and you feel much better before your step out of your door. That’s what I do. That’s how I see my work. But in the most positive way! I don’t work for advertisement agencies or anything like that.

 

Photo by: Biljana Matijevic