“The breath of pipes, the growl at the very entrance of a note, the richness of sound of a single pipe… these have been eliminated in later organ construction, but are everything that draws me into its sound world.” – Ivan Vukosavljević
Yuko Zama (YZ): Ivan, you grew up and studied music in Serbia, your home country, and then continued your music studies in The Hague (in the Netherlands), where you currently live. How do you think these two places (and your life there) have influenced you as a composer and artist?
Ivan Vukosavljević (IV): Quite differently. They provided different challenges and opportunities at different stages of my life. The two cultures are very different, the way of life is different and thinking about the world, society and your own place in it can lead to different conclusions depending on the place you find yourself in.
But, by living as a foreigner and by severing the cord of my own psychological dependence on either of the two cultures, even if involuntarily, has actually made me more interested in both. For example, I am much more interested in the folk music and folk instruments of Serbia than I ever was when I lived there. Similarly, I can explore and participate in the variety of what Dutch culture managed to bring forth, without the biases that come with being a native. I think that perhaps the impulse to explore the organ culture of the Netherlands came from this attitude of ‘curiosity without much preconception’. The Netherlands has one of the liveliest organ cultures in the world, which unfortunately doesn’t communicate too much with the culture of contemporary music, and vice versa. There exist certain categories with borders that are not crossed too often. However, with this organ album I was excited to fully immerse myself in everything that surrounds the organ culture in the Netherlands, in the hope that I would come up with something new and of value.
YZ: How did you come up with the idea for this Slow Roads project?
IV: One of the reasons why this project became so special to me is the fact that most of the music was not intentionally composed for any sort of a project, but came out spontaneously over the course of a few years, as music that I would enjoy just improvising by myself at home. And even though I find spontaneity to be a key virtue in composing music, in the life of a professional composer, music often comes as preconceived, one way or the other. And I’m not being naive about this, but the fact that I had created models for most of the pieces before I ever even thought of making them into an album, just by letting the music flow and without any premeditation, made it (in my opinion) the most emotionally, intellectually and spiritually involved work I’ve done so far.
So, by the time an idea of creating an album came up in early to mid 2021, I had already developed models for most of the pieces. But at the moment when it actually popped into my mind, it came in an explosion of imagination, with ideas of making music videos, in different churches, with different organs, and with various musicians. Therefore, coming up with this idea was a gradual process, one that I wasn’t even aware of at first, and it kept developing spontaneously until I actually realized the potential of it.
YZ: Why did you want to compose these particular pieces for the five historic organs from the early 16th to the mid-17th century? What fascinated you about the historic organs and old churches in the countryside of the northern Netherlands?
IV: My first contact with a historic organ was in Amsterdam several years prior, which is a faithful copy of a late 15th century instrument. The breath of the pipes, the growl at the very entrance of a note, the richness of sound of a single pipe…these have been eliminated in later organ construction, but are everything that draws me into its sound world. And when it comes to the very early instruments, the variety is spectacular. So, by choosing more than one instrument to record with, I was able to have a diversity of sounds and give a specific identity to each piece.
All of the organs were housed in small medieval churches, with the oldest dating back to the 12th century. The ambiance of the interiors of these churches created a perfect atmosphere for this music, and it is my hope that a glimpse of that will be experienced by the viewers through the videos that we made there.
The organ of the Mariakerk in Krewerd (I) was built in 1531 and still has a lot of original pipes in it. The sound is loud and raunchy and textured and full of breath, unlike anything you can hear at a usual organ concert. The pipes would interact with each other and each note would change its texture depending on the harmonic progression of the piece. And all this was achieved with a single flute stop. The sound engineer said, as the piece drifted into the lower register, that it sounded like a helicopter was landing in the church.
IV: The organ of the Sint-Nicolaas church in Oosthuizen (III), which is the only one not located in the most northern part of the country, is the oldest playable organ in the Netherlands (1521). Full of breath and loud, but perfectly balanced, with only a single keyboard of barely 3 octaves and no pedalboard. This one was my favorite.
The organs of the Antoniuskerk in Kantens (V, VI) and the Jacobuskerk in Zeerijp (II, VII, VIII), both built in the mid-17th century, already show a difference in style. The sound is gentler and more nuanced, they have more registers/stops, even 16 feet ones (bass register), and both organs come with two divisions/manuals.
And finally, the smallest organ of the five, the organ of the Midwolde Church (IV), built in 1630. I was specifically looking for an organ with a nightingale stop, due to the context of the piece that was played on this organ. It came with a single 4-octave keyboard (with a short first octave) and only a few stops, and provided the most intimate experience.
It is very inspiring to know that these instruments were built hundreds of years ago and have served many generations of musicians, creating music in various different styles that have changed as the needs of the society change over the centuries. And while the events of history have passed, these instruments witnessed it all and are still here today. They are available to me, for a brief moment, and will be passed on to inspire future generations of curious musicians after me. It connects us directly over the centuries, in music.
YZ: How did you proceed with the composition and recording process with these five churches as locations/inspirations? How did you feel when you actually spent some time in each of the churches with your pieces in mind and playing the pipe organs yourself? Any discoveries, surprises, difficulties, etc. in the process?
IV: By the time I had fixated on the locations for the recordings, I had already modeled at least 4 or 5 pieces of the album. I keep saying modeled, because the final structure hadn’t been fully composed yet, only the general progression for each piece. However, even now these pieces exist as sort of models, because historic organs are not at all standardized. They sometimes come with one manual and sometimes with two; sometimes with a pedalboard and sometimes not; sometimes the pedalboard is independent and sometimes it is directly attached to the main manual. The keyboard range always varies and not so rarely some notes are omitted (mostly at the ends of the keyboard); some have a short first octave (only natural notes, no sharps/flats) and some don’t. Therefore, for each planned concert I have to adapt or rewrite parts of the pieces. And the same goes for the recorded versions, which are partly defined by these instruments.
About 6 months before we started the recordings, I spent a couple of days in the North visiting the churches and the organs. And yes, it was a phenomenal experience to finally be able to play this music in these wonderful spaces and on these incredible instruments. After so much time of only fantasizing about it. It filled me with confidence that I was doing something special and worthwhile. The actual sound of these instruments was everything that I had imagined for this music. I had managed to acquire some recordings of these instruments in advance, and I had done all the research on them that was possible remotely, but only when I finally sat down at the instruments with my hands on the keyboard, could I be certain that I had made the correct decision.
The North itself is also very inspirational. As soon as you leave a city in the Netherlands, you will find yourself in a seemingly endless pastoral landscape. Meadows and farmland stretching out in the long distance, interrupted only by small patches of forest here and there, or an occasional church tower in the distance. And as you travel further north, the silence slowly sets in in an empty landscape. I was strongly drawn to the stillness of this region, as if magically being pulled towards the calm of these small villages and medieval churches sitting on the edge of the country. The atmosphere of my surroundings left me in a state exactly to the one which was encompassing the inner state of my mind as I was composing these pieces.
YZ: You mentioned in your project note: "The pieces explore the moods and peculiarities of the meantone temperament and a meditative and contemplative aspect of music, partly relying on the sentiments of late medieval and renaissance keyboard music."
How do you feel about "1/4 comma meantone temperament" in early music compared to "equal temperament" in modern music? Is there a reason why you are particularly drawn to music in the meantone temperament?
IV: ¼ comma meantone is a temperament used specifically to tune keyboard instruments, mostly in the period between the late Middle Ages and the early Baroque, and is of course used today when performing the relevant keyboard repertoire from that period.
By exploring meantone, and other unequal temperaments, I have managed to bring conventional harmony back into my creative life. Equal temperament makes harmony abstract, while unequal temperaments give more of the physical properties to the perception of it. And ¼ comma meantone does that in a very obvious way, and you have to listen to it, you can’t just imagine it. Which is not necessarily a critique of equal temperament.
In an unequal temperament chords, scales and intervals can sound differently when played from a different root note. This has major consequences on the perception of harmony, and music in general, that has been mostly forgotten in our time.
In my work in general, I have an interest in microtonality, tuning systems or just loose tuning, and the way harmonic perception is brought into a higher dimension. Opening myself up to harmony in this way has major implications on my musical thinking. Therefore, finding centuries old instruments tuned in such a way as to produce both pure intervals and deeply impure ones (as in ¼ comma meantone) at the same time is a true treasure.
YZ: Why did you choose to write them in unmeasured notation?
IV: When I was thinking about how to notate the pieces, I wanted to do it in such a way that would allow the musicians to have more of a creative impulse in approaching the interpretation of these pieces, and to almost feel and play them as I did. That is why I came up with a sort of unmeasured notation that I thought would be appropriate for this music. There is a lightness to this music that comes with a perceived sense of spontaneity and unobstructed progression, and to me this was the best way to preserve that; by removing bars, only implying rhythm and notating only the contours of phrases. Which then allows the pieces to have a slightly different life each time they are played by a different person.
Certain French Baroque composers wrote some of their keyboard pieces in unmeasured notation, with the most famous ones being the unmeasured preludes by Louis Couperin. Working with my organists, and especially with Tineke Steenbrink, whose career is mainly dedicated to early music, I was hoping to let some of that practice and mindset release itself into my music, without knowing for sure if it would work out or not. Although in the end, it did work of course.
YZ: I read that you won the Amsterdam Marimba Weekend composition prize for the piece 'The Ladder' in March 2022, which is included as the first track on this album. Do you have any particular aims or feelings for this piece?
IV: This was all supposed to happen in early 2020, but due to the lockdowns in those years, the festival was canceled and not held until two years later in 2022. At that time (late 2019) I was only just starting to experiment with the organ and The Ladder was the first piece I came up with for the instrument. The version that had won the award was a little bit different and was also written for organ and percussion (it is a marimba festival after all), and without even having the meantone temperament in mind. So those were the ‘baby steps’ of my organ music, and at the time I couldn’t have imagined that this album would come out just a few years later, and especially in the way it did.
But this does, I suppose, give a sense of the importance of that first impulse that I had with the instrument at that time. This award also gave me some further assurance that I had made a good decision in jumping outside of the practice that had occupied my work previously. On this album, however, the piece is in its original form.
As to the particular feelings for this piece, The Ladder is not just a piece with a technical stepwise movement in four parts resembling a ladder (although it is that as well) - it, more importantly, had a sort of a magical impact on me, as the first music that I had ever played on the organ myself, and which descended into my consciousness uninvited and signified a transformation of my work that I am finally presenting on this album.
YZ: Why did you choose these four organists to play your pieces?
IV: There was an aesthetic reason for choosing multiple organists for this project. Once I decided that I would make videos for some of the pieces, I knew that I wanted to film each one in a different church and at a different organ. It only made sense then to have a different organist for each video. In these videos I wanted to strip away the importance of the player and the performance, and place the organist in the space only as a part of the space itself. Therefore the visual focus was on the emptied space of the churches.
If the same organist had played in all of the videos, it would have given the wrong message, as if the player was touring through these venues. However, I wanted to preserve the identity of the space and associate it with a particular person (even though in the end Tineke played in two videos).
As a composer I try to choose the people I work with, there is a gut feeling, an instinct, a sense of being drawn to a particular person when it comes to creating something together and in order to function and communicate on the same level of understanding.
Tineke Steenbrink (from the video @ Flora Reznik)
YZ: What do you particularly like about them as musicians and about their performances?
IV: For a while I was hoping to work on some of my music with Tineke Steenbrink. She is the leader of a well-known Dutch early music ensemble called Holland Baroque. What I found interesting about her and her ensemble when I first discovered them, was that their projects didn’t end with just ‘Bach or Vivaldi’, but were about discovering music by obscure composers unheard for centuries; or creating amazing collaborations with musicians from many different spheres of music, and all somehow fitting together perfectly in this sound world of the so-called early music. And of course, all executed amazingly. So when the opportunity to record this album presented itself, Tineke was the first person I went to. She played 5 pieces on the album (2, 5, 6, 7, 8 ), is in two of the videos and will be the player for future live performances. Her involvement in the interpretation of these pieces was total in every aspect. Her devotion to the music is such that I find it hard to think of many other people who are equally consumed by it.
Lise Morrison is my partner who I have been in a relationship with for more than 6 years. She is a composer herself and I have often been involved in her projects as a musician. But this time there was an opportunity for her to be a part of my project in the same way, and it came naturally for me that she would play the opening and most intimate piece on the album (The Ladder). Even though she is the only one who is not an actual professional organist, her sensibility and gentleness made her the perfect choice for this piece.
Jan Hage (Triptych) had already played one of my pieces a couple of years back (the awarded version of The Ladder). He is the organist of the Utrecht Cathedral (Domkerk) and well known in the Organ music community. It was a privilege to invite him to participate in this project.
Francesca Ajossa (Ramum Olivae) and I barely knew each other before this project. She is a young organist whose age hasn’t stopped her from achieving an incredible career so far. She plays many concerts all over and is involved not only in classical music but also in all sorts of contemporary music projects involving organs. I met her briefly while she was preparing a new organ piece by a friend, but then I started noticing her in almost all contemporary organ music projects in the Netherlands after that, and I was very excited to invite her to be a part of this project.
Tineke Steenbrink, Lise Morrison, Jan Hage, Francesca Ajoss
YZ: You have chosen Henk Helmantel's painting "The east side of the gatehouse of Ammersoyen Castle (2019)" for this CD album cover. What fascinates you about Helmantel's paintings (including this painting)?
IV: I had come across one of his paintings during the very early days of the production. His work is concerned with still life and empty interiors of mostly historic buildings and churches. In one of his paintings, the interior of the Mariakerk in Krewerd (one of the recording locations) is his subject , and that is how I discovered his work, immediately after I had discovered the church itself.
The videos that I had made for the project relate to the same subjects in a way so that the interior of the churches is in the focus, while the organist playing is only a part of that same space. Therefore Helmantel’s work resonated immediately with me after I came across his work, and his interiors put me in a similar headspace as this music itself does.
It must be a tricky thing being a neoclassical painter in a nonclassical world. The Netherlands has a deep tradition of fine art, made historically famous, of course, through the likes of Rembrandt and Vermeer, and that style of painting seems to be always present in the Netherlands (in modern times as well), in one way or the other. But as such it is somewhat excluded from what some people would deem as ‘contemporary art’, at least for the moment. And Helmantel found himself, it seems, at the border in between the two. He is arguably the most successful contemporary Dutch painter, and yet he seems to be completely absent from the so-called contemporary art scene. And when I come across his name, there is often a discussion about whether he is a contemporary artist or not. It is very interesting to me that he sparks this debate. But be that as it may, his work and his subjects possess a spiritual quality that mere neoclassicism is not concerned with, or to phrase it better, neoclassicism in his work is transcended through its own means. At least in my opinion.
And I feel similarly about the music on this album. It flirts with late medieval and renaissance keyboard music, although perhaps it doesn’t reference an old style as directly as his work does. But in either way, it does so not in order to deconstruct, but rather to use its means to perhaps uncover a different layer of perception when confronted with it. And it may be that it is only possible to achieve a certain emotion and a certain state of mind when the mind is pointed towards a style or a practice that is not so often practiced in the contemporary world. Therefore, trying to uncover a quality that might have been so spontaneously present in the lives of people in earlier times, but which requires a bit more effort in our own time. That which is original and comes from the universal in oneself, which is ancient and comes before individuality. And once the inner interior of our mind is emptied and we have reached its ground, the old walls of the architecture of our consciousness surface up, and we find it sitting there.
This is what I see in his paintings.
And it is from that inner space that this music is sounding from.
The painting that I chose as the cover artwork suggests that in all modesty, and I hope to give that in a similarly modest way with this album.
The Midwolde Church, Groningen @ Flora Reznik
YZ: When I first listened to your Slow Roads, I was deeply impressed by the way you combined the characteristics and beauty of the sounds of historic medieval organs with the sensibilities of contemporary times. I recognized a deep respect and admiration for medieval organ music and a sincere desire to bring back the values of those old times while making the historic pipe organs sound lively and refreshing. I think you have achieved something incredible with this album, combining these traditional/modern values to create music that transcends time.
Can you tell me your thoughts about "traditional", "contemporary" and "experimental" in terms of music? IV: I appreciate that you say this about the album, although perhaps I would not use the word ‘values’. It is more of a sense of absence of the world and its values in music, that brings out the abstract qualities that I am looking for and that I somewhat also find in the old keyboard music of, let’s say, pre Enlightenment Europe. Without pathos that would arouse the passions of the listener, without effects or drama, and which can then lead the mind towards that abstract ideal and in doing so bring it to a place in which reality can seem more truthful. This is more of what I am after. I try not to put emphasis on the distinctions between contemporary, traditional and experimental, not in music nor in general. I think that these notions together consist a necessary trinity that can lead to meaningful art, perhaps in a way in which one appeases the other, or even serve as an antidote to its counterpart. But they are not important and in my own life I hope for all of it to be co-habitual. Although, I think that I do understand why you raise this question, because it seems as if so much of today’s art is concerned with either breaking out of traditions or on exalting them. I myself however feel more honest by keeping an open hand towards anything that reaches its hand towards me, and be then guided into the unknown. Then I feel like I can be presented with the possibility of experiencing real growth and perhaps even originality. So, in regards to your conclusion about this music - I do think that ‘that’ which is true, which is universal, is true always. In music as in everything else. But, the clarity of it can be obstructed by the worlds that we create for ourselves. However, when you’re looking out for that which is beyond the immediate experience of the world, as you go through life you become better at picking up cues that hint at it, which then put you on the course, the slow road, towards truth. So, I end up here, finding some of this spirit revealed in ancient sounds that don’t bear the weight of world anymore, and then letting it flow back into the world in a way that makes some sort of sense in the contemporary mind.
Slow Roads is an album of eight pieces written by Hague-based Serbian composer Ivan Vukosavljević between 2019 and 2022, for solo 1/4 comma meantone organ. All eight pieces were recorded in 2022 on five different historic organs, dating from the early 16th to mid-17th centuries, located in medieval churches scattered throughout the countryside of the northern Netherlands. Each piece was adapted for a specific organ, as they vary considerably in their disposition. All eight pieces are written in unmeasured notation, with bars removed and only rhythms and phrase contours suggested.
On this album, Vukosavljević adopts a meantone temperament that echoes the sentiments of late medieval and Renaissance keyboard music, while valuing the contemplative aspect of the music, to create organ music as his own voice that resonates with the present time. Five of the eight pieces were performed by Tineke Steenbrink, co-founder of the Dutch early music ensemble Holland Baroque. Francesca Ajossa, Jan Hage and Lise Morrison performed one piece each.
Tineke Steenbrink (2, 5, 6, 7, 8) Jan Hage (3) Francesca Ajossa (4) Lise Morrison (1)