The Loss and Rediscovery of Croatian Electroacoustic Music

By · Title Image vxla (CC BY 2.0) · Date 6/18/2019

The history of Croatian electroacoustic music dates back to the middle of the 1950s. Almost like a foreshadowing of its future struggles, the first Croatian electroacoustic piece, Ivo Malec’s “Mavena” (1956-57), was actually created at the Groupe de Recherche de Musique Concrète in Paris. The creative and social French soil was nurturing of experimental ideas, unlike Croatia, a part of Yugoslavia at the time, where the cultural environment was conservative and devoted to a nationalistic musical ideology.

During the next three decades, a number of Croatian composers like Miroslav Miletić, Dubravko Detoni, Silvio Foretić, Igor Kuljerić, and Davorin Kempf produced experimental and avant-garde art that was globally relevant, moving in lockstep or ahead of their more fabled international colleagues. In a desire to react against Croatia’s musical conservatism and inspired by curiosity and occasional trips abroad, they created an impressive body of work. Tape experiments, computer-generated stochastic compositions, and manipulated field recordings—the corpus they left behind is varied and rich.

But despite the artistic value and continued attempts by Malec and other pioneering, adventurous composers like Branimir Sakač, this music remained obscure. It was ignored and shunned by mainstream Croatian academia, which insisted on following traditions above all else. Aside from the likes of Foretić, who went on to have a remarkable career in related styles, most of their electroacoustic output was left to collect dust and fade away while the composers themselves focused on commercial and mundane projects. There were no common goals, connective tissues, or interconnected chronologies.

However, the efforts of Višeslav Laboš have finally given these artists a sense of cohesion. Starting in the mid-2000s, Laboš, a Zagreb-based multimedia artist, musician, sound designer, and DJ, has devoted more than a decade to unearthing and investigating the heritage of Croatian electroacoustic composers. His work was collected and released in 2016 as “U Potrazi Za Novim Zvukom 1956–1984: Anthology of Electroacoustic Music By Croatian Composers” (get the album). While the double CD contains previously published but scarcely available works, its most valuable contributions are recordings that were on the brink of disappearance—salvaged from master tapes and last remaining copies ready to be thrown out with the trash—along with Laboš’s extensive liner notes and precise contextualization.

Višeslav Laboš during a performance of Igor Kuljerić’s “Night Flight” • Photo Damir Žižić
Višeslav Laboš during a performance of Igor Kuljerić’s “Night Flight” • Photo Damir Žižić

“There wasn’t a scene or institutional support, they all acted alone, like guerillas,” Laboš tells me. He recalls a particularly revealing anecdote involving Silvio Foretić, who started his Ensemble for Contemporary Music along with Slovenian composer Janko Jezovšek in 1963, during the third year of his studies in composition at the Academy of Music in Zagreb. The Ensemble performed music in line with contemporary tendencies and informed by John Cage’s “happenings” and Mauricio Kagel’s aesthetics of “new music theater.” The Academy of Music in Zagreb responded by barring students from attending the Ensemble’s concerts and reprimanding the artists. “There were threatening edicts posted at the Academy: DON’T ATTEND CONCERTS OF THE ENSEMBLE FOR CONTEMPORARY MUSIC.” In talking with Foretić, Laboš came to the understanding that “the institution was bothered by their activism and performances; they saw this as offensive debauchery.”

With time, many of the compositions and recordings have become misplaced and lost. Some have literally disintegrated during digitization. Others were mislabeled as “chamber” or “orchestral” works. But it was exactly this informational chaos and wealth of unpublished recordings that motivated Laboš to start his archival research. He cites Branimir Sakač’s “Svemirski pejsaž” and Igor Kuljerić’s “FolkArt” as compositions that were often mentioned as momentous yet never officially made available.

“Svemirski pejsaž” (Space Landscape) was recorded in 1961 and is—along with Sakač’s lost “Tri sintetske poeme” (1959)—among the first electroacoustic recordings that were actually produced in Croatia. It’s an impressionistic cut, cobbled together from synthesized and found sounds of unknown origin that paint an expansive soundscape. It evokes the theremin-infused atmospheres of sci-fi soundtracks before transitioning into makeshift melodies.

Sakač, similar to Malec, had attempted to be a trailblazer and concerted his efforts into starting an electronic studio in Croatia in the 1960s. He failed and it wasn’t until 1972 that the first electronic studio in Yugoslavia was formed in Belgrade. While Sakač’s search for new sonic expressions was always radical in both technique and style, he was reportedly unaware of the Parisian and Colognian schools of sound. This inexperience gave his approach an endearingly natural and unique aura.

Conversely, the aforementioned “Mavena” by Ivo Malec is a very lyrical example of musique concrète. A manipulated voice narrates a surrealist poem by Radovan Ivšić among a swarm of ticklish, sharp sounds. In his book La musique concrète, Malec’s mentor Pierre Schaeffer characterizes it as having “a certain musical gracefulness and luminosity” and concludes that “Mavena might have contributed to musique concrète with an intentionally poetic tone.”

Malec, always critical of what he saw as a backwards and reactionary Croatian society, would move to Paris in 1959. He’d later come to consider himself a “French composer of Croatian descent,” which led him to refuse Croatia’s highest artistic award “Vladimir Nazor” in 2013, accusing the ruling elites of disinterest and disgraceful treatment of his life’s work. “He had a very strong vision that fell through and was sabotaged on multiple occasions—this generated his enormous bitterness,” Laboš says.

In the face of all this negativity, Croatian composers created music that even today sounds original and inspired, a legitimate piece of the familiar “history and development of electronic and avant-garde music,” but with a slight shift in phase. Unlike their colleagues at the Groupe de Recherches Musicales or in the wealthier countries of Western Europe, Croatian composers had no access to electronic studios and advanced equipment. Instead, they made music with DIY gear in their homes or during short pilgrimages to foreign institutes and studios. This resulted in idiosyncratic experiments that conflicted with the mutually informed, sometimes shared visions of their international contemporaries.

Mladen Milićević’s “Random” was made in 1984 during a one-week visit to the Elektronmusikstudion in Stockholm, a studio equipped with bleeding-edge synthesis tools. Milićević, who had never used the computer as an instrument before, concocted an ingenious piece. In what is probably the first Croatian computer music song, bleeps and bloops are arranged into an aleatoric necklace and converge towards a witting flow. There is drama and poise. Milićević’s interventions on top of the computer generated sounds are filled with an almost child-like joy of creation.

Where does the Music Biennale Zagreb figure in this story? Founded in 1961 by Milko Kelemen—who had studied composition under Olivier Messiaen and had been associated with the Darmstadt School—this festival of contemporary music was once a point of pride for Yugoslavia and Tito personally. In its first few editions, it hosted the crème de la crème of the contemporary music world including John Cage, Pierre Schaeffer, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and Luciano Berio. But, Laboš told me, “it was only a spark that happened in those few days, and not much else,” adding that “the Biennale never tried to shine a light on domestic composers.” “Instead of a musical subversion, it was more of a political one which, based on Kelemen’s words, Tito had the last say on. He wanted to show Americans and Russians that he could bring to Yugoslavia whomever he wanted to.”

In his 1977 book U sjeni ocvale glazbe (In the Shadow of Withered Music), writer, literary critic, columnist, and essayist Igor Mandić gives a wider, sobering perspective on the sociopolitical influence of the Biennale and the state of the music scene. “Until the first Music Biennale Zagreb in 1961 the musical culture in Zagreb was a small-town innocent, spoiled and dolled up, conceited and unproductive,” he writes. “The first Biennale was a great shock that opened the eyes of music’s official rentiers to a new, completely unknown field. But even that New was soon absorbed through turn-coating: this New music did not cause a fundamental change in musical culture, rather it just became an outlet of affirmation and exploitation.”

Trying to understand if the Biennale motivated composers to explore new sounds and approaches despite the prevalent social and cultural denunciation of anything neoteric, Laboš asked Silvio Foretić about the flow of information and the stance towards avant-garde music in Yugoslavia. “I was shocked by his response: he said that the Biennale was there to show them what was happening in the world, but also what they would never be allowed to do.”

The most interesting experiments were thus created in “illegality,” far from the lights of the Biennale and academic mainstream. Some artists, like Zlatko Pibernik, acted in a sort of isolation, creating music that had many similar traits to the experiments of Karlheinz Stockhausen, Pierre Henry, or Iannis Xenakis, without ever being in contact with their art. Talking about Pibernik, who combined tapes and instrumental ensembles on “IV. koncertantna muzika” (1971) for eight loudspeakers and soloists, Laboš notes that “he saw in these new sounds a medium of expression that benefitted the applied multimedia format, yet in his collection of vinyl there was no Xenakis, no Stockhausen, no nothing—he came up with it by himself.”

Elsewhere, Miroslav Miletić performed around the world with his “commercial” string quartet Pro Arte, yet also conceived interesting electroacoustic pieces. One of them, “Lamentacija” (1962-1963), was produced during a short visit to the Dutch studio CEM in Bilthoven. The emotional, affective piece is dedicated to miners who lost their lives in an accident in Bosnia. A forlorn viola chirps and wails in the foreground while electronic effects simulate the rockfall and act as “an addition to the psychological state of mind.” Years earlier, Miletić used a spliced shortwave radio to produce similar effects at home. He found the screeching, creaking sounds of the radio interference intriguing. “The recording I found was of dismal quality, but you could hear that it was a sketch of the same idea of a pioneer,” Laboš says.

One of the standout compositions from the later period is Zlatko Tanodi’s “Echolalia” (1979-1980). The title and music allude to a psychiatric disorder characterized by repetitions which, according to Tanodi, reflected his opinion that everything had been said and done in music. “Echolalia was created in collaboration with the ACEZANTEZ ensemble and is not purely electronic,” Tanodi explains, “I used the Polymoog with custom modifications to its filter section to get new sounds and spice up the composition—feedback generated noises following a randomized, computer-sounding pattern.” Like Tanodi’s other works, “Echolalia” is outlined by an audacious instrumental exploration while retaining a semblance of traditional forms.

In recent years, Laboš has compiled two new CDs featuring Kuljerić and Foretić. Tanodi is a professor at the Academy of Music in Zagreb, where he teaches electronic composition. But the present and the future of Croatian experimental music look grim. Students at the Academy of Music seem disinterested in electronic composition and experimental forms. The Biennale is a shadow of its former self. As evidenced by the recent turns in financing and attacks against institutions like the Croatian Audiovisual Centre and Student Centre Zagreb’s Culture of Change, a nationalistic ideology in art is being pushed to the front again.

Yet a glimmer of hope rests in small bedrooms and impromptu home studios. There is a fire in the performances of the students of OZAFIN ALU, a section devoted to new media at the Academy of Fine Arts in Zagreb. There is hope in earnest experimentation found on the fringes and presented at festivals like the cancelled Showroom of Contemporary Sound or ZEZ. Will a future Laboš have to dig through it all some day? ¶