In 2020, composer Sara Glojnarić won Berlin’s “Neue Szenen” competition, awarded the prize by a jury chaired by Chaya Czernowin. In 2018, her work “#popfem,” which artfully dismantles anti-feminist and racist propaganda, received Darmstadt’s Kranichstein Music Prize.
“I’d never thought that my identity as a queer woman could have such a strong influence on my work as a composer,” Glojnarić, who was born in Zagreb in 1991 and now lives in Stuttgart, told me in a recent interview. “It’s actually a typically ‘western’ thought, that one shouldn’t incorporate the personal into the musical. I’d considered these to be two separate things.”
VAN: Where did that idea come from?
Sara Glojnarić: Internalized misogyny played a big role. I wasn’t consciously aware of it, but subconsciously it was always there. For example, when I was a teenager, I thought Dora Pejačević’s music was unbelievably beautiful. But I’d internalized this narrative that it was too “soft” or even kitschy—all these things that we attribute to “feminine” music. But that’s total nonsense. Her music is ridiculously well-written. I’m certain that if she wasn’t Croatian or a woman, she would probably be as well-known as Brahms.
What was it like for you to find your way as a composer in that kind of a setting?
As a girl, I had to first realize that I could even become a composer. When you’re in a very patriarchal society like Croatia, you have to understand that’s a possibility—it’s not so obvious. I had a teacher when I was 15 or 16 who went to great lengths to teach me that. He introduced me to so many female composers—apart from Dora Pejačević, I couldn’t name a single one. Those were important influences.
What was the deciding moment that made you stop separating your identity from your work?
[At the State University of Music and Performing Arts Stuttgart], I was part of a class that was very queer. Our professor, Martin Schüttler, encouraged us to engage with that, to work with our identities in our music. He made it clear that we mustn’t run away from who we are when we’re composing. It was a really cool place to be, in that kind of a class with that kind of a professor. All of these things that were so difficult for me in Croatia suddenly became completely normal.
Of course, that was in a university context—that’s not a universal experience across Germany on the whole.
Definitely. But even after six years, I still notice these stark differences to Croatia and enjoy them. I’ve only just now begun to feel like I’ve “arrived” here. It’s only now that I’ve begun—slowly—to really look at and understand German society and its structure, and to feel comfortable with criticizing it as well.
Where do you see your place within the contemporary music scene?
I’ve always felt the need to discuss things like queerness beyond a musical context. As a composer, I would like to make more than just music for music’s sake, or music that simply serves the contemporary music scene and the ideas and expectations that come with that “heritage.” Ideally—and this is a tall order, one I probably haven’t accomplished yet—my music would also be relevant on a social and political level. It should exist as an object beyond music."As a composer, I would like to make more than just music for music’s sake, or music that simply serves the contemporary music scene."—Sara Glojnarić in @vanmusicmag Click To Tweet
Are you thinking of both classical and also popular music in that context?
The two industries are too different to compare evenly. Pop music is produced for a specific purpose, has an extremely wide reach, and is built on an economic model. It’s sold like pears in the supermarket. In new music, we have a completely different system. It’s not better or worse than pop’s, just different. What I do see, however, is that in our system we don’t have the same amount of power as other art forms. And I don’t know why that is—the aesthetics? The scene? I’m still trying to figure out the reason. Why, for example, are we so small and irrelevant compared to the performing arts?
Perhaps it has something to do with the art itself—you can’t print out a symphony and hang it in a gallery for a few months, or snack on it while doing something else. It takes the time that it takes to listen to it.
Yes, and even if you can record something, the chances that 3-, 4-, or 5,000 people will watch the video are very slim. I’m interested in whether it’s possible to build a bridge between these three scenes, perhaps with a new method that we haven’t figured out yet: the power of pop music, the directness of the performing arts, and the aesthetics and elements of new music.
What, for you, are the specific elements that make up contemporary music?
First is live performance, which takes up a great deal of time, effort, and skills. On the other hand, musicians that go in for new music have a vast array of skills compared to most other musicians. I think that’s really great. These are skills that visual artists don’t have, that performance artists don’t have—they’re really specific to our scene. I’ve spent my whole life developing these skills in order to know the new music world and work within it. That’s also part of my identity. Perhaps that’s why it’s so important for me to bring these two worlds together.
There’s a large intersection between electronic music and contemporary classical music. Is there a connection there?
Definitely, and I don’t think that’s a new idea for many young musicians. We’re in a New Music 2.0 or 3.0, where it’s clear that music is more than just music. It combines all of these social intersections that you have to consider when you’re composing. If you’re able to do that, then it can open you up to a completely different community beyond the classical world. But you have to want to open yourself up, especially to both sides.
In your work, you repeatedly deal with pop-culture and socio-political themes—in “#artefacts,” for example, with the power-politics of nostalgia, or in “#popfem” with the misanthropic, racist, and anti-feminist content that’s disseminated via YouTube. What have the reactions been like to those works?
For “#popfem,” the reactions were varied, depending on the context. When the video was shown for the first time, in a gallery in Stuttgart, it was what I might have expected: It was a very LGBTQIA group, very feminist, and we had a very interesting discussion about the piece. After I won the Kranichstein Prize for the installation, however, there was a big article where the video was linked. And that was intense. The comments were extremely misogynistic, incredibly ugly, and very hard to handle.
For “#popfem” and “#popfem2,” you watched a lot of ultra-conservative and anti-feminist videos that were on YouTube, and then cut them together in such a way that inverted what the people were saying. It couldn’t have been easy to spend so much time working so intensively with those videos.
It was the hardest project I’ve ever done. It was terrible. I watched more than 100 hours of those videos—100 hours too many—and afterwards I was mentally drained, exhausted. For about half an hour, I wondered if I was really crazy; if everything I knew and thought was perhaps not as it seemed.
It was only after these videos that I understood what happens to people who don’t have, perhaps the privilege of self-examination. And how easy this radicalization can happen, just through repetition. It’s so quick, it’s almost a physical reaction. The effects only lasted a short while for me, they were gone by the next day. But I’ll never again underestimate how much power media has over my life. ¶