Aleksandar Simić, Composer and Social Activist:

Artists Should Help Society

Composer whose opus encompasses hundreds of pieces in all genres, ranging from solo, chamber and vocal works, to grand scale pieces for the symphony orchestra or choir and orchestra

Aleksandar Simić
has composed music for theatre, film, television, and international sporting com-petitions, while many of his pieces have been used to mark important jubilees across the globe. With various collaborations and commissions from such institutions as the United Nations, the Vatican, the U.S. State Department, the Russian Federation, NASA or Yad Vashem, Mr Simić is widely hailed as one of the brightest and most intriguing of his generation of composers. Besides music, Mr Simić is also well-known for his public advocacy. In this interview for CorD, Aleksandar Simić talks about his music, but also his social activism and humanitarian work.

Your music has often been commissioned to honour important historical jubilees and used to mark leading international events. Do you believe that art should support political and social change?
Political and social change is an immanent and relentless phenomenon. The important role of the artist, as I see it, is to help society set its values and therein set rightly the course of the changes, simply because not all change is necessarily good. We had our share of Leni Riefenstahls or Albert Speers in any era or any society, but luckily for humanity, we also had people of genuine human and artistic integrity, such as Socrates, Thomas More, Émile Zola or John Lennon. People often quote Dostoyevsky, saying that “beauty will save the world”, but I’m not completely sure if most of them really understand the true meaning and the power of these words – because here lies a recipe on how to address most of the challenges we face. Also, this sentence prescribes the essential role of the arts in this world – and this is to imbue the generations with right values and with the everlasting beauty of kindness, honesty and righteousness.

What are the main messages you intend to convey through your music?
It depends on the piece, I guess. When I wrote Under One Roof as a commission from the UN, the main idea to convey was that of a world united in peace (to paraphrase the emblem of the organisation), and so I chose to write a musical journey around the globe for the symphony orchestra, as a celebration of unity in diversity and the fantastic richness of cultures, which make up this kaleidoscope of nations that the UN has set out to harmonise. I believe even the title itself was a message, since the Secretary General has decided to base on it a big part of his speech at a global UN Forum in Qatar, only a month after the work was premiered, saying that we indeed live in a very small home, under one roof, and that all seven billion of us better start learning to share it with love, respect and accountability. When I wrote my Missa Solemnior for the Vatican, it was to honour 950 years of the Great Schism and 40 years of reconciliation between Rome and Constantinople, and here again was a chance to send a very distinct message regarding unity. Among many such messages in the Mass, introducing a first ever Kaddish for Jesus in the history of Roman Liturgy, I believe was not only a contribution to Jewish-Catholic relations, but also a statement against the stupidity of anti-Semitism based on a premise that Jews are “guilty of crucifying our Lord”, while completely neglecting that Jesus was a Jew and practically a Rabi himself. Anyway – every time we pick up a pen, a brush or a film camera – we are in a position not only to entertain, but to send and support important messages, and I strongly believe that is also our duty.

You are well known for combining musical styles and your concerts are often described as some kind of spectacle. Your music is also not intended for small group of connoisseurs. How do you approach the audience?
You know how people often advise you to “walk a mile in someone else’s shoes”, as in to try and look at things from different angles? Well, I think it is wise and beneficial to “think a mile” from the perspective of a consumer if you are producing any product, and this goes for the arts as well. We need to respect our audience, educate and nurture it – but, yes, we also need to please it and there is nothing wrong with that. It goes without saying that one should never compromise his or her artistic integrity, but this can indeed be done without being hermetic.

The most recent initiative, planned to officially launch in 2017, is based here in Serbia, where I have invited Mme Sonja Licht with her Belgrade based Fund for Political Excellence and Mme Simona Miculescu, the Head of the UN Office in Serbia, together with the high level representatives of all denominations to join efforts in addressing the challenges that our local and global societies are facing


In which ways do you promote contemporary classical music, bearing in mind that these times are not suitable for the arts?
Primarily by creating good music. Music that is anything but boring or academic, although it is “classical”. That, I trust, is the most important thing. 

Apart from being an internationally recognised composer, people and the media know you as a social activist and someone who is often engaged in global inter-religious dialogue. What are you working on now?
God’s name has been abused throughout human history. I have always trusted that faith should be able to unite people, rather than serve as an excuse for carnage, as it often does. All my initiatives were based on that premise – the idea that empathy, solidarity and accountability represent the core of every religious teaching and that these ideas should be demonstrated by religious leaders and communities in the service of the greater good and common interests of peace and stability. The most recent initiative, planned to officially launch in 2017, is based here in Serbia, where I have invited Mme Sonja Licht with her Belgrade-based Fund for Political Excellence and Mme Simona Miculescu, Head of the UN Office in Serbia, together with the high level representatives of all denominations, to join efforts in addressing the challenges that our local and global societies are facing. I have full faith that this initiative will have a significant impact on our social landscape in the times to come. It is pivotally important to rehumanise society and provide support for integrative processes that require solidarity and accountability, and in both cases the aforementioned stakeholders could have a crucial role.  

You were a spokesperson and an activist for such charitable campaigns as Helping the Blind, the Safe House programme and Notes from the Heart. How do you perceive relations between music and humanism?
Actually, I was a spokesperson and an activist for the Charity Fund Light, which started the first two campaigns, but I also gave my voice and support to numerous other campaigns as well. The important thing about humanitarian work is that you are ready to lend a hand whereever and whenever you see you can make even the slightest difference. I am sure that humanitarian agencies would be so much more successful if they were to join forces in addressing their goals and helping those in distress, rather than protecting their own turf, as they often do, while going after the same donors and funds. To answer your question, finally, and comment on Notes from the Heart – I started this campaign for free cultural content aimed at the so-called marginalised audiences, years ago. We gave concerts for and in support of children afflicted with cancer, down-syndrome, autism, people in wheelchairs, the blind, the poor, the elderly, refugees – basically all those people whose lives could be lit up by attention and the universal language of music. The buzz created by these events is always, and with the huge help of the media, well used to attract further donors and draw the attention of institutions that can genuinely help change their lives – so, naturally, I love this project and I will stick with it as long as I can breathe, walk and move my fingers – on and off the keyboard.

by Maja Vukadinovic for CorD