Branka Parlić, Pianist

The Art Of Pure Sound

This part of Europe was discovered by Erik Satie and New Music at a time when Gershwin and Chopin were popular, she has spent forty years conveying to students her love for current music, while her performances have more than five million views on YouTube

We will start with the most recent development: we are talking to Branka Parlić while she’s preparing the programme for European Minimalists, though she doesn’t know when she will present it in front of the audience, because the concert planned to be held on 28th June in Kolarac University hall was postponed due to the Coronavirus outbreak.

“We are preparing as though normal concert activities will resume soon, when sporting events have already begun taking place, and with such a large number of spectators,” says our interlocutor, who is a native of Novi Sad and one of the most prominent performers of New and minimalist music in Europe, a professor at the Academy of Arts in Novi Sad, and perhaps, above all, a pianist who discovered Erik Satie in this part of the world and turned him into a cult composer. On this occasion, we will mention only her latest performance: two concerts she held in London – at the end of February at St John’s Smith Square and at St Martin in the Fields church on November.

Branka Parlić, PianistAll of the aforementioned probably wouldn’t have come to pass if it weren’t for the piano that Branka Parlić’s mother brought from Zagreb when the family moved to Kula because her father, a veterinarian, founded a veterinary station that still exists in that small town, at the behest of the then Ministry. The story is that “as a child, I found that this amazing piano provided a great place to play with my sister. We used it as a shelter in our games and a place for peaceful retreats. I had a feeling of respect for this gigantic mechanism that scared me by its immensity, but at the same time I felt protected. I also remember a scent of wood of this grand music box, which instilled in me feelings of comfort, closeness and trust. This was a scent that I could feel later in my life whenever I lifted a piano lid to practise. Even now when I sense it, I often picture my mum’s black grand Stelzhammer piano and feel a kiss on my head that my dad used to give me whenever he found me practising.”

Playing under the piano continued until the day the mother of our interlocutor, who also played the piano very well and was extremely musical, entered the house and told them that she had enrolled Branka and her sister in the music school that had just been established. “At the time I was seven years old and had just started primary school. The music school was situated in a charming old villa on the main street in Kula’s town centre. I attended my music lessons in this beautiful setting for a few years, before the school was relocated. I had lots of fun with my friends at music school. In such an environment I found that even solfeggio lessons became amusing, although this subject was considered rather demanding and tedious for young children. My first piano teacher was Mr Jovan Jerkov, whom I still gratefully greet at concerts in Novi Sad.

I started researching Satie’s work together with the late Mitar Subotić Suba, a Novi Sad-based composer and producer

Similarly to other young pupils, I was not very keen on piano practise during the first two years of music school, but my mother kept me and my sister practising regularly at home. However, in my third year I started enjoying practising more, as if something snapped in me. That was also the time when I started performing at the music school concerts, which made my parents, especially my mother, rather delighted and proud. From then on I became more proactive and independent in preparing my pieces, because I suddenly realised that attending the music school, practising and learning about music, was not so boring.”

During her studies at the Faculty of Music Arts in Belgrade in the class of Professor Olga Mihailović, at the Students’ Culture Centre, she discovered what was current in music. There students of Composition founded the Ensemble for other new music, and she joined them. “We were all already familiar with, or slowly getting acquainted with, new sound and new ideas in the interpretation of sound and music generally,” she says. At Bitef in 1976, during the time of her studies, the opera Einstein on the Beach was performed, in the presence of its author Philip Glass and director Robert Wilson, which was a special experience for everyone from the Ensemble.

“Our first concert took place on 2nd December 1977 at the Students’ Culture Centre in Belgrade. Among other compositions performed was Permutations by Miloš Raičković, for three pianos and 18 hands. With the support of then editor of the SKC Music Programme and Ensemble member Miroslav Miša Savić, the Ensemble made guest appearances in several cities abroad, performing at the 1979 Music Biennale in Zagreb. It stopped working after 10 years. Forty years later, the old members of the Ensemble, together with up and coming younger pianists and composers, gathered again and held a concert in the SKC Hall, on the same day and month and at the same place where the first concert took place. The intention was just to mark an important date for us and a wonderful period in life. However, due to the enthusiasm and excitement we felt during the concert, and due to the incredible reaction of the audience, we decided to reactivate the Ensemble, which we did. Now, three years after the comeback concert, we have participated in three major international festivals, held several concerts in Belgrade, Novi Sad, Niš and Kassel, Germany, and participated in Radio Belgrade’s show Studio 6.” She graduated in 1979.

Branka Parlić, Pianist

At this point in our conversation about the life of Branka Parlić we somehow come to the story of Erik Satie, a legendary, controversial composer from the end of the 19th century whose compositions she recorded on the 1986 album “Initiés”, thus presenting him to this part of Europe. Specifically, there are few artists at the world level who are considered as knowing and performing his music better than her. The story that she discovered him by chance “in the 1980s in the cartoon Satiemania by Zdenko Gašparović, for which Satie’s music was performed by Aldo Ciccolini.

“I knew something about the cartoon, but nothing about the author of the music. I started researching Satie’s work together with the late Mitar Subotić Suba, a Novi Sad-based composer and producer who tragically died in Brazil in 1999. Suba brought notes and a few records from Paris. As there was still no internet at that time, we had very little information about Satie, and we concluded on the basis of scores and his unusual compositional procedure alone that Satie’s music was a kind of herald of minimalism in music. His music did not belong to any of the artistic directions of that time; it was completely timeless and has remained so even today. With his unusual instructions written in the score, Satie suggested that the performer interpret the music completely freely. I was attracted by the fact that a musician is no longer just an interpreter of other people’s ideas and moods, but becomes an interpreter/creator. Without changing the cited notation, the musician has completely open access to the piece they are performing.

That’s the reason I didn’t want to listen to the records with Satie’s music that Suba brought back from Paris, along with the notes. I wanted to give myself complete freedom, unencumbered by other people’s interpretations.”

With New Music, the freedom to create is much greater because it is about music of the time in which we live and in a way the idea of the composer is closer to us, so the performer is free to express it through their personal experience

In an environment such as ours, which is accustomed to so-called light composers like Gershwin and Chopin, it was risky for a pianist to present themselves with works of minimalism whose music is characterised, as she explains, “by the repetition of phrases, which creates a ‘pure sound’, sound as a kind of ambience, so music that must be listened to as the art of pure sound, as an act without any kind of dramatic structure whatsoever, music that expresses nothing.”

She explains that “With New Music, the freedom to create is much greater because it is about music of the time in which we live and in a way the idea of the composer is closer to us, so the performer is free to express it through their personal experience. But such freedom nonetheless requires a lot of knowledge, a lot of listening to the compositions of that period and creativity.” She was attracted to new music by the search for “a new sound, new composers and new literature. As a student, I preferred to play baroque and early classical music, and since baroque music is polyphonic, I now understand that this uniform pulsation attracted me even before I became familiar with repetitive minimalism. As a reason I don’t exclude the perhaps possible selfish attitude to play only music that is close to my sensibility and gives me complete satisfaction.”

She was the editor of a series of ten concerts, entitled “New Ears for New Music”, from 2006 to 2012, and gave premiere performances of a large number of compositions by European and American composers. She recalls that the series included the guest performances of great artists, such as “composer and pianist Hauschka from Germany, Mark Melits Consort from Chicago, Swiss piano duo Gareis & Pohl and composer and double bassist Florant Ghys, then a rising star and now an artist with a significant place on New York’s New music scene. The series had its own recognisability, an audience that filled halls, but support stopped unexpectedly after 2012. A large number of proposed projects – including a celebration of the 100th anniversary of the birth of John Cage – were not accepted, so the series, which had brought great innovation and changes to the Novi Sad scene, died out abruptly.”

Branka Parlić, Pianist

At one of two London concerts performed this February, she played the composition After Hendl’s Vesper by British composer Gavin Bryars for the first time.

“To my great satisfaction, composer Gavin Bryars accepted my invitation and was present at the concert. We spoke after the concert and I told him that, together with my colleague and fellow pianist Nataša Penezić, I was planning a concert dedicated to his music in Belgrade, and that our great desire was for him to be present. I still hope that we will be able to secure the necessary funds and organise a concert of an extremely important British composer like Gavin Bryars, although I’m aware that in this post-Corona period the realisation of that concert is much further away than it seemed just four months ago.”

She tells us that she also established contact in London at the time with composer John White, a member of the British Experimental School, and he invited her to a concert at his house in North London, which was be attended by other members of the British Experimental School, but White fell ill and the concert was cancelled.“I remained in touch after he recovered and received his piano Sonatas, which I would like to perform in the future, hopefully at one of his concerts too. Moreover, I keep in touch with Philip Glass through his close collaborators and staff. Philip Glass has been familiar with the calendar of international performances of his compositions, and I ensure that he is informed about performances in Serbia and dates of my concerts at which I perform his pieces. I had the opportunity to meet Philip Glass after his concert at London’s Royal Festival Hall in 2013. We had a chat about my performances of his music and he was keen to receive my CD Metamorphosis, which I posted to him afterwards.”

The greater engagement and assistance of institutions is needed, and above all the media which, by regular monitoring and affirming high quality artistic events, would contribute to changing the attitude towards true artistic values

Her performances of Satie, Glass, Najman and Mertens have amassed more than five million views on YouTube. Is new music a way to promote classical music? Branka confirms that it is, but also considers that “the greater engagement and assistance of institutions is needed, and above all the media which, by regular monitoring and affirming high quality artistic events, would contribute to changing the attitude towards true artistic values, instead of favouring consumables with poor quality, inappropriate, primitive and kitsch programmes.” She says that for the recording of her latest vinyl, “Initiés 2017”, Swiss man Jürg Schopper, who produced it, “used a Telefunken M10 Tube Tape Machine, Neumann microphones, creating a fantastic sound in which you can hear the flicker of the strings, even my breathing. In analogue recorded sound we hear the sound in space, or the space in sound. I’m not even sure how I would define that; it’s just that the sound is like you’re in the middle of a big acoustic space and you’re listening to a performance on a Steinway D model piano.”

With the completion of this academic year she ends her pedagogical career and says that, together with students at the Academy of Arts in Novi Sad, she “devoted lots of time to working on compositions from the second half of the 20th century and the 21st century. I often suggested to them which music to listen to from that period. I’ve stayed in touch with many of those who’ve gone through my class over the past 40 years. For some of them, who were on the Composition study programme, working on piano lessons helped them to find their personal expression in composing.”

How do family and friends fit into all of Branka’s activities? “Family has always been a great support, but also a participant in designing every concert as an event. From the name of the concert (Cade, Jellyfish Trap, Grimaces, Jack in the box, Metamorphosis, The Cone Gatherers etc.), through the stage, lighting, posters, concert programme, all the way to the sticking of posters, when that was necessary. Now that so many years have passed, I feel that I missed out on a lot in my son’s upbringing and that I was not dedicated enough to him. I was there at home, present but more often at the piano than playing with him.

My husband, Čedomir Drča, who designed all the printed material for my concerts, sound carriers, lectures and workshops, most often did that while he was with the child. He took him with him by agreement to appointments with printers, cameramen, masters of light, so Stanislav was present at every stage of the work on the preparation of concerts, all the way to the very end, or watching and listening to his mother on stage. He was also present at all our meetings and gatherings with friends, musicians, painters, writers. All of that contributed to the fact that, a few years later, as a student of natural sciences in high school, at one point he turned towards art and then enrolled and graduated in New Art Media at the Academy of Arts in Novi Sad. Today we support each other mutually, and the visual illustration of that support is the logo on which the three of us are pictured on a bicycle.”

And so, as we stated at the beginning, while waiting for some safer time than this one, she is preparing a new programme for a new concert. “English composer Neil Campbell, Russian Pavel Karmanov and Italian Alfonso Peduto sent us their compositions arranged for six pianos. Along with their works, we are also working on the works of two local composers, Dragoljub Ilić and Dimitrije Beljanski. The concert scheduled for 28th June at Kolarac has, of course, been postponed, and all further plans are uncertain, but that’s no reason not to do what we love.”

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