"When I lived in Serbia, I didn't want to know anything about traditional music," says Ana Sokolovic, expressing a feeling that she says was typical of her fellow composition students in Belgrade. "I wanted to compose real contemporary music, without reference to any society."
Imagine her surprise when she moved to Montreal, heard a performance of her first piece written in Canada (a duo for violins), and was congratulated for letting her Balkan spirit shine through.
"All my friends, and people in the audience said, 'It's so beautiful, we feel the Slavic soul,'" she says, in her lightly accented English. "And I said, 'Goodness, I'm composing contemporary music. What are you talking about, Slavic soul?' "
Sokolovic appreciates the irony of discovering or recognizing her roots only after leaving her native land. She also seems to be still absorbing the fact that her adopted country is feting her prolific work this year through about 80 concerts across Canada, organized by numerous groups with a big nudge from Montreal's Société de musique contemporaine du Québec (SMCQ).
SMCQ chose Sokolovic as the focus of its latest Série Hommage, a biennial binge intended to focus attention on a single composer. About half of the concerts are in Montreal, where Sokolovic has lived since 1993 (now with her husband, composer Jean Lesage, and their two children), but there are also shows in Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia. In all, seven orchestras, 20 chamber ensembles and 24 soloists will be showing off her works this season.
In the years since that two-violin piece, Sokolovic has done a lot of research into the musical practice she brought with her – which, she now sees, was full of Balkan modes and rhythms that she more or less took for granted. But she believes that the qualities that outed her as a Serb in Montreal went beyond rhythms and scales.
"It was in the details, but also in the sense of drama, of emotional drama," she says. "That's what they heard as Slavic soul."
Sokolovic also studied theatre in Belgrade, seriously enough that she considered becoming a stage director. That training, as well as her flair for dramatic incident in music, made it perhaps inevitable that she would turn to opera and other forms of sung theatre, including several pieces commissioned by Toronto's Queen of Puddings Music Theatre.
"Ana has an incredible theatrical instinct, and an outrageous imagination," says Dairine Ni Mheadhra, the company's artistic co-director. "Her music connects very emotionally with an audience. When I listen to it, it reverberates through all the cells in my body."
Sokolovic's Svadba, which Queen of Puddings performs Wednesday afternoon at Toronto's Four Seasons Centre, draws much of its rhythmic character directly from the Serbo-Croatian language. Sokolovic points to one section in particular, in which the six female singers squabble by reciting the alphabet, communicating through its percussive sounds the feeling, if not the substance, of a quarrel.
She has also drawn a lot of creative energy from the folk arts she ignored when living in Belgrade. At the Montreal launch of Série Hommage, she held up a pair of colourful mittens, and explained that they had been knitted by her great-grandmother, who also sheared, washed, carded, dyed and spun the wool.
"More and more, I see this relation between any type of creativity, whether of artists or artisans," she says. Like her great-grandmother, she's interested in engaging with her material from the bottom up, having control over all the colours, and knitting her musical lines into a pattern that easily holds its shape.
The great difference is that Sokolovic's knitting must hold together not in space but in time. Making the most of the elastic medium of time, and its dramatic potential, occupies her whether she's writing for singers with a text or a purely instrumental piece.
"This question of timing is my absolute obsession – to find the perfect time for something to happen," she says. Another key concern is understanding, before the writing begins, what kind of character the piece should have, who will be hearing it, and where.
"Do I want the audience to laugh, to cry? Like in the theatre, I have to know what costume to wear," she says. She's happiest with characters that feel universal, like the young bride-to-be in Svadba (which means wedding), or the commedia dell'arte figures portrayed in a recent string quartet, or the broad village characters in The Midnight Court, a chamber opera that Queen of Puddings took to London's Royal Opera House in 2006.
Canada gave her room to discover her own artistic personality in ways that might not have been so available in Serbia, she says, noting an explicit invitation to get on with self-discovery from Montreal composer Jose Evangelista, her former teacher at the University of Montreal (where she now teaches). She's a firm believer in the mosaic society, where nobody has to give up what they brought with them from other lands.
"I discovered my attraction to Serbian and Balkan music here in Canada," she says. "This society allows us to be ourselves."
Queen of Puddings Music Theatre performs Ana Sokolovic's Svadba Wednesday at noon at the Four Seasons Centre's Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre. Victoria's Aventa Ensemble performs two of her pieces on an SMCQ program at Montreal's Conservatory of Music on Oct. 20. A complete list of Série Hommage concerts can be found at smcq.qc.ca.