Dubravko Detoni's Recollections of the MBZ

On the first Biennale steps, his conversation with Stravinsky, the umbrella attack and the Biennale unit for performances, writes the composer, regular Biennale guest and founder of ensemble ACEZANTEZ.

I remember my first Biennale impression well – a historical lecture by one of the then foremost champions of the avant-garde music, Karlheinz Stockhausen, at the very first Music Biennale Zagreb, in 1961. Almost all leading Zagreb musicians of the time flocked to the not very representative hall of the Kinoteka in Zagreb. “Stock” appeared to me, a drooling student of composition, like some glowing, unreachable being from another planet, some doped or crazy Messiah who in a trance shouts incomprehensible messages to our provincial planet. The lecture was translated from German by my former professor of chamber music, and later my key associate at the ACEZANTEZ, Fred Došek, with whom I later, over many years, traveled halfway around the world, and whose mother tongue was German. However, we students (I am not sure about some of the present “graybeards”) did not understand a word of it, while the musical examples were played on an ancient, unacceptably poor, squeaky contraption. After the infamously suspended lecture, we left stupefied and completely confounded, and there were even some serious verbal clashes. Twenty years later, when this event crossed my mind, I asked Fred, an excellent polyglot, an expert on modern music and all else, what had happened that long ago in the Kinoteka. “I don’t know,” Došek said, “I didn’t understand anything either.”

Thanks to the wise strategy of Milko Kelemen and excellent organization of Ivo Vuljević and his exceptional teams, in those first years the Music Biennale Zagreb made avant-garde music interesting and somewhat understandable to traditional musicians, but also to general public, the people, and partly dissuaded them from their, hitherto felt, utter contempt, almost hatred of it. It became something of a sensation in those days, which did not happen to such an extent in later years. In the store windows on the main streets of Zagreb there were, among others, huge photographs of all local and some leading foreign avant-garde masters, so they were noticed, recognized and offered treats even by some traders at the market. On the radio and television, even on street speakers, the most modern music of the time was publicly broadcasted, gradually meeting less and less resistance. I returned from a master’s degree course in composition in Warsaw in 1967, but was still largely unknown in my own country, so my works had not been performed at the previous MBZs nor the one held that year. Then, next year, in 1968, at the then prominent Musikprotokoll Festival in Graz, my composition Likovi i plohe caught the attention of the European music critics, and in 1969, I won the Grand Prix at the 6th Youth Biennale in Paris with three of my works, so that same year as many as three of my compositions (Likovi i plohe, Assonance 1 and Šifre) were very successfully presented at the MBZ, and my career was launched. The very next MBZ, in 1971, commissioned from me a piano concerto Élucubrations, which opened the MBZ and Dubrovnik Summer Festival that same year (with me as a soloist, accompanied by the Zagreb Philharmonic and led by Lovro pl. Matačić), and later won numerous prizes, including the annual Vladimir Nazor Award. At the following MBZ (1973), the Ensemble of the Center for New Tendencies that I founded in 1970, known for decades under its acronym ACEZANTEZ, made a noteworthy appearance, after which it too received invitations and commissions from all over the world. I successfully collaborated with all Biennale directors and organizing teams for the first twelve years and I achieved success thanks to them.

The year is 1963, Sunday, 12 May in the morning, the entire Zagreb was genuinely excited – something unimaginable these days – because the greatest composer of the first half of the 20th century, Igor Fyodorovich Stravinsky, was coming to the Music Biennale. That evening, he was personally conducting, in the first part of the concert of the Zagreb Philharmonic, the performances of his pieces. The old man was outrageously short, almost dwarf-like, could barely stand on his feet, and not even a wonderfully gnarled cane was helping him much. He spoke in a hoarse bass and was constantly angry about something. (He probably had a reason for it, as we were yet to see and hear.) On the eve of the rehearsal, he tottered to the penultimate row of an almost empty concert hall, the most modern concert hall Zagreb had – Istra – and his then-indispensable associate Robert Craft, who would conduct the second part of the concert, disappeared somewhere to have a shouting match behind the stage with the hall- or orchestra staff – and with the greatest difficulty, and a real danger of keeling over, Stravinsky finally sat down and sighed deeply, while those nearest to him, and I happened to be sitting a few chairs down as a student observer, choked on his very strong alcohol fumes. At first, leaning on his cane with both hands and breathing heavily, he just sat there and was probably trying to remember where the hell he was, and then, as an extremely intelligent man, began to look around slowly and nod, astounded at everything around him. His eye finally caught my quiet and shy form, at first moved on and then quickly returned and started more intensely and uncomfortably to stare at me. Then he gestured for me to sit closer to him and when I, embarrassed, somehow finally managed to do it, he asked in a creaking voice:
- You Russian?
- No, me Croatian.
- Same thing. Yeah, right, the same.
- Well, not really, I replied in Russian.
- Right, harasho, harasho, details only tire the world. And you what? Musician?
- Yes, I be kompozitor (composer).
- Goodness, no. Be something smarter, I know what they tell... Now, tell me, when my play be, I conductor, what the hell going on, why I wait so long?
(Interestingly, he did not introduce himself as a composer. I guess one should have just assumed it.)
- Well, maestro, there is always a long wait with us.
- See, same with Russians. We all same.
At that, the musicians started gathering on the stage, Robert Craft also appeared, and shouted something to the Old Man in terribly fast and crackling American. He struggled to move and rise, but if I had not jumped in and helped him, he would not have made it. Leaving, breathing heavily, he huskily muttered:
- Spasiba, composer, spasiba (thank you) ...

Out of other Biennale guest appearances, I especially remember the composer and conductor’s appearance of Witold Lutosławski at the MBZ and the first performance of his commissioned work, Trois Poèmes d'Henri Michaux (1963), when I longed to meet this, probably the greatest composer of the second half of the 20th century. I did meet him by chance, and our collaboration in Warsaw, invaluable for my further growth as a composer, lasted almost a year and a half (1966–1967) and turned into a kind of friendship. Still, afterwards, in the final years of our sessions, though not so pronounced as with my first professor Stjepan Šulek, I sensed that he found my more radical creative style somewhat insulting and thought that I somehow let him down.

Anyway, already in the 1960s and early 1970s, as a student in Warsaw, Darmstadt and Paris and enthusiastic traveler, I came across almost all important experimental sounds and related phenomena that later, through the MBZ, came to Zagreb. Among these, I especially remember some foreign solo or chamber performances with artists who amazed me with their musical, as well as dramatic, theatrical-circus, often physically dangerous skills and a wonderful feeling for connecting sounds with images and movement, showcasing in such way their exceptional attitude towards humor, grotesque and satire. Of the similar national ideas, I especially remember Sakač’s Biennial throwing of a live fish on the pedal-empowered piano strings, which reverberated throughout Zagreb, and was remembered by a part of the public as a unit for performing the Biennale music.

I was there when the historic scandal occurred at the tense nocturnal orchestral show by John Cage in the only concert hall in Zagreb at the time, Istra, when an outraged local composer in the front rows trounced a self-proclaimed critic with an umbrella. I also remember the huge scandal with the seemingly naked American ballerinas from Martha Graham’s famous troupe, after whose performance the poor management of the MBZ, under threat of immediate closing of the festival, had to apologize and apologize to the highest municipal Party assembly and make repentant promises.
My idyllic collaboration with the MBZ shortly stopped in 1985, when I stated in an interview a long-known claim that every kind of avant-garde gradually and over time fades or partially softens into the classical, which the then-management did not take too well. However, everything was soon forgotten, so my collaboration with the festival continues to this day with great success.

Dubravko Detoni
(as told to Dina Puhovski)