Interview with Nina Čalopek


What initiated the idea of 'Music-Space-City-Sound' as a thematic frame for this year's anniversary Music Biennale Zagreb?

The idea was conceived by the MBZ's former artistic director, composer Krešimir Seletković. His original idea of connecting music and the city focused on specific cities, particularly European music hotspots such as Berlin, Vienna or Paris. In that sense, the cities were supposed to represent different paradigms and traditions related to performance skills, styles, schools, academic practices and scenes that are a leaning point for contemporary music featured at our Festival. However, the Program Committee soon realized that the framework should be something that encompasses all incredible relationships between the city and music per se. We attempted to step back from mapping things out and at the same time step toward interpreting the layers of socio-political and philosophical questions, the questions of composition, technique and poetics, architecture and urban planning, along with any other questions that unfold the polarity and importance of music in an urban community. In that sense, it was unavoidable to take a step further, towards the more abstract notions of sound and space. But then again, it was impossible not to consider the Biennale's meta-position, as the city of Zagreb is a part of its official name.

You have been a part of the Biennale production since 2009. How has your role changed now that you are a member of the Program Committee?

I have been working for the Croatian Composers' Society since 2006, and in 2007 I did some concerts for the Music Biennale as the producer of the Cantus Ensemble. Right from the very beginning I was lucky to collaborate with artistic directors such as Berislav Šipuš and Krešimir Seletković, who understood that production and program selection, as well as creating a concept, a specific focus, and branding are all interrelated. It is hard to draw a line between these two different types of jobs and, moreover, one would be incomplete without the other. We constantly exchanged advice and helped each other, even had some disagreements, but were always aware that this hard polarity between production and selection was something unnatural and that it was necessary that we complemented each other in order to achieve our goals.

Also, my place in the Program Committee is influenced by my position as the executive producer of the Festival. In a way, I am the one who coordinates the entire crew and the person who collects and distributes information, and then brings them forth and uses them to create the bigger picture, especially in an unprecedented situation like this one, when there is no artistic director. This is, naturally, the biggest change in comparison to the earlier editions of the Festival because instead of communicating with a single person about the program, the finances and the organization, now I have to simultaneously communicate with four or five (if I count myself as a Program Committee member) people on the Committee, and often via different means and media.

Something new, something fresh and bold are some of the concepts traditionally linked with the Music Biennale Zagreb. In what way are these concepts present in this year's edition?

I have to say that these three concepts are not something I would personally deem the representative qualities or organizational goals of the Music Biennale, nor do I find them particularly important for the Festival, even though the audience should be the judge of that. I find it really interesting that an almost 60-year-old festival, an active socio-cultural element that has had various and numerous phases and upheavals, insists upon being bold and fresh, which is in direct contradiction to both its history and its reputation. 

However, if I may rephrase your question, my answer would be that I hope for the Biennale's 30th edition to produce new trademarks, primarily a quality program as the basic selection criteria, followed by education together with popularization, and composers as the focus of the Festival's orientation. And this redefines the new, fresh and bold that could be applied to the 30th Music Biennale Zagreb.

Somehow, both the will and the need arose to create a field of experience and unity, and not just experimentation. A need to 'talk' about contemporary art-music in a different way, to make a narrational switch in the Festival structure, to choose some new areas for some new reasons, while still acknowledging the quality and the composers. These shifts may seem insignificant, yet shifts they are.

You announced that the Biennale is turning towards a younger audience. Where does our most important contemporary music festival stand regarding unfavorable conditions for contemporary music production and its consumption?

The Biennale has always leaned towards its youngest audience, although not always sufficiently or in the best manner. This year, we are launching quite a different concept – three out of four projects for children will begin and continue for two months prior to the Festival. In collaboration with the Croatian Music Youth we are doing a workshop called ''Space, Music, Me'' devised by violinist and music educator Lucija Stanojević, who will also be leading it. The workshop will take place in more than 10 schools in Zagreb. Another project we have arranged is “Music in My Neighborhood,” which will feature four contemporary music concerts intended for higher primary school graders, also in collaboration with the Croatian Music Youth and a music duo comprised of flautist Ana Batinica and violist Aleksandar Jakopec.

These projects will be held in Zagreb’s cultural centers, something I also consider an important shift for this Festival, because it is a way of including all those brilliant places that serve as platforms for family and neighborhood socialization and experience exchange. The third project is, again, quite different because it includes children already closely connected to music: little professionals, children who attend music schools (in this case the Elly Bašić Music School). As we all know, contemporary academic music has a difficult “life” – it is much more isolated than, for example, contemporary literature or contemporary theatre. The same goes for its consumption by the audience and its place in the academic curricula. That is why we devised a platform called KNAPANJE, in collaboration with the Cultural Centre KNAP, which should be a great opportunity for students of music and fine arts to express themselves, learn and socialize.

Still, the consumption of art or lack thereof is not a generational question. It concerns neither children nor youth, and I believe that schools should be the last place for the so-called reform measures. The custom and the need to attend any kind of concert is something that should be encouraged and cultivated within a family. I have already mentioned a sort of educational-populistic approach in the positive sense of talking, directing, collective listening and experiencing that we are attempting to develop, both within every aspect of the upcoming Festival and through its communication with the recipients. I hope that these, and maybe even some new potentials will flourish even outside the Biennale itself, and thus make it bolder in discovering new ways of consumption that will lead to it reaching a new audience.

The Program Committee consists of music professionals, each of them contributing their own knowledge, qualifications and perspectives. Which feature of this year's production would you, as a musicologist, highlight?

I think my advantage lies in musicology's own broad scope and immanent interdisciplinarity, both in the sense of a profession and a scientific field. Besides, ever since my student days I have been more interested in contemporary classical music and have specialized in it as a music critic. Contemporary classical music is, therefore, a constant and the basis of my work. I found it important to continually emphasize how music needs to speak, and how we as a festival need to fight for music in the context of culture and how important it is to point out that music has the possibility to address numerous subjects. Even if the subject is 'simply' the sound itself. The important parts are all the aspects of the relationships between specific parts of the program, from the piece someone is interested in and the performer's personality or a basic idea that an artist wishes to tackle, to the technical aspects of the performance. I tried to talk with everyone. And that approach opened a path to a specific set of pieces for every part of the program, which then enabled us to settle on the venues or the program as a whole. Besides, I am not just a musicologist, I am also an experienced cultural professional, both in a local and an international scene. That is why I am especially glad that we have improved international collaboration and connections, if the list of big names staying in Zagreb for the Biennale is any indication. Those are composers Eivind Buene, Rolf Wallin, Nina Šenk, Achim Boernhoft, multi-medialist Kaffe Matthews, members of the Cikada Ensemble, pianist Daan Vandewalle, jazz icon Jon Irabagon, the MBZ legend Vinko Globokar, world-class conductor Jonathan Stockhammer and many others. Also, for the first time in the Music Biennale Zagreb history, there is going to be a masterclass for composers, and we hope this will be a new way of attracting young, active and interested professionals, that is, a way of making the Biennale relevant in the context of the world music scene. Then there are, of course, international co-productions and international commissions of original works. These, however, are the tools that the Biennale should learn how to use better in order to retain its place among the European and world festivals, as well as in the seriously growing music industry. In this professional sense, I approached the MBZ as a project very pragmatically.

Did this challenging position come as a surprise or even scare you at some point? What would you say is the greatest knowledge or the value it brought to you?

Since I have been working on the music scene for 12 years, I will be so bold as to say that nothing surprises me anymore. A good part of the work done is actually a combination of the qualities of a manager with a specific set of skills connected to the area of music. However, it happens that when you love what you do, as in my case, you always aim for something more difficult, more complex and more challenging, which enables you to develop personally and puts a spring in your step when going to your workplace every single day. The manner in which I am usually leaving the workplace is a different story (laughter).

Here is the catch: that way the job never gets easier, but every new challenge leads to more development and grow both on a professional and a personal level. One of the blessings of cultural production is the chance of challenging yourself, learning and working on your skills. And when your own personal contribution shows in a broader picture, defined by someone else's experience, emotion or thought as well, then all the routine parts of what you do make more sense and bring you more joy.


Interviewer: Martina Bratić