“Here in Canada, I’ve started to think differently about my origins,” says Ana Sokolovic, over breakfast in a Toronto café. “I think you have to be physically separated from your country to have this kind of reflection. You will find yourself.”
These words of wisdom come from a Serbian-born composer who has called Montreal home since 1992. And they also say much about her approach to her music: on one hand, Sokolovic enjoys the cultural freedom that comes with living and working in Canada; on the other, she has a clear sense of who she is and where she’s from.
Why did she choose Canada? “My decision was mixed with a lot of elements. I wanted to go far away. And I have a friend of Yugoslav origins who was a filmmaker, but was born in Ontario.” And why Montreal? “I’m a huge francophile, and I’ve always been attracted by French culture and language. I still think it’s the most beautiful language. Isn’t it wonderful to live in a country with two languages: the most important and the most beautiful?”
While some immigrants have a hard time adapting to this country, Sokolovic took to Canada like a fish to water. She quickly mastered French as her third language (after Serbian and English). She wasted no time obtaining a master’s degree from l’Université de Montréal, and soon started to make her presence felt artistically. In the 1990s she won three prizes in the SOCAN Awards for Young Composers (now the SOCAN Foundation Awards for Young Composers), took a first prize in the CBC’s National Radio Competition for Young Composers and represented Canada at UNESCO’s International Rostrum for Composers.
Commissions and other awards followed, and today the list is impressive. The Montreal Symphony Orchestra, the Orchestre baroque de Montréal and the Manitoba Chamber Orchestra have all engaged Sokolovic to write for them. Chamber ensembles that have commissioned her include the Molinari and Bozzini string quartets, and the Adaskin, Phoenix and Fibonacci trios. Contemporary-music societies have beat a path to her door, and she’s created new works for the Société de musique contemporaine du Québec, the Esprit Orchestra, Soundstreams Canada and Queen of Puddings Music Theatre, among others. In 2005, she won the Joseph S. Stauffer Prize from the Canada Council for her work as a composer, and in 2007, the Conseil québécois de la musique named her Composer of the Year. And in 2008, she won the Jan V. Matejcek Concert Music Award at SOCAN’s Montreal awards gala.
However, the story of Sokolovic’s development as an artist reaches back well before her arrival in Canada. While this country has done much to shape her professional career, her desire to become a composer is rooted in her childhood in Serbia (then part of Yugoslavia). “My mother is a dentist’s assistant and my father is a historian,” she explains. “But my father had a strong sense of art, he took us to concerts, the theatre and ballet. And I had an older sister who played the piano, so I wanted to play too.”
She began piano lessons at the age of eight. As well, there were classical-ballet lessons. She remembers the strictness of her Russian teachers — and also how she made her first attempts at composition. “At my dance classes,” she says, “I went to the grand piano during the break and played. I wrote little songs, little melodies, and I played them over and over.”
Ballet gave way to acting lessons a few years later, when Sokolovic enrolled in theatre school. “The teacher didn’t only teach us to act,” she recalls, “but to stimulate our imaginations. Later on, I helped her as her assistant in staging theatre pieces.”
It’s not unusual for an artistically inclined child to pursue several art forms before settling on a favourite. But in Sokolovic’s case, all three of her areas of study — ballet, theatre and music — have contributed to the artist she’s become: a composer who thinks about music from a theatrical standpoint. This is something she brought with her to this country. “When I came to Canada, at my first composition lesson my teacher asked, ‘What would you like to do for your master’s degree?’ This surprised me, because I was not used to being asked what I wanted to do. I was used to being told something like ‘This year you’ll write a string quartet.’ I chose to do ballet music.”
Sokolovic’s theatrical instincts soon came to the attention of Toronto’s Queen of Puddings company, which specializes in contemporary music theatre. Co-director Dáirine Ní Mheadhra vividly recalls how she first heard about Sokolovic — through a phone call to Véronique Lacroix, director of l’Ensemble contemporain de Montréal, in 1999. “I asked her who she thought were the best composers in Montreal and she mentioned Ana Sokolovic. So I called Ana and asked her to send me something. She sent me a tape of her chamber piece Pesma, and by bar seven, I was hooked. She clearly had something to say — her music connected emotionally.”
Queen of Puddings commissioned her to write Sirens/Sirènes, a bilingual work for six women’s voices, and staged it in 2000. That, in turn, led to Sokolovic’s most extensive theatrical work so far: The Midnight Court, a chamber opera also written for Queen of Puddings. Premiered in 2005 and remounted in London’s Covent Garden theatre the following year, it was based on an 18th-century Irish poem about sexual politics in Fairyland. The National Post called it a cross between Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Monty Python.
But even when her works aren’t written for the theatre, Sokolovic finds ways to bring her theatrical sensibilities to composing. Last year, when she was asked to write the Banff International String Quartet Competition’s “imposed piece” (which all competing quartets were required to play), she deliberately avoided writing the kind of abstract music-that’s-just-music concert work. “I thought about it,” she told the CBC’s Larry Lake in a radio interview, “and I had an idea do something which I like very much, which is commedia dell’arte. So I decided to have a little bit of a writer’s role — to write a play, and see how different actors will do the play. All the notes are written, but there is a place for different interpretation of the same notes, and the same story.”
This past September, Sokolovic’s commedia dell’arte — a 10-minute romp demanding advanced contemporary-music skills — was performed by competing quartets from around the world. Canada’s Cecilia String Quartet, which won first prize in the competition, also took the special award for best performance of Sokolovic’s piece.
While Sokolovic’s reputation has spread nationally and internationally, there remains a strong Quebec focus to her career. It’s in Montreal that her music has been most warmly received. And in the 2011/12 concert season, Montreal will be the epicentre of a year-long celebration of her music, organized by the Société de musique contemporaine du Québec. The previous two composers honoured by the SMCQ with Homage concerts were Claude Vivier and Gilles Tremblay. They’re obvious choices: Vivier passed away in 1983 and today has an international reputation, while Tremblay is an éminence grise in Canadian new music. But a retrospective series on someone like Sokolovic — very much alive and only 42 — is a departure from the way things are usually done.
SMCQ artistic director Walter Boudreau offers a simple and direct reason for his choice: “She’s good — period.” He goes on to say that specifics about the series are still in the works, but the SMCQ intends to present four concerts featuring Sokolovic’s compositions, including Jeu de Portraits, Géométrie sentimentales, Nonet, Il divertimento barocco and Ambient 5, among others.
However, the SMCQ’s own concerts will be just the tip of the iceberg. Boudreau has been making plans for other ensembles in Quebec and across Canada to get involved. already, the Ensemble contemporain de Montréal and Montreal’s Nouvel ensemble moderne have programmed Sokolovic works, as have the Bozzini and Molinari string quartets and orchestras in Montreal, Quebec City and Ottawa. Boudreau hopes that about 60 performances of works by Sokolovic will take place in the 2011/12 season.
At present, Sokolovic has about 40 compositions in her catalogue, everything from large orchestral scores to solo works. “I work on several pieces at the same time,” she says, “but in different stages. One piece will be in the last phase, and another I’m just beginning. Right now I’m working on three pieces: a piece for violinist Angèle Dubeau and La Pietà, another string quartet for the Bozzini Quartet and a dancer, Marc Boivin, and Svadba, an opera about a Russian wedding for Queen of Puddings.”
Sokolovic’s life is entirely wrapped up in music: she’s married to another composer, Jean Lesage (they have two children, Gustave and Eva), and when she’s not composing, she’s teaching music at l’Université de Montréal. That’s the life she chose. But would things have turned out differently for her if she had stayed in her native Serbia? Her first reaction to the question is to point out that she has no way of knowing what direction her life would have taken if she had not left her homeland. But then she offers an idea. “When I was in Europe, I was very connected to the European tradition. I tried to compose as a European composer — whatever that means. But here in Canada, I feel free to do what I want.”