interview of the month
January 2020

»gebetsraum mit nachtwache« – Interview with composer Marko Nikodijevic

Multiple award-winning composer Marko Nikodijevic is 2019/20 composer-in-residence at the RSB. He studied composition in Belgrade, his native city, and Stuttgart, where he lives. In his work he is often inspired by the tiniest shreds of existing music or computer-generated fragments, layers and compressed or elongated segments of original works.

On 17th January 2020 Marko Nikodijevic’s »gebetsraum mit nachtwache« (»prayer room with night watch«), a work for full-scale orchestra and organ, receives its world premiere at the RSB, with Vladimir Jurowski conducting. We talked with the composer about the piece and about his residency.

What’s the best thing about working with Vladimir Jurowski?

It’s particularly nice turning the score over to someone like that who’s at the top of his game. I’m a big admirer of his tonal imagination, his musical exactitude, the unique musical colour that he coaxes from the orchestra. As a composer I can lean back a little and then it dawns on me that the piece sounds even better than I’d imagined it.

What are the special freedoms afforded by a residency?

As artist-in-residence you don’t just show a snapshot of your work – like the best photo of yourself on Instagram. You’re actually showing much more of yourself to people. This season the RSB is presenting three pieces by me. So you have ample opportunity to really get to know each other.

Are you hands-on during the rehearsals process?

I’m more the shy type. I’m not straining to foist my ideas on other people, because I believe in the power of interpretation. The musicians in this orchestra are just superb.

You’ve written a group of works entitled »Monuments«, which, according to your biography, »seem to explore church-like spaces«. Is »gebetsraum mit nachtwache« a similar kind of exploration?

Spaces fascinate me. Instrumental music always requires a space where the walls create a unitary sound, which creates an echo of sorts. I hate open-air concerts. A lot of my works have fixed points that are set by the auditory topography of the space.

Is the title intended as an allusion to Rembrandt’s »The Night Watch«?

The title of that piece is a reference to the tradition of the death watch, which is still widely observed in the Orthodox Church. The eight tones in Orthodox chants form the basis of the piece. These 1,000-year-old melodies were written down for the first time in Serbia, in modern notation, by Stevan Stojanovic Mokranjac [1856 – 1914, composer, music teacher, conductor and collector of Serbian folk music]. They have very interesting and complex structures, which can’t be explained using our musical language, which came later.

What music that we are familiar with do these chants resemble? And how do you approach them?

The best comparison is with early Gregorian chanting, which has been passed down to us via the Orthodox Church and now provides a window on a distant musical past. It’s a different tonal range to ours and their intervals are strange on our ear. In my piece these chants start off compressed and then fan out – a bit like an accordion. The structure materialises horizontally and vertically from a single line.

You wanted to compose something that incorporated the organ in the Konzerthaus Berlin. What feature of the Jehmlich organ in the Great Hall do you consider most precious?

Its location right behind the orchestra allows the creation of tonal spaces that wouldn’t occur to me if it was in another position – next to the orchestra, say, as in the Philharmonie.

And so we’re back discussing the relationship between sound and space, which is so fundamental for you.

The human ear is acutely attuned to how music sounds in an enclosed space. People always say we get our bearings using our eyes, but we use our ears much more than we think: When a bird flies past us, for instance, we subconsciously home in very precisely on the throbbing rush of its passage.

Your biography mentions your »deep and ongoing techno socialisation«. What kind of musical environment did you gravitate to?

My first contact with techno was not at all typical and didn’t happen until after I’d finished my studies. For me, techno represented a new world order of sound and space creation. It’s also a philosophy. Unlike the case with classical music, there’s no concept of beginning, middle and end. It doesn’t have a linear structure like symphonies or novels, which are always trying to achieve resolution. It’s all about the depth of the sound. You lose your sense of time. You’re floating in the ocean, tossed to and fro by the waves, in the eternal here and now.

Which artists inspire you at the moment?

I’m currently working on an opera project with the performance artist Marina Abramovic and that’ll take me up to the summer. The project is called »7 Deaths of Maria Callas«.

Interview: Annette Zerpner