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Olja Jelaska [Photo by Damil Kalogjera]
03 Jun 2010

Olja Jelaska: An Interview by Tom Moore

Olja Jelaska (b. 1967) is an important figure in the younger generation of composers from Croatia.

Olja Jelaska: An Interview by Tom Moore

Above: Olja Jelaska [Photo by Damil Kalogjera]


A disc devoted to her work was issued in the series devoted contemporary Croatian composers on the Cantus label (available for order from

The interview was done via e-mail.

TM: What was the musical environment when you were growing up? Did your parents or close relatives play music, as amateurs or professionals?

OJ: In my family there are no professional musicians — I’m the first one. My father wanted to study music, but instead he completed his studies in electrical engineering. He was the head of the main post-office in Split. My mother taught the arts in primary school. They are both passionately fond of arts generally. In my childhood, they used to take me to theatre and exhibition but very often I was bored because I couldn’t understand what was going on. They have many books on the arts — monographs on great painters, biographies of some artists, books on specific periods in the history of the arts. My father has a collection of CDs, almost all classical music. Throughout my life I have felt their deep love for the arts.

When I was between eight and fifteen years old , my mother used to organize exhibitions of pictures by children, and she always took me with her — from organizing the exhibition to the final opening. Today, I think that it influenced my abstract creation.

My grandmother on my father’s side was someone who was self-taught in music. My father told me that she had a pianoforte in her flat, and frequently she would play some easier pieces for piano. She knew all the most familiar melodies from operas by Verdi, Puccini and other Italian opera composers. She died when I was seven.

My mother comes from Slovenia. Her parents had lived in the countryside, and every evening they used to sing Slovenian folksongs. My mother said that they sang them by heart. My grandfather died before I was born, but I often heard my grandmother sing. Her father ( my great-grandfather) was a maker of simple-style accordions. My paternal uncle was a stage director in the theatre in Belgrade.

TM: Where did you live in Croatia? Was it a small town, medium-size, large?

OJ: I was born in Split. My hometown is situated on the coast of the Adriatic Sea. It’s a beautiful small town (about 300,000 inhabitants) with many historical monuments: there is the Palace of Diocletian which was built by the Roman emperor at the turn of the fourth century AD. Diocletian built the massive palace in preparation for his retirement on May 1, 305. It lies in a bay on the south side of a short peninsula running out from the Dalmatian coast, four miles from Salona, the capital of the Roman province of Dalmatia. The Palace is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, one of the most important sights in Croatia.

Split is a typical Mediterranean town. There is the Croatian National Theatre in Split with drama, opera and ballet, but unfortunately there is no concert hall. For this reason we have no large orchestra nor an administration to organize musical events.

TM: Did Split also have active folk musicians?

OJ: Yes. Traditional Dalmatian songs are very popular nowadays in Split. There are many groups of singers who sing authentic folksongs. During the summer there are folk music festivals. People here like this music very much. Among the most important perfomances are those at the Festival of Dalmatian Klapas in Omiš, the Evenings of Dalmatian Songs in Kaštel and the Festival of Dalmatian Chansons in Šibenik. Omiš, Kaštela and Šibenik are small towns near Split. There are also many pop singers , and this is a kind of music coloured with Mediterranean melodies. There are important differences between the South and the North. Differences in the way people look at the world, and music reflects thos differences.

TM. How long had your family been there?

OJ: My father’s family has been living in Split for a long, long time. My mother was born in Slovenia, which was another republic in the former state of Yugoslavia. My father studied in Slovenia, and they met in Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia. They came to Split together 45 years ago.

TM: What was it that prompted you to start playing? What was your first instrument?

OJ: When I was seven my parents bought me a piano. They sent me to music school but it was really bad at the beginning, because I was a very introverted child, and my piano teacher had problems making a connection with me. I hated going to music school — it was a terrible period for me. It didn’t take long before I told my parents that I wouldn’t go there any more. But I wanted to take a private lessons with a teacher who was retired. She was very nice to me, and every time I went she would give me some sweets — that was the reason why I started to practise piano. After elementary school I decided to continue in a secondary school for the arts (music department). I composed my first piece in secondary school. It was a simple short piece for piano. Deeply inside I felt that I would be an artist, but still I didn’t know in which of the arts. I drew very well, and I liked painting as much as I did music, so I had to make a decision. And I did.

TM: What was the path you took classical composition? Where did you study ? Who did you study with? Were the models which you wanted to emulate in terms of composition?

OJ: I received my primary and secondary education in Split before leaving for Zagreb. I graduated from the Zagreb Academy of Music at the Department for Music theory in 1992. Throughout this entire I had the sense that I might do something else. My professor Stanko Horvat taught me the basics of composition.. I liked this subject very much, and after the third year he advised me to start the study of composition. I said : why not? I completed my studies in the class of Marko Ruždjak in 1994, graduating with a chamber mini-opera entitled Chamber Trio. This work was first performed in 1997 at the Croatian National Theatre in Split, preceding the performance at the Music Biennale Zagreb in the same year. It was a great experience for me. The invitation to perform my mini-opera at the Music Biennale came from the present president of Croatia, Mr. Ivo Josipović, who is also a composer. I had great professors. I must say that I was really lucky because I got on very well with them, and I learned a great deal.

TM: Who was your professor? What was his pedagogical approach to composition and music history?

OJ: My professor was Marko Ruždjak. He graduated from the Zagreb Academy of Music in clarinet and composition. He continued his studies in Paris, with Ivo Malec and Pierre Schaeffer, and Cologne, with Milko Kelemen. He has received many awards for his compositions. To explain his approach to music, I’ll quote him: “Some people see in the development of music and of themselves an organic growth, such as that of a tree, and they consider themselves to be a branch of such a tree, carrying on the growth of the roots and trank. To me, music is rather like grass, renewing itself every year, sprouting from old seeds yet completely new.” He liked to paraphase Borges, who compared writing with a dim view of an island emerging afterwards out of some archipelago. At first you notice one of the tops (which is in fact an island), then you try to connect it to the other tops, and that is how an nonregular process is created, because some islands slowly sink to the bottom, and you never know what will appear in the next moment. At the same time it is sometimes possible to start from the end or from the middle.

During my study I had a course on classical instrumentation. We dealt with string instruments (in the second year), woodwind instruments (in the third year), and brass, and during the last year I was writing the mini-opera for soprano, mezzosoprano, tenor and chamber orchestra. At the same time, I did many exercises in modern techniques of composition. During that period I wrote one wood-wind quintet, a piece for chamber trio (oboe, clarinet,and bassoon) and mezzo-soprano, one brass quintet, three songs for mezzosoprano and strings, and finally, the mini-opera.

It’s difficult for me to explain our pedagogy, but it was something verging on the abstract — working with certain ideas. My professor had a particular accent on rhythm. It was very good for me because I had to break old rhythmic habits.

TM: What was the musical scene in Zagreb? In the city generally?

OJ: Zagreb is the capital, much bigger city then Split, and the life there is much different also. There is the Croatian National Theatre but there are also some other theaters as well. There is the Vatroslav Lisinski concert hall, named for the Croatian composer who wrote the first Croatian opera. There are also some smaller halls which are used for concerts. There is the Philharmonic Orchestra, the Croatian Radio Television Symphonic Orchestra and many chamber ensembles specializing in various kinds of music.

For me — coming to Zagreb was something extremely important. Coming from Split, I wasn’t aware how it would change myself, my approach to music, to life generally. I was living in a house for students of music. We lived and studied together — it was a special experience. My father brought me my pianoforte from Split. New friendships, new professors, study at the academy, many new things for me . Every evening after lectures and practising, we went out — usually to a concert, but also to the cinema or the theater. There were many excelent concerts and orchestras... and I really enjoyed it very much. It was really wonderful. I sucked in every impression I saw.

At the academy ,there was a group of professors/composers who lived what they taught. Their compositions were being performed performing, and their teaching didn’t only take place in the classroom but also in the corridors, at concerts, at breaks in lectures. They had a very open approach for us. As composers, they have been very different.

TM: How would you describe your style in your works from the early nineties?

OJ: I was studying composition in the early nineties, and I graduated in 1994. In 2007 I produced my first CD with earlier compositions which I had written up until 2002. I could say it was my search for the right colour. I was looking for my own means of expression. All the compositions on the CD belong to the area of chamber music because it has been at the centre of my attention. There are seven pieces which describe that period.

At that time my approach to music was mostly intellectual. In beginning to write a piece I would determine the form of composition generally, and then I started to design many details. I tried to avoid the usual scheme of melodies , forms and rhythm...and the result is my first CD which concludes that period.

The most recent composition on the CD is Kaleidoscope for flute, clarinet, and string quartet with four movements. During the year when I was composing Kaleidoscope something happened to me in my private life that moved me very strongly to make a change. I had to alter many things in my life, and this also led changes in my approach to music. I had to break off composing for two years. I had to take a step back and see what I was going to do next.

There is something very strong in a composer’s subconscious. It is very influential, and the music written by composer is very highly determined by his/her subconscious. It’s avery interesting thing — I believe that every composer is a kind of channel, a connection with the spiritual world . My music is mine, but it comes from an invisible world — music is a very spiritual sphere.

TM: Which early works are still in your catalog? What work would you decribe as your opus one and why?

OJ: I chose for my CD, I could say , the best of my compositions from my first period. I wrote also compositions which I don’t consider very successful, but even those compositions contribute to my development. My relation to my early pieces is like the mother’s relation to her young child. Nowdays , I’m a very different person from the one I was ten or fifteen years ago, and that goes for my music too.

All of my compositions on the CD I could describe as my opus one, because this was my real beginning of learning about instruments, about music, about myself. In that period I wrote several compositions which include flute: DUO for flute, vibraphone and triangle, TAMARISK for flute and string quartet, AT THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA for flute (alto flute, piccolo) and percussion, KALEIDOSCOPE for flute, clarinet and string quartet and others as well. I also liked clarinet. There are some pieces where I wrote for clarinet and other instruments. Guitar was another instrument which inspired me. I wrote THREE PICTURES for guitar solo, and PINA’s DRESS for guitar trio. Percussion is also very interesting. AT THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA for flute and percussion ensemble was the piece in which I learned a lot about percussion. MASKS for quartet of saxophones was written in1999. I love the sound of saxophone, its very broad reach of colours and possibilities.

I wrote a piece, SPHINX, in three movements, for the Croatian Army Symphonic Wind Orchestra. This piece was a very hard test for me because it called for a large orchestra of wind instruments, but I conquered it.

I wrote chamber music because the small form allowed me to explore different combination of registers through different instruments. It was very exciting for me. I discovered that I was a colorist, and it did not bother me that this was not something new in music. I was looking for myself through the music.

I liked woodwind instruments very much, because with them I could slowly describe my musical ideas. I could say it’s something near impressionism.

TM: A question about compositional technique/practice. Composers often can be divided between two groups those who have an « architectural» approach, designing the large scale scheme, and then filling the details, and those who have a more organic or narrative approach, inventing the details, and then seeing what sort of larger schema those details grow into. How would you describe your approach?

OJ: I would say in my first phase I was in the first group. KALEIDOSCOPE was the last piece in that period.

The next composition which I made, in 2005, was BUTTERFLIES for flute, clarinet,bassoon and string quartet, and it was the beginning of a new phase which is still going on. Now I am trying to have a more, I’d say, natural approach. At the beginning of a new piece I imagine the form generally, but I don’t stick with it inflexibly. If in the process of composition I feel the form should be something else, I will change the plan. Then I start to invent ideas which I could make use of, but I try not to think too much. It’s hard to explain, but now I do not try to control my ideas, but let them go in their own direction. Every composition for me is like a journey. I can’t be certain that everything will go exactly the way that I imagined before. But I’m trying to refine every idea so that it makes a certain sense.

TM: Please talk about your study in Bialystok and Darmstadt. How were these places different from Croatia?

OJ: I continued my studies at seminars in Bialystok (Poland) in 1995 and in Darmstadt (Germany) in 1996. I’m very glad that I went. I wanted to see and listen to music by contemporary composers. In Bialystok and Darmstadt, I was able to meet contemporary European composers, and the music which I heard there I could also hear at the Zagreb Music Biennale every other year. During my study of composition I had learned about many contemporary techniques, so it wasn’t something completely new for me. But I must say that after these seminars I realized that I must turn to myself. I said to myself: my music must come from me.

Our ears were used to thinking that dissonance was consonance, but from time to time I have felt something rebel deeply inside of me. Yes, some influneces are nesessary at a certain point. But the main direction for my music should come from my spiritual field.

Today I think that in a composer’s life the most imporant thing is his/her personality. I have to base my work on my physical body, on my emotions, on my spiritual life, on my intellectual life, my social life, all together. And then music comes very easily without difficulties. The human must be at the center.

The Cantus ensemble, conducted by his conductor and composer Berislav Šipuš, is a group which promotes Croatian music. For about ten years they have been performing Croatian contemporary compositions as well as contemporary music from elsewere in te world, and the music of the twentieth century. Thanks to them many Croatian composers have had the chance to have their music performed. There are also other ensembles such as the Zagreb Quartet, Zagreb Saxophone Quartet, Zagreb Guitar Trio, Music Percussion Ensemble.

TM: Do you have plans to explore areas and genres that are new to you? What are some current and upcoming projects?

OJ: Next year I’m going to have a concert devoted to my music in Split as part of the Days of Christian Culture. So I am preparing new pieces. I have been writing some compositions for Trio Solenza from Zagreb. It’s a chamber ensemble with Mario Čopor, piano, Davorka Horvat, soprano, and Bruno Philipp, clarinet. They will perform my compositions which are based on motives from Bible. We are also trying to arrange for collaboration with ensembles from other countries.

I am also writing a new piece for clarinet and strings which will be performed in the autumn this year. I have no plan to explore areas that are new for me, but if an opportunity presents itself, and I think it looks interesting, I will probably try.

I am interested also in collaborating on a project which might include acting, music, and singing based on some interesting spiritual stories. We’ll see what will happen.

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