Composing an individual ‘voice’ in today’s world



Michael Bakrnčev’s winning piece Sky Jammer will be performed by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra at the Metropolis New Music Festival. He shares the story of his Macedonian heritage and its affect on his music making.


Since I started composing in 2010, people have told me: ‘You’re lucky, you’ve already found your voice and you have a really distinctive style’. I owe that to many different things – one of them being my connection to my Macedonian heritage.

Known as ‘the pearl of the Balkans’, Macedonia (birthplace of Mother Theresa and Alexander the Great) is a landlocked country situated south of Serbia. Like all countries in Eastern Europe, it has been subject to numerous border changes and control under various regimes. The entire region is home to a vast range of ethnic communities, some of which include the Turkish, Greek, Muslim, Catholic, Jewish, Buddhists and Atheists. Modern Macedonians are predominantly Slav and speak a South Slavic language.

My family comes from Greek-Macedonia, but it’s widely referred to many as ‘Aegean Macedonia’. My mother’s village of Negochani was revealed to be a busy little town, according to an Ottoman tax record dating as far back as 1468.

The music from Macedonia that interests me the most is the authentic folk music, performed by musically untrained shepherds, villagers, and women singing in the fields. That tends to be where I can locate the ‘original’ Macedonian sound. Macedonian music is bursting full of joy and excitement, and it really reflects the type of people we are.

There was this one time when a Bosnian man was trying to sell me his car, and as soon as he found out I was Macedonian, he told me that Macedonian music was the best. I’m not sure if he said that just so I would buy his car (I didn’t), but I believed him when he said it.

So how does my Macedonian heritage affect my musical identity? As a composer, I am often asked questions like these:

  • What sort of music do you write?
  • Who are your influences?
  • Who are you listening to at the moment?
  • What instrument do you play? (an understandable question, but I do not play, I write)

All of these are logical and valid questions to ask any composer. My responses to each vary from time to time and depend on the company, context, and mood I’m in.

Let’s just assume that I’m talking to an average classical music person (if there is such a thing). This is often how I respond:

  • I write what I like to call ‘new fine music’ inspired by Macedonian folk music
  • I really like the works of composers with Slavic roots, such as Stravinsky, Tchaikovsky, Bartok, and Ligeti, but I cannot escape the grasp of Mozart, Ravel, and Debussy, nor do I wish to.

This next question is where things can get very interesting for me, the question of: ‘Who are you listening to at the moment?’. Now, that was always such a dreaded question because I am expected to respond with a classical composer. But here’s the thing: I never listened to any classical composers, really – not in the way that my peers and colleagues have and do. I listen to Macedonian folk music, and that’s where my influence comes from. I feel I have been looked down upon for that, especially from teachers and colleagues, because I’m not listening to what they think I should be listening to, and I’m not writing sophisticatedly enough – it’s not my fault that I find it hard to keep up with all the ‘isms’. I find myself pulling my hair out and my brain jumbles it all together and all I can gather is ‘post-neo-ultra-modern-hyper-chromatic-multi-complexist-ism-ness’. It is awesome, and I respect many composers who work in that idiom. In fact, I have promoted it with much passion even through my own concerts with my orchestra, the Melbourne Met (more about that another time). But it’s not my style.

My work, my voice and my style, of which I am proud, is different and unique. This has been the best aspect of my music making, the fact that I can deliver something different to the table. And no matter what profession you’re in, you should try to do the same.

And to address the last question: ‘Oh, you’re a composer! Cool! So what instrument do you play?’, I play guitar (not so much anymore, but everyone knows the guitar).

So then, how have I been able to establish and find my ‘voice’?  First, I ask myself: ‘Do I actually have a genuine voice? Because, nobody does, right?’. Our thoughts and feelings and what we as composers put down onto paper are a culmination of decades of ever-changing influences on us – both physically and emotionally (and musically, and mentally, and spiritually, and philosophically etc.).

My conclusion is this – and there’s no need to over complicate things because in reality, it’s simple:

When I write, I’m thinking about energy, and my emotions guide the direction my music will take.

Macedonian music to me isn’t about a physical, geographical place in the world where this music comes from. It is the memories I have shared with my family ever since I can remember. The music brings us together to celebrate. We have fun, it is filled with joy, and the music itself can have a spell-binding effect on all of us across the generations – from children to too-cool teens to the elderly (who you can always expect to show you up and teach you how to dance ‘properly’).

So, what are some of the key elements of Macedonian music that influences my music?

  • Rhythmic characteristics of ‘chains of 2s and 3s’, for example: 11/16 = 2+2+3+2+2
  • Highly ornamented melodies
  • Strong focus on melody (never really unpleasant, as it sticks within a small interval – usually a fifth, sometimes less, and has a smooth contour)
  • Emphasis on improvisation or ‘feeling’
  • Simple structure (AB with repeats, plus a separate solo/improvised section)
  • Pitches are modal and the tempo for dance songs are usually quick and therefore exciting. However, vocal songs have a tendency to be slower and more melancholic.
  • Wedding music – that is, the dances or ‘oro’ (circle dance by which dancers either hold each other’s hands, or specific dances where men hold each other’s shoulders known as ‘za ramo’). These dance songs are incredibly jovial, festive and bright (you can find some examples here).

There is a huge palette to work from there, wouldn’t you say? Regardless, I can still hit the proverbial wall and be subjected to ‘analysis paralysis’. Whenever I hit a wall composing, I often think back to this simple quote: ‘One is only limited by their imagination’. That’s something my teacher Gerard Brophy adopted and always told me; it has become my mini composing mantra. When I get really stuck, though, I’ll turn to my Macedonian music library, literature and various other source materials I have gathered along the way, and I gather ideas and inspiration and continue on from there.

On the future: Occasionally, my palms will become clammy because I wonder what will happen once the well dries up and I’ve gone as far as I can possibly go by delving into Macedonian folk music. As I mentioned earlier, it is a vast place, with a very long history, and I take comfort in knowing that every time I listen to a song, there’s always an element there that I haven’t noticed before. An element that can spark my imagination to write my next piece, or next 10 pieces. I choose to not be limited by my imagination.

You can hear Michael Bakrnčev’s piece Sky Jammer performed at the Melbourne Recital Centre at 8pm, May 21.  Tickets are available online or at the door.

FREE OFFER: Are you a performer looking to play something different at your next concert? Michael spent last summer writing a piece for each instrument of the orchestra, which you can download for free here.


Image supplied. Credit: Matthew Rigby Photography.

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