On Guarding of the Heart, an evocative 20-minute piece for chamber orchestra by Serbian-born composer Djuro Zivkovic has been named the winner of the 2014 Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition. The prize, which includes $100,000, was announced this evening by the University of Louisville, which sponsors the prestigious award. Former winners include Esa-Pekka Salonen, John Adams, Pierre Boulez and Louis Andriessen.
Zivkovic, who is also active as a violinist, has a mystical bent. He characterizes his winning piece as an "instrumental cantata" inspired by the religious music of J.S. Bach and especially the Philokalia (love of the beautiful), a collection of ancient Eastern Orthodox texts. The music, scored for 13 players including piano, feels mysterious and spacious. It slithers with microtones and steely string effects, slowly building and ebbing, veering off in unknown directions, yet always moving forward.
Zivkovic was born in Belgrade, where On Guarding of the Heart had its premiere in 2011. Since 2000 he has been living in Stockholm, where he teaches at the Royal College of Music. Earlier in the week, I found the composer at home, caring for his infant child, and willing to chat over email about his award-winning piece.
You mention the Philokalia as inspiration for your piece and its overarching theme of love. How do you express that love in this piece?
The theme of love in the Philokalia is not a kind of romantic, passionate or possessing view of love, but rather the way toward, what the philokalian fathers used to call, the "perfect love." It is a complete and humble love toward everyone. In simple words, my piece is speaking about the way rather than about the love itself — a discourse about the inner transformation and searching for a better "me."
It is searching for a better world as well, since the one we have right now is full of worries. I believe that the art, and above all the art of music, could be the main tool for its transformation.
It seems like we are on a journey in this piece. Where are we coming from, and where are we going?
It is a journey, indeed. I can't express exactly where we are coming from since it resides in matters outside of the present world. It is a spiritual journey. The piano acts as a guide for the confused thoughts and the turbulent soul, represented in the orchestra. Finally, at one point the whole orchestra gathers in one note, or in one chord. It is a place of high concentration, a noetic focus, a friction of the thoughts. A place of the guarded heart.
Tell us about the writing of On Guarding of the Heart. How do your musical ideas come to you?
On the Guarding of the Heart was very difficult to compose at the beginning. I struggled to define the musical matter in its exactness. I didn't want to compromise anywhere. It took almost three months to write the first seven pages. And the next 60 pages came in just one month — at the same time I was teaching and involved in other activities. I am also a professional violinist, but I must confess that composing is one of the most demanding human activities.
Do you start with a non-musical idea (love, Bach, religion, etc.) and draw inspiration from that? Or do musical ideas come to you that you expand and build upon?
I almost always start with non-musical ideas then try to "paint" them in sound. I was very much interested in various texts, particularly French and German poetry, but since numerous composers used those texts, I was looking for something profoundly different; something that would touch still widely undiscovered philosophical and spiritual texts.
Have any plans to celebrate your award?
Yes, I've already had a small celebration with my wife and baby, and I will call my closest friends to the party.