Catalogue of Memories
by Boris Kovač
More than a quarter of a century ago, during his first recordings as composer, musician and musical director, Boris Kovač used his Ritual Nova group to break many rules and destroy many boundaries. Springing forth from the worlds of jazz and improvised music, drawn to chamber composition, galvanized by the vast repository of images and memories integral to folk music and obsessed with myths whose truths are truer than truth itself (but not by any single mythology that tells only one facet of truth), Kovač entered the Yugoslav and international scene with a deeply personal music that spoke in a bold, universal language. Favouring an alchemical philosophy of combining disparate elements over an academic methodology… adhering more to the logic of dreams than to a postmodern approach… the rituals offered by Kovač could never be defined in historical or cultural terms; at most one could attempt to delineate them in “geographical” terms – in as much as one might perceive the ground one stands on and the air one breathes as sounds and harmonies.
No one knew how to classify this music, no one could even describe it.
In any case, those were other times.
Catalogue of Memories is a collection of music of another Boris Kovač… of a Boris Kovač who has spent more than a quarter of a century guiding others through his music and entrusting others with his music… of a Boris Kovač who was torn from the ground he stood on and who transformed the air for breathing, who tried to stop the wars with music and who mocked the apocalypse with dance… in order to give meaning to the end of History and Time. Ritual Nova and Catalogue of Memories are two different albums by two different people in two different countries in two different centuries, both connected by the one fact that neither can be classified or described – still today. Being forever outside one’s time, denying time through one’s work is dangerous. This is an artist who gazes into the abyss, and the abyss looks away nervously.
The philosopher who taught us to gaze into the abyss is the same one who asked other philosophers if they could dance. Boris Kovač studied to be a philosopher but developed into a musician and composer… and should you go see him perform live today, he would be doing the only thing he was never taught to do: dance.
The music Kovač was making in the nineties sought to battle the darkness of shifting paradigms and rouse the listener from decades of drunken slumber by being contemplative… by being so beautiful, it never had to get down and wrestle with ugliness but simply drove it from the ring in shame. Kovač went on to extend his range of interests, his choice of instruments, the palette of genres he painted with. He immersed himself in ecumenical teachings, interrogated the cosmos on the harmony of complementary contrasts, and he left his beloved Pannonia in order to return to it anew. Always in profound contact with the soil and its music, the composer knew how to evoke the sacred solitude of life in the lowlands, never stooping to vulgar nationalism or the provincial caricatures that “ethnic” (SIC!) music so frequently trips and falls into. “Personal yet universal” – this could have been his credo, as his music became progressively quieter, more graceful, leaving behind mere vibrations in the air, fickle traces that lead to meaning.
Then the nineties came to a halt with the spectacular First Remote-Controlled World War: the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia. Kovač could not continue speaking and playing softly while watching history repeat itself even after it already ended. Refusing to be defeated, he decided to triumph and entered the new century bringing along new music.
Kovač’s body of work from the first decade of the 21st century is deeply marked by the dance. La Danza Apocalypsa Balcanica is a work that is almost aggressive in how it led his way out of chamber music, replacing contemplation with meditation in movement… saving souls with moving bodies, spiting death with life. His band La Campanella embraced this approach and rendered it more profound, more sophisticated, injecting Kovač’s music with new energy and boldness by marrying Middle European decadent dance with Latin flames, yet remaining deeply Pannonian to the end. Then came a renewed interest in chamber music marked by a double album simply entitled Chamber Music. This was followed by a return to a personal take on jazz and improvisation with the group Ultima Armonia.
And yet, in all this and throughout the years Kovač remained all he ever was…
Catalogue of Memories essentially draws a line, takes stock and, as suggested by its title, catalogues all the memories of everything that the author, musician, composer, dancer, philosopher Boris Kovač has accomplished in his life so far. Not a mere retrospective, certainly not a narcissistic homage to himself, Catalogue of Memories is a sum of Kovač’s contemplations, a distilled package of his musical interests, a compendium of all the dances and other movements he learned in much the same way he learned to play music – mostly on his own.
The marriage of the contemplative and the timeless on one hand with the physical, that which is determined by time – rhythm and tempo, – on the other is what characterises Catalogue of Memories most of all. The composer assembled a group of fifteen musicians, most of them his long-time friends who took part in past musical adventures that ranged from classical chamber works, to creations drawn from folk traditions, down to barroom dance pieces. Kovač never writes a note of music before he knows who will be playing it in the end. This versatile, multilayered album needed musicians who would make it sound like a logical whole – from the drummer and accordion player, down through the bassoonist and string players, on to the harpist, pianist, guitarist and singer. Kovač himself on winds and his son Lav on percussions are the cohesive force driving the music forwards.
As one listens to Catalogue of Memories, one hears the music itself learning how to dance – as in The First Promenade, which at first meanders softly, shyly, as the piano patters about throughout, but then, when the violin and saxophone enter, it suddenly places its hands on its hips and tosses its head back. And yet, it will not be possible to discern all the “steps” in the music at first go… The first two tracks jolt the listener with complex time signatures and contrasts in volume that end up sounding sublime, instead of aggressive. Catalogue of Memories – Part Two is especially intense in how it combines themes, rhythms and dynamics that hark back to Kovač’s first pieces in which he explored the ground between myth and dreams… but these new compositions do so more subtly this time, with even more grace.
Tango also returns in this album in Broken Happy… The dance comes on strong and resolute in Flying, flying… The dance moves with Pannonian tenderness and summoning ghosts for accompaniment regardless of the century on the calendar. The voice, so unusually featured in Ritual Nova recordings, is back again in the form of an instrument, shunning any verbal clarification of music but demanding to be clear on its own. The Dance is a language in itself, thoughts evolving into movement. The Second Promenade is especially bold in eliminating boundaries between what is heard and what is imagined, its music so soft and slow that one will dance to it with eyes closed. Rain Drops Tango closes the album with passion and also with a wisp of melancholy that invokes questions rather than answers.
Catalogue of Memories celebrates musical memories of contemplations and dances from before we were born, while it also maps futures that extend not merely to the end of History itself but to the ends of all our personal histories. It sets us free to be whoever we wish to be – even if only ourselves. Contemplative but not indolent, playful but not vulgar, it does not even need to put ugliness to shame this time: it has indeed absorbed it, made it part of the big picture, metamorphosed it into unexpected harmonic forms and broken rhythms without ever abandoning grace. No rules, Kovač remembers, no boundaries… Let cartographers deal with those – he is too busy cataloguing his memories and finding in them things he never remembers remembering. How many future memories can we expect from a man talking about drawing a line and going into musical retirement? To judge by his latest live performances in which he dances ever more fiercely, plays ever more fervently – we could say that Boris is only just embarking on his memories.
So, make a cup of a warm tea, we will be here for quite a while…
Uroš Smiljanić, Belgrade, December 2012.
Translated in English – Uroš Smiljanić.
English language lecture and final touch by Nora Hoppe.