Aleksandra Marković – Sounding Stereotypes (in Goran Bregović)

Aleksandra Marković, Sounding Stereotypes – Construction of Place and Reproduction of Metaphors in the Music of Goran Bregović, Doctoral thesis, University of Amsterdam, 2013.
Goran Bregović is a successful musician grown up in Bosnia-Herzegovina. In a remarkable career of nearly 40 years he developed from a bass guitarist in a school band to an internationally celebrated star in what he claims to be Balkan music. In between he played and composed rock, film music, pop, world music and music in various mixed genres. Aleksandra Marković moved from Serbia to the Netherlands in 2004. She originally thought of Bregović as ‘yet another artist trying to benefit from the exposure of the former Yugoslavia in the media during the 1990s.’ In her new country, and a confusing new culture, she came to discover a completely new look at the music she had disliked since childhood.
It seems a perfect starting point for a scientific analysis of music by an artist whose productions appear to be a most interesting case for the study of ‘otherness’ (be it real or constructed) in music. As Bregović often produced and reproduced his creations by applying compositional techniques such as ‘collage’ and ‘recycling’, his music also offers a fascinating challenge to memetic explorations. The framework set up by Aleksandra Marković for such a study may well be applied by subsequent scholars in the field.
In her chapter on the geography and history of Southeast Europe Marković explains that ‘Balkan’ and ‘Balkan sound’ are not self-evident entities. She warns against stereotypes which say as much about ‘the Self’ as about ‘the Other’. The Balkans (plural!) are loaded with positive and negative images constructed both within and outside the region. They are used in marketing Balkan products and in opportunistic politics. Bulgarian choirs, Romanian brass bands, gypsy music from Macedonia, traditional and postmodern musics are labelled as, or adapted to supposedly Balkan music. Goran Bregović made sure that he featured prominently on his CD covers, benefiting from and ever reinforcing his image as Balkan music composer. Marković reports that he himself likes to speak of the hypothetical Balkans and markets his music as more Balkan than the Balkans themselves. From her research she concludes that in fact he often found his inspiration in Yugoslav traditional music and international pop.
Having won her position of neutral but well informed and critical observer Marković manages to explain Bregović’s choices in relation to the political and cultural developments of the time. In a thorough process of musical analysis, scrutinising reviews and interviews she demonstrates how Bregović is driven by his search for acceptation by the public, something he is admitting to himself. He is ambitious, determined, sensitive, able and flexible and he has a fine sense for the international markets. He understands the opportunities of both traditional and new media as well as the challenges of (anti-)globalism. Marković depicts how he combines a self-created Balkan sound with gypsy associations and promotes the resulting music on the ever larger platforms of pop and world music fans. A significant example is Bregović’s 2004 opera Karmen. On his homepage he originally announced this as ‘his first opera entitled Bregović’s Karmen with a Happy End, the first Carmen with a K and a Balkan accent. A combination of naive theatre and opera.’ (Marković p. 100) The first performance featured amateur Roma theatre groups. In an interview Bregović emphasized that he had been appropriating Gypsy music for many years and that he now wanted to give something back: ‘We Gypsies have but one opera, and it ends tragically. That is why I decided to create and perform […] a Gypsy Karmen with a happy end. Enjoy!’ (p. 102) After the official Serbian première in 2006 Karmen saw more than hundred performances in former Yugoslavia and abroad.
Marković shows in detail Bregović’s compositional techniques more particularly ‘collage’ (using one or more quotes) and ‘recycling’ (repeating and rearranging entire songs). She illustrates her statements with numerous examples and figured out that at least 74 percent of the tracks released in a period of 19 years partially or entirely stem from earlier sources. More than 35 songs are used as quotes or are completely recycled in over 70 arrangements (Marković p.135). Remarkably he himself is quite frank about this. For him these techniques are part of his endeavour to produce music that can be recognised by his audience. Marković knows that he often spent none or very little preparation for recording sessions, but assigned a significant role to improvisation and experimentation. And she has an open eye for what he and others consider as his creativity. Bregović’s version of Balkan music, she says, is a hybrid structure of excerpts coming from different styles and different sources where everybody can recognise something of ‘their own’ (p. 123).
For Marković Bregović’s music is a challenge to explore the possibilities of memetic interpretation of a musical oeuvre. She gives a concise but clear overview of the theoretical discourse on musical borrowing (or stealing), on intertextuality and on memetics in general. It leads to the bifurcation of creativity on the one hand and ‘meme breeding’ (the capacity ‘to breed new strains of music from old’) on the other (Marković p. 181). Bregović, she says, seems to merge these two. In a diagram she illustrates how he created a 1997 song from tunes he composed early in his career, partly 1986. It is a promising, though rudimentary, contribution to the discussion on the applicability of memetics as a tool for music analysis.
Marković’s dissertation as a whole is a valuable example of a case study in cultural musicology. In a clear language and with extensive documentation she describes the realisation of an extensive musical oeuvre and connects it to relevant theories where possible. Her book is an important contribution to the study of contemporary popular music.
Barend E.M. Linders PhD MA