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Manja Ristić, is a classically educated violinist, sound artist, published poet, curator, and researcher. Her sound-related research focuses on contemporary performance in the field of instrumental electroacoustics, as well as on interdisciplinary approaches to sound and field recording and experimental radio arts. Ristić has created commissions for Kunstradio – Radiokunst, Radio Cona, Semi-Silent, Radiophrenia, Radio Art Zone, Radia.FM, Framework Radio, and all the national broadcasting agencies across SE Europe. The winner of several distinctive awards for solo and chamber classical music, she received an honourable mention in the Phonurgia Nova Awards, and a Golden Award for Extended Media from the Association of Fine Artists of Serbia. She is a founding member of CENSE – the Central European Network for Sonic Ecologies. We caught up with Manja to talk about growing up in the war-torn ex-Yugoslavia of the 1990s, listening, and her life on the Croatian island of Korčula. 

“Classical music structured my musical being.” You said in an interview. You had a classical music education, having studied at the Belgrade Music Academy and the Royal College of Music in London. Many experimental musicians who have had a classical education experience a certain turning point where they have to somehow distance themselves from the classical music world. What was your turning point?

To be perfectly honest, I don’t think I ever distanced myself from classical music; life circumstances forced me to change my practice at some point. Before embracing sound art as my main path, I had been running on parallel tracks for almost 15 years, being active as a classical music performer, giving solo recitals, playing chamber music, and in numerous ensembles and orchestras, while at the same time developing my improvisational practice, experimenting with electroacoustics, performing in experimental formations and composing for theatre. The sudden loss of my mother when I was 28 drastically shifted my priorities, and not long after that I became a mother myself. Little by little, the demands of maintaining a classical music career couldn’t be met, and it gradually began to fall out of the picture. 

Today I am a single mum of a wonderful autistic boy, which is a very special task and a “mould” that shapes both my life and my career. The reason I am putting this here is to combat stigma and to give some visibility to families like mine. 

A rigorous classical music education prepared me extremely well for this role. But I still have a strong desire to revive my classical music performance. I am also fully aware that it is highly unlikely to ever happen, and my focus is really on trying to maintain the creative hybrid of my past and present practices. There is a lot I have learned from multimedia, experimental music, especially improvisation, conceptual art, radio art and  listening practices that have been able to apply to classical music interpretation, and vice versa — there is a lot of musical knowledge from my extensive classical training that I have been able to incorporate into sound-related arts. Integration has always been my goal, not distancing. To somehow transform all these divided musical Manjas into one genre-ambiguous shapeshifter. 

What I have distanced myself from in relation to the classical music milieu is elitism, discrimination, the grooming and the clan-building of famous music teachers, orchestras, agencies and schools, and all the things that were/are deeply oppressive and damaging to both the individual and the culture. Luckily, times are changing, and classical music is more accessible, more open, safer and is even becoming innovative. 

But I am quite happy  to have found my own way through the jungle.

You came of age in Belgrade during the 90s. This was a turbulent and dark period, marked by the Balkan Wars and the claustrophobic atmosphere of the Milošević regime. How did this period influence your formative years, and what impact did art and culture have on you at the time?

As for what is generally regarded as the lost childhood of my generation, I belonged to a privileged group of kids who were very well taken care of through a comprehensive musical education and who were partially spared the direct effects of the war. In addition to my parents, who did everything to protect me, I was also raised by incredible music pedagogues. Nevertheless, the consequences of the war and trauma inflicted on children were unavoidable. Like many Yugoslavs, I come from a mixed marriage and have close cousins in almost all parts of the former Yugoslavia. My brother was just old enough to join the army when the war started, as was my first cousin on the Croatian side; they were almost forced to fight each other on the same front. Other close family members I grew up with were besieged in Sarajevo. My mum’s family was cut off on a Croatian island, some of my closest friends lost their older siblings, society crumbled, embargoes stripped us down to bare survival and Belgrade became a mecca for criminals, arms and drug dealers, exposing the youth to rapid cultural devaluation, all kinds of addictions, the degradation of values and ultimately poverty. All these stresses and strains marked my childhood and formative years, so music education really had a therapeutic role, and it was a cleverly placed distraction. A decade of cultural isolation and the sharp and instant division of the Yugoslavian public sphere still has terrible consequences 30 years later. 

I think my parents and my teachers were constantly looking for an opportunity for me to continue my education abroad, so I was sent away for short periods of time. To London when I was 15, to Vienna towards the end of the bombing of Belgrade in 1999. 

Apart from the classical music education, which was a kind of shield, another community that had a significant protective role was the techno scene. In my teenage years, the Belgrade Academy of Music was an uncongenial place. Rigid and hostile. Many young people of my generation found solace in clubbing. And there were also the first anti-war protests, then the student protests of 96-97. Prolonged fighting on the streets over the course of a harsh winter. Every day, instead of going to the Academy, we would  march, organise, build solidarity campaigns from scratch. It was during this time that my critical thinking and affinity for activism began to take shape. 

The impact of growing up in a crumbling society and being exposed to the trauma of war, an embargo and Milošević’s dictatorship, gave my generation a certain resilience— some of us are very efficient in survival mode and have distilled political instincts. Unfortunately, this way of living has lifelong consequences, so I can safely say that most of us have some form of PTSD. 

My dad saved the boots I wore on many protests and marches as a young girl; he turned them into flowerpots. 

Yugoslavia has a rich history of transgressive art and culture, embracing progressive ideas and art forms throughout its history, often in transdisciplinary fields. Artists like Katalin Ladik, Borghesia, IRWIN, the queer art and music scene in Ljubljana in the 1980s, etc. Was this cultural legacy something that inspired you?

Yes, I was deeply influenced by Katalin’s work, especially her performance poetry. The Slovenian scene of the 80s — not really, I was too young, but I got close to the Slovenian scene much later and specifically the sound-related one. Some of my Slovenian colleagues were directly responsible for the development of my field recording practice — Brane Zorman and Irena Pivka from Cona Zavod

The war and post-war queer scene of Belgrade — in the late 90s and for almost a decade after, had a deep impact on me, and I proudly consider myself a part of it. 

The Yugoslavian performers and artists who deeply influenced my early compositional,  conceptual and experimental development were the composer and diva of the new wave band LunaJasmina Mina Mitrušić, and the mathematician and visual artist Marica Radojčić. Both were massive pillars of knowledge and support in my formative years. Later, the incredible influence of the  cultural anthropologist and interdisciplinary researcher Sonja Leboš from Zagreb, with whom I still love to work closely.

The person who  indirectly influenced my perception of art production, criticism and curation was the magnificent Dunja Blažević. Old-school composers I looked up to were Ljubica Marić and Ludmila Frajt

Not a  man to be seen, I just noticed. 

What is the importance of listening in your work? It is often assumed that musicians are on the other side – facilitating the listening experience, rather than listening themselves. Some musicians only go to other musicians’ concerts if they themselves are performing. 

In the last few years I have put a significant effort into developing a listening experience that engages deeper intuition and involves sensory ecologies. I am also obsessed with the phenomenology of sound and listening, the energetic properties of sound, the complexities of psychology, the physiology of listening and the physics of sound. 

The development of musicality does not necessarily mean the development of listening skills and affinities. But I do believe that the development of listening techniques is the basis for any form of musicianship. Simply because sound operates within subtle layers of one’s psyche, it affects brain functions, it can have a profound emotional impact, and it can become part of a bodily memory. Not to mention the possible socio-cultural impact and imprint on collective memory. 

I’m one of those who see listening as a transformative act, and working with sound as a highly responsible job

Also, my tolerance of  dilettantism is seriously low these days. I am not saying that every musician needs to be a listening guru, but a certain level of professionalism simply demands that you develop an awareness of what certain sounds can do to people, animals, the environment…

Going to concerts is a completely different kettle of fish, especially in an entropic internet era where there is more and more content to consume literally by the day, without having to deal with post-pandemic social claustrophobia and without having to fight the beasts of post-digital culture. If someone is a musician and refuses to go to other people’s concerts, there is an underlying reason for that. Whatever it is, we need to bring the culture of neurodivergence into the discourse about music, as well as camaraderie and solidarity. I enjoy listening to EVERYTHING, as well as NOTHING. 

Extended mind-body listening is my favourite state of being.

At some point in your career, you embraced field recording and sonic ecologies. Which in a way is also about empathy with the world, curiosity and openness, a kind of observational modus operandi. What is your relationship to incorporating the environment into your work?

I think I walked into that field rather naïvely, but today, after a decade of active recording and sound art production, I am deeply grateful for the instincts that dragged me this way. On a deeply personal level, there must be a desire to expand and integrate experiences related to trans-human interconnectedness, a hunger for knowledge, creative curiosity, a  deep love of nature, and an almost spiritually induced passion to get closer to nature’s intelligence, which, in my opinion, includes musicality  among its many unexpected qualities. Everything is in some way responsive to sound, from a living cell to an empty space. Dealing with environmental sound is complex, involves many aspects of research, and I am not particularly scientifically equipped, but still, I think I have a pretty good antenna. The need to connect and share whatever one aspires to communicate is an intrinsic human need. This is how mine unfolds.  

You are half-based on the island of Korčula in the Adriatic, a beautiful, idyllic area, which in the summer attracts many tourists. What is your relationship to this particular location, its genius loci?

I have been a full-time islander since June 2020. Before that, from 2013 onwards, I would spend half the year here and half in Belgrade. So the transition wasn’t too hard. I also grew up here, my mother was born here, and my ancestors have had quite an incredible impact on the island community. It is a very powerful place in so many ways, historically dense, from the Neolithic period strategically important for the early development of Europe, with stunning nature in the heart of the Adriatic biome. It is an inexhaustible source of inspiration for soundscape research and interdisciplinary sound practice. Unfortunately, like many tourist destinations, it has been taken over by the political idiocy of corrupt mechanisms and greed, and has already been deeply damaged by mass tourism. 

Living on the island used to be  a real hardship. But nowadays it has many advantages. In a way, the pandemic forced me into the decision to move here permanently because my son was about to start school and we needed more control over his immediate environment and less stress for me in dealing with the challenges of autism. 

I feel safe here, and I see it as home. And the school is great!

Being an artist and functioning as an artist in society is not an easy task. Artists are expected to entertain, but also to make statements and voice their opinions about all sorts of issues, be it politics or ecology, while surviving in precarious conditions, without the security of a job or a pension. The life of an artist is also something  of a societal anomaly – artists have always functioned differently from the rest of the society. Then again, society forces everyone to conform to its rules and regulations. There is a kind of schizophrenia between this creative, maverick existence and the conditioning of society. What is your life as an artist like?

Precarious. Since early childhood. Very isolated at times, and with quite limited resources. On occasion deeply fulfilling, almost to the level of a spiritual micro-enlightenment. Mostly underpaid, but entirely independent. I still get hustled here and there by mediocre publishers who think that being an Eastern European means you would sell your soul for a bag of potatoes. No firm structures or fancy galleries to back me up, no security or continuous funding. No serious accolades. But also, my art has brought me collaborations with some of the greatest musical minds on the planet. I have made friends all over the world, and today I am very content to be a tiny part of an incredible creative network that involves contemporary artists, musicians, sound artists, curators, producers, actors, theatre and movie directors, poets, philosophers, theoreticians, scientists, researchers, scholars, educators, media workers, activists… 

Looking from the outside, I lost my childhood in the whirlwinds of war, I lost my mother, I lost the opportunity to develop my first career as a classical violinist, and I lost many battles working in the arts and culture in the corrupting turmoil of a society in permanent transition.

My cultural identity developed in a country that no longer exists. I live on a rock in the middle of the sea. But I consider myself lucky. Because the density of all these life struggles and experiences brought me a genuine level of awareness and deep knowledge of the world. It has deepened my compassion and understanding of life, and it has expanded – and is still expanding – my consciousness. After all, our level of consciousness is all we have/leave behind. As we know, all matter dissolves.

During the last 20 years I have built up artistic, cultural and activist networks — all of which has rewarded me with a particular integrity, and today, at the age of 45, I mostly manage to work on my own terms, I don’t need to conform to any societal norms (except maybe to the island community, there’s no messing around with those folks!)

I am a single mum of an autistic boy.

I am a real threat to the patriarchy.
Interview by Lucia Udvardyova

Photo by Helena Vilovic

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