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Aleksandra Vrebalov Antennae

Aleksandra Vrebalov's Byzantine-inspired music commission resonates like a human tuning fork
Aleksandra Vrebalov, Composer
February 12, 2020
 Aleksandra Vrebalov Composer

The world premiere of Antennae by Aleksandra Vrebalov is the third in a series of compositions commissioned by the museum in partnership with the Cleveland Foundation. This evening-long sound experience features members of the Kovilj Monastery choir, 60 local singers, four trumpets, two organs from the museum’s collection, and percussion, with visitors dispersed throughout the galleries. Due to the specific architecture of the museum, the sound will travel and mix, reflecting and resonating. For the last segment, the musicians will converge in the Ames Family Atrium. Below, Vrebalov discusses her sources of inspiration. —Tom Welsh, Director of Performing Arts

It’s a composer’s dream to create a work with no limits on instrumentation, duration, or subject matter. For my Creative Fusion residency, the only requirement was that my work be inspired by the museum’s collection. I felt like I was given permission to dive into a gigantic treasure chest and search for the sound of the most beautiful objects of imagination and intellect across humanity’s history.

Upon my first visit to the museum in October 2018, I endeavored to understand how time and energy flow throughout the campus. I admired the architecture as much as the artifacts. The vastness of the Ames Family Atrium supported clarity and bold thoughts. Airy and bright, it felt like a place of decompression after the denser energy of the galleries. I imagined the museum like a walk-through music box, resonating in a way not heard before: with sounds played simultaneously through galleries and building up over time. Each person’s level of participation and choices of direction and speed in moving through the space would determine their unique perspective and listening experience.

In the arched, intimately lit Byzantine gallery I felt an immediate connection: there she was, the Virgin Eleousa—the golden hue, the iconography of an embrace with cheeks touching. It was familiar and reminded me of home. I grew up in Serbia (then Yugoslavia) during the socialist regime. Institutionalized religion was not part of my generation’s upbringing, but almost every home had an ikona. In the culture rooted in Eastern Orthodoxy that flourished during the Byzantine era, icons were not seen as objects. They were portals, powerful facilitators of miracles and healing. I wondered, standing in front of the Virgin of Tenderness, how many objects in the museum have had the same dormant power revealed to insiders, while the rest of us walked by, merely appreciating their material attributes and their historical and aesthetic value.

The aural counterpart of an icon is a chant; these two millennia-old forms are, within Byzantine tradition, considered portals to another realm. Chants are not songs but rather sound codes transmitted by choros, a choir consisting of everyone present, musician or not. In fact, in 2019 UNESCO announced the inclusion of Byzantine chant on the list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

My connection to Byzantine chant is also personal, through a small monastery in northern Serbia. Its two dozen monks begin their day with a 4:00 a.m. service, make candles and jar honey, cook meatless meals, and keep the ancient musical tradition of Byzantine chanting through their services and choir practice. Over the years I have had the privilege of attending liturgies followed by simple meals in the monastery. The uniqueness of that relationship inspired the idea of reuniting the living chant with the icon.

Antennae is a malleable, organic sound situation rather than a fixed piece of music. It is a human tuning fork through which we align and for a moment sustain a common frequency. In our divisive reality, it is still possible to tune in to this other, nonverbal level and to feel what it is like when we harmonize. All different sounds from various galleries will come together like pieces in a mosaic completing the total aural landscape. The sound becomes a connecting thread, a buzzing flow of breath and frequency regardless of one’s decision to join in or stand by.

Through this process of listening and aligning with others, I hope we each feel connected a little more. The journey begins with Virgin Eleousa enveloped in Byzantine chant; it unfolds with dozens of voices humming one tone throughout the galleries and ends in the atrium, with our identities and values falling, if briefly, under a unifying category of humans, lovers of beauty and art. On this human plane of existence our only tangible way to experience love and beauty is through our harmonious relations with one another. Listen for a hum and join in.  

Icon of the Mother of God and Infant Christ (Virgin Eleousa) (detail), c. 1425–50. Attributed to Angelos Akotantos (Greek, c. 1450). Crete. Tempera and gold on wood panel; 96 x 70 cm. Leonard C. Hanna Jr. Fund, 2010.154
Icon of the Mother of God and Infant Christ (Virgin Eleousa) (detail), c. 1425–50. Attributed to Angelos Akotantos (Greek, c. 1450). Crete. Tempera and gold on wood panel; 96 x 70 cm. Leonard C. Hanna Jr. Fund, 2010.154


Cleveland Art, March/April 2020