Milos Milivojevic is part of that golden generation of young accordionists who have studied at London’s Royal Academy of Music’s accordion department under the tutelage of Owen Murray. They have included such talents as Borut Zagoranski, Ksenija Sidorova and classical chart-topping Martynas Levickis. Milos finished his studies a few years ago but the department continues to attract the cream of accordionists from all over the world. Milos was considered to be so talented when he auditioned that the Academy granted him a full scholarship immediately. We meet for an interview and I ask him about this.
Yes. That was now twelve years ago now! I was at high school and I was in a competition in London at the same time and decided to apply that year. I auditioned and heard about the scholarship the following year and started the following September.
In Serbia there is a strong accordion tradition in its folk music and it has produced many players of a high standard. So what made you come to study in London?
I think first of all I was very lucky to have a team of teachers in Serbia to work with like Milica Lazarevic, our music school director Radomir Tomic and high school teacher Vojin Vasovic. It was really great working with them and in my generation I grew up with forty or fifty players all of which were fantastic and playing many different styles but not obviously everything. Geographically Serbia is quite central so we were very privileged to hear and work with visiting players from Russia, France, Denmark, Spain and Germany. This gave us a good idea, a good starting point after a couple of years, about how we felt and what we wanted to explore and where and with whom we would like to study with afterwards. That was great. Every year during the holidays we would have the opportunity to listen and work with these people for ten days or so. I was invited to play in a competition in Denmark and also in Germany a long time ago and personally I was seriously considering Germany, or Switzerland where many of my friends were already studying and who were very happy there and were working on contemporary music which is something that I really liked and that I really like still now. After the Klingenthal competition in 2000 I think, I met Owen Murray who invited me to come to the Academy and we kept in touch. Also in the city where I was studying, from a couple of years previously, there was an academy where I could also go and study if I wanted to remain there, so that door was always open to go and study there and I would have been working with the same teachers that I was working with in High School and before but working in a different way. I had the feeling though, as did my teachers that it would be good to go somewhere new and fresh and learn something new and develop I guess, in a different way. Everything that I had learnt there and from teachers all over the world was great and obviously we all like certain things and can musically agree or disagree but it’s good to hear all of them in order to say I like this work and maybe we can change something here or there and so on. Looking back now I’m happy that I made the right decision coming to London not just as an accordion player but a s a musician. London has given me the Royal Academy first of all and Professor Owen Murray, and it has given me the City.
Funnily enough, that was going to be my next question to you as you still live in London. (he laugh) What has London both in terms of the Royal Academy and in terms of a City given to you as a player?
First of all being at the Royal Academy for seven years was a great experience to meet musicians from all over the world. Even though I’d met the majority of classical accordion players in Europe I don’t think I ever met anyone from the UK before coming here. I don’t remember meeting any people from the UK in international competitions although I may not have met them because I was younger so may have been in different categories to them. So I was thinking about the Academy and I have to say it was a surprise to find the accordion existed in the UK.
I think being at the Academy has given me lots of freedom as a musician to explore and not just accordion because I think I learnt a lot from other instrumentalists and working with them, for instance Chamber Music was something that I hadn’t done much of in Serbia. I was concentrating mostly on solo work. This is something that Owen Murray has introduced in a really great way both in Classical and Contemporary music and with most possible instrumental combinations and from very early on in my life there I formed partnerships there which are still active, some of them after seven or eight years. Different combinations like accordion and violin, accordion and string quartet, which is really popular, accordion and string trios, and also tango quintets which I really enjoy because of the amount of repertoire there is to explore but which saddens me, when I speak to other musicians both here and abroad to hear they are a little bit bored. They find it exciting but a little bit routine for them. It becomes a job, but I think having these groups is something that all accordionists should experience, not necessarily classical or tango groups but playing as part of an ensemble; polishing that kind of playing, which is totally different from solo playing. You have to learn to work with people and to learn and absorb new ideas, to learn to give what you know and accept new things. That’s something that I find really great. The Academy was great for that because every year we would simply be asked to get involved with different projects. Some within the Academy and some on the outside as well but when you played with those players you would play with them again. You would talk about the repertoire and sometimes play, sometimes not but, it didn’t matter but each of us would be aware of what was possible and what wasn’t. That was really great and chamber music, even now, after having passed everything, I find there’s still much to learn, but having played much and heard so much as a musician it has made me even more rich…from experience, obviously talking is one thing but when you go on stage it’s another.
For solo performances there is a very strong scene in the UK for Contemporary music. I did this in Serbia too but a great thing in the UK was working with composers and working on new pieces. Again that is something which Owen Murray has introduced. He made it very clear to all of us that it was a very important step for us to work with new composers in order to give the instrument an identity and create general awareness of contemporary and original repertoire.
You are quite respected in the world of contemporary accordion music. You have recently contributed to Claudio Jacomucci’s book Modern Accordion Perspectives along with other respected exponents of contemporary accordion music. What, for you, makes a good piece of contemporary music for accordion?
I think we already have so many great works and it’s very difficult to play them all in a lifetime of performance. I grew up with a lot of Russian influence which is both Romantic and musically and technically very demanding. For me the important thing is to see what the composer’s idea is. Not always to see what I would like or prefer. I think it’s always possible to make a good piece a little bit better but it’s very difficult to make a great piece from a not very good composition (he chuckles).
When I work with composers now I try to show them everything the instrument can do and to play them everything from transcriptions to modern repertoire which I think is good but at the end of the day I just ask them to write what they like. If there are things that are not going to be good on the instrument in performance then it’s for me to suggest things that need to change even though I try not to change things that are impossible simply because they are difficult. That would be a challenge for me and anyone else who would take the piece on. I try to explain things as much as I can but then tell them to write without any limits and if we need to reduce things we will and if we need to add them we will do it together. This is the approach I took a few weeks ago with a concerto for accordion and strings. We didn’t really change many things. Obviously when we as accordionists see effects that we recognise immediately and involve them we will do it. If they like it they will accept it, if not they will say no. I think when you work with a composer you can give some of your own ideas but I wouldn’t be a composer myself simply because if you want to be one you have to be strong behind your idea in the same way a performer has to strong in behind a performance even if the piece is a mistake (He laughs), you still have to convince. With composers I have my limits. Reduction and arrangement is one thing but composing is different. I think with the Russian repertoire they tend to have an idea then a composition instead of a composition then an idea. Sometimes I’m a bit disappointed when composers write an entire piece and then they give me a title and didn’t have that in mind from the start the idea that they could explore. The title comes at the end. For me these two should be connected but in the right way. I can understand that once they hear it they might say “it’s not white, it might be blue”, (he laughs) but in that Russian repertoire that is very strong underneath; nothing is done just because it needs to be done (he chuckles), but it has a clear idea underneath obviously…no, maybe not obviously…
…Russian compositions have a clear idea from the start…
…Yes and one may or may not agree with them…
…but the idea is clear from the start…
…yes, in their mind…and not necessarily just Russian repertoire, but certainly repertoire from that part of the world has a distinction…
…yes but it’s also like a journey throughout their composition…very different musical ideas, which do come across very well when they’re combined but the main idea underneath is very strong and that makes it very easy for the performer as well… to explore the ideas and to contribute. It’s like reading a book. You know what to expect but then suddenly something comes up which is a surprise…its’ easier to understand by playing than to explain it in words. I hope that makes sense.
You mentioned earlier chamber music and some of the chamber ensembles you work with: The Kosmos Trio, The London Tango Quintet, and Paprika of course; there’s quite a range of music there. You clearly enjoy playing a very diverse range of music. How do you manage three very different ensembles as well as your own solo concert work?
These three groups are the ones that I would say are active on a regular basis but there are also other projects which I find very interesting but every year I have to impose a limit on just how much I take on because they all require a lot of time; rehearsing, looking for repertoire, trying out thing and practising for concerts. I agree though, some of them are very far away from each other in terms of style. Obviously solo repertoire is what I have to work on the most. I have to work out the repertoire for that, and this is the most difficult one because no matter how many times I play it I have to keep it fresh. Even after ten years you have to make that repertoire sound as fresh as the first time you played it. Sometimes it can be harder than working on new repertoire. Now with Kosmos we are now only violin, viola and accordion and we try to combine World Music with Classical. World Music includes Argentine Tango, Balkan Music, and Balkan music again is very broad in style. Serbian music has very strong folk roots. Ever since the Second World War it has become very popular. In it the instrument is very strong even to the point where Serbian players requested a special instrument to play folk music which emphasises just how popular it is. It has six rows of buttons like the one that Zika [Zivorad Nikolic] plays. That model was made for that part of the world suited to play folk music and songs. Traditional music is huge there with accordion but also with stringed instruments. So that gives us a huge range of styles to cover and discover. What is great about the UK is that I found the musicians for the Kosmos Trio. Harriet Mackenzie (violin), Meg Hamilton (viola) are both classical musicians but have an interest in this music and they worked on it and even studied it in Bulgaria and Rumania and they both play often in these countries. Apart from the music being very technical and tricky in terms of style and really very far away from Classical, the feeling is either something you have or something which is very difficult to get right. It’s great that they have it from the start and everything else is just practise.
You arrange all the music yourselves?
Yes we do.
Is that something you share, something you all do?
Yes we all arrange. What we do is that in concert it is very good to hear if they work and then we polish them, and there is always something which needs polishing and when we play whether it’s between us or for friends or for other musicians it’s always good to get their opinion both for Classical and World Music repertoire and it’s very interesting because in that group we try to cover a wide range of styles in ninety minutes of music; within that there will be pieces which feature only accordion, only viola only violin, and a piece for all of us to feature each instrument too. You cannot please everyone but better to give more than less, at least that’s the way the audience seem to like it. They feel like they have been taken abroad and in the UK they have Classical music and then you have World Music, in World Music I mean everything else and for them that’s interesting. We have some sections which are very open, for improvisation; there we have lots of freedom to explore things, sometimes improvisation, sometimes purely Classical whatever suits our combination. We wouldn’t play something which we don’t feel. Then the Tango quintet is something else.
This article is available also in: Italian