Le fil n°10 - 2021 - Supplément


Interview réalisée par Hélène Breschand et Les signes de l'arc

Milana Zarić

Equally active in classical and contemporary composed  music as well as free improvisation, Milana Zarić  combines orchestral and ensemble work with solo harp performance, connecting the classical idiom to contemporary sensibility and new technologies. Organizer as well as performer in collaborative projects, she aims to create new bridges and challenge the boundaries between the traditional roles of composer, performer and improviser.


> Website Milana Zarić
> YouTube
> Bandcamp
> Soundcloud


Hélène Breschand: Is there a style of music that you particularly like to play? ?

Milana Zarić: Beginning with my harp master studies at the Royal Conservatoire in the Hague (“Contemporary music for the harp and improvisation”), I have worked on new solo and ensemble pieces with many composers. My experiences range from straightforward, traditional writing for the harp, to all kinds of experiments with sound and shape of the harp, to the use of electric harp, electronics and video.

Some composers used motors, magnets or ventilators to ignite the strings, some put the harp in horizontal position, or various preparations in between the strings. Some have used my improvisational background, by setting up a composer-performer duet,  in which I would be given some instructions about form or music materials to combine and improvise with.

I found the combination between strict, detailed composition and free improvisation by Richard Barrett the most compelling in my experience so far.
Richard has written two solo harp pieces with or without live electronics. I have performed them alone, but also extensively in a duet with the composer. They can also be performed as part of the cycle close-up, written for and performed by Ensemble Studio6, featuring Richard Barrett on live electronics.
Solo parts of Tendril (2013) and Cyme (2016) consist of highly complex and detailed scores.

>>> Tendril Score - pdf <<<

If performed as solos, the pieces are played from the score traditionally without interruption.
If, however, the pieces are performed in a duet with live electronics, or in the ensemble of six players, the scores are also interspersed by free, undetermined improvisation. The performer has the obligation to regularly interrupt the score, improvise freely, and then come back to the score.

This process has been extensively researched in an interview between Richard Barrett and me, which was published in Richard Barrett’s book Music of possibility (Vision Edition, 2019.)

Hélène Breschand: Tell us about your creative work with Richard Barrett, the acoustic, electrical report and the development of electronics.

Milana Zarić: Richard and I performed tendril and cyme as harp and electronics duet,  many times around the world (UK, USA, Australia, Singapore), and from this sprung the next stage in our duo collaboration.

Starting from 2019, we have jointly created several new pieces, such as Nocturnes (2019), Restless Horizon (2020), Sphynx (2020) and Mirage (2020). Mirage involves acoustic, amplified concert harp, and is a live performance version of the earlier piece Sphynx, for fixed media and video. In Nocturnes and Restless Horizon I play the electric harp with additional electronics. The sound of the electric harp is enriched and modified with various computer processed effects and plug-ins from Ableton.

From this collaboration stemmed the label Strange Strings on Bandcamp, where our first album Mirage was released in 2020.

Hélène Breschand: What do you think of the relationship between composers and the harp today ? How to continue to enrich and diversify the writing for harp ?

Milana Zarić: Often I find myself searching for the harp part in a contemporary composer’s output, and not succeeding. My heart sinks every time I realize that a lot of modern and contemporary composers that I like, write for the harp only in an orchestral or big group setting, if that. A lot of them don’t write for it at all, and a lot of composers, inclined toward tonal music, still embrace it, as an instrument which more or less always does the same old thing – runs, arpeggios up and down, fast and loud glisses, melancholy melodies, big chords. In a word, there isn’t enough diversity in modern harp repertoire, and I am always wondering how to make a significant change.

I have played a lot of standard modern harp repertoire as premieres in Serbia – solos by Berio, Donatoni, R.Murray Schafer, Birtwistle, Saariaho, Bussotti, as well as ensemble works (Stockhausen Freude, Aperghis Compagnie, Berio Differences, Kagel Sonant, to name a few). I also worked on world premieres with composers (see the list above) – also as solo and ensemble works. These all helped to bring to the audiences here a sense of difference – that harp can indeed be a powerfully imaginative and versatile instrument with an enormous palette of expressive sound possibilities. So the very presence of such music in a given cultural space, as well as constant advocacy of harpists themselves, will in my view, raise the awareness of the contemporary attributes of our instrument.

Performing all of these pieces also informed my improvisational practice. After all, intimately exploring all the connections between strings, wood and metal mechanism on the harp, is only possible for the player him or herself. After decades of mastering the instrument, surely we ourselves can have lost of interesting ideas how to go further and bring out something fresh and new? Also, communication with other improvisers (ad hoc groups, or encounters with specific musicians, as well as long lasting ensembles, such as Ensemble Studio 6 – see below), and also other harpists and contemporary music specialists, brings a big difference. I am all for exchange of knowledge and experience between creative musicians, because for me, communication is key. It is key when you play music together, and it is really important as well when you talk about it and inspire each other.

So for me the change for another image of the harp, as more present in contemporary artistic music, as well as in improvisational groups, comes not from composers, curators and institutions, but from harpists themselves and their readiness to break free from the constraints of the past. What I mean is, we can all still play our Bach and Debussy, and our Fauré and Parish Alvars, but at the same time, understand that harp should not be reduced to a symbol of the music of the past. We must all keep up with the 21 century, in order for our instrument to be treated as the instrument of the 21 century !

Hélène Breschand: Tell us about your experience with Ensemble Studio 6.

Milana Zarić: The trumpet player of the ensemble and I formed Ensemble Studio 6 in 2012. We were then and are still a weird mix of instruments – apart from harp and trumpet, there is accordion, recorder flutes and cello, with electronics. Of course, there wasn’t much of a repertoire for such an ensemble to start with, so we were basically a modular ensemble, with a lot of other instruments coming in, depending on our programme. So far we have commissioned 11 new works, also having premiered a lot of European music after 1960 in Serbia (Goebbels, Cage, Nunes, Barrett, Cardew, Kagel, Stockhausen, Donatoni, Ablinger, Steen-Andersen…). A lot of our activities were focused on the connection between contemporary composition and improvisation – this has, over time, become our specialty as it were. In that regard, we have also performed graphic and verbal scores, such as excerpts from Cardew’s ‘Great Learning’, parts of Stockhausen’s ‘Fur kommende Zeiten’, Cage’s ‘Fontana Mix’ etc. We are looking forward to this year’s project with ‘Sonic meditations’ by Pauline Oliveros.

One of our projects was also Intimate Rituals, which was based on open scores by Király Ernő and Horațiu Rădulescu, on original instruments they have devised, respectfully. Studio 6 ensemble has been a big advocate for the music of Kiraly, an experimental composer living in Yugoslavia, whose centenary of birth was celebrated in 2019. He was a Yugoslavian Harry Partch of sorts, as he devised his own instruments, tablophone and zitherphone, which he used in his compositions as well as his improvisations. Ensemble Studio 6 has performed on and lectured about these instruments.

Speaking of Kiraly, Katalin Ladik comes to mind, as his long time collaborator. To our great joy, we have performed with this wonderful artist and poet, as well as with a number of visual and video artists over the years. I find collaborations with creative people outside music as vital to us as a group, in broadening our perspectives and keeping up with new technologies, as well as keeping audiences intrigued by the visual communication with abstract music.

Commissions and first performances (Ensemble Studio 6):
Des compositeurs Richard Barrett, Jug K.Marković, Sonja Mutić, Nemanja Radivojević, Jonas Kocher, Jasna Veličković, Teodora Stepančić, Svetlana Maraš, Djordje Marković, Vladan Kulišić, Branka Popović, Svetislav Nešić.

Hélène Breschand: Tell us about your practice of group improvisation.

Milana Zarić: One important issue for me is improvising with continuous groups. Of course, I love the beauty of the moment, when you improvise freely with someone for the first time - wonderful collaborations come to mind, with Elisabeth Harnik, Agusti Fernandez, Zsolt Sőrés, Yedo Gibson, Chris Cutler, Annie Gosfield. But I must say, I take particular pleasure in performing with long standing collaborators in freely improvised settings.

When I was doing my Master studies at the Royal Conservatoire in the Hague, I formed an ensemble of plucked strings and percussion, and we met weekly for a year to research group improvisation. A really interesting result of these efforts was that a lot of musicians who heard our concerts thought we had composed music for it, and couldn’t believe it was all freely improvised, without any pre-conceived plans or scores. Similar thing happened with Ensemble Studio 6 – we have gathered in the first place as a group of musicians who could perform complex scores but who also have a passion for improvisation – so over the years, our connection on that level has deepened further and today they are amongst my favourite people to improvise with! Apart from Richard Barrett, obviously, as the two of us have an even closer musicians’ and personal relationship, given that we are also married !

Hélène Breschand: What is your involvement in classical music?

Milana Zarić: On top of above activities, I would like to say that I do indeed still play a lot of classical music – from majestic orchestral works (which at the moment are sadly on hold) with Belgrade philharmonic orchestra, to chamber music with colleagues from the orchestra (Debussy, Ravel, Cras, Saint-Saens etc.), to every day playing Bach for myself (and the neighbours) – the reason I mention this, is that, as musicians of the 21 century, I don’t think there are any reasons to put ourselves in compartments, and resolve to focus only on any one specific area, field, period or style.
I am very happy to divide my time and exchange mindsets and skills from orchestral classical repertoire to free improvisation and experimental settings, with a lot in between!

First Performances in Serbia


Georges Aperghis              Compagnie for harp and percussion
Harrison Birtwistle            Crowd for solo harp
Sylvano Bussotti                Fragmentations for one player of two harps
Franco Donatoni               Marches for solo harp
Takayuki Rai                      Transparency for harp and tape
Kaija Saariaho                    Fall for harp and electronics
R.Murray Schafer              Crown of Ariadne solo suite for harp, percussion& tape
Simon Steen-Andersen    History of my instrument for harp and video playback
Karlheinz Stockhausen     Freude for two harps
Christian Wolff                   For Harpist

First Performances

solos with or without electronics

2021              Isidora Žebeljan, At the Inn, solo harp (arr.2019)
2020              Richard Barrett/Milana Zarić, Mirage, harp and electronics
2020              Richard Barrett/Milana Zarić, Restless Horizon, electric harp and electronics
2019              James Erber, Sonata on Laudis sacrificium summe, solo harp
2019              Richard Barrett/Milana Zarić, Nocturnes, electric harp and electronics
2017              Richard Barrett, cyme, solo harp
2014              Richard Barrett, tendril for solo harp (or with electronics)
2014              Svetlana Maraš, Codon 24 for electric harp and electronics
2012              Ana Gnjatovic, Sidenotes, solo harp, inspired by and performed together with Suite BWV 997 by J.S.Bach
2011              Hugo Morales, Torque for harp and pedal operated DC motors 
2011              Falk Hübner Living room, staged piece for harp, soundtrack   and video
2010              Teodora Stepančić, Harp in a box for horizontal harp



Mirage – Video performance with harp and electronics (2020)

Restless Horizon– Virtual concert for harps and electronics (2020)

Stockhausen Freude (excerpts) for 2 harps and voices

Hugo Morales Torque for harp and DC motors

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