On the Guarding of the Heart, an evocative 20-minute piece for chamber orchestra by composer Djuro Živković, won the 2014 Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition. The prize, awarded by the University of Louisville, has been previously given to contemporary music greats Esa-Pekka Salonen, John Adams, Pierre Boulez and Louis Andriessen.

    Živković characterizes his winning piece as an “instrumental cantata” inspired by the music of J.S. Bach and ancient Eastern Orthodox texts. Scored for 14 players including piano, the work slithers with microtones and steely string effects, slowly building and ebbing, veering off in unknown directions.

    For the season finale of MusicNOW on May 22, On the Guarding of the Heart will be performed by members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance. Ahead of that performance, Živković discussed this work and his career in an interview conducted by Elizabeth Ogonek, the CSO’s Mead Composer in Residence.

    Tell us about yourself.

    I’m a composer and also a violinist. I have lived in Sweden for 17 years. I’m originally from the former Yugoslavia, which doesn’t exist now, but my origins are Serbian.

    How did you first become interested in composing?

    When I was young, I started to learn the violin. My teacher gave me a lot of, what I believed, boring exercises so I wanted to make my own exercises. Since I liked very much Baroque music I wanted to become a Baroque composer, so I composed violin sonatas in the style of Bach and Vivaldi, concerti grossi and so on. That was my first try.

    Could you tell us a little about the work we are going to be hearing?

    It is a very complex work for myself. There are many different layers: aesthetical, logical, musical levels, philosophical levels, religious levels … I can say that I almost invested my life in this piece, and when I finished it and heard it for the first time, I said, “That sounds as I wanted it to sound completely.” I told myself, “I love this music.” When you say that you really love own music, then you’re really a satisfied composer for yourself. I think that I tried to put all my life in this music, particularly in this piece where no compromises were done. I really have broken deadlines and was composing for days without sleep and was throwing away a lot of music. I could compose for two or three weeks, and I threw it away because I wasn’t satisfied. There’s a lot of fight for me, and I wanted to get my music to where it is now.

    What was it that you were trying to attain that forced you to go for nights and nights without sleep and miss deadlines?

    I was searching for something perfect, I would say. Not musically perfect in the way that Bach did: a canon that you could turn in many ways and still it sounds. I wanted to improve myself. That was the most important thing — to improve myself mentality and spiritually. I mean, it’s very hard. Perhaps many composers feel the same when you really try to squeeze yourself and art together to get the essence. I think that fighting for the essence — what you believe is essence — is the most important in the creation of art.

    Where does the title, On the Guarding of the Heart, originate?

    The title comes from an Orthodox spiritual book called the Philokalia. “Philokalia” is a Greek name for love for good or for beauty. I was reading those books when I was composing. When I got tired of composing, then I read books. I existed on another level, not a musical level at all when I composed. This was very important. I haven’t achieved this state in my other pieces after but I’ve wanted to. In these books there are spiritual texts from early Christianity, from the third century onward up to around the 12th century. They are very much about ascetic spirituality: it is about going to the desert to fight there for years. I think that we composers or artists close ourselves inside in a room, and we fight with ourselves actually very much. So this is very similar: making art is very spiritual.

    In these texts, there is one chapter called On the Guarding of the Heart. What this is exactly is the way you try to guard your heart from all kinds of bad influences. Usually in Christianity, we say evil. This is the main topic of the piece. There are a lot of acoustical results or moments in the piece where I try to reflect this feeling. The beginning of the piece starts very like a small turbulence. It’s as your brain is processing something, and suddenly you continue to think about something not so true, superficial. Then the piano comes in and it says, “Stop. Concentrate. Guard your heart.” Then the piano comes in again, fortissimo. Everyone else plays pianissimo. The music is saying, “Pay attention on yourself. Focus on the essence of your life.” Twice we have a point where the music stops entirely in a kind of vibration. I felt this was the moment when the heart is guarded: the moment when nothing comes into it.

    I think that when I say I’m influenced by Bach, many people have a specific idea, particularly people who are musicians or composers. They think if it’s Bach, it must be neo-Baroque music or some fugue or something like that … basso continuo. I don’t want to recycle Bach. I don’t want to recycle and recycle again. “Hindemith did it this way … then I’ll recycle it this way.” I don’t think that influence is in that dimension. When you go out from the perspective of development in historical view, and you just put all the music together, then you don’t have any reference of time, and you don’t have any reference of the style.

    Bach has influenced me in many different ways. When I was young, I wanted to be a Baroque composer, as I said already, but I think that something in Bach’s music that influences me very much since ever is his need to present music in absolute terms. In his last pieces, the Art of Fugue, or A Musical Offering, we can see this music as absolute music because you can play it in any tempo, by any instrument, with any dynamics or articulations. You can play it really how you want and still it will exist as Bach’s music. This music is so elastic, yet inside itself, it’s perfect. But you can’t manipulate it. You can’t say that the leading notes will go somewhere else, because you will completely collapse the system. You can make water out of it, air out of it or whatever. I try to imagine my music in that way. I think that I wanted to achieve the spiritual state that you get when you listen to the Art of Fugue. You just listen, and you are in the present in this music. You don’t need any description of this music. You just are in the music. I wanted to achieve this — that the audience is in the music.

    One more thing I can say: Bach is the only composer I can listen to when I am composing. At the same time, I can listen to Bach’s music and compose my own, which is completely different from his music. This is unbelievable. I can’t listen to Ligeti or I don’t know … some new composers, this disturbs me. But Bach’s music … I can hear it, listen behind somewhere, and then compose even better at the same time because it radiates on such a metaphysical level. It’s really amazing.

    What are you working on now?

    I just finished a piece for Royal Concertgebouw in Amsterdam. It is a passion for soloists, choir and orchestra. I will soon start another large chamber music project with a Dutch ensemble and my friend Christian Karlsen. Then, I think I need a bit of a rest to reflect more and to be able to compose.