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21 May 2014

Bozidar Kos - the symphonist who got away

Bozidar Kos Image: Bozidar Kos  

In 2008, Australia lost one if its major composers and composition teachers, when Bozidar Kos left his adopted home of 43 years and returned to his country of birth, Slovenia. Kos is now living in a small town called Brezice, and, at the age of 80, is still going strong as a composer.

With a series of three symphonies (Symphony No. 1, 2005/06; Symphony No. 2, 2007/08 and Symphony No. 3, 2012) and several other orchestral works completed in the past decade, Kos is as much a master of the big ensemble as ever. It was particularly for orchestral works that he developed his own, unique composing technique, based on the vertical organisation of pitches. The method - also the topic of his PhD - has served him well.

'From 1990s onwards', Kos explains, 'I started to get commissions for orchestra works from Australia and overseas. I always felt that I could express myself well in that medium because of ample possibilities of orchestral colours. My basic compositional technique has not changed much, except perhaps in two things: in the symphonies, there are on the one hand more pronounced melodic lines appearing, on the other hand there are more complex textures and distinct layers of diverse material. Because of the use of specific musical spaces, the pieces sound sometimes as if they were written in modes, but they are not. All my works are atonal. It is because of my system of vertical organisation of sounds that the music appears more acceptable to the ear.'

Bozidar Kos's Viola Concerto (1st movement), performed in 2005 by Aleksandar Milošev,
viola, and the RTV Slovenija Symphony Orchestra, conducted by En Shao.

Kos's early musical training consisted of instrumental studies in piano and cello at the State Music School in his hometown of Novo mesto, Slovenia. As a student of technology at university (tertiary studies in music were not encouraged by his family), he nevertheless found time to lead a jazz band and teach cello and music theory, and soon gave up his studies to tour Europe with a jazz ensemble in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

The move to Australia in 1965 opened up new opportunities to study music - Kos studied composition at the University of Adelaide under Richard Meale, and electronic music with Peter Tahourdin and Tristram Cary, and travelled back to Europe to attend summer schools where he had the chance to study with the likes of György Ligeti, Mauricio Kagel and Brian Ferneyhough. Kos went on to complete three degrees (BMus, MMus and PhD) and to teach composition to generations of students, first in the University of Adelaide (1976-1983) and later at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music until his retirement in 2002.

Bozidar Kos's work has been influenced by the greats of the post-war European avant-garde from Boulez to Ligeti and Lutoslawski - he has also listed Varèse and Stravinsky as important figures from the point of view of orchestration. In Australia, he is remembered as the composer of an award-winning Violin Concerto (1986), a virtuosic piece with spell-binding microtonal sections. The work was released on a CD (VOX Australis), and later also recorded in Slovenia.

'Violin Concerto may be my best-known work in Australia, but other orchestral works have been all very well received and are well-known in Slovenia, and, like Aurora Australis, performed quite a few times. The same is true also for my chamber pieces. Best-known are Fatamorgana [recorded by Ensemble Offspring] and Evocations for solo cello [released on Tall Poppies], as they have been performed there more than once.'

Of Kos's orchestral works, just three have been performed by Australia's professional orchestras: Violin Concerto, Crosswinds and Aurora Australis. None of the three symphonies have been programmed, and neither has the 2013 work Spectrum for bass clarinet, marimba and orchestra, nor his Cello Concerto(2009-10). Of older works, the Guitar Concerto (1992) is also yet to be performed by an Australian orchestra. Chamber works yet unheard here are The Mists of Evening (2011) for flute, clarinet, trombone, vibraphone, piano, viola and cello, as well as the 2003 wind quintet Catena 3.

Since a lot of Bozidar Kos's early music-making was in jazz, it's perhaps not surprising that he has combined jazz and classical music in some of his works, particularly the 1993 work Crosswinds, an orchestral work involving improvising jazz musicians. The first performance of Crosswinds, commissioned by the ABC and dedicated to Don Banks, took place at the Sydney Opera House in 1993. Crosswinds was also performed and recorded by the RTV Slovenia Symphony Orchestra a few years later.

'Crosswinds is a concerto for alto saxophone, jazz trumpet and orchestra', Kos says. 'It is a totally atonal work and the soloists have to improvise on various cut-out sections of the musical space, rather than on various modes or harmonic progressions, as they normally do in tonal jazz pieces. The usual jazz rhythm section is here also replaced by a complex polyrhythmic structure played by four percussionists and double basses.

'In other works of mine there is no conscious attempt to include jazz elements, but many people think that a jazz influence is still noticeable. However, I do believe that any experience I have had in life has become an important part of my existence, and this could manifest itself subconsciously in any of my works.'

Kos is appreciative of the support he received from many individual musicians and groups when still living in Australia but critical of orchestras and the ABC for their lack of interest in his music.

'ABC never released a single work of mine on a CD. In comparison, in Slovenia almost all my works for chamber ensembles and orchestral compositions have been performed. There have also been three portrait CDs with exclusively my music,' he says.

All of this weighed on the balance when considering a move back to Europe in the late 2000s after the death of his wife Milana (Kos's Symphony No. 1 - a 26-minute work in a single movement - is dedicated to her memory).

'The decision to return to Slovenia in 2008 was not made easily. Leaving the country that was my home for 43 years and which I love very much, was very difficult. The reasons that helped me making that decision was the death of my wife, which left me suddenly alone, with all my family living in Slovenia, as well as the treatment I got particularly from the ABC and from Australian orchestras. I got tired of reading critics' comments how I am the most neglected Australian composer, but nothing was done about that. The ABC practically never broadcasts any of my music. Back in the 1990s they made a series of broadcasts about Australian violin concertos, and despite the fact that my piece got all that international and national acclaim, they did not include it in these broadcasts. I was simply ignored, as usual. In Slovenia my works are performed at the subscription concerts and regularly broadcast on radio and television.

This is the sad side of Kos's immigrant experience.

'The happy side was that I completed in Australia studies for all my tertiary music degrees and that I spent 28 years teaching composition at the University of Adelaide and the Sydney Conservatorium. I am also very grateful to all those excellent ensembles and soloists that have commissioned or performed my works. And grateful for so many wonderful people and friends that I met. They will always remain as part of my fondest memories of Australia.'

Back in Slovenia, Kos made his home in a small town, within easy distance of the capital Ljubljana, its music life and three professional orchestras (of these, the Slovenian Philharmonic orchestra and the RTV Slovenia Symphony Orchestra have been active in performing and recording Kos's works).

'I settled in Brezice, a very small town, a hundred kilometres away from Ljubljana, where my daughter lives with her family, and my grandchildren and great-grandchildren live. I built myself a home not far from my daughter's place, so that I am close to them. I often travel to Ljubljana by car, and it takes me less than an hour.'

And does the composer have favourites among his own works?

'It is difficult for me to say which of my works I am most proud of. They are my creations and you don't ask parents which of their children they like the most or which of them they are the most proud of. Hopefully they love them all.'

AMC resources

Bozidar Kos - AMC profile (biography, works, recordings etc.)

Subjects discussed by this article:

Anni Heino is a Finnish-born journalist and musicologist, and Editor (Communications & Resonate) at the Australian Music Centre.


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to often the same old story

Thanks Anni, but sad to read the "same old story!" So many Australian composers seem to have had the sense of rejection by orchestras and the ABC (once upon a time the same thing). Either they were rejected from the start or, after a brief period in the light, then get forgotten.

We are truly the poorer for the lack of breadth and courage in the programming departments of the Orchestras and Radio stations.