Kreshnik Aliçkaj is an Albanian composer from Kosovo. He studied Music at the University of Prishtina and his work has been recognised both locally and internationally for its excellence in combining classical music with traditional Albanian and Balkan influences. He was chosen to premiere one of his pieces at the Sanctification of Mother Theresa at the Vatican in 2016, and he won first place in the international Artiste en Herbe competition in Luxembourg with this work “Piano Quintiles” for violin, violincello, and piano.
Curious to find out more, The Balkanista caught up with him to talk influences, inspiration, and learning to read music before learning to read.
Was there are particular moment when you knew that your calling would be music?
I learned to read music before I could read and write, but this was no coincidence. I grew up in a family of musicians and since my early childhood I learned to play Albanian music as well as traditional instruments such as the lahuta, çifleli, sharki, mandolin, accordion, and later on, the guitar. These are still my favourite instruments, but my love of string instruments was definitely inherited- one could say it is even a part of my DNA.
When did you decide to pursue your passion as a career?
Music has always been a party of me since before I can remember, so there was never any other option for me other than to pursue it in my life. Even considering the obstacles and difficulties relating to finances, time, or perseverance, I would never have taken any other path. I believe that you cannot escape your path in life and it is the natural progression for someone like myself who considered that music is in their blood.
The pursuance of an academic career in music gives you the necessary tools to pass on the passion to the future generations, as well as to give them the idea that music is a patrimony of humanity.
What obstacles and challenges did you encounter along the way and how did you overcome them?
I grew up in Kosovo at a time when the country was in the grip of war. There were no shops, no music stores, nowhere where I could buy a CD or sheet music, and there was no such thing as an internet connection. Nowadays things are very different and you can get whatever you want with minimal effort.
One of the pivotal moments of my life that removed some of the obstacles I encountered was meeting Professor Medi Mengjiqi, a renowned Kosovar composer, student of Krzysztof Penderecki, and author of the Kosovo National Anthem. Being a student of Professor Mengjiqi gave me the opportunity to study the greatest music scores, the most influential world composers, and gave me the opportunity to learn the skills and tools I needed to succeed.
Asides from this, of course musicians are underpaid, underfinanced, and underreocgnised- this is a major obstacle and more needs to be done to both address it and change it.
What instruments do you play and how has mastering them changed the way you listen to and appreciate music?
I like, and I play at a professional level a number of string instruments and I hope to master the violin in the future. I have studied and played traditional, folk, and, and urban traditional music as well as classical music. I have done a lot of work in arranging traditional music for piano, for example “Pranvera ne Prishtine”.
Having an indepth knowledge of different styles of music provides you with the ability to value and assess music. For example, much of the music you hear on the radio on television, I would not consider as such. It is just sounds that are assembled together. We need to accept this as the way things are, but also invest efforts into cultivating a love for real music.
Does it concern you that the desire to learn to read music, compose, and pursue musical instruments is not as popular as it once was?
In reference to classical music and instruments, it has always been a niche genre. But whilst it is only pursued by a small number of people, it is the only genre that has managed to survive being passed down through generations and over centuries, across geographical borders whilst retaining is same value. I am not concerned with numbers- my main concern is related to quality rather than quantity in terms of having an elite selection of musicians and composers that can work together to create a masterpiece.
Classical concerts or Operas will never gather millions or hundreds of thousands of attendees, but that’s ok because classical music will always be the only one that will not be forgotten or go out of fashion like so many other singers and genres.
In Kosovo there is a major interest in classical music, but what I would keep underlying and highlighting is that what we need is much more support and backing.
Who are your influences?
During my studies, I analysed a myriad of several classical music styles ranging from Gregorian chanting, medieval music, renaissance, baroque, neo baroque, classical, romantic music, modern and postmodern styles such as serialism. Each of these has its own uniqueness and importance but what I try to convey in my work is an original imprint of my own by mixing elements of classical and folk.
I believe that a good composer should master and embrace all the different styles and then he can play with them and create his own unique masterpieces. A good example of this is how the great Krzysztof Penderecki, the polish composer, is able to embody both modern and classical influences in his work, resulting in true masterpieces.
Unfortunately, today, sometimes due to different experiments it seems that the music is losing its meaning and its reason, and unfortunately this is more evident in our local context.
How would you describe the Albanian and Balkan style of music?
Balkan music styles have many similarities despite foreigners often thinking that Albanian, Bulgarian and Macedonian music for example, is the same. Of course, there are some common combined rhythms that you can identify but each of them has its own original specificities.
For example, the Albanian iso polyphony which is unique to the south of Albania. In November 2005 it was categorised as a UNESCO Intangible Heritage of Humanity. Iso polyphony is based on a pentatonic scale, and is totally unique and different to anything else in the Balkans, or worldwide. The vocal music of the south consists of two, three or four vocal parts singing acapella .
Albanian folk music is unique in reference to the use of instruments and motives, for example Albanian highlands songs without instruments are one of these. The instrumental and vocal monodic music of the north of Albania is based on the modal system and typically refers to heroic deeds or important events.
I am the first Albanian composer that has used lahuta (one string lute which is played using the range of a fifth and it is tuned according to the singer’s voice, usually around middle C) in a classic composition, and specifically I used it in the 3 Symphony and in the Cantata for Mother Teresa’s Sanctification.
Folk and traditional music is a very precious asset of the Albanian culture due to its unique characteristics and secondly due to the diversity within it. The genre consists of a number of nuances and unique elements that differ between regions and even from one village to another.
What do the Kosovar government do to support classical music in Kosovo? Could they do more?
I can mention the annual national competition which is organised by the Ministry of Culture and each year it gives an award to the best Kosovar composer. This is an indirect way of promoting and supporting classical composers and the genre within the country. A very effective way of promoting young musicians and composers is a project organised by the General Director of the National Kosovo Philharmonic, Mr. Baki Jashari. It supports young and talented composers and their works are part of the artistic programs undertaken by the Philharmonic orchestra. All my works have been interpreted by the National Philharmonic Orchestra.
There is more that needs to be done though. For example, more support should be given to not just instrumentalists but to sopranos and baritones as well. This could be achieved in part by organising more competitions and events.
In addition to this, I could mention the lack of concert room spaces with adequate acoustic elements, the lack of a studio that would be suitable for an orchestra to record in.
Is there a piece of music that you consider to be perfect?
For me it is difficult to choose but I would say that “Requiem” by Mozart comes close. Alternatively “Oratorios” by George Frideric Handel, Tchaikovsky’s PIano Concerto, pieces by Dmitri Shostakovich, or the magnificent music of Igor Stravinsky.
Do you think there is a future for the Balkan classical music scene? Are you a part of driving this?
To nurture a successful Balkan classical music scene, we need to continue with perseverance, tenacity, and commitment on a daily basis. If we can achieve this, then yes I am optimistic for the future.
I would like to add the value and power owned by music as an element which can build bridges, especially in the reality of a post-war Balkan region. It is worth of mention the Balkan Chamber Orchestra conducted by Toshio Yanagisawa, as an example of creating an orchestra with different nationalities- specifically Balkan ones, it could be taken as an example in order to archive bilateral agreements between different Balkans states in order to create cultural bridges whilst not being divided by the past.
What was the proudest moment of your career?
The interpretation of my symphonies by the national orchestra is always a wonderful moment- watching your music permeate the public is one of those times when you feel really proud.
Another event that I like to mention is the Sanctification of Mother Teresa ceremony which was organised in the Vatican City, at the Basilica of San Pietro in 2016. The ceremony was broadcasted live, attended my major state representatives, and followed by millions of people across the world.
What events are on your agenda for this year?
On May 26 I will premiere my latest work- a concerto for clarinet and orchestra which will be performed by the National Philharmonic orchestra in Prishtina. Another important project will take place in collaboration with the well-known guitarist, Mr. Petrit Ceku.
I would like to stress that Albania and Kosovo are late to the scene in regards of classical music. In the 19th-20th century whilst we were still learning the scales and pitches, the rest of the world was inheriting symphonies and masterpieces of rare and unmeasurable value. Because of this, we need to create more and expand our list of beautiful compositions and heartfelt pieces. This is what I want for us.
This article was originally published on The Balkanista.