Part 1

Name: Gagi Petrovic
Occupation: Composer, performer, producer, teacher
Nationality: Serbian-Dutch
Current release: Gagi Petrovic's Choosing Freedom, mastered by Jos Smolders and with artwork designed by Rutger Zuydervelt, is available via Sietse van Erve's Moving Furniture label.

[Read our latest of two Jos Smolders interviews]
[Read our Rutger Zuydervelt interview]
[Read our Sietse van Erve / Orphax interview]

If these thoughts by Gagi Petrovic piqued your interest, visit his excellent official homepage for more information. He is also on Instagram, twitter, and Soundcloud.

What's your take on how your upbringing and cultural surrounding have influenced your sonic preferences?

After being born in Serbia, I grew up in The Netherlands. Because of this I grew up in between two cultures. Up until my teens, every summer we went back to Serbia and next to Dutch elementary school, every Saturday I went to Yugoslavian school in Amsterdam. At home my parents listened mainly to Serbian music (both pop and authentic). In my parallel Dutch life I listened to Western pop music, jazz, metal. I also developed an interest in authentic music from around the world and classical music via TV programs such as Vrije Geluiden.

Being surrounded by this variety of genres and musical practices enabled me to remain very open minded to what music is, and what it can be. With this attitude I developed a curiosity for the unkown, always seeking to experience music that’s new to me. In my twenties I started exploring Western classical music more thoroughly, electronic music and finally discovered the existence of glitch and noise. To me conceptually, it was amazing that artists were creating musical experiences based on what I before considered to be ‘trash’, unwanted sounds. A glitch is originally a ‘mistake’, or an accidental side-effect, and noise is what my surroundings taught me to avoid showing in a production. Using this as material instead, finding beauty in this ‘ugliness’, opened up new ways for me to experience sound (and art in general).

In my twenties I became more serious about music. I started seeing how genres often times act as limitations to what music ‘should’ be within given subcultures. For me being ‘in between’ had become such a primary nature, that such limitations became very arbitrary. Not really being Dutch, nor Serbian, not really a metalhead, nor a hardcore Radiohead fan, not growing up with classical music ... whichever concert I attended, I remained an outsider. At some point I found comfort in this position.

My sonic preferences in making music lie in capturing what doesn’t yet exist, music that departs from its style-defining characteristics. I think it’s important to question dogmas of music making practices, so that music as a whole can keep developing into new shapes of artistic expression.

Do you see yourself as part of a tradition or historic lineage when it comes to your way of working with sound?

The historic lineage usually doesn’t interest me as a composer, since I’m more concerned with looking forward than backwards. When reflecting there have definitely been music makers that inspired me greatly. Below I’ll organise them per perspective they taught me:

  • Songwriting, arrangement: Sufjan Stevens, Radiohead, Ane Brun, Opeth
  • Rhythmical developments: Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Meshuggah, Balkan folk music
  • Melodic and harmonic progression: Eric Whitacre, Avishai Cohen
  • Questioning & designing music making paradigms: John Cage, Arnold Schönberg
  • Instrument design: multiple artists at STEIM and the HKU
  • Acoustic aesthetic research: Luciano Berio, Salvatore Sciarrino
  • Electronic aesthetics: Autechre, Amon Tobin

So in a way I could say my music follows a multide of branches that these artists laid out before me.

Gagi Petrovic · Unfold Yourself: Illuminate (v2.12_pre-master)

There’s works in which my inspirations can be heard clearly, such as in Zid (2013), The light that blinds you (2013) and Unfold Yourself: Illuminate (2021). In other pieces the inspirations are so intertwined that they’re harder to detect and isolate, such as in Ob-literate (2016, with Zeno van den Broek), dp[a] +hsh (2018), and my latest album Choosing Freedom (2021).

What types of sound do you personally prefer to work with? Are there sounds you reject – if so, for what reasons?

The human voice very often plays a part in my creative process, be it as a sound source, instrument or both. The voice carries the power to communicate information in a wide variety of possibilities: emotional, semantic; activistic, poetic. For ages it has functioned as the primary tool for spreading any message and expressing oneself. This primal character intrigues me on a deeper level, which makes it difficult for me to explain in words what it is exactly that fascinates me.

Depending on the project I use the voice in different ways. With the song cycle I’m currently creating, Vox Populi (2021), I’m writing new songs for the electronic instrument GEST (see my next answer) and my voice. To get a feel for my songwriting style, please take a look at the rehearsal of Imaginary Conversations – 3. Quiet shouts (no GEST yet however).

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When it comes to the live processing of audio, I have developed a preference towards granular synthesis combined with the use of reverb and many types of distortion as means of articulation and variation. Results of this can be heard in my albums dp[a] +hsh (2018), Recalcitrance (2020) and Choosing Freedom (2021), and also in older works for contemporary dance, such as ghuis1b (2012) and AYAH: Patriarch Oppression (2018), or Dgbs4 (2015) for theatre.

I don’t think there are sounds that I reject working with by default. Anything could be useful.

Where do you find the sounds you're working with? How do you collect and organise them?

In general I use my own recordings as samples and source materials. Whether I sample a heating, heavy rain, a broken speaker or an acoustic guitar with voices, I enjoy capturing them with my field recorder Zoom H2n. This results in ‘flawed’ recordings, filled with background noise, surroundings and spatial information. For me, the richer the source is spectrally the more interesting it is to work with. Especially when zooming in on miniscule details while processing a sample, it often generates unexpected digital artefacts. This kind of material inspires me to keep going.

When dealing with a lineair composition approach, for processing and organising my materials I work in Logic Pro or Ableton Live. When composing in a more explorative and improvisatory fashion I use my own custom-built environment GEST. This allows me as a performer to design and play electronic music in an intuitive way, turning hand gestures and light sensors into an interface for musical expression. It’s an environment for both composing pieces based on audio recordings and performing structures with indeterminate elements. This instrument is featured as a solo act in my latest release Choosing Freedom (2021), a work that I perform regurarly. A teaser of GEST can be found here.

In short: this instrument offers frameworks that confine aural explorations based on a multitude of granular synths that cuts up samples in fragments of variable sizes. When playing these fragments, parameters such as windowsize, reverb roomsize, filter cutoff frequencies, trigger speed and amount of instances can simultaneously be altered by moving my hands in front of a light source.

Next to GEST I also use conventional composition techniques for organizing my sounds, when it comes to creating narratives of tension and release. I do tend to place more emphasis on building and upholding tension while postponing the release, as can be heard in "dp[a]3" for example.

When working with other live musicians, I also use music notation as a composing tool. In these cases my composition approach is more abstracted, based around performative intentions.

Some artists use sounds as a means for emotional self-expression, others take a more conceptual approach or want to present intriguing sound matter. How would you characterise your own goals and motivations in this regard?

Ultimately I think all my music is a form of emotional expression. Concepts, both within and outside of music, often carry a function of creating an artistic framework, a theme, musical variations, generating inspiration for finding new ways of making and sharing music.

Over the years I grew more interested in the potential of intellectual expression through music too. This is when it became an artistic tool for me, in addition to a form of expressing myself. Presenting intriguing sound matters are more of a consquence of my attitude and approach, rather than a goal in itself. It varies per project which aspect carries more weight in my process and intentions. In general my songs (e.g. "Wir hatten Zeit", watch here) are closer to emotional expression while my non-song-pieces (e.g. stRrrct) have a more conceptual approach. Ever since I work with GEST, however, the distinction between my rational and emotional expression has become less clear, more intertwined.

Below I’ll share some works of mine with varying intentions, balancing on this spectrum of conceptual and emotional.

In my collaboration with audiovisual artist Zeno van den Broek, for example, we created Ob-literate (2016). Here the creative process was guided by a conceptual approach. Drawing inspiration from articles revolving around the philosophical text The Destructive Character by Walter Benjamin, furthermore distilling words and concepts from interpretations by Dick Raaijmakers and the poem "Étui" by Adam Staley Groves, we constructed a work which is intense and alienating in its deconstructive dismantling to create space for something altogether new.

When writing Zid (2013), I expressed the feeling of ultimately being alone. In There is nothing. (2015) I wrote a piece for concert flute and electronics, exploring the intimacy of nothingness. Illuminate (2021) continues in a similar nonreligious spirituality, but is harder to capture in words.

For "Depressant" (2020), I needed a final piece for the album Recalcitrance before it could be released. Conceptually it needed to fit the other mental states of the album that were inspired by the pandemic. Aesthetically this work had to bring all my other pieces together in a climactic conclusion, before it can resolve in the final piece "Insignificant" (2020). On the day of composition and recording via GEST, my romantic partner had one of their worst depressive episodes, and we had a big fight because of that. Depressant became one of those pieces where in the moment of creation there was no difference between conceptual or emotional expression.

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