Composer Jovanka Trbojević has passed away after a serious illness. Born in Yugoslavia in March 1963, she was 54 when she died on the 12th of May, 2017.
Jovanka Trbojević – Vanja for her friends – was born in Bosnia but grew up in Belgrade, the capital of today’s Serbia. She was a Yugoslav in the literal, united sense of the word: her father’s family came from Croatia and her mother hailed from Montenegro. Trained as a pianist at the Prague Conservatorium in Czechoslovakia, Vanja first came to Finland in 1984 during an Interrail trip and visited the Time of Music Festival in Viitasaari, prompted by her then boyfriend and later husband Olli. This experience turned to be momentous for her and after moving to Finland a few years later, Vanja began to study composition at the Sibelius Academy. Her first composition teacher was Eero Hämeenniemi, followed by Paavo Heininen.
From the very beginning, Vanja’s musical ideas and the identities of her works were characterised by a certain, original conceptuality, often infused with personal experiences. Towards the end of her early solo violin work Self Portrait with a Song (1993), a folk music ensemble emerges, singing and playing a Macedonian folk song, the composer’s “own” tune Jovano, Jovanke. Her 1996 work Zuti put (Yellow road), composed for chamber ensemble, paints a melancholy picture of her childhood landscape, destroyed by the wars which tore Yugoslavia apart in the 1990s. Another example is her extensive piano work from 2012 which carries the title Between me and Bach.
Her 2012 music theatre work Opera Absurdium can be considered as the final crystallisation of her composing approach which was based on personal experiences. The opera’s main character is a capricious coloratura soprano who bears a striking resemblance to the composer Trbojević. The audiences can hardly believe their eyes or ears when they witness this alter ego carry on like a true diva and gossip about real-life events. Vanja’s first opera Heart in a Plastic Bag, performed in Denmark six years earlier in 2008, had also a “documentary” feel but in an entirely different way. It is based on a true story of a serial killer who surprises his new wife by coming home one day carrying a heart in a plastic bag.
Vanja’s multi-artistic approach clearly emerges as the defining characteristic of her compositional output. During her career, she created performance art, composed music for contemporary dance and collaborated closely with visual artists. Her 2003 multi-sensory composition concert in the Temppeliaukio Church in Helsinki was built around Jyrki Kiiskinen’s poems, Raija Malka’s textiles and performance costumes designed by Tarja Niskanen, and the space was meant to be filled with scents as well. Her vocal work In the View of the Wise (2001), composed for three singers, features vocal lines and the singers’ hand gestures in equal measures. Her more absolute concert music output includes her chamber works and two symphonic works, Orgone accumulator (2006) and Vertigo (2010). Another significant work is Creation Game, a radiophonic work which won the 2009 Prix Italia award.
Vanja provided quite the injection of colour into the Finnish music scene, with her humorous commentary on those specifically Finnish characteristics and our general modus operandi. She targeted her witty comments towards our cliquey circles, our rigid following of rules and overly serious demands for consensus. Vanja herself was quick-witted and strong-willed, but most of all sociable and funny, an extremely generous host who had the natural ability to create a good atmosphere with any group of people. On the other hand, her passionate character never shied away from conflicts arising from personal differences, or hesitated to defend something she felt was right.
My friendship with Vanja began in the mid-1990s when I worked as her assistant in a film music project (Bittersweet by Kaisa Rastimo). As a friend, Vanja displayed great warmth and an un-Finnish unreservedness. Our common catchphrase “Sette la vie” originated from Vanja’s painstaking pronunciation efforts in our shared private French lessons – self-irony often providing the richest source of humour for her.
Even in the midst of her illness in early April, Vanja found the energy to organise a big, Balkan-style party to celebrate her daughter’s coming of age, with no shortage of food, drink, music or larger-than-life emotions. Sette la vie, my Vanjushka. Thank you for everything.
Lotta Wennäkoski is Jovanka’s composer colleague and friend. This article is based on Wennäkoski’s article published in Kompositio – the magazine of the Society of Finnish Composers 1/2017.
Translation: Hanna-Mari Latham