Serbian composer Alen Ilijic performed two experimental pieces of music in the Bratton Recital Hall at the UNH Paul Creative Arts College (PCAC) on Thursday, Oct. 20. This marked the first occasion that Ilijic has either visited or performed in the United States.
“I regard myself as a new-media avant-garde composer,” Ilijic said. “I’m a very radical and non-compromising person, so I wouldn’t compromise just for money or fame.”
Radical and non-compromising might be an understatement.
“This is a man who is aware of so many musical traditions in the 20th century, from avant-garde to noise rock to breakbeat,” UNH music professor Rob Haskins said. “But he is one of the few composers I know who can put this stuff together, and it’s completely his.”
Haskins was the person responsible for getting Ilijic to come to America for the first time ever. “When I saw one of his earlier performances on YouTube, I said, ‘I would really like this guy to come perform for us,’” Haskins said. It was through Facebook that he befriended Ilijic and arranged for him to perform at UNH.
Born in 1975 in Gevgelija, Serbia, Ilijic learned to play piano, guitar and percussion in primary music school. His father was also a music professor.
However, Ilijic said that the turning point in his music development occurred when his father bought him the album “EVOL” by the legendary alternative band Sonic Youth. “When I heard the way they treated the sound, it was a completely new world for me,” Ilijic said.
From there, Ilijic said that he was determined to study and enter the world of modern avant-garde classical music. He proceeded to move to England to study film music at Westminster University.
While studying, Ilijic was also busy creating his own art.
“At the time that I was composing in London, I had a band called Zealot, which was a one-man noise rock band,” he said.
After living in London, Ilijic went back to Serbia to study composition at the University of Belgrade’s Faculty of Music from 2006–13.
The first piece of music that Ilijic performed on Thursday, “Red Faces,” was a composition for voice, piano and body movement. “The title is from Gertrude Stein, who is one of my greatest influences,” Ilijic said, and the theme of the piece was the Holocaust.
“This topic is familiar to me for many reasons, one of which is that my family has suffered,” Ilijic said. “Me being Jewish, I lost my granddad, his brother and my great-granddad in Auschwitz and Mauthausen.”
The second piece he performed, “Zealot’s song-book from a London period,” was in homage to this period in his life and art. It consisted of Ilijic utilizing and playing an alternatively tuned guitar, voice, feedback, electronic sound and drum loops.
“It’s reminiscent of what I was doing in England, so it’s kind of paying respect to younger me,” Ilijic said.
He explained that the process he used for composing the piece was the same as in “Red Faces.” “If you listen to and study what I was doing with voices and guitar and electronics, it’s pretty much what I do for piano or write for strings,” he said. “Both of those are based on loops, and I make loops every day.”
In addition to his music, Ilijic is also a prolific multi-media and visual artist, dating back to when he started creating short films in college.
“I had four solo exhibitions, and I was covering social topics,” Ilijic said. “I covered one which is connected to my background. It’s called “I Am Moveable (Jasenovac),” which was a concentration camp in Croatia during the Second World War where three of my family members lost their lives.”
Themes of war and human atrocity show up again and again in Ilijic’s work, from “Red Faces” to “I Breathe With You,” a performance-art piece protesting the death of Eric Garner, an African-American man who was controversially killed by the New York Police,
“Well I’m actually very angry, because I’m very concerned about where we’re going as humans,” Ilijic said. “And I don’t feel very secure when I see what is happening in Europe these days, the rise of fascism and growth of the right-wing.”
Nevertheless, Ilijic remains optimistic about the state of America. He said, “I think you have a great country full of different nationalities and backgrounds. And you are all together. And this is something which is very rare in Europe.”
,Ilijic said he has big plans for the future. “I’m writing music for Karin De Fleyt, she is one of the greatest flutists alive today. And in April  I’ll go back to England and do a comeback gig with my noise rock stuff at the Hope & Anchor club,” he said.
Though he left the United States a week after the PCAC event on Thursday, Oct. 27, Ilijic has been granted a 10 years visa in America, thanks to the help from Haskins. He currently lives in Belgrade, Serbia with his wife, Milica.
“My wife Milica was the first curator/art historian to write about my art and music, spotting the authenticity of my work when no one did in my country and Europe,” Ilijic said. “Milica’s opinion, knowledge and her contribution to my work in general is invaluable.”
Those interested in learning more about Ilijic and his art can follow him on Facebook, https://soundcloud.com/alenilijic, https://www.youtube.com/user/AlenIlijic; and his Musicglue website: https://www.musicglue.com/alenilijic/.