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a metaphor of theatrical conflict

The focus of this paper is the film composition of composer Goran Bregovic (born 1950) and its conceptual relationship to the country of his birth Yugoslavia.

Yugoslavia has undergone many major political changes over the past century and its ethno-political history over the past fifteen years could be considered as one of the most turbulent of our time. The aim of this thesis is to uncover the conceptual principles behind Bregovic’s unique approach to soundtrack composition. I believe that composer Bregovic uses aspects of the Balkan conflict to create appropriate musical analogies in film music.

Bregovic himself acknowledges that the lack of a definitive Yugoslav national identity during his lifetime has played a significant role in the development of his creative output.

My music? It’s a mixture born from the Balkan frontier; a mysterious land where three cultures cross each other: Orthodox, Catholic and Muslim.

(Bregovic in Fabretti, C., 2003)

Bregovic’s musical career began during the time when the formerly separate states were united under the Socialist Federation of the Yugoslav Republics (SFRY) and matured through a tumultuous period when savage war and national rivalries resulted, once again, in the division of Yugoslavia into a number of small independent states.  Having commenced his career as a rock musician, Bregovic did not initially show much interest in Yugoslav film circles in the 70s. In 1978, his band Bijelo dugme (White Button) played a live concert near one of the main squares in Belgrade. The performance was filmed and director Milivoje-Mica Milosevic used a section of his documentation in his movie Nije nego (Nevertheless), made the same year. This appearance marked the first unplanned entry of Bregovic’s music into film. The following year brought Bregovic’s first real soundtrack project: providing music for Aleksandar Mandic’s film Licne stvari (Personal Affairs). The film was successful within Yugoslavia, but it was not until a decade later that Bregovic seriously plunged into the film music world. The incredible national and Eastern European success of his rock band “White Button” left very little time for other projects during the first two decades of Bregovic’s musical career.

Some of the most significant Yugoslav successes in the world of film and film music began to emerge as the country started disintegrating politically. Time of the Gypsies, featuring what many regard as Bregovic’s breakthrough soundtrack, was made while SFRY was in its terminal phase in the late 80s.

The production of director Emir Kusturica’s film Time of the Gypsies (1989) was almost parallel with the release of Ciribiribela (1988) the last album that “White Button” recorded together as a band. Djurdjevdan (St George’s Day) the most popular song from this album became the Time of the Gypsies' Soundtrack theme.

Roughly two years later, Sarajevo, both Bregovic and Kusturica’s hometown, was burning in the flames of the ethno-religious war that consumed the entire state of Bosnia and Herzegovina within just over a month. Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina, has occupied the front pages of different newspapers around the world for the past fifteen years. The images and stories from this period are mainly connected to the Yugoslav civil war that was at its bloodiest and most terrifying in this tiny state. However, there have also been happier and more inspiring reasons for Bosnia and Herzegovina and its citizens to occupy the newspapers. Dating back to the peaceful days in SFRY and productions such as Time of the Gypsies to more recent times, Emir Kusturica and Goran Bregovic remain Sarajevo’s most invaluable cultural and artistic ambassadors.

Bregovic was forced to mature quickly as a film composer against a shifting backdrop of ethnic rivalries in the former Yugoslavia, but this did not discourage him. On the contrary, he made a quantum leap in the world of film composition during the early 90s. His work as a film composer continues to the present day, sometimes taking him back to a part of the former Yugoslavia or sometimes to other European countries.

Already from the Time of the Gypsies, Bregovic’s soundtracks were as distinctive as Kusturica’s films, and together they were considered by many to be the hallmark of the Yugoslav film. Even in more recent years, when defining a Yugoslav identity is a constant challenge, anyone who has ever heard this music or seen these films can easily recall the sound and character of the music. Bregovic’s compositional voice is distinctive, created from intricate traditional and rock fusions, built from songs written with the members of “White Button” and developed from his chosen and enforced travels and relocations.

This paper examines the socio-compositional concepts behind Bregovic’s film music, with regard to his ability to recycle the pre-existing “White Button” rock materials and to fuse them with different ethnic, classical and contemporary musical traditions to create new hybrid forms. The aim of this research is to consider Bregovic as a highly respected international film composer and to explain the evolution of his signature musical style with its deep roots in the traditional Balkan sound. The study explores creative applications of the traditional Balkan musical elements in wider cultural and artistic contexts and addresses their socio-musical appeal in the soundtrack genre.

I propose that the effectiveness of Bregovic’s music resides in his ability to fuse socio-historical, cultural and political issues explored in the given films through musical use of “Balkan” as a metaphor of the dramatic conflict in the given films. I am asserting that, in his film soundtracks, Bregovic exploits the inherent tensions of both his Balkan and specifically Yugoslavian identities, as exemplified by their highly varied and characteristic musical traditions, to provide musical analogies of the dramatic circumstances portrayed in the analysed movies.

Rather than just following or supporting the conflict depicted in the film, his soundtracks recreate or reconstruct the suggested filmic or dramatic development in their own medium of music and their own ethno-cultural (Balkan) musical genres.

I have chosen three motion pictures featuring Bregovic soundtracks as exemplar works for my thesis: Time of the Gypsies (Kusturica 1989), Arizona Dream (Kusturica 1992) and Queen Margot (Patrice Chereau 1994).

Time of the Gypsies set in a Macedonian-Gypsy ghetto in ex-Yugoslavia, Arizona Dream set in Arizona on the border between the United States and Mexico and Queen Margot set in France, have been chosen because their extremely varied cultural, geographic and historical dramatic subjects throw into relief the stylistically similar nature of Bregovic's soundtracks. They highlight the fact that Bregovic's approach to providing music to support the dramatic development is very similar in each movie despite the films’ highly varied geographic and historical backgrounds locales.

The soundtrack analyses will be conducted through a comparative discussion regarding the musical source materials and their treatment in relation to the film's plot developments. The analyses will show how Bregovic’s methods were applied to create music that facilitates an effective synthesis of image and sound even when the elements derive from vastly different cultural and stylistic genres and historic periods.

The research questions address:

  • the underlying concepts behind Bregovic’s film music;
  • the recycled rock materials and the traditional music selected by the composer;
  • the creative application of the analysed materials within the specific genre (soundtrack);

    the use of the Balkan music as a metaphor for the presented dramatic/theatrical conflict and the new perceptual and conceptual order that it proposes;

    the value of the uncovered research outcomes for other composers interested in similar creative concepts and genres.

Definition of terms: cultural approaches to theory and established research terminology

The terminology referring to the range of music under discussion reflects a number of culturally embedded dichotomies. The term “ethnic music”, because of its frequent and sometimes indiscriminate use, has acquired an ambiguous or at least broad range of definitions. The first is the by-product of a culturally Eurocentric approach in which all Non-Western music is defined as an ethnic musical “other”. Increasingly the term is used more generally to refer to non-art music, a distinction perhaps imperialistically implicit in the previous definition. This broader definition, although perhaps still implying another dichotomy – the hierarchy of “High” and “Low” art – goes someway to addressing the existence of art music of equal or greater sophistication “outside” the West.

Many researchers discuss an alternative to the Eurocentric view through the use of the term “world music” to imply a wider classification than the term “ethnic music”. After all, “world music” can be traditional, popular or even art music.

I have opted to use the terminology that describes the analysed examples as specifically as possible (ie. Serbian Orthodox Chant.) The recurring terms, folk and traditional, are used in a more general sense (ie. Traditional Yugoslav Melody or Yugoslav Folk Music.) This terminology is particularly applicable in the analysis of original composition inspired by traditional music as the created references are not always evocative of a specific piece – they allude to the more general traditional sound. The term “ethnic” appears only if it is necessary to refer to a specific ethnic group in musical descriptions (ie. Vocal Inflections typical of Bulgarian Ethnic Music.) The term “world music” is used rarely in this paper and for very general descriptions that would include several ethnic associations (ie. clearly influenced by a number of “world music” Styles.) I will use the most specific geographic reference wherever it is possible if the ethnic associations are related to a specific part of the world (ie. Balkan music.)

Ethnic Music and its creative application in soundtracks
models for the developed research framework

The use of ethnic elements in soundtrack composition was recently the main topic of The Online Magazine of Motion Picture and Television Music Appreciation. Mark Neyrinck’s article titled Ethploitation: The Use of Ethnic Film Music was published in the magazine’s November 2001 edition.  Neyrinck discussed many aspects of “ethploitation”  (his term denoting the exploitation of ethnic music in soundtrack composition) which provide a useful research framework for my own work.

Neyrinck recognises several important analytical distinctions:

  • the use of ethnic music and ethnic elements in original soundtrack composition as two different notions;
  • the distinction between  source music ( music which, in the world of the film, the characters on screen would presumably be able to hear) and  background music (background score that is used to heighten the dramatic needs of a particular moment/scene in the film);
  • distinctions of the major theatrical functions of ethnic materials and/or ethnic music in soundtrack composition.

Neyrnick divides these theatrical functions into three major categories:

  • Ethnic materials as a source of ideas for the composer;
  • Ethnic materials as tools for the establishment of the film setting (ie. geographical location);
  • Ethnic materials as tools for the establishment of the conceptual distance from self-identification as “other” (Orientalism) or the conceptual proximity to self (Occidentalism).

I propose that it is also important to observe the following aspects in every soundtrack and film-score:

  • the prevailing compositional form throughout the entire soundtrack (ie. a leitmotif, a dance form, etc.);
  • the prevailing soundtrack instrumentation (ie. symphonic orchestra, a specific chamber configuration, a solo instrument in acoustic compositions, or a particular electronic/electro-acoustic set-up with prevalent use of certain software);
  • theatrical functions that are served by the prevailing compositional and instrumental form/forms the film (ie. historical or geographic accuracy, portrayal of the dramatic conflict, etc.).

The final chapter of the thesis is an extension of the last outlined research question. I will show how these methods influenced my own creative output during the course of research and project development. My creative project is a setting of the Yugoslav poet Vasko Popa’s cycle of poems titled Vrati mi moje krpice (Give Me Back My Rags) to music. The composition consists of thirteen movements (the thirteen poems from the cycle) and incorporates both the original Serbo-Croatian text-setting and the English translation. The Serbo-Croatian setting is sung and the English translation is spoken over the musical accompaniment.

 All of the music for Give Me Back My Rags is strongly anchored in different types of the traditional Eastern and Southern European music. The cycle, like a lot of my other composition has been a product of the heavy influences of Goran Bregovic’s music on my own creative output and of the inspiration that derives from soundtracks for Emir Kusturica and Tony Gatlif’s films.

Give Me Back My Rags is my musical attempt to create a meeting point for the sounds evocative of the soundtracks for Latcho Drom, Vengo, Gadjo Dilo, Time of the Gypsies, Arizona Dream, Queen Margot and Black Cat White Cat. …And anyone that has ever seen any of these films or heard the soundtracks knows that there will be music, tears, laughter and smashed plates at that imaginary musical meeting point of mine!

Trifkovic, N., (October, 2003) Give Me Back My Rags –Graduation Recital Programme Notes


     Synopsis: a film is made about a group of high school students who are generally interested in sport and romance but reveal a more thoughtful perspective on their school as they are interviewed. The plot thickens when a drawing, accusing a teacher of making sexual advances on his students, appears on the blackboard and the parents are brought into the matter until the truth is discovered. The film also fetures a part of the live ocncert that “White Button” played in Belgrade and shows the music and popular culture of the Yugoslav youth. For more information access:  HYPERLINK ""

     Synopsis: a young grammar school graduate takes us through her dreams and aspirations as she spends the summer holiday between graduation and the first year of university with a group of school friends. For more information access:  HYPERLINK ""

     Bosnia and Herzegovina is one state that includes two different regions.

     In such instances I will try to explain some differences between the vocal aesthetic of the sacred (Eastern Christian) Orthodox and sacred (Western Christian) mainly Catholic type of singing.

     This classification is also inclusive of other non-Yugoslav Balkan nations – Bulgarians, Romanians, Greeks, Albanians, etc.

     Neyrinck, M., (2001) Ethploitation: The Use of Ethnic Film Music, In: The Online Magazine of Motion Picture and TV Music Appreciation, for further information access: HYPERLINK “”

     I continued to use the expression Serbo-Croatian for the native language of the four republics in ex-Yugoslavia (Serbia, Croatia, Montenegro and Bosnia & Herzegovina). Although in current times the language is (politically or linguistically) divided into Bosnian, Serbian and Croatian, the selected terminology alludes to the period when the works were created and the artists’ creative, artistic and cultural alignment as expressed through the continual promotion of the Yugoslav identity.

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