Isidora Žebeljan (1967, Serbia) studied composition at the Faculty of Music in Belgrade with Vlastimir Trajković and since 2002 she has held the position of professor of Composition at same faculty. She has been highly acclaimed for her music and has won several significant national awards, among them the Mokranjac National Music Award in 2004. In 2006, she was elected a member of the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts. Isidora Žebeljan was granted fellowship for 2005 by the Civitella Ranieri Foundation.
She drew international attention with her opera Zora D. which was commissioned by the Genesis Foundation from London. It was premiered in Amsterdam in 2003, directed by David Pountney and Nicola Raab. The same production opened the 50th season of the Vienna Chamber Opera in the same year. Describing Isidora Žebeljan’s music, David Pountney wrote: ”When I was trawling through the entries for the Genesis Opera Prizes 1, amidst an absolute welter of indistinguishable representatives of what one might call “academic modernism”, Isidora Žebeljan’s music struck me immediately as something original, fresh, and above all emotionally expressive – a rare commodity, but an essential one for interesting theatrical story telling.”(From the booklet for the opening of the 50th season of the Vienna Chamber Opera.)
After the success of the opera Zora D, which had 22 performances in five European countries in just four years, Isidora Žebeljan wrote The Song of a Traveller in the Night, for clarinet and string quartet as a commission of the Genesis Foundation for the opening of Bill Viola’s exhibition The Passions at the National Gallery in London in 2003 (performed by the members of The Academy of Saint Martin in the Fields). The numerous commissions succeeded: The Horses of Saint Mark, an illumination for orchestra, commissioned by the Venice Biennale, premiered in 2004; Minstrel’s Dance for chamber orchestra, commissioned by The Genesis Foundation for The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, premiered at the Wigmore Hall in London in 2005 and conducted by the composer herself; The Ghost from the Pumpkin, commissioned by the London Brass, premiered in London in 2006; opera The Marathon (Eine Marathon-Familie), commissioned by the Bregenz Festival, premiered during this festival in 2008, and was performed as well in Vienna and Belgrade; Dance of Wooden Sticks for horn and string orchestra, commissioned by The International Horn Players Society; Latum lalo for 12 singers, commissioned by Dutch Chamber Choir, premiered in 2008; Polomka quartet, commissioned by University of Kent for Brodsky Quartet, premiered at Gulbenkian Theatre of University of Kent, in Canterbury in 2009; opera Simon, the Chosen (Simon, der Erwählte), commissioned by Musiktheater im Revier, Gelsenkirchen, premiered in Essen in June 2009.
John Manger, Managing Director of the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields orchestra at that time, said that Isidora Žebeljan has “a genuinely original voice and truly impressive talent. The musicians of the Academy who have worked with her cannot praise her highly enough. Her professionalism and craft are amazing, and her original talent is of the first order” (from www.genesisfoundation.org.uk)
Her compositions were performed in the UK, Italy, France, the Netherlands, Austria, Germany, Sweden, Finland, Spain, Ireland, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Croatia, Serbia and the United States, as well as at music festivals like the Venice Biennale, Bregenzer Festpiele, the Festival RAI Nuova Musica (Torino), Settembre musica (Milano), WDR Music Festival, the Galway Arts Festival, Festival Nous Sons (Barcelona), Festival L’ Est (Milano), Festival Classique and Crossing Border Festival (Netherlands), ISCM-festival (Sweden), Music Biennale Zagreb and Belgrade Music Festival. Among the ensembles and artists who have performed music by Isidora Žebeljan are the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, the Symphony Orchestra of RAI Torino, The Academy of St Martin in the Fields, the Janáček Philharmonic Orchestra, Belgrade Philharmonic Orchestra, Neue Filharmonie Westfalen, Brodsky Quartet, London Brass, Nieuw Ensemble, Zagros Ensemble, Ensemble Sentieri selvaggi, the conductors Christoph Poppen, Pierre-André Valade, Lorrain Vaillancourt, David Porcelijn, the pianists Kyoko Hashimoto, Marja Bon and Aleksandar Madzar, the clarinetist Joan Enric Lluna, etc. The exclusive publisher of her music is Ricordi – Universal. Her composition Il Circo was the obligatory piece for the international piano competition Jeunesses Musicales in Belgrade in 2009.
Isidora Žebeljan is also one of the most outstanding Serbian contemporary composers of music for theatre and film. So far, she has composed music for around 40 theatre productions in all the prominent theatres in Serbia, Croatia and Montenegro. To acknowledge her artistic achievements, She has been honored three times with the Sterija Award, the most prestigious Serbian annual prize for theatre. The Yustat Biennale of Theatre Design also awarded her four times as best composer of theatre music. She has worked on several film scores, including the orchestration of Goran Bregović’s music from The Time of the Gypsies, Arizona Dream, Underground (all directed by E. Kusturica), Queen Margot (directed by P. Chéreau) and The Serpent’s Kiss (directed by P. Rousselot).
Some of traditional dances from the Balkans, especially the ones of the Vlachs (an East Balkan population scattered across different countries; in Serbia, they mostly inhabit the Homolje region, Eastern Serbia), are distinguished by characteristic movements: turns, spinning, stomping, rapid knee-bending movements, falling on one’s knees and so on, all of which induce the dancers to be transported into a state of a mesmeric trance. This kind of dancing represents a unity of mimicry and ilinx (imitation and trance). It is dancing to small steps with vigorous stomping on upbeats (which seems confusing to an observer); the dancers being huddled together hold each other’s belts and dance for a long time, intensely and ecstatically. The steps are often simple whereas the movements of the body and legs are exceptionally complicated. Some of the dances are complex because the steps, the course of the dance and changes of movements and tempo depend solely on the leading dancer therefore representing an improvisation and surprise. The changes between duple and triple time are characteristic of some of the Vlach dances. The ¾ bar is always slightly longer for a micro-rhythmic unit and the melodic system of these dances is often non-tempered.
Polomka is one of the most popular dances in Eastern Serbia. The noun polomka is derived from the verb polomiti (which means: to break) therefore this dance could be described as a one in which the body “breaks” to the rhythm of a rather fast tempo and virtuoso playing, in other words – a “traditional Serbian break-dance”. This particular dance, as well as other traditional ones, contains in itself an element of pagan trance. The piece Polomka Quartet is inspired by the author’s visual impression of these dances. That impression has transcended into an idea of a dance of an imaginary people, of a non-existent region. Polomka Quartet is dedicated to the Brodsky Quartet.