The core member of the BigBanda community finds new challenges in writing for the stage and believes that courage pays off
We met with Alexander Evtimov - Shamancheto shortly after the dance performance Plast-onia by Ina Gerginova, for which he wrote the music, ended its run at the Toplocentrala, and while he is finishing work on Echo and Nobody, a new performance by the choreographer Yanitsa Atanasova, whom we know also from her Pastet at the Toplocentrala.
His name is well known to those who frequently attend concerts by independent artists in our country (and especially to those who remember the Czech Center as a venue for live music). He has been a member of several bands ("Popara", The Strawberry Finns) and lately he’s mostly been in the studio or backstage.
Over the past few years, Alexander has composed hours of music for the stage. He lists WO MAN by Marion Durova, Kaspar by Alexander Mitrev and based on Peter Handke, and Together Against Alzheimer's by Veselin Dimov based on Peter Turini, as shows that challenged him and gave him an opportunity to grow as an artist.
Jumping between the different forms has enriched his work immensely in terms of thinking and techniques. "It changes the way you listen and your feeling of music in general. I'm not a musician in the classical sense, I'm more and more a sound designer. More and more I make music 'for' someone," says Alexander Evtimov Shamancheto (the nickname has followed him since the late 90s when he was a teenager, the backstory involves his then-interest in cosmogony, Sozopol, and a certain amount of weed). "Working for the theater, I often get to make music that can be taken out of the performance and exist on its own. Whereas with dance, the music is always unfinished, it can't exist out of its context." Experience has also led him to bolder experiments, using mistakes and unusual approaches to his advantage. "I haven't become more of a perfectionist, quite the opposite. If something dissonant is repeated three times, it is no longer a mistake."
We're in the recently renovated studio of the long-running label (or rather, community of independent musicians) Big Banda, and Evtimov's development as a composer has run alongside the growth of the musical community surrounding him. "We started out as a bunch of people and became a cultural institution."
This past year, they launched a series of educational videos about music production called PUK, as well as the series of live studio performances Small Sessions. Evtimov is also part of another BigBanda project, Soundscapers, which also includes Alexander Daniel, Ivaylo Stefanov and Mikhail Yosifov; together they run masterclasses and create soundtracks, music for short videos, and sound environments.
He describes the current status of BigBanda as "an informal contemporary art collective." "I'm lucky to have musician friends who don't lie to me, with whom we can discuss music, talk to each other in a way that a composer would talk about himself. We still share things to this day, and we were already pretty advanced technically when we started mixing and mastering. When someone says that a sound should be 'shaggy' or 'crunchy,' we understand what they mean."
Increasingly, he also finds inspiration in the very spaces where a performance will be staged – sometimes the music should feel "warm," at other times it has to "take over" the space. There is always the feeling that he could have gotten more out of the situation. "When there is clear content, it is also much clearer for me what I need to fill with my music. When I don't know what's going on, I lose my footing."
The piano is his first instrument. He remembers "a lot of Beastie Boys, a lot of Future Sounds of London" as he began to grow as a listener and musician, and the blending of styles –from hip-hop to electronic music to improvisation – followed him from his earliest bands.
With the formation of Popara in 2007, which he fronted and which also featured Rosen Zahariev-Rocco, SkilleR, Kiril Donchev and Pavel Terziyski, he felt a real audience forming around him for the first time. This happened even though "we didn't care at all." "There was this very nice feeling like we weren't making music, but rather wind. I never believed that the edge of the stage lifts you above everyone else, but I had the sense that there were people, real fans, who were excited about what we were doing, or even inspired, that if slobs like us were making music, they could probably do it too." Ecological causes are also an important issue for all of them: the band played at the 2014 Strandja protests, and he and Rocco were arrested at one of the demonstrations.
Evtimov sees a certain connection between the way in which civic and creative energies grow and develop. "It all had to do with the historical energy of that time. I think we were one of the first generations that stopped waiting. There used to be a lot of waiting – for something to come 'from outside', for things to fix themselves," Evtimov says. Outside of music, he also works as a therapist with various at-risk social groups through the medium of art – most recently with children living in temporary accommodation centers, with whom he created a dance performance.
According to Shamancheto, in the larger framework of how the music scene developed in our country, events have always been a little out of sync, making them difficult to analyze. "In Bulgaria, the transition in music happened before the political transition, which is something that is rarely discussed. Back then, because of the whole vacuum during the socialist era, stylistic currents emerged that may have been developing for years in the West, but here they appeared in a week or two, and by the time you noticed them, they were gone. Over time, we came to love this sense of the impossible that our country brings."
Over the years, for brief periods, he has lived in various cities around Europe: Berlin, Barcelona, London, Amsterdam. "I wanted to see if I had the emotional capacity to emigrate." He found that he could not last elsewhere for more than three months. Why? He quotes the Czech director Miloš Forman, who once said that in America you need a lot of money to make a movie, but in Europe "you can just do it with your friends." He also returned because of the feeling that there is a lot to do here. "There are a lot of strings that are tied here for me, and anything can happen without many resources. And I see opportunities, I find a lot of potential here."
After more than twenty years on the scene, Shamancheto can easily point out not only the pros but also the cons of the local arts environment. "We're pretty insular, the same people go to all events and there's really not all that much cultural life given the size of the country."
How can this bubble burst? He sees some signs of change, but not enough. "The average Bulgarian is racist, they don’t accept anyone who looks different, they have a very hard time understanding what integration means, they confuse it with assimilation. This makes it very difficult for other cultures to flow into ours, as has happened, for example, in cities like Istanbul or Athens."
The only sustainable recipe for change he has found is dedicated work. "Artists should not limit themselves in their means of expression, because the extremes are also valuable." He sees some obvious problems in the field of cultural management in this country, in the media and the absence of art criticism. Social media reactions are no substitute for real feedback. He has never had a Facebook account. When asked if artists really want criticism, and if it wouldn’t be instantly rejected if it were to appear, Evtimov says that "real misery is a thousand times more valuable than false luxury."
"It seems to me that we have an overarching problem with discussing certain topics. Just as we can't say whether socialism was bad or good, we lack the vocabulary to describe whether a work is good or bad. We wait, for example, for an influencer to tell us, or for something to have been successful abroad first, so that we can decide here that it’s okay." He thinks that there’s one way to break through this state of affairs: “By creating boldly.”
Find out more about the BigBanda artists on Facebook and Instagram, and @BigBandaBg on YouTube.
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