“Music was a part of me since before I can remember. There was never any other desire other than to pursue it.”
This was the answer from Kosovar composer and conductor Kreshnik Alickaj when I asked him if he could remember when he decided to pursue his path. Born and raised in Prishtina, he studied music at the city’s university, adding that he could read music before he could learn to read.
Growing up in a family of musicians, he learned to play traditional Albanian music from an early age as well as instruments like the lahuta, cifeli, sharki, accordion, mandolin, and the guitar. His love of both conventional and traditional string instruments is still reflected in his pieces due to the fact, he says, that they are “a part of my DNA”.
As a child and young man, his country was in the grip of war and there was no place to buy CDs or sheet music, and no available internet connection for him to download songs or to stream them. Instead, he took what he could from the world around him, absorbing the nuances of the more traditional melodies, rhythms, and instruments.
“Folk and traditional music is a very precious asset of the Albanian culture, due to its unique and diverse characteristics which can change village to village”, he says, before diving into a passionate explanation about the nuances of Albanian traditional music.
“It is unique in reference to the use of instruments and motives, for example Albanian highland songs without instruments are just one example. The instrumental and vocal monodic music of the north of Albania is based on the modal system and typically refers to heroic deeds or important events.”
He also talks about the Albanian iso-polyphony used in the south of Albania. Based on the pentatonic scale and consisting of two, three, or four acapella voices, it is so special that in November 2005, it was categorised as a UNESCO Intangible Heritage of Humanity.
Such is his love of traditional ethnic music and instruments that he was the first Albanian composer to use the lahuta (a one-stringed lute which is played using the range of a fifth and is usually tuned to middle C.
As a young man, a pivotal moment of his life was meeting Professor Medi Megjiqi, a renowned Kosova composer and the author of the Kosovo national anthem.
“Being a student of Professor Mengjii gave me the opportunity to study the greatest music scores, the most influential world composers, and gave me the opportunity to learn the skills and tools I needed to succeed,” he told me.
Years later, he was chosen to premier one of his pieces at the Sanctification of Mother Theresa at the Vatican in 2016 – a piece which included the use of the Albanian lahuta. He also won first place in the International Artiste en Herbe contest in Luxembourg with an original piece entitled Piano Quintiles composed for violin, cello, and piano.
When it comes to his influences, Alickaj responds with an eclectic mix ranging from Gregorian chanting to serialism, not forgetting medieval, renaissance, baroque, classical, romantic, and modern.
“Each of these has its own uniqueness and importance but what I try to convey in my work is an original imprint of my own by mixing elements of classical and folk.”
It is this mix of conventional styles of classical music, combined with unmistakable elements of ethnic Albanian folk music that set him apart from the rest. In his worn words he explains that a “good composer” should be able to master and embrace all of the different styles in order to create a truly unique masterpiece.
Unfortunately, he says, due to some of these experiments, music is losing a lot of its meaning and reason, especially in a local context. I suspect he is referring to the recent international popularity for Kosova pop singers such as Rita Ora, Dua Lipa, and Bebe Rexha.
When pressed on the topic, rather than naming names, he says:
“Much of the music you hear on the radio or television, I would not consider as such. It is just sounds that are assembled together. We need to accept this as the way things are, but also invest efforts into cultivating a love for real music.”
Turning to the future of his craft, Alickaj believes that music has immense power as an element that can build bridges, particularly in the post-war Balkan region. By creating music that spans borders, including musicians from different regions, it could be used as the foundations of bilateral agreements between different Balkan states.
“We could create cultural bridges, whilst not being divided by the past,” he says.
“To nurture a successful Balkan classical music scene, we need to continue with perseverance, tenacity, and commitment on a daily basis. If we can achieve this, I am optimistic for the future.”