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  • Writer's pictureGeoffrey Dean

Posthumous Dialogues: Roumen Balyozov, Bulgarian Cellist-Composer, and J. S. Bach

Listen to Balyozov's Baza i nadstroika (string duo version of Bach's first cello suite)

During the month of March my thoughts often turn to Bulgaria, not least because this is the month of the martenitsa, a kind of good luck bracelet that Bulgarians exchange on March 1 in anticipation of the coming spring. In the Bulgarian calendar, March is named for Baba Marta (Grandmother Marta), the feminine figure that deftly navigates the challenging transition from winter. Musically I try to spend extra time this month with the music of Bach, whose birthday is celebrated on the 21st. Recently I discovered this exquisite string duo arrangement of Bach’s first cello suite that deserves wider attention, and it got me thinking about the arranger, a Bulgarian musician with whom I collaborated on a number of projects over the years.

Roumen Balyozov (1949-2019) was one of the most colorful personalities in the Bulgarian artistic community. An accomplished cellist, he was for many years a member of the Symphony Orchestra of the Bulgarian National Radio (BNR). He is best remembered as a composer, a kind of self-styled Bulgarian John Cage with an insatiable appetite for musical provocations. It was Rumen (Balyozkata), with his impossibly thick glasses, long unkempt hair curling out from a quasi-Amish black hat, and a toothy smile that made his eyes twinkle and his nose wrinkle, who knew more about the American avant-garde than I—resident American musician of Bulgaria—did. After I started the AmBul Festival in Sofia, he pushed me toward some surprising Bulgarian-American collaborations, such as “Unexpected Encounters” in 2001, where he and an American composer wrote parts of a piece for trombone independently, neither knowing what the other had composed until the trombonist premiered the work. The concept had something in common with Party Pieces, a series of musical corps equisses that American composers Cage, Cowell, Harrison, and Thompson had done—as a party trick—in the first half of the 20th century. Balyozkata masterminded a Bulgarian “otgovor” (answer) to the American party pieces, with a group of composers working “blind” within certain parameters so that their collectively-composed pieces could be played both separately from and simultaneously with the American set. For John Cage’s centennial marathon we created a posthumous dialogue featuring the recorded voices of Cage and his Bulgarian counterpart in an exchange of aphorisms. He also got me interested in John Zorn’s Cobra, leading to a series of unforgettable group improvisations using my modified version of Cobra. Roumen even participated as cellist in one of those performances in BNR Studio 1. I well remember his interpolation of a passage from the Haydn C-Major cello concerto as we quickly cut from one player to another in a round-the-horn musical free-for-all.

Roumen’s sense of humor pervaded his music and other pursuits, including his work with an improvisatory theater troupe at Sofia University (he once talked me into participating in one of their productions). His collection of plays is titled The Importance of Not Being Earnest (i.e., not being serious), and the names of his numerous cello compositions became increasingly tongue-in-cheek over the years, moving from the more earnest Rhapsodic Improvisations of the 1970s to to the turn-of-the-21st-century cello installation Welcome, XX century, a playful retrospective embracing a plethora of 20th century musical styles and trends. And in his Capriccio per Geoffrey Dean of 2011, written to help me celebrate 20 years in Bulgaria, cellists will recognize a play on Penderecki’s Capriccio per Siegfried Palm. In a decidedly lighter vein, Roumen’s solo-cello Capriccio interweaves three distinctive melodies an another “unexpected meeting:” “Yankee Doodle,” a Bulgarian folk dance, and Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.”

I had an unexpected encounter not long ago with a fine performance (by violist Lyubomir Mitsev and cellist Dimitar Tenchev) of another of his cello pieces. Another posthumous dialogue, this one is an extended “Bachlyozovian” invention where the higher voice plays in counterpoint to Johann Sebastian Bach's first cello suite. I had never heard it before, but I remember Roumen telling me, as we walked toward the center of Sofia from BNR on an August afternoon, about his inspiration for this piece, which he was completing at the time. He had just gotten back from a visit to the villa of the Bulgarian “cello couple” of Ventzislav and Georgita Nikolov, and had been amused there by the random counterpoint of the two cellists as they practiced in different parts of the house, one communing with Bach and the other woodshedding a thorny contemporary work. Imagine my surprise when I heard Roumen’s completely consonant, exquisitely beautiful embellishment of the first Bach suite, so unlike his description of the unsynced practice sessions at the Nikolovs’ villa!

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