Meeting 2CELLOS (Stjepan Hauser and Luka Sulic) in New Orleans
On October 30th at 4.30pm, I met with global cellist star duo Stjepan Hauser and Luka Sulic of 2CELLOS at the newly-renovated The Civic theater in New Orleans. I first saw 2CELLOS perform in my hometown Osijek, Croatia earlier this year in June, and learned from them after the Osijek concert that they are to perform here.
Luka and Stjepan, citizens of my native Croatia, kindly granted a 15 minute interview, so I can ask questions related to my research on short film and child performers used in the Special Topics course I teach at Tulane's School of Continuing Studies this Fall. I show their viral video at the end of the course as students try to define what short film is today.
Spicmiler-Lewis (introducing herself to 2CELLOS):
I am teaching a course on "Short Film and Music Video", subtitled Cultural Landscape of Child Stardom, at Tulane University's School of Continuing Studies. My students and I are looking at child stars and child performers starting with Diana Serra-Carey, but focusing in the first half of the course on Charlie Chaplin who mastered the art of silent short and long film, and later sound film. Another American and globally renown child performer Michael Jackson was influenced by Charlie Chaplin's vision of short films in terms of cinematography, choreography, and also the concept of musical composition being interwoven with film's narrative.
Sulic: I did not know Chaplin was also a composer.
Hauser: You didn't know? I knew. He wrote music for some of his films. You know that song "Smile"?
Spicmiler-Lewis: Good then, we can view this as a mutually teaching interview! It is good to be learning new things.
I was exploring these Chaplin-Jackson connections since Michael Jackson has passed away because of my interest in his terming his music videos "Short Films" and insisting they be viewed as a special genre. I also decided to explore the Jackson legacy in relation to film because of a lack of academic material I could reference when students were asking me questions about him as an artist (or as a recognized yet often mystified American citizen) over many years of teaching subjects relating to writing and popular culture. This research proved difficult because of the endless controversies surrounding Jackson according to both reputable and ill-reputed press channels, but became more possible as much primary documentation became globally available through the internet, allowing for a researcher's deeper comprehension of his intent as an artist and him as a person. I was also intrigued by Jackson's uneven reception domestically and abroad. It appeared that in US, the full acknowledgement of not only his musical and choreographic or showmanship mastery, or eclectic mixing of genre, but also of his visual, cinematic, and marketing genius was slower to come than abroad.
Hauser: I am a marketing genius, too. (Sulic laughs)
Spicmiler-Lewis: You certainly are. So, coming from teaching this course, are my questions pertaining to your musical breakthrough with a cello arrangement of Jackson's "Smooth Criminal" and through the viral short film that presented your dynamic number in both an effective visual, narrative, and musical statement.
I define the short film today, as used by younger generations showcasing their talent in the online media as a tool of a) self expression, b) self promotion, and c) interpretation. I read your recently published book The Big Bang in Croatian and the book gave me an idea of how your video evolved as a project as not entirely authored by you. However, I see several of classic Jackson themes in your Smooth Criminal short film (beyond how the videographer explains his pre-recording concept) that I would like to ask you more about.
Is there anything more you would like to say about the concept for the video that would be of interest to college audiences and that is not in the book about your musical lives, your families, and your post Smooth Criminal success? Also, how do you view the medium 'short film' as a means of expressing what you are trying to do musically?
Sulic: As you said before, we do view it as means of self-expression and self-promotion but also suggested interpretation. What is your more specific question about the video?
Spicmiler-Lewis You said that when you conceived the "Smooth Criminal" other collaborators participated and contributed ideas. But would you say that the main idea is still mostly yours, since it fits so perfectly with your musical arrangement of intense but fair competition between two masters? In other words, emotions in your music perfectly match certain themes of the video that resonate with Jackson--competition, 'the girl is mine' type of duel, ...
Sulic: The main concept was Kiki's (the videographer's) idea actually.
Hauser: Yes, ...
Spicmiler-Lewis: In that case, can we safely assume that your expert videographer may have studied several Jackson's short films (not necessarily just his famous "Smooth Criminal" number from the Moonwalker) prior to conceiving of your video? I see a little of the idea from Jackson-McCartney duet "The Girl is Mine" as well.
Hauser: Kiki was not an expert; this was his first video.
Sulic: But yes, the "Smooth Criminal" original video does contain elements of a battle or confrontation, it does take place in a bar, and ours is also in a bar, not as big and fancy bar as Jackson's, but it is ours, ...
Hauser: ... and cute!
Spicmiler-Lewis: Yet beyond "Smooth Criminal," I feel that it resonates with another musical number and short film staged as a confrontation that ends well -- "Beat It"!
Sulic and Spicmiler-Lewis (in the same voice): Yes, and "Bad" !
Spicmiler-Lewis: So I am asking can I safely credit these Jackson references as partly your thematic intent, not just the videographer's?
Hauser: Yes, it is a fight. But we fight through art, not violence. Art replaces violence. In Jackson's case, the fight is through dance (and singing) and in ours, through our passionate playing, through our instruments, two cellos.
Spicmiler-Lewis: Thank you! Also, the video suggests, physical violence or rivalry is also not cool with girls. I am glad you say this because your other interviews rarely if at all refer to other Jackson films or songs that relate.
This leads to my next question's subject -- your level of mastery using your talent and obviously your lifelong dedication to perfecting your skill with the instrument. You obviously had to have the parents and families who recognized your talent, who fostered it, as we know that they have, and then also to carry you through and support you to where you are now.
Luka, how would you describe your childhood as different than Stjepan's in the context of your family and your family's musical legacy?
Sulic: Well, we both do come from musical families. To both of us, family support was the most important thing.
Spicmiler-Lewis: Are you saying it was really helpful to you that your family members were also involved with music-making, as opposed to other families of child prodigies (musicians, dancers, actors) who may have acted only as managers of their child's talent, as in Jackson's case?
Sulic: Of course! It always helps. But Jackson's family was also involved with music.
Spicmiler-Lewis: Yes, all his siblings were, but I am talking about the parents who flirted with musical careers but never pursued them once the children were brought into the business.
Hauser to Sulic: I think Sanda means that his father was beating him (and them) and such...they were driven by the father.
Spicmiler-Lewis: Yes, I mean that Jackson has complained on numerous occasions that he never knew his father and that his father was too much of a manger and never a nurturing presence a talented performing child would need and want also. Although both you and your parents had to subject yourselves to rigorous discipline throughout your training, do you feel like you know your parents as parents as well, not just helpers toward your careers?
Hauser: Yes, of course. We had real parents, nothing to do with business. They were not involved in any way with that.
Sulic: Perhaps this is also because ours was a totally different world, a classical music world.
Hauser: I disagree. There are known piano and violin players' parents who drove their kids to success like crazy, even broke their careers. Our parents were never like that. My parents were never like that.
They were worried, in my case, for my health, because I was obsessively into this instrument. But they respected and understood what I wanted...
Spicmiler-Lewis: So, you are saying that you feel happy or lucky because nothing was imposed on you; you knew what YOU wanted to do, you felt free and was happy to pursue your talents, happy with what you do...
Sulic: ...but of course, we were guided. When you are young you have to be guided by your parents. We were guided well, so no suffering. We were guided in a healthy way, with a healthy balance between love and work. Nothing sick, you know.
Spicmiler-Lewis: This seems to have also been a message behind Jackson's exposure of his father's cruelty: it appears he wanted to invite other parents into both promoting their children's talent and loving them, being there for them, not burdening them.
Jackson also evolved in the competitive market of the music industry, where money was synonymous with success. The classical music market in Europe seems rather competitive in a different way, more through awards and prestige, scholarships, not acquiring wealth. There are many who pursue classical music in Croatia or Slovenia and there is much talent. Yet the two of you spring out frm that world and manage to stand out.
Sulic: Yes, but the problem with classical music world in the west is that there is no real fan base; there is at a the certain level, but until you get there, you have to go through so many different channels, ou have to know many, different people, conductors, artistic directors, word of mouth, and alike, you know...
So we thought, we are only two guys from Croatia with no real connections, we will never make it. The only thing that can save us, is the fan base. And today, fan base means amount of views on You Tube, posts on social media and alike,...
Hauser: ...something that shows that people dig it. Social media were crucial for our breakthrough. And they still help us...
Spicmiler-Lewis: I see another Jackson parallel question here, as I also study fan communities. I encourage students to see how fan-communities operate as an extension of an artist, in Jackson's case especially so since his passing, as fans become almost interpreters and advocates of his art, celebrators of his life, and because of the muckraker journalism that defamed him so unfairly, some fans see themselves as helping rewrite distorted history.
I learned that Jackson (and 'Jackson 5' or 'The Jacksons') has always had the most incredible and globally organized fan base, prior to social media, to some extent also due to investing in promotion and due to clever merchandizing. However precisely thanks to social media, he also has a growing base of new fans who become that precisely because social media allow dissemination of information otherwise not available through traditional news channels.
For instance, just one of the many Facebook organizations titled "UKlovesMJ" is of such high quality as a database organized by professional librarians or archivists. So fan base is not just an emotional, biased community that promotes the artist they love, but becomes a chronicling and educational tool that documents the wider social phenomenon of how the performing artist affects human lives on many levels. This site for example has witness accounts of fans' encounters with Jackson, documents events misreported or distorted by the media, has testimonies focusing just on what his music has meant to them personally, how he conducted himself with fans or celebrity friends alike through other, not necessarily musical/performing encounters, and it also features different forms of art that he inspires in others (photography, drawing, painting, interior design, fashion, mural art, etc.)
I see each such well-run website or facebook organization or You Tube collaboration videos as a huge global scrapbook of love.
I know that in his case, there was an organized effort within different organizations within his enterprise, to cultivate fan-merchandizing and fan-communication almost as a business, however after his death, such databases sprung up spontaneously from the fans themselves and to me show a measure of artistic impact that is just as important to witness if not more so, than the 'official' representations of Jackson's significance like how many records he set, how much money he generated, and alike.
In your case, I wonder whether you are aware that you find yourselves in a unique position to affect countless lives with your success and life-stories, not just your music, as you have this global visibility. You are undoubtedly inspiring very young to play your instrument, or those playing the instrument to reinvent what can be done with it. Do you have time to think about things like cultivating and expanding your fan base in some more immediate or systematic ways other that what you are already doing through Facebook, Twitter, and You Tube [posting new concert videos, announcing new projects, commenting on fan art, volunteering snapshots of your travels, etc]? Or do you think that how your fan base grows is a part of random cosmic unfolding of events since your breakthrough, that you are at the center of it, but need not necessarily work to maintain it?
Sulic: Well, our fanbase is constantly growing. We are focused on our art and making ourselves as available as we can, performing in many different places, big and small. We use social media to show fans how much we appreciate them. We see that fans are connecting with each other, doing it themselves, organizing, sometimes becoming friends, doing a website like everything2cellos.com, creating and posting fan art on Facebook, posting creative videos on You Tube and alike. We don't know what can happen, we will see.
Spicmiler-Lewis: So, you are welcoming all those activates, even 2CELLOS fan humor.
Hauser: Of course!
Spicmiler-Lewis: For some people, you know, the word "fan" carries negative connotations, as in "fan-atic" or "people who don't have a life" and thus live a substitute life through an artist they adulate and follow, ...
Hauser: ...or fantasize about...[chuckles]
Spicmiler-Lewis: Or, there is a connotation of 'fickleness' where fans may drop you from the horizon when the next more exciting art act becomes their main obsession. But I feel that your fan base is unique in that it also attracts attention to where you come from and sparks interest in the historical region that is relatively unknown in other parts of the world (other than through its negative association with the 'Balkan Wars' of 1990-1994 when Yugoslavia fell apart).
I am wondering: Do you feel pressured because you come from Croatia to promote a certain national image, or to be aware of that in guarding your behavior, or do you also feel free to express yourselves as individuals, citizens of the world, which you also are since some of your education and forming into young adults you are now, took place abroad?
Sulic: So far, we haven't had any problems. What we achieved was mostly because of us and our families, teachers, not because of the country.
Hauser: We don't feel that we owe our success to anyone or anything.
Sulic: For instance, I am part-Slovenian. At a certain point, they were fighting over who 'owns' me, Slovenia or Croatia. I am proud of my mom, who is Slovenian, so I feel I belong equally to both countries. [Sulic speaks Croatian, Slovenian, Italian, some German, and English]. Yet it is still nice when you see Croatian people being proud of your success; it gives you a warm feeling. But we would never politicize what we do and what we love.
Spicmiler-Lewis; Yes, and you seem to expand that sense of pride in your success by association in other parts of former Yugoslavia, like Bosnia, where you are also visiting to perform and find yourselves welcome!
Hauser: It is MUSIC!
Sulic: But here it is different, in United States, you know? People can have their differences and it is not a big deal whether you support Obama or another candidate or president, life goes on, peacefully and people get along despite differences. In Croatia, the politics is still much more complex, because of the complicated history.
Sulic: But we would never play for just a certain political party, for money, or anything like that. Or endorsements.
Hauser [sarcastically]: I would do anything for money. [Hauser, Sulic, Spicmiler-Lewis laughing at the obvious joke.]
Sulic: If we 'sold out,' we wouldn't be 2CELLOS any more.
Spicmiler-Lewis: Exactly. I am happy to hear that. Since I said this can be a 'teaching interview,' I wanted to tell you just a little about my own heritage. I have some Austrian, some Hungarian, Romanian-Hungarian, German, Czech, and a little bit of Croatian background in my ancestry, so when Yugoslavia was falling apart and I was around 27-28 at the time, your age, it was very difficult for me for a number of years to maintain a healthy sense of my identity, explain myself to my friends here in US where I was already living at the time. When I traveled home after the war, it was almost a 'crime' to use certain words if they stemmed from other former Yugoslav languages, anything that was not whatever was considered pure Croatian, as the new government was establishing itself through this 'purged' language.
Sulic and Hauser: Yes, we know.
Spicmiler-Lewis: So I refrained going home for a while, because it was just too traumatic for me to visit and experience further fragmentation in this shrunken place now called home. Although physical war was over, each visit I felt like I was reopening the emotional and psychological wounds of war that were mining my heart and my mind and making it difficult to feel whole and also function in my life here in US. So I focused on my work here, built a life here and now feel more comfortably belonging 'here' than 'there,' I repressed anything that culturally associated me with my former life as even music and other film were 'butchered' art forms in that sense, split between and claimed by different new countries of former Yugoslavia. I worked hard on fully acculturating here and forgetting. But I must give the two of you credit for helping me as well...
Sulic [interrupts]: Actually, when you come to America, when you look at this place from a distance, how life unfolds, everything looks so harmonious, and what happened there does not make much sense. And that is what I love about America, that no matter who you are or where you come from, you can do something original,...
Spicmiler-Lewis: ...you mean you do not feel prejudged?
Hauser: Yeah, you feel welcome.
Sulic: And even though you are from Croatia, you also feel right at home.
Spicmiler-Lewis: Would you also say your distinctness is celebrated? Uniqueness is welcomed rather than quenched?
Sulic: Yes, but if you come from another Western European country, Germany for instance, it's already different than America.
Spicmiler-Lewis: Identities are more classified or perceived by national origin, you would say? You are perceived as coming from somewhere else?
Sulic: Yes, you are seen by some preset assumptions. But here is that wonderful feeling of being seen by what you are doing, and you know you can make it if you are good at what you do.
Hauser: We are aware of that, how much we mean to fans. It adds more meaning to everything we do.
Spicmiler-Lewis: Thank you for being so candid and generous with your time. I would like to close this interview with my gift to you, as we said we can consider it a mutually teaching interview.
As Stjepan has already hinted, music had always traditionally had that power, to unite, to transcend national, cultural, or ethnic differences, to unite across differences, possibly even generational. Yet how this power plays itself out through each generation is different.
For me, the meaning has a more personal healing effect. Because of the form of cultural dismemberment of my past, so to speak, when even certain songs from other areas of former Yugoslavia were not to be sung and performed because they were demonized as Yugo-nostalgia, because we were expected in war’s immediate aftermath to be only pro-censored-Croatia, it was hard for me to explain to my fellow American co-citizens here after the war, that I come from a place with rich culture and history and that my personal past is not associated with forces imposing a narrow limited perspective of what it means to be from that region and also from a country that no longer exists politically. It was hard to explain a love for a song (or a poet, or a film) from Serbia or Bosnia and at the same time not be confusing people either there or here. For some in Croatia, or here in US, it is also difficult to understand a bi-continental existence, a life of belonging to two places at once, although America is my chosen place to fully belong to and build my future life in.
However, since your breakthrough, I must admit that for the first time since the war, I can safely feel proud of the region I come from, which includes but is not limited to Croatia and extends to Slovenia, Serbia, Macedonia or any other parts of former Yugoslavia I may not even have been to physically. I can shares something truly positive from the Balkan region, which up to now was associated with narrow-mindedness, war, pretty coastline, and maybe a random sports celebrity. However because you also reinterpret and perform American or British or Italian pop or rock, or a Japanese piece, you create a truly universal transcendence amongst Eastern and Western cultures, and between 'high' art of classical and 'low' art of popular music. You help me bridge all types of artificial ‘divides’ and feel whole once again in embracing my new self. Thank you for that!
Sulic: You are welcome.
Spicmiler-Lewis: Back to your other fans, who must have different personal reactions to what you do, do you hear any testimonies where they attribute your work with healing, or with love you inspired in them to do things for each other, as families, and alike, or that empower them individually? For example I met two of your fans from Louisiana through Facebook, a mother whose son is treating her to your concert for her birthday, and they are both equally excited, as if they were the same age.
Sulic: Yes, all the time. A day before yesterday, for instance, a lady drove her young daughter from New Mexico to Florida just to hear us play and to give us this stone [Luka produces a small round blue lapis lazuli stone out of his shorts' pocket] and shows it to me. The girl was five years old, just a baby, and she rode with her mom for nine hours. Can you imagine that? She's just a kid from New Mexico. And her mother drove her for nine hours, a long ride for a small kid just to see a concert. That is amazing to me!
Spicmiler-Lewis: Wow. Let me add to this list of 'miracles,' that my 88-year-old father walked quite a way and climbed four flights of stairs in Osijek, Croatia, just to see you play, 10 days after he suffered a minor stroke. And he is a retired actor who only goes to theater performances, not musical concerts!
At this point, the duo’s on tour drummer Dusan Kranjc is about to finish his sound check and noises from the auditorium spill into The Civic bar lounge where I interviewed Luka and Stjepan, the two casually sitting on tables that were later used for the post-concert signing event. As the tour manager opens the door and motions, duty calls and they both spring to their feet.
Luka admits he is hungry and we agree to end our brief encounter. I thank the artists for being generous with their time and present my small tokes of appreciation--alligator Christmas tree ornaments--small mementos of their first New Orleans concert and a modest enticement for a 'home Christmas' that I wish for them after the tour. They react with boyish glee and Stjepan promises to place his on the tree. Both also devour a package of Croatian taffy candy “Ki-Ki” which I brought imagining they may be homesick this far into the US tour that started this fall, right after they toured Croatia, Bosnia, and Europe. I inform them they have 10 new fans in the audience by my invite, some the students from my course, and I promise that we will dance, when they begin rocking the house, as I already know they welcome toward the end of their performances. I also present them with Tulane University SCS t-shirts, hoping they will have a bigger following from Tulane when they return to New Orleans on their next US tour. They smile one last time, thank politely and vanish to prepare.
Read my comparison of two concerts in my next blog: "From Osijek to New Orleans: 2CELLOS Two Times" (Not yet published)
For assistance with this project, special thanks to:
Michael Pidgeon who granted the interview; Monica Sill Caminita for transportation and becoming an instant fan; Carrie Lee Schwartz and KayMcLennan for blog assistance; Celeste Uzee for special gifts; Ms. Kardas and Ms. Papa for concert tickets. Additional thanks to 2CELLOS fans Katerina (US), Mateja (Croatia), Chieko (Japan), and Kazumi (Japan) who have helped as online research assistants and kept me up to date on all 2CELLOS news, activities and literature in the past year.