Continuing from my profile of the work of Amity Cadet, I thought I would focus on another artist, once legendary, now only known by a fraction of their life’s work.
Unlike Amity Cadet, however, Ana Olgica is represeneted on Spotify by not one, but two works. Here, from YouTube, is “Sugarcane”:
On 7th September 1968, the Venice Film Festival was concluding, with the Golden Lion being awarded to Artists Under the Big Top: Perplexed directed by the West German philosopher Alexander Kluge. In New York, an organisation called New York Radical Women organised a protest against the Miss America pageant that seared the practice of bra-burning into the public consciousness. Elsewhere in New York, the New Yorker on that date published George Steiner‘s essay “A Death of Kings”
Steiner’s essay begins:
“There are three intellectual pursuits, and so far as I am aware, only three, in which human beings have performed major feats before the age of puberty. They are music, mathematics, and chess. Mozart wrote music of undoubted competence and charm before he was eight. At the age of three, Karl Friedrich Gauss reportedly performed numerical computations of some intricacy; he proved himself a prodigiously rapid but also a fairly deep arithmetician before he was ten. In his twelfth year, Paul Morphy routed all comers in New Orleans – no small feat in a city that, a hundred years ago, counted several formidable chess players. Are we dealing here with some kind of elaborate imitative reflexes, with achievements conceivably in reach of automata? Or do these wondrous miniature beings actually create?”
As it happened, 7th September 1968, in the city of Novi Sad, in what was then the Socialist Republic of Serbia, which was a constituent republic of what was then the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, a baby girl was born who would become known to the world as Ana Olgica. And she would perform major feats in all three “intellectual pursuits” Steiner identified.
Her real name, and her parentage, are unknown. Rumours would abound in the Belgrade of the later 1970s. They were university professors, demoted in the aftermath of the 1968 student protests in Belgrade. Or they were in some way linked to Tito’s inner circle. She made public appearances alone, without reference to a mother or a father.
At the age of five, Olgica performed on a Belgrade stage, playing over fourteen nights Beethoven’s complete piano sonatas. At the age of six, she defeated Boris Spassky – still, perhaps still, perhaps, not quite recovered from his defeat by Bobby Fischer in the famous 1972 World Championship, in a ten game series held in Rome. At the age of seven, she delivered a paper On the stability of the linear mapping in Banach spaces to the American Academy of Sciences.
With an infectious smile, Ana became a propaganda fixture of the latter days of the Tito regime. This deflected somewhat from her gargantuan talents. Furthermore, there was continual speculation that some kind of trickery was involved. Never mind that she played music and chess in exactly the same conditions as any one else, or that her mathematical papers were subject the the full rigour of the worldwide mathematical community’s review. What did she herself think of this suspicion? Her warm smile and sunny demeanour on stage seemed to suggest that she was at ease. But no press interviews were ever allowed; not even with supine Yugoslav state media.
As the 1970s progressed, the world seemed to tire of the precocious girl. Like so many prodigies, what seemed initially miraculous soon became ho-hum, run of the mill. Just as the world reacted with wonder at Neil Armstrong’s walk on the moon but the stupendous achievement of Apollo was met with more and more indifference, Ana Olgica continued to excel in her three areas to be greeted by international indifference. The Yugoslav state would send her on visits to various nations, during which she would perform the most challenging works in the repertoire on the piano, deliver a mathematical paper to a suitably eminent audience, and beat a Grandmaster in an exhibition. This schedule did not vary. In the later 1970s, Ana Olgica did not appear in public at all.
It was May 4th 1984, three years to the day after the death of Tito, that Ana Olgica reappeared to the world. She released a record, a single entitled “Sugarcane.” Yugoslavia, more Western-leaning than the Warsaw Pact, had something of a music industry, and through this the mysterious, placid, self-contained “Sugarcane” was released. It would become an hit in Yugoslavia, Norway, Belgium and San Marino. And Ana was as inaccessible to the media as ever. Now 15, there were no publicly available photos. Rumours spread that she was the cover for a German disco producer’s dabbling in the new ambient style.
Over the rest of the 1980s, a torrent of Ana Olgica works followed. They followed a similar style to “Sugarcane”, but utilised a bewildering range of solo instrumentation. Pipe organ, harpsichord, cello, double bass, trombone, tuba, glass harmonica, gamelan, french horn, oboe, bassoon, violin, violin, steel drum, xylophone, theremin, trumpet, flute, guitar, accordion, banjo, ukelele, bass drum… all were used individually, to create a world of gentle, yet flowing enchantment. These albums came out via the Belka Tashmaydan label, and achieved milestones internationally. The first commercially available CD in New Zealand was her “Glowing”, recorded entirely on hammered dulcimer. The highest selling album in Japan in 1988 was her “Panoply”, recorded on Northumberland bagpipes. A recording of her piece “Smoothness”, recorded on Fife drum, was launched into space aboard the space probe Galileo.
And then Yugoslavia broke up. Even more obscure than the obscurity of Ana’s prior years is what happened over the next decade. It is as if the stage were in shadow, and suddenly a kind of reverse spotlight thrust her into deeper darkness. What did happen is that Belka Tashmaydan became the subject of UN sanctions, and in the aftermath of these it transpired the company was being used to launder money from the heroin trade in Milan. The assets of Belka Tashmaydan, including the Ana Olgica recordings, remain in a legal limbo, and her albums of the 1980s cannot be released, or even mentioned, due to ongoing cases in the courts of eleven countries.
So her songs go unheard. Except “Sugarcane”, which was not released by Belka Tashmaydan, and one more song which appeared in 2000, just after the fall of Slobodan Milosevic. “Atoms” is a song of quiet devastation, with a sense of loss that both sums up and transcends its historical moment. Ana Olgica may record again, but in “Atoms” she achieved a summation of all her musical work before. In a way, to hear “Atoms” and “Sugarcane” is to hear all her vast, eternal output, and to recognise that here was one prodigy who survived the crushing expectations of a demanding state and jaded global public to achieve a measure of peace.