Slezni, slezni male mome (Bulgarian trad. arranged by Laurel Isbister Irby)

Last month I wrote a post about a Bulgarian composer, Ivan Spassov, who was one of my mentors during the academic year I lived in Bulgaria. Today I’m sharing an arrangement I worked out that fall while I was working with him. The song is a very simple melody with a complex, additive meter of 11/8 + 7/8. I still recall the happy surprise on Spassov’s face when I chose to move the melodic contour to a c-natural rather than c-sharp in the second section. He smiled at me, like, hey, maybe you do have potential after all!

This version is from a recording produced by Superdevoiche, a Bulgarian women’s choir at UCLA that I founded in 1999 when I was a graduate student there.


Scars & the Stories They Tell (Thank you, Gospodin Spassov)


A few weeks ago I was in a difficult accident involving my bicycle, a pile of gravel and a right turn that never was completed. Before I could even react to the spin of my wheel in the gravel, I was face down hard on the concrete street near my house. Quickly I staggered up, headed home and then on to the E.R. with my partner, Daniel. At the hospital the doctor slowly pulled one of my teeth out of a gash in my lip, cleared gravel out of my grated mouth and other road rash areas, informed me that I had broken a tooth, and then, finally, stitched up a big gash on my knee and let me go home.

As I contemplate the slowly healing slice on my right knee – free of stitches, yet still not closed up, still open and showing my gooey insides to the world – I find myself thinking about Ivan Spassov, the Bulgarian composer who, for a few months in late 1996, guided me in music composition, and in life. The reason I think of him is because of a conversation we had one time, about scars.

Spassov was one of the best men I’ve ever known. He survived the untimely death of his daughter and continued to embrace life. He directed one of the top conservatories in Bulgaria and wrote brilliant music up until the weeks before his death of a heart attack in late 1996. It was my great fortune that in 1996 I was in Plovdiv, Bulgaria, studying music at the conservatory Mr. Spassov directed, as part of my research for a Fulbright Grant. Right from the start he was gracious and friendly to me. We sat, week after week, at the piano in his large office. He’d often smoke a cigarette as we talked, and occasionally he’d perch the filter end onto the piano with the smoking end out over the keys. My eyes would watch the smoke as he demonstrated harmonic ideas and compositional transitions. I would distractedly monitor the ash as it became longer and longer – surely it would drop onto the piano keys soon. But it never did.

Spassov had studied modern music composition in Bulgaria and in Poland and wrote and conducted a wide array of arrangements and compositions. “During his time in Poland Spassov learned and mastered serial techniques, and was the first Bulgarian composer to employ aleatoric devices and graphic notation.” (  During our tutorials we talked mostly about music and occasionally about life, too.

One day I came in to my lesson a bit upset.  The weekend before I had been shopping in Sofia in a large crowd. Someone tried to steal my wallet by taking a knife to my bag. Though she didn’t get my wallet, the knife left a huge rip in the bottom of the bag. I had sewed the rip up but it left a long scar. I showed the fabric scar to Mr. Spassov (or, Gospodin Spassov, as I called him in Bulgarian). I said, “The bag was special as it was sewn for me by my grandmother. And now it’s ruined with this big scar!”

“Ruined!” he exclaimed, “Nonsense! It’s not ruined. It’s not ruined at all.” He looked keenly at me, as he did when he really wanted his point to sink in. “Scars,” he said, “become stories. Scars are how we show we are alive. It makes the story richer. Don’t feel this is ruined at all!”

It’s been close to 20 years since he told me that, but it resonates in me like a truth that can’t be denied. Life without scars isn’t really life at all. Or, if anything, it is the new life of a baby before the scars that will come begin. I think of Spassov as I look at the new scar forming on my knee this week. The scar that will tell the story of my bicycle accident in the summer of 2013, and of the doctors who stitched it up, and of Daniel who held my hand, and of my fantastic skin and cells that healed it.

Thank you, Gospodin Spassov.

Your former student,

Laurel Isbister Irby

More about Ivan Spassov: