27 September 2015

Julius Juzeliunas: Lygumu giesmes (Simfonija Nr. 5)

This week I will be tackling one of Lithuania's most influential composers, Julius Juzeliunas. A pupil of Juozas Gruodis, Juzeliunas had a broad career as a composer, and was one of the influential figures in Sajudis which led to the foundations of the independent Lithuania we know today.  Like many composers of his generation, his music started in a romantic style with an intense focus on folklore. But as he and his music matured, he drew on modernistic trends, as well as developing his own musical systems based on his research of Lithuanian folk music like sutartines. His music in the 80s shifted to what could be interpreted as a minimalist styling, but the intriguing layering of polyphonic lines and the sprinklings of Neoclassicism show there was something more curious happening in his music during this time.  His influence in Lithuania can be also seen in his tuition. In 1952 he gained the position of head of composition in the now Lithuanian Academy of Music and Theatre, where he taught many of Lithuania's leading composers like Rytis Mazulis, Ricardas Kabelis, Felix Bajoras, Vytautas Montvila, and Onute Narbutaite.

The piece I will be Introducing is one of the first pieces of Juzeliunas I ever uncovered, his Songs Of The Plains (Symphony No. 5) (Lygumu giesmes(Simfonija nr. 5)). This curious two movement symphony is written for female choir and strings and was the piece that won Juzeliunas the inaugural Lithuanian National Prize in 1991. The opening starts off very serenely as the violins build the melodic material that circles itself. The introduction of the low strings adds an extra level of energy, with the sharp stabs. The second section is defined by the introduction of the voices, who reiterate their melody Sedauto.  Each circling of the folk song gets stronger and more energetic, until it suddenly dissipates into a section reminiscent of the opening. The fourth section is heavily focused on another folk melody treated in a manner very similar to the first. The movement continues  progressing and evolving motifs are reiterated in the string orchestra, in a way that could be seen as a link to sonata form. The 'recapitulation' comes in the form of Sedauto  being sung by the choir again, but this time only accompanied by a low B tremoloing sul ponticello,  drawing the movement to a close.

The second movement is a much shorter movement in comparison. The burst of energy, combined with the constant evolution and linear form make this a thrilling piece  listen to. The entrance of the voices in this movement starts with the altos singing, while the sopranos adding text speak theirs adding a harsh element to it. We reach a moment where we feel a moment of calm, but instantly feel the movement building more and more over time; evoking so many different colors and textures from the strings. Towards the close, motifs and ideas from the first movement reappear, it is then rudely interrupted by material that opened the movement; bringing the piece to an energetic and thrilling close.

The work is fascinating and Juzeliunas's music gets more fascinating the more you delve into it. His Cantus-Magnificat written to mark the 400th anniversary of the Vilnius university, is a large masterpiece which will amaze listeners.

Information on Juzeliunas has been sourced from the following:

CD Sleeve notes from - Julius Juzeliunas CD produced by MIC.LT (LMIPCCD010, 2000)

Lithuanian Music Information Centre

And Lygumu Giesmes manuscript.

21 September 2015

Vytautas Montvila: Gothic Poem

Welcome to another installment of Baltic musical gems. Last week I gave an introduction of the Lithuanian folk music sutartines. This week we shall be looking at how one composer drew on it. The composer is Vytautas Montvila, not to be confused with the poet of the same name. Montvila was born 1st December 1935 was not only one of the most progressive minds in composition in Lithuania, he never let go of the folk heritage of Lithuania.

After completing his studies with Juzeliunas, Montvila continued to develop his compositions by drawing on the sonoristic experiments opened up by the Warsaw festival, as well as drawing on serial techniques. These techniques always went hand in hand with folk music, either using sutartines melodies to help form tone rows, or building vast soundscapes by layering sutartines songs. 

The piece I am showing this time is his Gothic Poem. The piece is part of a triptych of works called Poems of Vilnius, this is the first element of it. The other two works in the triptych are called Choruses and Festive. Gothic Poem is a fascinating work, as it lies in a half way house between the dense sound sculptures of Penderecki and the sonorous openness of the Romanian composer Stefan Niculescu. From the onset, you hear the dense static 12 tone chord in the strings which act as a backdrop for the flute to start its melody. The changes in orchestration help define the microscopic changes in the piece. The woodwind carry most of the melodic content and overlap each other adding to the density and mysteriousness of the work. Then a sudden change in sensation, as aleatoric elements fly across the orchestra which lead to  fluttering repetitive cells in the strings, while the bassoons and clarinets introduce more surtatines melodies. 

This time the energy keeps building and building, with the addition of the brass and percussion leading ultimately to the climax of the work. The blasts from the trumpets and trombones in canon with each other, combined with the rhythmic attacks from the rest of the orchestra make this moment rather powerful indeed. The suddenly this climax slips away, into the strings. who reiterate musical ideas heard earlier in the piece. The close of the piece is heralded by the bells, ringing on as the music fades into nothing.

Structurally the work is very interesting, the shape and proportions are mirrored around the old town in Vilnius. The layering of folk melodies, combined with the dense colours make this work a rather fascinating curiosity, and is a great example of a piece which is as thoroughly modern as it is connected to tradition. Montvila was not the only composer to tackle this, in 1996 Radulescu drew on his native Romanian folk tunes in the third movement of his piano concerto, The Quest

Montvila went on to compose many works which drew upon his native music. Towards the end of his life around the late 1970s Montvila's music became more 'romantic' and sutartines became something more liberally referenced in his later works. 

The work of Vytautas Montvila is one of the many ways Lithuanian and other Baltic composers coped with the restraints put on them during the years under the Soviet Union. One key linking a lot of composers in this generation is the desire to link tradition to the now. Not just casting it off, like many western composers did post 1945. 

Information came from the Vytautas Montvila profile page on the Music Information Centre website: http://mic.lt/en/database/classical/composers/montvila/#bio

As well as from the score. 

11 September 2015

Happy Birthday Arvo Part

It is hard to discuss Baltic music without the giant Arvo Part. A composer who not only has the heavy weight title of the most famous composer in Eastern Europe, but also the most performed living composer. His music has been, and continues to be, performed worldwide and he touches audiences worldwide. I was fortunate enough to meet him at Sounds New Festival in 2010, in the crypt of Canterbury Cathedral as the Amsterdam cello octet performed a dedicated concert to him. It was also there I was lucky enough to see the premiere of Adam's Lament. As a composer, Part has had a significant influence on my work.

When it comes to Part, I am of an opinion which is rarely expressed or even considered. The opinion is this: Part is more mathematical and serial than people give him credit for. The mathematical precision of his St. John's Passion is far more akin to the work of Morton Feldman and Anton Webern. Admittedly Webern never tackled large scale structures like Feldman or Part, but there are very strong similarities. Mostly the systematic control and slow evolution of ideas. In the St. John Passion, Part manages to maintain a meditative like aura for over an hour while essentially staying in A minor. Without the systematic precision the work would fall apart into nonsense.

But A minor is a tonal idiom, why are you comparing him to Webern and serialism? Well firstly to answer this, a myth or two needs to be dispelled. Firstly serialism is not having a 12-note row and going through it without repeating notes until it is finished. You do not even have to look at late serialists or post-serialists to find this. It can be easily seen in Webern, Berg, and Schoenberg. Serialism is simply this: in tonal music the significance of a singular note is determined by the root i.e. C major. This means certain notes and chords are more important than other. In serialism the significance of a singular note is determined by the row/series. What this means is all notes are equal, a musical socialism if you will. So what you do with your row is up to you. Webern used the row in his symphony to define harmonic areas, where as Peter Schat used serialism to highlight characters of three note chords. Secondly serialism is not just using all 12 notes. Stravinsky, Balakauskas, Maxwell-Davies and many more have produced music using small note rows. So in theory a scale like A minor could be used in serial music, the difference will be how it functions. 

With these myths displaced, listening to Arvo Part's St. John Passion gains a very different and intriguing light. The music becomes like a crystal clear glacier slowly moving and evolving. The austerity of material is remarkably like Webern using only as little as need. With this Part has continued to hypnotise listeners all over the globe.
So Palju õnne sünnipäevaks Arvo Part. May you continue to mystify us all.

Dabbling with Sutartines

A lot has has happened since my last post, Firstly my sister got married and I moved into my new flat in Seskines (on the outskirts of Vilnius). Hence why it has been quite a bit here. On the plus side, I have managed to grab a good stash of scores and recordings from the Music Information Centre in Vilnius; so I will be talking about each of them over the coming weeks. But I wanted to start off dabbling with Lithuanian folk music first. At first I can imagine this is a confusing jump, considering my last articles have been about composers still alive and kicking, but it is with good reasoning. Because of the demands from the Soviets for 'social realism' in art and music, many Baltic composers resorted to exploring their countries folk music.On top of this composers like Juzeliunas, Montvila, and Kutavicius approached their national folk music in a process a kin to the early works of Peter Maxwell Davies or Harrison Birtwistle, who looked at Britain's ancient music for a fragment of 'tradition' to draw upon. 

So what is sutartines?  In a brief manner of speaking, surtatines is a Lithuanian folk music which is traditionally sung by women in groups of three or four. Sutartines translated into English essentially means 'singing together or in accordance with each other.'  The music becomes very fascinating, firstly the jarring dissonance.  The music is heavily focused around the interval of a second and a third false (a third of Halfway Between a major and a minor third).  On top of this it is structurally rather interesting, the nature of the text and the music means there is no naturally occurring cadence, in theory sutartines could last forever. As can been seen from the video below, the structure is as follows: 

Beginning (Leader starts) --------- Collecting (other sings join in) -------- Ending (Which is mad by a hoot or -ooh sound)

This structuring gives great importance to the lead singer or the rinkeja (Which literally means collector). The rinkeja will ultimately define the mood, speed, and overall character of the sutartines;  as well as bringing in the other musicians and concluding the piece. But why would a folk tune need a leader? Ultimately this links back to original sutartines function, work music. Sutartines, when originally sung, were folk melodies to accompany everyone's work; this obviously was not the case with all sutartines, some were for celebration, war or mourning, but a significant amount were. 

Sutartines also makes many cosmic references. As Daiva Račiūnaitė-Vyčinienė points out in her wonderful book Sutartines: Lithuanian polyphonic music; 'The structure of sutartines is best expressed by the symbol of a wheel'. As mentioned earlier, sutartines effectively is continuous. This roundness links back to folk symbolism where the wheel depicts the Sun, the Universe and the Universal Tree. So the music is one with the universe. To expand this further a Lithuanian riddle suddenly draws an interesting comparison: "Where is the centre of the Earth? - In the centre of the wheel". This can instantly be compared with the Buddhist ideals of 'finding the centre' but it also  highlights the curious similarity in function of sutartines and Tibetan ritual music, which also has a leader co-ordinating everything to prepare all for meditation. It is a curious similarity, but I will not go on to try and prove sutartines singers are like Buddhist monks chanting while they work, it is just always nice to reflect on interesting coincidence.

Earlier you said composers drew on sutartines, how else is the tradition being kept alive? Well ultimately sutartines enjoyed quite a remarkable renaissance in the seventies and eighties, as it became a symbol of national identity against the Soviets. Today many Lithuanians are very proud of this heritage. Ensembles like Trys Keturiose perform sutartines  in a traditional manner but still experiment by performing with many other musicians like Abraham Brody (see below). Alternatively bands like Zalvarinis bring elements of sutartines and other Lithuanian folk music into their heavy metal music. 

So as can been seen from this brief introduction, sutartines is as pinnacle to Lithuanian music as Mozart is to western classical music; it exists as it is, because of it. As for the future of sutartines, its future seems bright and will continue to be so as long as it is seen as a symbol of Lithuanian identity, but as the world becomes more globalised how will it affect its national identity?

Sources from

Daiva Raciunaite-Vyciniene - Sutartines: Lithuanian Polyphonic Music - A Cosmic Explanation of the Role of the Sutartines and the Lead Singer

Youtube for recordings of Trys Keturiose and Zalvarinis.