3 October 2015

Bronius Kutavicius: The Gates of Jerusalem

Momentum is really picking up here in Vilnius, and I have gathered so many gems to discuss I've struggled to work out the order to present them in. But when I woke up today I had to discuss Bronius Kutavicius. It would be impossible to discuss the world of Lithuanian music, without looking at Kutavicius. Born in 1932, Kutavicius has been a prominent figure for an incredible amount of time. In the 1960s he was dabbling with the same kind of experiments many other composers were tackling, but he soon turned to a different standpoint. His fascination with language, ritual, and ancient architecture led him to create a music which emulated these factors, because of this many commentators on his work often refer to him as an archaeologist. Similarly to composers like Montvila or Juzeliunas, Kutavicius draws a lot from Lithuania's ancient folklore, mythology and folk music; but in comparison to Montvila or Juzeliunas, the desire is to tap into this musical world entirely, instead of translating it for classical audiences. This gives Kutavicius's music a brutal and archaic landscape, which still hypnotises, much like sutartines or Tibetan monastic music.

Commentators on Kutavicius try to pigeon hole him into either 'minimalism' or 'new spirituality'. Both of these labels ultimately miss the point entirely, simply because the motivations are almost completely separate. 'Minimalism' as a way of describing Kutavicius, is flawed in the basic fact that the music isn't repetitive to make it simple or approachable, the repetitions in Kutavicius's work are for ritualistic purposes, just like sutartines isn't minimalism, Kutavicius isn't minimalism. The issue with 'new spirituality' as a term is it either implies a 'new age' spiritual thinking, or treating spirituality as a novelty or musical niche. This is quite degrading to all composers who get that label slapped onto their work. Spirituality has been linked to the development of music for over one thousand years, so to draw on spirituality is simply traditional. Also by the kind of logic, shouldn't Kutavicius be 'old spirituality'? as he draws on pre-Christian religions.

I digress, the piece in question I want to focus on is his large scale work 'Gates of Jerusalem'. Written in 1995 the piece reflects a quotation from Revelations, 21:9-13:

Then one of the seven angels(...)showed me the holy city of Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God. (...) It has a great, high wall, with twelve gates (...) on the east three gates, on the north three gates, on the south three gates, and on the west three gates

The work is a four movement work, for each major point on the compass, and each movement divides into three sections. So there is a definitive musical section for each of the twelve gates. The work was originally conceived for piano, but the composer felt a single piano ultimately lacked what needed to be created, so a work for orchestra and choir was born. 

The first movement is the Eastern Gates. Musically it references Japan, with its echos of Gagaku (Japanese traditional music) and imitations of traditional instruments like piano strings being struck to emulate the koto. The movement also references the importance of Zen Buddhism and Haiku by quoting Buson's haiku:

To the west will spread the moonlight, and the shadows of flowers - to the East.

The next movement is the Northern Gates. Which references two major elements, Shamanism and Northern European composers like Sibelius or Nielsen. The reflection on Shamanism is revealed through the use of large drum and chanting. And the references to Sibelius and Nielsen come in the form of a 'Northern Fugue'

The Southern Gates is an extreme juxtaposition to the previous movement. The use of layered polyphonic rhythms and melodies drawing on African or Oceanic tribes makes this an extremely exciting movement. The drive and pulsations are as hypnotic as they are energetic. 

The final movement the Western Gates looks to Western Europe. The movement is subtitled Stabat Mater and it is based on the canonical text. The conclusion of the movement and the work on the  word Amen, has the overtly spiritual overtone of almost having prayers answered.

The careful consideration of many different spiritualities, cultures, and musical idioms in this work make it quite a powerful poly-religious oratorio. In much the same way John Taverner or Arvo Part's music tries to bring others to spirituality through crystalline music, Kutavicius brings the audience to spirituality by simply addressing all peoples.

This wonderful piece can be heard here on spotify performed by Donata Katkus and his St. Christopher Chamber Orchestra, as well as the Aidija Chamber Choir under the guidance of Romualdas Grazinis. And thankfully now more and more recordings of Kutavicius's work are appearing like the recently released Hyperion recording of Kutavicius's 'The Seasons'.

Information gathered from

Music Information Centre Lithuania

Sleeve notes on The Gates of Jerusalem CD by Linas Paulauskis

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