8 April 2016

Zoom In

Last week I waffled about the wonderful Jurgis Maciunas CD I finally managed to get a copy of. This week is similar as I am going to be discussing another CD I received last week, Zoom in 11. The Zoom In... series was set up in 2002 by the Lithuanian Music Information Centre. Every year a CD is produced which features multiple composers from all walks of life in Lithuania. The selected works throughout the years are often pieces that received rewards or major critical acclaim in the year they were written.

I have been slowly gathering these CDs over the years, my current stash includes Zoom in 5,6,7,9,10, and now 11. These have been a wonderful eye opener for me over the years. Many of the giants in the musical landscape have been featured over the years. The production of these CDs are definitely an honourable venture as it promotes the newest pieces of music being written currently. Particularly when it comes to the production of CDs of contemporary music, the releases are often 10 years after the work is finished; or far worse, especially when you hunt for more obscure names.

This year's edition, Zoom in 11, features seven composers with works premiered in 2014. 

First on the disc is the giant Osvaldas Balakauskas (1937), his Prayer for Maidan was composed mostly out of his personal reaction to the unfolding events in Ukraine. Balakauskas's connection to Ukraine is very long standing, mostly from the fact he himself studied composition there. Prayer for Maidan is a powerful and gut churning work for string orchestra. Full of potency and beauty, once again Balakauskas proves why he is so important to the musical landscape here.

The next work is Fragments for symphony orchestra by Julius Aglinskas (1988), I was extremely positive of his solo piano work that was featured in the Gothic Hall Concert last month. This work is also equally impressive. Whereas the last work I commented on was more akin to Feldman, Fragments is remarkably similar to Howard Skempton or early works by Hans Abrahamsen like Walden. The circling piano chords build and grow organically into a really moving and modest work for orchestra. I am now beginning to be curious about what a large scale work by Julius Aglinskas would sound like? I have a sneaking suspicion it will be quite remarkable.

The following recording is by Rita Maciliunaite (1985), this is my first encounter with this composer, her work Autumn.Calendar Leaves is for mezzo-soprano and string trio. The work is based on texts by Kristijonas Donelaitis and Indre Valantinaite. The songs a pretty still and dark, with a great sense of melancholy, the glittering of certain colours against the purity of the vocal melody produces some really beautiful moments. But I find this work falls apart very quickly with sudden sharp gestures breaking the mood, almost just so it can sound 'modern'. Not the most remarkable of works, but there is potential in this composer, I wonder what other works by her sound like.

Then comes a short work by the British based Egidija Medeksaite (1979). She is a composer who has been enjoying a growing success in Lithuania, with appearences in the GAIDA festival and appearing multiple times on the Zoom in.. series. The featured work Sandhi Prakash, like many works by the composer, draws on Indian philosophy and Indian musical language. The rolling string lines move around, growing from a small point moving outwards. Everything line is filled with lots of tremolandi and other extended colours. But like many works by Medeskaite, the connection to the philosophy seems vague at best, and the connection to the tradition always feels more like exoticism than just working with the musical language. Literally every time I listen to a work by her I hear the comments I can only imagine Param Vir would make. Like I said in the performance of her work in GAIDA, she has to go beyond just trying to sound new, she needs to write something that holds up without depending on the philosophy for it to make sense, her craft needs to be the solid foundation of everything, and instead we get hypnotic soundscapes which are a diet Ligeti and just ultimately bore me; when the idea and the language has the potential to truly inspire and leave me in awe.

The fifth work to be featured on the disc is Jurgis Jarasius (1986) Acchor'deo. The keen observers here will know I commented on the purely electronic rendition of the work a few weeks ago and was content with what I heard. The music made sense, it sounds pretty, is modest, direct and works. The rendition featured on Zoom in 11 is the original intended rendition for string orchestra and electronics. The first thing I notice when it is played on the string instruments how much it sounds like Balakauskas. The electronic sounds interacting with the orchestra are very akin to Julian Anderson and some piece of Murail, where the electronics warp the original sound and add lots of colour as to take it beyond what the instrument can achieve. My only thought is in this rendition the electronics could take it so much further. As a string orchestra can comfortably cover the range of a piano, electronics have a hard time being truly necessary. So maybe the electronics could have pushed the harmonic and gestural language to a much greater extreme spectrum of colour and range. That being said, the music is still pretty solid and the modest of the work, does mean it holds together well.

The penultimate feature is Andrius Maslekovas (1985). His Calligraphies of the Last Rays is a charming and colourful work for trio. The subtle interplay of colour between the ensemble is handled very well, and the constant evolution is handled very well. The harmonic language is steady and really allows you to enjoy the subtleties of every note. The real strength in the work is the ability to not only use every instrument to their fullest within such a modest confine, but to also make every instrument quite poignant and vital to the work. A very strong work, and I hope to hear more large scale pieces from him in the future.

The final work on the CD is a piano concerto by Gintaras Sodeika (1961). This intensive work for piano and orchestra is very bold and hits you square in the jaw. The harmonic language and rhythmic interplay is akin to some of the more playful works of Janacek or Tippett. I have to thank Zoom in 11 for featuring this work, as embarrassingly I know considerably little about Sodeika and I really need to get to know him better. The concerto is fun and strong, I am surprised pianists around the world aren't jumping up and down at the chance of performing this wonderful edition to the repertoire.

As I said this CD series in invaluable, and has been a wonderful tool for me. I highly recommend every reader hunts for any edition of this collection as each CD shows the wide spectrum of music within Lithuania currently. The only curious thought I had when reading the little sleeve notes in this CD, is suggesting that there is no more 'grand narrative' within Lithuanian music. I am very picky on this kind of thinking, mostly because there is no musical grand narrative. It is a very old view of historians and musicologists which suggests the history of music happened in fixed stages and shifted as one, when in reality new ideas appeared, some caught on, some didn't, music slowly evolves and spreads a bit like a virus; the more people who catch it the more people know about it. The other issue with the 'grand narrative' thinking is it is extremely biased towards imperial Europe, as it implies any nation not up to their standard were primitive, its very akin to Rudyald Kipling talking about the 'White man's burden'. So having this form of thinking when considering the evolution of Lithuanian music, or any nation for that matter, is counter productive. Ultimately, due to the constraints under the Soviets, the spectrum of music was quite small, due to little information coming and experimentalism was rarely encouraged. Now the Soviets are long gone, the spectrum has been allowed to widen hence why suddenly 'sounding Lithuanian' is become less of symptom of music from Vilnius.

Rant over, to finish below is the recording of Prayer for Maidan simply because it and Balakauskas are amazing and always worth a listen. Enjoy and until next time!

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