11 March 2017

Algirdas Martinaitis - Birds of Eden

As today marks 27 years since the Lithuania separated from the Soviet Union, I thought it would be a nice opportunity to focus on a Lithuanian composer I haven't had the chance to mention yet. Admittedly this also gives me more time to digest the pile of recordings I gathered while in Riga, so win win for me, and Latvian composers will be mentioned soon; I promise. Because of the seismic importance of the event, I thought it was necessary to discuss a figure composing around the time of the split and to mildly highlight the local desires of the people vying for nationhood. 

Algirdas Martinaitis (1950*) feels like a suitable person to mention within this framework. A pupil of Eduardas Balsys, Martinaitis came to prominence rather quickly after graduating from his studies at the end of the 1970s. Like his fellow 'neo-romantics', his music is obsessed with nostalgia, namely in the form of pining for something lost, rather than thinking 'weren't things better in the good ol' days'. This led him to build a rather curious personal musical landscape. The ability to have music with the deepest sincerity then to smash it with boisterous sarcasm or even sheer vulgarity, makes his music rather surprising. My first encounter with the composer was hearing his Serenade for Miss Europe which in its brief extent as a piece, shamelessly and hilariously quotes and smashes European classics into the listener's ear in the most inane or crude manner possible. It is an occasion which has stuck with me to this day.

The piece I wanted to focus on today, is a significantly shorter work; Birds of Eden (1981) for cello and tape. The work stands as one of the composer's most seminal pieces and clearly demonstrates a lot of thinking in the wider society at the time. A work with a title of Birds of Eden is extremely typical of a romantic composer, with its reflection of nature and pastoral ponderings; but the use of electronics instantly distorts and challenges this. Mostly on the basic level that there is no 'life' in electronics. Electronic music is the result of machines, so how can it artistically reflect wildlife? This simple gesture of instrumentation, throws up a lot of ideological posturing, which I am sure is intentional on the composer's half. The lack of life in the electronics combined with the nostalgic or just sheer romanticism of nature in the title can easily be a heavy handed gesture mourning the loss of something inherently native. 

The music itself is as hypnotic as it is energised. The cello lilts on melodic figures which are reminiscent of bird song, which in turn are layered on itself over and over again. The result is a rather magical dialogue between many birds. The electronics serve an interesting but very clear function within this piece, the use of electronic, or natural, noise subverts the musicality; functioning as a dissonance to destabilise the natural proceedings of life. The to and fro between the natural sounds of the cello and the electronics produces a fascinating dialogue. The repetitive nature of the melodic fragments adds to the intensity, it is almost as if the birds themselves are trapped within the machine, with nothing in their power except to keep singing. The short piece, lasting about 8 minutes, really builds a lot of ground and potential of presenting many ideological ideas; which cannot be surprising when you consider the piece was written in the last decade of the Soviet Union's control of the region. 

This being said, this could all just be me romanticising the romantic. The piece on a purely musical level is just as fascinating and really should be in the solo cello repertoire. It is intense and powerful but just allows you to digest its gesturing and elegance. It is definitely one of the composer's finest works. Many of his works play around with romantic ideals of nature as well as contemplating tradition; and almost every single time his responses to these always challenge me on some level. This could be on the sheer musical level, on the dramatic level, or on the more ephemeral levels of ideology. 

All that is left to do is listen to the piece and decide for yourself. 

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