27 May 2017

Interview - Santa Buss

After a lot of manic days with Druskomanija Festival and fast approaching deadlines, it is nice to have a moment to step back and return to another interview. This time I had the joy of interviewing Latvian composer Santa Buss, a composer whom I have admired for a fair while now; so ultimately it was wonderful she agreed to the interview. 

As composer she is heavily preoccupied with extra musical material, with many of her works attempting to convert philosophy, art, mythology, and science into musical gesture. A pupil of Arturs Maskats and Rolands Kronlaks (not even to mention her various mentors across the world), Santa stands at a curious impasse. She is entirely in tune with many things in the Latvian scene, but also at the same time stands aloof in her own distinct world. From many discussions with her, the returning theme of discussion is travel. In particular, never staying in one place for too long, this necessity to keep picking up sticks is very apparent within her work. In liminarite one can see the changes of proceedings within an abstracted ritual and seeing how it transports the person to a new reality. The interview was carried out on a sunny Thursday in Vilnius as we awaited to attend the final Vilnius installment of Druskomanija Festival. Sat in the sun, me with a nice coffee, her with a small glass of white we started conversing:

Sveiki Santa, it is wonderful to have you being involved in this interview. For those who aren’t familiar with your work, could you briefly describe your music and your desires within it?

I am balancing between being in the piece, and being out of it. Both living and observing the ideas. Bringing my music from one state of being and taking it to a brand new one. You never fully understand it, you can just observe it. In turn you cannot work out where it is going or where you are living. This clarity in turn comes from the balance between these balances and extremities. Say ‘Absinthe’ from clear mind to intoxication and eventual recovery.

I constantly feel, away, none native within the world. I am fascinated by many other artists, and have been more directly influenced by them; leading me to a more conceptual approach. Months could be spent on the anatomy or on Asia poetry (like in One Inch of Love is an Inch of...), just for me to learn something unknown to me; before I come to the musicality of it. I eventually translate this knowledge into a score or some other form. The title and programme notes often come long before the music itself.

When I do compose, the moment is rather intensive. All my creativity focuses itself into one obsessive moment, to the point that I cannot leave. Within this frenzy my output is heavily concentrated into this epicentre. It probably explains why I feel the need to leave when I am not composing.

What I find interesting in your music is its feeling of fluidity despite regularly being constructed of fragmented or even combative elements. How do you feel you achieved this sensation within your music?

The most obvious case is imagining the music as an object and observing it from different angles, I imagine the weight and texture of this object and in turn bringing it to life in my composition. This probably helps to create this fluidity and block like nature to it. All connected, but still a different viewpoints are considered. Each elements can be varied, extended or reduced in each piece, this is always this closeness within my music. The most extreme example of this is ~ea gla~ (pronounced sea glass). The idea came from this object like a broken bottle, which has arrived on the shore. In turn it tries to work out its past, to try and understand what it was, what it is, and what it can be. Trying to make sense and find the connections to thoroughly understand itself, starting from small elements upwards.

I am intrigued to observe Latvia’s homegrown quasi-spectral/sonoristic composers. In your work, just like your colleague Martins Vilums, this timbral based thinking has really gripped a generation of Latvian composers, why do you think this is?

Probably first I wouldn’t consider myself spectral. During this generation was the first time people studied abroad, so suddenly there was lots of various musics available to fall in love with and exploring new colours and sounds. The teachers in turn challenged us to move beyond our own native borders and traditions. 

The other element is because of history and situation, everyone just wanted to break the tradition, and question how one should write? Especially composers highly connected to this sound, studied abroad. The composers who stayed native, sound ‘native’.

Would you say there is a growing divide between Latvia Diaspora and Enduring Latvia?

Its hard to say, I don’t necessarily have the authority to say so, but I think there is a division more or less between generation, as well divide between composers born in 70s and early 80s, and the composers born in late 80s and 90s where they appear slightly more conservative. One thing I have noticed is composers who are younger than me, grew up entirely on choral music; so when they write for choir they tend to stay more firmly rooted in the tradition.

Also to consider the composers who arrived to composition late like Martins Vilums, and studied other elements before composing  tend to sound wildly different to the younger generations. So we had been granted a rather advantageous situation, as we were considered ‘adults’ and not ‘students’ when we 'started out' as composers. 

To carry on with this spectral theme, how do you think it compares to schools of spectralism in France, Romania, or Estonia? Do they have common concerns or are the stances on La musique spectrale different from nation to nation? And where do you fit in, in this spectrum of spectralists?

To be honest I am unsure, it could be different from composer to composer. For example Santa Ratniece studied with Helena Tulva, Martins Vilums never studied directly in France. 

Composers like Janis Petraskevics and Martins Vilums merely responded from the grape vine. There has never been the harmonic understanding that is used within France. I am unsure having never explored it; Janis could be the only one who is more connected, maybe, but he never mentions it.  For us, the concern is predominantly focused on timbre and other forms of harmonic control, it is a happy accident if it relates to other nations or ‘schools’.

How directly do you feel you connect to the Latvian ‘scene’?

For me, a few years ago an article discussed my work with the sentence:

'my music is present in the scene, it has a strong presence, but doesn’t belong to the scene; I don’t fit' (paraphrased in the moment)

I was not very aware of this, until I saw it written. At the moment I have also made myself move outside of Latvia for many reasons, either out of learning and sheer curiosity of travelling. So this lead me to multiple residencies, being supported by various foundations. Having this cultural life, supported by foreigners outside my native country has really changed me. I really don’t feel I fit in the scene, both because of my living and my music, I cannot say where I fit with my music or my living.

It is a paradox, I am performed by wonderful musicians in Latvia, as well as abroad, and am present in the Latvian and European scene, but not completely in tune with it. Maybe I will find the answer in the future.

So as you said you are more away from Latvia, than in Latvia; are there composers in Europe you particularly admire?

Janis Petraskavics that is for sure. Martins Vilums, admittedly this is very local. James O’Callaghan these three are young-ish people I find interesting, however I can’t stick to just these three, it feels wrong to just mention names. I am much more looking forward to being present at a concert and being surprised over following the life and work of an artist over a length of time. I would obviously go see music by people I have been impressed by, I’ve never had a habit to collect things so I try to avoid looking in one single direction. This isn’t due to a lack of interest, but more a desire to not obsess or an unwillingness to restrict myself on one area for too long. Certain names have a certain resonance, but this might not be the case if I return to it, it almost feels like it belongs to the past.

I have changed a lot in the past few years (beginning  with the start of my travels from 2007, growing in intensity by 2010), and often things feel like they belong to the moment more than a museum lifestyle to visit and revisit them. This is not to demote their significance but more I have a greater need to find what I am now, whatever that may be. 

Finally, as I have done with all my other interviews, if you were stranded on a desert island what five CDs/Vinyls/Recordings would want to be stranded with? 

That was my least favourite question. I can’t answer sadly. It seems like the worst scenario being surrounded by nature and not being able to escape. I’d be more focused on trying to escape rather than listening to anything else.  I’d rather sit, or walk around and think. 

It was a joy to talk with Santa about such a wide variety of subjects. The sun combined with nice coffee made it especially pleasant. We rounded the discussion off with a wonderful concert with the Lithubourgian Ensemble. But to conclude this article have a listen to the wonderful One Inch of Love is an Inch of...

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