26 June 2017

Interview - Raimonda Ziukaite

After the usual end of term faff, and moving back to the UK, I am finally in a position to return to the blog. And what a time too! I have got the response from a fascinating young composer who agreed to be interviewed for the page. 

The composer in question is Raimonda Ziukaite, and those who have seen previous posts will notice how positive I have been about a lot of her output in recent months. I find, as composer, she is really growing into something very interesting, so I was extremely enthusiastic when she agreed to the interview. 

Labukas Raimonda, firstly to start off things – how would you describe your music to a newcomer who is not familiar with your work?

Labuka. Well, if this is a newcomer to contemporary music in general I would firstly say: 

'it will be weird, you know… you might not like it.'

But if it’s a person, already familiar with contemporary music, then I would say my compositions have a clear idea, gradual process, homogeneity, multilayers. Some pieces are atmospheric, some are energetic, full of vitality (like nature element), and I wish to create more of this 'powerful sound' (like in heavy rock/metal). I don’t like scattered gestures and eclecticism, which I find in the most of contemporary music. In my opinion, music should have a form/inner logic a recipient could grasp. However, I think I still haven’t achieved 'my style', this specific, personal sound I can imagine, I’m still on the way to it. In addition, from 2013 I’m researching a (major/minor) triads and their systematic voice leading networks which might be used in composition. (Later it appeared it has to do with Neo-Riemannian theory). Currently I’m pursuing my doctor degree on it. My ambition is to establish a composition system based on a triad as a structural unit.   

Within your work, I notice an intense philosophical focus. The works each seem to be a playground for your own discoveries and contemplations – how do you feel achieve this within your work?

My motto is to 'never repeat myself'. It could be quite a childish, idealistic, naïve attitude, but I don’t want to produce, 'make' music randomly, thus kind of polluting the aether. For each new work there should be a new and pure idea, which is then developed by structural-processual thinking. During my study years, I used to create like this: let’s say that the idea for the piece will be harmonic (overtone) series and prime numbers. So I’m taking only prime numbers from the harmonic series and constructing 4 series, then permutating and getting 4 layers of it, for the rhythmic applying… guess what…prime numbers again!  (Prime Galaxy). In this way, everything is justified, each note doesn’t come from nowhere (blame it on the structure!). Or I’m taking a harmonic/overtone series and making another 4 rows (untertones, inversions, retrogrades), and then building additional series from each of the member of prime series (like fractals). Thus I’m getting my 'field of musical material' of a perfect structure and then comes the most difficult question: so what? How to transform it to real musical piece, how to play it? Then one needs to figure out adequate textures… Of course, this way of composing lacks personal expression and now I’m willing to involve more of my imagination and hearing into composing. Another curious thing: one teacher said 'but you control everything except the resulting sound itself.' But, working with structures, sometimes it comes nice accidental things. In the case of Vilniaus Bokštai, the structure came into beautiful shapes of towers like score painting and in the end sounded jazzy D7. People thought I done it on purpose, but it was the structure itself! On Chromatography I even saw triads as colours and composed quite intuitive, according the vision of colours. After an analysis, the piece appeared to have a logic structure anyway.

Which composers have most inspired your work? Either directly or just on philosophical levels?

First of all, my teacher Ricardas Kabelis, maybe not as a role model of a composer in terms of his music (never wanted to copy him), but as a very influential teacher, who over 6 years taught me the methods and principles of composition. Talking about sound aesthetics, I enjoy to listen to Michael Gordon and Julie Wolfe (Bang on a Can), Fausto Romitelli, Gérard Grisey, Per Nørgård, Georg Friedrich Haas (limited approximations). My recent discovery was Francesco Filidei. Although his style is an opposite side of the sound of my works, but it really grabbed my attention. And from Lithuanian composers I like music of Žibuokle Martinaitytė, Justė Janulytė, Nomeda Valančiūtė, Egidija Medekšaitė (it’s a coincidence that all are women!) and some more.

During my time here in Vilnius, I see the contemporary music scene is still coming to terms with what it wants to be. Would you agree with this statement? And where do you think it is going? How do you think you fit into the scene?

Firstly, it’s a very small community, and furthermore, some styles/techniques are more frequent here, as if there would be some 'Lithuanian' (or maybe Baltics) sound: slow, nostalgic, meditative music one could call 'Lithuanian minimalism'. There isn’t so much variety in styles (like for example, there isn’t much of new complexity, (thanks God...). Some trends come to Lithuania later as well, although now more and more of young generation goes abroad and gain experience there so the situation might change. Anyway, maybe it’s in my blood (ears), but I enjoy Lithuanian scene/sound.

My relation to it is not so obvious, since so far I don’t feel like I’m making a big career being an important name here. Moreover, somehow I feel repelled from a traditional career path of a contemporary composer: writing for classical instruments, contemporary music ensembles and composing another piece sounding the same as my colleagues. As if there is some born-hardwired need to be an outsider in general, I would love to find my own, personal, unique niche in music scene. The middle way, the average is always the safest, but I’m more tending to 'everything or nothing', although not always having courage for it. I often ask myself, what is the purpose of all this? Maybe that’s why I’m quite unproductive.

That might be related with the feeling I get while listening to contemporary music (and now I’m not talking about Lithuania scene). What is bad with it everywhere: mostly it doesn’t strike. Everybody in the world is making 'something' but rarely it grabs attention, it affects. Composers (I’m not an exception) composing for themselves, solving some issues in their heads which are interesting only for them or, in other words, playing some mind games and then expressing it through music, but the outcome sometimes are like 'meh': me as the listener sitting in a concert and dreaming or even (if it’s really boring) starting to read something... Not mentioning that most of the pieces in that concert sounds the same and you can’t remember them. The popular music wins at least due to its ability to ignite some emotions. The academic contemporary music has this potential too, sometimes even succeeds, but that’s more an exception. 

What are you currently working on? Are there any major works in the pipeline?

Since I’m studying for a doctor’s degree (to be exact, A.D. – doctor of arts) now, I need to fulfill my 'doctor plan' – this makes me a bit more productive (usually I used to compose only one piece per year!) This spring I was composing for ensemble and decided to do everything totally opposite as I’m used to, like an experiment (the piece Katedros involved aleatoricism, extended playing techniques, Baroque music quotes). In addition, this half year witnessed a revival of songwriting for a rock band. Among the nearest future plans is to make algorithmic composition by applying neo-Riemannian theory and of course to find my place, this unique niche I mentioned before, in a music world. J

To finish, if you were on a desert island, what five recordings/vinyls/CDs would you have with you?

Now I won’t mention contemporary music. I would take my own playlist/mixtape of various artists 'Songs of my Life'- songs, which contain some kind of emotional charge to me. These would include some music of Pink Floyd, Agalloch, Alcest, My Bloody Valentine, Pearl Jam, Bob Dylan’s song Knocking On Heavens Door and some Lithuanian songs to remind home. And in case there is no electricity in that island, I would bring a music instrument to play and sing myself.

A rather interesting interview indeed, I am definitely looking forward to see how she continues to grow as a composer. For those curious, you can find all her recordings here. And once my luggage finally appears in my flat, I can start going over my new collections of CDs from Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. So until then!

20 June 2017

A look back at my final year

Its finally here, the end of year is upon me. My time in Vilnius is closing and I am being released into the real world after many of years of shelter in the bubble of student life. It is rather surreal indeed, to say the least, and I will very shortly after graduating write a post looking back entirely at my time here. But, like I did this time last year, I will look back at some of the lovely concert moments I witnessed and which music I was particularly enamoured with. 

As 2016 was the centenary year of Julius Juzeliunas, autumn also witnessed some major events dedicated to the composer. This was wonderful for me on two fronts, firstly my sheer adoration of the work of Juzeliunas meant I was just going to witness lots of concerts where I admired, if not loved everything I heard; secondly my dissertation for this year was centred around the composer and so these concerts technically counted as 'educational' or 'research'. The most significant performance for the entire year was without a doubt the performance of Zaidimas. Juzeliunas's opera is a glorious feat and stands as both a wonderful moment of its time, but is also such a significant slice of Lithuanian operatic history, with very few composers managing to quite level him (Lokys the Bear, by Bronius Kutavicius is the only equal in my head). The performance was a glorious thing to witness, and I remember how excitable I was after the performance had finished. The only shame that still looms over the performance was the fact it wasn't toured or produced by the National Opera. It just seems surreal that the national opera wouldn't support one of THE composers within Lithuania in the past 100 years. Still, a wonderful concert is a wonderful concert!

The other composer celebrating a significant anniversary was Onute Narbutaite. As the gargantuan figure celebrated her 60th birthday, there were multiple concerts put on to celebrate this fact, spanning from concerts in the filharmonie hall, performance of various chamber works, and my personal favourite, the performance of Centones Meae Urbi. Performed in the Franciscan church here in Vilnius, the performance really bought this magnificent work to life. The sheer intensity of the harmonies and the profound effect it had on its audience, it was a concert I am not likely to forget for many years to come. 

The other major anniversary I didn't manage to contemplate heavily was the 95th birthday of the Estonian composer; Ester Magi. Thankfully I have a good stash of recordings and will make sure I discuss her work very soon! The year did witness a very sad loss in the Baltic. The passing of Veljo Tormis was indeed a sad occasion not least because of the sheer power and originality of his music. As I discussed in a more direct manner his music, like Bronius Kutavicius, found a way to tap into the historic stream of local paganism and managed to rebuild a whole new musical world which could stun, move, and terrify. The world is definitely a sadder place because of his passing.

Like with the previous year, GAIDA Festival and Druskomanija festival were joyous festivals to witness, not least because of the strong variety of premieres they performed. Both festival continue to produce marvelous concerts and I sincerely hope I can find a way to smuggle myself back in October for GAIDA 2017! I have had a real pleasure of witnessing many wonderful premieres this year throughout the world, but I still think the following pieces simply hit me the hardest:

The opening of GAIDA 2016 saw the premiere of Vykintas Baltakas's commentum for cello and orchestra. Despite being an extension of an already existing work for cello and piano, this new work stood proudly on its own feet and merits. The charming conversational nature combined with a cheeky wit made for a glorious piece to witness. Jonathan Berman and Francesco Dillon made for a glorious pairing of performers to deliver such a premiere.

A few days later saw the premiere of another work that particularly struck me; x ciklai by Ramunas Motiekaitis. The piece landed in the middle of an intensely string quartet obsessed concert with 4 separate string quartets either performing on their own or with others to perform many different works. Ramunas's piece struck me the most, due to its calm and modest nature combined with a rather magical interaction with the performers involved. The more I have dwelt on this piece the more I regard it as his strongest work to date. 

The third premiere that particularly struck me happened during my cheeky visit to Riga back in February. The performance of The Colour of Water by Juste Janulyte was a premiere where I was overjoyed I sat on a Lux Express bus for four hours to witness. The sheer elegance and nuance from both the composer and performer made for a glorious welcoming to the city. I spoke about it very highly in my review of the concert, and thankfully recently the composer has put the recording online so I highly recommend it. Admittedly, this was one of three premieres by Juste I managed to see this year, and I loved all of them; but there is a fine line between fascination and overtly creepy obsession with someone and their music. Also I chose to focus on this work more, simply because recording popped up very recently, and the overall concert was pretty astounding. 

This year I also had the joy of travelling the world as a 'lecturer' where I had the pleasure to travel to Salzburg and New York to discuss my favourite Baltic people. It was both wonderful and surreal to get to travel to these places and just natter about what I love to a listening public, and not just nattering manically into some poor sod's ear. A personal joy too, while attending the Sounding the Sacred conference in New York, was witnessing the profound concert delivered by the Goeyvarts Trio, hearing Arvo Part in just intonation blew me away.

Obviously this is not the end of my obsessing of music within the region. There are many more composers I want to discuss and write manically about, and after all the CDs I have received recently, summer will definitely keep me out of trouble. So watch this space soon for more posts about the Baltic, and I close my simply showing a video of some wonderful music by Ester Magi.


Since Monday, I have been in the beautiful city of Salzburg for this year's Crossroads International Contemporary Music Festival. This festival is a growing festival which aims to bring composers from different nations to celebrate ideas and challenge each other in an intensive few days of concerts and lectures. This year was the largest festival and included a lecture by the Italian Simone Fontanelli who discussed his creative work and the conundrum of how to address other people in your own music. Ensemble Synaesthesis have been resident for the whole week, and in the second night of the festival gave a performance of works by Andriessen and Lang. The penultimate night I had the opportunity to discuss elements of my recent research to date.

But ultimately the point of focus was last night's finale. All the work and anticipation was geared towards this performance of two Austrian premieres and three world premieres presented by the resident ensemble Synaethesis. The first work was Rytis Mazulis's De plus en plus, which was first premiered in Druskomanija 2016. Those of you that read my review of the premiere, will remember my astonishment at the fact that this work was so upbeat and perky in comparison to many other of Rytis's works. Last night's performance in Jazzit:Muzik:Club in Salzburg was the perfect venue for it, and a perfect way to open a wonderful concert.

Then after a bit of shuffling came a little ditty by myself, but noone wants to hear about that so lets move on to the more interesting stuff. After even more shuffling came the Austrian premiere of Matthias Leboucher's Underwards for ensemble and electronics. The work was premiered in Synaethesis's GAIDA debut, and I was really struck by the work for its ability to be knee deep in the wonderful worlds of Romitelli and Grisey, without sounding like cheap knock-offs of either. After talking to the composer at the original premiere, he pointed out there were a few hiccups with the electronics, so last night's performance was an extra joy to hear as all the electronics were present and gave the work that extra little something. The gestures, the shape, the colours, were all immaculate; my only thought is how would Matthias tackle a large scale work? I imagine if he did it successful it would push him into a really truly fascinating realm. I highly recommend you check out his soundcloud.

After slightly less shuffling came a work by Karolina Kapustaite, a composer whose development I have watched with the same keen interest that a kestrel watches a mouse in a cornfield. Her work White Light, which was the second world premiere of the night, was written for a slightly smaller ensemble but was by no means less colourful or powerful. The use of harmonic space, combined with strong direct gestures made the work highly memorable, and an interesting step after her work which was premiered in Druskomanija 2016. Ultimately listening to this I was reminded of the works of Magnus Lindberg where the sense of energy was the result of an elaborate combination of natural overtones and building chromatic fields. The other thing I found myself loving, was the fact Karolina and Matthias were a wonderful compliment of each other. Their works inhabited similar spaces without sounding like imitations of each other. Also check out Karolina on soundcloud!

The finale came in the form of seven steps from the top by Dominykas Digimas, another composer I have observed with a lot of interest. I have often found myself witnessing Dominykas exploring the start of a very curious rabbit hole, and last night's premiere was no exception. The piece drew inspiration from Lithuanian Sodai, beautiful folk art sculptures with many layers of symbolism and spirituality.

The piece for quintet was an interesting departure as it was a work straddling the line between refined elegant sounds and filthy noise. The pulsations and circling round singular pitches were bold and strong, but after a while the effect began to thin out as simply the originality of the gesture wasn't strong enough to hide some of the weaknesses in the construction. The harmonic field was the main weakness, simply because it wasn't strong enough to give the work a point of reference. This being said, there is a lot of space to explore in this kind of world, it is a world I have a lot of love for ever since I first discovered the works of Radulescu, Iancu Dumitrescu, and Ana-Maria Avram. This could be why I found faults with the piece. I am looking back up from the rabbit hole, knowing how much further Dominykas can go. As long as he lets himself fall further into the warren there is potential for something very curious to come out of him. See more of Dominykas's works here.

The ensemble Synaesthesis were on good form, and tackled the bold task of performing the premieres in their stride. They have really come on a long way in the year I have been watching their performances. The one trick I particularly adored about the concert, was the simple fact all the works complimented each other, the concert as a whole had a wonderful shape to it, something which is far to rare in contemporary music concerts. So bravo Synaesthesis and bravo Crossroads for a wonderful festival.

8 June 2017

Vidurnakcio saule

Last night in the buzzing atmosphere of the Filharmonie grand hall, was the second concert of the Vilnius Festival 2017. This particular concert drew quite a large crowd due to its guest soloist Mario Brunello and, especially in my case, the premiere of Juste Janulyte's Vidurnakcio saule or Midnight Sun. Now traditionally I would have avoided writing about the concert as there is only one Baltic composer in it, but I am very eager to make an exception in this circumstance. So in short the post is a bit off kilter from my usual ramblings.

So, lets begin! After the usual chitter-chatter to introduce the concert, festival, orchestra, thanking sponsors, and mention everyone to some lesser or greater extent, the concert began with the famous Adagietto. Sehr langsam from Mahler's fifth. I always have mixed feelings about ensembles and concerts programming this element of the symphony on its own, mostly because the sheer magnitude of the movements comes after the gut-wrenching turmoil of the preceding movements, either as a tonic to, or reluctant acceptance of the whole. Just performing the one movement on its own is a bit like smashing a Kinder Surprise and robbing the toy, without at least working through the chocolate beforehand. Anyways, the performance was done rather masterfully, and Modestas Pitrenas really came alive in the work, which he conducted from memory. What particularly attracted me to Pitrenas's rendition was his ability to conduct from memory and not do the conductor habit of staring at the now, non-existant stand; this allowed him to truly interact with the orchestra intimately and the effect was strong. My other joy came from the layout of the orchestra. As the ensemble were set up to perform the following premiere, the orchestral layout had cellos at the front with double-basses in the centre at the back, and violins and violas in an arc. This had the wonderful power of making the whole work sound grounded and more grandly weighted. A nice surprise indeed.

After some shuffling, and grand applause for the entering soloist came Vidurnakcio saule by Juste Janulyte. After the sheer success of her premiere in Riga, I was intrigued how she would respond to writing for soloist and ensemble again. Especially for the cello. An instrument with such a huge historic gravitas behind it, that makes writing a concerto for it an almost terrifying burden for any composer. The work started with hushed murmurs from the heavily muted soloist. His gestures heavily austere and restrained. The orchestra glistening like glass. Each entry was extremely intimate and continued a huge intense fragility throughout the work. The soloist was never overtly virtuosic, but Brunello's control of such disparate and timid material was insane. Many lesser performers would have cracked with such material. As the work progressed, the gate was slowly loosened, with practice mutes being swapped for the traditional mutes; bringing with it a greater energy. The work began to shrink away into nothingness before suddenly breaking into an intensely powerful climax. The entire hall was filled with sound, which was truly incredible when you consider the ensemble were just strings. From the disappearing wave of sound, the screaming soloist finally emerges after almost drowning in the sea of noise. 

This work did challenge me, mostly because what on this earth quite compares to it. And in reality there are very few works that seem to be achieving the same; or at least treating such a soloist in the same manner. Harold in Italy by Berlioz is the obvious comparison with its famous non-hero viola; but that still had the soloist dictating a narrative. This work didn't really strive for that. Another comparison is with Ligeti's cello concerto, but that two-movement work at least allowed the cellist out of his cage to have a wild moment at the end of the work. String Quartet and Orchestra by Feldman feels like the best comparison, with its fragile interactions and profound stillness. But still it is an inadequate comparison as the dynamic between soloist and orchestra still had 'friction' or a 'clash' between each other. My only real conclusion on the dynamic of the duality between the two is the idea that this work was a true concerto in an almost baroque sense. The two elements were at odds with each other. The soloist constantly trying to dictate a narrative, and the orchestra either submitting or retorting to it. The climax is quite so profound as it almost sees the ensemble realise that alone, they cannot beat the soloist, but united there is a chance. Which is where we see the soloist screaming in defiance. Only just managing to quell the weight and power of the united orchestra. For a piece that murmured for an extremely long length of time, it really had a lot to say. 

It must also be noted, after the wonderful performance by Mario Brunello, he performed a truly beautiful encore. I sadly did not catch the name of it, all I can say is it was beautiful!

After the break, the orchestra had returned for the final two pieces. The overture Ruy Blas by Mendelsohn and his 4th symphony. I was highly confused by the inclusion of these two pieces in the concert, mostly because of the fact they were so out of character with the rest of the concert. The theme was 'Italian' but there is such a huge history of Italian music, surely something could have fitted better. I understand concerts have to sell tickets, and god forbid assuming people might be coming for a contemporary piece, but if you can truly match up pieces well; the overall impact is vastly superior. This really was my sole complaint of the second half, as the orchestra had a lovely vibrancy and charm when performing these works, and Pitrenas really shows this is HIS repertoire, as he was even more endearing as a conductor with these works.  

I am a bit gutted I won't be able to catch tonight's concert dedicated to Osvaldas Balakauskas, but anyone who can go I cannot recommend it highly enough!