Did the avant-garde revolution take place in post-war Lithuania?

Mindaugas Urbaitis in conversation with Šarūnas Nakas

Šarūnas: ‘Revolution’ sounds somewhat pretentious, isn’t it?

Mindaugas: I think it sounds appropriate. Time is ripe to put the existing opinions about the music of that time to test and verify to what extent they were objective and valid. Or maybe this music is still hugely underestimated?

Šarūnas: The most obvious shortfall is that we don’t get often a chance to listen to the Lithuanian music of the 1960s and 1970s; it is somehow overlooked in the repertoires and festival programmes; there’s not much discussion about it either. But even though it seems non-existent, the legends about the Lithuanian avant-garde music are still alive.

Mindaugas: Some decades ago this music has been recorded on tape which turned into flakes over the years. It was only in rare instances that this music has been released in other formats. What concerns me above all is not any kind of research into this music, but its preservation and prospects of its further existence; part of these works earn special attention at the very least, indeed.

Šarūnas: After a small retrospective of the Lithuanian avant-garde music, presented at the 1996 Gaida Festival, many listeners admitted being pleasantly surprised by the quality of the works they’d heard. Even the composers, whose works we’d presented, said they had preserved no memories of how their colleagues’ works sound. Thus it appears that we are discussing the period of Lithuanian music’s history whose integrity has been lost, and there is nobody who could witness all its aspects.

Mindaugas: We are discussing a decade from around 1963 to around 1973. Several phases and periods can be distinguished within this decade. Let’s say, the Concerto for violin, organ and string orchestra, written by Julius Juzeliūnas in 1963, can be seen as a typical harbinger of the first phase. At that time Lithuanian composers began to turn away from the bombastic Soviet style and post-war rhetoric, and tried to adopt new means of musical language. This novelty was quite relative, sometimes even comical, if we were to compare the Lithuanian and Western works composed at around the same time. Of course, we lagged several decades behind. These adopted novelties primarily affected harmonic and melodic writing and brought some changes into the treatment of rhythm. But they were related to the areas which Schoenberg had renovated about a half-century ago.

Šarūnas: To my mind, this problem can be viewed from a broader perspective which encompasses almost the entire century of Lithuanian national music rather than this particular decade. Modernism had not taken root in Lithuania during the interwar years: only a few composers adopted a more radical modernist language and subsisted in minority at that time. The majority comprised composers of a much more conservative or even reactionary mindset, steeped in the 19th-century traditions, such as the likes of Juozas Naujalis, Stasys Šimkus and Juozas Tallat-Kelpša. The representatives of the interwar pro-modernistic minority – Juozas Gruodis, Vytautas Bacevičius, Jeronimas Kačinskas and Vladas Jakubėnas – were somehow less conspicuous. The more serious attempts to re-introduce modernism into Lithuanian music date from the post-war years, when Stalin’s dictatorship began to thaw, and during the period we had addressed above.
We have to remind ourselves that the times we are addressing is a very difficult historical period – the so-called twilight of the Khrushchev’s thaw and the early years of Brezhnev stagnation. This epoch has nothing in common with our current lives. Thus the characteristic Lithuanian cautious conservativism had also to do with well-grounded fears to accomplish something for which he or she could suffer some kind of penalties, varying from punishment to discrimination and repression. All these matters should be taken into account during the period in question.

Mindaugas: It is perhaps for this reason that the novel techniques – such as serialism, whose advent into Lithuanian music was slow and discontinuous – have been long interlaced with the rhetoric of the previous Soviet decades and existed as some kind of mixture. It usually outweighed the modernised musical language, even though in some rare instances the latter prevailed. Perhaps one of the most striking examples, when modern language took the lead, was in Dramatinės freskos (Dramatic Frescoes) for violin, piano and symphony orchestra, composed by Eduardas Balsys in 1965.

Šarūnas: The contribution of Julius Juzeliūnas and Eduardas Balsys to the process of modernisation was enormous. They were both influential teachers and seminal composers. Balsys had this to say: “We live in a complicated world, closely surrounded by other people. In our daily lives we are confronted with their whims and impulses, tempers, tastes and demands. One has to restrain and limit oneself, to seek compromise, like it or not; whereas in his work, a composer can remain true to himself. No wonder then that we know a composer as one personality in life and a different personality revealed through his works. This one is perhaps even more real.” It seems to me that Balsys aptly described the situation characteristic not only of the composers but also of other artists of the time. Some things were told in public; the works’ titles didn’t seem to show any signs of novelties; but quite different things were kept in private, resorting to Aesopian language in public discourses.

Mindaugas: This Aesopian discourse was a widespread phenomenon, even though its is not so easily decipherable in music. In most cases it worked as a concealment of certain modern means under the guise of ideologically correct titles and themes. In fact the majority of modern sounding music was associated, in musicological writings of the time, with the dark images of the post-war years and a portent of the coming nuclear war – all the things officially condemned by the Soviet imperial propaganda. This helped conceal the modernity and paved the way for the innovation in music. The composers eagerly used such method as a cover and as an opportunity for modernisation.

Šarūnas: Juzeliūnas and Balsys were representatives of the elder generation who had already earned substantial artistic and social repute. They were experienced enough to find ways to survive and create in the darkest years of post-war Stalinism. They managed to acquire authority and necessary regalia that acted as a shield and ensured certain privileges and relative freedoms. Their younger colleagues, however, commenced their careers without any authoritative backing.

Mindaugas: The middle of that decade – year 1965 – was the first auspicious moment for the debuts of young artists. Young Lithuanian composers took advantage of this opportunity: they started out as effective as they could. The music of Vytautas Montvila, Feliksas Bajoras and Vytautas Barkauskas made a strong impression due to its freshness, unheard-of musical language, novel structure. It sounded very fresh in the context of all previous and current conservative music. I dare say it was this freshness that represented its revolutionary element.

Šarūnas: Yes, it’s an interesting point, because this revolution turns out to be a silent one. Take notice of the grandiloquent expression in the works by Juzeliūnas and Balsys of the time and compare it to the intimate sound of Montvila’s music. It was somehow easier for the young composers to get rid of the clichés of the ossified socialist realistic rhetoric and to speak in a more sincere and simple manner; on the other hand, they succeeded in radically changing the very sounding of music. In accomplishing that, they put into use all kinds of Western avant-garde techniques. This was impossible to accomplish several years earlier.

Mindaugas: The experience brought from the Warsaw Autumn festivals started penetrating the musical scene of Lithuania in the form of new scores and recordings, as well as vivid impressions. Its was also a serious encouragement to try out something similar. Vytautas Barkauskas was among the first pioneers who broke the ice of the stagnant official language and made use of diverse influences, irrespective of their origin. The resulting music was highly individual and convincing.

Šarūnas: The scores brought from abroad did not disappear and were to be studied for several decades to come. The students of composition have borrowed quite a few things from these scores, according to their individual tastes. Recordings were likewise used as a source of fresh information; thus the information gap of post-war decades was filling up quickly.

Mindaugas: The influence of the Western avant-garde had to withstand, as it was usually described, the local realities of the time. First of all, Lithuanian performers had absolutely no experience in the performance practice of avant-garde music. Some of them nevertheless tried their hand at playing this music. Thus the composers had to take their limited abilities into consideration and compose music whose language was not too complicated and ambitious. Like the composers, performers were pioneering the unexplored regions of new music. Their acquaintance with contemporary music started with the knowledge of only a handful of Lithuanian pieces; they had no previous knowledge of any modern music because their regular performing practice ended up with Shostakovich.

Šarūnas: On top of that, the performers had virtually no opportunities to demonstrate those pieces in public, unless to record them for the radio. Such surviving recordings, dating from this period and now suffering from various deformations, are the only taped documents of Lithuanian post-war modernism. If they are not taken care of in the nearest future, this unique archive will be lost forever.

Mindaugas: Then Feliksas Bajoras came into play. He stood out at once. He didn’t seem to be searching for the novelties coming from the outside, looking into his inner sensitivities instead. This was a very distinctly individualistic stance, even though his musical language represented a mixture of neoclassicism and something more modern. But all these elements were subsumed under some guiding idea.

Šarūnas: From the very beginning, Bajoras sought to oppose everything he knew. Not only the things that had been created in the West or in Moscow, but also in Lithuania. This way he strived to retain his originality and Lithuanianness, which he has declared as his prime assets for many subsequent decades.

Mindaugas: Interestingly, similar explorations were characteristic of the work of Osvaldas Balakauskas – at the same time, but in a different geographical location.

Šarūnas: Balakauskas then lived in Kiev and remained unnoticed in Lithuania for quite a long time. The avant-gardists in Kiev relied on the same sources of information, but the quantity of the scores, recordings and theoretical treatises was considerably larger.

Mindaugas: They also had access to the materials transported in large quantities from the Moscow avant-gardists who possessed even more information and ways to obtain it. Incidentally, some of these materials found their way from Moscow to Vilnius as well. Such publications have been studied until a well-thumbed condition. They were the object of special desire for young composers who craved for the innovation in music. Was it really a revolution? It doesn’t seem so when you listen to their music. But their hearts and minds might have been sizzling with revolutionary ideas.

Šarūnas: As I’ve mentioned before, these processes were in place during the recession of the Khrushchev’s ‘false spring,’ when people started flying into space; when the Cold War reached one of its most dangerous tensions; when the political atmosphere within the Eastern Bloc countries only seemed to liberalise, but in reality this liberalisation ended up in the events of 1968. The political backdrop, against which the avant-garde arrived in Lithuania, was really complicated and marked with heavy international tensions.

Mindaugas: It is doubtful if we could always find correspondences between the Lithuanian music of the time and its political environment you just described. Specific artistic solutions seem to depend more on personal choices than on any observable political phenomena. For instance, Julius Juzeliūnas accomplished most in making modern musical language his integral idiom, but his inspiration was often of lyrical nature. Thus it seems that such introspective approach might also bear fruit in this situation.

Šarūnas: What’s important is that the choice of modern expression at that time meant not only aesthetic identification with a certain style or trend, or with particular composers, but also disagreement with the official style and bombastic ideology which penetrated every inch of public life. “We live in the period of great communist construction when our multi-national Soviet country, having celebrated its 60th anniversary, can justly pride itself on the achievements in the political, economic and cultural life,” wrote music academician Juozas Gaudrimas. If texts could have such headers in 1985, we can only imagine what life was like in 1965: what vocabulary was used, what was the power of censorship and how hard was the ideological oppression.

Mindaugas: But this dismal atmosphere was even more pronounced at the auditions and discussions of new works, especially if they were modern. It was not infrequent that young composer’s works caused a scandal and received acrid criticism. But on the other hand these auditions were normally closed-door events and only the indirect repercussions reached the Culture Section of the Communist Party’s Central Committee. This section made certain decisions and issued recommendations how detected flaws should be corrected and then passed on for implementation – without much ado, with no mention in the press, excluding even in the specialised musicological publications. That’s why it is impossible to find any surviving evidence or clues: this can only be witnessed by the participants of these auditions. Despite all that, a determination of young composers to act “against the grain” was evident, and gradual modernisation of their musical language – both accelerating and decelerating – was difficult to hide.

Šarūnas: The path of the composers who chose modernisation as their vocation was thorny. On the one hand, they sought to oppose normative academicism associated primarily with the school of Russian Romanticism; on the other hand, they wanted to catch up with the Western world. Many of them, however, envisaged a far more difficult task, striving to create an independent world of Lithuanian music which would combine modern means of expression and various aspects of ethnic art. For this reason Juzeliūnas’s music contains many elements of the sutartinės, folk dances and songs, but the overall blend sounds quite contemporary. Other composers composed in similar manner, essentially following the trail blazed by Juozas Gruodis.

Mindaugas: Yes, indeed. Many of them wished to be both Lithuanians and Europeans – whom we are now, but then it was only a wish.

Šarūnas: Could it be so that the composers were the first to slip off the grip of the censorship? In fact, you somehow don’t feel ashamed of listening to the music written between 1963 and 1973. It seems that the Lithuanian music underwent modernisation earlier than any other art.

Mindaugas: Perhaps. For instance, Vytautas Montvila, considered as one of the pioneers of the Lithuanian avant-garde, arranged authentic rye harvesting songs in 1967, using serial technique. This work is fascinating as a daring and artistically gratifying endeavour by a young composer. It is interesting to note that the emergence of this work coincided with the breakthrough of new music in Western Europe which happened around the same time albeit on a different ground and level, of course.

Šarūnas: In the Rye Harvesting Songs, we hear a curious combination: unmodified folk songs, with subtle melismata and other embellishments, performed along with a meditative piano accompaniment, strongly savouring of the avant-garde.

Mindaugas: I would dare say that this piano accompaniment is expressly avant-garde. Especially, if we take note of the traditional writing of accompaniments in post-war Lithuanian music. This was a really revolutionary step. He made yet another step further: Montvila notated his Triangles, a piece for flute and piano, in triangles.

Šarūnas: That is, graphically, in geometrical shapes. That was completely new.

Mindaugas: Absolutely. But unfortunately, when the piece was published by the Vaga, the original triangles were straightened up into the traditional five-line staves, thus smoothing away its original taste and unconventionality.

Šarūnas: The Sonorities for piano, composed in 1969, is yet another example of an unconventional composition, in which aleatory music was written down in eight different colours. Again, a novelty of sorts that some found irritating at that time.
Well, but after all the avant-garde in Lithuania and in Europe are two different phenomena. What may be the reasons for that?

Mindaugas: There are a plenty of them. One of the main reasons, as far as I’d learned from the conversations with elder colleagues, is that the Lithuanian composers were not so fascinated with the type of music which prevailed in the West in the 1960s when Stockhausen and Ligeti took the lead. They felt more affinity with Penderecki and Lutosławski, or even with the Moscow composers, including Schnittke, Denisov and Gubaidulina.

Šarūnas: Was it an affinity of similar worldview? Or was it related more to technological matters? Maybe the Eastern European idiom was somehow simpler and easier to follow for the Lithuanian composers?

Mindaugas: When I talked about these matters with Vytautas Barkauskas he could not name specific reasons. Consequently, we can only guess at what was in play. It could be also due to the performers’ narrow-mindedness and limited abilities. But on the other hand, many ventures could be out of question because of the mentality issues. Open aleatory forms, certain radical methods of sound treatment might have been deemed too extreme and alien to the mindset of the composers who lived in an insulated society. It seems that those few whiffs of open-mindedness and freedom of expression they had experienced, when they opportunities occurred to visit the “Warsaw Autumn” festival or any other international event, did not provide a sufficient impulse to at least try to fly off the handle.

Šarūnas: It seems to me that most composers of the time were primarily influenced by their aural impressions. Could it be so that the Polish avant-garde they heard in concerts became their primary source of emulation?

Mindaugas: It was only later that the symptoms of such emulation became apparent; but in the beginning other things seemed to exert stronger influence. In 1963, Vytautas Barkauskas visited Tallinn where he was presented with the Křenek’s textbook on 12-tone composition from the hands of Arvo Pärt himself. As you may probably know, Pärt wrote his first dodecaphonic work, Necrolog for symphony orchestra, some years earlier, in 1961.

Šarūnas: It must be noted that Pärt was not as omnipotent and omnipresent composer as we know him today. Then, he was a young man interested in things that one could not find in the officially published letters; yet they were already planted in the minds of the composers.

Mindaugas: Young Estonian composers of the time showed astounding activity; their debuts were remarkable. Arvo Pärt, Jaan Rääts, Veljo Tormis – they constituted the group of young authors who had already earned some renown as distinctive personalities. In the meantime the Lithuanians had nothing particular to boast of.

Šarūnas: I’d like to interject with a little remark: for the time being we are talking about the music composed by very young people, only with few exceptions. It was thirty-year-olds who felt strongest concern over intense modernisation and absorbed all kinds of information.

Mindaugas: Indeed, we should remember that while listening to their works.

Šarūnas: Don’t you think that we should consider Vytautas Barkauskas as the most persevering Lithuanian avant-gardist?

Mindaugas: Well, his experience, partly adopted from other countries, engendered highly individualistic results. As an example let’s take one of his more mature works, written in 1968, when he had already imbibed serial techniques and started using aleatory and sonoristic elements, in addition to flaring colouristic effects. It is called the Intimate Composition. It is clearly modelled on Penderecki’s Capriccio for oboe and eleven stings (1964), but these borrowed ideas were successfully transplanted into Lithuanian soil. Its musical language sounds innovative enough and the composer’s focus is transposed more on the work’s unifying concept, musical ideas and formal design. Don’t you find it a most significant sign of breakthrough?

Šarūnas: A curious coincidence: this music was written in 1968. We know it as the year of extreme liberalisation and the most severe actions to prevent the breakthrough of this liberty at the same time. It marks a dividing line, a breaking point. Barkauskas rose to the occasion to somehow universalise his musical idiom. Its rhetoric is expressive, its effect is perceptible and intelligible for various listeners, not for specialists alone. This music tells something in its own right.

Mindaugas: I agree with you entirely. For this reason Barkauskas became a salient figure not only on the contemporary music scene, but also as a theatre and film composer. He then wrote some of his most fascinating scores.

Šarūnas: I believe that this work alone would suffice to defend one’s claim that the avant-garde revolution really took place in post-war Lithuania. And there you have it: this work is an actual proof of this claim. There is also another piece by Barkauskas, Contrastive Music for flutes, cello and percussion, composed in 1969. It makes use of the principle of interchanging contrasting passages, a very fashionable gimmick at the time, by mixing the music of varying states. This principle is somehow adapted to Lithuanian environment – tamed and mollified, if you will.

Mindaugas: More motivated, I’d say.

Šarūnas: But if it was more extreme and extravagant, the composer would have probably had his head for it?

Mindaugas: In fact, he had, even in such relatively ‘mild’ cases. When Barkauskas presented the score of his Monologue for solo oboe (1970) to Lothar Faber at the “Warsaw Autumn” festival and he later performed it at some festival in Royan, France, Barkauskas was banned international travels for five years and the performance of his Intimate Composition by the Sondeckis orchestra (Lithuanian Chamber Orchestra – V.J.) was cancelled from the programme of the “Warsaw Autumn.” Thus he was subject to some repressions. The composer’s escapades could not slip unnoticed.

Šarūnas: Luckily, these repressions did not ensue in serious depressions. The avant-garde methods have been successfully cultivated for some decades and provided seminal impulses for the future. The composers began to try their hand in the orchestral writing, but in the same manner as in their chamber music. One of such pieces is Barkauskas’s Three Aspects, which appeared in 1969, commissioned for the philharmonic orchestra’s (present Lithuanian National Symphony Orchestra – V.J.) first international tour to Poland.

Mindaugas: Here he introduced the intonations of the sutartinės; he did not quote, but only intoned. These archaic intonations are combined with the serial music. The avant-garde is linked to the traditional Lithuanianness. What do you think, did this signal a search for Lithuanian national identity? Or its was done out of necessity to retain some signs of Lithuanianness in the international context?

Šarūnas: Perhaps all that and every time slightly different. After World War II, the Lithuanian composers exhibited a continuing concern for the things related not only to the national, but also to nationalistic ideas. They strived to prove their superiority in writing music. This was their idée fixe, declared in a rather overt manner. Since the times of Juozas Gruodis and in all subsequent Lithuanian music, the sound of the sutartinės has been turned in a sort of fetish, or, more precisely, into a ready-made cliché. In case with Barkauskas, its use was quite successful and the orchestra sounds ok.

Mindaugas: In 1970, Barkauskas wrote Pro memoria, and it betrays nothing Lithuanian.

Šarūnas: Yes, indeed. One can feel certain changes in the musical idiom, a slight shift in rhetoric. I would associate the latter with the standard Soviet film scores, whose tradition originated with Shostakovich.

Mindaugas: But overall, this piece had an invigorating effect on Lithuanian live music scene, albeit from somewhat unexpected angle.

Šarūnas: This work exhibits yet another interesting aspect: like the photographs of the time, it conveys the spirit of that epoch and thus can be regarded as a testimony of the 1970s.

Mindaugas: The composers were then involved in intense experimentation. The genre of string quartet was one of their favourite, a testing ground for various innovations and explorations. For example, each new quartet by Julius Juzeliūnas signalled changes in his writing; quartet was his primary means for testing new ideas.

Šarūnas: Feliksas Bajoras also wrote for string quartet. We have already mentioned his defiance of tradition and demands of the time.

Mindaugas: With his most radical composition of the time – Variations for double bass and string quartet – Bajoras had thrown down the gauntlet to the performers. As far as I recall, they got into serious trouble, trying to play it and come to grips with the baffling aleatory score. But this work nonetheless became a symbol of victory in a different kind of fight against the regime – if you allow me such a frivolous way of putting matters: he managed to send the score to the composition competition in Naples and win the second prize. This was an act of grave misdemeanour.

Šarūnas: At that time Lithuanians had virtually no contacts with international festivals, publishers and competitions. For many subsequent years Bajoras’s success at this competition has been as inspiring an example as Stasys Vainiūnas’s victory at the Vienna Piano Competition in 1933. Singular yet unforgettable facts decades apart.

Mindaugas: Bajoras’s work is quite symptomatic. It reflects the spirit of the time, that is, the same year, 1968.

Šarūnas: It is one of a very few of Bajoras’s works written in those years, which betrays not a hint of Lithuanianness. Bajoras is oftentimes associated with declamatory patriotism, with outward signs of national identity. Even in the Variations, his favourite means – such as a broken melody, certain edginess, a rather specific temper and other, quite radical matters – are still recognisable under the guise of a different rhetoric.

Mindaugas: The same year Bajoras wrote yet another piece – Stained Glass – music for an exhibition. It makes a sensitive rendition of flickering colours and breaking beams of light in a stained glass structure.

Šarūnas: The art of strained glass thrived in Lithuania of the 1960s and 1970s. It was an object of fashion, much in demand at the interiors of public buildings, halls and restaurants. Sometimes the were huge and bombastic. Originally, stained glass came from the medieval churches in France.

Mindaugas: Lithuanian stained glass artists earned good repute in the Soviet Union; they used to work in Moscow and elsewhere.

Šarūnas: Don’t you find that certain features that characterise stained glass designs are also characteristic of Lithuanian music? It is like assembling small pieces into a composition.

Mindaugas: Like an assemblage of small segments? Maybe so.

Šarūnas: As a matter of interest, this piece by Bajoras was composed for the Trade and Industrial Exhibition of the USSR at Earls Court Exhibition Centre in London in 1968. Among other things, this exhibition presented a Lithuanian stand, which demonstrated the country’s latest achievements in the areas of culture, industry and design within the total space of 600 square meters. The central feature of the Lithuanian section was an enormous (6 metres high) stained glass kinetic sculpture “Vilnius, Capital of Lithuania” by Algimantas Poškus, whose movement was accompanied by Bajoras’s music. The Times reported that “columns rotate to an irregular rhythm whose programmed movement is emphasized by the computer-style music of 28-year-old Feliksas Bajoras.” And all this happened in 1968: unconstrained by any kind of inferiority complex or mandatory use of folk elements in a socialist realistic artwork, but with an explicit statement. And right in the middle of London! A splendid representation of the Lithuanian avant-garde, even though the composer was not even invited to attend the exhibition.

Mindaugas: Like it or not, this and other music of that period must be recorded and released anew.

Šarūnas: The surviving records proved historically impracticable, I might say. The tapes are crumbling, many of them are lost for ever or impossible to find.

Mindaugas: These surviving recordings, however, have retained the unique sounding of this music, the quality of which seems doubtless. It would be just great if performers would show more interest in it.

Šarūnas: Here comes another rather mysterious personality of Lithuanian music into play: Osvaldas Balakauskas. For several years he had lived and studied in Kiev; no one heard of him in Lithuania at that time. The Ukraine was not considered a foreign country back then, but it nonetheless was a totally different country with a distinct culture. This might have had a strong impact on Balakauskas and his music.

Mindaugas: Yes, indeed. When the first score of Balakauskas’s music – Cascades for piano composed in 1967 – got into our hands, we, young students of composition, looked at it, with gasping astonishment.

Šarūnas: In terms of graphic layout of the score, this work looks quite imposing even today. In my opinion, it is one of the most complex and successful works for piano.

Mindaugas: It is distinguished for consistent indoctrination of the serial technique, to which Balakauskas had taken for many coming decades.

Šarūnas: One may also trace the influences of Debussy, Schoenberg and Boulez, as well as other composers en vogue among the avant-gardists of the time. But most interesting of all is the fact that the Cascades were written by a third-year student.

Mindaugas: Even though by that time he was thirty-two.

Šarūnas: His musical idiom was different – very much so, as a matter of fact – from those of Barkauskas and Bajoras, Juzeliūnas and Montvila. Could we possibly discern any essential differences in Balakauskas’s own idiom between then and now?

Mindaugas: Actually, I can’t see any essential differences. He studied composition later than others and therefore reached maturity much earlier both as a person and a composer. His basic preferences remained the same until this very day. He has been always preoccupied with the serial organisation of musical works, despite various minor changes in style which have never been as radical as with some of his younger and senior colleagues. On the other hand, Balakauskas was less fascinated with the outward attributes of the Polish avant-garde which may be due to the fact that he was farther away from Poland and Lithuania at that time.

Šarūnas: Balakauskas stresses that he feels more affinity for the French tradition; but I could also add German and Austrian – much more than Lithuanian and Polish combined. The Cascades is thoroughly systematic, unlike many works by other Lithuanian avant-garde composers. It is a rationalistic method of composing, in which the beauty is defined through refined structures.

Mindaugas: One must not underestimate the influence of French music on Balakauskas’s phrasing. It is the elegant French phrase rather than the coarse (jolty) musical language more characteristic of the German and Austrian traditions that seems to be his element.

Šarūnas: But this was not always the rule in the early years of the Lithuanian post-war avant-garde For instance, in his Sonata for violin and piano of 1969. This music seems closer to standard modernism of the 20th century than to any kind of the post-war avant-garde.

Mindaugas: For one reason, Balakauskas might have resisted, intuitively, direct adoption of the existing styles. He sought to try out his ideas with historically established styles: let‘s take his Impresonata or any other of his conservatively wrought pieces of the time. And yet his radicalism was gathering pace – not only during the epoch of Lithuanian avant-garde, but also much later decades.

Šarūnas: Antanas Rekašius was somewhat elder of his fellow avant-gardists. He enjoyed extroverted and theatrical expression of his ideas; he was more concerned with rhetoric than with the formal and structural aspects of his music. His scores are sometimes more like graphic artworks or paintings...

Mindaugas: ...which he illuminated with coloured pens.

Šarūnas: The Second Symphony, written in 1968 is one of his most characteristic works.

Mindaugas: With this work, he tried to step into the zone of innovation, just because his colleagues had accomplished this before. Stylistically speaking, his musical language owes much to Shostakovich and Prokofiev, which seems quite a natural choice when writing for symphony orchestra at that time. One could hardy escape their influence. But at the same time Rekašius developed some unmistakable signs of his personal musical idiom, such as chromatic sequences in contrary motion and quirky gestures.

Šarūnas: What distinguishes Rekašius most of all among his colleagues is his penchant for humour and parody in music, which is a rather rare feature in Lithuanian music. His music is full of grotesquerie and irony, sometimes even self-irony, which is virtually impossible to find in the work of his colleagues. For instance, he depicts revolution in a way it is usually depicted in Soviet films, with marches, parading and excessive enthusiasm. His music is both ironic and ambivalent: he seems to be opposing and approving something at the same time. This is related to the fact that Rekašius has never demonstrated reluctance to accept official commissions for special occasions; in other words he did not shun the production of propaganda works. There was another colleague of Rekašius, Vytautas Laurušas, who did just the same. On the other hand, his Voices of the Night for male choir, written in 1969, introduced some significant novelties into Lithuanian music for voice.

Mindaugas: Two works written for Male Choir “Varpas” – Sodauto by Vytautas Montvila and Voices of the Night by Vytautas Laurušas – were the harbingers of new Lithuanian music. I can still recall how people unrelated to music used to characterise this kind of novelties: one would be scared stiff to hear the Voices of the Night at night. It was then regarded as a genuine thriller within the context of Lithuanian music.

Šarūnas: Ah, that’s when thrillers came into fashion! Nowadays it seems to be a prevalent genre. But let’s talk about the works by Bronius Kutavičius written in the avant-garde vein. He is not an avant-gardist in the traditional sense; it was only a short transitional period that he took to the avant-garde techniques before moving on to minimalism and folklorism. In what respects the avant-garde pieces by Kutavičius might be important?

Mindaugas: They are important not only for Kutavičius, but also for the whole development of Lithuanian music. Kutavičius began with neoclassicism, and then set his sights on minimalism via the avant-garde. Let’s not forget that Kutavičius denied the necessity to use folklore for quite a long time: he maintained that there is no use in folklore. But his attitude was soon to change. His avant-garde period, specifically, demonstrates his reluctance to use folklore. He attempted to be innovative, fresh, and maybe also Lithuanian, but without the aid of folklore. What is important is not the fact that he employed serial technique and aleatoric composition, but that the majority of his pieces possess rigid sonata-like structures and at the same time retain indescribable, intuitive, impulsive character to it. Perhaps for some it may appear somewhat incoherent; but in reality such formal ambivalence suits the avant-garde style very naturally.

Šarūnas: One can only hypothesise how many borrowings from the avant-garde music of various countries, with which Kutavičius became familiar, were actually transplanted. More importantly, his avant-garde works display perceptible segments that he later transplanted into other formal designs and styles, but the vocabulary and basic patterns of microforms seem to have emerged during the avant-garde period of Kutavičius’s work. Later on his music underwent serious changes in terms of character and address; whereas his abstract avant-garde pieces strived to vie musical convention and standard practice.

Mindaugas: This ‘molecular’ formation characteristic of Kutavičius’s music may well indicate some kind of a latent programme or pattern of his artistic individuality. At first it was concealed under the guise of various composing techniques and later surfaced like an elemental power. But for now we are more concerned with his early avant-garde works.

Šarūnas: We might only hypothesize that his artistic personality could have formed and emerged much earlier, but in reality it came out as a natural development. I would rather make a different observation: the Lithuanian composers who debuted with avant-garde works in 1963 were still very young, one might say even callow. But at the end of the period, around 1970, their music reveals fully matured artistic personalities. These composers seemed to be driven by earnest ambition to express something of their own in art; they emerge as modern-minded and experienced creative personalities. This may account for the originality in the works of the late Lithuanian avant-garde – if not absolute, then conspicuous at the very least.

Mindaugas: Yes, indeed. It is obvious that by the end of the 1960s these composers have finally worked out their personal idioms and styles. Later on their music moved further away from the avant-garde and developed in individual ways. But let’s not get ahead of time and remind ourselves of one of the most shocking pieces in the history of Lithuanian avant-garde. I remember that hearing, at which we heard The Pantheistic Oratorio by Kutavičius for the first time: it was a truly momentous event; many bitter words were told, many stones were thrown at the young composer. Every element in this work – style, expressive means, text by Sigitas Geda – appeared to provoke shock. Or maybe not? Maybe he just attempted to remain as natural as he could be?

Šarūnas: I think, shock was partly intended. I discovered this work for myself much later: in 1970, the year of that notorious hearing, I was a second grade schoolboy and had no idea that such music existed. While in 1982 I could not understand how this piece had remained neglected and undiscovered by any performer for 12 years: for me it seemed like an eternity. It was a gross injustice.

Mindaugas: And a very telling one, I must say.

Šarūnas: For me The Pantheistic Oratorio had a quite distinctly anti-Soviet flavour; that’s why I decided to perform it with the company of my peers. The immediate interest of the Soviet censors proved that I was on a right track: the prime object of their interest was not even the score by Kutavičius, but the texts by Geda. But the latter were published a decade ago by the official Vaga publishers in Vilnius. I guess the main reason why The Pantheistic Oratorio had lain intact for so long is not really the Soviet censorship, but the neglect on the side of performers who simply disliked such music which appeared complex and unusual even at first sight. Extreme registers of the vocal range, the frequent use of Sprechstimme and aleatory techniques, plenty of improvisation, complex form – all this did not seem particularly appealing to the Lithuanian performers.

Mindaugas: True, there are certain things in this music that seem awkward and unrewarding from the standpoint of performing practice. But for a person who is susceptible to novelties, it might appear very tempting. For some people of the artistic world it instantly became a sign and symbol of resistance.

Šarūnas: The Pantheistic Oratorio was strongly influenced by the poetic imagery of Sigitas Geda – particularly by his surrealistic poem Ledynas baltas kaukaspenis (Glacier, White Like a Thunderbolt[1]). Kutavičius made no secret of the fact that he borrowed a lot from this poem, besides the texts to which he set his music. The poem’s surreal imagery endowed his music with particular vividness, which, on the other hand, calls for refined histrionics. To perform this we had to ask theatre director Jonas Vaitkus for assistance and he helped us a lot, indeed.

Mindaugas: These works set to various poetic texts were some of Kutavičius’s most popular compositions of the time, but not the only ones. I’d like to turn to his abstract chamber music – for example, to his First String Quartet, written in 1971, which has certain connection to his later Piano Sonata. These were the first pieces, in which Kutavičius applied the reduction of material, which later became his trademark technique and lead to minimalism. This is evident from the use of very limited and easily recognisable means or elements of articulation, say a pizzicato or con sordino, within the limits of one section. This method becomes one of the most distinctive features of his music.

Šarūnas: Some segments bear obvious references to the sutartinės; they become tightly woven into the otherwise dissonant fabric of the Quartet’s music. The idea about the integration of ethnic music into the context of modern music has persisted in the consciousness of Lithuanian avant-garde composers. Even if composers declared total refusal to use the rudiments or even tiniest molecules of folk music in their music, they could hardly resist temptation to include at least some slight semblance of Lithuanianness. The national idea was always in play, irrespective of the context, and this was one the most distinctive features of the Lithuanian avant-garde.

Mindaugas: I totally agree with you. It was Julius Juzeliūnas who analysed, both in practice and in theory, how Lithuanian folk music can influence the creation of new music. Younger composers, who belonged to the generation of Kutavičius and Bajoras, looked for the different ways to integrate folk and avant-garde music.

Šarūnas: Ways were different, indeed; but Juzeliūnas was one of the most influential advocates of Lithuanian music who adopted traditions created by Gruodis and developed them further to achieve, as one might say, an entirely different level – modern and international. His pupil Feliksas Bajoras integrated even more recognisable elements of national music into his own idiom.

Mindaugas: This became a special idiom which distinguished Feliksas Bajoras; even though sometimes he, too, seemed to have wished to avoid explicit national features in his music. This is evidenced by his symphony Stalactites, written in 1970, inspired by his travel impressions from Czechoslovakia. It was an attempt to create a profound composition, based on simultaneous and polyrhythmic orchestral gestures on different layers. It signalled the departure from the avant-garde style and transition into some new idiom.

Šarūnas: In my opinion, this symphony was to some extent influenced by the Soviet music for films.

Mindaugas: That’s why the way towards the integration of national features seemed more viable. Individual approach, which comes into play whenever the original treatment of the folkloric material is concerned, remained popular in later years as well. Once I suggested famous English pianist and composer Michael Finissy to perform Feliksas Bajoras’s Rauda (Lament) for piano in his concerts. He later told me that this work suited perfectly in the context of other music by composers from around the world. The minute-long miniature stands out for its originality.

Šarūnas: Vytautas Montvila, who had debuted as a composer of mini-compositions that we have discussed some time earlier, has later earned recognition as a composer of symphonic works.

Mindaugas: He might well be regarded as the greatest innovator in the field of orchestral music. Writing for the orchestra is a rather complicated matter, and the composers oftentimes can’t help using the same old clichés all over again. But Montvila somehow managed to find the way out from this overuse. He got infected with the ideas of György Ligeti and decided to combine them with the specific genre of Lithuanian folk songs – the sutartinės.

Šarūnas: In 1970, he composed the Gothic Poem for the orchestra.

Mindaugas: In his attempt to integrate the Lithuanian folklore into the stylistic context of the avant-garde, Montvila has found his way quite close to that of Bajoras, but different all the same. He succeeded in finding his personal voice; whereas his Gothic Poem was both praised and criticised. The elder professionals took every advantage to admonish their younger colleagues. For example, they suggested Feliksas Bajoras, especially after the premiere of his Stalactites symphony, to visit a certain clinic for a special treatment should he continue writing such music. Various opinions and insulting remarks were bandied about, and with deep conviction.

Šarūnas: Not only remarks were bandied about, but also faultfinding articles were written and published by the leading communist newspapers. For instance, the Pantheistic Oratorio by Kutavičius was described as “a piece, confined to mere experimentation.” What this meant is not only an opinion, but real disqualification – such pieces were never performed again.

Mindaugas: One must note that not all composers have taken to the folklore with much enthusiasm. Some considered this turn to the folklore and Lithuanian roots as an exhausted, anachronistic activity which brought back the time of Naujalis. They endeavoured to compose music in the ‘pure’ and abstract avant-garde style.

Šarūnas: Two things have been closely intertwined here. People often confused the structural, technological side of folk music – intonations, rhythms and textures – with something which can be characterised as the ideological manifestation of the folklore, as the sign of national identity. This side has been reflected in public discussions, published in the press of the time, whose participants unanimously agreed that Lithuanian music is good as it is, as it should be and that is doomed to be. The nationalistic pathos is more than evident.

Mindaugas: But at the same time, as I have adumbrated before, there were composers who had never advocated the use of folklore. Antanas Rekašius, for example, had adopted the avant-garde techniques and applied them to his own composing method rather late but highly efficiently.

Šarūnas: And yet, in spite of dissonant harmonies, broken irregular rhythms and the overall avant-garde bombastic, don’t you find that his Metafonija (Metaphony) for violin and orchestra, written in 1971, came out of the same mould as romantic and even Soviet romantic music?

Mindaugas: This is perhaps due to the underlying structure, which remained unchanged.

Šarūnas: The perception remained the same, only utterances are different.

Mindaugas: Yes, it might be so. The same scenery, only with differently dressed characters. Nevertheless the concert-going public seemed to like this music: drastic, aggressive, yet specially designed for a concert hall.

Šarūnas: Antanas Rekašius retained the avant-garde features much longer than his fellow composers. Rhetorical tricks and histrionics require no special knowledge, previous training or tradition, to understand – the effect is direct in its appeal. But don’t you have an impression that in Rekašius’s understanding the avant-garde is equated with the certain state of disorder, unsystematic movement and downright chaos?

Mindaugas: I don’t think his music is entirely chaotic. What regulates this chaotic deployment of compositional means is not structures, but rather emotions.

Šarūnas: And what if we were to compare avant-gardism of Rekašius and that of Balakauskas?

Mindaugas: The aesthetic standpoint of Balakauskas is very different: he looks for the beauty within the structures. In his music, the process of composition begins with the search for ways to combine and link structures. He often composes with mathematical precision and observes the requirements of aesthetic harmony with due respect.

Šarūnas: Balakauskas wrote his First Symphony in 1973, it contains many signs of the avant-garde. But still more it savours of the Schoenberg’s epoch – in other words, of the rise of the first avant-garde.

Mindaugas: It can be described as an academic avant-garde: an attempt to search for historical relations by adopting some elements from this heritage and formulating his own ideas.

Šarūnas: In the period of 1972–1973, everybody in the musical avant-garde seemed to be involved in ambitious orchestral projects. Some compose oratorios, the others write symphonies and concertos. This evidences certain signs of artistic maturity.

Mindaugas: Absolutely. It shows maturity and proficiency. The symphony orchestra is an age-old mechanism which formed over the centuries and did not change much, except for a few newly invented or discovered exotic instruments which had been added to its lineup. In reality it is still the same 18th-century instrumental machine, a very awkward one and difficult to handle; thus it is not an easy task to make something novel with it.

Šarūnas: We now came to the point from which the composers went on to explore new things – first of all in terms of scope, making the preoccupation with avant-gardism gradually fade away. The composers seemed to have run the course under the influence of the avant-garde ideas, and maybe even become more original afterwards?

Mindaugas: On the one hand, it is entirely true. But on the other, let’s remind ourselves what happened at that time: even the greatest avant-gardists were then going through the period of decisive change. I can mention Krzysztof Penderecki, Alfred Schnittke and Arvo Pärt. Around 1976 all of them appeared to have done with the avant-garde and left it all behind.

Šarūnas: The avant-garde trend had prevailed for several decades, and only ten years in Lithuania. And then there came a time when it became outmoded, a thing behind the times. The composers began to flee from this camp.

Mindaugas: Curiously, the works written at the end of this period are very distinctive, even though they possess features characteristic both of the avant-garde and personal idioms. For instance, one can find this in the music of Melika, a sonata for voice and organ, composed in 1973 by Julius Juzeliūnas.

Šarūnas: Well, in my view, Melika somehow opposes pure avant-gardism and marks the transition towards archaic forms which soon became popular in new Lithuanian music. Once again, just as he did before, Juzeliūnas runs ahead of his time. He invented new rules for the next stage.

Mindaugas: Indeed, and many have adopted them. Maybe with the exception of Rekašius who has lingered in the avant-garde territory for some time longer. The young generation of the time, for example, Jurgis Juozapaitis, tried to adjoin the avant-garde trend, but soon moved away. Time was past and interests were different. Nevertheless one of his early works – Rex Symphony, written in 1973 – represents a vivid reflection and the apex of this period.

© Mindaugas Urbaitis, 2011
© Šarūnas Nakas, 2011
© Translated by Veronika Janatjeva.

[1] 1 In local dialects, belemnites were called ‘thunderbolts,’ and they were supposed to fall from the sky during thunderstorms. They were also called bullets, Devil's Fingers or Saint Peter's Fingers. (translator’s note)

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