The Journey Has No Path Because the Mirror Has No Reflection

Šarūnas Nakas

Where is the nose of Lithuanian contemporary composer turning? Might it still be called an orientation towards a certain centre or several of them at once? What ways of composing are seen as priorities in Lithuania nowadays: some idealistic pursuit, heedless of the afterlife of a finished work, or a pragmatic enterprise that yields palpable profit and an opportunity to enhance one’s social power? What entices composers’ mind and how this affects the music they write?

Let us examine several different orientations and types of creative work, which may be found within the community of Lithuanian academic composers. The latter is not very numerous indeed: it only amounts to roughly 25 composers, if one is to speak in terms of creative intensity and regular self-representation.

A Bit of Lithuanian Music History

For the most part of the 20th century Lithuanian composers seem to have tried to catch up the passing train. In Lithuania, like in many Central and Eastern European countries, there was a pervasive idea about the national music that would spring from somewhat mystical marriage of traditional rustic music and the so-called modern means of expression. However, over the decades this idea has not moved any further than simple incorporation of archaic or more recent folkloric elements into the context of utterly conservative or modern musical vocabulary. Basic challenges of modernism have been arriving belatedly and unsystematically, and have been accepted locally as if compulsory schoolwork. Save for some episodic synchronization with the Mid-European countries – for instance, one can refer to Juozas Gruodis whose way of thinking was very much akin to that of Bela Bartok – Lithuanian music has more or less stayed in isolation. In some cases it was regarded as a historical and political injustice to be surmounted in one way or another; while in other cases it was viewed as a prerequisite to originality.

In the 1960s the whole situation has changed in favour of modernism. This gave rise to a number of compositions, written in more original Lithuanian modernist idiom. Still more ambitious undertakings, however, commenced only with the 1970s. A group of composers, who had rashly learned some modernist clichés without discarding the influence of social realistic rhetoric, suddenly (and unaware of that) became postmodernists. It is not the striving for inventions and discoveries – one of the main illusions of the avant-garde – that they were really concerned about but rather the application of certain freely chosen matters to a given medium. For the same reason their urge to absorb the novelties that were then coming from abroad was conceived as a calling for a latter-day fashion rather than the ceaseless running after the train. Likewise in other neighbouring countries under the soviet rule, there was a natural transition from the necrotic metastasis of the mutant form of romanticism to the global postmodernism under way in Lithuania.

What were the objects of attraction for the progressive composers of the 1960s? They used to pilgrimage to the Warsaw Autumn festival and then tried all possible ways to imitate what appeared most important to them. Those visits to the Warsaw Autumn were not so easy to achieve. To get there Lithuanian composers and musicologists had to join the international brigades of Soviet composers formed in Moscow beforehand. Members of such brigades had to comply even with the ideological acts of protest shown in public when sometimes the whole ‘brigade’ had to rise from their seats and leave the hall if something too extravagantly experimental was happening on stage. But at the same time, such organisation had its own benefits: for instance, one could approach and talk to some of the highest artistic authorities of the time. Now it would be hard to count how many composers recounted (and still recount) with pride that they have personally talked to ‘Lutosławski himself’.

The study of dodecaphony, feverishly trying to adopt the scholastic technique developed by the Viennese composers back in the 1920s, gained something of a cult or a prestigious pursuit at that time. Yet there were also some more recent trends that attracted their attention. First of all – anarchic aleatory, which developed after the World War II and infiltrated Lithuania through Poland. The symbiosis of strict dodecaphonic layout and aleatoric freedom was one of the easiest ways to concoct a modern-sounding composition – at least as it was understood in those days.

Conspicuous resemblance of Lithuanian avant-garde music to the Polish avant-garde of the time also betrays certain political acceptance of somewhat less constrained Poland rather than other countries of the Soviet empire suffering greater abridgment of political freedom. And, in fact, it sounded clearly different from the officially authorised style of socialist realism, and, from the ideological viewpoint, had certain anti-Soviet tinge. No wonder then that the Soviet censorship met these experiments with the imperative disapproval.

At long last some ambitious composers emerged in Lithuania who were not content with the mere transplantation of fashionable Western styles into the local context. Under the influence of national and even nationalistic ideas, they persistently aimed at some sort of original Lithuanian identity. Such an attitude would inevitably lead to a certain provincialism because their musical vocabulary has increasingly accumulated local peculiarities and nuances that were hardly comprehensible to the foreigners. On the other hand, to a certain degree it has propelled the implicit need for originality because it has brought about the possibility not only to adopt but also to exert one’s efforts to create something totally new. They came up with an idea to create the new and vital world of Lithuanian music, which would compensate time lost during the occupations. Obviously, their initial stimuli came not from the field of aesthetics but rather from patriotic inspirations, political circumstance and resistance ideas.

The Problem of Centres

In the 1970s the natural gravitation towards several centres became apparent in Lithuania. All of them were outside the country. Without going into further details we can simply name them: Warsaw, Tallinn, Moscow, Kiev and Riga. Of course, these were the cities more or less reachable within the Soviet Union. Although the musical life in each of them was different in volume and character, it offered a variety of events and phenomena, which aroused emphatic interest.

The composers were also aware of the other centres in Europe such as Darmstadt, Paris and Vienna. They sporadically received information about the new tendencies and ideas generated there but did not keep in regular contact with them. Thus the above-mentioned Eastern European centres, closer to Lithuania in geographical and political sense, gained far greater authority than they have today. As a matter of fact, there was no other choice – it could not happen otherwise.

From the very beginning the concept of the centre was at the least two-dimensional. The first dimension may be called real for it encompasses diverse information and pertains to the creative process carried out in the centre. The second one may be described as mythological when the centre becomes endowed with an overstated significance and turns into a focus of all hopes, when the real thing becomes supplanted by utopias and unrealistic expectations. It must be noted that in the minds of Lithuanian composers, especially of those who belong to the eldest generation of living composers, this mythological dimension of the concept has gradually transformed into a complex conglomerate, an amalgam of that utopian standpoint with bitter scepticism, stirred by the centres which remained indifferent to their work. Unfortunately, none of these senior composers managed to join the ranks of internationally influential composers by making regular appearances at the European contemporary music festivals or in editions of the worldwide distributed publishing and recording companies. It is no surprise then that their latent discontent evolved into a categorical and strongly biased critique of the present-day European musical life as well as music itself. But why then should it seem surprising that the mythological centres were unwilling to accept mythologically thinking composers?

Fortunately, such inclinations did not inhibit but rather stimulated creative work. Since the mid-1970s Lithuanian musical life has seen an emergence of several distinctively individual as well as general stylistic trends. As the free access to the centres located outside the country was hindered, the functions of the centre were transferred to Vilnius. It appeared the only possible escape, because Moscow and Tallinn did not fully meet the needs, and Warsaw became unavailable due to the rise of Solidarity movement.

Meanwhile the prestige of new Lithuanian music has conspicuously grown in the eyes of the local public. Packed halls during the Lithuanian Soviet music festivals of 1977 and 1982 may well bear witness to this fact. These were the only events that invited even a couple of foreign publishers. Some still consider this period to be the golden age of Lithuanian music, but it would be misleading to omit the fact that in the said period contemporary music life was highly specific and restrained. Firstly, there were no regular festivals dedicated entirely to contemporary music. Secondly, there were practically no contacts with foreign musicians. Nevertheless, Lithuanians were quite aware about the latest developments abroad, but Lithuania was virtually nonexistent in the eyes of the foreign countries. When applied to Lithuanian music an infamous metaphor of the ‘Iron Curtain’ acquires another interesting twist of meaning: in this particular case, it reminds more of a tinted glass curtain that allows passage of light from within, but completely restricts the view from outside.

The Situation in the Last Decade

What has changed in the last decade? To my mind, the basic change is that the concept of the centre has greatly expanded and became more varied. The erstwhile international centres became partly or almost fully devoid of their force of attraction. At least they no longer function as major invariable factors, impossible to disregard in earlier times. Back in those days it did not even necessitate an immediate contact: the whole musical universe gravitated towards some truly remarkable phenomena whose very presence obliged to comply with certain established hierarchies. Nowadays, if anything remained unaltered, then it exists in significantly detracted forms.

One of the most prominent examples of this change is the decrease of interest in Northern and Eastern neighbours. However, the Polish springboard for Lithuanian music is still functioning thanks to some active Polish musicologists who are regarded as highly influential figures not only in Poland but also in Lithuania. To some extent they can be seen as authoritative ideologists of the eldest generation of Lithuanian composers.

Yet more important is the fact that the composers no longer rely on any centres whatsoever. It is no longer possible to speak of any ‘cult’ places, institutions or pilgrimage sites in the context of Lithuanian music. Today we can only observe seasonal trajectories, orbital motion or even episodic mental digressions but at any rate not the constant gravitation towards some points in space or their agglomerations. It looks more like scattered cobwebs, flying adrift in the autumn wind, than the orderly network of highways and railroads, leading to the well-entrenched fortresses.

There is no doubt that in the early age of internet this could not be otherwise. The centres become utterly virtual entities and a great deal of their former functions dissolve or transform into something else. Thus there is nothing strange about the Lithuanian composers who value that which really exists around them – the National Philharmonic Society, the Lithuanian Composer’s Union and Lithuanian Music Information Centre, scholarships granted by the Lithuanian Ministry of Culture, and commissions requested for special occasions - more than somewhat mystified and mythicized foreign centres. Of course, it would be misleading to overlook the fact that the number of Lithuanian works commissioned and performed internationally is constantly increasing. Yet one can refer to another actual fact that the initial steps in making contacts with the international publishing and recording companies did not develop so far into long-term contracts. The intense musical life centered in Vilnius and represented in the biggest annual musical events, such as Vilnius Festival, Gaida Festival and “Jauna muzika”, now becomes the focal point for Lithuanian composers.

This way, however, leads us to the blind alley: our journey to the real or virtual centres thus loses its path, because we arrive at nowhere. The centre imperceptibly moves along with us and becomes situated in the same place as we are. But do we really need to travel? Or maybe we have to travel all together – both Eastern and Western European people? And maybe we should no longer call it travel, but the circuit and fluctuation of ideas, if we are to describe more precisely the present-day matters and our present aspirations? Maybe this is the only way to balance the intricate rivalry of Eastern and Western contemporary music markets, as well as within those markets? Is it still so important to struggle for the central position, at least within the local region?

In almost every new instance, the same things reveal themselves in a slightly different light. Perhaps this may be the reason to keep returning to the same things all over again?

© Šarūnas Nakas, 2002-2004
© Translated by Veronika Janatjeva

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