Is There a Genuine Lithuanian Sound Today?


In recent years, foreign music critics increasingly acknowledge that Lithuanian music differs significantly from the image of the Baltic music prevalent in the music world. As an example of this, we may refer to the number of reviews covering broader presentations of contemporary Lithuanian music in the MaerzMusik festival (2003), or Klangspuren Schwaz (2004). It is worth noting that the image of Baltic music – an amalgamation of spirituality, meditativeness, spontaneity, and minimalism – is not popular even in Lithuania where it is considered an export symbol of the Baltic music formed in post-Soviet years by the household names from Estonia (Arvo Pärt) and Latvia (Pēteris Vasks).

Even if we distance ourselves from the clichéd image of Baltic music, a question remains: is there a genuine Lithuanian sound? Contemporary perceptions of nationality in music have long lost their connection with the modernist search for national traits or postmodern reconstructions of archaic traditions characteristic of the 20th century. In the local context, the issue of representative nationality has undoubtedly disappeared; though it is still used as a description when transnational representation of a national tradition and of the local music scene (that is, the export of music) are discussed.

This radical transformation surfaced in the early 1990s, with post-Soviet independence, especially in the works of such Lithuanian cult figures as Bronius Kutavičius and Feliksas Bajoras. Under the Soviet regime, the reconstructions of pagan, archaic Lithuanian culture in Bronius Kutavičius' music were regarded as an open political and cultural resistance. Feliksas Bajoras' works originating from the traditional musical culture carried a similar message. Right after the fall of the USSR, the composers epitomizing the Lithuanian musical mainstream of the 1970s and 1980s started to seek inspiration in completely different spheres: Bronius Kutavičius became interested in archaic symbols and phenomena of other cultures (from Celtic crosses to Shaman rituals, e.g. in the Magic Circle of Sanskrit, 1990; The Gates of Jerusalem, 1991-1995; Kampf der Bäume, 1996), and Feliksas Bajoras started to search for new ways to modernize instrumental music (Exodus I, 1991-1994; Exodus II, 1995-1996).

Hence, we can deduce that nowadays the national and international reception of the same musical phenomena differs significantly. This alters the question about the existence of Lithuanian sound into several questions suitable to the comparison of both contexts: Did the mainstream of Lithuanian music change in the post-Soviet years? What key composers form the image of contemporary Lithuanian music? How does the international context of contemporary music influence the individual and collective strategies of Lithuanian composers?

Beyond the Baltic Sound: Lithuanian Mainstream at the Turn of the Centuries and Ideologies


Šarūnas Nakas
photo: Saulius Paukštys

It seems that it was much easier to answer these questions ten or fifteen years ago when the non-official mainstream of the 1970s and 1980s was legitimized. The music of its representatives including Bronius Kutavičius, Osvaldas Balakauskas and Feliksas Bajoras, and the works of the younger generation (Algirdas Martinaitis, Onutė Narbutaitė, Vidmantas Bartulis, Rytis Mažulis, Nomeda Valančiūtė, and others), formed under their influence, started to dominate in both the national and international arena. It is quite symptomatic that the question whether any radical changes have taken place in post-Soviet Lithuanian music or not concerned the community of musicians only during the first years of independence. Discussing this was out of the question in the mid-1990s. Together with this question, however, any attempts to comprehend the situation of Lithuanian music as a whole disappeared too, and it is difficult to ascertain whether a mainstream exists in contemporary Lithuanian music.

At the beginning of the 21st century, the image of Lithuanian music is chaotic, there's no definite configuration of figures and tendencies. In Lithuania, the situation of music is most frequently described as a collection of individual composers' creative strategies without any clear tendency of change or common reference points. This image also prevails in the international context: a number of foreign critics emphasize that aesthetic and technological pluralism is characteristic of contemporary Lithuanian music and that it is difficult to distinguish one or several prominent composers epitomizing its national sound. If we seek to reveal the tendencies of change in Lithuanian music during the last fifteen years, therefore, we must look at individual cases and search artistic biographies that reveal turning points in the collective tradition and symptoms of a new situation.

Critique of the Establishment and Traumatic Voices

Is it possible to identify, within the diversified community of Lithuanian composers, those individuals whose biographies could serve as a means for discussing general situation of music during the years of transformation? Or is it safest to rely on the extremes that may help us recognize the turning points in the tradition and the challenges encountered by the community of musicians? The extremities of contemporary Lithuanian music are best defined by the composers ALGIRDAS MARTINAITIS (b. 1950) and ŠARŪNAS NAKAS (b. 1962). In their works (and numerous essays), both the national tradition and the international milieus of contemporary music have become an object of criticism. Apart from challenges, such as an "imaginary museum of music" and a "music market", literary and musical works of both composers demonstrate some kind of insecurity of the national musical tradition. Both Martinaitis and Nakas find no durable instruments in post-Soviet culture that would guarantee creativity – neither on strictly technological level, nor on the level of identification with various environments of contemporary music. Their choices in this situation of insecurity, however, are essentially different. For the past fifteen years Algirdas Martinaitis has been (re)constructing his traumatic identifications by balancing, in his works, on the brink of dissolving in borrowed music (Unfinished Symphony, 1995; Death and the Maiden, 1997; Madame Butterfly - Madame Bovary, 2004) and almost falling into kitsch (Eurassic Park, 2002; Bienenmensch, 2003; The Prayer of the Faithful Word, 2004). Whereas Šarūnas Nakas' creative strategies are greatly influenced by his rejection of the industry of contemporary music festivals and publishers since he regards it as an instrument of power. To the world of the contemporary musical establishment he opposes the worlds of non-academic music, technologies and images of which he attempts to integrate into his music (Chronon, 1992-97; Ziqquratu II, 1999; At Heaven's Door, 2000; Aporia, 2001; Nude, 2004).

For which musical environments these composers do create their musical works seething with critique of contemporary culture? Characteristically, both composers orient their works towards those same festival environments that serve for them as objects of criticism. In Lithuania, as in many other countries, it is contemporary music festivals that facilitate the definition of a genuine national mainstream. Functioning as both a referential framework and a calendar timeframe, the festivals legitimize both established and rising names. In fact, true marginal composers are those whose music is not performed at contemporary music festivals. Thus, the cultural critique of Algirdas Martinaitis and Šarūnas Nakas is a component of their designed identity manifesting not only the limits of contemporary music but also the pluralism of the Lithuanian musical scene.

Return to the Individual Past and the Search for New Environments

Are the challenges of a new situation embodied in these composers' music and texts important to other Lithuanian composers? The answer is undoubtedly affirmative since the symptoms of their reaction against the altered cultural context can be seen in many works. However, responses to these challenges and individual creative strategies are fairly different. Perhaps the most paradoxical position in this regard is that of the representatives of the 1970s and 1980s' mainstream. In the works of BRONIUS KUTAVIČIUS (b. 1932) and OSVALDAS BALAKAUSKAS (b. 1937) written during the period of independence, one cannot trace any pronounced reaction against the changed context of the music's functioning: for instance, it is difficult to notice, in their works, either any toadying to the environment of festivals, or their rejection. For the last fifteen years, individual stylistic revisions and rethinking of their creative careers have inspired these composers' works most significantly. Balakauskas has rather radically abandoned the utopian heritage of the second avant-garde and nostalgically returned to the jazz and early modernism that he admired in his youth (Bop-art, 1995; Dal vento, 1999; Symphony No. 4, 1998; Concerto brio, 1999; Rex Re, 2000; Symphony No. 5, 2001). Together with revived nostalgia, self-quotations and homage to his earlier works appeared in his music. The same can be said about the essentially revisionist works of Bronius Kutavičius written during the last decade (Epitaphium temporum pereunti, 1998; opera The Bear, 2000; stage diptych Ignis et fides, 2003). The works of the former mainstream based on this type of self-reflexivity do no longer influence other composers˙ works but they acquire new meaning in a new cultural context. In this era of one-off performances and seasonal festivals, emphasis on an individual style as an enduring system preserves the stability of tradition.

It is possible to notice completely different trend in the music of the emerging composers born in the 1970s, first of all VYTAUTAS V. JURGUTIS (b. 1976), RAMINTA ŠERKŠNYTĖ (b. 1975) and MARIUS BARANAUSKAS (b. 1978). Although at the beginning of their careers all three were influenced by their teachers (Jurgutis and Šerkšnytė studied with Osvaldas Balakauskas, and Baranauskas with Rimantas Janeliauskas), within a few years their relation to the school lost its prior importance. The national school became for them simply a useful platform for integrating into various environments of contemporary music – from the e-music festivals to the prestigious repertoire of the Arditti Quartet. These free and easy environmental identifications by the young composers and their constant stylistic evolution demonstrate that neither dogmas nor rigid stylistic preferences restrict the contemporary Lithuanian school of composition.

The New Lithuanian Sound and Its Brand Names

Among all the aforementioned authorial strategies (including: critique of the international establishment, dissociation from the international contemporary music environments and changing identifications with them) two composers stand out who in their own way generalize and at the same time transcend them. VYKINTAS BALTAKAS (b. 1972) and ONUTĖ NARBUTAITĖ (b. 1956) – two very different artists – increasingly establish themselves as Lithuania's key brand names on the international scene.

After his composition and conducting studies in Lithuania, Vykintas Baltakas went on to study abroad in the early 1990s, and gradually became successfully integrated in the international music scene. His musical style has been significantly influenced not only by his studies with Wolfgang Rihm and Peter Eötvös but also by his experiences as a conductor specializing in 20th century repertoire. Baltakas' music has not been performed in Lithuania until recently. So when his works currently return to Lithuanian festivals it is possible to decide whether any signs of national tradition remain in it, or not. Doubtless, some national elements survive in his music formed by a different cultural tradition. First of all, it is possible to see them in the ambient atmosphere of his chamber pieces and in their subtle timbres and textures (Pasaka, 1995-97; Poussla, 2002). However, it is possible to argue that Vykintas Baltakas activated and transformed these national elements within the framework of the traditions formulated by György Ligeti and Wolfgang Rihm. The poetic charm of Baltakas' music is enhanced by the aesthetic purity of its structures: each element is treated here with great care (e.g. in his recent chamber opera Cantio, 2004). In recent years, one can notice Baltakas' interest in the French musical tradition the influence of which (particularly of the spectralists) also becomes more prominent in other young Lithuanian composers' works.

Onutė Narbutaitė's path to the international scene was completely different. In the 1980s, she earned the reputation of a composer of subtle chamber music. During the period of independence, Narbutaitė's music underwent significant transformations. First of all, more than any other Lithuanian composer she devoted herself to the creation of large-scale symphonic and vocal works (Sinfonia col triangolo, 1996; oratorio Centones meae urbi, 1997; Symphony No. 2, 2001; Tres Dei Matris Symphoniae, 2003; La barca, 2005). The composer often opts for genres and styles that demonstrate her disregard for the environment of contemporary music festivals, notwithstanding the fact that in recent years most of her works have been commissioned by foreign music festivals and institutions. Narbutaitė develops a very personal musical language with characteristic features such as intellectualism and solid structuring, expressive instrumentation and suggestive melodic writing, multilayered vertical stacking and an intense musical flow. Her aural imagery correlates with a great number of cultural reminiscences in her music. The American musicologist Richard Taruskin has poignantly indicated Onutė Narbutaitė's connection to Eastern European traditions of contemporary music represented, among others, by Witold Lutosławski and Sofia Gubaidulina.

If we consider Vykintas Baltakas and Onutė Narbutaitė's music as an epitome of the new Lithuanian sound, we might ask further: what changes in the national tradition does it represent? First of all, both composers' works are clearly distant from the minimalist tendencies prominent in the 1970s and 1980s.

On the other hand, both Baltakas and Narbutaitė activated and developed such elements of national music that allow us to relate them to the wide context of contemporary music, starting from Ligeti and Lutoslawski and ending with Kaija Saariaho and the French spectralists.

An aural imagery and a variety of expression, captivating instrumentation and resourceful use of tonal palette, solid formal structuring and an intensity of musical flow, intellectual vigour and cultural imagination – these are the signs of the new Lithuanian sound. Although these signs derive from the national tradition, they also witness its significant changes.

© Rūta Goštautienė

Lithuanian Music Link No. 10

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