THEME. New Postminimalist Music in Lithuania


In our day, as in the past, new music often either adopts the ideas of other musical styles, or successfully adapts certain of their technological principles. According to Steve Reich, the music nowadays is no longer a one way traffic, it is going now in both directions, with both sides exchanging ideas. The postminimalist music of Lithuanian composers - or that which more or less can be considered part of this trend - perhaps doesn't as much draw its ideas from aesthetically distant musical styles as looks for them in the not too distant history, or even from within its own surroundings. No wonder that to this day one finds an obvious influence of minimalism in Lithuania: in the 1970s and 1980s it was a major, and fashionable, musical trend in this country.

It is almost impossible to strictly define a postminimalist style, for we are talking about a very broad spectrum of phenomena characterised by different aesthetics. The common denominator is loyalty to a pulsating rhythm and repetition of short motifs, a pursuit for a tonal or paratonal effect, and a general reduction of material.

In postminimalist music one returns to more traditional and shorter forms than those existing during the 'classical' minimalist period. While in the 1960s minimalist works of a non-standard duration were composed for non-standard spaces, today's postminimalist works have been adapting themselves to a philharmonic concert environment, as shorter pieces can be more effectively programmed within the established structure of academic music concerts. Postminimalist music at times appears to take on a baroque music tradition - with one mood sustained in one movement, another in another movement, with no significant contrasts, etc. - although exceptions and diversions from the norm are not unusual here either.

Postminimalist music is fairly often connected to a neo-romantic tradition, but it can also be affected by significantly newer phenomena such as computer technologies and various electronic manipulations. The music is developed according to several canons: it is usually tonal, consonant, often based on a steady rhythm and energetic pulsation.

Assembling - cutting - mixing

Antanas Kučinskas' (b. 1968) Loop in D minor (2004) is 'loop music' related as much to standard minimalism as to DJ'ing techniques and different ways of cut-and-paste, shuffling and mixing the existing music. It differs from popular music only in the sense that, in this specific case, the author builds his work on classical music - Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy's Trio in D minor. The music of various historical epochs becomes an object for re-composition, but it is borrowed not only from the distant past: alongside others, in his Index nodorum (2002-2005), Antanas Kučinskas 'loops on' fragments of Bronius Kutavičius' music (one of the representatives of an early Lithuanian minimalism) written in the early 1980s.

Diversity of individual voices

Like classical minimalism, postminimalist music is frequently anti-expressive and limited by a fairly passive exposition of structures, making hardly any effort to articulate smaller details of texture, as does expressive European avant-garde. The transparency of postminimalist texture doesn't, however, deny the possibility of individual style. In that respect, early minimalism was somewhat more radical and at the same time more one-sided, with a greater hidden danger for composers to become uniform.

Today's postminimalists are not afraid of being influenced by classical, avant-garde, electronic and popular music. Diverse and contrasting zones of music seem to no longer exist - there are simply allusions to other styles, with the frequent use of a principle similar to film montage: at times postminimalist works become quite similar to soundtracks. Musical pluralism and openness to ideas is one of the features of postminimalist music, and it draws upon the widest possible variety of sources for its inspiration.

Loreta Narvilaitė's (b. 1965) composition When the Foot-bridge is Gone, I Will Cross the River (2003) for piano trio is a perfect example of certain characteristic features of postminimalist music: regularly repeated distinctive melodic motifs that change gradually and slowly - as does the rhythm, that is conspicuous but not aggressive. In certain sense, postminimalist music has an affinity to both neo-classicism and to impressionism, and is generally not alien to the tradition of Western classical music, with its dissonances, cadences, clear direction, and a certain transparency of overall texture.

Gintaras Sodeika's (b. 1961) Alzheimer-sonata (2000) for piano is related to jazz, with a flavour of Eastern, perhaps Indonesian music, with a jerky rhythm which often gets lodged in pentatonic fields. Composers of this trend are fond of a kind of cultural travelling, which is not declared as a homage or certain theme, but is presented as photographic reminiscences of one or another kind of music, appearing briefly and then again disappearing.

Remigijus Merkelys' (b. 1964) composition for large ensemble, Compass (2003), to some extent seems to be an allied work by a composer of another mind-set: though it is influenced by a German expressionist tradition, easy recognisable in its repetitive structures and rhythmic drive are signs of the Lithuanian contemporary music tradition. A work of a more complex structure, in a postminimalist context it appears fairly eclectic both in terms of its inspiration and in its chosen musical patterns and rhetoric. This summary aggregate is exploited following the logic of minimalists and postminimalists: shaping the long blocks of homogenous motion and focusing on the processes of minor change.

Repetition - manifestation

Postminimalist music usually is not aiming for the importance and oversignificance customarily attributed to works performed in concert halls. It contains a dose of scepticism and irony, and sometimes even overt humour. Most often it has no avant-garde preciosity, and is not hung with the seemingly requisite Darmstadt-like accessories which are frequently present in other new music trends.

In Nomeda Valančiūtė's (b. 1961) works, the idea of a mountain form has become a given: a slow movement gradually quickening, constantly rising, and becoming increasingly more energetic until after the climax, when it gradually returns to its initial state. This evolutionary model appears in her composition for chamber orchestra entitled Fafrotskies (2002). To Lithuanians, the monotony of its rhythm is reminiscent of sutartinės (archaic polyphonic folk songs from northern Lithuania), even though it is a method used by an entire generation throughout Eastern Europe: an active and resolute repetition of the same thesis, phrase, motif - like a manifesto, or maybe a parody of ideologies and advertising, reflecting the experiences of current life conditions and timeframe.

Manneristic postminimalism

Rytis Mažulis (b. 1961) has not inherited the mannerisms of other trends; he nourishes his own form of mannerism instead. His work Ex una voce (2004) basically confirms this: it is a single melody multiplied into 13 parts performed at different tempos, thereby creating an impression of chaos out of order. What Rytis Mažulis does in Lithuanian music basically reflects certain similar trends in Europe and the U.S., where a number of his contemporaries also apply complicated isorhythmic combinations, develop the concept of microdimensional composition, and penetrate the world of polytemporal and multipolyphonic ideas - all that can be considered a distinctive feature of the experimental branch of this generation's music.

In the mainstream

Not all post- or superminimalists (as Rytis Mažulis might be called) use special "power" measures - extremely compressed, often electronically amplified, torrents of sound that attack the listener's ear and consciousness. Some are much more moderate - even conservative. Among the latter is Arvydas Malcys (b. 1957), who mostly composes for orchestra. His frequent change of style could indicate that the composer is still in search for his true style, though he usually favours an orchestral postminimalism akin to that of the American Michael Torke - one which is based on a simple musical language, regular rhythmic pulsation, clear harmony, traditional and effective orchestral sound. All of these characteristics features his work Impetus (2001-2002) for symphony orchestra, commissioned and conducted by Mstislav Rostropovich.

Zita Bružaitė (b. 1966) is another composer who does not avoid the postminimalist trend. She writes music in a joyful, energetic, lucid style, quite often also absorbing jazz and folklore, at times even turning to Haydn - in short, writing listener-friendly music.

Other panoramas

In Lithuania, like elsewhere, postminimalist music, or music of that vein, is marked by great stylistic diversity. Sometimes it is very active and rhythmically energetic, frequently manifesting in a rough and severe manner. To apply a term used by Kyle Gann, some of Lithuanian postminimalist music could be called totalism - working as a kind of antidote to those gentle and euphonic musical traditions which abound in Lithuanian music. The work of Ričardas Kabelis (b. 1957) could be considered an example of totalism: throughout his piece Monopoly (2004) for trombone and orchestra, the soloist and orchestra persistently repeat an elementary motif of sixteenths, steadfastly droning in hyper-dissonant clusters.

Even if Lithuanian composers move away from what is generally considered to be postminimalism, it is unlikely that they will soon reject what they have discovered to be useful, distinctive and effective in its wake. There is no doubt that the postminimalist experience will be most effectively adapted in their most recent works. Contemporary culture by itself is given to original and productive intersections.

© Mindaugas Urbaitis & Šarūnas Nakas

Lithuanian Music Link No. 12

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