Landscapes of Minimalism presents a retrospective of Lithuanian minimalist music, its first manifestations and later metamorphoses, which mainly took place in the 1980s. In the process of compiling this collection of recordings and taking into account differences in their sound quality, style and aesthetic, two distinct types of minimalist ‘soundscape’ were encountered in Lithuanian music: an euphonic, naturalistic, inspiring a ‘bio-’ and ‘eco-’ nostalgia; and a harsh, industrial, sometimes provoking ‘urban’ and ‘mechano-’ aggression.
The onset of minimalism in Lithuanian music is normally dated back to 1978 when Bronius Kutavičius presented the local artistic community with the work of staggering impact, the Last Pagan Rites. However, an alternative version might be proposed as well, which takes the Love Song and Farewell by Mindaugas Urbaitis, composed in 1979, as the first Lithuanian artifact of minimalist music. Urbaitis’s conscious orientation towards minimalism of American extraction (while the emergence of minimalist features in the work of Kutavičius was more of a latent or subconscious character) provides a valid argument enough for the inclusion of his piece among the harbingers of this trend in Lithuania.
Landscapes of Minimalism could be read simply as post-minimalism, a term, which has been appropriated from the Anglo-American discourse of music research. According to Kyle Gann, a keen researcher of minimalism, this trend has reached its end in 1980, though its strong pull lasted long after and affected a number of countries all over the world. Without going deep into theory, anything anywhere can be put under the umbrella of post-minimalism – everything that came after New York (classical) minimalism of the 1960s and 1970s, or what is by necessity based on reduction and repetition (any other feature may vary or vanish). Music can be UFO-like, sentimental, nauseating and ecstatic; old-fashionedly (para)tonal or blatantly dissonant; using beat-up or extra fresh timbres; turning on a feverish drive or resting pulseless; moulding a marzipan-like melody or viciously bursting it into pieces; switching you off with hypnotic microtonal drones or unnerving with spasmodic bursts; open to diverse ethno and pop influences or absorbed in asocial mode, devotedly fiddling with abstract structures; made in a lab, and so forth; in any case the reduction and repetitiveness of musical material must stay in order to call it post-minimal. Hence post-minimalism can show itself in various guises: from the postmodernist “new simplicity” by Vidmantas Bartulis to neo-avant-garde hyper-post-minimalism by Rytis Mažulis, as Šarūnas Nakas and Mindaugas Urbaitis once had put it.
It should be noted, though, that Julius Juzeliūnas, Osvaldas Balakauskas or several other composers worked in the territories of musical art quite remote from (post)minimalism at the time, but were adventurous enough to make occasional digressions. These resulted in authentic testimonies to the rapid spread of minimalist trend and its coming into fashion in the local environment. In effect, compositions like Spengla-Ūla by Balakauskas appeared to be exquisitely handcrafted models of (post)minimalism rather than mass-produced items of standard manufacture, dictated by the chase after the latest fads. Such singular works exerted a strong influence on the next generation of composers who made their debuts in the mid-1980s, including Šarūnas Nakas, Rytis Mažulis, Ričardas Kabelis, Nomeda Valančiūtė, and Gintaras Sodeika.
Minimalism in Lithuanian Music
Avant-gardism did not take root in Lithuania where it spanned less than a decade, until around the year 1973. It was confronted with many obstacles, such as public’s indifference, hostile reaction and censorship, insufficient technical mastery of the performers, and, most important of all, technical and aesthetic limitations of the composers who were not capable to work out large-scale compositions. They seem to have been historically predisposed to certain inertia, because the academic sonata form and conventional handling of basic primary structures were suited to the tonal music, but appeared fairly useless when applied in the context of the avant-garde. The jumble of random means often spawned ephemeral two-headed hydras.
On the other hand, works by Lithuanian composers had no access to international markets of modern music during the entire period of the Soviet occupation. Exceptions were extremely rare: Lithuania was not considered a reliable country by the Soviet censors and thus was turned into a zone of severe isolation. Perhaps it was for this particular reason that some Lithuanian avant-gardists have gradually reverted to general standards of Soviet music, in most cases oriented towards the stereotyped aesthetic of Dmitri Shostakovich (1906–1975) and Sergei Prokofiev (1891–1953). There were only a handful of composers who sought out new ways that would satisfy their own, original aspirations.
The need for reduction
As paradoxical as it may seem, a certain coercion of avant-garde music on the listeners sometimes resembled the constraints of the Communist regime on its citizens, the result being an allergic reaction not only to the artistic achievements in socialist realism, but also to the similar artefacts in the avant-garde art. What was needed were new conventions, genetically unrelated to the ones mentioned above and expressing new content, which would integrate radical aesthetic and conceptual aspirations of the period. All these aspirations signalled a different vision of the world: again, it was not directly related to its own timeframe, but embodied a longing and the possibility for a more ideal, sometimes even timeless, existence.
Since the beginning of the 1970s, a number of young composers have attempted to reduce the musical material to a lesser or greater degree. The reasons for these attempts may lie not solely in the music of the time but in general artistic tendency towards more ascetic expression, perhaps as a certain reaction to the Soviet ‘baroque.’ There are a lot of similar instances to be found in Lithuanian art, cinema, theatre, architecture, and literature.
Composers sought to update the accessories of modernity and link some topical ideas: they tried to oppose the syndrome of Soviet post-romanticism and socialist realism by offering a productive antithesis, one which would surpass, they believed, the exhausted idioms of modernism and avant-gardism, with their fetish worship of dissonance, complexity, rough spontaneity and anarchy, exaggerated drama and catastrophistic pathos. What they really wanted to achieve was a rather more ambitious originality than the ‘off-the-rack’ models adopted from the avant-garde music of neighbouring Poland.
Minimalism emerged in Lithuania not as a result of the unrestrained inner liberty and outward freedom of the hippies and their leftist manifestos, as it happened in the United States and the Netherlands in the 1960s. It was neither a phenomenon that originated in the clubs and garages, and even less so in the recording studios, involving musicians, with a knack for jazz and rock improvisation and often with no professional background, who shared a fascination for Indian and African music.
The Lithuanian brand of minimalism of the late 1970s was conceived by the academic composers who chose it as a sort of legitimised (albeit not locally) refined aesthetic and technology, which allowed them to incorporate and fuse, within a specific medium, the components of fairly diverse origin – from very basic diatonic harmonies to complex, multidimensional structures.
Neophyte Lithuanian minimalists already had some kind of previous experience in the avant-garde; and thus their turn towards somewhat obsolescent world of emphatic consonances and simple rhythms seemed to challenge not only their environment, but also their own perception: the ears, mesmerised by the avant-garde, perceived minimalism (and continue to do so) as an old-fashioned folly.
There were many musical, psychological, and social reasons, which determined the emergence of what was then referred to as ‘non-conflicting’ and ‘primitivist’ music. These were the times of the disco rage: the composers often admitted they heard fresher things in pop music than they did on the inert scene of academic music. But perhaps most important of all was the fact that avant-garde music was too cosmopolitan and too abstract to communicate messages relevant for the artists in an occupied country, which abounded in literature and visual arts through the masterful use of Aesopian language, but were quite scarce in music. This might well explain why minimalism, right from its onset in Lithuania, became naturally connected with the central idea of the 20th-century Lithuanian music, which declared the necessity of linking the modern means of musical language with the specific features of national music.
The eclectically structured pre-minimalist music, akin to the instrumental theatre and teeming with miscellaneous allusions to vernacular, folk, church, avant-garde, and popular music, was first to emerge. It was notably influenced by the composers’ work in theatre and film: they applied a montage of laconic fragments and (pseudo)-quotations from different styles to weave an entire texture out of short ostinato patterns. In this music, the intuitive has obviously prevailed over the rational.
Mažasis spektaklis (The Small Spectacle; 1975) for actress, two violins, and two pianos by Bronius Kutavičius (b. 1932), written in five extremely ascetic movements, is an allusion to Arnold Schönberg’s (1874–1951) Pierrot Lunaire (1912): it employs the canons of twelve-tone melodies, one-pitch drones, subtle ostinato figures, and a Sprechgesang technique. Around the same time he also composed Prutena. Užpustytas kaimas (Prutena. A Sand Covered Village; 1977), a programmatic piece for organ, violin and bells, conceived as a diptych, consisting of the dramatic avant-garde introduction and pseudo-folkloric chorale woven into a slow canon.
Lithuanian minimalism made fortunate use of an interesting historical analogy: the Lithuanian folklore retained an archaic tradition of the sutartinės (polyphonic two-to-four-part hymns and two-to-seven-part instrumental pieces encountered in northeastern Lithuania up to the middle of the 20th century), which one might describe as proto-minimalist music because of the similarity to minimalist music in sound and structure. No wonder then that having heard De Staat (1976) by the Dutch composer Louis Andriessen (b. 1939), which strongly reminded of the sutartinės music, Kutavičius understood what a powerful source of inspiration for minimalist structures springs from these hymns. Lithuanian minimalism did not have to hang mid-air, like an empty structuralist game, for it was linked to a deep and ancient tradition of ethnic music. Quite a few compositions thus accreted a dense layer of historical, cultural, religious, and political semantics.
The rites of Kutavičius
Kutavičius’s oratorio Paskutinės pagonių apeigos (Last Pagan Rites; 1978) for children’s choir, soprano, organ, and four horns may be considered the manifesto of Lithuanian minimalism and an example of its sacred or ritualistic trend. Essentially, it represents nothing but reconstruction of the sutartinės (or poly-sutartinės), employing the plain diatonic, pulse-based rhythm and choir’s effective movement around the audience. A long sustained drone of the major ninth-chord and endless canons of short phrases are characteristically minimalistic, though the dramatic and romantic climax in the final section is achieved via collage of several different musical styles in simultaneous combination. “What’s important, is to make an impression – to stun the person, to ‘knock out’ with sound, so that one leaves staggering,” – said the composer who presented his original idea with the formula “monotony-monotony-event.”
Kutavičius used this type of closure in many of his works: in the opera-poem Strazdas žalias paukštis (Thrush, the Green Bird; 1981), live performers are most of the time accompanied by the pre-recorded ‘invisible’ choirs, ensembles and orchestras, while in the finale the texture becomes even thicker and more heterogeneous by adding fragments of rock music, urban noises, and the vernacular speech of a folk artist. In his oratorio Iš jotvingių akmens (From the Yotvingian Stone; 1983), Kutavičius mixes Lithuanian melodic patterns with pseudo-African rhythms and uses ancient folk instruments to achieve the sound loosely reminiscent of a ‘tribal techno.’ At the end wooden horns blow a thunderous sutartinė, followed by an unaccompanied monophonic folk song.
The ‘pagan’ rites in Kutavičius’s works, perhaps somewhat reminiscent of the ceremonies in the New Age communities, served quite effectively to kindle national consciousness during the Soviet period. As a matter of interest, in terms of style and ideas, these works were in certain respects analogous to ‘mystery plays’, produced earlier by the Lithuanian Folklore Theatre under the artistic leadership of Povilas Mataitis, which popularised chanting of the sutartinės and propelled the rapid spread of folkloristic movement.
Similar tendencies may be also traced in Estonia, which then had close ties to Lithuania: Veljo Tormis (b. 1930) wrote ritualistic choral cycles, which perpetuate the folklore of the vanishing Finno-Ugric people, while Arvo Pärt (b. 1935), with the aid of the Hortus Musicus Ensemble, conjured up an original vision of forgotten rites from the time long-past. In every case, the composers were striving for a contemplative and meditative effect, hypnotising the listener and dissolving the sense of real time.
Urbaitis’s brand of minimalism
Mindaugas Urbaitis (b. 1952) chose a different kind of minimalism, closer to its American prototype, and became its most ardent ideologue in Lithuania. He not only thoroughly studied but also promoted minimalist music in his lectures and public hearings. Some of his compositions apparently emulated the style of Philip Glass (b. 1937). When he heard Terry Riley’s In C (1964) at the Warsaw Autumn festival in 1969, he did not immediately fall for the music but took notice of Witold Lutosławski’s (1913–1994) negative reaction towards the piece, which eventually prompted him to turn his attention to this new style.
At the start of his career as a composer, Urbaitis was influenced by the avant-garde, but later on he composed some purely minimalist works. One of these – Trio (1982) for three melodic instruments – caused a scandal during its premiere: the audience was shocked by the endless rotation of simple structures (without any apparent ‘events’), which lasted for over an hour.
Between post-minimalism and neo-romanticism
Algirdas Martinaitis (b. 1950) and Vidmantas Bartulis (b. 1954) were drifting between post-minimalism and so-called neo-romanticism. In their work, repetitive structures and diatonic harmonies were not constructed around the basic formal models of minimalist compositions, but around various dramaturgical – often theatrical in origin and romantic in character – concepts, which abounded in unpredictable digressions to various styles or even their parodies, and at times were simply sentimentally meditative.
Both composers admitted they were influenced by Kutavičius, Pärt, Georgian Giya Kancheli (b. 1935), and American composers Morton Feldman (1926–1987) and George Crumb (b. 1929). They both had considerable experience as theatre composers; this urged them to ‘purify language’ – a rather trendy motto at the time – and use easily recognisable sound symbols, without sidestepping indeterminacy.
Martinaitis’s piece Rojaus paukščiai (Birds of Eden; 1981) displays a combination of uncomplicated folk-like rhythms and rock-like timbres of electric cello and synthesizer. His cantata, Cantus ad futurum (1982) for two sopranos and Baroque ensemble, freely blends the minimalist material of the sutartinės, pseudo-Baroque and rock patterns; while the sung text, lamenting for endangered birds, channels the listeners’ thoughts into more general ecological, cultural, and existential topics.
Bartulis’s piece Palydžiu iškeliaujantį draugą ir mes paskutinį kartą žiūrime į apsnigtus vasario medžius... (I’m Seeing My Friend Off and We Are Taking the Last Look at the Snow-covered February Trees...; 1981) for cello and piano, begins with a long contemplation on a few scattered sounds, which give us no sense of direction until we hear the deconstructed quotation of a song by Franz Schubert (1797–1828). Another of his numerous chamber pieces, Ateinanti (She Who Is Coming; 1982) for violin, cello and piano, exploits, in primitivist manner, the sentimentally naïve tune which slowly passes from one instrument to the other.
In the aftermath of the first wave
Minimalism has also captured the attention of diverse composers whose work in very different styles became illuminated from an unexpected angle. A symphonist and most important ideologue of the linkage of national and modernist trends, Julius Juzeliūnas (1916–2001) was quite sceptical about this new style at first, but soon wrote his fifth symphony, Lygumų giesmės (Songs of Plains; 1982) for women’s choir and string orchestra, whose rhythms and harmonies of the sutartinės appeared strongly reminiscent of the Tehillim (1982) by Steve Reich (b. 1936).
Osvaldas Balakauskas (b. 1937) composed several works akin to post-minimalism in their extremely simplified post-serial method of his own invention and emphatic consonances. His Symphony No. 2 (1979) represents a colourful interplay of neo-classical, minimalist and popular music idioms. The Spengla-Ūla for 16 strings (1984), with its characteristically unremitting drive and dense harmonic texture, approximates the motoric style of John Adams and Steve Martland.
Minimalism gradually became very fashionable in Lithuanian music, attracting the attention of the general public and artists from various other areas. Minimalist composers were considered the most interesting. However, a peculiar aura of sacredness that surrounded minimalism in the eyes of the cultural resistance activists obstructed the natural evolution of ideas: minimalist music was held in high esteem as a mythological metaphor for freedom and independence, an ideal reflection of the nation’s expectations, and an embodiment of the essential Lithuanian national features. Lithuanian composers have abstained from adopting new ideas for nearly a decade, which led to certain erosion of older models.
Machinists and super-minimalists
A new generation of composers emerged in the mid-1980s, which professed a different concept of minimalism. Vanilla was replaced with chili: complexity ousted simplicity; grating dissonances and noises – tender consonances and diatonic harmonies; irony and even aggression – friendliness towards the listener. Young composers drew inspiration from a variety of sources and, especially, from the avant-garde art rather than from the folk or classical music. They were often accused of ‘having no sense of history’; instead of mythology and pagan utopias, they were concerned primarily with the virtual reality and dystopias.
Muscle-bound and sarcastic mechanical music was soon christened “machinism,” after the titles of two compositions written in 1985: Rytis Mažulis’s (b. 1961) Čiauškanti mašina (Twittering Machine) for four pianos, and Šarūnas Nakas’s (b. 1962) Merz-machine for thirty-three-piece virtual orchestra. Similar style may be also found in the works written around the same time: Invariacijos (Invariations; 1983) for string quartet by Ričardas Kabelis (b. 1957); Narcizas (Narcissus; 1986) for harpsichord and prepared piano by Nomeda Valančiūtė (b. 1961); and Katamorfozė (Katamorphosis; 1987) for organ and synthesizer by Gintaras Sodeika (b. 1961).
Machinism was the Lithuanian equivalent of American totalism and thus had much in common with the music of Michael Gordon (b. 1956), David Lang (b. 1957) and Julia Wolf (b. 1958). It sustained the processes of metastasis and transformation of minimalist structures, which became increasingly more complex and continued to develop in Lithuanian music up to this day. One of the most evolved trends might be called super-minimalism because it was based on the fundamental principles of repetitive thinking, but later merged with new ideas and approximated various avant-garde styles.
This trend seems to be most distinctly represented in the work of Rytis Mažulis whose aesthetic developed under the strong influence of Conlon Nancarrow’s (1912–1997) and Giacinto Scelsi’s (1905–1988) concepts. He writes radical monistic compositions, based exclusively on canonic techniques and frequently implemented with the aid of computers, such as Grynojo proto klavyras (Clavier of Pure Reason; 1994) for the orchestra of digital pianos, and ajapajapam (2002) for twelve voices, string quartet, and electronics.
Although it is often mulled over Mažulis’s predilection for the relics of Renaissance polyphony, his music is sometimes more akin to rock in its compressed sonorities, to Scelsi’s contemplations in its hyper-dissonance and microintervals, and to gargantuan op art compositions in its formal designs, exhibiting very slowly and consecutively alternating constellations. Mažulis’s music bears a fairly palpable mark of sterile clinical creativity, though it does maintain a balance of academic correctness.
Notable for its structural purism and ‘numb’ sound is the music of Ričardas Kabelis, which is fairly closely related to Mažulis’s conceptions. Kabelis is very attentive to numerical symbols: he calculates enormous orchestral clusters of extreme intensity by computer, and thereby avoids human interference in the works, such as Int.elon.s for full orchestra (1996) and Monopoly (2004) for trombone and orchestra.
As strange as it may seem, Lithuanian minimalism shows no signs of decline in the beginning of the 21st century. On the contrary, there are many composers who had some kind of previous contact with this style and continue to use minimalist ideas by transforming and enriching them with new concepts and sensibilities. The new generation of minimalist composers has emerged who were born half a century after Kutavičius: Ramūnas Motiekaitis (b. 1976), Egidija Medekšaitė (b. 1979), and Justė Janulytė (b. 1982). It appears that the rational structuring of repetitive patterns, which seems to have come full circle once and again, has not yet revealed all of its possibilities and keeps being constantly renewed.
Translated from the Lithuanian by Vida Urbonavičius and Veronika Janatjeva