Bronius Kutavičius Celebrates the Passage of Time


The music of Bronius Kutavičius gives the impression of being a relatively easily explicable phenomenon. In reality it is the opposite, and contains a pervasive air of mystery. Like a shaman, the composer is perfectly aware of how to mesmerize and involve the audiences in his rites. Like an architect, he builds precise constructions - scores - that often look like mandalas in their configuration of geometric shapes: squares, crosses, stars, circles, and the like. There is nothing overly sophisticated in his musical language itself - the composer works mostly with short patterns of different lengths simultaneously repeating, thus producing a continuously shimmering rotation in texture.


photo: Arūnas Baltėnas

These constructions are very convenient to analyse in terms of structure and form, but they do not reveal wherein the mystery lies. Neither does a healthy dose of "theatricalisation" (for the performers sitting on the floor in a circle or moving around the audience could remain just a superficial effect, if used for its own sake), nor frequent references to ancient folk culture, history, mythology and religion. The images of the distant past must somehow bridge this time gap to speak to a modern audience, and Kutavičius does that in his own special way.

Mystery and time are concepts vital to the composer himself: "What does a magician do? Practically nothing, except wrap himself in mystery. Well, the past is the greatest mystery. In all my works I seek mystery. If it is not there, then there is no music."

In Kutavičius' music, time is important not only as a bridge between ancient times, the recent past and the present day. It is also musical time experienced by the listeners: either elastic - as if stretched or shrunk at the author's will - or completely suspended. Generally speaking, Bronius Kutavičius is considered the harbinger of minimalism in Lithuanian music. The way the composer uses many-layered repetitions and reduces the musical material to rather elementary archetypal patterns, may resemble American or early European minimalism, but it sounds quite different. Kutavičius' special kind of minimalism is his own invention, and is rooted deeply in archaic forms of Lithuanian folk music. On the other hand, he is able to develop such an intense drama ouf of minimalist repetitions that the audience is sometimes left almost 'bowled over with sounds'.

A prolific composer and long-standing dominant figure in new Lithuanian music, Kutavičius admits that he started following his own creative vision and writing some of his valuable compositions quite late, towards the end of his thirties. Among them was Pantheistic Oratorio for singers, actors and instrumental ensemble (1970) - now often considered the take-off point of genuinely modern Lithuanian music. But at that time this oratorio was so threateningly 'tribal' and seemingly rejecting every attribute of 'normal' music that it was harshly attacked by hostile colleagues and authorities, and was forbidden to be performed publicly for many years to come (first presented at a 'closed hearing', it received its official premiere only twelve years later, when performed by a group of young enthusiastic musicians, the Vilnius New Music Ensemble). Kutavičius' music has struck such a different chord to anything else that he probably encountered more misunderstanding and obstruction than any other Lithuanian composer, including for his later works. "You are aiming at the Warsaw Autumn Festival but you'll never get there because the world is full of such idiots," roared a state official - also a composer - after hearing Pantheistic Oratorio. "What the hell? Did I come to a concert to listen to four notes only?" - said another in disgust after the premiere of the Last Pagan Rites, composed eight years later. And one musician, now a well-known performer and promoter of Kutavičius, said this about his First String Quartet of 1971: "Better perform it on timber, and don't torture the instruments." It is now hard to believe that twenty years ago a concert which included Kutavičius' oratorio From the Jatvingian Stone (together with works by Feliksas Bajoras and Osvaldas Balakauskas) ended up with fighting in the hall.

Kutavičius, however, never intended to astonish or shock anyone; he was simply different and following his own way. Though there was a grain of truth in the accusations that "this is not music at all". It is often said that Kutavičius primarily draws on sources which are far from the music itself - i.e., on language, ritual, old architecture, or ornaments found in traditional Lithuanian fabrics - and thus works like an archaeologist reconstructing some prehistoric, now safely forgotten layers of ancient cultures.

The most illustrious example in this sphere is his cycle of oratorios, starting with the above mentioned Pantheistic Oratorio. None of them would have emerged without the contribution of Lithuanian poet Sigitas Geda - an author whose search for archaic archetypes and mysterious, fantastic imagery Kutavičius shares. Now considered the most important landmarks of Lithuanian music in the 2nd half of the 20th century, they are all highly theatrical, for they resemble ancient rituals and effectively involve the audience. For example, in the Last Pagan Rites for mixed choir, four horns and organ (1978) - the composer's first really minimalist opus - the text, with its endlessly repeating invocation to nature, imitates a particular kind of ancient Lithuanian folk singing called sutartinės. The latter is also evoked by his rhythmic, harmonic and melodic patterns, and the way he builds the form from the cyclic motion of almost unchanging material. The placement and movement of the performers around the audience, the euphonic sound, and meditative, entrancing quality of the music and its strong sense of mystery makes a church a much more appropriate place for the performance of this work than a concert hall (pagan rites notwithstanding, the plot of the oratorio leads to the ultimate advent of Christianity). The third oratorio, From the Jatvingian Stone (1983), composed for a group of musicians singing and playing various instruments (originally for the Vilnius New Music Ensemble), is a memorial to Jatvingians, an extinct Balt tribe. The idea of this oratorio is the birth of music from an amorphous, primeval sound substance, represented here by an intensifying pulsation of shouts and sounds of indefinite pitch produced on archaic instruments and non-instruments (pebbles, clay pots, bottles). At the end, wooden horns blowing sutartinės lead to a thunderous climax which makes an overwhelming contrast to the subsequent unaccompanied monody of an authentic folk song. Speaking in archetypes of mythical and religious consciousness, Kutavičius' oratorios mesmerize the listeners with visionary soundscapes and constantly pulsating rhythms.

...the sun... is in zenith over Bronius Kutavičius' music. Certainly, its roots reach back to Lithuania's past in the pagan Middle Ages, but it reflects a young nation's optimism and vitality. ...naive and wise, reflective and spontaneous,... it gives an idea about how much might still be left for Europe, if it will succeed in creating a musical culture, uniting border regions and the centre equally.
Berlingske Tidende

The 'archaic and primeval' in Kutavičius' music is not limited only to the ancient heritage of his native Lithuania. Since the late '80s he often turns to old cultures from all over the world for inspiration. In the Clocks of the Past II for large ensemble (1998/2000) the composer sets to music the geometrical images of Japanese gardens, while in Far Away, Till Midnight for five saxophones and five strings (1995) he suggestively recreates the mood and sound of Indian sunset ragas. In Kampf der Bäume for soprano and chamber ensemble (1996) Kutavičius reaches back to old Celtic texts by Talliesin and Llywarch, and shapes the music according to the forms of Celtic tombstone crosses.

This trend fully blossomed in the cycle Gates of Jerusalem (1991-95), for which the composer received the Lithuanian National Arts and Culture Prize. Initially Kutavičius had an idea of a cycle for piano, but later, doubting whether the solo work would adequately express such a majestic subject, he decided to write for chamber orchestra instead. The composer's intention was to reveal the geographic panorama of religious rites from different parts of the world, to reflect their essence through some recognisable elements of old musical cultures. In the Eastern Gates, one can hear echoes of Gagaku music (the sustaining chords of recorders interrupted by irregular accents, the sounds of piano strings struck by fingers resembling Japanese string instruments); it ends with the reciting of Buson's haiku. In the Northern Gates, the mood is completely different - according to the composer, this could be a special, ultimately Northern kind of Requiem, ending with the 'Northern fugue'. The sound of the bass drum and an iron chain recreates a ritual dance of the Yakut shamans; it also ends with a recitation, a text from the Karelian rites - the incantation of ling. Once again, the Southern Gates reflects the opposite of the preceding movement: it is assembled from melodic patterns pertaining to different African and Oceanic tribes - as if extreme heat takes the place of extreme cold. The closing movement, Western Gates (subtitled Stabat Mater), which also includes a mixed choir, represents Christianity as the fulfillment of humankind's most profound yearnings and aspirations.

Having made a name for himself by declining any canons of style and genre (the list of his works continues with a number of 'atypical' opuses, including the opera-poem Thrush, the Green Bird (1981) which is unlike opera, or the unusual symphony Epitaphium temporum pereunti (1998)), Kutavičius nevertheless cherished a dream to compose a large work in a much more traditional vein - for example, "a nice romantic opera for the delight of every opera-goer". He finally had the opportunity to realize this idea when commissioned by the Vilnius Festival; he created his first full-scale opera called Lokys (The Bear, after a story by Prosper Mérimée) in 2000. Although it has a nearly traditional structure, including lyrical arias, epic choirs and dramatic ensembles, this work remains exceptional due to its collage of episodes stylized according to the music of different epochs, and especially because of its haunting feeling of sinister unreality, when the world of mortals collides with the supernatural. It also reflects a collision of pagan and Christian worlds - one of Kutavičius' favourite subjects. This theme is the driving force in the Last Pagan Rites, and the major conflict in the stage diptych Ignis et fides (2003), which has features of opera, oratorio and ballet, and was commissioned by the state to commemorate the 750th anniversary of the coronation of Lithuania's first and only king, Mindaugas.

Bronius Kutavičius recently conceived a new large cycle inspired by the poem The Seasons by the 18th cent. Lithuanian poet Kristijonas Donelaitis. Part one of the new cycle, Joys of Spring, was commissioned by the 2005 Gaida Festival and will be premiered by the Lithuanian State Symphony Orchestra under its chief conductor, Gintaras Rinkevičius. Considered a milestone of Lithuanian literature, The Seasons is an encyclopaedia of the peasant world, and speaks in hexameter about the basic conditions of life. "Pebbles, clay whistles, a bow and a straw pipe would be a better match for Donelaitis," says the composer; instead, he relies on a symphony orchestra to recreate the images of the first of the poem's four parts. Ultimately he seems to be looking back to his roots - only this time without folk music stylizations - and making music as elemental and essential as it could be. Just like the sun shines, the snow melts, and life awakens.

© Linas Paulauskis

Lithuanian Music Link No. 11

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