FEATURE. Šarūnas Nakas: Rage Against the Mainstream

An unabating and at times even stormy, hurricane-like reaction towards all forms of limitations and narrow-mindedness - such as the inertia of locally rooted traditions, parochialism, all kinds of inferiority complexes, and coercion imposed by the market, establishment and media - has earned Šarūnas Nakas, a composer by calling and a cultural critic by necessity, a solid reputation as a 'transgressor' of accepted norms. Surprisingly enough, his most recent commission came from the elite side of Lithuania's musical establishment - the Vilnius Festival.

photo: Dmitry Matveyev

From the very beginning of his creative career Nakas has taken active interest in the local cultural scene, always intent on searching for new ways to manifest his flouting opposition to and radical reconsiderations of what's generally deemed standard and appropriate, always on the lookout for new challenges and some empty or neglected niche.

In the mid-80s when the course for Lithuanian musical mainstream was shaped by postwar modernists, who sought a combination of various avant-garde techniques and more or less explicit national content, and by the emerging generation of 'neo-romantics', driven by the earnest longing for 'new simplicity' and elegiac intimacy, Nakas ventured in with a bunch of eccentric compositions that went purposely against the stream. In one uncommonly intense creative dash of the year 1985 he wrote several of his most seminal works, planting some ideas and phenomena which have never taken root locally - Dada, Kurt Schwitters' Merz and futurism (Merz-machine for synthesizer and several instruments; Vox-machine for tape (25 voices); Ricercars for 7 instruments). Punchy to a degree of being aggressive, assembled from many individual lines or layers, throbbing with mechanically repeated segments of ultra-dense texture, grating on the ear with harsh 'industrial' sound, these compositions came to be a real pain in the neck of Lithuanian music and were soon diagnosed with 'machinism' by critics. Nakas' leaning towards rationally constructed complexity, conceptual time and space design, reduction and repetition of the musical material, attentive treatment of tone colour, and that special 'machinist' sound is also apparent in his later works, as well as its complete opposite, exemplified by the quiet compositions of somnambulant mood, suspended time and euphonic sound (as in poly-choral Moon Rolling on Awns, 1984; Motet for 5 voices, 1985; Pole-chapel for trombone, 1987; Crypt for double bass and percussion, 1996).

Ten years later Nakas found himself fascinated with somewhat different models of formal and pitch organisation, related to the inspirations coming from various non-academic music worlds (jazz, improvisational and ethnic music), as well as to the aural impressions of everyday life (radio, MTV, street bustle, murmur of the water and the wind, bird songs, etc). First of all - the idea of a stream and its metamorphosis: "The idea of flowing water has been important to me over the past decade," Nakas says, - "streams, modulations and the metamorphoses of material." In Chronon for clarinet, trumpet, cello, double bass, percussion and piano (1992-7), he depicted three shapes of the river, flowing from the sources of quite abstract yet tightly structured material. Fed by distinct patches of sound and accompanied by bird-like calls (Part I "Sources. Birds"), it forms gradually into a rapid rhythmic torrent, cramped between the high steeps and jutting shoals of strident harmonies and timbres (Part II "River. Shoals"), emptying into the vast expanse of static sound and finally stopping at the sea level of sustained unisons (Part III "Sea. Sky"). The underlying analogy of time and flow is also reflected in the work's title: "Chronon is the Greek name of Lithuania's largest river, Nemunas, found in medieval chronicles, and is similar to the Greek word describing time. Thus water becomes time; time becomes fire; fire becomes history; history becomes a spectacle; a spectacle transforms itself into a story; and a story turns back into water..."

Another important idea that has gripped Nakas' imagination in recent years is a kind of architectural approach to musical composition, beginning with graphic sketches of pitch structure, then piling blocks of different rhythmic patterns and putting them into separate uniform layers, kept together without any binder but by the sheer force of weight - just like in ancient pyramids, mausoleums or ziggurats. The latter lent a title to a composition, in which such principle was first applied - Ziqquratu for flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano and percussion (1998). It is the music of power, constructed like the Tower of Babel or a magnificent 'sound-scraper', which mesmerises the senses by a constant flow of extremely loud and scraping sound, and plugs the ears with the simultaneous presence of different kinds of rhetoric. It is also in this work that Nakas began using the natural harmonic series as a guiding principle for pitch organisation. Nakas: "I became somewhat bored with both abstract models and those of my own invention; so I turned to the ones that do not belong to me. I still use the natural harmonic series (though this has nothing to do with the principles of spectral composition), as well as various chromatic and micro-chromatic scales, bound by a certain well-defined geometric idea. What I do is essentially shape them into various forms of waves or hardly moving sound plasma. What's most fascinating about it is that in effect these processes become similar, rhetorically, to various kinds of very old and very new music. Except that I never impose my 'control' on this material: everything is contained in that material, and my job is not to interfere in its unfolding." Such 'uncontrolled' coexistence of various kinds of existing music was most conspicuously displayed in the multi-ensemble piece Aporia (2001). It clearly exposes three different methods of composition - 'natural', 'artificial' and 'traditional', to use the composer's terms - avoiding any deformation or modernisation. Apart from the harmonic series, the 'natural' method here involves distinct rhythmic patterns, which Nakas borrowed for the first time from the Indian classical music. "Indian rhythms are very flexible and variable, quite unusual to our ears, which have become grossly attached to the elementary beat of march, waltz or house music. Every rhythmic pattern in Indian music is different, like a unique micro-galaxy, a code of the subtlest sense of time, the equivalent of which I cannot find in Western music, and which cannot be rationally constructed, especially bearing in mind its scope: there are hundreds of such rhythmic formulas. Coming from a centuries-old cultural tradition, they encapsulate profound musical experience, which I try to make heard within the alien context of Western or, if you like, Lithuanian music." In Nakas' later works, the cumbersome stacks of heterogeneous material, as in Ziqquratu or Aporia, gave way to the slowly unfurling bands of varying texture. The monumental lumps of sustained sound and 'sound-scrapers' are still surfacing every now and then, but the overall proceeding is given a much more ascetic, or even ritualistic air by making all instruments plainly perform the catalogues of Indian rhythms (Eyes Dazzled by the North for large ensemble, 2004; Nude for symphony orchestra, 2004; Crown for wind orchestra; 2005). It is still a very complex music, written for increasingly large number of instruments, driven by delight in eliciting different effects of expression and volume, but without any apparent concern for "showcasing various possibilities of instruments" or "demonstrating true orchestral sound": "My compositions could be compared, in some respects, to macro-systems, like lakes, oceans, rivers, nebulae, star clusters, or vast Northern landscapes: it makes no sense to single out individual sounds, motifs or episodes in my music, because changes occur here at a very slow and hardly perceptible pace."

Free access to the wide international context and various signs of recognition, which seemed unthinkable two decades ago - such as regular presence at the new music festivals in Lithuania and abroad (often in response to their commissions) and attention of the much sought-after performers (including such internationally renowned names as Singcircle, Piano Circus, Agon Orchestra, KammarensembleN, die reihe and Windkraft Tirol) - do not seem to quench Šarūnas Nakas' fury in resisting the temptations of new fashionable technologies and adherence to any predominant current. "I'm totally disinterested in treading the blind alleys of contemporary mainstream, or when it's like walking around the fence, trying to catch a glimpse of 'true life' that is alleged to exist inside. That's why I'm trying to show a possibility of different path and approach, as much as striving to compose different music that would not be intoxicated with or could easily recover from delusions induced by cheap chemicals of the local and imported shamans."

How is he going to escape the mainstream, after recently receiving a commission to write a new piece for the Vilnius Festival, which stands for traditional and received values? Nakas: "My new piece is titled Dreamlike Venice, a Flaming Hurricane of Love and set to the texts by Petrarch, Boccaccio, Baudelaire, de Sade, and myself. In this seven-movement composition for violin solo, vocal group and chamber orchestra, one may find many references to the genres of violin concerto, cantata, madrigal and sinfonia, as well as their coalescence into one new entity. It also combines many elements known from my previous works: silent mantras and breakneck 'machinism', gentle singing and thunderous 'sound-scraping', virtuosic cadenzas and deep contemplation. The phenomenon of Venice is inexhaustible and steeped in diversity: everything here - images, stories and situations - is stirring wild imagination..." Nakas' answer seems obvious: free migrations of imagination, liberating from technological dependence and institutional limits.

© Veronika Janatjeva

Lithuanian Music Link No. 12