FEATURE. Faustas Latėnas and His Cheerfully Bitter Music

Composer Faustas Latėnas belongs to a very distinct generation of fiftyish Lithuanian composers, which has once been labelled 'the neo-romanticists'. Along with Onutė Narbutaitė, Algirdas Martinaitis, Vidmantas Bartulis, and Mindaugas Urbaitis, Faustas Latėnas was a real enfant terrible, who transferred from the theatre millieu to his music exaggerated banality, irony, and musical hooliganism, always regarded with certain distrust by the academic community. This year, the composer's first CD 'Samba lacrimarum' with the larger part of his chamber instrumental works, has been released.

photo: Dmitry Matveyev / LMIPC

What aroused your interest in theatre?

In the 1970s, Kutavičius, Bajoras, and Balakauskas composed music for theatre. It was a highly interesting and unconventional object. Theatre has an absorbing quality; it resembles a virus, a contagious disease. It can even be compared to a computer game that develops strong addiction in a child. In general, success is a powerful stimulus for increased interest in any sphere.

I have always regarded this field as a refreshing current in my concert music, something like an islet where one is free to incarnate the most radical, banal, or quirky thoughts, because the attitude to theatre music has always been more lenient. This acquired freedom and fearlessness enabled me to take a more liberal approach to my concert music as well.

How was this freedom manifested, and what did the currents originating in theatre bring to concert music?

Theatre was a kind of an experimental laboratory for me – an opportunity to try new instruments, or experiment with electronic sound. For example, my composition Musa memoria (1983) for tape, in which one can hear the words of mentally disturbed patients taken from medicine books. It was a protest against the absurdity of daily life and pseudo ideas, an expression of a constrained individual’s frustration. This was regarded as showing off, rather than creative work. Sometimes I wonder where I got the courage of presenting such works in public. Perhaps it was in the theatre that I acquired this courage?

For instance, I intended my Sonata for flute and piano (1977) to make the audience laugh, which was quite unusual at that time. Nonetheless, I managed to provoke laughter, no matter how people tried to suppress or conceal it. I created compositions à la Piazzolla, but the critics wrote them off as creative profanation. And now Piazzolla is highly popular. In a word, I was a kind of ugly duckling.

Would you describe music for theatre and film as ‘applied music’?

I’m not sure... Now it is precisely the applied art that receives special acclaim. If applied art looks frivolous and not serious enough in the context of academic concert music, then I could say that formal academic music is only good for writing scholarly works. Once I used to calculate musical series on a chessboard with the help of the knight’s figure too. If the knight jumped to F3, it would mean f of third octave, if it jumped to D2 – d of second octave, and so on. I found it interesting to play, but later it lost all meaning, because such processes are interesting only to the creator, but not to the listener. It was a kind of exercise or one-player game.

In general, what is applied music? It is music for commercials, music fit for one occasion, one moment, and then it dies. Music for theatre and film often has a long life. A performance dies, but the music lives on, since it transcends its applied character and is something more than mere background.

You belong to the generation of ‘neo-romanticists’ – Narbutaitė, Martinaitis, Bartulis, and Urbaitis. Did you feel related to them in any way? Did you feel yourself being a ‘neo-romanticist’?

Yes, in a certain sense I was a ‘neo-romanticist’. I wanted music to be warm, to affect the feelings. Perhaps it was not even romanticism, but rather some quixotic freedom. I lacked self-control in my creative work, as the other composers probably did.

You often try to combine music and humour in your work. Is it very complicated?

Well, it is incredibly difficult. The number of serious composers is much larger. Maybe it is easier to be serious? As for me, I have always been interested in musical hooliganism, in fun. Only love can be lyrical. I feel really great when I manage to make something sound funny – certain vibratos, deformed timbres, lack of harmony, even banality or exaggeration. By the way, exaggeration of feelings is relevant to my creative work as well, akin to the manner of socialist realism: if you feel sad, then you’re sad, if you feel happy, then you’re really happy – the way it can happen only in communism.

Your most recent composition on this CD – ‘Samba lacrimarum’ – appeared almost 20 years ago, others – as many as 30 years ago. How do you feel about these compositions now?

I approach them as a listener, and I could not really change anything in them. It’s like a parent-child relationship. Children grow up, and you see them off into life, so that they would try to survive by themselves. It is pleasing to know that someone needs my works. It is just as pleasing that my first CD is released when I’ve turned fifty. Why would one release something that is of no use and will collect dust in some box? If these works have been sifted out by time, it’s excellent, it means that they are tried and true. Let the listeners who are tired of serious academic music listen to them, as long as the performers find pleasure in playing these compositions.

Does the title Samba lacrimarum (The Samba of Tears) mean that one cannot escape from oneself? Can it be that it reflects not only the music on this CD, but also your work in general? Bitterly cheerful or cheerfully bitter...

I guess so. Samba is a feast, a fiesta, and in reality this fiesta gives way to tears. A feast is short, and only tears are left after it, but we remember that feast for the rest of our life. It’s joy through tears. In a word, everybody can interpret this title according to their experience and world-view. It can also be seen as a link with Professor Eduardas Balsys, my teacher of composition. He was a great admirer of Latin American music and a real professional in processing it. For some reason, Lithuanians enjoy Latin American rhythms: sambas, rumbas, cha-cha-cha, they find them so nice...

© Asta Pakarklytė

Lithuanian Music Link No. 13